Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Chuck Schuldiner: Ten Years Gone

Go there. Go now. 1990s Florida, extravagance, waste, sunshine, suntans, age, oil, alligators and death metal. What was in the water, the air? Why did the revolution happen there? Why did Long Island, New York guitarist Chuck Schuldiner transform from a pivotal death metal guitarist into a crucial founding father of expanding death metal’s harmonic and melodic palette?

Schuldiner’s contribution to death metal and metal generally cannot be understated. As an individual he was enthusiastic, forward thinking, opinionated and I believe to some extent troubled by his own sexuality. Indeed in this regard both Schuldiner and his family were adamant in ascribing the illness which led to his death as a brain tumour in the face of accusations of AIDS. Now like many Death fans out there, I am saddened to recall his passing. That said one of the burning issues I have had with metal for a long time is sex, gender and sexuality. But since I do not know anything new, is there anything new to say on this matter? Read on.

Several months ago I was chasing leads down rabbit holes and found that when viewed from a distance, this elaborate warren cohered around a number of key points: That Paul Masvidal of Cynic was not only a visionary musician and composer but had spent significant time performing volunteer work with AIDS patients in San Francisco. The implications of these findings point to certain conclusions. When viewing photos of Masvidal, I noticed that not only is he rather handsome but that he dresses well and is not overweight or boorish as is common among metal musicians post-twenties. Finally, I came across an interview in which it was implied but never declared that Masvidal and Cynic drummer Sean Reinert were in all likelihood a couple. On following up some of these leads and examining the lyrics of Masvidal’s other well known project, the indie-rock sounding Aeon Spoke, I came across multiple examples of references to objects of love using the male personal pronoun. As Masvidal is Buddhist and not Christian I am fairly confident that he is not referring to Jesus.

Then there is the tie that binds: Masvidal and Reinert both played on Death’s breakout album, Human. What is interesting here is that Schuldiner had previously sung about mutilating a “faggot” on Death’s debut Scream Bloody Gore and now he was playing with “faggots”. In 1987 Schuldiner was twenty years old and composing music in a hyper-masculine, frequently misogynist and homophobic context. To me in this pre-PC age the use of the term “faggot” is neither particularly surprising or shocking. After all the zeitgeist was about shock value, obscenity and offense. A “faggot” was a widely disliked, foreign and quite probably terrifying identity in metal during the 80s. It was a way of distancing extreme metal genres from hair metal popular at the time. This is not to justify Schuldiner’s homophobia, rather it is to contextualise it. As a youth “faggot” and “gay” were terms of derision that I did not fully understand even as I used them. It was not until much later that I learned of their true potential to cause, spread and maintain harm.

Over time Death came to be less about terror and more about examining and rejecting social concepts and conventions. Schuldiner has even expressed embarrassment over the conceptual and musical superficiality of pre-Human Death. No doubt like the rest of us, as Schuldiner aged he came to reflect on his statements made as a younger man in an age which when compared to our own at present was information poor. Whether or not Schuldiner died from AIDS related complications and/or was homosexual is an internet meme that may well never be proved in the affirmative or negative. The fact is that his collaboration with Masvidal and Reinert (who had been recording Cynic demos in the period 87-91) on Human helped bring about personal and musical changes which led to a four album string of creative, engaging and original death metal quite different to what he made as a younger man.

Truth and myth will live on as we choose to inhabit them, whatever secrets were or were not in Schuldiner’s life may well never be known but at the very least Schuldiner dared to question himself and his worldview in public and transferred this to his music. In this regard, in the face of whatever and any other faults that he bore as a man he had the courage to change. Right on.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Vegetarian Me Part 2 – Nutrition, Tradition and Nonsense

This morning I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (yuck, right?) with the title: “Easy on the spuds...” (snipped for brevity). This article draws on a newly released report from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council entitled: Providing the scientific evidence for healthier Australian diets (again snipped for brevity) which yours truly took himself over to read.

The draft Australian Dietary Guidelines 2011 contains a number of points I would like to unpack a little. First the guidelines have been prepared based on a “whole” food approach. What this means is that it recommends nutrition based on actual foods rather than abstract vitamin and mineral intake values. To me this is a huge step forward from the pseudo-objectivity of RDI tables and fortified/augmented soft drinks.

Second is the concept of “adherence” to guidelines. Although exceptionally and deeply analysed (research was analysed from a wide variety of local and international sources from the period 2003-2009) the information on hand does not really tell us anything we do not already know: in spite of affluence both economic and educational, Australians seem for the most part unable to adequately incorporate sufficient whole foods into their lifestyles. The guidelines go on to report the following harrowing information:

(a) Australian children (2-18 years old) consume 41% of their caloric intake in the form of nutritionally unsound saturated fat sources.

(b) Australians overall consume 35% of their caloric intake in the form of nutritionally unsound sugar sources.

