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Affiliatification

According to a piece on the Bookseller website here, authors should not link to Amazon because by supporting the tax-evading giant they are contributing to the slow death of independent booksellers. The article names a number of authors, and the books they are linking to are their own – which is something that doesn’t apply to me since I’m both the publisher and author of the Apollo Quartet, so of course I link to my own Whippleshield Books online store. Except for the edition I published on Kindle, that is.

However, I do write about books, films and music here on this blog, and I link the titles through to Amazon. I’m a member of their affiliate scheme, and each sale from a link nets me about 2% of the purchase price. It’s not, in the grand scheme of things, a massive earner – typically about £50 a year, but that’s £50 I can spend on MOAR BOOKS. I initially joined Amazon’s scheme for a number of reasons – they stock books, DVDs and CDs on the one site, it costs nothing to join, and it’s very very simple to use (you just cut and paste a link into your blog). I did at one point swap over to using Book Depository’s affiliate scheme, which was more complex; but when Amazon bought Book Depository the whole point of changing over was lost.

The thing is, I don’t actually want to support Amazon. I don’t like their business practices, I don’t like their tax evasion, and I don’t like their routinely poor treatment of their employees. On the other hand, they are often the only people who have particular items in stock, their customer service is excellent (Nook take note), and they are usually the first port of call for online shoppers. I have sold more copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains through Amazon than I have through my own online shop, even though the prices are identical. (Which is especially annoying as Amazon gouge a 60% discount from me on the books they sell, so I make a loss on every sale.)

There are plenty of online sellers I could use instead of Amazon: Waterstones, HMV, The Hive, ABEBooks, Foyles, even specialist booksellers such as Cold Tonnage, Porcupine Books, etc. (Having said that, it has always been my policy on this blog to link small press titles directly to the small presses themselves.) If I’m going to drive traffic to an online seller such as Waterstones, then I would like some reward for doing so. But no online seller that I’ve found so far operates an affiliate scheme as simple to use as Amazon’s. Foyles and Waterstones use a scheme run by Zanox, The Hive uses one from Japanese internet giant Rakuten, and both of those demand a £5 sign-up fee. And they have to approve you (which takes 10 working days). AbeBooks runs a scheme based in the US – yes, even the UK site – which means your earnings will be taxed by the US government unless you jump through a bunch of stupid bureaucratic hoops to prove that, like most of the fucking planet, you’re not actually a citizen of the USA…

I could, perhaps, link to my local independent book shop. But my local book shop is unlikely to be the local book shop for a reader of my blog. So that’s not going to work either. If there were a central site listing independent booksellers which I could link to, and which would determine a reader’s local book shop from their IP address… that would be pretty cool. But that doesn’t exist. And we’ve only had the World Wide Web for twenty years… Perhaps publishers could run some sort of affiliate scheme, then I could link in-print titles directly to their online catalogues. Except publishers’ website often contain incorrect details, not all them actually sell the books they publish, and such a scheme wouldn’t cover out-of-print titles.

Nonetheless I’m going to try a couple of affiliate schemes run by other booksellers, just to see how easy they are to use. And I’ll blog about what happens. On Saturday, I signed up for Foyles’ scheme, but I can’t use it until my application is approved. I’m going to limit my trials to UK-based schemes because I’ve no desire to be fucked about by the American IRS.

If I don’t find a suitable alternative, then I’m pretty much stuck with Amazon.


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Best of the half-year

It’s halfway through 2013, and it’s proven quite a year so far in ways both good and bad. This post is to celebrate some of the good stuff – namely the best of the books I’ve read, the films I’ve seen, and the albums I first heard during the previous six months.

Books
wintersboneWinter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I read this after seeing and liking the film and I was much surprised to discover it was not some piece of cheap commercial fiction with an unusual setting, but instead a beautifully-written literary novel which happened to use a genre plot. The film is pretty damn good too. I plan to read more by Woodrell. I wrote about this book here.

emptyEmpty Space, M John Harrison (2012) is the third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy and I really must reread Light and Nova Swing one of these days. If at first I thought Empty Space felt a little undisciplined in its spraying of tropes across its narrative threads, the more of it I read the more I realised how very carefully engineered it was. I wrote about this book here.

calvinoInvisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972) is the most recently-read book to appear in this list. I had no real idea what to expect when I picked it up, but its lyrical and oblique descriptions of the cities (allegedly) visited by Marco Polo immediately captivated me. I wrote about this book here.

wallaroundedenThe Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989) is one of those books I read and enjoyed, but only realised how well-crafted it was when I came to write a review of it for SF Mistressworks. It reads like a masterclass in science fiction. This book really needs to be back in print. See my review here.

UnderTheVolcanoUnder the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) Some books just leave you speechless at the quality of the prose, and while I’d already fallen in love with Lowry’s writing when I read his novella ‘Through the Panama’, there was always a chance this, his most famous and most lauded novel, would not appeal as much. Happily, it did. Even more so, perhaps. A bona fide classic of English-language literature. I wrote about it here.

Honourable mentions go to Osama, Lavie Tidhar (2011), whose grasp may not quite match its reach but it comes damn close; Before The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Zoran Janjetov (2012), which matches The Incal for bonkersness and sheer bande dessinée goodness; Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997), which is a bit of a bloated monstrosity, and contains too much baseball, but also features moments of genius; The Steerswoman’s Road, Rosemary Kirstein (2003), which is actually a cheat as its an omnibus of The Steerswoman (1992) and The Outskirter’s Secret (1993) and I only read the latter this year, but it’s an excellent series and deserves praise; Jamilia, Chingiz Aïtmatov (1958), which proved to be a lovely little novella set in the author’s native Kyrgyzstan; and Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913), which shows with beautiful prose how psychology should be used in fiction.

Um, not that much science fiction there. I seem to be failing at this science fiction fan business…

Films
Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I am not a huge fan of Godard, so I was somewhat surprised how much I liked this film. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little like Fellini’s (both are about film-making), which is also a favourite film, and looks a bit like something by Antonioni.

mabuseThe Dr Mabuse trilogy, Fritz Lang: Dr Mabuse The Gambler (1922), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) A bit of a cheat as I watched Dr Mabuse The Gambler in 2012, but never mind. If the first film is a commentary on corruption in the Weimar Republic, the second extends the metaphor to comment on Nazism, and the third further completes it with an off-kilter noir film commenting on the legacy of the Nazis. Classic cinema.

Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) I’ve been working my way through Studio Ghibli’s output, though I find most of it either twee, cloyingly sentimental or a little juvenile. But not this one. I wrote about it here.

About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) For much of its length, this film feels like an art house mystery, but then it takes a turn into something completely different and wholly Iranian. I wrote about it here.

she-should-have-gone-to-the-moon-film-posterShe Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008) I bought this as research for the Apollo Quartet, and was surprised to discover it was a beautifully-shot documentary and meditation on the thirteen women who successfully passed the same medical tests as the Mercury astronauts.

