Enter The Apocalypse: Russell Hemmel

Standard

Enter The Apocalypse is a new anthology of short fiction from TANSTAAFL Press that I have the good fortune to be included in.  It will be the first in a planned trilogy of apocalyptic-themed anthologies from TANSTAAFL.  Enter The Apocalypse examines the apocalypse at the point of impact.  In celebration of it’s impending release, I have a guest blogger today!  This has literally never happened before, so I’m going to get out of the way and turn the proceedings over to Mr. Russell Hemmel.

(“Russell Hemmell is a statistician and social scientist from the U.K, passionate about astrophysics and speculative fiction. Recent publications in Not One of Us, Perihelion SF, SQ Mag, and others.”)

984011_1535186009855272_8330433558253079873_n

“You can’t but admire this virus’s purity. It’s elemental, uncomplicated, deadly powerful. We’re lucky not to be his target.”

“Virus are ten times more numerous than bacteria, did you know that?”

10 to 1.

In the last six months I have, as a fiction writer, contributed stories to a few anthologies, all dealing, in a way or another, with visions of a dystopian future. While not all of them featured an apocalypse, they were all bleak enough to made readers think that one was indeed on the way, or had just happened.

As a (social) scientist and astrophysics passionate, I have to say that what scares me the most is not the possibility of destructive cosmic events – such an asteroid impact of the kind that’s considered responsible for the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction (and the death of the dinosaurs), even though books like Stephenson’s Seveneves are frightening enough. 

[In case you haven’t read Seveneves, I do recommend it – no matter if you’re not a SF fan. There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel that has nothing to do with SF. What’s about? It deals with the aftermath of an unexplained – and utterly disastrous – disintegration of the Moon, and the world efforts to preserve human society in whatever possible ways. The first one is to build arklets in lower orbit using the ISS as starting point.

I especially liked this quote, that I think represents well the book’s spirit. “We’re not hunter-gatherers anymore. We’re all living like patients in the intensive care unit of a hospital, and what keeps us alive isn’t bravery, or athleticism, or any of those other skills that were valuable in a caveman society; It’s our ability to master complex technological skills – it is our ability to be nerds.” ]

No matter how convincing Stephenson’s scenarios and frightening the dinosaurs’ destiny, as a professional statistician, I think it’s far more probable that the next global catastrophe is going to be man-made. Here the possibilities are endless – from climate change to a highly infectious plague to a nuclear holocaust.

What keeps me awake at night at times is the sensation we’ve now reached a level of scientific development where we can summon forces that can easily destroy the planet, without the wisdom to handle them and even less the foresight to understand cause-effect mechanism on a longer timescale than the human life. The endless discussions on the responsibilities of climate changes – from people denying global warming to others debating if it is indeed a consequence of human action (Crichton’s State of Fear is a good albeit fictional example) miss the whole point: the agent of changes doesn’t really matter when an epochal change is on the way. The state of the Arctic can’t be denied by anybody that makes his/her own research, as the mass extinction of species we are going to face in the coming decades and that already started. Science is pitiless, folks, it’s not a question of opinion. Evidence speaks louder than our delusional beliefs.

As anyone else, I have my personal vision of apocalypse, the one that would probably freak me out the most, and that I’ve often written about – and it is in the form of a plague we have manufactured ourselves in some sort of experiments gone wrong. Terror apart, I won’t be that astonished to read something like that in the press one day or another. If any, I’d be surprised it has taken so long to happen. Welcome to a dystopian world.

Enter_the_Apocalypse-FrontCover

Ruby: 40 Years of Sin After Sin

Standard

Judas Priest – Sin After Sin

Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records

Released on the same day – and on the same British label – as The Clash, Judas Priest’s major label debut is a leap forward in a direction that would solidify the genre of heavy metal as much as The Clash would for punk rock.  While it wasn’t the definitive statement of hard rock and heavy metal at the end of the 1970s – that would be their next two albums – it was a definite harbinger of things to come.  Rob Halford sounds as though he’s still coming to terms with his shrieking demon wail (he seems even a trifle unnerved on parts of “Starbreaker”) and the rest of the band is playing it somewhat safe in the space carved out by Deep Purple.  This last is underscored by the fact that production was handled by Purple bassist Roger Glover.  Regardless of this somewhat unsure path, the, er, British Steel that lay within the band was clearly evident on tracks like “Sinner”, “Let Us Prey / Call For The Priest”, and the pummeling “Dissident Aggressor”, which would (many years hence) be covered by Slayer.  It’s hard-rocking album, to be sure, but there would be much harder moments in the future.  Much harder.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of The Clash