In other words for many Australian children (adults as well), junk food outside of meals constitutes up to a staggering 76% of their daily caloric intake. Even if you were a highly active person, if you were eating 176% of your calories daily you would have your work cut out for you trying not to gain weight. But in our current couch potato age where the caloric intake of a significant proportion of the population likely exceeds this 176%, the answer is weight gain, ill-health and death.

Third, what is especially interesting is the Herald’s misleading article title. It is also a point with which I disagree. Although the guidelines do advocate for a 40% reduction in potato consumption, this reduction is explicitly to do with potato as a “vegetable”. What this means is that within the spectrum of different vegetables required for optimum nutrition, the quantity of potatoes should be reduced. However, I would argue that when considered as a source of calorie rich carbohydrates potatoes function as an excellent option in themselves or as an adjunct to other grains (the quantity of each is adjusted accordingly. Indeed the sweet potato rich traditional diet of Okinawans (southern-most prefecture of Japan) is frequently pointed to as the reason for their longevity (hey, warm weather year round doesn’t exactly hurt either!).

I would go on to say that the Australian diet by and large contains a sizeable hole relative to root vegetables. In Japan, root vegetables are considered integral to the cuisine and range from potatoes, onions and carrots familiar to most Australians to more (so-called yet easily cultivated) exotic roots such as sweet potato (especially purple skinned yellow/white fleshed satsuma and to a lesser extent the purple/red fleshed beni-imo), taro (in the form of sato-imo), burdock (gobo), yam (known locally as yama-imo, which unlike many kinds of yam is non-toxic and is frequently eaten raw), daikon radish, turnip (kabu) and lotus root (renkon which may also be eaten raw). Almost all of these root vegetables could be substituted for potato in order to decrease caloric intake and increase fibre, vitamin and mineral intake. I would argue that the dearth of root-vegetables in Australian diets and the over-reliance on “colourful” and “leafy” vegetables is in need of a serious re-think.

Finally, under the grains section the emphasis is on “whole” grains. This I will leave short and sweet and can fully attest to the veracity and benefit of switching from white to brown. Recently, I received a 10kg bag of genmai (brown/whole Japanese rice) from an uncle who would/could not eat it. Although supplemented from time to time with plain white rice (like making fried rice), every meal at which I eat rice, I eat genmai. Since I started this pattern I not only lost a small amount of weight (a stubborn mini-pot belly) but become clockwork-like regular and felt lighter and more vital as a result!

So what does my opinion have to do with anything? Nothing really, but it is my view that Australians need to take more pride in local agriculture, and let me say that again: local. By actively supporting local agricultural industry in increasing demand, Australians could:

1. Improve health through increased consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

2. Significantly reduce the environmental burden created by monocropping, over reliance on pesticides and herbicides for both local and export oriented markets.

3. Take pride in an increased national self-sufficiency production rate

4. Encourage the introduction and development of new and new varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains through selective breeding etc.

Or at least that is how it has worked here in Japan. C’mon Aussie, come o-o-o-n!

Church of Misery – Houses of the Unholy (Review)

May we all one day be fortunate enough to come to face doom.

When I was a boy the word “doom” solely referred to the iron masked, green hooded scientist-king of an obscure and fictional central European kingdom. Now to this writer, doom refers to the direct line of ancestors from Black Sabbath, Lord Baltimore, Witchery and to some extent Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin. While modern doomsters draw liberally from their holy prophets their font of inspiration is the same: a louder, whiter version of the blues.

The blues have long been steeped in the occult. Take a journey down the Mississippi through swamps and out to the delta and you will find that history is sign posted with numerous examples of musicians who sold their souls to Satan, who died before their time and whose lyrics directly and indirectly equally reference murder, dislocation and evil deeds along with laments on love, poverty and longing. A half century later Black Sabbath, doom’s ground zero, reached through time and electrified the blues in a way at once familiar and yet much darker. Thus doom was created.

Over the weekend, I dusted off, put needle to groove and cranked the volume on my copy of Church of Misery’s Houses of the Unholy. I cannot remember the last time I listened to this album yet its excellence in genre mastery still rang out as clear (in spite of an ear infection currently oppressing this writer’s hearing – boo hiss!) as the first time. Houses is the perfect balance of Japanese (they are from Tokyo after all, not that you would know it) and Anglo-American sensibilities. Where Japanese rock and metal can tend towards shrill extremity (think grindcore with the treble maxed), Church of Misery temper this with a fat bottom end groove provided by sole original member and main songwriter, bassist Tatsu Mikami. Everything sounds as though it is on the verge of collapse not unlike the bombast of Blue Cheer flying off the rails in an improvised jam… but it never does thanks to Mikami’s chops.

