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Sunday 30 August 2020

Skip Week

Sorry, folks. I've got literally nothing right now. I am an empty vessel.

It's not that there isn't plenty to talk about. I just don't have the spoons to talk about anything meaningful, and anything trite would feel... well.. trite.

Catch you next week.

Sunday 23 August 2020

Brave Faces, Everone

Fair warning, this one is going to get a little dark as it goes on. It's going to talk about depression and suicide, so consider yourself warned.

Sometimes I get swept up in musical obsessions.

I say sometimes. It happens semi-regularly. Either a song I already knew that has just come back into my life in a big way, like The Pavilion (A Long Way Back) by Coheed & Cambria...

...or something that is totally new to me that just totally sweeps me off my feet, like May I Have This Dance, by Francis & The Lights (this version featuring Chance the Rapper).

Around four weeks ago I did a thingy on the social media wherein I asked for a band name, and I would throw out my favourite song by that band. It was neat, because I liked seeing what everyone else's was - I picked up a couple of bands that I hadn't really thought much about prior to that - and I also gave a serious thought to bands for whom I had only listened to one or two songs.

Well, someone (thanks Gareth) gave me Spanish Love Songs as a band - so I grabbed the only song of theirs that I really knew, which was this one: Losers.

It was two weeks later that I thought, hey - that song I put up. Maybe I should go back and listen to the rest of the album - named Brave Faces Everyone. Why not.

And that's when it happened.

Why would someone who suffers from serious depression - and has done for a long ass time, definitely longer than they have been diagnosed, probably since middle school - want to listen to a lot of songs that are... objectively sad?

The same reason as people ride roller coasters and watch horror movies, of course. Just from a different angle.

When you have this particular mind-chemical malfunction, everything sucks. Like, it absolutely sucks. Sadness is a byproduct, rather than the main effect, but it's an inescapable one at times. You get to feel fucking sad, sometimes without warning, for no apparent reason.

Sometimes you want to feel sad for an actual reason. You want to understand why. You want to know why, you want it to have a context. Just like there's different kinds of fear, there's different kinds of sadness - just try watching Schindler's List and Blade Runner, for two examples.

Music can do this, can lead to all different flavours of sadness. Barber's Adagio for Strings, example. Itzhak Perlman's main theme from Schindler's List. This version of Brandi Carlile's Party Of One, which also features Sam Smith. Round Here, by Counting Crows.

Spanish Love Songs bring forth a very specific form of sadness, in me, and that is in no small part due to Dylan Slocum's songwriting finesse and his voice. I know I bang on a lot about singers and their voices, but his voice is perfect.

The very first song on this album - Routine Pain - begins with this:

On any given day, I'm a six of ten

Bed to desk to bar, eyes on the floor

Still apologizing for the way I've been

Each breath more full of shit than the one before

I mean... that's a statement.

I don't think I can write an entire screed about the instrumentation - it's very good but it isn't anything I can be particularly insightful about. Suffice to say that all of it is a superb accompaniment for the stories that we are being told, and the pleading, entreating, broken voice telling them.

That speaks to me. Right? It being inescapable that the singer feels the song they are singing. That they aren't unaffected, that they can't be, because that song is coming from a part of them. That they are telling you a part of their truth. You are being shown a facet of the person behind the microphone and the lyric sheet.

This, from Beachfront Property:

Said: "it's the end of days

And you're still pissing in the wind"

Don't believe in God

But figured he'd be a better planner than this

The entire album is filled with gems like this, little moments of song that jump out and grab you. That sink in and make you think.

One song in particular, though, really got its hooks in me.

It's called Optimism (As A Radical Life Choice), and the first time I heard it, I literally had to put down the mini I was painting and stare at my speaker until the song was finished.

Can't even have my coffee without exploiting someone

Or making another millionaire, or billionaire

What would it take to be happy?

I'll probably start with the money

It was as I listened that I realised another point of sad music, and why it is important.

Armageddon on my mind

I'll try to smile all the time

Like Hell's a construct that I need

To make amends or keep myself clean

And yes, I'm aware it's fleeting

See, a big part of depression - a big aspect of how it can fuck you up so badly - is because it isolates you. It cuts you off from all the good feeling in the world. It separates you mentally and emotionally from everyone that isn't going through this, convinces you that this is all on you.

It tells you that you are alone.

