Albums bought September – December 2015

January 18th, 2016 by Reinder

A slow trimester during which I mostly bought reissues and live albums. Only one of these would make my Top 5 for the year and I'm considering selling off some of the physical items already.

Bert Jansch - Moonshine (Bandcamp)
Deep Purple - …To The Rising Sun (Live in Tokyo 2014) (CD/DVD)
Gentle Giant - Octopus (CD + Blu-Ray Disk)
Ghost - Meliora
Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls (CD, deluxe edition)
Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier (iTunes)
Judy Dyble - Fragile (iTunes, EP)
Judy Dyble - Live at WM Jazz (iTunes)
Judy Dyble - Talking With Strangers (CD)
Marcus Reuter - Mundo Nuevo (Bandcamp, free download)
Peter Gabriel - 3 (Vinyl w. download code)
Peter Gabriel - 3 Deutsches Album (Vinyl w. download code)
Peter Gabriel - 4 Deutsches Album (Vinyl w. download code)
Queen - A Night At The Odeon (DVD+2CD)
Ritchie Blackmore - The Ritchie Blackmore Story (2DVD+2CD)
Stick Men - Deep (Bandcamp)
21st Century Schizoid Band - 21st Century Shizoid Band (iTunes)
21st Century Schizoid Band - Live In Tokyo (iTunes)
Various artists - Wonderland Presents The Eephus
Yes - Fragile (CD+DVD)

Best albums of 2015, in no particular order:
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba - Ba Power
Björk - Vulnicura
D’Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah (came out in 2014, but after the deadlines for that year's Best of the Year lists had passed)
Ghost - Meliora

2016 has one album purchase to its name so far. Yeah, it's that one. No, I won't review it. Not now, anyway.

Albums bought May – August 2015

August 31st, 2015 by Reinder

Holy crap I bought a lot these past four months! Some of these were on my “Just buy this already” list, because I had been playing them on Spotify or Tidal a lot. Others were provoked by my rediscovery of a band I enjoyed a lot when I was in my late teens; it is sad that it took the passing of one of their members to trigger this, but that is what happened.

Nicole Atkins - Slow Phaser (CD, on my “Just buy this already” list)
Björk - Vulnicura (Download, Hi-Res, Society of Sound)
D’Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah (CD, on my “Just buy this already” list)
Day One - Intellectual Property (download, Society of Sound, Hi-Res)
Deep Purple - From The Setting Sun… (Live at Wacken 2013) (CD/DVD) - This album has a companion called "…To The Rising Son", a live album recorded at Budokan at the end of the same tour. That one hadn't arrived in the store yet, so I'll pick it up early September.
Deep Purple - Long Beach 1971 (CD, on my “Just buy this already” list)
The Crimson ProjeKct - Live in Tokyo (CD)
The Crimson ProjeKct - Official Bootleg Live 2012 (CD-quality download, Bandcamp)
Ghost - Meliora (CD)
Bernard Haiting, London Symphony Orchestra - Beethoven Symphony No. 3, Leonore (download, Society of Sound, Hi-Res)
Ibeyi - Ibeyi (CD)
Jethro Tull - Minstrel in the gallery box set edition (2CDs/2DVDs, includes Steven Wilson Remixes, live concert from 1975)
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba - Ba Power (CD)
John Metcalfe - Kites and Echoes (download, Society of Sound, CD quality and Hi-Res vinyl needledrop)
Hannah Peel - Rebox 2/Fabricstate (download, Society of Sound, Hi-Res)
Songhoy Blues - Music In Exile (CD)
Richard Thompson - Still
Wilco - Star Wars (free download from their website)
Yes - Yes (Hi-Res download, HDtracks)
Relayer (Hi-Res download, HDtracks)
Relayer (CD/DVD, 2014 edition with Steven Wilson Remix)
Original Album Series (5-CD set in cheap package, includes Going For The One, Tormato, Drama, 90125, Big Generator)

I’ve decided not to count frequently-streamed items as acquisitions. In fact, I’m giving up on streaming. I’ve canceled Tidal and Spotify though I still have a week to go on the latter. Don’t know how I’ll explore new music from now on- probably Apple Music until the end of September when my free trial runs out. Or maybe I’ll use Bandcamp exclusively for music discovery. I had no problems finding new stuff before the streaming era, so I’ll manage.