Honourable mentions go to Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish and beautifully subtle; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), an astonishing and meta-cinematic document of 1920s Russia; Black Cat, White Cat, Emir Kusturica (1998), broad comedy but also very funny; Le Havre, Aki Kaurismäki (2011), typically deadpan but somewhat cheerier than usual; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a human portrait of Emperor Hirohito at the end of WWII.

Well, will you look at that, not a single Hollywood film in the entire lot. Instead, we have films from France, Germany, Japan, Iran, Denmark, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Finland and a documentary from the UK.

Music
Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) A new album from one of my favourite bands, and with each new album they just get better and better. Can’t wait to see them live.

Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album from Finnish melodic death metal masters after far too long a wait. Trumpet!

threnodyThe Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) They call it English heritage black metal, though I’m not entirely sure what that means – a wall of guitars, with howling vocals layered over the top, some lovely acoustic interludes, and they’re bloody good live too.

Dustwalker, Fen (2013) More English heritage black metal but also very atmospheric, perhaps even a bit shoegazer-y in places; a formula that works extremely well.

Forlorn+Chambers+++Unborn+and+HUnborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013) A demo EP from a new Finnish band, which mixes and matches a couple of extreme metal genres to excellent effect. Very heavy, very doomy, with a lot of death in it too. I’m looking forward to seeing an album from them.

Honourable mentions: Conflict, Sparagmos (1999), classic Polish death metal; Of Breath and Bone, Bel’akor (2012), Australian melodic death metal; Deathlike, Ancient VVisdom (2013), strange acoustic doom from Texas; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), accomplished demo from a Polish death metal band.


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2012 is dead, long live 2013

This happens every year at this time – you look back at the year just ended, remember the good bits and try to forget the bad bits; you look ahead to the year just begun, and try to convince yourself it will be better than even last year’s best bits, or that you have any control over how it will turn out… Shit happens, the road to hell, etc, etc.

Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort, of course. You may not, for example, be able to land yourself a book contract, no matter how wonderful your novel is, but if you don’t write the damn thing you stand even less chance. (Though debut novelists have been offered contracts before writing their novels.)

Likewise, the most reliable method of getting short fiction into print seems to be the Shotgun Method. Write as many stories as you can, submit them as many times as you can… Someone somewhere will usually buy them. Then you too can be ubiquitous, and subsequent sales will get easier.

In other words, Hard Work helps. But there are no guarantees. Certainly short cuts don’t always do the trick. There are stories of self-published authors selling phenomenally well, and subsequently being picked up by big publishing houses. They are in a very tiny minority. Most books published by anyone other than major publishing houses or long-established small presses are ignored. For instance, Rocket Science, published by Mutation Press, received plenty of positive reviews when it appeared back in April 2012. But it is also notably absent from lists of “best anthologies of the year”. I didn’t expect Adrift on the Sea of Rains to make it onto any lists – around 300 people, at a guess, have read it, and none of them were commentators with a large footprint within the genre. New small press… self-published… A not-unexpected result.

I worked quite hard during 2012 promoting those two books, but I suspect my message didn’t travel much beyond my own circle of friends, acquaintances and those I talk to within the genre. That’s as far as my “platform” reaches at present. It grew during 2012 – a little – but that sort of organic growth is too small and too slow to bounce my work to the next level. Because I made a tactical error in 2012: I spent so much time promoting Rocket Science and Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and writing The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, that I didn’t write any short fiction. And I need to do that in order to get my name out there…

So that’s one resolution for 2013. (I suspect it may have also been a resolution for each of the past few years.) I will write more short stories in 2013, I will submit more short stories in 2013. I have a bunch sort of started but far from finished, and I’ll  focus initially on them. Unfortunately, my desire to not write the sort of science fiction currently appearing in genre mags and on genre websites may somewhat limit my chances of success. Take my current work in progress: I was hoping to have it done for 31 December 2012, the deadline for Eibonvale Press’s new railway-themed genre anthology, Rustblind and Silverbright. Have yet to actually finish it. And it’s going to be a hard one to sell. ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man Who Rode the Rocket Sled’ is barely science fiction, and barely has a plot. It’s sort of “magical realism with astronauts” (as my story ‘Faith’ was once described), except it has no astronauts in it.

I do have other stories to work on. Sorry, no exploding spaceships. No spaceships at all, in fact. I have two novellas I’d like to complete – one of them is an expanded version of ‘The Contributors’. There’s also book three of the Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above; and possibly book four, All That Outer Space Allows. I have three novel ideas for which I need to write the first three chapters. I’d also like to see if I can do anything with my Nanowrimo effort from 2011.

And that’s just on the writing side. (You do realise, of course, that most of this will go undone, because… things.)

Oh, and I also experimented in 2012 with publishing a limited edition chapbook. It started out as a bit of a joke, but the twelve copies of Wunderwaffe I produced all sold. I then put it up on Kindle, where it has also sold (thought not in huge numbers). I’m planning to do something similar to another of my previously-published short stories, but I haven’t decided which one yet. I might do it to more than one…

On the reading side, I’ll be continuing to review books for SF Mistressworks. In the absence of other regular reviewers – I do have some irregular reviewers, however – I’ll have to read at least one suitable a book a week. That’s going to be a tough schedule to meet. I will need help. Please.

There’s also the TBR, which reached epic proportions several years ago. Over Christmas just gone, for example, I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, and realised afterwards with some embarrassment that I’d bought the book in November 2010. That’s actually not too bad – it’s taken me ten years to read some of the books I own. And that’s despite reading 153 books during 2012 – twelve down on the previous year’s total; in fact, the number has been steadily dropping since 2008. I suspect the number of books I’ve bought each year, however, has been steadily rising…

So, in 2013, I want to read more sf by women writers, more Malcolm Lowry, more Paul Scott, more recent genre books that interest me, more literary fiction… more good books. I also want to read much more genre short fiction. That’s going to be another resolution – to read genre short fiction regularly. But only if it interests me. I’ll happily bail on a story if it’s not working for me. But by the end of the year, I should at least be able to make some informed choices for the BSFA Award. I’ll also be including a top five of short fiction in my end of the year round-up post.

I’ll not bother with resolutions for films or music. Each year, I try to get to at least one gig a month. I don’t always make it, but by year’s end I’m usually not far off. For the record, it was 11 gigs in 2012, including Bloodstock. The best one should have been Anathema and Opeth in Leeds in November, but the venue was awful – over-packed and over-heated – and ruined the experience. Insomnium and Paradise Lost back in April might be the best, or perhaps it was local bands Setsudan and Northern Oak supporting Evil Scarecrow in October.