One thing that music does - even music about being isolated, even music about being alone - is tell you that, at least one other person has felt this, and is feeling it. At least one other human being has stood on the same spot that you currently occupy. A person has been where you are, and has felt what you felt; and as the truth of the words sink in, the numbness cracks.

But I'm done dying on the inside

Now that everything is dying outside

The sky is letting go

Of holding on like a crying child

Sure, often, it cracks into tears; it fades away to reveal a surface raw and aching and tired, but you are feeling it, you are feeling something, and it's okay to do so. Before the sociological conditioning that we've been at the mercy of our entire lives kicks in and shames us into feeling guilty for daring to have an emotion we can't adequately conceal.

But for those few moments, you actually want to live; and that's when the chorus speaks for you.

Don't take me out back and shoot me

I know my circuits are faulty

Now I've only ever been a kid

Pointing out dead dogs on the road

Take me down in the landslide

Can we weather this high tide?

I'll wear you out waiting for me to implode

Don't take me out back and shoot me

How eloquently a song can advocate for a person's mindstate. How devastatingly it can take that simplest, most basic plea that - when it gets really bad - we aren't even capable of voicing aloud, when every ounce of brain chemistry is yanking the wheel toward the oncoming lane.

We're trying. Please, don't give up on us.

Don't take me out back and shoot me.

It's been a tough few months. It's been a tough half-a-year. We're all suffering. I daresay almost all of us have lost people in one way or another. Times like these lead to thoughts like these, and anything we can do to navigate our way out of the shadows and want to be saved is a bonus.

Look after yourselves and each other.

No pushing my Patreon this week. Instead, consider donating to Papyrus UK. They work in suicide prevention. Thank you. Sorry this was a rough ride, but - sometimes it has to be.

Sunday 16 August 2020

No War In Ba Sing Se

At times, when the world is a dumpster fire, it can feel like focusing on something that isn't the dumpster fire is a little bit like insisting there is no war in Ba Sing Se.

Two competing drives: one to not be dragged down by the soul-sucking quagmire of shit that is the bad news, one to not turn away from it and let it slide.

Not an easy balancing act.

I am of course a huge proponent of the fact that we contain multitudes. That it is possible to be aware of and think about multiple things at once. Like when a news story pops up, and the immediate response is "They're just using X to distract you from Y", well - they may be hoping that is what will happen, but fact is, most people don't forget X just because they are absorbing Y.

The event I covered last week - the explosion at the docks in Beirut - didn't make us forget that they still haven't locked up the cops that killed Breonna Taylor.

But while we can think about multiple things at once, it's hard to write a piece that covers a multitude of situations that are occurring, and not feel like there might be something else that one is missing.

The exam results, for one.

Where the Coronavirus pandemic has absolutely shit-showed the education system for a while - like really knocked the crap out of it - kids haven't been able to take their exams. Given that our system as it exists doesn't take very much into account in terms of delays, the government decided in its wisdom to let the Office of Qualifications (Ofqual) throw together an algorithm to sort out who deserved what grade.

Ofqual were offered assistance by the Royal Society of Statistics - the kind of people that would be quite good at analysing and utilising significant swathes of data - but wouldn't accept the assistance unless the RSS signed a Non Disclosure Agreement.

And thus, over a third of A Level students awaiting their grades to get them into University found that they had been marked down - substantially in a lot of cases - from every prediction that they had been given, and thus, denied their shot at higher education because the computer said no.

Notably, there was a significant statistical trend toward these downgraded marks happening in low-income areas.

The government dismissed any concerns as to their short-selling literally hundreds of thousands of teenagers, because why would they give a fuck? Everyone in Eton got the grades they wanted.

Lets face it, the system wasn't great in the first place, but to fuck it up this badly and then just wash your hands of it is a disgrace.

At the same time as our government fails our youth, some people are angry that we haven't sent out the navy to blow up innocent people in the channel, legally seeking asylum.

This, of course, is very useful to certain members of the government. There's a certain hard core of people in this country that have zero empathy toward foreigners of any kind, and if the government can be seen to be hating refugees as much as they do, then they can rely on the support of that hard core. The fact that they can just suspend their feelings toward the people, actual people, desperately trying to find somewhere safe to live, desperate enough that they would take an unsafe boat across the Channel to a country that seems to hate them, is indicative of a deeper problem.

The landslide of shit isn't constrained to this side of the Atlantic, obviously. Protests against racial injustice continue, and while a hundred tiny platitudes are made by people that aren't being asked to make them, the actual changes demanded aren't being made.

Then there is the ongoing war against an actual democratic election.