Notes/First impressions: The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu, translation by Joel Martinsen

August 30th, 2015 by Reinder

I read The Dark Forest the week before its prequel, The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 2015. Two-thirds of the way through it, my reading was interrupted for a few days and I had to think hard about whether I wanted to pick it up again. I did, and in the end I was glad I did, but my God, what an unholy mess this novel is, and did I ever have to work hard to make it through the first third of the book.

The Three-Body Problem won its Hugo despite its faults, which were very obvious: Liu’s characters act like puppets, mere functional devices to keep the story going, to push the many interesting, inspired ideas that are also there. Their emotional and actual responses are implausible, their motivation often only hinted at or even completely arbitrary. The ideas were the real stars of The Three-Body Problem, and because the novel hung together well enough as a story, the ideas ensured the novel got enthusiastic responses that took it all the way to the most prestigious award in science fiction fandom.

Wellp, those flaws haven’t been mitigated any in The Dark Forest; I would say they have been exacerbated. Instead of a protagonist who is a bit of a blank slate, we now have one who does whatever it is he does for no good reason at all, and whose actions in the novel include inventing a perfect woman after his romance-writer girlfriend challenges him to (oddly, the fact that she issues this challenge is one of the few things any character does that make sense - the idea that writing is addictive and shapes reality). He then leaves his girlfriend for this imaginary woman, and later, when he is provided with near-infinite financial resources, he locates a real woman who is just like her and has her brought to his mansion, where they start a deep romantic relationship. Prior to this, Liu saw fit to include a few Neal Stephenson-esque digs at post-modern, English Literature Department-approved writing. I kid you not. It doesn’t help that the terms in which this perfect woman is described include lines like

“He was completely overcome by her childlike nature.”
“You’re like the blank space in a traditional painting: pure, but to a mature appreciation, infinitely appealing…”
“She tilted her head, giving his heart a jolt. The naïve expression was one he had seen on her countless times before…”*

I would have thrown the book violently across the room there and then if I hadn’t been reading it in a tent, on an expensive MacBook Pro. I did, however, start live-tweeting my reading for a while and was about ready to switch to hate-reading mode. Trust me, there was plenty to hate, including one paragraph that entirely disqualifies the protagonist from being the hero of absolutely anything, no matter what else he does in the story (which includes some very heroic acts that save the Earth, for the time being, but all of those are done by authorial fiat, because everything in a work of fiction is. I’d write more on that if these blog posts were serious literary criticism, which they're not). I would HOPE that the paragraph in question is only the protagonist’s opinion, not the writer’s, and I’m really surprised that more readers haven’t picked up on it, based on the reviews that I’ve read.

And the plot? Spans two centuries, or rather, fast-forwards two centuries midway through. In a way, this redeems The Dark Forest - moving the action to a more distant-future Earth and removing the romance for the time being allows Liu to do what he is good at: surprising the reader with strong world-building, action sequences that thrill and also surprise, and generally letting his powerful, but well-disciplined imagination run loose. It does not make for a coherent novel, let alone one that deserves another Hugo after putting the reader through all that bullshit in the first third. But it creates the impression that after that very bad novel with the ill-conceived romantic bits, you get to read a second, short novel that is a lot better.

If I was handing out star ratings, which I’m not, because these blog posts are not reviews, the final third would rescue The Dark Forest from being a two-star book and qualify it as a three-star one. Was it worth sticking with the book for that long, though? I’m honestly not sure. There are always other books to read and a book that is worth three stars overall takes time away from reading one that is truly great.