Standard

The Clash – The Clash

Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records

BestEverAlbums:  #174

RYM:  #224

1977 is widely regarded as “the year punk broke” and there are several reasons for this.  The Ramones released their second album earlier in the year, as we discussed.  The Sex Pistols would release their only real album later in the year.  Between the two, though, is what I feel to be the real heart of punk rock:  The Clash.

That’s maybe a controversial thing to say (although, not really) for a few reasons.  For one, the candy-coated third wave of punk that broke into the mainstream in the mid-1990s (which, unlike “grunge”, actually called itself punk rock) was built on pure waves of the Ramones and the more melodic part of the Buzzcocks.  The only real antidote to that, for kids with access to a radio and little else (weren’t those the days) was Rancid, who were by and large a Clash cover band.  Even still, the band didn’t get the sort of legendary status in the 1990s as other bands from 1977 did.

I once went wandering (mostly drunk) with a few friends through a Laurier Brantford residence called The Post House; it was night and we were friends with the RAs, so this sort of thing was fairly normal.  We got caught up in a conversation with some of the freshmen about music and the subject of punk rock came up.  “Oh yeah!” one of them shouted.  “Punk rock is awesome!  The Sex Pistols rule, they started it all!”  This got me started on a lengthy rant about how the Sex Pistols were the Backstreet Boys of punk, a group of fashionable chatterheads put together by a merchant to sell safety pins to well-heeled slumming Londoners.  The Clash, I said, The Clash were what punk rock was meant to coalesce around, because they were strident, political, in touch with the down-and-out working class, and rocked harder than anything else out there.  This sounds like total /r/thathappened material but I swear to god it’s true, this was before I learned that if I wrote my stupid opinions down they might seem less obnoxious.

Still, at the risk of sounding like a cut monologue from SLC Punk, The Clash weren’t posers like I felt (and to an extent still feel) the Sex Pistols were.  Johnny Rotten and friends were the original edgelords, dressing provocatively and flashing swastikas like it was the coolest thing since the electric guitar.  The Clash didn’t need flashy imagery and hip fashion trends to telegraph their seething rage – that’s what the songs were for.  From the beginning, people derided punk rock as music for people who couldn’t play their instruments or write songs, but The Clash could do both, and well.  They embraced reggae right from the beginning as well, injecting a diversity into the genre that it would have floundered without.  They also weren’t afraid to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, a sound that they would later embrace whole-heartedly on London Calling.  The mixture has galvanized bands ever since, and chances are if you see any of those rockabilly folks drinking their hipster beers at places like the Cadillac Lounge, they’re Clash fans deep down.

The only real question, once the brilliance of the album has been established, is which version?  The original British release kicks off with “Janie Jones”, a thundering rocker about an infamous London madame.  The American release starts with “Clash City Rockers”, a dead ringer for the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”.  The American version also has several key songs that the British version lacks:  “Complete Control”, a somewhat toned-down version of “White Riot”, a cover of “I Fought The Law”, the early rocker “Jail Guitar Doors”, and the ultimate Clash reggae tune, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, which sets out a clear anti-violence, pro-racial unity, pro-socialist message, three things that The Clash and their descendants would go on to enshrine as gospel.  The songs these would replace (“Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”) are simply not as good as the tracks included on the American version, so…the American version wins.

The band would of course go on to loftier heights (London Calling is often included in discussions of The Greatest Album Ever Made) but The Clash 1977 is the real root of both their later sound and the whole of punk rock.

 

 

 

China: 20 Years of Dig Me Out

Standard

Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

Released April 8th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

Straight-up:  Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are an acquired taste, but they’re a taste that I acquired a long time ago.  They’re a barrier to entry, for sure.  You either get them or you don’t, but if you get them, then Sleater-Kinney’s work ranks among the very best that rock ‘n’ roll has produced since the Alternative Revolution.