There’s no point in resolving to go to the cinema more often, because I only go if there are films I really want to see being shown. There were three in 2012, which is something of a record for me – at least since I left the UAE, where I lived just around the corner from an excellent cinema. There might be one or two movies I’d be willing to shell out £13 to see in IMAX 3D in 2013, but we’ll have to see. I will, however, continue to watch DVDs by my favourite directors, as well as trying new ones – mostly foreign-language, of course. And the really good films, I will write about here…

…Because I will continue to blog. I don’t think I could stop, to tell the truth. Posting once or twice a week is a good schedule to keep, but I suspect I won’t be able to maintain that level. I didn’t in 2012. This year, I’ll retire the Rocket Science News blog, since it’s served its purpose. It’ll stay up, but I won’t post to it anymore. Besides I have enough on with this blog, SF Mistressworks, the Whippleshield Books blog, and my Space Books blog (which I really must post to more often). I’ll remove the sf poetry blog – and perhaps work on some of the poems from it and start submitting them. I’ve only had two poems published to date, I really should start sending out more.

2012 was a bit of a convention-going year for me, although more by accident than design. Lavie Tidhar persuaded me to attend the SFX Weekender in February in Prestatyn. Much fun was had. Then there was the Eastercon in Heathrow, where I launched Rocket Science and Adrift on the Sea of Rains and nearly won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award for SF Mistressworks (it’s still eligible, by the way). Shortly after that, it was alt.fiction in Leicester, then Edge-Lit in Derby, and in November, Novacon in Nottingham. I’m not planning to attend as many cons in 2013.

Outside of genre and literature and music and cinema, 2012 was a bit meh. Some family issues were resolved. I spent Christmas in Denmark yet again, and saw some snow on the first day – but it rapidly disappeared and the weather remained wet and drizzly and dull. Santa brought me some books I want to read and some DVDs I want to watch. Oh, and some socks. The food was good, the visit to Louisiana, a modern art museum, was fascinating, and much as I hate Christmas it was a pleasant way to spend it…

And there you have it. 2012 is dead, long live 2013. I’m hoping it’ll be a good year, but it’ll be what it’ll be. That’s the way it works, you know. Life. Huh.


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Best of the year 2012

It’s that time of year again when I go back through my spreadsheets of books read, films seen and albums bought, and try to decide which are the best five of each. And yes, I do keep spreadsheets of them. I even have one where I record the bands I’ve seen perform live. And no, it’s not weird. It is organised.

Back in June, I did a half-year round-up – see here. Some of the books, films, albums I picked then have made it through to the end of the year, some haven’t. This time, for a change, I’m going to actually order my choices, from best to, er, least-best.

BOOKS
girl_reading1 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011)
This is probably the most impressive debut novel I’ve read for a long time. It could almost have been written to appeal directly to me. I like books that do something interesting with structure; it does something interesting with structure. I like books whose prose is immediate and detailed; its prose is immediate (present tense) and detailed. I like books that are broad in subject; it covers a number of different historical periods. And it all makes sense in the end. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for further books by Ward. I read this book in the second half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year best. I wrote more about Girl Reading here.

23122 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)
This year, I’ve actually read eleven genre novels first published during the twelve months, which I think may be a personal record. Having said that, it’s been a good year for genre fiction for me, as a number of my favourite authors have had books out. Sadly not all of them impressed (The Hydrogen Sonata, I’m looking at you). 2312 was everything I expected it to be and nothing like I’d imagined it would be. The plot is almost incidental, which is just as well as the resolution is feeble at best. But the journey there is definitely worth it. It is a novel, I think, that will linger for many years. Again, I read 2312 during the latter half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I wrote more about it here.

universe-cvr-lr-1003 The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011)
Some collections aim for inclusiveness, some collections try for excellence. I’m not sure why Aqueduct Press chose the stories in this collection – it’s by no means all of Jones’ short fiction – but as a representative selection, The Universe of Things does an excellent job. I reviewed it for Daughters of Prometheus here, and I opened my review with the line: “Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading.” This book did make my half-year list. Now I just have to read PS Publishing’s larger Jones collection, Grazing the Long Acre

intrusion-ken-macleod4 Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012)
The endings of Ken’s last few novels I have not found particularly convincing. It’s that final swerve from near-future high-tech thriller into heartland sf. Though the groundwork is usually carefully done, it too often feels like a leap too far. But not in Intrusion. The world-building here is cleverly done – I love the pastiche of Labour, with its “free and social market” – the thriller plot works like clockwork, and the final step sideways into pure genre slots straight in like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Intrusion is another book I read in the second half of 2012, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I reviewed Intrusion for SFF Chronicles here.

sheltering5 The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949)
Curiously, I’d always liked the film adaptation by Bernardo Bertolucci, which inspired me to read the novel, but after finishing the book, I tried rewatching the film and found myself hating it. Mostly it was because the Lyalls, who are creepy and villainous in the novel, had been turned into comic caricatures. A lot had also been left out – though that’s not unusual, given the nature of the medium. The Arabic in the novel used French orthography, which meant I had to translate it twice to work out what it meant. And it looks like four out of the five books in this list I read after June, so the Jones collection is the only one from my half-year list that made it through to the end of the year one.

There are, however, a ton of honourable mentions – it’s turned out to be quite a good year, book-wise. They are: The Bender, Paul Scott (1963), which read like a sophisticated 1960s comedy starring Dirk Bogarde; The Door, Magda Szabó (1987), the best of my world fiction reading challenge (which I really must catch up on and finish); Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994), a very clever novel built up from several stories, including a fun spoof of Taggart and a brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer; How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (1983), which should be required reading for all writers and critics; Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961), which introduced me to the genius that is Lowry; Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012), successfully brings to a close the best fantasy of recent years; Omega, Christopher Evans (2008), a long overdue novel from a favourite writer, and a clever and pleasingly rigorous alternate history / dimension slip work; and Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds (2012), the start of a near-future trilogy, which is very good indeed but also stands out because it’s not regressive or dystopian.

FILMS
red_psalm1 Red Psalm, Miklós Jancsó (1972)
It’s about the Peasant Uprising in nineteenth-century Hungary, and consists of hippy-ish actors wandering around an declaiming to the camera. Occasionally, they sing folk songs. Then some soldiers arrive and some of the peasants get shot. But they’re not really dead, or injured. Then the landowners turn up and start espousing the virtues of capitalism. But the peasants shout them down. A priest tries to explain the “natural order of things”, but the peasants aren’t having it. Then more soldiers arrive and round up all the peasants. The ending is very clever indeed. It’s a hard film to really describe well, but it’s fascinating and weird and beautifully shot. I wrote about it here.

red_desert2 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
This was Antonioni’s first film shot in colour and it looks absolutely beautiful. In terms of story, it is much like his earlier masterpieces, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, and, like them, stars Monica Vitti. But also a (weirdly) dubbed Richard Harris. It’s a surprisingly bleak film – although perhaps not “surprisingly”, given that earlier trilogy – but it’s hard not to marvel at the painterly photography and mise-en-scène – who else would have the fruit on a barrow painted in shades of grey in order to fit in with the colouring of the surroundings? I wrote about it here. And I really must write more on my blog about the films I watch.

circle3 The Circle, Jafar Panahi (2000)
This is one of those films where one story hands off to another one and so on, and in which there is no real story arc, just a journey through episodes from the lives of the characters. Each of which is a woman living in Tehran, and all of whom have just recently been released from prison. They were not, however, imprisoned for doing things that would be criminal in other nations. As the title indicates, the stories come full circle, and the film’s message is far from happy or pleasing, but there is still room for hope. This film won several awards, though the Iranian authorities were apparently very unhappy with it.

persiancats4 No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi (2009)
It’s not about cats, it’s about two musicians in Tehran who have been invited to perform at a music festival in London. But first they need to find some more musicians for their band, and they also need the necessary paperwork to leave Iran. But western-style music, which is what they play, is illegal in Iran, and there’s no way they’ll be able to get the visas they need legally. So they visit all the musicians they know, hoping some of them will be willing to go to London with them, and they also pay a well-known underground figure for the papers they require to travel. It’s an affirming film, but also a deeply depressing one.