My favorite albums of the first half of 2015

June 21st, 2015 by Reinder

Most years, I barely buy enough new albums released the same year to put together a top 10 at the end (I buy a lot of reissues as well as many albums released during the previous few years, and the total number of albums purchased each year is very large, but I'm usually a little behind the curve), but most years, I try anyway. This year, I had a bit of a budget squeeze as I was preparing for a move, which is now canceled. Over time, I was able to relax the budget restrictions; also streaming has made it easier for me to stay up-to-date under those conditions, so I can at least present some sort of Top 5 for the first half of 2015:

1. Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba - Ba Power (Spotify | Tidal)

Bassekou Kouyaté is the best blues guitarist who doesn't play the blues, or guitar. His band/clan consists entirely of virtuoso players of traditional and newly developed Malian instruments, discreetly complemented here by a rock drummer and some horns and keyboards. Normally I am quite wary of the practice of having West African music overdubbed with Euro-American instruments, but in this case, the additions complement the rock feel that Ngoni Ba were already moving towards.
(There is an official video for the opening track, "Siran Fen" on YouTube, but embedding is disabled on it, so I'm showing the teaser vid instead)

2. Ibeyi - Ibeyi - (Spotify | Tidal)

The album I turn to for spiritual uplift. Previously discussed on this blog.

3. Björk - Vulnicura - (Spotify | Tidal)

You've heard about this one, I'm sure. I've only listened to it 3 or 4 times since it became available on the streaming sites, but its woozy, detailed compositions live up to the hype. I'm not even a fan of Björk, normally, but this album just works for me. Best listened to with good headphones.

4. Songhoy Blues - Music in Exile (Spotify | Tidal)

A more energetic take on Malian blues, with Dan Auerbach's production footprint. This one does fizzle a bit after a very strong start, but that start is very strong indeed.

5. King Crimson - Live at the Orpheum (Not available on Spotify or Tidal)
(No officially sanctioned footage with sound that is representative of the 2014/2015 Crimson appears to exist, and I won't be linking to clandestine recordings)
With only six songs, this live album is more of a teaser for greater things to come, and I'll honestly be surprised if it makes my end-of-year list. But it is a sign of life from the Crims and it showcases a tight, powerful new version of the band.

Notes/First Impressions: Orphan Black by Graeme Manson and others

June 6th, 2015 by Reinder

I'll keep this quick: I adore Orphan Black. It's full of twists, has an interesting mix of gritty and comedic, presents a convoluted story with a large group of characters in a way that I find easy to follow, and Tatjana Maslany's acting performance as multiple characters is a delight. When I queue this show up on Netflix, I know I'm not going anywhere the rest of the evening and into the night.

That said, the episode "By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried" is not going to be my no.1 pick for the Hugos, for two reasons. One, while the show as a whole is great, the individual episodes don't stand out as much for me. In Doctor Who, each episode has its own tone and identity; I don't get that from Orphan Black. Two, the show does have some glaring flaws, especially in its plotting. These faults are not so much plot holes (all stories have them, and a lot of the times the best thing to do with those have been to just let them slide rather than try to fill them) as signs that the viewer is being given the runaround. Here, we get that in the bone marrow donation subplot: Seven-year-old Kira donates bone marrow to cure the disease that is going to kill her "aunt" Cosima; the bone marrow gets coopted by her other "aunt" Rachel, and then destroyed to give Kira's mother Sarah the motivation to shoot a pencil into Rachel's eye. The whole donation subplot is thus nullified with very little in the way of plot progression to show for it. Oh, and Cosima starts feeling better anyway, for a while at least. One instance of this isn't deadly to a series, but by the end of season 2, there are already multiple instances of the same phenomenon, and the show has been confirmed for a fourth season already.

Many years ago, I read the Belgian comic XIII. It was very similar in setup to The Bourne Identity and its sequels, indeed so similar to it that many have accused the writer, Jean van Hamme, of plagiarizing it. But it was a setup that worked: Van Hamme knew how to tell a mystery tale, and was a great match to the hyperrealism of the artist, William Vance. Over several albums we learned everything about the background of the man who was found washed up on the shore with a roman numeral XIII tattooed on his collarbone and no memory of his life before that. Except we didn't. The story that we learned turned out to be a red herring, as did the one that replaced it, and the one after that. I bounced off the series after the seventh book, at which point it was clear the author had no interest in giving us a definite answer as to who XIII was and what happened to him, let alone any kind of closure. At that point at a pace of one or two books a year, the chronology had already begun to strain: 'XIII' was at some point identified as a vietnam vet, and six books on he was still quite a young man despite it being 1990-ish now. Thirty years on, spin-offs of the original series are still running. In them, 'XIII' is still a youngish man, and characters who were high-ranking officers during the Vietnam war are still active participants in the story. I can see some of this happening with Orphan black easily. The writers have carefully kept the setting generic, but it is clearly 2014, and one of the characters is a seven-year-old child. By season six, we may see that child as a tween, with completely different technology in the setting, and with only a few months of in-story time having passed and no sense of when the font of answers has been exhausted. Let's hope that doesn't happen: this show deserves better.

