Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sleepy Music From Ethiopia

Alèmu Aga Éthiopiques 11: The Harp of King David

This is a somewhat unusual example of the Éthiopiques series, as it has no jazz or funk on it and is instead a record of Ethiopian folk music. Alèmu plays the bèguèna, a stringed instrument, over which he sings. The songs generally take a religious theme, even though the bèguèna is not one of the sanctioned liturgical instruments.

Now, given that the record is called The Harp of King David, you might think you know what the bèguèna sounds like. You would probably be wrong. It does not really sound anything like the traditional harp, Irish or English. Instead the bèguèna makes a strange low-end vibrating sound that comes across like it has been made more by a synthesiser than an acoustic instrument. Combined with Alèmu's whispered vocals, this makes for a rather snoozey record.

Wow, looking at the sleevenotes, it seems like Mr Alèmu is only a part-time musician, and he runs a shop in the Piazza area of Addis Ababa, keeping the harp in the back room. I could have gone and got him to play me his music, except that the Piazza is one of AA's many stinky areas.

Oh wait, I've already reviewed this.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Are You Conscious?

In the pages of Frank's APA, my beloved mentioned seeing Oumou Sangare, who is from Mali, commenting on how Ms Sangare sang a couple of consciousness raising songs about important issues like forced marriages (bad) and not catching AIDS (good). It seems like every time I see a Malian act, they always throw in a few consciousness-raising songs. People in Mali must be very conscious.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Scar", by China Miéville

I read this a while back in SF book club. One could argue that this is not actually science fiction, being more a work of fantasy. However, it does not begin with a map, and is not rubbish, so it is not really proper fantasy. The book is set in a world with steam engines and thaumaturgy (a kind of magic, but one that seems to be approached in an almost scientific manner). The story begins with some people on a boat leaving a big city to go to some colony on the other side of the world. This bit struck an immediate chord with me, reminding me of the start of Mike Dash's Batavia's Graveyard (a non-fiction work on a horrific mutiny that took place after a Dutch East India company ship was wrecked on an isolated island) – like with that book, there is a sense in The Scar that something has gone very wrong with your life if you find yourself heading off to the colonies.

The Scar is a big book, and it undergoes a number of transitions – the plot is trundling along about one thing, then it turns in a radically new direction, and then it does it again. This meant that I almost did not notice its length – it did not feel like one long, monotonous slog. It also does well what you want from SF/Fantasy – bringing you into a well-described world of strangeness. It is also has interesting and well-drawn characters, both male and female (and not all human). So yes, I recommend this highly, though I should point out that most other readers in the book club were underwhelmed by it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flaming Jailbreak

The Unwritten #9, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

This odd title about the intrusion of fiction into the real world continues. Tom Taylor (possibly the fictional Tommy Taylor of his father's popular books of children's fantasy) is escaping from jail ahead of a mysterious team of heavily armed nutters intent on killing him. He is perturbed when he starts manifesting abilities of his fictional alter-ego, but more upset when bad things happen to people who have somewhat lost sense of the boundaries between stories and the real world.

The Unwritten remains an entertaining read, but surely they cannot maintain the ambiguity as to what is going on for much longer? And once they give us the big reveal, does the book stop being interesting?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Das Rheingold"

I saw this in a concert performance in the Gaiety Theatre by Opera Ireland. I think it was originally meant to be fully staged, but the current economic climate meant that this was all they could afford.

As you know, the Rheingold is the first opera in Wagner's Ring. This one tells the story of how the Ring came to be made, and it how it found its way into the hands of the giant Fafner. It is an odd tale. Wagner's Ring deals with semi-divine characters very much larger than life – the giants, Valkyries, heroes, and the Norse Gods themselves – but they seem to lack any kind of higher nobility to go with their exalted status. If anything, they seem even more petty and venal than normal human beings.

A lot of the action here is driven by Wotan's promise to supply Freia, his sister-in-law, to some giants, as payment for their having built him a lovely new palace. Aside from all the yap he gets from the wife over this, brainbox Wotan failed to register that without Freia's magic apples the Gods are doomed to age and wither. Duh. To buy off the giants he has to get the magic ring from the sinful dwarf who made it from magic gold he stole from the Rhinemaidens (themselves a bunch of slutty teases). It is all very tawdry, with no one coming well out of this, except maybe for Loge (Loki), who does at least seem to be somewhat brainy and far more self aware than his fellow Gods.

The Rheingold is the one of the Ring Cycle with which I am most familiar, so it was easy enough to follow this concert performance as a piece of drama, even though it was sung in German (with English surtitles). The various singers performing the roles were excellent, really getting into character for all that they were just standing onstage singing away. I was particularly struck by the two giants, who (without make-up, funny costumes, or anything) managed to convey a sense of overwhelming bulk.