Dredd5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012)
I was badgered into going to see this at the cinema by Tim Maugham on Twitter. I hadn’t really thought it would appeal to me. Even the fact it was touted as being more faithful to the 2000 AD character didn’t mean I’d like it. Although I grew up reading 2000 AD, Judge Dredd was far from my favourite character, and I’ve not bothered buying any of the omnibus trade paperbacks that are now available. But I went… and was surprised to find it was a bloody good film. It’s sort of like a weird munging together of an art house film and a Dirty Harry film, and strangely the combination works really well. It’s violent and horrible and grim and panders to all the worst qualities in people, but it all makes sense and fits together, and despite its simple plot is cleverly done. I plan to buy the DVD when it is available.

Iranian cinema did well this year for me. Not only did The Circle and No One Knows About Persian Cats make it into my top five, but two more Iranian films get honourable mentions: A Separation, Asghar Fahadi (2011), and The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami (1999). Kiarostami I rate as one of the most interesting directors currently making films. Other honourable mentions go to: John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012), which was undeservedly declared a flop, and is a much cleverer and more sophisticated piece of film-making than its intended audience deserved; Monkey Business, Howard Hawks (1952), is perhaps the screwball comedy par excellence; On the Silver Globe, Andrzej Żuławski (1988), is bonkers and unfinished, and yet works really well; there is a type of film I particularly like, but it wasn’t until I saw Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates that I discovered it was called “poetic cinema”, and his Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) is more of the same – weird and beautiful and compelling; and finally, François Ozon’s films are always worth watching and Potiche (2010) is one of his best, a gentle comedy with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in fine form.

ALBUMS
mourningweight1 The Weight Of Oceans, In Mourning (2012)
I saw a review of this album somewhere which made it seem as though I might like it. So I ordered a copy from Finland – which is where the band and the label are from. And I’ve been playing it almost constantly since. It’s Finnish death/doom metal mixed with progressive metal, which makes it the best of both worlds – heavy and intricate, with melodic proggy bits. The Finns, of course, know how to do death/doom better than anyone, but it’s been a surprise in recent years to discover they can do really interesting prog metal just as well – not just In Mourning, but also Barren Earth (see my honourable mentions below).

aquilus2 Griseus, Aquilus (2011)
A friend introduced me to this one. It’s an Australian one-man band, and the music is a weirdly compelling mix of black metal and… orchestral symphonic music. It sounds like the worst kind of mash-up, but it works amazing well. In the wrong hands, I suspect it could prove very bad indeed. Happily, Waldorf (AKA Horace Rosenqvist) knows what he’s doing, and the transitions between the two modes are both seamless and completely in keeping with the atmosphere the album generates. The album is available from Aquilus’s page on bandcamp, so you can give it a listen.

dwellings3 Dwellings, Cormorant (2011)
The same friend also introduced me to this band, who self-released Dwellings. It’s extreme metal, but extreme metal that borrows from a variety of sub-genres. I’ve seen one review which describes them as a mix of Ulver, Opeth, Slough Feg and Mithras, which really is an unholy mix (and two of those bands I count among my favourites). Most of the reviews I’ve seen find it difficult to describe the album, but they’re unanimous in their liking for it. And it’s true, it is very hard to describe – there’s plenty of heavy riffing, some folky interludes, some proggy bits, and it all sort of melds together into a complex whole which is much greater than the sum of its parts. This album is also available from the band’s page on bandcamp, and you can listen to it there. (You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m terrible at writing about music. I can’t dance about architecture either.)

25640_woods_of_ypres_woods_iv_the_green_album4 Woods 4: The Green Album, Woods of Ypres (2009)
Woods of Ypres was a band new to me in 2012. I first heard their final album, Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light, but at Bloodstock I picked up a copy of the preceding album and I think, on balance, I like the earlier one better. The music is a bit like Type O Negative meets black metal, with oboes. Sort of. The opening track ‘Shards of Love’ is, unusually for black metal, about a relationship, and it starts off not like metal at all and then abruptly becomes very metal indeed. An excellent album, with some strong riffs and some nicely quiet reflective moments. (It’s pure coincidence that I chose it as No 4 in my list, incidentally.)

obliterate5 Obliterate EP, Siphon the Mammon (2012)
I have no idea how I stumbled across this Swedish progressive death metal band. It was probably the name that caught my attention. And it is a silly name. But never mind. Anyway, I downloaded the EP from their bandcamp page… and discovered it was bloody good. It’s technical and accomplished, with some excellent riffs and song structures. I particularly like ‘The Construct of Plagues’, which features an excellent bass-line, but the final track ‘End of Time’ is also nicely progressive. And… this is the third album in my top five which is available from the band’s bandcamp page, which surely must say something about the music industry and the relevance of labels… or my taste in music…

This year’s honourable mentions go to: (Psychoparalysis), for a trio of EPs I bought direct from the band, and which are good strong Finnish progressive death metal; Anathema’s latest, Weather Systems, which I liked much more than the three or four albums which preceded, and they were bloody good live too; Hypnos 69′s Legacy, which I finally got around to buying and was, pleasingly, more of the same (this is good, of course); Barren Earth’s The Devil’s Resolve, which is definitely heavier than their debut album, but still very proggy and weird; A Forest of Stars, which is steampunk meets black metal, and it works surprisingly well (check out this video here); Nostalgia by Gwynbleidd, who, despite the name, are Poles resident in New York, and sound a little like a cross between Opeth and Northern Oak; Headspace, I Am Anonymous, another Damian Wilson prog rock project, but I think I prefer it on balance to Threshold’s new album; and Alcest, another band new to me in 2012, who play shoegazer black metal, which, unfortunately, works much better on an album than it does live.