Notes/First Impressions: Zombie Nation by Carter Reid

May 26th, 2015 by Reinder

So in my post about Sex Criminals, Rat Queens and Saga, I added a bit at the end, saying

There is one more [Hugo] nominee [for Graphic Story] that, for reasons I've outlined before, I will skip for now. If I have time, I may check it out and if it rocks my world, it may end up on my ballot. If it turns out to be the only complete work on the ballot, the benefit of the doubt I've given these four works will not apply and they may all end up below No Award (in the same order), so there is ample scope for an upset.

Then I actually took a quick look at Zombie Nation and any thought of a radical change to my vote went out of the window. Here I was tut-tutting at Saga for feeling, in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on, a little bit dated. Zombie Nation is the kind of webcomic that people have in mind when they talk about webcomics that only made it big because they were around in 1998. But for fuck's sake, it's not 1998 anymore. These days, when I think of a newish webcomic that I hadn't heard of before but that somehow got nominated for a major award, I expect it to look more or less like, well, like Rat Queens looks: possibly not entirely well-rounded in terms of the artist's ability, but at the very least able to fake professionalism well in most areas and really really good in some. If it can't claim that about itself, it should not be up for an award like the Hugos. Zombie Nation is just ugly, and worse than that, it's ugly in a really dull way. Everything about it looks copied from other comics. That includes the writing, which is based on just a small number of stale, sexist jokes and pop culture references that need to be retired. Who in their right minds nominated this?

Notes/first impressions: 3 Hugo-nominated graphic novels

May 25th, 2015 by Reinder

Sex Criminals Volume One: One Weird Trick – Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Rat Queens Volume One: Sass and Sorcery – Kurtis I. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
Saga Volume Three – Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

When I read Ms. Marvel vol.1, I thought that it was a bit flimsy for a graphic novel, especially what with it not being a complete story but more of an opening chapter. Having now read three other works that have been nominated for a Graphic Novel Hugo for 2015, I have to walk that back a little. These three other candidates all have the same problem, and it's the very smoothness of G. Willow Wilson's storytelling that makes it more readily apparent. In a direct comparison with Ms. Marvel these three suffer rather badly. Ms. Marvel tells its story in a very clear and straightforward way so that pre-teens and young teens who may not be the worlds biggest comics fans and who won't have decades of media consumption under their belts will be able to read it easily. Sex Criminals, Rat Queens and Saga are all aimed at older, savvier audiences and try to do different things with how they tell their stories, but they don't do their thing with as much flair and accomplishment as Ms. Marvel does its thing.

Sex Criminals for example, is aimed at adults. Its narrative is dense and multilayered, mixing present-moment, flashbacks and in-the-moment-asides throughout, as well as using colour and effects to indicate when time is stopped or when an aside visually interacts with the present moment. Sometimes it goes quite far in smooshing these approaches together, such as when a character tells a story of something that happened in her past, and interrupts her narration with a "zzzz" sound when the past version of the character in the narration falls asleep for a moment. Thing is, it doesn't always work, and when it does, it ends up papering over some big continuity errors, not the least of which is about when the lead characters know what about their antagonists.The art is also not as lively as that of Ms. Marvel and there are quite a few questionable design and colouring decisions throughout, such as the use of dark(ish) colours and gradients in word balloons.
None of this stops the first volume of Sex Criminals from being a perfectly enjoyable, often witty and thoughtful comic to spend an hour or so with. The lead characters are relatable, flaws and all and there were several good laughs in it. I will check out the next volume some time.