Musically, the Rheingold has two big moments. The first of these is the opening, reprised at the end, when the music evokes the flowing of the Rhine so effectively that it sounds like the surging waters more than the product of musical instruments. The other is the scene in the dwarves' workshop, where the junior dwarves bang away on tuned anvils as they strive to fashion the Rhinegold into wonderful artefacts. This piece of proto-industrial music is a bit less impressive in a concert setting, as we lose the sense of visual spectacle gained from the site of the dwarves pounding away, but it still did the job.

So that was that. I would definitely go to further Opera Ireland productions of the later Ring operas, staged or just in concert. My only real criticism of this was that they staged it as one continuous two and a half hour performance, without any breaks. Although this is as Wagner wanted it, it was somewhat hard on the weaker-bladdered members of the audience.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Man in cell stares at reader

Neonomicon, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

This is actually a bit of a swizz – it is not actually a comic in its own right, but a preview for a comic due later this year. In my day, these kind of previews were given away for free, but this is being sold for cash money (albeit not that much cash money), so basically I have stumped up cash for an extended advertisement. Thanks, Avatar.

The comic itself is a sequel to Alan Moore's The Courtyard, a comic from a couple of years back drawn by Jacen Burrows and based on a story by Alan Moore (but not, I recall, scripted by him). That was a dark, Lovecraftian themed tale in which a man investigating some gruesome murders trips over to the other side and ends up with a bit more understanding of the murderers' mindset than he was initially looking for. If you see a copy, pick it up - it is a very impressive piece of work.

Neonomicon begins with two FBI agents visiting their former colleague, now banged up in some high security psychiatric institute. They try to get some information from him on these still continuing murders, but his only response is either gibberish of the "Yhunnuc Lloigor ch'h'k b'nugh R'lyeh" variety, or else angry silence. That's it really; there is a bit of characterisation of the two agents, but it is not clear at this stage if this is just redundant colouring or something that will lead somewhere. When the actual comic comes out I will acquire it, as I am that fond of the work it follows, but there is not enough here to say whether it will be as good as its predecessor.

One thing I am a bit ambivalent on is the art. Burrows' fairly basic black and white art for The Courtyard worked well with the claustrophic story, but Neonomicon is in colour. It is not bad colour, but I reckon that black and white would probably suit the subject matter better.

Pandas that man was not meant to know image source

Monday, January 25, 2010

"The Invisible Man" by H.G. Wells

I have fallen behind in writing up books read for the wonderful Science Fiction book club being run by Dublin Public Libraries (second Tuesday of every month in the ILAC library, SF fans!). This H.G. Wells classic is the most recent book we discussed. I first read it years and years ago for the first time, albeit after the comic strip adaptation that showed up in Dr Who Weekly. In this book, the man who makes himself invisible is deranged, a borderline psychopath with delusions of grandeur who is intent on using his invisibility to exploit and dominate his fellow men. It is ambiguous as to whether his madness is a side-effect of the invisibility, or whether he was always an anti-social loner. I incline towards the latter view, but it does not make the book's ending any less tragic.

You may have read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. That features Wells' invisible man as a character, with his psychopathic tendencies greatly ramped up. Moore and O'Neill have him as a sexual predator and, ultimately, a traitor to the entire human race, someone with essentially no redeeming features. He works well as a monster, but they maybe miss some of the pathos of the original book, in which he is a tragic figure whose invisibility is almost a metaphor for his separation from humanity.

There is also a recent comic by Jeff Lemire, which retells Wells' book in a modern day setting. I have not read it, but given my love of Lemire's Sweet Tooth, I am interested in tracking it down.

If you feel like joining in the SF reading fun, the current book is Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons. The next meeting is on the 9th February, at 6.30 p.m., in the ILAC Library.

visible pandas

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ancient Lolcat Temple Found

Archaeologists have discovered a 2000 year old temple in Alexandria to Bastet, the Egyptian cat goddess. Bastet is a funny deity - she started off as a very fierce lion-headed monster, but mutated over time into basically a divine domestic cat. Read more here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Worried man with flaming torch; man on steps besieged by seagulls

Harker #6 & #7, by Roger Gibson and Vince Danks

One story ends, another begins. The black magic Satanism murder story sees Inspector Harker chase the murderer from his dungeon and into some crazy tunnels that connect with an abandoned tube station and then THE BRITISH MUSEUM. I suspect that it is a bit more difficult to connect your cellar to labyrinthine tunnels beneath London, but it makes for an atmospheric finish to it all.

