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Tuesday, April 28th, 2020
LJ.Rossia.org makes no claim to the content supplied through this journal account. Articles are retrieved via a public feed supplied by the site for this purpose.
2:40 pm
That gum you like...

My name is Andrew, and until now, I have never watched Twin Peaks.

I had seen, and enjoyed, various of David Lynch's films (Lost Highway in particular made an impact on me at the time with its uneasy dreamlike vision). Twin Peaks had been on television, of which I didn't watch much at the time (the novelty of the internet, in its text-based, pre-web version, had consumed my spare attention). I, of course, couldn't help but be aware of it: the media hype, the Bart Simpson Killed Laura Palmer T-shirts every attention-seeker was wearing. At the time it was easy enough to dismiss it prematurely as just another dumb TV show; something people who watch TV will witter about for the next few weeks and then forget, moving onto the next mass spectacle. (This was about a generation before the idea of Quality TV came around, when episodic TV shows were perceived, mostly accurately, as low-rent boob-bait, something acknowledged in Twin Peaks with its own references to lurid telenovela tropes.) In the years that followed, its influence kept coming up repeatedly in ways that generic dumb TV shows don't. I had friends who made art referencing it, made pilgrimages to the locations, travelled to conventions and got selfies with actors from it, and who sought out David Lynch's pop-up bar in Paris; such fandom doesn't generally happen for, say, Growing Pains or Melrose Place (to choose two names at random).

I wasn't completely truthful when I said I had never watched Twin Peaks. Many years ago, I got a copy (I can't remember where: a set of DVDs borrowed in Melbourne in the late 90s, or some .avi files copied from a friend in California in the late 00s, or a DVD box set buried in a box in a storage locker in Melbourne) and watched the pilot and the second episode. My impression was: this is some kind of greaser hell, a tough, brutal world ruled by the inevitability of violence, and the logic of violence as honour, like Viking-age sagas crossed with Nick Cave murder ballads, with a 50s rock'n'roll soundtrack. It didn't help that among the first characters I saw who were doing something other than merely reacting in shock were a reptilian psychopath whose psychological and physical abuse of his (young, pretty, terrified) wife was probably the least of his crimes, and a greaser hoodlum, whose propensity for impulsive violence had a boys-will-be-boys logic to it, and who ended the episode literally howling like a wolf to intimidate another guy. The phrase “toxic masculinity” was not common currency yet, but it would have described a fundamental element of this world, along with perhaps the great American founding myth of righteous violence. This bleak worldview did not, at the time, compel me to prioritise watching the third episode immediately; I had other things to do, and soon the whole series ended up receding further into the backlog of unwatched TV; to be watched when I found the time. The years passed, and I absorbed bits of it by osmosis, much as one does with, say, Star Trek or Game Of Thrones or Lost; sort of knowing what the Black Lodge is in the way that I sort of know what the Red Wedding or Darmok And Jalad refer to. Over the years, more and more of it slipped into the periphery of my world: the iconic red curtains and zigzag flooring of the Black Lodge appearing in various places, music influenced by the Cocteauvian doo-wop of the soundtrack; I went to a burlesque night in East London which turned out to be Twin Peaks-themed, and undoubtedly missed most of the references; a year or two later, I instantly recognised a (sublime) shoegaze version of the Twin Peaks theme played at a gig at the Union Chapel in Islington.

And so, the .avi files sat on a succession of hard drives (and were more recently supplanted by a BluRay box set, the product of a wish-list-mediated long-distance Christmas), waiting for me to get around to watching them. I copied them to my iPad once, with the view of catching up whilst travelling, but never did: the sheer wall of 29 episodes acted as a psychological barrier: do I have the time to commit to this now? Then, in 2017, came the return: a third series, set (more or less) in the same universe with the same characters. On one hand, the pressure to finally bite the bullet and catch up increased: half the people I knew were talking about it, their talk in a code I half understood, and this would only intensify; on the other hand, the wall of canonical content would only grow steeper and more imposing. The season came and went, friends tweeted about it and started podcasts, but I stayed behind, unable to find the time to catch up on the originals.

But then, a year and a bit after I moved to Sweden, The Covfefe hit. Suddenly I was working from home and not going out; all events and travel plans were up in the air, indefinitely. I looked towards my stack of unwatched video, picked the Twin Peaks pilot from it, and rewatched it to refresh my memory. The following day, I learned that I had done so on the 30th anniversary of its original airing. And so, over the next few weeks, I would rewatch all 29 episodes of the original seasons; starting with one a night, though culminating at four. Last night, I watched the last one,

My impressions were: the mood does get less oppressive from the third episode onwards: Agent Cooper, the idealistic, mystically-inclined FBI agent sent in to solve the murder, does bring a sense of wonder, and also a sense of unreality (the idea that an FBI agent would use dream divination to attempt to solve a case, and that the bureau would back him up on this rather than, say, confining him to the basement where they keep their crank file, serves to break the bonds to realism). The cavalcade of oddities (some, but not all, connected to Cooper) pushes this along further, somewhere between magic realism and the Weird America of a Werner Herzog documentary, whilst keeping things moving along. Meanwhile, the TV format keeps it partially anchored to the tropes of 1980s TV drama, though sometimes testing them to breaking point (case in point, a mynah bird being material witness to the murder, and ending up assassinated). As many others have pointed out, the show loses a lot of momentum in the second season; some of the small-town quirkiness bloats out into a tangle of subplots, which feel like filler (the one about Nadine's superhuman strength/age regression and the one about the paternity of Lucy's child, to name two). The show did pick up towards the end, though by then veering into comic-book territory. What had started with an all too brutally realistic act of evil ended with a luridly fantastic cat-and-mouse game against a ludicrously well-resourced supervillain. (And while Cooper's ex-partner turned megalomaniacal psycho-killer Windom Earle was the most obvious example of a comic-book villain there, both Leland Palmer and Benjamin Horne developed the air of villains from the 1960s Batman series about their characterisation.) The series did end with a stack of cliffhangers, inconveniently enough as there was not a third season within its timeline.

The world of Twin Peaks seemed curiously anachronistic, as if stuck in a Long 1950s going well into 1989; the ghosts of Elvis and James Dean cast a long shadow here, particularly on the younger generation with whose parents these icons would have resonated. (The idea of a soulful, brooding, leather-jacketed teenage rebel riding a Harley would probably have seemed anachronistic in 1990, let alone now.) The adult characters also have a midcentury aura about them: a clubbable whisky-and-golf masculinity that can respectably paper over all manner of discreet vices.

There are some things which didn't age well. For one, Twin Peaks is very white, and it's well into the second season before one sees an African-American face. Which makes one wonder: where did all the black people go? Women characters are often handled in a less than even-handed way; Lynch does seem to like fridging his women to generate jeopardy and tension, and while there are some well-written female characters with agency (one could imagine, in a world where this was more successful, Audrey Horne getting her own spin-off series; you know that she had adventures), many seem to exist merely as bait of one kind or another, squirming or shimmying on the end of a plot device, femmes fatales or angelic victims. Gender-identity diversity fares slightly better; there’s one cross-dressing character — played by an unknown David Duchovny, still a year or two from his own fame as an idealistic, esoterically obsessed FBI agent—though s/he feels more one of a kind with the giants, dwarfs and one-armed men who occupy Lynch’s phantasmagoria than a nuanced sketch of LGBTQ experience. Still, for 1991, a cross-dressing character who is neither a sick villain nor a murder victim was probably quite progressive.

Finally watching the original series both was and wasn't revelatory; much of what could be easily described about it was not a surprise, as it had saturated the cultural environment. What was surprising were the little details: the combination of boy-scout earnestness and profound psychedelic oddness that was its implausible protagonist, the sometime dream-logic governing the actions of the characters (would anyone in real life have acted as they did?). Also, the change in proportions between the actual series and its long afterimage; it was hard to believe that the iconic Black Lodge, the Chapel Perilous of the Twin Peaks universe whose decor inspired a million imitations and homages, only appeared in the final 10 minutes or so of the final episode and a short dream sequence in the first one.

The final takeaway was noticing ripples of Twin Peaks in the world that followed. Some are more obvious than others. One can see elements of the series, distilled to a much higher purity, in the films of Wes Anderson, for example, and what is Donnie Darko if not a jejune student-project attempt at Lynchianism reduced to Hot Topic-era adolescent angst? There was, of course, also the X Files, which aimed at similar territory though in a more literally grounded way, taking the questions of American paranoiac folklore — what if UFOs and/or Bigfoot are real? what if the government is covering them up? — at face value rather than as emanations of a Jungian collective unconscious, and one could probably make a case for Northern Exposure as a Twin Peaks for normies. Outside of the media, the goths and twee-pop kids took a lot from Twin Peaks; more than one scowling darkling in the industrial, goth or metal scene must have channelled the aforementioned reptilian psychopath, Leo Johnson, in an attempt to look grim and ominous; on the other side, the phrase “the owls are not what they seem” gradually lost its sublime terror and joined the iconography of Etsy-era twee, cross-stitched and hanging in Instagrammable flats where Neutral Milk Hotel vinyl spins on a faux-vintage Crosley.

There are more tenuous connections one could grasp at: might the millennial tendency for tarot and astrology owe anything to Agent Cooper's unorthodox methods? Is there a bit of the Black Lodge in the glitches-and-classical-statuary aesthetic of vaporwave? One memorable semi-recent example is a video by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, which has him crooning the line “sorrow conquers happiness” for several hours, accompanied by an orchestra, and standing in front of a red curtain, as if in a corner of the Black Lodge.

Anyway, those are my observations, only overdue by a couple of decades. At some point I'll get around to watching the new series, whose DVDs are sitting in my living room.

culture david lynch tv twin peaks 0

Friday, March 27th, 2020
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4:03 pm
Lagom in the time of covfefe

Dear diary;

It has been two weeks since The Covfefe forced us into hiding. Or, more precisely, since everybody at the company I work for was strongly encouraged to work from home. A Google spreadsheet was set up where those needing monitors or office chairs could request them. The weekly Friday afternoon fika was moved to a video meeting, a sort of non-work-related status report. Other than that, things stayed the same: the company is an IT company, and most business is arranged over Slack (or occasionally email), so not a huge amount changed. People who work in other industries are undoubtedly less lucky.

Other than that, Stockholm is calm, or perhaps in denial. The bars are not only not closed but quite busy, though as a concession, are only offering seated table service. A tobacconist near where I live has started selling surgical masks, though nobody has started actually wearing them. There are perhaps slightly fewer people out and about, and perhaps more social distancing going on, but not a huge amount. Some rationalise it by saying that Sweden has an advantage in social distancing even in normal times; others point to the consensus-seeking nature of Swedish society, always trying to find a lagom medium between the extremes.

It feels in some ways like the calm before the storm. As I write this, and people go about their routines, the Covfefe is undoubtedly spreading silently through the population. It seems unlikely that Sweden will escape the necessity for a comprehensive shutdown of non-essential services. (What constitutes an essential service, of course, is a sticking point; various US states have listed gun shops and golf courses as essential services; I imagine a case could be made for Systembolaget and providers of freshly baked kanelbullar to be given the same status here.) As of today, events of 50 or more people have been banned; this is down from 500 or more a few days ago.

On a personal level, a number of things are up in the air. I was going to be going to London this weekend, on occasion of the Even As We Speak gig, but of course, that is not happening. In fact, it is hard to consider any future plans in the next 18 months, if the shifting nature of The Covfefe may mean restrictions being adjusted tactically at short notice. (Some say that the current lockdown may last a few months, leaving a window in July and August, before the colder weather causes a resurgence of infections.) On the other hand, I might finally get around to reading some of those books. In terms of socialising, going out for a meal or a drink is, of course, not feasible, though people have been looking into online alternatives, such as Discord servers or the new Animal Crossing game. (I have set up a Discord server as an experiment, though have yet to buy the aforementioned game for my Switch.)

Also, if I am going to be spending a prolonged amount of time in my flat, I should probably consider adopting a cat.

covfefe19 covid19 personal sweden 0

Sunday, March 1st, 2020
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5:36 pm
Some deaths take 18 years

Melbourne independent record shop PolyEster Records is closing down; after having been a fixture on Brunswick Street, the once epicenter of the bohemian/countercultural inner-north, since 1983, and outlived numerous other storied record shops including Gaslight and AuGoGo. The shift by consumers to streaming, independent bands to Bandcamp and major labels to limited CD releases backed by streaming and lossy downloads, and the upper limits on how much vinyl the market can absorb (especially as an increasing proportion of the market grew up with CDs and do not associate the characteristic distortions of vinyl with an inherently more authentic musical experience) undoubtedly didn't help. Though it may be argued that, as soon as the neon Dobbshead disappeared from the back wall, the shop's days were numbered.

All of which leaves little of the old Brunswick St.; for record buying, there's still Dixon's Recycled, with their racks of second-hand CDs; as far as live music goes, Bar Open has gigs of some sort. PolyEster's companion bookshop, notorious for its flouting of obscenity laws, closed several years ago (though its awning still decorates the fixture of the restaurant that took its place, as if protected by some unofficial heritage listing).

One could say that the closure of PolyEster Records is the culmination of a process which began 18 years earlier, when the Punters Club, a pub and venue that was a keystone of the Melbourne live music scene, closed down and was replaced by a Chapel St.-style pizza venue named Bimbo Deluxe, its PA system playing house music. That was the beachhead of the slick, trendy south of the Yarra's expansion to and annexation of the inner north. The closure of PolyEster is the demolition of the last nail house of the old indie-rock bohemian Fitzroy, and the confirmation that the virtual Yarra now runs somewhere between Alexandra Parade and Merri Creek.

brunswick street melbourne 0

Sunday, February 2nd, 2020
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11:04 pm
The end of the beginning / rebellious Scots to crush

As of midnight last night, the UK is no longer a member of the EU. The occasion was met with the characteristic boorishness from the triumphant bigots and pub bores assembled in Parliament Square; meanwhile, in Norwich, signs went up telling people that from now on, only “Queens English” (by which, presumably, they did not mean the English used in Run-DMC lyrics) may be spoken from now on.

In Brussels, the occasion was marked more salubriously: MEPs sang Auld Lang Syne, and some predicted that the UK may return to the EU some day; or in their words, this is “not adieu but au revoir”. However, I suspect that this will never happen.

