30 December, 2009

As The World Dies, The Eyes Of God Grow Bigger

24 hours left. I'm writing to say there is one album left for you to download (for free, and legally) and experience before the year runs out and that you should do so by clicking this link. Also I try to express why. I wasn't going to do a list for 2009, I didn't listen to barely any of the new stuff that interests me, but maybe I shall, because it is fun, if fruitless.

To be clear, the only purpose of this initial paragraph is to make some kind of bridge between my starting to type and my eventual inevitable gushing of uncontrollable torrents of praise. Well, almost. All The Empires Of The World had split when I reviewed their previous offering, the Last Rites EP. Now this Schrödinger’s Band of a three-piece have released an album – an honest-to-goodness LP. The collision chamber is loaded with all the expressions of unabashed doom, high-volume overtures, expansive ambient phases and paranoia from a past age that marked ATEOTW’s previous releases, and the lever is thrown. End result: the fifty-two and a half minute span of Blessings.

On first listen, the sheer fist-pumping exuberance of seemingly everything I heard had me completely breathless. Opener Sands of Saturn tumbles only slowly into its beginning, but then makes a most magnificently theatrical announcement of its presence, yawningly manoeuvres around for similar glorious outburst before coming up astride a refrain of pure victory. Each time, the hammer-blow is heralded by a high-end shriek, which I can only assume was intended to have that Pavlovian effect on the listener. The second track features equally hair-raising roaring - mashing one’s head around to Ghosts of Sargasso/Of The Father is music made participatory to the same extent as Guitar Hero. Later, Asleep At The Temple pairs uneasy quiet with two piercing volleys of fight-or-flight chaos that are fit to wake the dead.

Throw in a couple of the other eardrum-threatening moments on the album, and you already have a monster of an LP which will certainly make you smile a little wider, breathe a little heavier, and drink a little more, or faster. This is definitely the most out-and-out fun I’ve had listening to ATEOTW… and yet, this is not the simple full-fat offering it first seems.

Lo! Third track [I Perceive Your Resonance] slowly fades in light guitarwork, and then vocals, which come back more urgently and jolt the song into a roaring shoegazey ending. Titan of Light resists all temptation to go loud, winding through a gentle melody and lending Blessings some internal breathing space. And the album's final piece, The Prophet Part II, is completely redolent of Richard Thompson's Grizzly Man soundtrack, up until its delicious victory throes. No wonder, with all this confuddlement, that the tracks are able to play powerfully with the listener's anticipation.

Blessings might be about discovering dinosaurs in a faraway land, or questing for a source of light to banish an encroaching darkness from one's homeland. It might be loosely based on a mission to space that was salvaged from near-tragedy, or maybe an existential crisis where a hero is cast into the blackest of nights and comes back with an Answer. I've been listening while playing Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and that fits too, really well. The point being that it's really difficult to tie Blessings down, setting-wise, that its sonic palette is really too broad. But if this is a story, it is (in my ears, at least) an adventure worthy of any hero. The word I keep coming back to is 'romantic.'

And finally, the album sounds really, really good. As in, these recordings are worthy of the epic compositions they render. The guitars ring clearly when tamed and unleash a throaty roar when cut loose. Drums lead intrepidly through the storms and tenderly through their lapses. Everything grows, crashes, everything burns, everything is stunned into eloquent silence by the full-blooded refrains that stand before it. It's immensely satisfying, enormous fun, and if you have time to check out one more album before the decade rings out (and don't want to pay money for it neither) then you should definitely make it this one.*

Records On Ribs say:
"...an album of immense magnitude; seven bombastic paens to the affect of all things grand... Melodies are bold and memorable whilst dynamics go far beyond the cliches of quiet/loud, with a subtly inventive handling of crescendos and intelligent deployment of that sadly underused technique in so much rock music: silence... SEE ALSO: Manatees, Slowdive, Pelican, Explosions in the Sky, Jesu, Cult of Luna, Red Sparowes."
You can download Blessings, for free, from their website here, so do!