And then with #7 Harker goes on holidays to Whitby and is revealed as grandson of Mina Harker from Dracula; I'm not sure whether that is kewl or lame. His holiday is interrupted when someone is actually murdered at a murder mystery weekend*. OMG. I like the Whitby representations here – for all that I have read Dracula a couple of times, I've never seen pictures of the place, and it looks pretty nice. In fact, it reminds me a bit of St. Ives in Cornwall, only with more hills and ruined abbeys. I must go there sometime, though not when the goths are around.

One thing that really strains credibility with Harker is his sidekick Critchley being some kind of chick magnet. That said, my impression is that the two main characters in this are caricatures of the title's creators – maybe this is the bit that is true to life.

*this strikes me as a fairly hackneyed plot twist, though I struggle to think of anyone else who has previously done this – what say you, mystery fans?

image source

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sultry woman, man with gun

Criminal: The Sinners #3, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Things are not looking great for Tracy Lawless. His sinister boss has started wondering whether he might be banging his daughter (when he is actually jazzing the boss's wife). The army hunter is closing in, looking to drag him back to the US military. And his investigations into the mysterious random assassinations of local criminal figures have added him onto the assassins' hit list. Still, Lawless is tough, he should be able to bruise his way out of this, right?

image source

Monday, January 11, 2010

Blowing horn, cradling hero; children reading hand-projecting book

The Unwritten #7 & #8, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

This odd title continues. In some respects, this reminds me of Phonogram, in the sense that it takes everyday cultural things and sees a world of magic behind them. In this one, of course, it is the power of books and stories that the creators touch on. I am still a bit vague as to what is actually happening here – is the protagonist some kind of nexus for fictional things to intrude into reality? This question may not matter, and I suspect that the creators will try to delay the big reveal as long as possible.

image source

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Antler Boy Trophy

Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth #5, by Jeff Lemire

This transitional issue ends the first story. Sweet Tooth has been travelling across a blasted and apocalyptic landscape with the enigmatic Jeppard, with Jeppard ostensibly bringing the hybrid child to a place where he and his kind can live in safety. Jeppard is a troubled man, capable of terrifying acts of violence, but still with the sense that he is capable of goodness. But there was always an ambiguity about him, a suggestion that in heart there wass something of the night. In this issue we learn that he is a very bad man indeed. The twist here, if such it is, is not entirely unexpected, but the denoument to Jeppard and Sweet Tooth's journey to somewhere the latter can be safe is still shocking.

I suppose this will soon be compiled into a book called Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods. If you ever follow my recommendations then you will seek it out. In the meantime, I look forward to what will probably be a rather worrying next run of issues of this great comic.

image source

Friday, January 08, 2010

Rabbit eared girl and antlered boy

Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth #4, by Jeff Lemire

SRSLY, why are you not reading this awesome title? As you will recall, it is set after some monster plague has wiped out most of the world, with everyone else just biding their time until the plague claims them too. The eponymous protagonist is a human-animal hybrid (apparently these are also products of the plague, but immune to its effects), travelling with an ambiguous bad-ass called Jeppard. Sweet Tooth makes for somewhat grim reading, but this issue is particularly intense.

I am curious as to where this is going. Jeppard is supposedly bringing Sweet Tooth to somewhere called The Reserve, where his kind are safe from the depredations of those doomed to die of the plague. But the reader does not really trust Jeppard, even if Sweet Tooth does.

Lemire's art has a unique quality that adds so much to this – I would find it hard to imagine anyone else illustrating this. There is something of a children's storybook air to it, which makes for a considerable contrast with the grim subject matter, but it does not make the art crude or expressionless. There is a wonderful series of images on the last page where we see Jeppard wrestling with his unnamed inner demons, with Lemire managing to suggest the man's troubles without descending into the kind of OTT emo art beloved of DC artists.

It makes me sad that comics shops are stocking so few copies of this title, as it suggests that no one is reading what is still easily the best thing being published right now. Maybe it will do better when collected.

Woman poses in saucy manner; inset photo of bloke over collage

Phonogram: the Singles Club #5 Lust etc.
Phonogram: the Singles Club #6 Ready To Be Heartbroken
By Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

Phonogram is the comic about magicians who use popular music to power their spells. You will recall my mentioning Rue Britannia, the first collection. That was a continuous story, but The Singles Club is a succession of individual but linked pieces. I suppose the idea is that when brought together in a book, this will be like a compilation album.

I did not like these as much as the first book. Partly it is the art – some bright spark has decided that the comic would be better in colour rather than with the attractively clean black and white art of the first book. I found the story a bit bitty as well, with Lust etc. (focussing on a self-harming and annoying sexy lady character) seeming particularly slight. I liked more Ready to be Heartbroken (about, obviously, a bloke called Lloyd), partly because it threw back nods to the previous issues, making it seem like The Singles Club in total would not so much be a collection of self-contained vignettes but a complex web of narrative. So I reckon I will keep hovering up the issues of this and then, eventually, buy the collection.