In the long term, it is unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU, primarily because, the more time passes, the more likely it is that either the UK, the EU or both will not exist. The imminent end of the EU, of course, was gleefully welcomed by the Faragists and their friends in Moscow and the Reactionary International, with Brexit being intended as the first domino in the unravelling of the post-WW2 liberal international order, and its replacement with a Hobbesian arrangement of spheres of influence, as per Aleksandr Dugin's Eurasianism (Eurasia, of course, would be governed, some parts more directly than others, from Moscow; the English gammon, however, are free to convince themselves, that in the oceanic sphere, Britannia will once again rule the waves as God intended). Of course, the other dominos failed to follow suit, and in fact, the travails of Britain, the one-time exemplar of level-headed pragmatic governance immune to hot-blooded ideological fervor, have arguably inoculated other European states against wanting out. (For example, in Sweden, both the far right and far left repudiated their goals of leaving the EU.) So it looks like Putin's troll farms have their work cut out for them.

The end of the UK seems less remote. Already, Northern Ireland, that unwieldy holdover of Empire, has been more or less sacrificed after the DUP overplayed their hand. (The post-Brexit arrangements will involve an effective border in the Irish Sea, leaving Ireland economically as a cohesive unit, almost as if it wasn't the 17th century any more; meanwhile, public opinion in Northern Ireland is shifting steadily in favour of, or at least non-opposition to, reunification with the Irish Republic, which by now is quite obviously (a) no longer a Catholic sectarian state, (b) currently quite a bit more reasonable than the UK, and (c) a member of a powerful economic club.) Opinion in Scotland was also strongly in favour of remaining in the EU, and is arguably shifting towards support for independence and rejoining the EU as a separate country, where former EU head Donald Tusk said they would be welcome. However, this may not be straightforward.

Scotland, in theory, resolved to rule out independence for at least a generation if not for all time, with their referendum shortly before Britain voted to leave the EU. Of course, part of the incentive was that a Unionist Scotland would have remained in the EU, whereas an independent one would have had to queue for accession somewhere behind Albania. In any case, Prime Minister Johnson, a man known for his personal integrity, has ruled out any further independence referendum for Scotland. Which lands things in a stalemate.

Perhaps Westminster genuinely believe that they can head off any Scottish secession, and presumably over time, neutralise the SNP and reduce Scottish separatism to a quaint form of local colour, alongside Cornish pasties and gurning contests in Carlisle. Possibly there are people in the Conservative and Unionist Party and/or the Home Office who are keen for a test of modern counterinsurgency tactics, and who bet that, had Britain known in 1916 what they do now, they would still have Ireland as a loyal dominion today. And with modern mass-surveillance technology, there is a point there. The security services have the means to get an abundance of data on everyone in the UK today, from social graphs of contacts to GPS traces of mobile phone locations. Given sufficient investment and effort, that could be turned into a social graph of the entire Scottish population, with each person's degree and form of connection to the separatist movement being known, and searchable. If, for example, MI5 need to find a handful of people socially connected to separatist activists but reluctant to get involved, who may be amenable to pressure to act as informants, that is a graph query. On a more acute level, every organisational graph has a few key nodes which, if taken out, could discreetly disrupt its operations. A query could tell the security forces exactly whose brakes would need to fail on a treacherous road in order for recruitment to run out of steam 18 months down the track.

That is assuming that the goal is to crush the rebellious Scots and retain a pacified Scotland as a province of the UK. It could arguably be more rational for the Tories to rile the Scots into leaving, put in a token show of trying to stop them, and rejoice in the fact that the remaining United Kingdom of England and Wales will have a permanent Tory majority for at least a generation. Unless, of course, one is suffering from Dunning-Krugeresque delusions of far greater competence than one actually has.

Of course, this is in the long term. There is also the possibility that the Brexit project will run into trouble in the short term: that the British people's innate knack for free trade and/or True Brit won't suffice to allow them to reconquer the globe and, unconstrained by political correctness and beige Belgian bureaucracy, build a new empire even more glorious than the one Queen Victoria presided over; and instead, that a humbled Britain, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, will show up in Brussels with a handful of petrol-station roses, begging to be readmitted, and conceding to adopting the Euro, entering the Schengen zone and replacing its power plugs with sensible ones. And as comforting as that thought might be, it is probably the least likely outcome of a crisis, considerably after others, such as Britain becoming a Puerto Rico-style US protectorate (under, of course, the sort of predatory terms one would expect from the Trump kleptocracy, which would probably involve Haiti-level debts on the shoulders of every Briton), joining the Eurasian Union (free trade with huge countries like Russia and Kazakhstan, and no politically-correct human-rights regulations to annoy the Daily Mail readership), or just doubling down and transitioning to a Juche-style ideology of isolationism, with public hangings of “traitors” and “saboteurs” on the BBC every week to distract its starving population.

brexit europe scotland uk 0

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019
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9:23 am
Records of 2019

It's the last day of 2019, and as such, here are the notable records of the past year:

  • Article 54The Hustle (BandCamp)

    In Australia, the rolling political unpleasantness is tackled by feral larrikin mashup artists; in metropolitan London, though, they do things differently. As is the case of Article 54, a crack team of London live music veterans led by Rhodri Marsden, charting the arc of the ongoing Brexit situation through the medium of lush 70s-style disco. Luscious soul strings, funky clavinet licks and wah guitar, along with ostensibly peppy yet slyly subversive lyrics and samples apparently culled from countless hours of talkback radio. The trajectory of the situation itself is evident in the arc of song titles: beginning with the ebullient Piece Of Cake, breezily asserting that “saying goodbye is easy as pie”, and ending on a more downbeat note with Hard Is Better, itself fading out into the sound of street protests. Freedom Of Movement, a 1970s-style light-music track chiding the foolishness of Britons who aspire to vamoose to Lisbon or Toulouse or set up home in Budapest or Rome, sounds Scarfolkianly redolent of the cheery propaganda of totalitarian regimes; Let's Go WTO, meanwhile, sounds almost like an old radio ad jingle for car insurance, while Backstop and Canada Plus wouldn't sound amiss in a Sardinian nightclub in 1982, and Alternative Arrangements has a groove worthy of Luther Vandross. Ironically smooth sailing.

  • BodikhuuRio/Bodianova (BandCamp)

    Tired: Scandinavians making chillwave electropop dreaming of Caribbean beaches. Inspired: Mongolians making instrumental hip-hop dreaming of Brazil. In this case, Bodikhuu, who works as a construction crane operator in Ulaanbaatar, but spends the winter, when it's too cold to work, making beats in his apartment with an Akai MPC and a stack of old Brazilian records to sample, and releasing his tracks digitally into the Mongolian hip-hop scene. Rio/Bodianova assembled from two such self-released EPs, consists of lush, intricately layered tracks infused with samba and bossa-nova, not a world away from J. Dilla. The image of the fabled Brazil of Bodikhuu's imagination permeates every track, with its tropical heat and breezy languor. The chill-out record of the summer.

  • Cigarettes After SexCry (BandCamp)

    No huge surprises here: if you loved Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut, this delivers another package of the same. Expect music with echoes of Slowdive/Mazzy Star/Julee Cruise/Cowboy Junkies/&c., androgynous vocals singing of longing and desire, catchy melodies, and track titles like Don't Let Me Go, Pure and, umm, Hentai. Cry follows on from Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut without any major changes, and without the mist of ambiguity that shrouded it, Greg Gonzales' songwriting persona has coalesced into a bit of a softboi cliché; yeah, he's constitutionally incapable of commitment and yet obsessively in love with you, likes porn and blowjobs, and yet finds tenderness and beauty in sleaze; a tender pervert for the generation who grew up on Vice Magazine, permanent austerity, climate catastrophe and cheap cocaine. Though I guess if you prefer more psychodrama with your libidinous pop, there's always Of Montreal.

  • Holly HerndonProto (Bandcamp)

    Herndon's previous albums combined academic experimentation with generative composition using Max/MSP with a raver's love of of electronic dance music and critiques of the interplay of technology and society; this next one is a bit of a divergence, having been arguably the first commercial album composed in collaboration with an AI. For this project (which also formed part of her PhD thesis), Herndon and her collaborators trained a sound-generating neural network named Spawn, and gathered groups of singers around its microphones to sing around it, drawing on the sacred and folk song styles of her native Tennessee, and then got it to gradually synthesise what it learned. We witness the AI learning, emitting choral drones and glitchy syllables and converging on an otherworldly song. This is intermingled with actual dancefloor bangers made using Spawn's input, with collaborators like footwork maestro Jlin.

  • Alice HubblePolarlichter (Bandcamp)

    Hubble, formerly one half of electropop duo Arthur & Martha, makes a solo debut with an album of warmly analogue music, half instrumental and half pop; at once a virtuoso showcase of electronic sound and a love letter to legendary practitioners such as New Order, Kraftwerk and OMD. Hubble is not merely a veteran pop songsmith but also has her finger on the (metronomic) pulse of this genre, and as such ends up hitting all the buttons. Highlights include the bittersweet pop of Are We Still Alone, the cubist pastoral of Atlantis Palm like a ride down the changing voxel landscapes a video-game Autobahn, the waltz-time electronica of Hunt For The Blood Red Moon, and Kick The Habit, arguably the best glam-rock anthem ever written from the point of view of a lapsed nun.

  • Jenny HvalThe Practice of Love (Bandcamp)

    As a musical artist, Jenny Hval has a reputation for fusing ethereal pop sounds with an intimacy and a sometimes visceral frankness, as evident on previous albums like Blood Bitch and Apocalypse, Girl. Her latest album is thematically a gentler affair, eschewing the body horror and (most of the) sex in favour of meditations on love, “love”, death, intimacy and other corners of the human condition, over beds of synth washes, clubby baselines, trancy arpeggios and programmed/sampled beats reminiscent of Dubstar, Decoder Ring or early-90s Momus. Hval's voice weaves in and out of the mix, singing in reverb, or whispering confessionally, sometimes joined by three other collaborators, including Melbourne's Laura Jean, and occasionally teasing the border between chillout and ASMR. The title track sits in the middle and borrows the conceit of The Velvet Underground's The Murder Mystery, with Vivian Wang talking about the word “love” on the left channel and, on the right, Jean about childlessness and regarding oneself as a supporting character, over ambient synth pads and arpeggios; the beats resume on the following track, Ashes To Ashes, an upbeat pop song about dreams of death. It doesn't have any lines as immediately memorable as Apocalypse, Girl's “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit”, but it more than makes up for this in its enveloping lushness.

  • Sleater-KinneyThe Center Won't Hold (Bandcamp)

    The group's new album, with Annie Clark of St. Vincent producing, takes a departure from the punk-rock purism of their previous albums and towards a more electronic sound not too far from Le Tigre; more programmed beats and the odd synthesiser mixing in with the spiky guitars, live drums, handclaps and vocals. Thematically, The Center Won't Hold engages with the situation of the world in 2019, from social media to economic precarity, from the political situation in the US and abroad to the importance of personal bonds in the uncertain world, making a humanistic stand.

  • Star HorseYou Said Forever (Bandcamp), and SpunsugarMouth Full Of You (Bandcamp)

    There is a bit of a shoegaze moment taking place in Sweden right now, and these two bands are examples. Star Horse have been around for a few years, though have only released their debut full-length album this year, and are on the poppy side of shoegaze, sounding somewhat like Secret Shine, all ethereal vocals floating above a wash of processed guitars. If they don't get the support slot at the next Slowdive gig in Sweden, it will be a crime. Meanwhile, Spunsugar are a young band based in Malmö, and sound exactly how the name suggests: crunchy, drum-machine-backed shoegaze à la Catherine Wheel, with a touch of baggy and whatever Curve and Caligula were, and if you listen carefully, a hint of metal; clear vocals floating on an ethereal reverb haze over jangling guitars and fuzz. At the moment, they only have one four-track EP out, but with any luck, they should go far.

  • Teeth Of The SeaWraith (Bandcamp)

    The London dark-psychedelic ensemble's most recent album continues their line of uncategorisable yet compelling works (not to mention clever titles), and shifting it up a gear. The opening track, I'd Rather, Jack. begins like a grimdark Radiohead, before escalating into a postapocalyptic soundscape of the usual elements; grindcore chugging, spaghetti-Western guitars, coruscating synths, mournful mariachi-meets-Taps trumpets, Reznorian drones, though with nothing dominating the mix, but instead slowly building and twisting into unsettling yet compelling textures. Further on, Fortean Steed brings vaguely elfin ethereal vocals and picked acoustic guitars over an aurora of synthesiser textures, evoking a liminal state when the veil between this world and another is at its most diaphanous. Following this, VISITOR begins with pulsing synth arpeggios, soon joined by hair-metal guitar shredding and Ottoman/balkan-style drums, building to a cinematic crescendo over its eight minutes, and the closer, Gladiators Ready, ends the album with a rave in a wasteland (think Giorgio Moroder as the Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road and you'll have an idea). Brutalicious!

  • Underground LoversA Left Turn

    The Undies' second act continues into its third album, and shows no sign of losing strength. There's luscious dreampop (the opener, Feels Like Yesterday with its chorused strums and indiepop harmonies, and Dunes, with with guitars and delay floating over a chunky drum loop), vaguely kraut-ish indie-rock anthems (Bells, with its motorik crunch and harmony choruses, and Hooky, whose title may or may not come from its high-played bass guitar), techno synth pulses and those guitars, not to mention an anthem to the subjective experience of hanging out and partying, Melbourne-style (in this case, Seven Day Weekend, which threatens to turn into techno before the fuzzy riffage kicks in).