* Obviously it will sound just as good in 2010, and beyond, of course.

28 November, 2009

Gone In Time

Not dead, just sleeping maybe. As a placeholder, here's some of what I've been listening to, courtesy of 8tracks, which I like:

8tracks has this thing going where you're not meant to spill on what all the artists/tracks on a mix are in advance, and that's cool. You don't need a blow-by-blow anyway and you're just google away from details. These were all things that just really gripped me in the past month for whatever reason - there's a bit of folk, country/americana, acoustic, hip-hop, noisiness, etc. Pretty inconsistent in general. But you should check out the following if you think they might be good:

The Blue Angel Lounge - Superb, Velvet Underground-inspired psychedelia with wonderful, hazy tunes. Deserve any attention they get! Very excited to hear this band.

Elephant Micah - Joe O'Connell is great and makes great low-tempo-y gaze-y americana-y music with vocals and instruments and arrangement. "Has toured with The Decemberists, Jason Molina" sounds about right. Several records available to download from his website.

GimmeSound (A City Safe From Sea page) - niceeee music site that promises to give bands money, use gentle adverts, give fans free streaming and downloads, siphon off a slice for charities of bands' choice. Sounds wonderful in theory anyway. Seems to be colonised by those post-hardcore/indie/instrumental/screamo bands (with silly names) that I don't always want to like but usually do. Never mind, worth a browse. I've chosen A City Safe From Sea's page because I happen to like them.

Zoltar's Revenge - A favourite music "sampling" blog of mine. Loads of psychedelic music, plus bits of avant, hip-hop, dub, doom etc. in a global selection.

23 October, 2009

Voices From The Front Line

Far too much ink has already been spilled over Griffin's day in the sun, so briefly and bulleted as I can;
  • Thanks, BBC. Anytime you get a chance to give record exposure and star billing to the nation's leading exponent of race hate, you've got to do it. Props for using your news network to give this one that extra publicity, to really make it a must-watch.
  • Much though we should give the british population a little credit, the notion that fascists will automatically discredit themselves given a chance requires a distinctly culturally biased reading of politics. We have many airbrushed politicians. The BNP's entire target audience are not, in fact, turned off by unprofessional presentation - how often do we hear that "at least [Griffin] says what he thinks?" In many quarters his "non-PC," slip-strewn delivery is held to be a virtue.
  • Indeed, the very basis of "No Platform" is that fascist arguments are not rational, and are not targeted at rational actors. The success of reasoned debate, therefore, is limited. There are no shortage of people who disapprove of the BNP - but any number of individuals won over by Griffin can have destructive impacts - on communities and individual lives.
  • The Greens polled 2.4% higher in the European elections, and yet are able to break wind without attracting national attention. Probably rightly, but it is the middle class's (by way of the beeb) morbid obsession with the BNP that made them the pre-eminent force in UK politics on the 22nd of October. Everyone needs a bogeyman - a convenient villain to rally against, a particularly despicable opposition to measure oneself by.
  • Many have noted that fascism can be viewed as a simple socio-political index, an indicator of the effectiveness of the democratic process, like the murder rate, or unemployment. I certainly feel the extreme right will always raise its head periodically, as mainstream parties get tired, corrupt, ideologically moribund. Additionally, the economy will always have its stops and starts.
  • There are two parts to combating fascism. i) The Outrage is straightforward, and we've got that down pat. ii) Democracy is difficult. A democratic population requires non-superficial choices between understandable policies and ideologies, translated into observable actions by public servants they trust. It goes without saying that the rampantly anti-parliamentarian, anti-democratic, private-tie-in approach favoured by the government of the past 12 years has not helped in this regard.
  • Case study: French presidential elections 2002, 2007. Admittedly, there was a backlash against Le Pen's Front National after his huge success in the first round of voting in 2002 - outrage works! However, 5 years later the extremists were relegated to 4th place, although France was not a wholly different place. A hard-fought contest between genuinely Right - Left mainstream parties dominated the election, and Le Pen was made a footnote.
  • Functional democracy must also be continually rejuvenated at a grass-roots level - politics does not occur at the polls, a population earns its government day by day. It is hard work and this fact has been completely hidden by the "YES/NO ON RACISM" furore of the past month.
  • Freedom of speech involves prime-time audiences on QT? Give me a fucking break.
And many more gripes besides. I hope I'm not right about all of this - because David Cameron does not seem a wholly-representative, policy-centric, ideologically-fervent pro-democracy/anti-nazi panacea.