Church of Misery’s assault on American Christian dominated monotheism differs from many of their peers. Mikami draws on infamous serial killers for inspiration. When asked about the why of drawing inspiration from this source he replied:

Psychedelic "Weed" trip etc.... It's ordinary and our band name "Church Of Misery" expresses it. Church [is a] symbol of Christianity, and Christianity is the base of the western world. Misery.....Church Of Misery means miserable Western world or [the] decline of Western World / sick of America, so I use serial killers as a symbol.

Quote taken from interview found at Metal Chaos

The album as a package is completed by an eight page booklet featuring various famous photos of serial killers referenced throughout. The photos are colourised and overlaid with text that openly refuses to draw a line between the utterings of the protagonists and the album lyrics. If you can find this on vinyl, get it. The booklet at twelve inch scale and the cool band pic which stretches vertically across the gatefold inside are worth the price alone – even for the non-doomster!

May we all one day be fortunate enough to come to face doom.


Stop asking! You can never know: Jazz for Metal Part 1

I have previously referred to the complex and convoluted interrelationship between the blues, jazz, hip hop, reggae and most other musical genres originating from African cultural practices and the mostly white (yet ever increasingly diverse if Metal Hammer’s Planet Metal compilations have any stake in definition) music known as metal. Reflecting on the common roots of these very (extremely) different genres and the paths they have taken through time, space and culture is a frequent personal custom. That said, for every open-minded, musically switched on metal head there seems to be an equivalent cellar-dwelling “tr00-er than you” version. This feature is not about why metal heads should listen to jazz. We tend to listen always with an agenda anyway. Instead I want to take a moment to give respect that the jazz that I have listened to which has recalibrated or otherwise changed my metal ears for the better. In this way I hope to draw more explicit lines of cultural connection that have occurred over time yet been neglected in print. While highly unlikely that I will never be “of” an African American cultural and musical context, I can investigate and connect with the myriad common historical points by better understanding the music. No hard answers, no permanence and no promises.

Miles Davis – On the Corner

Miles Davis was never square and his path quite crooked but his musical talent, his feel for his form was extraordinary, from tribute, to sideman, from interpreter to innovator Davis’ influence looms large over modern, popular expressions of jazz. However, for me, his key album was his least popular and widely disliked On the Corner. Breaking from genre confines and embracing technological advances (a truly cu and paste album if there ever was one) Davis’ 1971 masterpiece takes a very laid back, deep swinging rhythm section and plonks a tough, electrified funk, rock and blaxploitation informed aesthetic right over the top. Though the casual listener might not notice the whole affair was meticulously constructed from a number of samples/loops taken from straight sessions and then arranged for a new aesthetic. An exorbitantly priced 6 CD box set exists out there which contains the original non-edited master takes of the On the Corner sessions. Listening to the unedited versions helps to remind the listener of the classic/traditional grounding of the sound and make the edited versions sound so unique and interesting, demonstrating how cut and paste melodic and harmonic juxtaposition can create something so familiar and yet so strange and new.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Stuff I slept on (hence that “post” in the title)

Every year (every week these days) there is too much music released to hear it all let alone give it the time and energy required to fully appreciate it. Naturally for whatever reasons a number of great releases can fly under one’s personal music radar and remain undiscovered for long periods of time. It is then with true graciousness that the seasonal event of “year end” lists has arrived. As I read through the many lists made by contributors over at Metal Sucks, I kept an eye out diamonds among the rough. While some potential diamonds turned out to be uninteresting to me, the number of actual diamonds was far higher than I had anticipated. Here are some capsule reviews…

Decapitated – Carnival is Forever

I not only slept on this album but have slept on Poland’s Decapitated since always. Their latest album is an extraordinarily confident summation and perfection of death metal from its genre inception to the present. Guitars have girth and precision, the drumming is technical yet creative and restrained and the songs themselves are made up of ferocious riffs, gnarly solos and a plethora of unpredictable turns. An up and coming death metal band could choose far worse role models than these gents to equip them with a template for taking the genre to the next level. Shame on my remiss!

Leviathan – True Traitor, True Whore

I am not quite sure how to take this album. On one hand it is a brilliant update of the contemporary black metal sound with an array of intriguing and at times unsettling timbres. The whole album is somewhat frightening,claustrophobic and eerily misogynist. Yet on the other hand, the real life events surrounding this album including the alleged sexual assault (rape with tattoo tools?) perpetrated by Wrest against his former partner unsettle me in ways rather different to the music. A very important black metal album until context and ethics intrude. And after that? That is a push-pull issue I have yet to resolve.

The Atlas Moth – An Ache for the Distance

It is doom but of the likes never heard before. If it has peers then perhaps Zoroaster, Yob and Om fit the bill. This album sees the band transfer the ethereal atmosphere of black metal and overlay it on the sludge and thump of doom. What this equates to is groovy Sabbathian riffs tempered by frequently two or more additional counter-melodies, drones and rhythmic figures. Vocals are intelligible and at least half of the time melodic/plain sung. How on earth did I miss this release? I know, the demise of Sludge Swamp.