With honourable mentions going to: Agent Blå, Morning Thoughts (the Gothenburg band's latest, like a smoother, softer Makthaverskan); The Ballet, Matchy Matchy (soft-spoken indiepop about the travails of being single and gay in New York as if sung in a bedroom over a drum machine; like Magnetic Fields meets The Postal Service); Caterina Barbieri, Ecstatic Computation (luminous soundscapes of analogue arpeggios and reverb, made on modular synths); CHAI, PUNK (a slight misnomer, as it's more slightly skronkier-than-usual J-pop, with the usual Big Melodies underscored with driving bass guitars, and choppy sampling work reminiscent of early Shibuya-kei); Duncan Barrett, Seven Temples (the frontman of Tigercats turns his attention unexpectedly to ambient music, and it's pretty good somewhat new-agey with touches of IDM; layers of pulsating, shimmering synths weave in and out, over subtle field recordings, the odd rainstick and, in places, Barrett's trademark kalimba); Be Forest, Knocturne (Chiming minor-key guitars and pounding drums; like shoegaze/post-rock taking The Cure's Disintegration as a starting point); Bodywash, Comforter (post-Cocteauvian dreampop (or “cream pop” as they call it) from Montreal, nudging tentatively into pad-and-beat-driven electronica, a bit like Love Spirals Downwards' drum'n'bass turn or the German shoegaze band Malory); The Boy Who Spoke Clouds, Fields (the swansong from Melbourne's Adam Casey's solo project; languid compositions for guitar, organ and electronics, in the local post-rock tradition); The Catenary Wires, Til The Morning (Amelia and Rob return with more indiepop ballads for grownups, with their customary wit); Death And Vanilla, Are You A Dreamer? (the Malmö haunto-poppers were robbed when they weren't tapped to write the soundtrack to Midsommar; nonetheless, here's a new album, full of retro-styled hypnagogica that's almost gentle and reassuring); Haiku Salut, The General (a score to the eponymous 1920s Buster Keaton film, breaking the clichés of what a score to a silent film should sound like); Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy (a luminous, euphoric affair, of coruscating dancefloor anthems and Autotune-driven quiet-storm numbers; a love letter to the power of dance music to connect people); Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin, Correspondence (a series of songs, alternately composed by Lekman and Norlin in correspondence with each other; witty and thoughtful); Parenthetical Girls, The Scottish Play: Wherein the Group Parenthetical Girls Pay Well​-​intentioned (if Occasionally Misguided) Tribute To the Works of Ivor Cutler (what it sounds like: Zac Pennington reëmerges with a set of covers of the late Scottish absurdist's oeuvre; with cover artwork by David Shrigley, no less); Seablite, Grass Stains and Novocaine (catchy indiepop from the Pacific Northwest, not that far from Rose Melberg's oeuvre); She Past Away, Disko Anksiyete (synthpop for goths, in Turkish; file alongside Cold Cave); Le Superhomard, Meadow Lane Park (lighter-than-Air Europop, like the aforementioned French Band fronted by Dusty Springfield or perhaps an ice-cool continental Saint Etienne; in places sounds like Dots And Loops-era Stereolab, in others, Apricot Records indiepop); U-Bahn, U-Bahn (angular Little Band-isms from Melbourne, with a tightly-wound DEVO-esque sensibility, though owing more to The Models than Kraftwerk's The Model); Vanishing Twin, The Age of Immunology (languidly hypnagogic, post-Broadcast, library jazz acoustic gtr, clunking bass, twinkling west-coast synths and Cathy’s vocals waxing Trishesque).

2019 was also a good year for rereleases; the obvious ones were Stereolab coming back from hibernation, reissuing their entire catalogue with generous liner notes and an abundance of bonus tracks (luxury vinyl optional) and touring it; though other than that, there was early-80s Melbourne new-waver Karen Marks' long-unavailable electropop gem Cold Café, queer pagan transgressives Coil's ice-cool club-techno soundtrack to the first (just about legal) gay sex education film made in Britain, and My Favourite's expanded version of the final album and arguable masterpiece of their first incarnation, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives.

Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Alice Hubble, or Jenny Hval.

There is a Spotify playlist here.

2019 cds lists music 0

Thursday, December 5th, 2019
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10:26 pm
Gaslight through the smog

Even before the summer arrived in Australia, large swathes of the country are already on fire. The images coming in from Sydney of the city immersed in a soupy brown haze, the sun a baleful orange circle, a dusting of ash covering everything and every second person wearing a white PM2.5 mask, look like something out of dystopian fiction. Meteorologists are predicting that this situation may continue through the summer, quite possibly becoming the “new normal”; throat-searing brown smoke being a feature of Sydney as much as diesel smogs are of London. Meanwhile, Australia is doubling down on fossil fuels, with the conservatives charging ahead, passing laws to prevent energy companies from divesting from coal, and Labor (who got so thoroughly thrashed in the last election that they still don't know what year it is) joining in.

Officially, in Australia, the bushfires have nothing to do with climate change, if that even is actually a thing, which there is just no way of knowing. The bush has always burned, there have always been heatwaves, also something about 4000-year sunspot cycles and/or there being no wookiees on Endor. Which is not to say that climate change denial is official Australian orthodoxy; by now, it's more of a paralytic agnosticism. It's not known as a fact, for example, that the idea of “climate change” is a Cultural Marxist plot to destroy the foundations of Western civilisation. That's one of the many possibilities; it could also, for example, be aliens, or Bigfoot. Or, for that matter, the whole crazy idea could be true.

The mainstream consensus would probably read somewhat like this: we have no idea what's causing the bushfires, or even if they are out of the ordinary. While some on the left say that it's global warming and coal (and, by definition, in Australia, people who hold that climate change is true and coal mining is irresponsible would be “the left”; much like how, according to the Murdoch press, the Australian inner cities and university campuses are full of “Marxists”, most of whom in reality wouldn't know historical materialism from a halal snack pack), other people may say it is the Lord punishing us for gay marriage/Womens' AFL/turning away from traditional values/shops being open on the Sabbath or something. (And note that this sentiment is attributed to “other people”; not “God-botherers”, “crazies” or “outer-suburban snake-handling pentecostal churches comprising the local Liberal Party branch”, but just other people; suburban battlers and daggy dads with MMM stickers on their Holdens; the Quiet Australians).

Or it could be just the way it has always been. Which, going forward, may become the official line. There is no global warming; it has always been like this. Just as there have always been 40° 45° 50° heatwaves, the Summer Smoke has always been a mildly annoying yet quintessentially Australian feature of life, like the intrepid blowflies. Don't listen to stories of clear-skied summers with maximum temperatures rarely touching the mid-40s, they will warn; much like tales of a vibrantly colourful Great Barrier Reef teeming with exotic fish, or public-service ads telling kids they can play outside if they put on a shirt, some sunscreen and a hat, those are a fantasy with a sinister political agenda behind it, spread by ratbags and troublemakers.

australia climate change culture war global warming 2

Thursday, October 31st, 2019
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12:58 am
One year in Stockholm

As of today, I have lived in Stockholm for a year.

A year ago, I arrived at Arlanda on a one-way flight from London, with two checked bags and carry-on luggage; I caught the train to Stockholm, and a taxi (regular car-shaped, though a Tesla with a large iPad-like screen in the middle) to a friend's house. The following day, I picked up the keys to my new flat and went to awaited the arrival of the removalists with a lorryful of packed boxes. It got dark before they arrived, and I noticed my first difference between Swedish apartments and their Anglospheric equivalents: light fittings are not included. Other than the kitchen, each room was devoid of ceiling lights, having only a small socket (of a standard type) and hook on the ceiling. I quickly bought one light from a nearby thrift shop, and the flat wasn't completely dark by the time my things arrived, borne up the stairs by two muscular Russians who could plausibly have been Olympic weightlifters.

I stayed at my friend's place for a few more days as I made the flat habitable; gradually reducing the ziggurats of boxes to piles of flattened cardboard and a mass of familiar objects not yet having a canonical place, and making repeated trips to IKEA. After a while, it was habitable if cluttered; the clutter would take longer to fully dissolve.

Other aspects of getting set up in Sweden went relatively smoothly, if not always quickly. I was able to get a basic, limited bank account in a few days, though it took me a few months to get a Swedish personnummer (ID number); having one of those unlocks many of the mechanisms of the highly digitised, largely cashless society that is Sweden, including a digital identity infrastructure used for pretty much anything to do with finance and the Swish mobile payment system, which is used for everything from buying at flea markets to squaring up tabs. Trading my British driver’s licence for a Swedish one was pretty seamless. Other than that, there was not much hassle; for the moment, my British passport is sufficient to let me live and work here, and I’m informed that, in the worst case, I’ll have a year’s notice if that changes. I am, of course, hoping it doesn't come to that.

The year passed relatively quickly; winter came, shrouding Stockholm with snow and treacherous ice; spring followed, the ice melted, trees came into bloom, and the city came to life as the days became longer. By midsummer, there was barely any night left, only a few hours of twilight, though after the solstice, the night gradually began pushing back. I travelled a little, finding myself back in London more than I expected; first for a gig, then work, conferences, and en route to other events. London changed and yet remained the same (my old flat, with its low ceiling, stifling summer heat and the aroma of kebab grease never far away, had found a new tenant pretty much immediately; a favourite café closed down); friends were mostly still around, and I caught up with various of them on various visits. Ironically, my travels outside the UK have been fairly limited so far: a trip to Denmark for an exhibition, a visit to Barcelona for Primavera and a small amount of travel within Sweden.

Every change of scene brings with it a change of perspective, and a test of assumptions. Moving from Australia to Britain, two cultures with historical connections and cultural similarities, was a subtly uncanny experience, partly from the differences between British and Australian cultures, but also between the actual Britain and any number of idealised Britains, absorbed through old books, childhood TV viewing, pop music, or other media. A move to Sweden, a country that can speak English and yet is not officially an English-Speaking Country, and that was always separate from the British/American sphere, was a jump to another subtly parallel universe; one familiar and different, in different ways than London was from Melbourne.

There are the obvious things: traffic, for example, drives on the right (which, if you cycled in left-driving countries, requires some retraining of muscle memory; I'm still not at the stage of favouring my right leg to rest on at stops). The architecture is more continental, and vaguely mitteleuropäisch, a world of art-nouveau apartments around courtyards in the Germanic fashion and more recent geometric modern blocks of post-Bauhaus functionalism, rather than either the Victorian terraces and semi-detached houses of Britain or the more Italianate terrace houses, motel-style flat blocks and American-style suburban bungalows of Australia. (My eyes, trained on the Anglosphere's landscapes, pick out echoes of other parts of continental Europe; a bit of Paris in Norrmalm, a cleaned-up, more affluent Berlin in Södermalm, and so on.)

Then there is the landscape the city is built on, which, being spread over a set of islands and peninsulae, is slightly fantastic. The pieces of land are often dramatically rocky, and as such, the city is full of sets of parallel streets on different levels, connected by steep stairways, dramatic overpasses and houses with different ground levels. (London has a few of those things as well, though nowhere near as many; Edinburgh probably comes closer.) Sheer rock faces often jut out on the sides of roads carved from them, with the entrances of parking garages or other facilities hewn into them. All this is surrounded by harbour views that make Sydney look bland by comparison. Out in the harbour are hundreds of islands of the Stockholm Archipelago, some inhabited and sporting timber houses, linked by a system of ferries. Then there is the city's small scale (it has only about a million inhabitants), and the fact that nature is never far away, which warps the perception of its space in interesting ways: I can leave my flat in Södermalm, cycle for half an hour (and Stockholm is a great city to cycle in, at least for the 8 months or so of the year when one can cycle without coming to grief on treacherous ice), and find myself in a secluded cove that, other than specifics of vegetation, looks like somewhere one may reach after driving for three hours out of Melbourne.

And, of course, there is the question of language. In Sweden, English is everywhere: almost every adult speaks it very well, companies which hire international talent use it internally, and one sees English around in the city: not just in bilingual signage, but in ad slogans, business names and repurposed neologisms (an “afterwork”, for example, is early-evening drinks in a pub). Some of this Swedish English does have a slightly uncanny feeling one can almost put one's finger on: shops with generic-looking names as if out of an architectural rendering, or English-style pubs with excessively English names, usually related to Charles Dickens. And yet, of course, the language of intellectual and cultural life here is not English but Swedish. After a while, one becomes aware of this, of there being layers one is not privy to. The locals generally are polite, and switch to English when a non-Swedish speaker joins their conversation, though it's there. This also exists in places where there is no language difference, only a different cultural history; while I have lived in Britain for 14 years, and have absorbed enough second-hand knowledge of recent British cultural history, I will never be British enough to understand the references in a Half Man Half Biscuit song. The language difference, though, adds another dimension to this; it is as if there were a membrane between oneself and the cultural life of the country; that until the moment when one becomes fluent in Swedish, one is disconnected, floating.

Sweden has an English-speaking personality, and a subtly different native-language one, which manifest themselves in their culture. The parts of Sweden one sees abroad are different. For example, if one were to think of Swedish indie music in, say, Britain, the US or Australia, one might think of Jens Lekman, or The Radio Dept., or perhaps The Knife. In Sweden, though, the biggest indie band was Broder Daniel, who, while they sang in English, did not match their local success abroad. (Second to them is the solo project of their drummer, Håkan Hellström, who did not sing in English.) Generally, Swedish indiepop in English was strongly influenced by British indie, particularly things like Sarah Records, C86 and the Glasgow school; switch to Swedish, and the reference points often become more elusive and unfamiliar, made for a domestic audience. On the subject of music, the live music scene in Stockholm appears a lot smaller than in London or Melbourne, with fewer gigs and venues; I'm told it used to be much better, before a lot of venues closed down, and/or in the Golden Age Of Swedish Indie, which was some 10-20 years ago.) What venues survive do so tenuously: the last outpost of the institution known as Debaser is facing an uncertain future, as its lease may not be renewed after next year. Record shopping also is a bit thin on the ground; in shops that sell new records, the range of new releases is fairly small; in one shop, the featured CD wall may have half a dozen recent releases, surrounded by rereleases and back-catalogue; if you want to fill in your Black Sabbath or Queen collection, you're sorted. There isn't really anything on the scale of Fopp, let alone Rough Trade, here (perhaps everyone in Sweden is over buying music, and just streams it on Spotify?), though for some reason, there is an abundance of secondhand record shops.