16 September, 2009

(Review) Les Étoiles - To Leave A Mark

The artwork still makes a statement, even on a digital release. Never to Alight, the debut album of Les Etoiles (aka David Fitzpatrick) which I was absolutely floored by last year, had a sepia-coloured photo of train tracks running through a wooded setting. The image is slightly blurred; the train is in motion and this moment has been snatched from a much longer journey. Happily, this can also be said of the album itself, which contained such intimate songs, of such fragility, that the listener could but hold their breath and be thankful they were captured at all. A perfect snapshot.

On the follow-up album, To Leave A Mark, which will be released by Records on Ribs this Friday, things feel slightly more permanent. Small touches with a drum machine, breathy vocal intonations and subtle production play around the edges of the songs, which fans of the first album will come to cherish just as much again. The songs are straightforward but uncanny, inexplicable. Fitzpatrick’s understanding is remarkable, that he never lowers the intensity nor raises the volume.

The cover art this time is the view of a rural world through a window, from a darkened room. Another snatched image, another brief sanctuary for reminiscence, another hideaway. The album relates to Fitzpatrick’s hometown of Bridgnorth, where the album was conceived and recorded, in his parent’s home. The songs are about Bridgnorth, about memory and the dissonance it can make with the present. A lack of familiarity with the town is no barrier – the songs are a powerful testament to the sheer weight of history and emotional ancestry that can build up in a place, any place.

The album only makes sense over time; borne out of mournful nostalgia, it becomes a foreign land to walk in. Just as in memory itself, powerful moments are littered all about. Time after time a delicately delivered lyric or deliberately deployed lick of guitar or keyboard will strike home. The whole is fraught with such familiarity and genuine emotion it seems impossible to be unmoved.

While the common threads are clearly traceable from Never To Alight, subtle changes have been made. The gentle breaths of keyboard on From High Rock, the quiet ticking percussion on A Home Never Seen and the distinct rhythm that The Clearing settles into, oddly reminiscent of downtempo I’m Not A Gun, are indicators of the breadth of Fitzpatrick’s palette. I love the use of the drum machine, which accentuates the feeling of the empty space as in a living room or attic, in a very similar way to the crackle and hiss on Library Tapes’ album Hostluft. A Few Remains is a terrific track, creaking into life and Fitzpatrick’s voice sounding fuller and weightier than ever before, working through the track before delivering a heartstopping intonation. My favourite is Taken By The Breeze, with its hesitant piano shifting through the minor key, and the slow whirring in the background as it draws to a close.

At the end of closer Along Castle Walk, the hermetically sealed world breaks down, and the rumble of traffic is audible. This is the kind of waking that I imagined at the end of the first album, too, a slow dawn. To Leave A Mark lasts for the shortest of forevers, seeming positively timeless while playing, then slipping quickly into silence. It’s a remarkably complex album, for one so straightforwardly written and recorded, for such a commonplace and (literally) homely subject matter. Like the best fairytales, these songs issue from a world endlessly recognisable and utterly enchanted. Simply, another astonishing record.

To Leave A Mark is released on Friday. Follow the link to the Records on Ribs site, where all their great records are released as free downloads. You basically have no excuse. Get Never To Alight as well!