Glorior Belli – The Great Southern Darkness

A while back I wrote about how Americans seem to be trumping Europeans in the black metal originality stakes. In this game, Glorior Belli are not unlike an interception and 99 yard return in NFL. These Frenchmen show how it is done: not only do they incorporate the ill-suited genre aesthetic of Southern Metal into their sound, but they do so in a way which is more American than American. The pairing of southern and black metals sounds so natural, so deep and considered as to trick the listener into thinking it has always been this way. Some southern-ness is more pronounced and at other times subtle and requiring interpretation. This has to be one of the coolest black metal albums of the twenty-first century.

What would Jesus choose?

What follows is the first in a series of questions entitled “What would Jesus do?”. Only tangentially to do with religion, this series asks the hard question: “If you can only choose between A and B, which would you choose”. The first question:

Beneath the Remains or Arise?

As a young metal head it took me years to get around to listening to Sepultura’s Arise. It would be many more years later until I heard Beneath the Remains, and longer still until it “clicked” for me. My Sepulchral inroad was 1994’s Chaos AD. From the loose tribal drumming, propulsive riffing and a spit in the face of the first world defiant swagger, I was hooked. By contrast the seamless death/thrash blend of Arise appeared dated and regressive to a younger me. But after multiple listens, Arise started to gel and I began to appreciate the fine line it walked between two extreme musical genres. Arise’s strong points are its precision and focus, it is a tightly structured, well paced and balanced album, certainly worthy of the praise heaped upon it. So then comes my belated engagement with Beneath the Remains. Where Arise straddled genres, Remains inhabited the interstice between period aesthetics. Maintaining a heft dose of primitive early thrash yet pushing forward towards exacting sonic devastation, Remains functions as a kind of a portal into possible proto-alternative futures for thrash and death metal. Lyrically, Arise is the stronger of the two and likely reflects the length of time after the band’s shift to a North American context. However, while Arise might be stronger and more consistent lyrically, stylistically, Remains takes more risks, sounding like a band still trying to find its sound. This nascent version of the still young band simply doesn’t give a damn one way or the other about external stylistic conventions.

Judgement: I must admit, I have never been a fan of either/or binaries but when presented with one (even if the presenter and presentee are the same) I cannot shy away from participating whether to undermine the prevailing logic or to simply broadcast my terrible taste. As for the question at hand, while I have a lot of affection and a nostalgic soft spot for Arise, it is Beneath the Remains which helps improve this grandpa’s blood flow. Remains holds looseness and unpredictability against Arise’s exacting sounds and that spirit of experimentation is what wins me over to this day.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Lost in Translation/Translating Culture

About a year ago I received my first translation contract (Japanese to English, computer software GUI and 600 page manual). While I have never formally trained as a translator nor studied Japanese language in any official capacity, I have however lived, worked and loved in Japan for close to eight years. When I had free time at work, I studied kanji (Chinese characters), when I had a day off, I would do grammar drills, endlessly writing out example sentences and my own variations. Although my mother was bilingual (English, Slovenian), home-life was all English. I grew up monolingual and made myself bilingual.

Recently, I came across Mattie Brice’s story on Popmatters about English language voice acting in games originating from Japan. Brice’s article in many ways mirrors and clearly articulates a few thoughts I have had rumbling about in my mind over the last few years. Several years ago, I came across a news story (which, despite searching around has failed to reappear) about translation of Toni Morrison into Japanese. I cannot comment on neither the veracity of the argument nor the accuracy of my memory, but I distinctly remember mention of the use of Japanese regional dialects (particularly the well known/stigmatised Aomori and Tohoku dialects) as substitutes for regional and African American dialects. However, I was able to find reference to this phenomenon in Mie Hiramoto’s essay on the Japanese translation of Margaret Mitchell’s well known 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind (Hiramoto, 2009):

While it is certain that the minority characters’ use of non-Standard Japanese – which

strongly resembles the stigmatized Toohoku dialect, or Toohoku-ben (TB) – is a

translation of the original non-Standard English (SE), the assignment to them of

something resembling a particular regional Japanese dialect reinforces linguistic

inferiorization of the slaves and poor whites, as well as TB speakers. The use of

this pseudo-dialect is an important element in the linguistic representation of

marginal characters and likewise underscores the salient marginality of TB in

Japanese language ideology.

Dialect is notoriously hard to translate, with feeling. That is, while the basic meaning of a regional non-standard utterance can be easily translated, translating the context of that dialect is much more difficult. For example, when at home with my family, I often use Owari-ben (a north-west variation on Nagoya-ben). In Owari-ben the existence verb –iru (English: is/am/are) is substituted with oru (a humble form of -iru). This usage most frequently appears when talking about the location of people and animals as well as in the present continuous verb conjugations.

Is 6810 around?

Yeah he is.



6810, oru?

Un, oru yo.