It is, of course, just like Donald Trump to torpedo a lifeline service for millions of people - even a significant percentage of his voter base - because it is a means by which people can vote. When your tactic to win the election is to prevent people from voting, you know that you've messed up.

It's working, though. The US Postal Service has had its Postmaster General replaced with an individual that seems to be determined to run it into the ground, and by their direction, postboxes in Blue-voting neighbourhoods in Red states are being removed, and the entire service is being slowed down by various measures.

And he ADMITTED it, that this was his plan... because, well... what can anyone do about it?

There were more fraudulent signatures on the paperwork that got Kanye West registered on voter forms than there were fraudulent votes in the entire 2016 election, but... you know.

If you are seeing a common thread behind this landslide of shit, you are right to.

Also the ice caps are melting because of us and a virus is killing us because a significant chunk of the population don't like masks and don't think it's real.

So... picking out one of those for a deep dive feels like I am ignoring the others. And picking out none of them feels like I am ignoring the entire world.

What a shit time to be a thinker.

And I've been looking for the little bright moments in amongst this torrent of fecal matter, and they are... few and far between. And often they only exist because the shitty situation necessitated them in the first place. But they DO exist.

The government - and not just the government - are so hostile to the presence of refugees on our shores that when celebrities and individuals express sympathy towards them, they're immediately attacked for it. Told they are Virtue Signalling - something I have spoken about before. That they are just trying to look good without doing anything about it. "Have you housed any refugees, Gary?" he was asked by a galaxy-brain Twitter user. "Not yet," he replied - accompanied by his paperwork for actually doing that very thing.

Despite the carnage of an overwhelmingly undergraded A Level crop this year, Oxford University College is honouring all of the offers that it made, regardless of the probably fallacious results sent out by Ofqual.

A study involving Cambridge university, an Estonian university and several Swedish university groups has found a protein that could prevent Alzheimer's.

Ben Shapiro, right-wing munchkin, is getting his ass royally roasted after deciding to take a swing at successful hip hop musicians. It seems he doesn't believe that vaginas can self-lubricate, if sufficiently stimulated. I suppose the abstinence method of sex education has its flaws. His poor wife.

We're still here, life still carries on, and with every day that we have, we can try and make things better. Not just for ourselves, either.

I suppose that is the takeaway.

Yes, there is a war in Ba Sing Se - but there's cabbages, too.

If you'd care to share my blog with your friends, I'd appreciate that! If you'd like to thank me in a fiscal form for entertaining you a little bit, I do have a Patreon right here, but please - no pressure. Thank you for reading, and check my social media to the right to keep in touch.

Sunday 9 August 2020

Like A Wound

The explosions in the Beirut docks probably haven't escaped anyone's attention.

They came at a time of economic crisis and surging poverty in the Lebanon - not that things have been terribly easy at most points in my father's homeland. There's good days and bad years. Surrounded by aggressive neighbours, formerly a French colony, as a nation the Lebanese people have suffered significantly.

And now, this.

To give you an indication of scale here, both of those ships up top - the two that are out of alignment in the second picture - are at least 100m long. And you could fit one of them sideways in the diameter of the hole blown in the docks.

The sheer scale of the detonation of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate is hard to convey properly. To picture what it would do to the surrounding area is difficult outside of wartime. In a heatwave of tremendous proportions, while the world struggles with a pandemic that various local governments seem to be actively assisting on a daily basis, a swathe of destruction visits a city of 2.2 million people.

Over 150 dead, over 6,000 injured, 3,000 families left homeless instantly.

They felt it in Cyprus, 150 miles away. It registered as a 4.5 magnitude earthquake in Jordan.

Conspiracy theories came to light immediately, of course - and not all of them are out of bounds. There are many people that claim to have seen or heard a jet in the air before and after the explosion. The Israeli government issued a statement very rapidly saying that they had nothing to do with it.

I won't jump to conclusions - especially given that the official explanation is not only totally feasible but also totally unsurprising. That the nitrate was left in the docks unsafely by a ship owned by an oligarch, that the ship was damaged, that the ammonium nitrate was moved to improper storage because there wasn't any certified storage, that the stockpile was neglected for years despite attempts of several parties to make officials aware of the danger, and that a simple small fire would do the rest.

I know it is hard to believe that something so huge and so overwhelming could happen because of a few select moments of complacency and minor accidents, but it's more easy to believe than you'd think.

If you find it hard to imagine the damage, though - well...