Other things: there is an abundance of high-quality baked goods made with cardamom, cinnamon and/or saffron; Sweden is to those what Australia is to coffee, in that what passes for a cinnamon roll abroad would be unacceptable here. Sweden is a coffee-drinking culture; traditionally filter, though espresso is common now. If you want non-dairy milk in your flat white, there is generally one brand of local oat milk, whose ads are obnoxiously ubiquitous; a few places have soy milk, though nobody seems to import Bonsoy or make anything similar. The supermarkets have an abundance of dairy products, including pourable yoghurts in cardboard cartons (fun fact: Tetra-Pak is a Swedish invention), though Icelandic skyr is less popular than in the UK; oddly enough, Swedish supermarkets include things like caviar in toothpaste-style tubes and entire aisles of different types of bearnaise sauce. Sweden has a reputation for expensive drinks, though a beer is not much more expensive than in London; a gin and tonic, however, will set you back at least twice as much. There is also the state liquor monopoly, with its extensive network of well-provisioned booze supermarkets, previously discussed here; they are closed on Sundays for historical reasons. Sweden is historically Lutheran (and, before that, of course, Norse pagan), though no longer has an established state church. As far as I can tell, the Swedish ideas of lagom and Jante Law are, in practice, a bit like the English idea of social class: there's a grain of truth to them (though with many untidy exceptions), but they're vague enough that any commentator can find them in what they see, like a Rorschach inkblot.

In any case, Stockholm is a good place to live, if perhaps a bit quiet at times. It is easily the most beautiful place I have lived so far.

personal stockholm sweden travel 2

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019
LJ.Rossia.org makes no claim to the content supplied through this journal account. Articles are retrieved via a public feed supplied by the site for this purpose.
8:32 pm
By “Innovation” Only

Another Apple Event™, this time the annual iPhone/iPad one. And out comes Tim Cook, announcing that they're foregoing the traditional feel-good videos and plunging right in, as today's event will be “truly big”; followed by an hour and a half of mostly incremental improvements. Oh, and a pay-TV platform that looks like an Onionesque parody of the Netflix/HBO/Amazon high-concept event-serial genre.

The good news is that it won't have a huge impact on one's credit card, as there are no must-haves. Everything's slightly nicer, and the top-end iPhone takes better pictures than any other iPhone, though nothing's compelling. (Apple themselves quoted a report from last year saying that the A12 processor in the iPhone XS will be ahead of Android devices for two years, which means that my XS still has one year of non-obsolescence left.)

For what it's worth, three things I would have liked to have seen announced at an Apple device event:

  1. The ability to use the NFC transceiver in the Apple Watch (and iPhone) for arbitrary non-payment-card applications; allowing things like putting public transport cards, library cards, locker keys and such on one's watch. The convenience of being able to board buses or enter/exit Tube stations without getting my wallet out is one thing I miss about London (which achieves this by tapping into the payment-card network with its system). (IIRC, Apple have said that they keep the NFC chip under tight control because of security considerations. Perhaps an acceptable compromise would be for Apple to closely vet all applications with NFC entitlements, with their security engineers going through the NFC-adjacent code with a fine-toothed comb, as they do some other apps with elevated security permissions. This would be fine; after all, it's not like every developer and their dog would be putting this functionality into their apps.)
  2. An iPhone with the capabilities equivalent to the iPhone XS or similar (decent cameras, reasonable battery life, at least 256Gb storage maximum), but in an iPhone 5-sized form factor. Being able to use a phone one-handed without precariously crowd-surfing it on one's fingertips to reach the top of the screen would be nice. If they made it thicker to accommodate the battery and Flash storage, that would not be a problem either; besides, IMHO, the bevelled edge of the iPhone 4 and 5 did look more stylish than the generic roundedness of the iPhone 6 and subsequent models.
  3. In terms of pro photographic products: an iOS (or iPad OS) device with a decent-sized sensor (at least Micro ⁴⁄₃, if not full-frame), with a decent optical zoom lens that's f/1.8 or better, or, even better, an interchangeable lens mount; thus giving you the advantages of a full-sized sensor and lens (and the laws of physics say that, however good phone-sized sensors get, they'll always be handicapped by their size) with Apple's computational photography and the iOS photographic app ecosystem. Of course, it will probably be a cold day in Hell before Apple put something like this out; it may be more likely that several incumbent camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, mindful of phones biting into their market share, get together to launch a computational-photography application platform, complete with interchangeable APIs and app stores, allowing photographic app developers to get their apps running on real cameras. Or maybe not.
So, not the most exciting Apple Event, by all accounts; credit cards are staying firmly in wallets, as the last year's devices prove to be good enough, which will undoubtedly bring out the pundits decrying Apple having lost their way and stopped innovating; at best, they're coasting on inertia from the Jobs years, their lucrative App Store monopoly and iMessage blue-bubble lock-in, and at worst, it's time to dump your AAPL shares while they're still worth something. Which, as humdrum as today's spec-bump update was, is not entirely true. Apple are pushing out some dramatic innovations this year, though they're mostly at the technical level, and were discussed in this year's WWDC. (For one, the user interface framework used for developing iOS apps, which dates back to the iPhone 1.0 and stands on the 1980s Smalltalk-inspired foundations of NeXTSTEP, is being replaced by a set of new, declarative framework named SwiftUI and Combine, which takes extensively from the functional-reactive programming world; these framework will be unified across all Apple platforms, including macOS and WatchOS, allowing apps' codebases to not only be simpler but shared across platforms which would have been too different until now. This, however, is harder to convey in a device event than a 3-camera bump or a new colour option of “Midnight Green”.)

apple iphone 0

Saturday, May 18th, 2019
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2:17 pm
Every three years, like clockwork

In other news, today was the Australian federal election, and another Labor landslide that dissolved into thin air upon contact with reality, with a terminally unpopular conservative government romping home to a resounding victory. You can almost set your clock by them.

One can ask a lot of questions, and a lot of questions will be asked: were Labor too radical, alienating the Silent-Majority-Of-Suburban-Battlers who love their big cars and cheap coal-fired electricity and can't stand lefty ratbags from the inner city telling them how to live their life, or too timid, not giving Australian voters a Whitlam-scale vision of change to get behind? Was Labor leader Bill Shorten a terminal black hole of charisma? Did the traditionally left-leaning Fairfax papers' new ownership shift the balance? Did the conservatives cross the line by doing a preference deal with out-and-proud racists, or have they always been where they are? Was there ever a time when the quiet part was not said out loud? And so on.

One question that should be asked though is: why is it that, in Australian federal politics, the ALP is constantly poised for a barnstorming victory, except on the actual electoral night when it collapses like a sandcastle? At this stage, the pollsters, pundits, commentators and betting markets have successfully predicted the last four out of one ALP federal election victories. Is this just the ”shy-Tory” phenomenon, of everybody wanting to pose as a high-minded altruist whilst keeping their tax bill down and their negative gearing profits coming in? Is it something more culturally specific, perhaps the larrikin/wowser dynamic at the heart of the Australian psyche, an innate blokey conservatism coupled with a desire to watch their betters ritually sweat and squirm in the face of potential defeat? Are elections, and the Labor Party, little more than a sort of ritual psychodrama, a festival in which the King is put on trial by the court jester and everybody gets to let off a bit of steam before getting down to the next three years of no-nonsense conservative governance? (Repeat until climate change obliterates all life on Earth, unless of course climate change is Marxist propaganda.)

alp australia election politics 1

LJ.Rossia.org makes no claim to the content supplied through this journal account. Articles are retrieved via a public feed supplied by the site for this purpose.
2:17 pm
Every three years, like clockwork

In other news, today was the Australian federal election, and another Labor landslide that dissolved into thin air upon contact with reality, with a terminally unpopular conservative government romping home to a resounding victory. You can almost set your clock by them.

One can ask a lot of questions, and a lot of questions will be asked: were Labor too radical, alienating the Silent-Majority-Of-Suburban-Battlers who love their big cars and cheap coal-fired electricity and can't stand lefty ratbags from the inner city telling them how to live their life, or too timid, not giving Australian voters a Whitlam-scale vision of change to get behind? Was Labor leader Bill Shorten a terminal black hole of charisma? Did the traditionally left-leaning Fairfax papers' new ownership shift the balance? Did the conservatives cross the line by doing a preference deal with out-and-proud racists, or have they always been where they are? Was there ever a time when the quiet part was not said out loud? And so on.

One question that should be asked though is: why is it that, in Australian federal politics, the ALP is constantly poised for a barnstorming victory, except on the actual electoral night when it collapses like a sandcastle? At this stage, the pollsters, pundits, commentators and betting markets have successfully predicted the last four out of one ALP federal election victories. Is this just the ”shy-Tory” phenomenon, of everybody wanting to pose as a high-minded altruist whilst keeping their tax bill down and their negative gearing profits coming in? Is it something more culturally specific, perhaps the larrikin/wowser dynamic at the heart of the Australian psyche, an innate blokey conservatism coupled with a desire to watch their betters ritually sweat and squirm in the face of potential defeat? Are elections, and the Labor Party, little more than a sort of ritual psychodrama, a festival in which the King is put on trial by the court jester and everybody gets to let off a bit of steam before getting down to the next three years of no-nonsense conservative governance? (Repeat until climate change obliterates all life on Earth, unless of course climate change is Marxist propaganda.)

alp australia election politics 1

Thursday, May 16th, 2019
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10:58 pm
Eurovision 2019, a preview

In two days' time, things will once again come to a head. I am, of course, talking about the Eurovision final. Unfortunately, I will not be able to view it live due to prior commitments, so I took the liberty of watching what I could of the semifinals (I am living in a country where Eurovision is taken about as seriously as football is in Australia, and the broadcasts don't begin and end on the final night) and artist videos; here are my impressions.

The talk of this year's contest is, of course, Iceland's Hatari. They dress like BDSM gimps, all muscle, latex and spikes, and sound like something Wax Trax put out around 1990. Their name means The Haters and their song is about the triumph of hate over all (in Icelandic). They hail from Iceland, but they also hail from a parallel universe where MDMA was never discovered and psytrance never displaced hard EBM from the goth clubs. They also are provocateurs—they're essentially Laibach on goofballs—and went to Tel Aviv partly if not wholly to expound at every opportunity about what rotters their hosts are to the Palestinians; apparently the EBU have warned them numerous times and are at the end of their tether, so it remains to be seen who, if anyone, blinks. If they stay in, they could well end up taking the prize. See you at Harpa in 2020?

Another contender with a solid chance is Australia's Kate Miller-Heidke, whose act is equal parts Kate Bush, Frozen and the stunt sequences from Mad Max: Fury Road; she also has a really good voice, and may be the one to win it for Australia.

There were a number of other noteworthy entrants. Norway's starts as trancy club-pop, but then a bald guy appears and intones some words in a baritone, and we're in the realm of arctic shamanism, with sweeping auroras and lo-poly reindeer totems. Germany have some deceptively nice-sounding pop with somewhat dark lyrics. Sweden have a soulful ballad erupting into the standard chorus breakdown, with house piano and melismatic backing vocals; the singer also wrote the UK's song, and another Swede is representing Estonia. Denmark brought the hygge with a slightly twee number, sung partly in French. Czechia are represented by Lake Malawi, who are named after a Bon Iver song, though don't sound the least bit woodsy; their entry is jittery, funky electropop with Mondrian-coloured visuals and perhaps a touch of Parklife. Also funky is San Marino, with a slice of electro chanson, delivered by a Turkish artist based in Germany. Meanwhile, both Malta and Switzerland combined reggaeton beats with middle eastern riffs.

A number of notable contenders fell short of the grand final. Georgia brought the weird intensity usually associated with Romania; moonlit mountains, black-clad wraiths in the mist, columns of flame, and a singer with a manbun singing about, at a guess, blood vendettas or something; a song best appreciated with a shot of something that burns the throat. Romania, meanwhile, toned down their characteristic weirdness to 90s-Depeche-Mode levels. Croatia had a chap named Roko, in a white suit, surrounded by digitally projected hellfire and abseiling angels, which makes one wonder whether this is some kind of AI cult propaganda. If he ends up working with Grimes, all bets are off. Ireland's entry was stylishly retro, echoing midcentury American cool. Latvia entered Grand Salvo/Sodastream territory with their double bass, pastoral guitars and brushed drums. And Israel seemed to go for the Conchita Wurst factor with their torch song about transcendence and empowerment, delivered in an operatic voice.

Then there is the UK. What can one say? They're not utterly awful this time; they're not deliberately talking down to Johnny Foreigner and sending in a light entertainment troupe from a provincial Butlin's lest anyone accuse them of taking it seriously. Their entry is a slick, saccharine big-hearted ballad, delivered by an Everylad who looks like he was decanted from a vat at the Ed Sheeran manufacturing plant a few days ago. It grasps with thick fingers at the heartstrings and gives them an unsubtle tug. And, in doing so, it pulls out all stops: the soaring choruses, the backing choirs, the truck driver's gear change, over a heartwarming video telling a story about teenage travails somewhere up north, shot partly in slow motion. There is technical polish, but little finesse; one can tell that, with the audience on the other side of the Channel, Britain has all the rapport of Theresa May proposing a Brexit deal, and hence no better options than to throw a load of sentimental goop over and hope for the best..

I don't think the UK should win on merit, because there are many better songs in the final this year. Though I do think that if everyone in Europe gave Britain douze points, forcing them to host Eurovision in the first year of the Farage/Rees-Mogg administration, that would easily be the most epic troll in the history of the contest. On merit, however, my vote would be with Iceland, or failing that, Australia or Czechia.

eurovision 0

Monday, December 31st, 2018
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5:34 pm
Records of 2018

As 2018 comes to an end, here is once again my list of records of the past year:

  • Belle & SebastianHow To Solve Our Human Problems

    This year brought another Belle & Sebastian album with it, and Belle & Sebastian fans know what to expect. gently folky moments (Fickle Season), groovy mood pieces (the bipartite Everything Is Now), soul strings (Too Many Tears), not to mention titles like “A Plague On Other Boys” (which sounds not unlike one would expect a Belle & Sebastian song by that title to sound; file this one alongside Lord Anthony and The Cat With The Cream).

    The album opens with Sweet Dew Lee, in which Stevie wistfully reopens the wounds of an unrequited crush twenty years on, tormenting himself with what-could-have-beens and parallel-universe hypotheticals (hey, we've all been there), over a bed of bossa-esque guitar and analogue synth fuzz. The second track, We Were Beautiful, which is sonically probably the closest we'll get to Belle & Sebastian's foray into drum'n'bass, continues the theme of wistfully looking back on lost youth. Meanwhile, Best Friend is a classic B&S comedy of manners about flat-sharing, adulting and trying not to fall in love. (At times, the Belle and Sebastian universe sounds like a terrifying place, with romantic love being everywhere, seeping through the cracks like a gas, every glance crackling with oddly chaste sexual electricity.)