That was easy enough, right? Well, yes and no. You see, what is absent from this translation is the reasoning behind usage of non-standard Japanese. In other words, when I use oru instead of iru, what else am I trying to say?

I refer you back to my earlier posts on where I am from, my “people” so to speak. I spent my childhood in a poverty prison known as a housing commission estate. As a result, there are certain forms of intonation, word choice and word order which resonate with me almost twenty years later. To use my own English dialect in Japan would make me quite difficult to understand. This is because the cultural gap between Australia and Japan in terms of public housing, wealth distribution and poverty is more like a chasm. If I choose to speak such English, I choose to foreground an aspect of my identity which if I am brutally honest has little to do with the life I currently lead (even if does, as I said earlier, still resonate). However, when I reminisce with my brother, the poor, rural dialect peppered with Bundjalung (Northern NSW Aboriginal cultural/linguistic group) feels much closer to and more capable of accurately representing our experience. So when I choose oru over iru, again I am making a decision to foreground my sense of belonging to the area I have called home for the past eight years. I stand up and say, “Hey, I’m from Owari, by the Kiso river. I might be a foreigner, but I’m kind of local now”.

Similarly, Japanese television, cinema, literature and music often (though not often enough, there is still in many cases a stigma attached to non-standard Japanese dialect) makes use of dialect in order to place people. People placed in a geography and a history are given an identity, most likely foreign to that of the reader (the opposite situation, where literary dialect speaks directly to the same regional identity of the reader is worthy of further thought, another day perhaps?). The result is infers difference and otherness.

If this is too difficult to grasp (especially for the mono-lingual reader), then let me try to briefly explain it in reverse. Take Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The difference in dialects of black characters, poor white and wealthy southerners, young and old is obvious even to a reader unfamiliar with them. Each dialect depicts a different identity based on race, age, location and wealth. So how do we then translate these subtle and not-so-subtle linguistic differences, replete with idioms and other expressions contemporary to the period setting? Do we go for the “meaning” approach in which we render the basic meaning of the various expressions? Do we make the language less temporally foreign and find equivalent contemporary, more now expressions in order to connect with a reader unfamiliar with the original cultural context of the novel? But in doing so, we run the risk of erasing the specific historical and cultural identities of characters and prevent their language play from ringing out clearly. Yet again, do we attempt to match the languages or literary conventions of the period and emulate them (the American south in the 1880s with Meiji era Japan)? It would appear then that dialect, however imperfect, is the way to go. Since dialects are living (though as a result of specifically targeted Meiji Era policies, many are rapidly disappearing) and effortlessly convey a sense of place, time and culture they have a function which modernisation and emulation cannot approximate. That said, we ought to take note of Hiramoto’s warning against implicit discrimination when matching dialects of different languages to convey specific meaning.

But what does all of this have to do with video games? As you may know, Japan is video game Mecca. With a few notable exceptions, global gaming culture has been undeniably shaped by Japanese language, culture, and identity. Almost every charismatic video game character is of Japanese invention. During the heyday of the original video game boom, the regional North American branch of Nintendo was responsible for both the language and cultural translation of Japanese games for the American (and in fact European and Pacific) market. Both Lvls and Legends of Localization have thoroughly dug into the peril and humor of translating games across language and culture. Nintendo of America is infamous for substituting or otherwise editing out themes and characters, especially those concerned with sexuality or the occult. Whole stories have even been retrofitted to English language versions of games, erasing their cultural specificity and updating language to what was perceived as hip at the time. Meanwhile, in the current age, voice acting has taken on a much greater role in modern games. What struck Popmatter’s Brice as odd, also rubs me the wrong way. While understandable (after all the primary market is the US) the translation from Japanese to (American) English, recalling Gone With the Wind sees a similar use of dialect and accent to represent (and marginalise) difference and otherness. In this scenario, a supposedly generic standard American accent is used to represent the American consumer and others, whether human or otherwise are spoken with different accents and dialects. This is a problem of awareness.

For a multilingual consumer, it is possible to read with nuance and affection the contours and limits of linguistic variation. Meanwhile, for the (majority) monolingual player, dialect choice runs a serious and likely risk of compounding stereotypes via unreconstructed repetition. Translation is rarely perfect, indeed there are good and bad translations. How we judge the merits of translation, like anything else is directly related to our expectations, experience and intent. For instance, as a metal head I have seen both “literal” and poetic translations of death metal lyrics. Perhaps it reveals my age in saying so, however, I prefer the poetic to the literal. If you asked me five years ago, my answer would have been the opposite, for at that time “literal” was about all I could handle and it helped consolidate my Japanese language knowledge and skills. And here we arrive at the very simple thing I wanted to say from the beginning: when we translate language and culture, how do we decide, calculate just how much complexity and difference the end user can “handle”?

Hiramoto’s 2009 article, “Slaves Speak Pseudo Toohoku-ben: The Representation of Minorities in the Japanese Translation of Gone With the Wind”, originally published in the Journal of Sociolinguistics (13/2, 249-263) can be found here.

