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Review and reminiscence: Head of David, Dustbowl March 20, 2016

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headIn the late 1980s I bought a punk/metal/weirdness zine, Chemical Imbalance, with a cover mount EP featuring songs by Band of Susans, UT, Head of David, and, for something completely different, Sun Ra. I’d read about Band of Susans and Head of David in the context of Sonic Youth-like noise rock, and it was the latter’s track that most connected with me out of the noise scrawls on the EP.

It’s a kind of music that probably makes sense again now, in this Internet-powered age of all music of all time everywhere at once, and in some small circles it made sense in the late 1980s. But I didn’t hear anything much like it for a long time in between. It’s about as slick as an army issue wool blanket, Steve Albini’s raw production doing absolutely nothing to smooth the rough edges. It probably doesn’t sound much different from their demo tapes. As for where it fits musically… Justin Broadrick from grindcore metal band Napalm Death played drums and did some vocals on this album before starting industrial metal noise legends Godflesh. It’s repetitive, grinding, riff-heavy hard rock, the sound of a mining robot lost in the desert, sandblown and rusting , with sometimes rough shouted vocals, sometimes murmured almost spoken vocals, a million miles removed from anything in mainstream metal at the time. It seems likely that Head of David shared a lot of influences with early Spacemen 3 and Loop, especially the psychedelic sludge of the early Stooges, with New York noise rock and British heavy metal and, hell, maybe some early Killing Joke added to the mix.

It’s a funny thing, but I bought this album 25-odd years ago on vinyl and didn’t get into it as much as I expected because it sounded kind of thin on my stereo. The mp3s coming out of my laptop speakers almost sound better. The drums pound, the bass holds down a queasy bottom end, and riffs and squeals of guitar all but drown out the distorted vocals.

All in all, this is a damn good album I should listen to more often, not just a footnote in Steve Albini’s production resume or Justin Broadrick’s musical history. (My favourite project of his is Jesu. You can draw a line from one to the other but you wouldn’t confuse them.)

So, the reminiscence. Yes, it’s easy to find a ridiculous amount of music on the Internet. And there’s a lot of information about music on the Internet. You can flood yourself. But back in 1988 or ’89 that wasn’t the case. You had to go to independent music stores or stors that carried really big selections of magazines and look for obscure magazines like Forced Exposure, Chemical Imbalance, The Big Takeover, and others to find out about the music that wasn’t on the radio. They didn’t exactly publish regularly, either. So when you found one it was a good day. And then, when you read about some band and thought, damn, this sounds cool, there was no guarantee you’d be able to find anything by them. It could be frustrating as hell.

So, you know what? Forget the wallowing in nostalgia. You can get almost any recorded music legally now in a matter of minutes.

Um. Except for this album. Not on iTunes, not on eMusic, not on Bandcamp, and only available on used physical formats on Amazon. Well, so much for that. Looks like you’ll have to check it out on youtube then figure out where to pirate a copy. Or buy used. Sorry. But hey, now you kinda know what it used to be like, back when you might read about a record and not find a copy until a year or two later. I don’t miss that.


Review: The Gulf by Cody Quijano-Schell March 19, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Doctor Who.
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105coverHere’s a niche item. It’s the first of a series of ebook original novellas combining Mexican luchadors (masked wrestlers) and science fiction — and it’s a spinoff of a spinoff from the Doctor Who tie-in novels.

Cody Quijano-Schell introduced the protagonist of the series in a short story in an Obverse Books anthology devoted to the character Iris Wildthyme. (Iris sort of first appeared in non-Doctor Who fiction by her creator, Paul Magrs, but Iris as she is known these days then appeared in a few Doctor Who novels by Magrs. It’s a long story.) Anyway, Señor 105 (a.k.a. Señor Cientocinco) made a definite impression. He had a short story collection of his own and then a series of ebooks starting back in 2012.

The Gulf picks up where the previously published stories left off. Señor 105 was mentored by wrestlers who named themselves after the classical elements — Agua, Fuego, etc — but believes that a wrestler in the Atomic Age should look to the elements of the periodic table (hence the series title, The Periodic Adventures of Señor 105). He has masks for each element and changes his name as new elements are discovered. He is a scientist, an adventurer, an explorer. His companion is a sentient sphere of gas contained in a balloon.

The Gulf is named after Chicxulub, where the asteroid impact believed to have killed off the dinosaurs occurred. An evil group known as the Terrible Lizards are rescuing ancient alien technology from the Gulf — the asteroid impact wasn’t quite what it seemed — and using it for evil acts when not auctioning it off to the highest bidder. Señor 105 and Sheila, the intelligent helium, are dragged in to the story when they’re rescued from a trainwreck by a mysterious woman. The trainwreck was, of course, the work of the  Terrible Lizards. On their way to investigate, they encounter a woman in a Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform and her horse. She’s an investigator and crime fighter trying to prove that the RCMP should allow women to join. The four team up to work together, with occasional assistance from the mysterious woman.