IN CONCLUSION
And there you have – that was the year that was. On balance, I think it’s been a good year in terms of the literature, cinema and music I have consumed. There’s been some quality stuff, and some very interesting stuff too. Which is not to say there hasn’t been some crap as well, but it seemed less numerous this year. This may be because I chose to ignore what the genre, and popular culture, value and focus more on the sort of stuff that appeals directly to me – I’ve cut down on the number of Hollywood blockbusters I watch, I no longer read as much heartland genre fiction. There’s always a pressure to stay “current”, but the more I watch genre and comment on it, the more I see that it does not value the same things I do. It’s not just “exhaustion”, as identified by Paul Kincaid in his excellent review of two Year’s Best anthologies here, but from my perspective also a parting of the ways in terms of objectives, methods and effects. I want stuff – books, stories, etc – that is fresh and relevant, that does interesting things and says something interesting. I don’t want the usual crap that just blithely and unquestioningly recycles tropes and worldviews, stories about drug dealers on Mars in some USian libertarian near-future, space opera novels in which an analogue of the US gets to replay its military adventures and this time get the result it feels it deserved…

I mentioned in a post last week that I don’t read as much genre short fiction as I feel I should. After all, my views outlined above are taken from the little I’ve read on awards shortlists and in year’s best anthologies. Just because that’s what the genre values doesn’t mean the sort of stuff I value doesn’t exist. I just need to find it. So by including a short fiction best of list in 2013, I’ll be motivated to track down those good stories, to seek out those authors who are writing interesting stories.

All of this, of course, will I hope help with my own writing. I had both a very good year, and a not so good year, in that respect in 2012. Rocket Science, an anthology I edited, and quite obviously the best hard sf anthology of the year, was published in April. As was the first book of my Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains. The Guardian described Rocket Science as “superb”, which was very pleasing. And Adrift on the Sea of Rains has had a number of very positive reviews see here. Unfortunately, as a result of those two publications, I haven’t been very productive. I spent most of the year after the Eastercon working on the second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Those few who have read it say it’s as good as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which is a relief. Everyone else will get to find out in January, when it’s published. But I really should have worked on some short fiction as well. I’m not the quickest of writers – I marvel at those people who can bang out a short story in a week – but each story you have published, irrespective of quality, widens your audience a little more, adds a little more weight to your name. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter how good people say Adrift on the Sea of Rains is, I’ve only sold just over 200 copies – add in review copies… and that means perhaps between 250 and 300 people have read it. Some semi-literate self-published fantasy novels available on Kindle sell more copies than that in a week…

But that’s all by the by. This post is about 2012, not 2013. Sadly, I didn’t manage to reread much Durrell to celebrate his centenary. I’ve had The Alexandria Quartet by the side of the bed for about nine months, and I dip into it every now and again, but then I have to put it to one side as I have to read a book for Interzone or SF Mistressworks… Speaking of which, I had to drop to a single review a week on SF Mistressworks, but I still plan to keep it going. During 2012, I read 41 books by women writers, compared to 63 by male writers, which is about 40% of my reading (this doesn’t include graphic novels, non-fiction or anthologies). I also reviewed a handful of books for Daughters of Prometheus, although I haven’t posted one there for several months. (I’ve no plans to drop either responsibility in 2013.) Just over a third of my reading was science fiction, and a quarter was mainstream – so sf is still my genre of choice. Numbers-wise, I’ve not managed as many books as last year – only 146 by the middle of December, whereas last year I’d managed 165 by the end of the year. But I think I’ve read some more substantial books this year, and I did “discover” some excellent writers, such as Malcolm Lowry, Katie Ward and Paul Bowles. It’s a shame I never managed to complete my world fiction reading challenge. I still have half of the books on the TBR, so I will work my way through them, though I may not blog about it.

But, for now, it’s Christmas – bah humbug – in a week. And then the start of 2013 follows a week after that. Here’s hoping that next year is better for everyone, that the good outweighs the bad, and that every surprise is a pleasant one.


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Britain’s best kept musical secret

Last night I was in Leeds seeing Opeth perform live. Opeth, of course, are Swedish. But they were supported by Anathema, a British band whose lack of major success continues to astonish me. They should be filling stadiums. It’s the fifth time I’ve seen both bands, but the first time they’ve toured together.

But, Anathema. They started out in 1990 as the doomiest of doomy metal bands, but by their third album in 1996 had morphed into a sort of alternative metal / goth rock / prog rock sort of band. They’re not easy to pigeonhole, nor are they relentlessly non-commercial. The reverse, in fact. In recent years, they seem to have drifted a little towards Radiohead territory, though I think they’re a great deal better than that band. In evidence, here’s ‘Untouchable Part 1′ from their last album, Weather Systems. They played it last night. It was bloody good.

As for the venue, the less said about that the better… The gig took place in the Leeds Metropolitan Universe Student Union. Capacity is allegedly 1100, but I’d guess safe capacity is about three-quarters of that. The place was packed solid – so much so that if you left the room, you couldn’t get back in. And the ventilation appeared to be off, as well. Ten minutes into Opeth’s set, the room was like a sauna. People were leaving because it was too hot. The organisers apparently knew this because they lined up free cups of water along the bar.

Also, during the thirty-minute break between bands, only one half of the bar was open, so it was immediately 10 deep and so impossible to get served. Student Unions generally make piss-poor venues for gigs – most seem to have been designed by idiots, complete warrens with toilets miles from the bars, unnecessary staircases, too small rooms, and always run on the cheap. Leeds Met was no exception. It’s a shame: it could have been an excellent gig, but the venue ruined it.


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A musical interlude

I mention music far too infrequently on this blog, despite the fact I have it playing almost constantly throughout the day – on my iPod when I’m at work, on iTunes when I’m at home. So here’s a top tune by Laethora, a side-project of two of my favourite bands, Dark Tranquillity and the now sadly disbanded The Provenance. ‘The Sightless’ is from Laethora’s latest album, The Light in Which We All Burn, which could almost be a title from the Apollo Quartet. The video is by Niklas Sundin, Dark Tranquillity and Laethora guitarist, and graphic artist.


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Metal scorchio

Every year, I say to myself I’m too old for this shit; and every year, I find myself in a field in Derbyshire listening to some of my favourite bands and having a great time. I say “every year” but Bloodstock 2012 was only my fourth Bloodstock since 2008 (I missed 2009 and 2010). But it has definitely got better every year. And bigger, too.

After packing the Toyota Tardis Yaris with all our gear, the four of us – Craig, Emma, Rowan and myself – headed to the local Asda for our final pre-festival shop. Naturally, this meant beer. And water. And baby wipes. And items for the Bucket o’SnacksTM. We also wanted something to eat on our way to Catton Hall, since it was already lunch time. Annoyingly Asda makes its pork pies with milk, which is not how they should be made. Fortunately, we found some very nice sausage rolls instead which I could eat.

Then it was back into the car and down the M1 and A38 to Catton Hall, Derbyshire. We made good time and, despite leaving a little later than intended, managed to arrive as planned at two pm. Craig had bought himself a collapsible trolley after the difficulties we had last year carting everything from the car park to the camping ground. It proved a wise purchase, although it did mean he had to drag along about 400 kilos of booze and tents. But at least we never needed to return to the car for the entire weekend.