On Friday night in Nottingham, Les Etoiles will play a free show at Jamcafé in the Lace Market. Support from El Heath, doors 8pm. Nottingham people, don't miss it!

12 August, 2009

Future Markets

Just briefly (if anyone is reading), I wanted to note that Alex has a great post at An und für sich, wherein he shows that Cameron's "new-breed" Conservatives should not be seen as an alternative to the prevailing neoliberal consensus, but would in fact be more of the same. I also want to try and express my fears with a general election nearing:

Relatively recently I was so appalled by the similarity of Labour and the Conservatives that I would have said "better a competent tory government for one term than a 4th term of lacklustre and sleaze-ridden governance by labour." Do I still believe this, that at least a change would draft in some honesty or competency? No, not particularly - it is hard to believe in honest politicians in the current climate. Additionally, I'm becoming fairly certain that while ministers might add a subtle change in emphasis, the hardware on which government runs changes fairly little.

Would a Tory win next year still be a mercy-killing?
I do feel that with the present status quo the best-case scenario is to have the two major parties extremely close. My formative years (in political terms), were spent watching New Labour enjoy an unassailable lead in the polls, and watching a succession of Conservative leaders propose batty schemes in a desperate grab for votes, but in no position to actually oppose the government.

It is important for a party's rule not to drag on: the Conservatives were not damaged from 1997-2005 because Hague and Howard were particularly poor leaders or thinkers (IDS, granted was weak on PR, although I have a good degree of respect for him), but because the last of their 18 years in power were still fresh in the nation's memory. Strong candidates detract from the party leadership, but don't want the poisoned chalice for themselves - I rather suspect that David Milliband is holding off his leadership challenge because he doesn't want to be PM for 6 months, but instead Tony Blair mk.2.

I fear the long-term destruction of the Labour party by its current weakness, because though I loathe the current government, it is only from within Labour that a government I could really be happy with could emerge. Never the Conservatives, and I'm convinced the Lib Dems are 'not a real party,' bound together more by what they're not than what they are.

Were labour to become unelectable for another two decades it would precipitate disaster. And yet.

Not every part of our national infrastructure is meant to be dissolved in the free market, and yet I fear that the forthcoming Tory landslide will be seen by that party as a mandate to do just that. A centre-right agenda that will be both a continuation and a rejuvenation of the current government's direction.

With either Labour or the Conservatives, then, and in best case scenario or worst, it seems we will still end up slouching in the same direction. It has become altogether very difficult to envision where change might come from. The desperate thing about dystopias in literature is not necessarily how malevolent the living conditions within them are, it is how stable they are, how resistent to change. The stability of the present state of affairs suggests it can only be capsized by catastrophe.

06 July, 2009

Finding Nepo(tism)

I have been a negligent blogger lately (isn't that just the worst kind?). Here is something I really did mean to mention a few months ago:

In a veritable orgy of people I know and admire, Records on Ribs put out a release by All The Empires Of The World. Ned only beat me to the scoop by several months. In fact, I left it long enough that the band in question have disbanded. Next you'll tell me that they only needed one more positive review, and they would have pulled through. I don't enjoy describing music ("good/bad/post-rock" are all you need) but the EP is titled Last Rites, the opener is called Prophecy at the Ruins and the band name is 6 words long but seems to last a lifetime. The prejudiced observer should need no help from me. The EP is available as a FREE DOWNLOAD, so you should do as it says.

I will say, however, that in this world where we are trained to make the most fleeting of cyber-connections with other glimpsed human beings, where we are continually trying to replace intuition and common sense with a scientific justification, where doom used to mean doom-y but now it's just mood backwards, and where ambience is a fancy french word somewhere between decor and feng shui for people with more wallpaper expertise than ribcage, All The Empires Of The World were not a re-hash.