  • Carpenter BrutLEATHER TEETH (Bandcamp)

    Carpenter Brut are, in a sense, the anti-M83. Both bands hail from France, a culture that stands apart from the currents of Anglo-American pop culture, engaging with them on its own terms, and both bands trade in a French-made vision of fantasy-America. Though while M83's America takes its cues from John Hughes soundtracks, with its pastel-hued high-school romances and subcultural cliques, Carpenter Brut's America is a darker one, made from 1980s low-budget VHS horror films and Reagan-era paranoia about Satanic cults. A trio comprised of a keyboard player (with a stack of analogue synths), a heavy-metal guitarist and a drummer, their music falls at the more dystopian end of the “synthwave” genre (as the name suggests, synthesist and horror auteur John Carpenter was an influence, though far from the only one); the closest comparison I can think of is San Diego's Street Cleaner.

    Some tracks on LEATHER TEETH have lyrics, whose sometimes stilted phrasing adds to their over-the-top shlock (sample: “beware the beast inside your heart, when you're dancing in the dark, and the night's desire is burning with the Devil's fire”), while others serve to soundtrack movie scenes left to the listener's imagination (those who see them live get a visual aid in the form of video projections of imaginary movie fragments, presumably filmed at considerable effort by the band and their collaborators; expect unrealistic fake blood, rows of high-school lockers and shots of lurid newspaper headlines). Leather Teeth is their second album, and includes collaborators including Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg.

  • DubstarOne

    Dubstar were one of those bands of the 90s that were often lumped in with Saint Etienne; each juxtaposing the programmed beats and loops of hip-house and club pop with the an very English Dusty-Springfield-meets-Emma-Peel retro-cool, in each case delivered with vintage sang-froid by a Sarah. Unlike their southern opposite numbers, though, they disappeared around the turn of the millennium, with Sarah going on to the electroclash project Client and a number of industriogoth collaborations. Now, after almost two decades, they're back.

    Musically, One starts more or less where they left off, give or take a few decades of life experience. They're a duo now, without the chap who did the drum/sampler/sequencer programming, and so their music sounds less sequenced. The subject matter has kept up with the authors' age, and themes of divorces, legal injunctions (actual and as a metaphor) and drama at school gates come up in the characteristically wry lyrics about stereotypically knotty situations. Blackwood's (possibly unreliable) narrator will be familiar from the “Not So Manic Now” era: wry and a bit intense; just the song titles (“Why Don't You Kiss Me”, ”You Were Never In Love”, “Please Stop Leaving Me Alone”) bespeak the persona of a romantic actor who pursues her interests with the single-minded drive of the Terminator and, when things have gone south, writes a postmortem for the dalliance, replete with arch wordplay.

    In any case, the songs are all as catchy and compelling as the best of their first run. It's hard to pick highlights, but some might include “I Hold Your Heart” with it's Northern-soul stomp, “Waltz No. 9”, in triplet-time and second person, describes the listener's disintegrating life and foretells their imminent downfall, and the icily synthpoppy “Locked Inside”, or the bracing bucket of cold water that is “You Were Never In Love”. The album ends with “Mantra”, a 6½-minute track building to a climax of repeated wordless vocals, fuzzed guitar; I bet they could get a few extra minutes out of it live.

  • Haiku SalutThere Is No Elsewhere (Bandcamp)

    Haiku Salut make lovely, subtle soundscapes, and their third album is no exception. Haiku Salut's combination of electronic and live sounds feels even more seamless than before; glitchy beats, warm drones, synth arpeggios and tiny fragments of sound of unknown provenance fuse with chromatic percussion, melodicas, horns and the Haikus' signature French accordion. The harmonies and melodies feel ever more intricate and evocative. Highlights include the pulsating The More and Moreness, the splendidly titled I Am Who I Remind You Of, a 7-minute journey through a soundscape of glockenspiel, accordion and electronic beats, and the closing track, the lovely, subtle Shadows. File alongside Mogwai, Amiina or Tortoise.

  • Kero Kero BonitoTime 'n' Place (Bandcamp)

    The third album for the London J-pop trio is a somewhat skronkier affair; the songs are still melodious pop songs, redolent more of Harajuku than the Bromley bedroom they were recorded in, but the super-smooth PC Music-esque affectations are replaced by something somewhat less clean; chunky guitar riffage, vaporwavey digital synths and the odd YMCK-esque chiptune arpeggio and digital noise breakdown, slathered with reverb and distortion. Which echoes the record's anxious themes: songs about identity crises in the Instagram-influencer era, depression and worries about the precarious future. Highlights include the retro-styled baroque pop of Dear Future Self and the third-wall-breaking Only Acting.

  • Klaus Johann GrobeDu Bist So Symmetrisch (Bandcamp)

    Swiss electro-funk, you say? With lyrics in German, no less. Propelled by clunky bass guitar, warm'n'fuzzy monosynths, jazzy chords, funky riffs and drums (both live and programmed), Klaus Johann Grobe don't so much straddle the line between kitschy and funky as saunter playfully across it repeatedly. Like smooth midnight boogie-groove R&B stripped back to one-oscillator basics crossed with post-Can skronk and a touch of Kraftwerkian electropop, they present a sort of polyester modernism, conjuring up images of retrofuturistic mitteleuropäisch nightclubs at some point in the past half-century. Highlights include Zu Spät, which is the smoothest thing in at least one parallel universe, and the closing track, An Diesem Abend, a mighty grüv juggernaut which brings das Haus down.

  • Kosmischer LäuferVolume 4 (Bandcamp)

    The fourth chapter of Drew McFadyen's Ostalgisch krautrock project, coming years after the first three, as we all began to despair of the prospect of finding any more of Martin Zeichnete's tapes. Were this a real rerelease of actual long-lost East German Kosmische Musik, we'd be faced with the prospect of all the good stuff having been released, and the remainders being off-cuts, fragments and curios. It's not, though, and so each volume improves on the previous ones. the main part of Volume Four follows the preceding volumes in themes, providing Cluster/Harmonia/La Düsseldorf-style electronic instrumentals, ostensibly conceived for the DDR's Olympic athletes' training; here we have motorik beats and the odd Kraftwerk-esque synthesiser melody, at a methodical 150BPM. The second half, though, takes the form of a visualisation programme, ostensibly to bring focus to the athletes' minds; in place of the propulsive rhythm are ambient synthesiser drones and arpeggios, with a female voice reading out instructions. As ambient music, it works rather nicely; and perhaps future discoveries of Zeichnete's works will be those in this vein?

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  • Let's Eat GrandmaI'm All Ears (Bandcamp)

    The teenage duo's second album is somewhat more polished affair, though with their own distinctive authorial voice. While previously they did everything themselves, here they bring onboard collaborators, most prominently The Horrors' Faris Badwan and PC Music artist SOPHIE, learn the tricks and terms of art of mass-market pop music and turn them to their own ends. The latter's influence can be heard in the poppier tracks, such as the single Hot Pink, with its J-pop-tinged girl-power R&B, only somewhat askew and with a Norfolk accent.

    While they have embraced the polish and artifice of pop production and added it to their formidable repertoire, they have not been subsumed by it, either thematically or stylistically. Their songs avoid the standard pop clichés—the love ballads, party anthems and melodramas of heartbreak and betrayal—and instead use the pop-song idiom to their own ends, with word-pictures of an inner life, with its passing thoughts and feelings. Stylistically, some songs, like It's Not Just Me and Falling Into Me, play with the elements of electropop to varying extents; others find a different way, like the bluesy 6/8-time Snakes & Ladders. Cool And Collected, a meditation on the anxiety of admiring (or perhaps fancying) someone, starts off with arid guitarwork reminiscent of Pygmalion-era Slowdive; and perhaps the highlight of the album for me is Ava, an understated piano ballad about a friend struggling with mental-health issues, which shows that Let's Eat Grandma are not beholden to their well-honed maximalism. The closer is the 11-minute Donnie Darko, the long, vaguely Underworldesque track familiar from their live shows, its techno pulse now underpinned with guitar riffing.

    Also, there's the best use of a purring cat on a record since Loney Dear's “The Year Of River Fontana”, so there is that.

  • MonteroPerformer (Bandcamp)

    The new record from musician and illustrator Bjenny Montero, and his first since moving to Athens (Greece, not Georgia) embraces the luscious maximalism and all-analogue artifice of 70s-vintage soft rock, wedding it to the vulnerability of his comics.

    The first track, Montero Airlines, starts with eight bars of minor-key piano chords; then the big drums kick in and Ben's vocals, with a cry for help; “it's not good for me to be all alone right now”. By the time we get to the verse, we learn that part of him needs a part of you and not just any boy is going to do. Another verse and chorus, and then the song switches into the ending, a jingle for the titular airline, wrought into an epic build-up of chorused vocals, drum breakdowns and multiple chiming guitars. The second song, Aloha, is even more envelopingly lush, all chiming guitars, vocal harmonies and an key change that feels like taking off into the sunset in a seaplane.

    The album continues in this vein, with flangers, Frippian talkbox, electric pianos, Mellotron strings, and beds of backing harmonies. Montero, it seems, is both a connoisseur of vintage pop and a perfectionist in the studio, build up lavish pocket symphonies out of everyday anxieties and melancholies. Caught Up In My Own World starts with Rhodes piano and flanged vocals, the choruses blooming in an explosion of chorused guitar and vocal aahs. Running Race builds up a lush soundscape around a kernel of self-doubt (“deep inside of me, no-one's home”), ornamenting it with classic psychedelic pop. Tokin' The Night Away is basically what it sounds like, a stoner anthem realised as if on a 1970s recording budget; “Destiny” brings a somewhat goofy rock-opera bombast, sounding like the musical number in which the mephistophelian villain tries to convince the hero to join him. The closing track, Pilot starts with a funky bassline and bongo-led groove, and cruises smoothly along before soaring to a climax that brings the house down on the album. It is also probably also the only song ever written referencing both the lights of LA and “Desperate and Dateless”. In any case, Performer is smooth sailing, and the biggest (by some definitions) Australian psychedelic pop record since Tame Impala. There's none more shmoopy!

  • Moon GangsEarth Loop (Bandcamp)

    The first album-length release from analogue ambient electronic project Moon Gangs elaborates on the direction of his two EPs, though in a deeper, darker direction. Made with a bench of analogue synthesisers and sequencers played live, the result is luminous, foreboding cinematic soundscapes somewhere between Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter, replete with coruscating arpeggios, saturated sawtooth drones, skittering white noise and epic reverb tails. Highlights include Familiar Machines (which sounds like a more analogue Ben Frost) and the majestic Sea Circles, a 6½-minute megastructure of grandeur.

  • Them Are Us TooAmends and SRSQUnreality

    This year's twinned albums; the young Bay Area dreampop duo Them Are Us Too, tragically, were mentioned here in 2016, in the context of one of them, Cash Askew, having died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. At the time, they had been working on new recordings; some time later, these were reworked with the involvement of surviving member Kennedy Ashlyn, Telefon Tel Aviv producer Joshua Eustis and Askew's girlfriend and stepfather; which eventually was worked into the Amends EP, and released this year. Ashlyn went on to a solo project, SRSQ, also releasing a record later this year.

    Both records have their roots in 1980s dreampop/sophistipop, with a sound somewhere between the Cocteau Twins and Julee Cruise, with perhaps fragments of other things (The Cure? Giorgio Moroder?) shining through. Amends feels the more whole, with Askew's dreamlike guitarwork floating over the synth pads and underpinning Ashlyn's Fraserequely aethereal vocals. It starts with the sublime Angelene, its icy synth arpeggios, filter-sweep pads, gated drum machine and judicious use of tape delay setting Ashlyn's soaring soprano in an ornate frame worthy of Laura Palmer. The velvet darkness starts to close in with Grey Water, which ventures deeper into Cocteaus territory. Floor, with its rapid-fire drum machine, jagged guitar lines and Ashlyn's vocals soaring like if Siouxsie had been an actual banshee, could have probably filled the floor of a goth club 30 years ago. The final, title track, with its reverbed drums, synth pads, Ashlyn's soaring soprano and Askew's sublimely jagged guitarwork, is a fitting ending, providing a pastel-hued sunset for Them Are Us Too's closing credits, and giving an illusion of closure.

    Closure, however, is not how the real world works, which is evident in Ashlyn's debut as SRSQ, an album haunted by loss (SRSQ's Bandcamp page describes the project as “griefwave”). The album feels like a journey: starting with FM bells, vast reverb and an almost Dead Can Dance-esque sense of the transcendent, before the familiar 808 snap and sawtooth arpeggios kick in, going through ethereal dreampop (Cherish, which sounds like a synth-driven Cocteaus, and the Badalamenti-esque Procession), descending into a valley of shadow, of plaintive vocal lines and electronic drones, before emerging with the soaring, luminous climax of Only One. Askew's guitars, of course, are absent; instead, there are rich layers of electronics (mostly lush, though in places raw and harsh) beneath Ashlyn's majestic soprano. There is, of course, a void and a sense of loss, but also, one feels, a sense of mystery and hints of the sacred encoded in the aural language of the record; beyond the FM bells, expansive 80s-style reverbs and overtone-rich analogue synth timbres reminiscent of pipe organs coalesce to evoke the sensation of a cathedral-like space, there are, echoes of the score for a certain TV show, perhaps our secular society's closest thing to sacred mystery. One gets the feeling that this is not so much stylised genre pop music, such as, say, “dreampop” or “synthwave”, as something more transcendent crafted from its elements.

  • Die Wilde JagdUhrwald Orange (Bandcamp)

    Die Wilde Jagd (The Wild Hunt) are a duo, originally from Düsseldorf, but now based in Berlin. Uhrwald Orange (“Clockwood Orange” in English) is their second album, and falls somewhere between electronic and post-rock. It is mostly instrumental, with half the tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes in length and none shorter than six, though a few with lyrics sounding not unlike a German Velvet Underground. The tracks tend to evolve and progress, like hypnotic meditations of layered rhythms and textures; slightly too languid to be labelled “motorik”, with pulsing synthesisers, sitars, spaghetti-western guitars and the odd field recording. Highlights include the 15-minute “Kreuzgang”, which starts off like a library-music take on Joy Division-style post-punk bleakness before setting the controls for an altogether more cosmic void.