I’d been worrying for weeks beforehand that we’d have torrential rain during the weekend, so Craig had lent me one of his tents – my pop-up tent would probably have been destroyed by the first downpour. In the event, we had blinding sunshine for three days, and a warm slightly overcast Sunday with a couple of weak showers. In fact, Craig managed to get sunstroke on the Friday.

After meeting up with Roger in the car park, we began the long trek to the festival ground entrance and the camping ground. Cat and Sly joined us, and once we had put up our tents – in pretty much the same spot as last year – we headed for the arena.

photo: Craig Andrews

First band of the festival was Saturnian, whom we’d seen last year. They were playing on the Sophie Lancaster Stage, which is in a huge marquee. Beer had gone up a little in price since Bloodstock 2011 – £4 for a pint of Bloddstock Ale, or £3.90 for a plastic bottle of Carlsberg. And Monster were no longer sponsors; this year, it was Red Bull, but their presence was very low-key. After Saturnian, we wandered about the arena, which more or less resembled last year’s. Mr Tea’s was there – which pleased Craig, Emma and Rowan greatly, as they’re big tea-drinkers. There looked to be a wide selection of food available, so it was unlikely I’d have to go hungry or subsist on the contents of the Bucket o’SnacksTM.

When we got back to the tents, Roger – who had waited in the car park to meet friends – had arrived and put up his tent. As had Burnie, Gray and Will. I remember the night being really cold. Though the tent I’d borrowed was double-walled, I was using the same Argos sleeping-bag as previous years and it’s not especially effective. I’d taken the precaution of buying a fleece to use as a blanket, and that sort of worked. Fortunately, Thursday was the coldest night of the weekend.

My first two times at Bloodstock were spent mostly drinking or suffering from a hangover. Last year, we’d decided to focus more on the music, and make an effort to see more bands. The same plan was in effect for this year. Emma had marked down those with female members for Femetalism; other bands we decided might be worth hearing from their write-ups in the programme. And then there were those bands we knew and liked and had always planned to watch perform – for me, that would be Alcest, Winterfylleth, Nile, Paradise Lost and Anaal Nathrakh. Which is not an especially large number for a festival lasting three and a half days…

Friday and Saturday were spent almost identically – wandering from stage to stage to hear bands, sitting out in the sun, taking occasional breaks in Mr Tea’s, drinking beer… As per the last year, for lunch I “falafelated” (the falafel wrap, however, was much better this year). Dinner was chips and gravy. I watched Moonsorrow on the main stage, the Ronnie James Dio Stage, and, appropriately, Dio Disciples, who played a bunch of old Rainbow and Black Sabbath tracks (the best ones, of course, from the line-ups with Dio). On the Sophie Lancaster Stage, I watched some of The Commander-in-Chief, a female guitarist, but didn’t much like her semi-operatic vocals. The following act, Swiss band Gonoreas, despite the unfortunate name were quite good. The main attraction that night was French metal shoegazer band, Alcest. They were good, but it’s music to be sitting down for, I think. We did catch a couple of acoustic sets on the Jägermeister Stage, the best of which was Manchester folk metallers Andraste.

At one point during the afternoon, I was in the audience for Pythia’s set on the Sophie Lancaster Stage, but several people had lit up joints and the smell of weed was making me ill. So I left the tent. There were clearly-posted signs saying “No Smoking” in the tent, but dopeheads seem to think that doesn’t apply to them. Cigarette smokers had the decency to smoke outside, but the smell of weed was constant throughout the weekend. That, and the heat, made several of the sets unpleasant to watch. I’d not noticed the dope on previous Bloodstocks. But then Sonisphere had been cancelled the month before and it was suggested a lot of people that would have attended that had come to Bloodstock instead. Perhaps that accounted for it.

Also that afternoon, I chatted with Leon of Mithras at the Zero Tolerance stall and we had what is turning into our annual moan about not being able to make decent money recording music or writing science fiction – or at least the sort of music he records and the sf I write. Later that night, Cat, Sly and myself had a go on the dodgems. The others were, I think, watching a band on the New Blood Stage. Top tip: when on the dodgems, don’t leave your phone in a thigh pocket. I did. Mine now has a small crack on the screen.

We didn’t stay in the arena to see the day’s headliners, Behemoth, but returned to the tents to drink beer. We hadn’t seen Watain either, as they clashed with Alcest. I don’t think we missed much – Leon had described Watain as “black metal for people who don’t like black metal”.

The only acts playing the Ronnie James Dio Stage I really wanted to see weren’t on until the Sunday. I did hear the occasional song by those playing on the Saturday as I wandered about the arena, and I did stay for the first few songs by Machine Head, that day’s headliner. But I saw more bands perform on the Sophie Lancaster Stage. Rising Dream, a Croatian female-fronted power/death metal band were the highlight of the day. I’d wandered in to see who was performing at the beginning of their set, and stayed for the entire performance. Winterfylleth, on the other hand, I’d planned to see. I’d seen them live once before at the Day of Unrest in 2008 (see here). They were good and the tent was packed for their set. I may well pick up a copy of their latest album.

That night, there was the usual Saturday night shenanigans in the camping ground. A group of about a hundred tried some bin jousting, but managed no more than two jousts before security staff came and took away the bins. So they made do with finger-wrestling. It was noisy but good-hearted. There was no re-occurance of last year’s trouble.

Sunday was easily the best day for me in terms of music. And it proved even better than expected. The others were taking their time getting up, so at 10:30 I decided to head into the arena on my own. After a bacon sandwich, I wandered across to the New Blood Stage to see what was happening there. It was the first act of the day, Seprevention, and they were excellent – old school death metal with duelling shredding guitars. I wandered round for a bit more, before returning to the New Blood Stage to watch Aethara, who I also thought very good. By this time, Craig, Emma and Rowan had appeared, so we stayed for So-Da-Ko, though I didn’t like them as much as the two bands I’d already seen. Then it was outside to watch Nile. I’d been warned they weren’t that good live, but I thought they were excellent.

The others settled down in Mr Tea’s but I headed off to the Sophie Lancaster Stage to see Ancient Ascendant. They weren’t bad but their write-up in the programme had suggested they’d be better. I wasn’t especially keen on seeing Anvil on the Ronnie James Dio Stage. Yes, I know it’s meant to be bad, but I’ve yet to be convinced metal and irony mix (no pun intended). Anyway, we staked out an area on the grass pretty much where we’d spent the Sunday afternoon the previous year. After Anvil – who were mildly amusing – it was Paradise Lost. They were good, but I’d seen them in the Corporation in April and they’d been much better then.