The story builds on an altered version of Doctor Who history involving the lost twin planet of Earth, but instead of providing thinly disguised Whoniverse worlds and cultures, it puts a spin on them. It distances Señor 105’s world a bit farther from the Doctor’s reality.

The story is entertaining enough, but Quijano-Schell comes off as a bit of a new writer. He isn’t in full control of tenses or point of view, and he seems to forget about a character or two for a couple of chapters. Overall, though, it’s a quick and fun read. Definitely recommended for Doctor Who fans without enough to read, and for people looking for something very different in their pulpy SF adventure.

Review: The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker et al March 13, 2016

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Last year I got the first third of the Fade Out miniseries (12 issues reprinted in three volumes) as a free review e-copy from Netgalley. Recently I picked up all three print volumes. I’ll start by recycling the old review…

I’ve been meaning to give Ed Brubaker a try for a long time. I like noir. I just haven’t read a lot of it in comic format.

And The Fade Out is classic Hollywood noir in the vein of 1940s novels and movies like Steve Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming and more recent takes like James Ellroy’s LA Quartet (kicking off with a reference to Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party). This is the start of a series that I’m definitely going to follow.

What we get here are the first four issues of Brubaker’s comic about murder, the Red Scare, and the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s. Nothing much is resolved by the end of this volume. To the contrary — new questions are being raised, and the scope of the story opens up. If the goal is to make you want to see what comes next, it certainly worked for me.

The story is definitely a modern, not contemporary, take on noir. The language and sexual content wouldn’t have come close to getting through the Hays Office. Readers who miss 1940s and ’50s noir movies but don’t like more explicit modern takes on noir might not care for this, but then they probably don’t read comics anyway. Speaking of comics, the art here is quite good, clear and capturing the look and feel of the era quite well.

It’s hard to say much more, given that this is only the beginning of what may be a long and complex story. But it’s a very strong beginning.

So, having read the whole thing… I loved it. It tells a complete story, albeit one that leaves some questions unanswered — explicitly, at least. As Brubaker’s pointed out in interviews, there’s a lot in there that isn’t handed to the reader on a platter.It’ll definitely stand up to a rereading or two.

The structure of the story is a murder mystery, but it’s made complex by the web of relationships between the characters, and more so by the fact that a couple of the key characters have a tendency to let booze do their thinking for them.

Many of the characters have more depth than might be expected. The art is clear and expressive, the dialogue sharp. I’d love to read more of this. But this is it, at least for the time being, so I’ll have to check out some of Brubaker’s other work.

Review: Gun Crazy: The Birth of American Outlaw Cinema by Eddie Muller March 13, 2016

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guncrazyEddie Muller, as mentioned in the Goodis post below, has spent the last 20 years or so becoming one of the go-to guys on the subject of film noir. He’s written several books, but this is the first time he’s focused on a single film. And what a film.

Gun Crazy is a 1950 b movie with a devoted cult following. Neither of its stars, John Dall and Peggy Cummins, had wildly successful careers, but their performances, the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo from a MacKinlay Kantor story, and the direction by Joe Lewis make this the best doomed lovers on a crime spree movie ever.

Muller’s books on noir aren’t dry film studies texts. He’s an opinionated fan, not an academic, so his books are entertaining reads. In this book, well illustrated with photos, copies of documents, and shots from the film, he sets out to dispel some of the myths that have apparently grown about the movie — some spread by Lewis, the director, some by writers who favour the auteur theory. Muller spends a lot of time looking at the development of the story, from the Kantor short story through the script development and on through filming and editing. Along the way he provides background on Kantor, the King Brothers (the producers), Joe Lewis, writer Dalton Trumbo, and Dall and Cummins.

The film is a compelling mix of bravura filmmaking with, at times, surprising amounts of stock footage. Muller goes into detail on the two big heist scenes in the movie, the extended single shot bank robbery and the Armour heist. These scenes and others are technical feats that don’t draw attention to themselves because the viewer is caught up in the suspense.

Muller ends the book with a brief look at the undeniable influence Gun Crazy had on films like Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde. The book’s a pretty fast read, very well laid out and designed. Definitely recommended to film buffs. Order direct from Black Pool Productions.

(I’ve read another book on Gun Crazy, a BFI Film Classics book by Jim Kitses. It’s a long time since I read that one, but I’m pretty sure that the world has room for both books.)

Review: David Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier March 12, 2016

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goodisBack around 1986, having gotten into old movies, private eye novels, and Cornell Woolrich’s noir novels in the previous few years, I discovered the Prime Crime mystery bookstore in Ottawa and, through it, one of the most important developments in crime fiction that decade: the original Black Lizard books imprint. And one of the first Black Lizard books I read I was by David Goodis. I was hooked.