With honourable mentions going to: Beach House, 7 (somewhat busier than their previous albums, though with the familiar dreamy haze; Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember was involved in the production), Blood Wine Or Honey, Fear & Celebration (psychedelic Afrobeat/Tropicalia-tinged party grooves from Hong Kong, of all places; sounds in places like NO ZU, only even more lit), Cale Sexton, Melondrama (808 and 303-intensive electronic grooves, with enough atmosphere to not get boring or require pills to enjoy; reminiscent of some of Aphex Twin's Polygon Window work in places, only dubbier), Camp Cope, How To Socialise & Make Friends (choppy/skronky yet melodious Melbourne indie rock fuelled by MeToo-era rage and knowing when to go rough-as-guts; reminiscent in places of Origami or Bidston Moss), Caroline No, Swimmers EP (understated rock'n'roll balladeering from Caroline Kennedy (of The Tulips and 90s alt-rockers Deadstar) and friends), Cavern of Anti-Matter, Hormone Lemonade (the follow-up to 2016’s Void Beats is literally a more stripped-back affair, built up over rhythms from Holger Zapf’s homemade drum machines, overlaid with layers of analogue synths, guitars and noise generators), Clue To Kalo, There's No Radio/In The All-Night Bakery At Dawn (a joyously maximalistic electropop song, reminiscent of Caribou or Panda Bear), Empty Files, Shadows (a.k.a. NIN goes to the hipster disco), Phil France, Circle (warm analogue electronic instrumentals, too chilled to dance to, but with more happening beneath the surface; not too far from Jon Brooks' analogue pastorals), Frankie Teardrop Dead, All You Need Is Love And Fucking Peace (above-average contemporary psych-rock, with above-average self-awareness (for one, they're not named “Underground Jesus” or “Acid Death Cult” or something); titles include “Joy In Division” and “Lost Member Of A Fake Boyband“; expect fuzzed-out guitar and chorused vocals), Fufanu, The Dialogue Series (The Icelandic electropop band's latest effort, originally released as several EPs; has its ups and downs, but some nice tracks like Typical Critical), Hatchie, Sugar & Spice (the début record from Brisbane teenager Harriette Pilbeam is a short slice of catchy shoegaze-tinged pop that evokes the likes of The Sundays; one to watch), The KVB,Only Now Forever (Reverbed vocals in an understated croon, the cold snap of analogue drum machines and layers of guitars and pulsing synths baked into a warm fuzz; combining the cold feeling of post-punk with analogue fuzz, The KVB deal in a sort of kraut-goth-psych-pop, somewhere between Darklands-era Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division at their most detached and motorik, with perhaps a nod to Berlin-era Bowie), Melbourne Cans, Heat of the Night (more Melbourne indie-rock, with shimmering guitars and vintage affectations; i.e., Heart Turned Blue, a slab of rock'n'roll noir not directly inspired by Twin Peaks, and the Be My Baby-quoting Followed Home), Midday Static, Dreamcatcher (guitar and beat-driven ambience from one guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma; if you like Robin Guthrie and Ulrich Schnauss, you might like this), New War, Coin (broadly in a post-punk vein, yet somewhat more expansive in tone; angular yet dubby with biting basslines, urgently yelped vocals, and more than the average amount of synth atmospherics; reminiscent in places of Dogs In Space), Örvar Smárason, Light Is Liquid (The solo début from Örvar, of renowned Icelandic bands múm and FM Belfast; chilled, glitchy beats, icy pads, warm electronics, leftfield techno and vocals chopped up, vocoded and processed to within an inch of their life; highlights include Flesh and Dreams and the closer Cthulhu Regio), Red Red Eyes, Horology (Laura from Betty And The Werewolves' new band goes into post-Lynchian territory; echoes of Death And Vanilla or Sir), Say Sue Me, Where We Were Together (fuzzy, jangly, indiepop from Busan, South Korea, evocative of C86/Sarah indie in places; Old Town could be twinned with Anorak City), Soft Regime, “Hard Feelings” (An EP of bright, hyper-saturated electropop songs about holidays in Europe, aging socialites and the magic of dance music; ⅓ of Soft Regime is Tim Benton, of indie-electro heroes Baxendale, and Dickon Edwards (of Orlando, Fosca and a renowned online diary) guests on one song), The Spook School, Could It Be Different? (their third record and first on Slumberland; melodiously skronky tweecore with a theme of defiant resilience and the power to fill indiepop dance floors), Tangents, New Bodies (dubby/jazzy/skronky post-post-rock atmospherics with live instruments and electronics), Tigercats, Pig City (Tigercats go deeper into afrobeat territory, with a record of largely kalimba- and horn-section-driven grooves, reinventing Limehouse as a sort of futuristic Nairobi-on-Thames, informal spaces in the shadow of concrete structures, pulsing with a tight beat and as antifa as Gritty), Mr. Twin Sister, Salt (the latest from the Long Island group, combines chilled electronics and soulful vocals (with, at times, stylistic amounts of AutoTune), covering a stylistic gamut between drum'n'bass, jazzy R&B à la Sadé, cyborg neo-soul and dub; impeccably smooth), Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Dirt (The Toronto band’s third album manages to be both weightlessly ethereal and ultra-heavy, combining prog-rock intricacy with elements of metal and lovesliescrushing-esque shoegaze), You Drive, You Drive (impeccably cool synthwave pop, with luminous electronics and icily detached female vocals, from Nashville of all places).

As always, there were noteworthy things from previous years I only discovered this year. This year's ones were Cigarettes After Sex (whom I ignored the first time around, partly because their name made them sound like some kind of dumb hipster marketing gimmick, but was blown away by at Primavera; languid, atmospheric songs of contingent love, somewhere between The Velvet Underground, Mazzy Star and Slowdive) and Client Liaison (groovy 80s-style electropop, impeccably executed, with stage presence to match; also discovered at Primavera).

Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Montero, Dubstar or Them Are Us Too; it's a tough choice this year.

In any case, there is a Spotify playlist here.

2018 cds lists music 0

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018
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10:49 am
Australia breaks encryption

To the surprise of exactly nobody, Australia’s Labor party agree to pass the mandatory encryption back-door bill, after the usual pantomime of token opposition.

The bill will allow the government to demand technical measures to allow access to encrypted content. The ALP stress that it will include safeguards, ensuring it is only used for matters of national security. It also has provisions preventing it from being used to mandate the introduction of “systematic weaknesses”, the definition of a “systematic weakness” being whatever the Attorney-General and Communications Minister agree it is or isn’t.

Labor’s spokespeople, resplendent in their progressive pragmatism, assure us that there’s no need to worry, that they have exacted strict safeguards as conditions of their support, requiring not one but two cabinet-level ministers to decide what isn’t a systematic weakness, and requiring that technical surveillance capabilities are mandated only for the most serious of cases (i.e., “OMG Paedoterrorists!”-level threats), with the non-terrorist/non-paedophile majority’s privacy assured as always. And perhaps the Australian political process, renowned worldwide as it is for its high calibre, has managed to, in secret committee, produce a perfectly square circle, a magical golden key that can only be wielded against evildoers and is impervious to abuse, misuse or negligence. (Or at least to the standards of the Australian law of “no worries, she’ll be right mate”; i.e., “I’m not a Muslim, a commo, femmo, pinko, greenie, bikie, trade unionist or any other kind of ratbag, or involved a cop’s ex-missus or anything, and neither are most people, therefore there are no possible problems worth thinking about”)

Of course, the much vaunted safeguards apply only to ordering companies to implement back doors; once the back door has been implemented, it’s there for any subsequent use: everybody’s WhatsApp messages, by law, have an escrowed key that ASIO’s computers can use to automatically decrypt and store them. If Australia’s metadata retention regime is anything to go by, the number of agencies with access to this will only grow. Within 12 months, copyright holders will use this to detect and prosecute someone sending an illegally downloaded TV show episode to a friend, or using a VPN to circumvent pirate site blocks; six months later, local councils will be trawling the plaintext of everyone’s iMessage conversations to find litterers and dog-poo violators. The government will, of course, have a much easier time of bringing the hammer down on troublesome journalists seeking to embarrass them, and anybody even considering talking to them. Meanwhile, somewhere in Queensland, a cop will have an easier time getting a hold of his estranged wife and the new man in her life. And a few years later, when mass surveillance of anything held on network-connected electronics is the new normal, some politician or public servant, impressed by the efficacy of China’s social-credit system or a PowerPoint presentation from Palantir, will suggest a system to aggregate everybody’s plaintext and analyse it to find as yet unidentified potential threats, by assigning everybody a “true-blue Aussie score” based on their chats, photos and file backups and making a list of those with suspiciously low ones. (Bonus card: the Russian mafiya quietly crack the ASIO key-escrow system and spend a few months feeding the plaintext of every Australian’s data into their databases, before embarking on a continent-scale automated extortion campaign.)

Meanwhile, the other four members of Five Eyes will be lining up to send their decryption requests through Canberra; sometimes, having a member of your club which is still, for all administrative purposes, a penal colony and military strongpoint of Empire, where there is by definition no right to privacy from Authority, can be useful.

australia authoritarianism labor surveillance 0

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018
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10:13 pm
On leaving London

I am writing this sitting in the empty shell of the loft flat in the liminal zone between Highbury and Stoke Newington that has been my home for the past 7½ years, ending today. In just under an hour, a taxi will come to take me to Heathrow, to my one-way flight to Stockholm Arlanda Airport. And so, one chapter will end, and another begin.

After 14⅙ years in London, five of them as a British citizen, I have decided to move on; this has been a decision some time in the making. Part of this is a desire to live somewhere else in Europe, not unlike the desire to live somewhere else that brought me to London, though hastened by uncertainty over how long that door shall remain open. Part, I say only half in jest, is a wish to escape the looming Brexit apocalypse. Though it’s mostly for a change: I have some friends in Stockholm, from previous visits, and an opportunity came up to move there.

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<div CLASS="blogitem"><A NAME="201810302213_on_leaving_londo"></A><P> <p>I am writing this sitting in the empty shell of the loft flat in the liminal zone between Highbury and Stoke Newington that has been my home for the past 7½ years, ending today. In just under an hour, a taxi will come to take me to Heathrow, to my one-way flight to Stockholm Arlanda Airport. And so, one chapter will end, and another begin. </p><p> After 14⅙ years in London, five of them as a British citizen, I have decided to move on; this has been a decision some time in the making. Part of this is a desire to live somewhere else in Europe, not unlike the desire to live somewhere else that brought me to London, though hastened by uncertainty over how long that door shall remain open. Part, I say only half in jest, is a wish to escape the looming Brexit apocalypse. Though it’s mostly for a change: I have some friends in Stockholm, from previous visits, and an opportunity came up to move there. <y having done much the same thing 14 years earlier, it is not unprecedented. </p><p> Most of my worldly possessions are now on a lorry, somewhere on the continent; it's due to arrive in Stockholm tomorrow. I have been living out of a standard-issue Australian backpacker bag in my 25 square metre flat, now curiously empty. </p><p> I remember moving into this flat in February 2011; needing to find a place after a share house in Bethnal Green fell apart, and finding this flat, which was only £50 per month dearer than my room in the house, only realising after moving in that the kebab-shop vent points right at the bedroom windows. The first day, the tiny room ceiling-high with boxes, taking a break from unpacking to have a drink at the Edinburgh Cellars (now just the Cellars), and walking in to hear <a href="http://www.last.fm/music/Visage" class="artist">Visage</a>'s “Fade To Grey”; a portentous sign. </p><p> I won’t miss the tiny size of the flat, or the place being too hot, too cold or both at once, or the random odours of burnt oil/grilling meat/I dare not think what sporadically coming from the kebab shop downstairs through the brickwork, the occasional eye-stinging clouds of air freshener rising through the chimney-like stairwell and welling under the low ceiling of my flat like a neon-pink mustard gas when someone in the shop decides to do something about the nidor, or not being able to open the windows on one side because of the shop vent outside and the viscerally gritty stench of decades of fermented grease in the very air outside; I can tell you that the windows in that room remained sealed shut. </p><p> I will, though, miss the very nice Galician tapas place next to the kebab shop, and sitting outside it on the little piazza in the summer with a book, a beer and a basket of bread. I'll miss the views from my living room window, over the Victorian rooftops of Canonbury, of parts of the London skyline, the skeletons of unfinished luxury apartment towers on the horizon, their red lights like something out of a Simon Stålenhag painting. I will also miss the two cafés within a short bike ride, Mouse & De Lotz and Tina We Salute You, and the people who work there, almost all of them artists or musicians of some sort. And I'll miss being within walking distance of gigs at the Shacklewell or the Dalston Victoria, two former West Indian old-men's pubs colonised by Dalston hipsters and putting on consistently good selections of gigs. </p><p> I’ve gotten to know this city, or at least broad slices of it. The myriad numbered bus routes that link it, the cyclists’ ley lines. Favourite pubs and restaurants; the scenes of memorable events: gigs of various sorts, social engagements, the starts of friendships and relationships. A decade and a half of memories, highs and lows that are an inseparable part of my history, inscribed on the canvas that is London; the ancient, many-faceted city that has belonged to countless millions of people throughout its history, amongst them now myself. And the psychogeography of London—the actual, ineffable London of experience, not the fabled, phantasmagorical London of stories and legends—has, in turn, inscribed itself upon my psyche. </p><p> I first arrived in London for a visit, in 2002; at the time, the idea of Britain was intertwined with the country’s impressive musical heritage (for me, mostly post-punk through to indiepop; the first record I ever bought was a New Order 7", and I passed through Cure and Smiths phases, having settled at the time on MP3s of Sarah Records 7"s victimlessly pirated through SoulSeek). I moved to London two years later (as now, an opportunity came up, then in the form of a relaxation of working-holiday visa rules). Gradually, through living there, I became disabused of most of my romantic, anglophilic notions, settling into it being an actual place and condition of being, and the real place named London slowly displaced the idea of London, molecule by molecule. </p><p> Still, there was, for a long time, a sense of unreality: I am not of London, I thought; I am, like many others here, from somewhere else, and would not be in London forever; in a sense, I was just passing through. I met Londoners (some local, some from elsewhere in the UK), who all had their roots, their social circles, their references and in-jokes; I hovered on the periphery of these charmed circles, making acquaintances, and, more gradually, friends; at first, most were also newcomers, uprooted from elsewhere, but gradually, more Britons joined the mix; in retrospect, I was gradually becoming one of them. </p><p> Melbourne, though, was still my hometown, and if asked where I was from, I would answer without hesitation. I kept my 3RRR subscription to this day (for a while, I had a script on the computer in my room grab the streams of programmes, save them to a hard drive, and then play them back, time-delayed, in the morning, in lieu of an alarm clock; at one point, though, the scripts stopped working, and I didn't fix them, though I still tune in from time to time). There was a heavy Melbourne presence in my music collection (though with a leaning to bands I had known before 2004; the more recent “dolewave” indie-rock subgenre passed me by). And it was a joy to meet those from the same milieu and compare notes about the world behind.* </p><p> For a while, London, this city impossibly rich with history and myth, was just my present circumstance, one whose surreality I gradually got used to and stopped noticing. Only now, having spent the past week or so saying goodbye to this city, walking the streets of Stoke Newington, acutely aware that soon it would be just another place somewhere else, did the reality sink of London as a former home I might miss, a place of which nostalgic memories might spontaneously bubble up. That as well as a displaced Melburnian, I would also be, to some degree, a displaced Londoner. </p><p> <small>* At this point, you may be wondering what sort of accent I speak with. While my accent was never broadly “Australian” in the manner of, say, Crocodile Dundee, and a mild Australian accent is not that different from a mild Estuary English accent, I am told that I do sound more British; on my last visit to Melbourne, an elderly family friend remarked that “you sound like a pom”. However, people in Britain sometimes notice a telltale hint of an Australian accent in my speech.</small> </P><p class="blogitemfoot"><span class="sources"></span><span class="permalink"> <a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/archive/2018/10/30#2213_on_leaving_londo" title="On leaving London">&para;</a> <span class="tags"><a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/tags/london">london</a> <a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/tags/personal">personal</a> <a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/tags/travel">travel</a></span> <a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/item/201810302213_on_leaving_londo" target="_blank" title="read/post comments about this post" class="comment" id="itemlink_201810302213_on_leaving_londo">1</a> </span> </p></div>
Friday, August 31st, 2018
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11:33 pm
No mateship for Manning