Released at the height of the Riot Grrl movement in the mid-1990s, Dig Me Out characterizes a band that was a fair bit different than the other stuff that was coming out of Seattle and Olympia at the time.  A lot of riot grrl bands favoured style over substance; they were modern art collectives, compilations of patriarchy-smashing posters set to thudding power chords.  Sleater-Kinney took a complete opposite tactic.  Their guitars were knotted and spiked, weaving odd, complicated leads over a bedrock of shifting chords.  Their dynamics were unpredictable, mixing shrieking rage into calm bliss with a deftness that Billy Corgan could only have dreamed of.  They were out to smash the patriarchy – make no mistake – but they were out to do it on their own terms, terms that at once eschewed the contemporary ideal of punk rock and yet were 100% punk as fuck.

Part of the toss-up was the addition of Janet Weiss as drummer; her steady-handed pounding and athletic fills called up the sound of the Stones and the Kinks and thereby lent more soul to the proceedings than had been found previously.  Part of it was Brownstein’s heartfelt emoting; beneath all of that Poly Styrene-esque wailing was someone more intellectual than you typically find in rock ‘n’ roll.  Part of it was the use of Corin Tucker’s voice to leaven it sometimes, of course; check out her undertones on “Words And Guitar” to really get the full effect.

Sleater-Kinney are a rare band that is able to be both stridently political and unabashedly emotional.  That Dig Me Out is just one of the great albums they’ve made that showcases this is a testament to how utterly kick-ass they are as a rock ‘n’ roll group.

Aluminium: 10 Years of And Their Refinement Of The Decline

Standard

Stars Of The Lid – And Their Refinement Of The Decline

Released April 7th, 2007 on Kranky Records

Stars Of The Lid, here at least, deal with symphonies that have been compressed and stretched out and compressed again until the word “minimalist” doesn’t mean anything anymore.  This is music where the drones fade in and linger and then fade out again, creating the definition of ambient music and also establishing the purest sense of a symphony of drones.  Often times the tracks presented here feel like the tail-end of some greater whole, like someone cut off all of the end bits of Godspeed You! Black Emperor suites and stitched them together to create something new and bizarrely compelling.

There is something akin to Phillip Glass here, or a more spaced-out Brian Eno, but neither is really accurate.  It’s stark music that is too atomized to really be all that striking, and yet you’ll find yourself coming back to certain moments throughout the impressive length of the album time and time again.  There is a certain peace to the record, although it is an edgy peace, not entirely at home with itself.  If we return to the previous Godspeed analogy:  if Godspeed is the soundtrack of the apocalypse (as I’ve thought on numerous occasions) then And Their Refinement Of The Decline is the soundtrack to the still world that comes after the apocalypse, when the dust settles and the spiders spin their webs and all is but a silent, irradiated ruin.

China: 20 Years of Dig Your Own Hole

Standard

The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole

Released April 7th, 1997 on Virgin Records

As an adolescent I hung out with the stoners, the smoking pit crowd, the “greasers”, the rockers – however you want to call it, my friends were not the type to wholeheartedly embrace the sort of music that was making inroads in our mainstream consciousness during the mid 1990s.  Some of them splintered off and decided that hip hop was where it was at (they were right, in retrospect), but most of us plodded on with the Korns and the Bizkits, as the well-heeled buying public who lived vicariously through tortured-artist college rock and floor-punching macho pablum (with respect to Propagandhi).  Give us our guitars or give us death, we all probably thought at one point or another.

Still, there was something radically compelling about the kind of electronica that was finding it’s way onto radio between 1995 and 1999.  The Prodigy were practically a de facto punk band, with their mohawked singer and their overall vicious sensibility.  Ditto Atari Teenage Riot, whom we were all acquainted with through the legendary Spawn soundtrack.  The Sneaker Pimps kind of felt like an alt rock band that had been through a wringer that got rid of – most of – the guitars, in the same sense as Portishead.  The Chemical Brothers, though, were something else.  Dig Your Own Hole embodied – embodies – the sounds of big beat.  These beats are big, in the purest sense of the word.  The duo knock out funked-up samples and acid-inspired synthesizers and watch them land with the force of an atomic bomb into breakbeats that were, from the moment I heard them, all I ever wanted out of drums.