An example: they played a gig I was at once, sandwiched between a snazzy continental-café electro-jazz laptop/sax act and a bunch of semi-likable, semi-significant vox-guitar-bass-drums-zzzzzzzzzz nothings and the word "massacre" was not mentioned even once (any after-show incidents were unfortunate). I even caught one unsuspecting female spectator smiling, but ATEOTW do give out a lot of bass when they play live, so she may just have had a mild tetany of the face. They say it takes just 13 muscles to smile and 33 to frown; I couldn't find any data on how many are required to strip one's self of all vestment and form a writhing coil around your favourite band member. It's irrelevant anyway, All The Empires Of The World's stated aim being to destroy as many of their listener's bodily functions as possible, one by fragile one. By the midpoint of a set the only thing preventing their victims' bodies from degrading into a formless gelatinous ooze is their clothing (which Oxfam will no longer accept).

I often read about ATEOTW being cavernous or sounding like the end of the world, thunder and lightning, rains of fire, power and menace wielded on a cosmological, theological or metereological level; This is true, although I prefer to think of the processes as internalised, dramatised processes of self, which in any case better fits with the primal vibe my ears detect. There's an opaque mysticism in play that seems to fit in with images of a raw and nascent earth. Having listened through many times now, I hear a sort of anti-spiritualism deeply rooted in human actors, an arcane architecture of ceremonies ill-understood from the outside. It's like medieval Europe as interpreted by Cormac McCarthy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening bars of Simon Helen Elizabeth (The Gate) which bring to mind valleys, light mist and coronation - not unlike The Lion King, but no doubt with more robes. Later, this track becomes more triumphant still, hitting an emphatic wall of rhythm, guitar and subverted vocals that's eerily reminiscent of The Angelic Process.

Also moving through several phases, opener Prophecy At The Ruins covers a lot of ground, sounding initially distant and working its way to the foreground. Although their reputation for overbearing volume may go before them, Last Rites has phases that mark it out as a pleasingly melodic EP. There is a somewhat distant feel to much of the 25-minute span, feeling more like a sighting of the godhead on the horizon, and less like Ragnarok erupting in one's cochlea. ...Will Be Laid To Waste is certainly very grand, and forms a towering end to proceedings. This record sounds like the music Jesu should be making right now. Yeah, you should get this.

Now, on to the important bit. The record is released on Records On Ribs, a web-label run by some Nottingham people. All their releases are available as free downloads, and you should peruse the site. But here is the link for this one: All The Empires Of The World - Last Rites EP.

If you like this, you should already have been listening to older ATEOTW stuff like the more acoustic Coral EP or the rather long Magnetic Resonance, and I would happily vouch for both. We are to anticipate one final release from the band, which will be worth waiting for, no doubt. Maybe one can take solace from the fact that this opens up the possibility of liberated members joining your new ambient post-ska/metal ragga project.

You should go further. The releases by Strap The Button, El Heath and Sweet Potato are excellent, so be sure to check them out. But more than anything, get Les Étoiles' incredibly evocative Never To Alight, which was one of the best albums released anywhere last year.

05 July, 2009


Watching films with others is... OK. The actual act itself is somewhere between acceptable and infuriating. The payoff is the walk home, where everything you thought in the past 90-180 minutes must be spewed back out again, in any order while still maintaining the pretence of dialogue. And sometimes listening - but film fans are snobbish, so this is entirely situational. There was a time when I went to see A Very Long Engagement, without having seen Amelie*, and in the company of afficionados - damn right I was listening. You never know what you might have to blag at some later date.

Silence is golden; well, it has little value in or of itself, but it does create more jabbering later on. Anything you thought about the flashing lights on the screen must echo and amplify inside your head, until you are convinced of its meaningfulness to nearly spiritual proportions. It has been odd lately, one of my major cinema-companions actually lived about 3 doors down from our local cinema, and there has been an element of surrogacy as we take the walk home to the living room (It helps that these are often blockbusters - there is little to discuss and we are not skilled at subtext).