Here's what it looks like overlaid on London. Everything in that middle circle is flattened, totally destroyed. Everything in the wider circle is structurally damaged, and that third circle, your windows are getting blown in. Imagine the entirety of Wembley having their windows blown in by an explosion.

And if you look at this?

If you're in that big circle, you actually hear it happen. You could be standing on the beach at Dunkirk and hear it.You could hear it from Wales.

We'd find it hard enough to deal with that situation, and we're - yes, despite everything - in a much better economic situation than the Lebanon.

My heart aches for a people I've never met. I feel like I know so much about Beirut from my father's stories, from my own reading and studies of its history and its situation. It hurts, to see it so torn like this.

So I'm not going to ask for your membership to my Patreon this week. I'm going to ask you to donate to the British Red Cross' charity appeal for the Lebanon, or any other charitable cause that will help; and then I'm going to ask you to share this with someone, anyone.

Because it's what we SHOULD do. Because it is right.

Sunday 2 August 2020

A Soul To The Universe

The title of this blog is from a quote from Plato:
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
Stirring stuff.

What's your favourite piece of music from a movie?

Sometimes the right musical accompaniment can absolutely make a scene; and sometimes they can become absolutely iconic in their own right, even removed from the cinematic context they were originally presented in. I don't know a lot of people who wouldn't know Chariots of Fire, even if they haven't seen the film - and they will probably associate it with running in slow motion, at least.

Because I can, I'm gonna throw a bunch of different bits of movie score at you (with one honorable mention that isn't TECHNICALLY score but is CLOSE), and talk about why I like them. Where possible I will link you to the scene as it happens in the movie - otherwise, we'll have a nice little chat about it.

Fair warning: there will be spoilers for the movies below. If you haven't seen them, me talking about them may well clue you in on plot elements best left secret.

The Medbay (Alien Covenant, Jed Kurzel)

Well jesus this whole bit is literally horrible

So this anxiety-inducing collection of noises plays over an entire sequence of an infected member of the crew of the Covenant being brought about a shuttle, taken to the med bay, and then something awful happening to him. This awful thing explodes out of his back, kills the crewmate in the room with him, and leads the surviving crewmate to such terror that she accidentally blows up the fucking shuttle trying to kill the little bastard.

The way it all happens, the way it all pans out, is so tense - so frantic - I forgot to breathe for the entire scene. It's what horror is all about. The panic, the alarm, the wrongness. The entire thing having been okay if only the hundred things that went wrong didn't go wrong. If only the floor wasn't slippery. If only the door was tougher. If only, if only, if only.

Probably my favourite bit of the movie.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Laputa / Castle In The Sky, Joe Hisaishi)

Just before this opening sequence, all we know is that the world of Castle In The Sky - my favourite Ghibli movie - has airships, air pirates, military spies, and a girl with a necklace who would rather fall from aforementioned airship than let the necklace fall into the hands of aforementioned air pirates.

Then you are treated to this gorgeous, glorious piece of music by the master Joe Hisaishi himself, and presented with the animation above - which not only sums up the history of the world you're about to inhabit for the next hour and a half, but also tells you the plot, if you're careful enough to pay attention.

The piece is masterful. Emotive, soaring and gentle by turns, touching, epic in scope. A constantly-descending chord structure that gently reminds you that this title sequence is playing out while a girl is, literally, falling from the sky.

Just breathtaking.

Anakin's Betrayal (Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith, John Williams)

If any one good thing came out of the prequels, it was the music.

For two and a half movies, the watcher waits for the moment; the point wherein the Emperor seizes control of the Republic, takes over the Senate, and begins the destruction of the Jedi. We know it is coming. We all know it is coming, and god help us, we're ready for it by the time it rolls around.

And aside from a ropey moment involving Yoda (god I hate every prequel scene involving Yoda), what you witness is a total betrayal. The armed forces that the Jedi have been fighting alongside, become friends with, even been on first name terms with in several places, turning on them and cutting them down with absolute impunity.

It's more than the brutal murder of all a whole bunch of the Jedi. It's the moment that the tables turn. And front and centre is Anakin Skywalker who cements his place in this entire thing - just after helping Palpatine murder Mace Windu - by massacring all the kids in the temple. (He has past form in terms of kid-murder, it bears mention.)

That's how the piece feels. It's a fall from grace of the highest order, an act of awful brutality; this is the moment that the clouds roll in and everything goes dark. Sure, there's other bits of music from Star Wars that are more iconic and stand-out, but this is just... breathtaking.