The Goodis books Black Lizard reprinted were as noir as Woolrich, but bleaker. Woolrich sometimes allowed happy endings. He had a romantic streak. Fate might crush your life, but love could save it. In Goodis’s books, the characters were more likely to be the cause of their own destruction, and love was generally with exactly the wrong person if it happened at all. In one novel, as I remember it, a wino goes for a walk, has a series of adventures that reveal the series of events that brought him into the gutter, and ends up right back there at the end of the book, seemingly content — or at least indifferent.

At the time, it didn’t seem that people knew much about Goodis. He started out with a literary novel that didn’t do too well, then wrote some more popular stuff that led to a few years in Hollywood working on movies, and then a return to his home town of Philadelphia, where he wrote lurid pulp paperback novels and faded into obscurity and died, possibly as a derelict alcoholic. And then Black Lizard brought him back to the attention of readers.

Meanwhile, the story went, he was one of the many American writers translated and reprinted in France in the Serie Noire line of books, and Truffaut made a classic film of one of Goodis’s books. Because the French understood and appreciated American noir better than Americans did.

Philippe Garnier had already published the first version of his book on Goodis in France in the 1980s, but it wasn’t translated and published in America until recently. He came to the USA and investigated Goodis, talking to people who knew him, following trails, and debunking myths along the way.

One of the first myths Garnier debunks is the French appreciation of noir. They definitely did like it and help keep it alive, and they helped maintain the popularity of Goodis and Cornell Woolrich and many others, but according to Garnier, the translations of these American writers left something to be desired. Books were shortened, plots simplified, writing styles homogenized, cultural signifiers (especially the glorious American cover art) missing. The French wanted to mythologize the writers of this stuff, not know it or its real context.

Garnier structures the book almost novelistically, following his leads, adding to what he learns about Goodis, but also manages it in such a way as to follow Goodis’s life chronologically. He mythologizes neither Goodis nor his work, pointing out that some of his books simply aren’t very good, and that he didn’t really make much of a mark on Hollywood. Some good movies were based on his novels, but he wasn’t involved in the screenplays. The best known is probably Dark Passage, which starred Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Agnes Moorehead, though Truffaut’s Tirez Sur le Pianiste (aka Don’t Shoot the Piano Player) is probably better known and respected than any of the Hollywood takes.

Goodis emerges as eccentric, but not necessarily as the kind of eccentric readers of his books might assume. He also emerges as someone whose life was somewhat compartmentalized — people who thought they knew him well didn’t always know about parts of his life. There were autobiographical elements in his fiction but he doesn’t seem to have been as drawn to a drunken wino existence as many of his characters were. Friends considered his books to be exaggerated and unrealistic. Garnier does suggest there are still things few people know, as when he quotes a psychiatrist who refused to be interviewed and hinted that Garnier would guess certain things about Goodis if he talked. The recurring theme of characters falling for sweet and innocent thin beauties but instead realizing they need to be dominated by big, rough women seems to have had some reality to it as well. But why give away everything? You should read the book if you’ve read this far. It’s a well written and enjoyable exploration of a unique individual, his times, and his work.

This is a trade paperback published by Blackpool Productions, which is run by Eddie Muller, who’s written several books on film noir, produces the Noir City Film Festival, publishes the Noir City e-magazine, etc etc. It’s an excellent production for a small press with only a couple of books out, well illustrated with photographs, book cover art, film scenes, and more. There’s just one or two things I could criticize. First, you have to buy this book from the publisher, here. Second, you may never find this website without knowing to look for it, because it’s an old-fashioned kind of website where each page is just one big image, no searchable text. I only found out about this book because I discovered the Noir City pdf magazine a few months back and bought a few issues. More people should be aware of this stuff.

Review: The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick by Kyle Arnold March 8, 2016

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cover84054-mediumYes, it’s a Netgalley review, written in exchange for a free advance pdf. Please note that comments are based on the advance version of the book, and some changes may have been made when the published version appears in June from Oxford University Press as part of their Inner Lives series.

I read an awful lot by and about Philip K Dick a few years back, but it’s been some time and my memory could be better. That makes it a bit harder to comment knowledgeably on this book. But first…

Science fiction writer Philip K Dick wrote many novels and short stories in which people were not what they seemed or in which reality itself could not be trusted. He was also known to have been at least verging on paranoid due to excessive amphetamine use, which helped him write so many books and short stories… and that was before the VALIS event that happened in 1974 and occupied much of the remaining years of his life. He was never certain whether he had been contacted by alien life, or by God, but he was sure something happened, and he wrote obsessively in his Exegesis, trying to work it all out; he also worked through some of his ideas in novels like VALIS and The Divine Invasion.