“Block Rockin’ Beats” and “Setting Sun” are the bigger singles, but every track on here hits the same particular nerve endings that make me want to loop the album forever.  It’s an amalgamation of drum n bass, hip hop, psychedelia, and English rave culture and it follows an internal logic that punches holes in walls.  Twenty years later it still gets the party going like nothing else.

 

Pearl: 30 Years of Electric

Standard

The Cult – Electric

Released April 6th, 1987 on Beggars Banquet

Electric is the sound of a band getting a taste of the high life and looking to sustain that immersion in success for as long as possible.  Originally named The Southern Death Cult (for both American and English reasons), the Ian Astbury-led band made their name with a couple of albums of post-punk that skewed heavily toward gothic rock.  When the single “She Sells Sanctuary” blew up, they started looking for ways to embed themselves further into the mainstream and all of the ridiculous amounts of money that were flowing through it in the 1980s.  As a result they listened to a bunch of old AC/DC records and hired Rick Rubin to oversee the whole thing.  At the time this was sort of a head-scratcher, as Rick Rubin, then as now, was best known for being a hip-hop producer (as well as Slayer, of course).  In hindsight it makes a lot of sense, though.  Rubin, a key driving force behind getting the Beastie Boys recorded, has always skewed more toward the hard rock end of things – his beat on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” was pure hardcore, after all, and he did honestly use a goddamn REO Speedwagon sample on the Marshall Mathers 2 LP.

So, with Rick Rubin at the helm, and some simple classic hard rock riffs under their belt, The Cult turned around and made…a slick, commercial hard rock album.  Sure, tipping your hat to Electric thirty years later feels like saying Jet was actually a pretty decent band, but there’s something about Electric that handles itself surprisingly well.  The only actual misstep here (and it’s a godawful one) is the croaking cover of “Born To Be Wild”, which feels like something a record label makes you tack on so you can at least get play on year-end compilations and movie soundtracks if all else failed.  Thankfully all else didn’t fail; “Love Removal Machine”, released on my fifth birthday, propelled the album to a chart berth that lasted 27 weeks and sold scads.  While it’s follow-up, 1989’s Sonic Temple, was a better all-around album, Electric tends to kick more ass.

Pearl: 30 Years of Sign ‘O’ The Times

Standard

Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times

Released March 31st, 1987 on Paisley Park and Warner Bros. Records

RYM: #300

BestEverAlbums: #251

Sign ‘O’ The Times was Prince’s first album after the breakup of The Revolution, and came in the middle of a sort of creative free-for-all.  At the time of the Revolution’s demise, Prince had been working on a Revolution album (Dream Factory) as well as a solo album, Camille, which featured sped-up vocals and an androgynous new persona (named after the album’s title).  After a flurry of activity, recording, and the breakup of the Revolution, Prince had the idea to release all of the above in a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball.  Warner Bros. said no, because they have no sense of humour.

 

Instead, Prince culled down his recordings and released a double-LP set, solo, called Sign ‘O’ The Times.  The album drew in large amounts from both cancelled records.  “Housequake”, “Strange Relationship”, “U Got The Look”, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” come from Camille and all bear the squeaky, sped-up vocals that Prince was experimenting with on those recordings.  “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish And Coffee” were part of the Dream Factory recordings right from the original demos.  In lesser hands, such a hodgepodge of components would have ended up as a gigantic mess, a hymn to overreaching ambition.  Prince, though, comes across on Sign ‘O’ The Times like he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going at all times.  Without hyperbole, the album is an encapsulation of everything that went right with pop music in the 1980s.  The drum machine (a Linn LM-1 for the gear nerds among us) is precisely funky, and never comes off as mechanical or stiff.  Prince’s expert sense of in-the-pocket grooves when it comes to bass is on point everywhere, especially on the rather apocalyptic twilight rhythm of the socially conscious title track and the sensual “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.  There’s a decent balance between funk, soul, R&B, and that Eighties brassy pop.  Underneath all of that, however, is evidence (provided on “The Cross” and to an extent on “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”) that Prince played rock ‘n’ roll guitar like a motherfucker.