Hang on... was that Lars Ulrich?

When I got my first internet connection at home, I was overjoyed. Can you imagine how it felt to be able to finally download that song? At a capped download rate and 56k, things took a while. I gazed with wonder at the DSL and cable connections my American friends were using on Napster, WinMX and later DC+. During that period, hundreds of individuals were singled out and faced litigation and fines. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich stood up for mega-corporate interests and aided in prosecuting illegal downloads.

These days it is possible to argue that the entire landscape of the internet has been shaped by file-sharing and illegal downloading. File-sharing, once arcane and somewhat tantalising in a naughty way is now mainstream. When reading a topic on an internet forum relating to “best” download sites, my only reply was “google”. Certainly, P2P (peer to peer) file sharing software still exists. The bit torrent method of downloading simply built on the scaffolding of earlier sharing software. However, currently, the potential pirate needs little more than browser software and a little knowledge of commonly shared file types and search parameters. File storage sites such as Mediafire, Megaupload, Fileserve, Filesonic and Rapidshare emulate the good old days of Usenet, only now with short, month long contracts and incredible download speeds.

Just today I read an article in the Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald. The article proudly trumpeted the death of the torrent search site What made Diwana special was its focus on Australian and New Zealand television content. From Neighbours to A Current Affair to Funniest Home Videos, from the banal to the innovative, it was all available at Diwana. If a criticism can be made of the site, it is that Diwana used and enforced a rather outdated seed/peer sharing ratio system. In some contexts, such a system works well, especially where there is a large user base and constant data traffic. However, the potential audience for Australian and New Zealand TV outside of these areas is obviously small. After all, even in Australia, many programs are available to download or stream free of charge: provided the viewer accesses these services from an Australian IP address. What this means is that potential downloaders are mostly Australians, outside of Australia and those in Australia without access to HDD/Blu-Ray recording devices. In other words a very small number. So once an uploader (seed) has lost interest in a particular file, said file becomes impossible to download.

In a move reminiscent of a late nineties, short haired Metallica, producers of ABC1’s well received drama The Slap (due for DVD release in December 2011), recently targeted and instigated a shutdown of Diwana for having Slap torrent files available for download. Naturally, one cannot help but to feel sympathy for the plight of the producers. After all, they are responsible for fronting the money required to produce a drama for TV. If their product fails to break even, let alone make a profit they will at best receive far less money for future productions and be unable to produce either follow up or new series. So congratulations and shame upon the producers for stymieing illegal downloads...

That is right. I said shame. More than anything, what there actions demonstrate is that the producers (or those in legal acting on their behalf) have a very narrow, limited concept of what the internet is and the extent of file-sharing. As the article notes, while Diwana has been shut down, the series remains widely available on any number of torrent sites. A single completed download, the creation of a torrent file and uploading that file to multiple torrent search sites can take anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours. Hey, ABC1? The cat is out of the bag. Not only is the series available on multiple torrent sites, it is also available via file storage sites. Furthermore, when the DVD is released in a few weeks (if not before as a result of employee sleight of hand thievery), it will be ripped, encoded and uploaded within minutes.

The Slap’s producers have effectively shut down one of the most important, specifically Australian oriented content sites. Although imperfect, Diwana offered humour and critique through a number of TV shows to a small number of Australians across the world. They may have prevented a single torrent file from eating into their profits but they have also gained a greater number of pirates who now not only want to see the show because of the publicity as well as those pirates who will copy and distribute out of spite. Did they adjust for these losses as well? Who can know? Lars Ulrich has entered the building.

Vegetarian Me – Part 1

I have been vegetarian (meaning I eat eggs and dairy) for about fifteen years. In that time I have probably heard just about every criticism of vegetarianism that can be made. In the past I have assuaged such negativity by retreating into the world of knowledge and counter-arguments accumulated over the years. But the 60s, the 70s? They are no more. The zeal of that time, the zeitgeist has well and truly subsided. An inspired, environmental curiosity relegated to Woodstock documentaries and middle aged regret. The current age is one dominated by information, regardless of whether or not it is “true”. Indeed, much more important than truth is truth’s analog: the rhythm and distribution of repetition. If the same thing is said, over and over and in so many places then it cannot be anything other than truth. Such agglomerations of contemporary neurosis do not merely litter the internet, rather, they define it.

One particular issue I find confounding is that of soy. It has been for quite a number of years now, quite fashionable to not only question the so-called health benefits of soy but also to outright deny the little beans. I am reminded of 9/11 deniers, climate change sceptics and Obama birthplace doubters. The lines, as if read from a script have been repeated enough times that their veracity is irrelevant. What is most frightening is that these themes have become tangible enough in the minds of people as to have become truth ipso facto. Meanwhile, what seems to elude the staunchest critics of soy (fermented or otherwise) is that hundreds of millions of people in North East Asia (especially China, Korea and Japan) have been eating soy for thousands of years with no problems. Because the reality of this apparently cut-and-dry historical, cultural, geographical, biological and culinary fact, is well outside the experience of most Americans (and indeed their proxies in Australia, Canada etc), it simply cannot be comprehended. Let us turn toward what I believe to be the two key arguments against soy: industrial production and oestrogen.