I had no plans to watch Dimmu Borgir – I’ve caught them live twice before, despite not being a fan – so after a couple of songs I headed off to the Sophie Lancaster Stage to see Anaal Nathrakh. I’d thought the others had planned to see them too, but it turned out I was on my own (though Craig did turn up toward the end of the set). The tent was packed – and filled up even more after Dimmu Borgir finished their set after halfway through Anaal Nathrakh’s. So much so, in fact, that I found myself slowly being herded further back, and I wasn’t even near the stage to begin with. Anaal Nathrakh were excellent, definitely one of the best performances of the weekend.

And then it was Alice Cooper. I don’t get it – an old man playing music for fifteen-year-olds. His music makes MTV sound edgy. And no matter how you dress it up with a fancy stage show, it still sounds like some insipid Hollywood version of metal. I stayed for a couple of songs and then headed back to the tent. The others stayed. But even they couldn’t manage the whole set. After they turned up at the tents, we sat around and drank beer for a bit. I didn’t get much sleep – there was a group near my tent who larked about all night and kept me awake. One of them was apparently on “gas”, and the rest were loudly egging him on. Next year, I think we’ll camp somewhere a little quieter…

So that was Bloodstock 2012. And great fun it was too. Best bands of the weekend for me were Rising Dream, Anaal Nathrakh, Suprevention, Winterfylleth, Aethara, Nile, Paradise Lost and Alcest. So far, Anthrax have been announced for next year. Hopefully, there’ll be plenty of better bands on the bill by August 2013. And if not, perhaps some of those unknown to me will prove to be really good – as has been the case for the Bloodstock 2011 and Bloodstock 2012.

Finally, I can’t write about Bloodstock without mentioning Metal Meerkat. Craig had recently bought house insurance through comparethemarket.com, and so they’d sent him one of their stuffed toys. It was Vassily, dressed in a t-shirt and leather jacket. Throughout the weekend, Craig and Emma took photos of Vassily in various parts of the arena and camping ground. Craig even took some mpg footage. And he’s edited these together. Enjoy…


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Ten essential metal albums

I don’t write about music very often on this blog, but given that my tastes in that field are just as fringe as they are in literature perhaps that’s no surprise. (Mind you, there probably is a small overlap between science fiction readers and death metal fans – certainly I know a handful of people who qualify as both.) But another reason is that, as the late great Frank Zappa once said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. And it’s only recently that I’ve starting buying books on architecture – well, books of photographs of Brutalist and Modernist buildings, and those designed by, for example, Oscar Niemeyer…

Anyway, on my way home from the Gojira gig earlier this week, I challenged a friend to come up with a list of ten essential metal albums. He’ll post his on The Mix Eclectic. We didn’t bother to define “essential”, but agreed only that we were allowed five additional “honourable mentions”. At the time I issued the challenge, I thought it would be quite easy… but, of course, such things never are. There were a few obvious picks, and they, in turn, defined what “essential” meant to me as regards this list. It means albums I always return to, ones I play again and again, even years after I bought them. They’re not necessarily seminal in their chosen genre, they’re not especially important albums in the progression of metal (death or otherwise). They’re just albums I love.

And the list goes like this…

Skycontact, Phlebotomized (1997, Netherlands) Phlebotomized were a short-lived band during the Netherlands’ brief flowering of great death metal talent in the 1990s. They recorded a pair of EPs and a pair of albums. Skycontact was their second and last album. Their CDs now go for silly money on eBay. Skycontact is elegiac, mournful, and yet quite beautiful at times. There’s even a violin in it. ‘A Cry in July’ is an especially stand-out track.

Projector, Dark Tranquillity (1999, Sweden) This is the album that introduced me to Dark Tranquillity, and made me a fan of the group. It’s perhaps their most commercial album, and certainly it shows the breadth of their music – from the crunching riffs of the opening track ‘FreeCard’ to the synth-heavy ‘Day to End’ to the near-ballad ‘Auctioned’. Despite the somewhat mordant tone to the lyrics, Projector is an album that never fails to put me in a good mood. To date, I’ve seen Dark Tranquillity perform live four times, and it’s about bloody time they toured the UK again.

Blackwater Park, Opeth (2001, Sweden) This may well be the high-water mark for Opeth. It’s the first album by them I bought and I still consider it their best. The preceding album, Still Life, is excellent, but its songs don’t quite gel in the way Blackwater Park‘s do. This album has the perfect mix of Opeth’s trademark complex heaviness and acoustic interludes. The title track alone is a work of genius. I’ve seen Opeth live four times to date, and will be seeing them again later this year. They usually put on a damn good show.

Still At Arms Length, The Provenance (2002, Sweden) The Provenance disbanded in 2006 after four albums. Still At Arms Length was their second. It’s a hard-to-describe mix of death, gothic, doom and progressive metal. With a flute. Like some other Scandinavian metal bands, vocals were shared between male and female, with the male vocals often sung as growls. But there’s something about The Provenance’s songs which lift them above others of their ilk. They were more experimental – in their sound and their song structures – than their peers. And like all the best death metal bands, they could play a mean and heavy riff. I regret never getting to see them perform live.

Worlds Beyond the Veil, Mithras (2003, UK) I forget where I first heard Mithras, but I remember being immediately captivated by the combination of spacey ambient synth and furiously insane guitar and drumming. They’re probably the most science-fictional death metal I’ve ever heard – or rather, there’s something about their music which speaks to me of the best of science fiction. Which is probably why I used the lyrics to this album in a short story – originally published in Jupiter magazine, but also posted on my blog here. I’ve seen Mithras live twice – the first time at the Day of Unrest mini-festival in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden; and I remember being exhausted after their set just from listening to the music. They have a new album due out later this year, On Strange Loops; and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone, Akercocke (2005, UK) I first came across Akercocke in 2005, when they supported Opeth at the Forum in London. I vaguely recall being impressed by the sheer noise they made, and the fact that they all wore suit and tie on stage. (They were sometimes called “Satan’s bankers” because of their stage attire.) However, it wasn’t until I saw them perform in the small room at the Corporation, supporting their Antichrist album, that I became a fan. I saw them once more before they split up. Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone is my favourite of their albums (and has a great title, too), with its abrupt changes from furious blackened death metal to slow and mournful acoustic parts. The opener ‘Verdelet’ is probably my favourite Akercocke track, too.

Red for Fire + Black for Death, Solefald (2005/2006, Norway) This one is a bit of a cheat as it was released as two albums, though the band wrote it as a single project. It is based on an Icelandic edda about Bragi, a court poet who dallies with the queen but is forced to flee when it is discovered. The album is a mix of post-black metal, Icelandic poetry, and even some jazz fusion. It’s the sheer variety that appeals as much as the individual songs.

The Diarist, Dark Lunacy (2006, Italy) Metal is well-suited to concept albums, and this is true of death metal as much as any other branch of the genre. The diarist of the title is a woman trapped in Stalingrad during the siege by the Nazis. The tracks successfully evoke the time and place, though without losing sight of its musical genre. There’s an epic quality to Dark Lunacy’s music which I think this album showcases especially well. I have never seen the band live but I would very much like to.