Rat Queens has an ensemble cast, and features elves, witches, brawling and beer. One of its selling points according to the blurb is that it has female characters who are written (by Kurtis J. Wiebe, who is a dude) and drawn (by Roc Upchurch, who is a dude and holy shit it's someone I've followed on DeviantArt for years, and holy shit he's not drawing the comic anymore as of November 2014 because he was arrested for domestic violence that month. I'm out of touch) realistically, with proper characterization and different body types and all. Now that I'm actually typing that sentence, it feels like it's 2004 all over again. This is supposed to be noteworthy? I don't even think the artist does the range of body types all that convincingly, at least not between the four characters that make up the main cast. But I digress. Like Ms. Marvel, this uses lineair style of storytelling, but much more loosely, with harsher, faster transitions and bigger gaps between scenes and chapters. I found it hard to follow in places, though that may have had to do with me being tired at the time, and some of the transitions might have worked better in the monthly or bimonthly installments. There actually appear to be bits missing from the collection: I can't for the life of me figure out what the phrase "what the assassin said" referred to. The assassin, in that one scene, said "Dicks" and then died. Could be bad script editing, could be a page that was accidentally left out of the book. Don't know which option is worse.
I also found the art very uneven. Upchurch has won quite a bit of praise for the things he does well, such as fighting scenes and facial expressions. But in scenes where the backgrounds play a prominent part, his perspective is often off and the compositions can get a bit messy. His page layouts aren't the most readable.
Finally, I found that the sass part of "Sass and sorcery" got on my nerves a bit, as American comic-book witticisms often do. I enjoyed Rat Queens despite its flaws, but those flaws did add up.

And that leaves us with Saga The nominated work here isn't even a first part, but lands the reader in the middle of a story spanning multiple years and a vast fictional universe. This made it difficult for me to get into it at all, but what I could see in front of me honestly didn't help. It's competently done, I guess, and the characters look interesting, but the overall impression I got was that I was looking at a lesser-known Vertigo title. There seemed to be a large number of different things thrown in for no other reason than that they were cool. I might have got more into it if I'd started with volume I, but for the purpose of judging it for the Hugo, to say that is to make excuses for it.

Above, I've dwelled on the flaws of the comics discussed a lot, and I would like to mention that I really did enjoy two of them and found things to enjoy in the third. They have flaws but they're not disastrous ones. As the incompleteness problem is apparently par for the course for this category, I've decided to ignore this and give all works the benefit of the doubt on that score as far as award-worthiness is concerned. I have decided to vote all four above No Award for the Hugos, in, as it happens, the exact same order as I read and discussed them. My preliminary vote for the category, then, is

1. Ms Marvel
2. Sex Criminals
3. Rat Queens
4. Saga
5. No Award.

There is one more nominee that, for reasons I've outlined before, I will skip for now. If I have time, I may check it out and if it rocks my world, it may end up on my ballot. If it turns out to be the only complete work on the ballot, the benefit of the doubt I've given these four works will not apply and they may all end up below No Award (in the same order), so there is ample scope for an upset.

Notes/First impressions: Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie

May 9th, 2015 by Reinder

I'm back to work from vacation, so reading Ancillary Sword took a lot more time than the previous few books, and it was harder for me to get immersed into it. Other than that, it was pretty much what I expected: a strong sequel to Ancillary Justice but a sequel none the less and that sequelness (sequelity?) didn't help it much.

  • In this book, the flashback technique wouldn't have worked as well as in the previous novel in the series, so it wasn't used as much. That did, however, mean that the storytelling was more linear, less mysterious – but also less ostentatiously there.
  • What this novel did do better than its predecessor was the detailed wordbuilding, working from the notion that single-culture planets were to be avoided and using that to make the environment come alive. Not that Ancillary Justice was any slouch at worldbuilding, but in Sword, it's more alive. I liked that a lot.
  • The plot was essentially a mystery in which the criminals reveal themselves through their own actions rather than being found out through the protagonist's brillians, although she does show considerable insight throughout. As plots go, it works, but it's not that special.
  • Leckie spends a lot of time this time around putting her pieces in place and making sure her readers have the right ideas in their heads for the events in the last 50-odd pages to work. Until the novel heats up in those final 50-odd pages, it works mostly as a fantasy of manners similar to The Goblin Emperor and in many ways they are structured very similarly.
  • For a number of reasons, such as being back at work and having to steal reading time fifteen minutes at a time again, as well as being a little under the weather, I can't find a lot of actual enthusiasm in me for this novel. That, however, is not Ancillary Sword's problem. Used to be I'd re-read a novel again for a second impression but what with time being at such a premium still, that is unlikely to happen right now. I already have my next book lined up, which I will be reading with a view to nominating it for the 2016 Hugo awards...