In the book at hand, Kyle Arnold takes a psychological and spiritual look at PKD’s experience. It’s a much more concise and easy read than the Exegesis, which has been published in part a couple of times and which I haven’t even tried to get through. (I’ve read some of the Selected Letters volumes dealing with the 1974 stuff, though.)

The book is mainly about Dick the person and his mental/spiritual state. There’s some material on his writing, but it’s not the point of the book. Arnold goes into some detail about Dick’s drug use, relationships, 1974, and other aspects of his internal life. The book could work as an introduction for people who find themselves more interested in the man than his books. I don’t doubt those people exist; like HP Lovecraft, he’s become well known as a strange kind of visionary as well as a writer.

For myself, though, I had a couple of issues. First, the writing is a bit shaky, lurching from very casual to more formal, as if shifting between blog post and thesis. It’s also a bit repetitive. There also appear to be some factual errors. Arnold mentions The Transmigration of Timothy Archer as one of the VALIS novels; it’s not. Which reminds me, I could have used more discussion of VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, and the unfinished The Owl in Daylight; Dick was working through his experiences in those novels as much as he was in the Exegesis.

Arnold’s Notes on Sources show most of the books I’d expect to see on the PKD side of things; the only omission is the Selected Letters books, but they aren’t easy to get.

Anyone who’s really interested in Philip K Dick has a few more in-depth sources they should investigate, but if you’re only casually interested, or if you’re interested in where psychology meets spirituality, this may be the book for you.

Review: Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler March 5, 2016

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scarfolkI wanted to like this more than I actually did. Not that I disliked it; my expectations were just off a bit.

Richard Littler’s fictional town of Scarfolk is a place where the 1970s never ended. It draws from British culture of the decade — book covers, educational programs, posters, anything else that has inspires nostalgia in British people of a certain age, I guess.

The thing is, that’s hardly unexplored territory. The Ghost Box record label has been mining that for several years now. Their album cover esthetic borrows from the look of 1970s UK books; their music is inspired by early electronic music, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, ’70s educational TV, and a bit of supernatural horror from Lovecraft and Machen through to the late 1960s TV version of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Their albums appear to come from the same universe as each other, but not necessarily this one. There are TV ident logotones on some of them. There’s a Belbury Parish blog. They present an image of a UK where the 1970s are still in effect.

And there’s Moon Wiring Club. Not so much 1970s, but there’s a unique and recognizable world that comes out of their albums, videos, and website, which features the fictional town of Clinkskell.

Scarfolk started as a blog about a fictional 1970s-bound town, presenting artifacts like posters and book covers, and clearly drawing from the same kinds of sources as its more hauntological predecessors. Some have accused Littler of swiping ideas, though apparently he claims not to have been aware of them when he started.

The thing is, he’s doing something rather different. There’s certainly some humour in Ghost Box and Moon Wiring Club, but it’s relatively subtle. Scarfolk is more overtly out for laughs:

Welcome to Scarfolk…

Imagine you and your family are held captive in a town that is forever locked in the 1970s.

If you cannot imagine it, just think what it would be like.*

*For more information please re-read.

That’s from the book’s back cover. I think the difference is that Scarfolk’s predecessors are presenting an alternate reality; Littler is doing the same but sending it up while he does it. He’s not going for believability or subtlety. So, with that kept in mind, the images and texts he creates for the blog, Facebook, etc, are definitely fun. And often funny.

So how about the book?

Discovering Scarfolk repackages a lot of the material from the website, but presents it as documentary evidence supporting an investigation of a missing family built on some notes by the father. Littler creates a plot structure for what otherwise would just be amusing ephemera. It didn’t work all that well for me, though; it’s a the perspective of an outsider on another outsider’s perspective of an odd place. It’s more distanced than a JG Ballard protagonist. But then, it’s common to present stories of old places through the eyes of outsiders — The Wicker Man, which is a touchstone for fans of ’70s UK strangeness, does that. So too do many of Ballard’s novels.

But the book keeps adding on more and more strangeness and absurdity. The art creates an odd and funny world; the book turns everything up to 11, belabouring everything a bit too much. The humour ranges from over the top silliness reminiscent of 1970s Monty Python books to quirky bits that reminded me of Woody Allen’s Without Feathers. Douglas Adams is probably in Scarfolk’s DNA as well.

The main problem with the book is that, although superficially it looks wonderful, the material from the website is reproduced from low resolution graphics. The small print in some posters is hard to read. This stuff is the heart of the book and it doesn’t look as good as it should.

If this seems too negative, well, I was hoping for something more subtle, I guess. I recommend anyone who’s intrigued at all check out the scarfolk.blogspot.ca website and consider giving the book a try. But you have to have at least some knowledge of or interest in 1970s Britain. Otherwise it won’t make much sense at all.