The Australian government has denied a visa to US whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who was due to speak at the Sydney Opera House, on grounds of character. Civil libertarian groups are, of course, lobbying strenuously for this decision to be reversed, though, inevitably, their pleas will fall on deaf ears. Indeed, there never was a prospect of Manning being allowed into Australia, and anybody who thinks that she might have been does not understand Australia.

Fundamentally, Australia is neither a US-style republic nor a European liberal democracy. Instead, it is the outgrowth of a set of penal colonies and military outposts of a maritime empire, founded on administrative doctrines of such. Its system is not a classically liberal social contract, nor a pretence towards a modern take on the Athenian agora, but books of rules drafted in an office off Pall Mall in London for the maintenance of discipline and smooth running of such a far-flung and potentially fractious enterprise. The colonies were eventually amalgamated into a federal nation, with responsibilities devolved, in due time, from London, and decorated with the trappings of 20th-century liberal democracy, but tradition is a hardy thing, and in many cases, the modern, liberal Australia only goes so deep. Australia, for example, has no equivalent of the US Bill of Rights or the EU Convention on Human Rights; the only formal right that Australians have is that of not having a specific denomination of Christianity imposed as an established state church.

Of course, Australia is not North Korea or even China; informally, there is a generous, if conditional, system, known as the law of Mateship. If you fall under the aegis of Mateship, while you have no formal, official rights enshrined in statutes, you can have faith that the all-powerful authorities will generaly let you be, unless you're seen as some kind of ratbag. How much of a ratbag you have to be to incur the unfriendly attention of the authorities depends on a lot of things, including your skin colour, sex, ethnicity, and whether you fall into any categories of potential troublemakers (which, these days, include Muslims, those easily mistaken for Muslims, brown people in general and transgressors against gender norms). Hence a straight white bloke can, in many cases, get away with all sorts of mischief up to and including advocating (though, of course, not actually carrying out) Communist revolution, whereas if you're, for example, a brown-skinned Muslim, merely having and expressing opinions crosses the line. (A straight white sheila, meanwhile, has most of the privileges of a straight white bloke, unless she complains about sexist banter or becomes Prime Minister or something.) The flipside of the doctrine of Mateship is a ritualised, performative anti-authoritarianism: Australia celebrates outlaw folk heroes from Ned Kelly to Chopper Read (though only if they embody a sort of rough-hewn, stoic masculinity), and, when the time came to replace God Save The Queen as national anthem, came close to choosing a ballad about a sheep thief.

The Law of Mateship is a sort of Australian parallel of Scandinavia's Law of Jante: informal, not actually codified anywhere, and yet of powerful importance, its spirit moving through the society's formal structures, animating its discretionary decisions. Essentially, Mateship is a border; it divides “People Like Us”, who are party to its social contract and entitled to its boons, and the rest of the world, and once you're inside the border, you're in. A recent example is the case of Boofhead, a filthy, rancidly smelly dog whose owner was denied the right to bring it with him into a RSL club; a judge ruled that the club had unlawfully discriminated, and awarded $16,000 in damages. It's tempting to wonder whether a dog by any other name would have been considered in equally good odour by the law, or whether Boofhead's stereotypically Aussie name swung it, but the judge's decision, though not phrased in these words, states clearly that Boofhead is a Mate, and entitled to the protection of the customary rules of Mateship. One of the implications of this is that he has vastly more rights than, say, the asylum seekers on Nauru, imprisoned in the darkness outside of Mateship's border. (Which suggests that perhaps one activist tactic to help these refugees may be to give them quintessentially Aussie nicknames, such as Davo, Shazza and Chook.)

In any case, Chelsea Manning falls outside the boundaries of Mateship sufficiently to be banned from the country under its strict security regime, for two reasons, one official and one unofficial. Officially, Manning is still a convicted criminal against her country, albeit one whose sentence was commuted by Presidential discretion. (She has announced an intention to appeal her conviction, though it has not, to date, been overturned.) Australia has a long-running conservative government, and one which has recently jettisoned an ineffectual centrist leader and lurched further rightward, giving it a simpatico with the Trump administration, not in spite of its sublime awfulness but because of it. Though while this counts as a factor in the decision, it is probably not the deciding factor; I'm not sure that, for example, a Gillard Labor government would have decided otherwise; or, indeed, that any government other than the Whitlam administration would have let Manning in. Informally, Manning being transgender probably does not help her case in a country where the old, rough-and-ready norms of Australian masculinity are digging in for a long siege and attaching themselves to the Murdochian right-wing culture war whose paroxysms often pass for civic discourse, thus being the Wrong Kind Of Ratbag to be privy to Australia's performative anti-authoritarianism.

australia chelsea manning culture mateship 1

Friday, August 10th, 2018
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12:37 am
Long to hang over us

It recently emerged that one of the obligations Australia's parliamentarians have is to provide their constitutents with portraits of the Queen, for free, on request. The portraits (which also include those of her consort, Prince Phillip, though not of any of the more fashionable young royals), along with flags and recordings of the National Anthem, are classified as “nationhood material”, vital for instilling a sense of national consciousness, and are thus included in the budget and obligations of the people's federal representatives for this very purpose. Which, one could imagine, may have made sense historically: in a far-flung outpost of the Empire, awash with rum and the threat of convict rebellion still in living memory, communal loyalty to the distant Crown would have needed all the reinforcement it could get, damn the expense. Either that or this was a piece of Howard/Abbott-era culture-war red meat, to stick it to the inner-city trendy-lefties who'd rather fritter money away on saving wildlife or helping the poor or something. But no: the rule in question dates back to 1990, the height of the Hawke/Keating era, possibly the least likely period in Australian history to produce such a rule.

The rule in question is unique to Australia, at least in the former British Empire. Constituents in the UK may request portraits of Her Royal Highness, but they have to pay for them. In Canada, meanwhile, the government makes the portraits available for download, allowing monarchistically-inclined Canadians to have them printed by the provider of their choice. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, you're on your own.

The revelation of this peculiar rule, in an article in VICE, leading to a flurry of requests to MPs for the monarchic merch. Of course, not everybody is happy with this: some point out that the time and money the MPs and their staffers spend servicing these requests is taken away from more serious duties they would otherwise be performing. Other MPs have been putting a pamphlet from the Australian Republican Movement with each portrait sent.

This rule does raise many questions; among them:

  1. Is there a limit to the number of portraits of the Queen a constituent may request?
  2. Once they are sent, do they become the constituent's property, or do they remain property of the Crown, the Commonwealth of Australia, or some other agency?
  3. Does Australia have any laws restricting what one can do with portraits of the monarch that one owns? Would it be legal, for example, to paint a L.H.O.O.Q.-style moustache on one, or to use it in a mixed-media art piece, mutilating it in the process, or to use it as cavity insulation or a budgie cage liner, or to hang it insalubriously in the backyard dunny, rather than giving it a honoured spot above one's hearth?

(My best guess for the last one, given the chaotic strange attractor that is Australia's larrikin/authoritarian dynamic—in lieu of any kind of bill of rights there is essentially an unspoken gentleman's agreement, while national icons include Ned Kelly and Chopper Read, and a ballad about a livestock thief almost became the national anthem—would be “it's probably technically illegal, but you won't be prosecuted unless the authorities conclude that the average bloke would consider you to be a “ratbag”.”)

australia larrikinism law monarchy queen elizabeth ii 0

Sunday, July 8th, 2018
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12:37 pm
Brexit, Trump and one world cup

So yesterday, England beat Sweden in the world cup, securing their first place in a final in decades, and setting off riotous celebrations. Some football fans, filled with the euphoria of the moment, trashed an IKEA in London, terrorising staff and customers. Others just blocked off streets and jumped on trapped cars.

It’s tempting to see this match, and its aftermath, as the latest flare-up of the Second English Civil War, this time not between the Cavaliers and Roundheads but the Gammons and Snowflakes, and on a broader scale, a Right-vs.-Left grudge match of two fundamentally different world-views of our time. On one hand, England: the bad-boy buccaneers of Brexitland. On the other hand, Sweden, the very symbolic epitome of European liberalism as most unacceptable to the Gammon majority who see themselves as custodians of England’s values, not to mention their fellow travellers in red-state, red-cap America. England may hate the Germans the most, and have hated the French for the longest, but the Swedes are the most egregiously antithetical to the harsh, robust values of the contemporary middle-England whose voice is the Daily Mail. Everything that paper rails against—gender-neutral parenting, multiculturalism, human rights, high taxes spent on the unworthy—is supposedly rampant in Sweden, and if you listen to right-wing older relatives, you will learn that the country is a bankrupt wasteland (due to the inevitable consequences of socialism) and/or an ISIS rape camp.

Sweden is lagom, everything in moderation, with a residual Jante Law stigma against putting oneself above others giving rise to an innate egalitarian tendency. In English, however, it is said that equality is the opposite of quality. We revel in excess. We’re a meritocracy of luxury flats, kept empty as investment units, towering over streets full of hungry, undeserving tramps; a land of teachers and nurses share-housing well into their 40s, and buy-to-let landlords building their well-earned empires, unmolested by redistributive taxation. We’re a nation of hard-working taxpayers who’ve had a gutful of uppity minorities asking to be treated with unearned respect. We're Terry Gilliam jealous of the privileges of imaginary black lesbians, and Morrissey spouting off about Those People. In England, a hedge-fund manager is literally worth thousands of paramedics. And where Sweden believes in universal human rights, inalienable dignity every person is, by definition, entitled to, England, however, divides humans into two camps: “deserving” and “scum”, with the latter to be treated punitively lest they get ideas above their station.

All over the streets outside pubs, mobs of men with St. George flags celebrate jubilantly, blocking traffic and chicken-dancing on the roofs of trapped cars; it's a big boffo day out, like everyone's best mate's stag do. The police come some twenty minutes later and move them on, in their own good time; they’re good lads, just a little overexcited. Hours later, and packs of blokes walk the streets, bellowing out ugly chants about German bombers. We are England, they seem to chant: the English, the English-speaking world, riding the ascending surge of the age. Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief of the English-speaking peoples, is ultimately our leader. Boris Johnson is our shit Churchill for this shit age. Human rights, social justice, Political Correctness, Cultural Marxism, the Frogs and Krauts and all their vino-drinking, garlic-eating chums, all lie vanquished under our boots. And we’re just getting started.

The word on the street here is that the Cup is coming home: home being, of course, England. This is, of course, wishful thinking, but at this stage, it is more plausible than at any recent time. Meanwhile, outside of football, Britain struggles with the consequences of a decision to leave the EU, that has been doubled down upon repeatedly even as it began to look increasingly dubious: Parliament was whipped to irreversibly tear the brakes out of the moving car and throw them out the window. Now, as funding irregularities and connections with Russian government officials emerge, some are talking about the inevitability of a second referendum. If Britain does look like winning the World Cup, perhaps we can expect to see Westminster do a rapid volte-face, approving a second referendum and rushing it through to happen within 24 hours of the victory celebration, in the hope that a groundswell of triumphalism will translate to an increased Leave majority. And in his room deep underneath the Kremlin, the chaos-magus Aleksandr Dugin watches with a smile, knowing that everything is falling into place exactly to plan.