One funny thing about this is the music the issues cover. With Rue Britannia, the focus was all on Britpop – much of it pretty lame, but undeniably big music, the kind of thing you could imagine a phonomancer using to power hexes. Lust etc., though, seems to be all about some second division loser indie band called The Long Blondes*; I could not imagine their music powering a minor expletive. Ready to be Heartbroken does at least have the divine Dexy's at its heart, but then it suddenly veers off into Los Campesinos territory. Warning – here be shite**.

*if you are a member of the Long Blondes and are offended by this description then I must admit to never having heard your music and am open to revising my opinion on the basis of evidence.

**if you are a member of Los Campesinos and are offended by this description then I must admit to having seen your band twice and found you to be rubbish on both occasions; your band's fail makes me very sad, as everything about you, apart form the tunes, suggests that you would be the kind of band I like. That said, many otherwise sensible people like your music, so maybe I am the one with ears of cloth.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Guy in superhero costume crucified on cross

Supergod #1, by Warren Ellis and Garrie Gastonny

A not particularly brilliant comic in which a load of essentially divine superheroes destroy the world.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Cops with coffee cups staring in a doorway; scattered books, puzzled cops, bloodied hand

Harker #4 & #5, by Roger Gibson and Vince Danks

OK, let's be honest here, this is not one of the great comics of our time, but I am enjoying it and will keep buying an issue a week of it until such time as Forbidden Planet throw away all the back issues. As you will recall, this is a cop comic about these two detectives investigating the murder of this guy who turns out to be heading a Black Magic coven. Maybe the murder is driven by some kind of rivalry with a fellow practitioner of the Dark Arts, or maybe he was just jazzing the wrong person too much at one of the group's rituals. Trundle trundle trundle.

I discovered on the interweb that the authors of this work are almost people I know, in the sense of being linked to people I actually know. Small world, though not so surprising once you register how small is the world of UK comics.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Man pulling rope causes collapse of building

Sergio Aragonés' Groo: The Hogs of Horder #1, by Sergio Aragonés

Groo was one of those titles I used to read back in the '80s, so seeing that new issues had come out made me check out #1, for old time's sake. Aragonés, as you know, is famous as one of the rofflesome artists from Mad magazine, and Groo (written by Mark Evanier, uncredited on the cover) is a parody of Conan The Barbarian style comics. This book is sadly not that great. I like the art well-enough, but the jokes are a bit lame, and the whole thing is basically a rather tiresome commentary on the credit crisis and the decline of American manufacturing.

What I did like, though, was the letters page at the end, which Mark Evanier began with an interesting comment on the origins of the (now largely vanished) comics letter page. Apparently, back in the mists of time, comics could avail of advantageous postal rates if they carried a certain number of text pages per issue. Originally the publishers would run text stories of the required length, but then someone had a brainwave – why pay some hack to write pages of text that no one reads, when you can get comics readers to write them for you for free! Thus the letter page was born.

These days Dark Horse & Image seem to be the only publishers still running letters pages. I think the others reckon they are better off running ads for the US military.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Tasteful female nude and red-eyed bloke in hood

Ex Machina #47, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, & JD Mettler

I bought this on a whim. Vaughan previously wrote the wonderful Y: The Last Man, so I thought I would give this a go. From background reading, I understand this title to be about some superhero guy who hangs up the spandex and gets himself elected mayor of New York. From reading this issue I think maybe I should go back and read the collections from the start rather than try to jump into individual issues, as I found myself completely unable to work out what was going on here.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Man sits on a park bench with friendly dog

Daytripper #1, by Gabrial Bá and Fábio Moon

Something of a first here – a new Vertigo title that is not obviously based on some forgotten nerdtastic character from the dregs of the DC Universe. I don't know where this one is going, but for now it is a somewhat impressionistic account of this guy who writes obituaries for a living. And it's set in Brazil, which this makes look pretty classy. Total excitement.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Man watches funeral from a distance

Criminal: The Sinners, Part 2 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

More crime action! Working for some bad ass crime lord guy, Tracy Lawless is investigating some apparently random assassinations of various dodgers working for a variety of gangs. He gets to punch the shite out of some guys who think they're tougher than he is, but, oh dear, his past is closing in on him and his boss might be leaping to wrong conclusions. Then we cut off to the people doing the killing, and we get a sense of the terrible darkness that has brought them to this pass. This is proving to be a valuable addition to the Brubaker-Phillips oeuvre.