A New Constellation, NahemaH (2009, Spain) I was tricked into buying a NahemaH album. The label had put a sticker on the cover of the band’s second album, The Second Philosophy, which likened it to Opeth. Thinking that might appeal, I bought it. And listened to it. And discovered it was nothing like Opeth. But I hung onto the CD because I suspected it might be a grower. And so it proved. Within a few months I was listening to it constantly. And everything that was good, and that appealed to me, about The Second Philosophy is just more so in A New Constellation. It’s a death metal / prog metal wall of sound, accomplished and complex. I really want to see NahemaH live.

Annihilation of the Wicked, Nile (2005, US) I wanted Nile to be in this list of ten, but I couldn’t think which album to pick. In the end, I plumped for this one because it best displays their fusion of Ancient Egyptian themes and relentless US death metal. It’s like exploring the pyramids while suffering from a heart attack. The track ‘The Burning Pits of Duat’ allegedly features drumming at 320 bpm. Which is astonishing. Nile are a fixture on the death metal scene, and for good reason. I’ll get to see them for the first time at this year’s Bloodstock festival.

For my five honourable mentions, I picked:

Reflections of the I, Winds (2002, Norway) A mix of classical music and progressive metal by a side-project of four members of other metal bands.

Mabool, Orphaned Land (2004, Israel) Death metal, prog metal and Middle Eastern music in a concept album about the Flood.

Shin-Ken, Persefone (2009, Andorra) A polished mix of death metal and progressive metal from Andorra’s finest musical export. It’s a concept album too.

Leviathan, Mastodon (2004, US) Another mix of metal subgenres, and another concept album. There seems to be a pattern here…

Sowberry Hagan, Ultraphallus (2011, Belgium) It should sound like sheer noise, but it doesn’t. An astonishing musical balancing act.

There were so many other albums I wanted to pick, like As Night Conquers Day, Autumn Leaves (1999, Denmark), wihch is a favourite album, or something by Anathema (but I couldn’t think which of their albums was especially typical), or Themes, Silent Stream of Godless Elegy (2000, Czech Republic), which provides an excellent sample of their sound but does include a couple of duff tracks…


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A tale of two cities

Well, that was a busy weekend. Two cities in two days, each in the opposite direction from home.

On Friday night, I was in Manchester, at the Academy to see Opeth perform live. The support act were Pain of Salvation. While I like bits of Pain of Salvation’s two Road Salt albums, I’m not really a fan of their music. Live, they put on a good show, but they struck me as bit posey and frontman Daniel Gildenlöw seemed to think he was Lenny Kravitz.

Rumour had it the Opeth set would be taken entirely from the new album, Heritage. Which is entirely progressive rock. Given that I still think that Blackwater Park is the band’s best album, and that Heritage is an album that is only slowly growing on me, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, even though this was the fourth time I’d seen them perform. And the set did indeed open with some tracks from Heritage. But then Mikael Åkerfeldt started bantering with the crowd – that night it was a lightly sarcastic paean to Kiss – and I knew that despite the new “direction” Opeth hadn’t really changed. The band then performed some older songs, although the entire set featured only clean vocals. In the case of ‘A Fair Judgment’ from Deliverance (a favourite track of mine), this wasn’t an issue as the album version features clean vocals. But ‘The Face of Melinda’ from Still Life is certainly different when it has all the growl vocals taken out. Still, Opeth are superlative musicians, and I suspect I’ll find myself liking Heritage a bit more after being reminded live just how good they really are.

The gig was my first in Academy 1. Last year, I’d seen Ghost Brigade, Orphaned Land and Amorphis in Academy 3, which is the smallest of the four venues. Academy 1 is like a small aircraft hangar. We were up near the front for Pain of Salvation’s set, and that wasn’t a problem – you could still get out to visit the bar or the toilets. But about five songs into Opeth’s set I felt the call of nature, and it was a real battle to get out of the crowd in front of the stage. And once I was done, there was no way I was going to be able to get back to where I’d been standing. That was annoying. (Also, I was wearing my Mithras Forever Advancing Legions T-shirt that night, and someone said, “Nice T-shirt” to me.)

So, Manchester meant getting home after midnight. And the next morning I was up and off to Nottingham for Novacon. I’d checked train times, both there and back – I was intending to only spend the Saturday at the convention, but I did take toiletries and a change of clothes in case I decided to stay the night. The last train home was at 23:15 but it didn’t get in until… 10:16 the next morning. Essentially, it dumped you in Derby, and you then had to wait for the first train the next morning. That’s not a viable journey, and you’d think railway timetable websites would recognise that. However, there were some direct trains between 20:00 and 21:30, so I had until then to make a decision.

I arrived in Nottingham at 11:00. Back in the late 1980s, I lived in Mansfield, my home town, and spent many weekend nights pubbing and clubbing in Nottingham. I’ve only been back a handful of times, but even so I know the geography of the city pretty well. I noticed a few changes in the city centre, but Mansfield Road, which is where Novacon’s hotel was sited, looked exactly as I remembered.

I bought a day membership on arrving at the hotel, and then headed straight into the bar. The first familiar face I spotted was Chris Amies, who I’d not seen for many years. After a chat, I left my bags with him and hit the dealers’ room. The usual suspects were all present: Porcupine Books, Cold Tonnage, Replay Books, Murky Depths, NewCon Press… I was at the Porcupine Books stall, when I spotted a couple of Women’s Press sf titles I didn’t own, and reached out for them. The stranger standing next to me turned to me and said, “You must be Ian Sales.” Which was a pretty good trick: my day membership badge didn’t have my name on it. The stranger proved to be Colum Paget, who has a story in Rocket Science. After a few more chats with various people, I returned to the bar… Which is where, as usual, I spent much of the con.

I had conversations with Al Reynolds, Ian Whates, Terry Martin, Kim and Del Lakin-Smith, Caroline Mullan, Fran and John Dowd, John Meaney, Leigh Kennedy, Janet Edwards… There was quite an intense discussion on utopias with Charles Stross, Justina Robson, Kev McVeigh and myself. I also remember a long talk about Uriah Heep (the band, not the Dickens character) with Swedish fan Bellis. The only programme items I attended were a 15 to 1 quiz and the second book auction (but I didn’t bid on anything). By about six o’clock, it was clear I’d be better off staying the night, so I checked into the hotel. I was quite impressed with the room – it was small but very modern. The shower – there was no bath – had a huge showerhead set flat again the ceiling, which was quite odd.

I was up at my usual time the next day, wolfed down breakfast, and then just hung around – in and out of the dealers’ room – throughout the morning. I was planning to leave later in the day, but was offered a lift home by Kev leaving at noon-ish, so I decided to accept it.

So that was the weekend. I caught up with a band I’ve liked for many years and caught up with some friends I don’t get to see very often. I didn’t feel up to much when I got home on the Sunday, so I’m now horribly behind on nanowrimo. But never mind. I bought almost a dozen books at Novacon, but I’ll put up photos of them in a separate post.

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