Industrial production of soy, is led mostly by US farmers being crushed under the cruel boot of debt, soil salination, erosion and fluctuating (if only downward) commodity prices. Soy beans along with corn were the golden crop of American agriculture, used to make everything from food manufacturing ingredients such as lecithin, oil, MSG and protein powder to plastics, and nutritional supplements. Such widespread farming of soy has seen biotech companies invest massive amounts of money in unwanted plant and animal control, fertilizers, breeding and genetic engineering. The result being that along with corn, soy has entered the American (and international) food chain so thoroughly as to be inextricable. The opposition to this over-supply and over-consumption of soy is understandable. After all, if beans grown on dead soil, fertilised and protected with chemicals originating from crude oil and then harvested and processed using a wide variety of chemical technological practices, they are hardly food anymore, instead, just another substance in an agro-industrial money making system. To this degree, criticisms relating to toxicity and over-consumption are wholly understandable. This soy scoffing vegetarian pretty much agrees with them. Let us take a look at the second argument.

Soy isoflavons have been variously defined/defamed as being oestrogen analogs. But what does this actually mean? Apparently, soy isoflavons found in “unfermented” soy products send signals to the body to produce oestrogen. The criticism here is that producing too much oestrogen can have negative effects on health. This is a malady perfectly suited to the uber-Christian, homophobic American mainstream. “My son’s a fucking faggot because we gave him too much soy as a child”. Amid all the hollering about the evils of soy, the feminisation of boys seems to attract the loudest, most vociferous voices. If the result of so-called feminisation via soy is the social and economic stability evident in Japan, then I say: “Bring it on!”. In fact, why don’t we revisit the second paragraph: hundreds of millions of people have been eating unfermented soy for thousands of years with few, if any, ill-effects.

If there is anything actually “wrong” with soy, then I would attribute it to mass agro-industrial production more so than anything in the beans themselves. So soy deniers, go back to rejecting night-shades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, chillies and bell peppers), hating on carbohydrates and blaming obesity on genetics rather than lifestyle and leave that little bean alone.

Astomatous – The Beauty of Reason (Review)

Fear Factory changed my life. As a teen, I had heard Soul of a New Machine and loved the attempts the band made at juxtaposing and cross breeding stylistic elements (new wave, techno, death metal). When Demanufacture dropped, the band’s sound had been streamlined and improved significantly. By the time Obsolete was released, much of the ferocity of the first album was lost. Obsolete is an excellent album but leans towards accessibility far more than its predecessors. Finally, with Digimortal the band demonstrated their ability to pick up and interpret the nu-metal zeitgeist and infuse elements of hip hop and groove. Fear Factories sound stayed fairly consistent (if somewhat anemic) over their next two Dino-less albums. Then with Mechanize, the ferocity had returned.

Over at Invisible Oranges, there was a feature on the role of disgust in death metal. Bands like Autopsy and much of the first wave of Swedish death metal possessed an ability to create dangerous, nasty sounding riffs that sounded equally vomited as roared. Continuing in this vein, I would argue that ferocity has a significant role to play, particularly in the more extreme metal genres. By ferocity, I do not mean “brutal”. But like the term brutal, ferocity is to a large degree a phenomenon defined by the individual listener. For me, ferocity can be both exciting as well as exhausting. When tempered by melody, groove or original/inspired song writing, ferocity becomes another musical emotional palette to draw from. However, untempered ferocity, for this listener requires too great of an emotional investment to appreciate. I can acknowledge the ferocity of hardcore and metal straddling groups such as Converge and The Dillinger Escape Plan. The problem is that I can only listen for a short time before the ferocity exceeds itself and becomes a repetition of a metal meme. This holds true for black metal as well, the cutting guitar tones, white noise, fast tempos and reverb eventually blur together to create a constant swelling and retreat of white noise.

Astomatous’ new album, The Beauty of Reason, has ferocity. Think death metal via the dissonance and goosestepping rhythmic lurch of Gorguts, the instrumental chops of Hate Eternal and the on the edge of the precipice of madness advocated by Australia’s psychedelic, death metal by way of black metal (and vice versa) of Stargazer all played by the rhythm section of one of the key proponents of American black metal, New York’s Krallice and you have The Beauty of Reason. This is a ferocious album. While it constituent parts may appear to resonate with my argument against excess ferocity above, the reality is the songs, while unquestionably death metal are well crafted, interesting, familiar without being predictable and exciting. There are different shades of ferocity squeezed into what is essentially a twenty first century update of the Florida tech-death sounds of the early and mid nineties. Ferocious and original. Now if only I had enough money to finance a vinyl release for these New Yorkians, then all would be well in the world! Alas, digital and compact disc versions are available on the band’s bandcamp page.