New Dawn Fades (Heat, Moby / Joy Division)

This is technically a song in its own right (even the instrumental version of a cover of a song) but - hey, I did say there would be an honourable mention.

Cutting through the Los Angeles night, two men, one of them chasing the other, hounding him down toward an inevitable destructive conclusion. The tenacity with which these men pursue their goals, the total embrace of their lifestyle to the point of breakdown.

I love Michael Mann's film work, the way he paints the parts of a city that most people don't even think about. I love how the blasting guitars and the rhythm section is like a constant onslaught of noise; like a barrage on the senses, all things travelling towards the witness at high speed, a crash imminent.

And the scene that follows? The two of them drinking coffee together? Absolutely stellar.

Burn It All (Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson)

The king is dead. All hail the king. Killmonger has overthrown T'Challa and become both Black Panther and king of Wakanda - and he does the next thing in the playbook of the coup... he pulls up the ladder behind him, destroying the route to power. He will be the last king, or nobody will be. He burns the herb that grants the Black Panther his power, torching it in a symbolic demolition of the traditions that make Wakanda, Wakanda.

And then he walks to the throne, in a beautiful shot that starts upside down, the world gone horribly awry, twisting slowly into focus as the new reality settles in: Killmonger is king.

The mournful singing and traditional music undercut by the sharp trap beats, the instantiation of the new over the old, interweaving but not synchronising; a harsh visitor from a different tradition. A spear point in the heart of that which once was normal.

I really like this movie - oh, and the guy that composed the score? Also did The Mandalorian.

Sea Wall (Blade Runner 2049, Hans Zimmer / Benjamin Wallfisch)

This is what it comes down to; a last all-or-nothing scramble, not to save the world, not to save the revolution, not to protect the people you care about, but to do the thing that you believe you should be doing. To do the one right thing, that you know you can do, in that moment in time. To do the good thing, even if humanity sees you as being nothing but a tool that will do whatever it is told.

While the Vangelis-helmed score of Blade Runner was a sumptuously designed electronic ensemble, it still held together with a structure, much like the city of Los Angeles it was based in; it was broken, scattered, wired up and buzzing, but it still had edges and corners. The score of 2049 shows the world as falling apart, a degradation of those aforementioned structures, a distortion of everything that existed before; snarling angry synths and the constant, overpowering crush of oppression and mother nature alike.

Here the electronic noise of the city echoes in as if from far away; we start with the pounding pulse beats of a chase, and end up with this flowing, swelling reverberation, unstoppable as the tide as it sweeps in to wash away everything it touches. The savage subtonal growl of distortion sits below it, the violence that K and Luv inflict upon each other over the fate of Rick Deckard, beating each other half to death even as the ocean threatens to claim them both.

Moody, dark, insidious, angry. No wonder I like it so much, it reminds me of me when I first wake up in the morning.

The Alien (Annihilation, Ben Salisbury / Geoff Barrow)

There were so many good choices for this movie, but I had to go with this one.

Throughout the entire movie, the group move through The Shimmer, finding how it and everything within it has been changed. They, too, change. Move away from who and what they were, alter until they are not themselves, or are far enough removed that looking back on who they were is a gulf that can't be crossed again. It is about change, it is all about change.

Until an object is discovered - a being - an alien - that begins as nothing but noise and light, a concept more than anything. And it takes shape, and form, and copies that which it sees, until it has become a simulacra. While Lena (played superbly by Natalie Portman) has become a totally different entity to the person that agreed to enter The Shimmer, she finds that this being - in mere moments - becomes the person that she was all along. This bafflingly inhuman object, taking form as she watches.

There are no answers, here. There is no explanation. There is only this object, the changes wrought inside and out, and the promise that there will always be part of the universe that you will not understand.

There's a lot of others that don't make this list but really should - The Prowler from Spider-Verse, First Encounter from Arrival, Nightstalker from Ghost In The Shell (the original one not that rubbish one), Bishop's Countdown from Aliens, I Could Have Done More from Schindler's List, to name but a few.

It all comes down to this: sometimes the score makes the scene. Sometimes the score IS the scene.

Flight to the imagination, and life to everything.

If you'd care to share my blog with your friends, I'd appreciate that! If you'd like to thank me in a fiscal form for entertaining you a little bit, I do have a Patreon right here, but please - no pressure. Thank you for reading, and check my social media to the right to keep in touch.