Notes/First Impressions: Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal – G. Willow Wilson (writer), Adrian Alphona, Jake Wyatt (illustrators),

May 5th, 2015 by Reinder
  • This is very much not made for me. Its target audience is about 30 years younger than I am, and I need to keep that in mind.
  • Small-capacity iPads and ebook editions of full-color comics don't go together well. I read this on the 27" iMac. That does not affect my impression at all, but it's worth noting in case I want to read more comics as ebooks. Wonder how it looks on my phone...
  • That said, it looks pretty good on the big screen. I love the art: bright colours, dynamic, distorted yet always on-model and easy to read. A few panels had line tangents, but only comics professionals care about those, and then only when it's somebody whose work they already dislike or who is asking them for advice. Line tangents are amateurish unless a known great of comics makes them. I should teach myself not to notice them.
  • As for the writing, my biggest problem with it was that it was over too soon. It's called a graphic novel but it's really only the beginning of a novel. That's what you get if you collect, what, six monthly issues into a larger volume without considering if it's really a good place to end the volume at. Ah well. It's the Marvel way
  • Other than that, I really had no complaints about the writing. It's a superhero origin story that covers all the expected beats when your newly-minted superhero is a sixteen-year-old Pakistani Muslim girl. Of course she has to juggle her new life as Ms. Marvel with the expectations of her strict family, her school, her mosque, her friends. You know what to expect, and you get it.
  • That said, this could have been a train wreck if the writer hadn't done her homework. I've seen one comic where the writer as well as the artist had both failed to do that, and just assumed that the story to write about Muslims in America is that of a young man's radicalisation, and will a veil out of 1,000 Nights do? Sure it will. Well, here's G. Willow Wilson's Wikipedia bio. Lady did her homework and more, and luckily any bum notes were avoided with ease. I could believe in Kamala, I could believe in her family, her wider circle of friends and the people at her mosque. Lines like "delicious, delicious infidel meat" bring back memories of listening to Muslim teenagers talking about food on the train during Ramadan – as well as being simply a very funny line.
  • I laughed out loud quite a few times, both at the sight gags that Alphona put in the background, and at some dialog/situation-based gags. This doesn't normally happen as I usually find superheroic witticisms tiresome.
  • Much as I enjoyed it, I am reluctant to judge it as a Hugo-worthy effort, though perhaps the full run of the series will be. It's just a bit too unsubstantial at this point for that. I guess it won't look that way if you're 13, but for me that's what I was left with.

For future reference…

May 5th, 2015 by Reinder

... ads like this are not OK on my website.

Hate based ad

This ad normalizes hate and associates it with social justice. It ain't foolin' me.

I don't monitor my ads closely and have so far only blocked ads that were obviously scammy, and only when I saw them. But I cannot accept advertisers who promote violence, and linking it with social justice causes – opposition to sexism, MRAs, the year-long harrassment campaign that is Gamergate, and transphobia – is both a shitty thing to do and crosses the scam threshold harder than anything I've ever had to deal with before. I actually clicked on the ad and it took to some shitty image blog, so it's a bait and switch as well. Doesn't make the ad's contents OK.

The ad that replaces it, the next highest bidder on Project Wonderful for that spot, says "Repent or perish in hellfire". Not much better but at least it's neither hateful nor scammy (as the ad actually leads to a site that tells people to repent or perish in hellfire, from a writer who appears to be sincere). It's also running at no cost to the advertiser. So now might be a good time to bid on the top banner for Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan on Project Wonderful. It's still got a lowish but steady daily flow of visitors on a number of web locations that carry the ad.