Black Metal – Old World vs New World

I came very late to the world of black metal. In my mind the scene was dominated by Scandinavian, pseudo-pagan misanthropists (on re-reading, I have to wonder why that prevented me from listening). In fact, more than anything, it was the anti-Christian aspect of the genre which did not sit well with me. I am not Christian but neither am I necessarily “against” Christianity. Back in university I got neurologically rearranged by Derrida and Spivak. Poststructuralism and feminism exploded the concept of binary opposition. Put simply one is always defined by the other and therefore the non-other one can never be a pure, monolithic position. Basically, by opposing Christianity, one continues to utter its name and invoke its ghosts. Much like internet “haters” who vehemently criticise whatever it is that displeases them, oppositional positions simply reinforce existing hegemonies. If you hate the new Lou Reed and Metallica album Lulu, why spend your precious, limited energy on writing a treatise against it? Just like your mother always said, and truer even more so in this internet age: if you ignore it, it will go away. By contributing to the zeitgeist, even as negative output all we achieve is an ensuring of the hated object’s position at the top of a list of search results.

The same goes for black metal. For me, the greatest irony is that in supposedly post-Christian Europe, a certain type of European anti-Christian left over from the early 90s still predominates. Corpse paint and grainy monochrome photography, unreadable scribbly logos, the occasional appropriation of grotesque true crime photographs or otherwise staged scenes of shock, hand drawn sharpie artwork or else unreflexlive tributes to a bygone age are a persistent aesthetic.

Meanwhile in the hyper-Christian US, much black metal dispenses with anti-Christian sentiment and instead turns the focus to urban depression (Nachtmystium, Leviathan, Xasthur) and psychosis (Black Anvil), environmentalism (Wolves in the Throne Room), mysticism and the occult (Unearthly Trance, while perhaps more doom than black metal definitely share the strange/uncanny vibe of the latter) and contemporary wars (Cobalt).

Once black metal is dragged biting and shrieking out of the Old World and into the New World(s), it loses its preoccupation with nostalgia for an ancient, non-existent, impossible past and instead adapts to the environmental and cultural contours of its new place. A perfect example of this is Australia. The development of black metal in places such as Australia (Mournful Congregation, Striborg, Stargazer, Portal) shows how new conceptual vistas, incorporating local feeling and concerns into the music can draw both on the tightly defined historical origins of the genre and adapt it to place in order to create something original and exciting.

Thus if we look to Europe for orthodox black metal authenticity, it is in the non-Euro world that we find innovation, originality and risk.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Cops: “Watcha gonna do?”

Not long after starting high school, my family moved to a not so new, rather familiar, indeed depressing town. But in those first six months of school before the move I made an excellent friend, his name is Wayne. Wayne and his family were the essence of modern multicultural Australia, one of six (seven?) kids he lived with his Aboriginal father and Jehova’s Witness mother. They had left the suburbs and gone bush. As the family home was being built, they lived in a rustic and equally awesome improvised dwelling made up of two caravans, corrugated iron, wood and nails. The whole thing was powered by generator and the time we spent playing video games at night was limited and therefore precious. I stayed at Wayne’s house many times over the next few years, taking the slow, XPT down through the no-man’s land between Casino and Grafton. One of my strongest memories (aside from the chicken we had to kill one day) is of watching TV in his older brother’s caravan: American football, David Letterman and Cops.

About a year ago, I jumped back on Cops to discover that while brand names and car models had changed, the desperation, fear, humour and duty remained constant. What can be learned about life from Cops cannot be underestimated. Aside from repeatedly showing the viewer how not to act in an encounter with police, it also humanises police, allowing them very brief and admittedly tightly limited opportunities to speak of the how, why, when and where of police work. Further, the featured police officers often express deep affection for the places, communities in which they work.

However, what I love most about Cops is the frequent subtle and overt ruptures of the fourth wall. The shadow of the boom microphone on a late afternoon concrete wall, the reflection of the camera light and camera operator in the window of the patrol car and the rare but exciting instances when a scene of arrest and pursuit scales out of control of the individual officer and results in intervention by the production crew.

Cops is not an easy program to watch, nor is it perfect. It frequently crosses the very fine line between documentary and exploitation. The same kinds of people (poor, mostly black, frequently white drug addicts and prostitutes) feature regularly and combined with the stereotypes surrounding them provide a certain kind of voyeuristic entertainment. What it does well, though, is showing in a not so flattering light the reality of poor, high crime neighbourhoods and the horror unleashed on communities that is crystal meth.

Now in its twenty-fourth season, Cops is going strong. Twenty-four seasons later though, and one would think that the perps would know enough to shut their mouths when placed under arrest!