 

Sign ‘O’ The Times would be the last great Prince album – unless you count The Black Album, which was supposed to be Prince’s followup to Sign ‘O’ The Times until he had a bad trip and became convinced the album was evil.  Instead, he rushed out the half-baked Lovesexy, followed that up with the Batman soundtrack (which was okay as well) and then got into a horrendous, legendary fight with Warner Bros. that saw him change his name into a symbol and churn out a series of rushed albums to get out of his contract with the label (although Love Symbol is honestly pretty decent).  Legend (and Kevin Smith) has it that Prince has a vault of music that could last us all until doomsday, but chances are good that, as far as quality goes, none of it is going to top what Prince was doing on Sign ‘O’ The Times.

 

 

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of From Here We Go Sublime

Standard

The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

Released March 26th, 2007 on Kompakt Records

Axel Willner – The Field – didn’t do anything revolutionary on From Here We Go Sublime.  It didn’t progress his chosen field – although the exact nature of that chosen field can be a little blurry at times on the record?  Is it trance?  Is it a more European techno?  People at the time were enamored with the term “microhouse” and there’s definitely something to that term here.  It’s certainly in a broad sense house music:  the 4/4 beat, the hi-hats on the twos, the looping instrumentation, the arpeggios.  However, it feels like house music that has been compressed and blurred until it fits in a small, compact space; it’s the perfection of a form that existed for a nascent moment in time, the epitome of microhouse and a bangin’ good album.  Every sample Willner uses is piled on top of the last, layers piled on layers until you can no longer see the bottom; shot through all of that is a tight, thumping bass that pushes more air than the next six house records combined.  It’s the very definition of minimalism in EDM, and it’s textured, treated hooks burrow under your skin and stay there for life.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Trans-Europa Express

Standard

Kraftwerk – Trans-Europa Express

Released March, 1977 on Kling Klang Records

BestEverAlbums: #262

RYM: #172

A few years ago the L.A. Times called Trans-Europa Express the “most important pop album of the last 40 years” and they are absolutely right.  Certainly a large amount of the interest in New Wave and synth pop could be laid directly at the door of the German synthesizer group; it could be generously said that it played a large role in the formation of the European pop identity, although it would be fairer to place it in the same milieu of Krautrock from which it emerged.  The difference between Can and Kraftwerk was that the latter replaced the intricate drumming with the sure, steady hand of a machine, out-German-ing the rest of German prog.

 

In fact, the band straddled the divide between German traditions and the European identity that had emerged from the blasted rubble of the Second World War.  The root of their melodic sensibilities came from the Weimar Republic, the brief German flirtation with democratic rule that Hitler put an end to in 1933.  The folk music that had been popular then was combined with the Teutonic sensibilities of the Bauhaus school to create something that spoke of massive concepts, and the infrastructure that had been rebuilt in their country:  railways, transit stations and, of course, the Autobahn.  That infrastructure also left Germany, and sped into the wider scope of Europe as a whole.  The second side of Trans-Europa Express lives up to it’s name, rushing down the railway tracks of the nascent union of Europe.  “Trans-Europe Express” and “Metal On Metal” speak of the rush of speed in transit; “Franz Schubert” peaks and begins the eventual slowdown, which ends up being a reprisal of “Europe Endless”.

 

The first half of the album takes a different path.  Inspired in part by their time with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were in Berlin charting the course of what would be The Idiot and Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, the songs “The Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are both obsessed with identity, and paranoia.  The former details the flaws revealed in the mirror, and how even the stars are chained to “the looking glass.”  The latter is the most “machine-like” of the album’s tracks, and makes paranoid reference to the way the group danced in concert (nicking the idea from a British paper’s review of one of their shows).  The opening track, “Europe Endless”, is more in tune with the second side, but it’s also a perfect example of how to open an album: layer upon layer upon layer, until singing along with the vocoded vocals seems perfectly natural.

 

While there are some other (mainly German) artists that one can point to, Trans-Europa Express is absolutely the floodgate of modern dance music.  The current festival-playing status of EDM can trace it’s origins here, as can the indie groups who are currently mining the bands that were directly inspired by Kraftwerk in the first place.  Go ahead and say it:  Synth-pop is 40 years old now, and while a lot has changed, Kraftwerk still sounds as vital and compelling as they did in 1977.