Brexit, Trump and one world cup, all under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin.

brexit culture england football football hooliganism nationalism rightwingers sweden 1

Saturday, May 26th, 2018
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3:55 pm
Banjaxing the Eighth

Yesterday, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on repealing its near-total ban on abortion. The referendum had been many years in planning: other similar referenda had failed in the past, and most infamously, one in 1983 had enshrined, in the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, the rights of a fertilised embryo as being equal to its mother. There was, of course, a lot of discontentment with such an illiberal state of affairs, but the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanava, a 31-year-old woman who died in agony after being denied an abortion even when her pregnancy was no longer viable, was probably what gave this push its momentum. A referendum was announced, and the campaigns started in earnest. Ireland does not allow absentee voting (otherwise its huge diaspora might sway domestic affairs from abroad), so Irish citizens from as far as Australia and Argentina made their ways back to vote. Religious-Right groups in the US sent shiny-faced volunteers with 100-watt smiles to push the No vote. Google and Facebook clamped down on Cambridge Analytica-style targeted ads, with varying reports of effectiveness.

In the run-up to the vote, all the signs pointed to a victory for the Yes campaign, to end the abortion ban. Though, as the vote loomed, the polls tightened, with some suggesting a narrow victory for Yes, with a large number of undecided voters holding sway. There was talk of large numbers of “shy Nos”, people who believed the abortion of fertilised embryos to be murder but not wishing to state this out loud and be seen as reactionary barbarians. Some said that a surprise No triumph would be Ireland's equivalent of Brexit or Trump, a chance for a silent majority of conservative left-behinds to flip the table and savour the tears of the metropolitan-liberal-elites who, until then, had believed themselves to be presiding over inevitable progress. And, of course, the possibility of the vote being swayed by the reactionary international's dark arts: ghost funding making a mockery of electoral laws, psychographically targeted ads, supposedly autonomous campaigns coördinated with military precision. Would change come, or would it be deferred for another generation? And even if Yes scraped through a narrow victory, that would give conservative legislators the cover to nobble the resulting legislation to the point of ineffectuality.

It turned out one need not have worried: the Yes case has been carried by roughly a ⅔ majority. The first exit poll gave Yes 68% of the vote; the count, with 29 of 40 constituencies declared is within a narrow margin of this. No has conceded the referendum (though of course not the divinely-mandated principle behind their position), and it looks like the 8th amendment will be repealed and laws governing the provision of abortion services, along similar criteria to elsewhere in Europe, will be passed.

(Someone I know once jested, “I'm Irish. I can do anything—except have an abortion.” It looks like she will now have to retire that line.)

This is a major shift, or rather, a sign of a major shift that had been happening for some time now. Ireland having emphatically legalised same-sex marriage a few years ago was another sign of this. The Irish republic that arose after independence, when Catholic nationalists consolidated their power—a dour, authoritarian, priest-ridden backwater, a country that condemned its unmarried mothers to penal institutions, and in which the all-powerful church vetoed the formation of a British-style national health service because secular institutions alleviating the people's misery sounded like Communism—has not existed for some time, replaced by a modern, secular nation, and only now is the extent of the transformation becoming undeniably apparent. And if there were any shy voters, it was not the mythical Silent Majority of reactionary conservatives hankering for the certainties of the good old days, but those remembering all the suffering and misery imposed by laws that have stripped women of autonomy over their bodies, many only realising after the vote that they were in the majority, not just in the entirety of Ireland but even in their own, supposedly conservative, rural province. (And the disappearance of the expected strong rural No vote, counterbalancing liberal Dublin and Cork and pushing the result to a cliffhanger, is one of the stories of the day; while final results are not in yet, exit polls have No with a majority—and a slender one—in only one of the 40 constituencies.) One big take-away may be that the myth we have been conditioned to accept, of the silent majority of public opinion inevitably being viciously reactionary, is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.

The immediate consequences—Ireland's infamously restrictive abortion laws being brought into line with the liberal secular world—are fairly straightforward. What remains to be seen are the secondary effects. The most obvious one will be pressure on Northern Ireland's own draconian abortion laws. Northern Ireland, whilst a province of the UK, is run as a hard-line Protestant sectarian state, established out of fear of the hard-line Catholic sectarian state across the border. Now that that state visibly no longer exists, it will be harder to maintain it as a special case increasingly divergent from both the Republic and the rest of the UK. The evaporating power of Catholic sectarianism in the Republic may also make the formerly unthinkable—reunification—less so (especially when the alternative, reconciling Hard Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement, appears to be logically impossible). Whether the result carries beyond Ireland is another question: they're talking about legalising abortion in New South Wales now. And while a No victory would have emboldened anti-abortion activists in other countries, it's not clear whether Ireland having voted Yes will have much impact in, say, Poland or Hungary, where proudly illiberal Catholic hypernationalism is on the march.

Beyond reproductive rights, the result may be another milestone on a trading of places, culturally and economically, between Ireland and England. As Britain (though, in reality, largely England-minus-London), led by its xenophobic tabloids, voted to cut itself off from Europe, to expel foreigners and become less liberal, both individuals and businesses have been scoping out locations abroad. (You can't find office space for love or money in Frankfurt these days, and Berlin's gentrification has been accelerated by a flood of Brefugees with MacBooks.) Ireland has been cited by many as a more open alternative to the UK, though there has been a perception that it is both smaller and more parochial. The Irish electorate's recent decisions are likely to put paid to the second objection: the first may last a little longer, but if one remembers what low esteem, say, dining in Britain was held in a few decades ago, or the sleepy, bureaucracy-ridden nature of doing business there, it may not take long for Dublin to displace London altogether.

abortion catholic culture europe ireland politics 0

Sunday, May 13th, 2018
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1:09 am
Eurovision 2018

Well, that's Eurovision for another year. Israel ended up winning, with a studiedly kooky yet impeccably produced electro-pop number, involving dollops of Björkisms, kawaii and chicken impressions. Which was probably more interesting than the two runners-up: Cyprus with a track that was a certain variety of Eurovision by numbers, and Sweden with a handsome young man doing a mildly funky, highly polished though otherwise unexceptional number. (Sweden finished 2nd in the jury choice and 7th in the overall; a result good enough to preserve the reputation of its Eurovision-song industry and keep the hit factories of Stockholm busy on half of Eurasia's contenders for 2019.) Australia's entry, a competent club-pop ballad by Jessica Mauboy, finished in the middle of the bottom half of the final result, though made it into the top half of the jury results; for some reason, getting 1/10 of the votes from the public that they got from the jury. (Presumably there aren't enough Aussie backpackers around EBU countries these days, and the antipodean nation doesn't fit into any European voting blocs.) The UK entered what appeared to be an early, not entirely successful, experiment at cloning Annie Lennox. They did, well, typically, ending up third from last. (I was half hoping, very much against hope, that they'd win, the population of Europe deciding, with exquisite irony, to saddle Brexitland with having to host a celebration of pan-European unity. It seems that Europe has better things to worry about than the quasi-tourettic tantrums of some objectionable self-exiled strangers on an island in the Atlantic. Toodle-pip, Britain, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.)

The UK's entry was, once again, cited as a return to form, as Britain flexing its formidable pop muscles and fielding an entry so strong that they may just be in with a chance of (whisper it) winning. And while the entry, SuRie, was indeed qualitatively better than some of the cringeworthy contenders it fielded over the preceding decade or two (the middle-aged white gangsta rapper, the singing flight attendants, Jemini and so on), it looked half-baked next to Australia's entry, which predictably left the UK in the dust. Perhaps it's the contrast in attitudes: while generations of Australians have grown up having the annual Eurovision party (always a good excuse for a drink with mates), the UK still is hamstrung by the sniffy disdain it has for those silly foreigners on the other side of the channel, and a sense of reluctance to lower itself to their level; it was always there, though went septic around the time of Tony Blair's bromance with George W. Bush, and has never entirely receded.

(The UK's entry was made slightly more exciting when some bloke with writing on his T-shirt ran onto the stage and grabbed the microphone for a moment. It is not entirely clear what his issue was: was he het up about chemtrails or Cultural Marxism or something? Did he have strong opinions about something like the Irish abortion referendum? Or was he perhaps a fanatical Bitcoiner striking a blow against fiat currency, or possibly one of those “incels”? I guess we may never know the truth.)

Other entries of note: Finland named its song “Monsters”, which given that, unlike its 2006 entry, it was not a heavy-metal number performed in monster costumes but rather respectably ordinary Eurovision electropop, was writing a cheque it had little hope of cashing. Hungary did have a heavy-metal band, with pyrotechnics and all, who looked about 14. Denmark's entry was Viking-themed, though was more a minor-key AOR ballad than hard rock. Moldova's entry was a cheeky sex-farce mimed around a set of doors and windows; think Benny Hill with Balkan beats. The Czech Republic did a sort of new-jack funk-rap thing, only stylised as nerdy/quirky, and thus less bland than Sweden's entry; the phrase “Czechia self before you wrechia self” did come to mind. And Ukraine fulfilled the Eurovision Goth quota, with a disco Dracula waking from inside a grand piano, and playing as the flames rose around him.

So Eurovision will be in Israel next year; presumably in Tel Aviv. Which means, among other things, that it's quite likely that Dana International will be one of the hosts. Presumably Britain will still be competing, the BBC paying enough into the EBU to retain its guaranteed contender slot regardless of the quality of its entry.

eurovision 1

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018
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1:00 am
The system works as it was designed to

So, the Cambridge Analytica revelations: The broader outline (shadowy company, owned by right-wing billionaires and possibly connected to Russian intelligence interests, uses big data, psychological algorithms and targeted ads to fix elections, including the 2016 US Presidential one and the Brexit referendum) had started trickling out since late 2016. They would have remained an ominous undercurrent, known of by the vanquished liberal minority and embellished with layers of speculation, conspiracy theory and fatalistic gallows humour, were it not for a former operative spilling the beans, revealing further details. Details such as that that the data went beyond the usual broad-brush correlations between brand likes one thinks of when considering ad targeting and went into alarmingly intimate data aggregated from sources including Facebook private messages and credit profiles; and that, while the data was taken from Facebook by deception (under the claim that it was to be used for academic purposes; naming one’s company “Cambridge Analytica” can yield dividends, it seems), Facebook did not try particularly hard to enforce the terms of use ostensibly protecting its users (and, it seems, democracy and civil society themselves).

The elephant in the room, of course, is Facebook and its business model, which has been described, aptly, as “surveillance capitalism”. Facebook does not charge for its services, and funds itself through a modest amount of ads. What it does, however, is build up elaborate profiles of its users, sucking up their every online interaction it can to extend them. Where likes, posts, messages and location data don't suffice, it supplements with data from data brokers, gathered from credit ratings, things such as loyalty card programmes, and public-domain data. This yields a vast amount of data, which, when processed with sufficient computing power, can reveal a lot about users: in their less circumspect moments, Facebook's data scientists have revealed that they can tell a lot of things on an individual from their data trail, from political leanings to sexual orientation, to how likely their current relationship is to end; what other things they can determine about an individual given that data is an open question. What is not disputed, though, is that Facebook's very business model depends on using this data to target advertising, and their acuity in doing so to make revenue. In short, everything Cambridge Analytica allegedly did with their haul of illicitly obtained data, Facebook can do, continuously and at far greater scale.

This has not escaped notice, and the backlash has hit Facebook, not helped by Mark Zuckerberg's protracted silence on the matter. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook is trending on Twitter, urging users to nuke their Facebook accounts, and giving instructions on how to actually force Facebook to delete their data permanently, rather than just flagging it as temporarily inactive; the latest to add their name to the chorus is one of the founders of WhatsApp, a messaging system now owned by Facebook. Of course, that is easier said than done.

In some ways, it is easy: the instructions are easy to follow, and involve clicking through a few screens, entering the text in a CAPTCHA and watching one's digital life and/or surveillance dossier go up in virtual flames. What comes after is the hard part. Facebook have worked hard to own the social graph, and to make it difficult to take your friends with you when you leave. (The timeline you see on Facebook is, famously, not a chronological firehose of all your Facebook friends' posts, but a selection of a small proportion of those, chosen by the same all-knowing algorithms that know which ads to show you. It is said—though is, of course, difficult to verify—that those algorithms specifically score posts giving or requesting means of contact outside of Facebook down.) Or course, downloading a list of one's friends' names and email addresses/phone numbers is a nonstarter from the outset, ostensibly for reasons of privacy, so one's only bet is to individually contact the friends one wants to keep, one by one, to exchange details, resigning oneself to losing contact with the rest.

Other than owning the social graph, Facebook have managed to become the hub of socialisation in the 2010s by reducing friction. It is a lot easier to create a Facebook event for, say, a birthday party or an excursion to see a film, than to individually invite people to add the event to their calendars, and conversely socialising without Facebook has been consigned to the realm of Victorian-era calling cards. It is possible to socialise deliberately, with a few close friends one has in one's address book, but this does not scale. Social software such as Facebook has genuinely reduced friction and saved time, allowing people to keep in minimal touch with people they are peripherally connected to, and also reducing the time required to keep in touch with other, less peripheral, friends; the hectic pace of modern life has filled the time thus freed up. Thus, most people have no more time for phoning/texting/emailing non-core friends, who all are on Fscebook anyway, than they do for composing a multi-paragraph blog post which nobody will probably read. The sad reality of the 21st-century human condition is that Mark Zuckerberg owns the space between us, and leaving Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp) is, in many ways, to retreat from modern society; a radical, deliberate act, equal parts Ted Kaczynski and Into The Wild.

Perhaps this will change; perhaps Facebook will end up going the way of former unassailable titans such as MySpace, and be replaced by something else. If that something else is run by another venture-capital-funded surveillance-marketing organisation, the situation will not improve. (Facebook itself, at the start, seemed like a much cleaner and less spammy/scammy operation than MySpace.) There are glimmers of hope in the decentralised sphere, where developers are creating open, decentralised alternatives to corporate-owned monolithic silos. One example is Mastodon, a Twitter-like microblogging system. One thing those services don't currently have, though, outside of mass adoption, is granular privacy settings: it is not possible yet to make non-public posts to one, or to filter posts by group. Once this is implemented, in a way that works robustly across instances, and presumably uses cryptography, there might be a system ready to step into the gap when Facebook stumbles that is not inherently predatory on a structural level.

For now, however, those who are not willing to brave the wilderness are more or less stuck with Facebook; however, it is possible to reduce your profile, by reducing the amount of personal data one posts to it, and removing it from one's mobile devices (or, if not possible, revoking the app's permissions to access things like location information). I would add to this list: not logging into Facebook from one's main web browser, keeping a separate browser with separate cookies for using it, ideally running in a separate virtual machine.

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