A brief outline of the sequence of things: i) I first saw The Departed in the Savoy cinema, when it had been out in the UK for about a month, so about November 2006 (interestingly, this being my first year in Nottingham, it was maybe the first such visit with my filmgoing companions of that time, both heavy and naive with expectancy - these walks home can be the most intoxicating and tremulous, can be the most sour and quarrelsome). ii) January 2007 - I rented Infernal Affairs from "The Hollywood Movie Store" in Beeston, which had a good selection of foreign (and especially asian) film. iii) Early 2008 - a friend bought the Infernal Affairs DVD from a website somewhere and a group of us watch it. On completion, howls of appreciation and enthusiasm sound out around the room. iv) I watch The Departed for a second time with my father**, the date is the 3rd of July, 2009. Bang! we are in the present.

The Departed is a 2006 film by Martin Scorsese (who vowed it would be his last gangster flick) about a policeman (Leonardo DiCaprio) infiltrating a Boston gang leader's inner circle (Jack Nicholson) while a gangland mole (Matt Damon) ascends to the police unit investigating his boss. Intrigue, violence and multiple usages of the C word follow. The cast is strong and Nicholson appears to be having a lot of fun, as ever. On first viewing I was entertained and satisfied, but not impressed - so, similar to Gangs of New York, then. But I was shocked when it won both the Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards***, it had seemed to be little more than a proficient thriller. And all this was before realising that The Departed had been copying someone else's notes.

I'm not sure what I knew, but I certainly did not fully realise that The Departed was a re-make until I followed the hype and rented Infernal Affairs, jointly directed by Alan Mak and Andy Lau, who also takes one of the starring roles alongside Tony Leung****, who has long been a favourite of mine. The story is essentially the same, taking place in Hong Kong. Infernal Affairs is a great film, a near-perfect exposition of the crime/intrigue motif and a totally exhilarating thriller. Excuse me while I gush. There is a genuine feeling of schizophrenia running through it, creating what is almost a split-screen effect in the mind of the viewer. Frame by frame, the compositions of shape and colour are stunning.

Contrast with The Departed, which I felt was good looking because it couldn't help it. Made by a major studio with great director and cinematographers, with the best equipment. The colour balance on screen was fine, totally professional. But sit the one down side-by-side with its predecessor, and it's clear. Infernal Affairs is flooded with vibrancy*****, kinetic energy, a vigour that is apparent throughout. Its Hollywood re-make is strong, but past its peak and ambling towards the retirement home. The law of diminishing returns holds firm, and this is even apparent if you see the mimic first.

Before I watched Scorsese's re-make a second time, I derided it as a scene-for-scene plagiarism, but that's not true. Scorsese does attempt to make the story his own. Mark Wahlberg's character is added, an unnecessarily foul-mouthed sergeant that yields the most watchable performance in the film, is also totally out of place. Wahlberg's appearance on screen signals something like an ad-break, ruining the flow of the story. Is this really where the film stands out from the original? 'Your mom' jokes? Anthony Wong's superintendent character gets split in half, supplying the amiable buffoon Alec Baldwin and pensively paternal Martin Sheen. The female character, who becomes unwittingly sandwiched between the two leads, is much more subtly involved in matters in Hong Kong, but in Boston her nuance is lost and a love triangle appears. And Scorsese's thematic centrepiece, the confusion and metamorphosis that the two moles' dissimulation causes, is actually much more apparent in the original, which doesn't make a big deal of it.

Finally, Scorsese's alterations to the plot facilitate a nice, neat wrapping-up of events, just as you'd expect from a

Ultimately, The Departed attempts to fine-tune its predecessor in some regards and break with it in others. On paper, the effect of the changes should be to make a more palatable movie for a western audience, but it ends up marooned; too much of a re-hash, it sags with the weight of nostalgia for its source, but no more than when it strays from the path. Scorsese simply couldn't win.

I used to charge these remakes with a cultural imperialism that I now think is a bit silly - this is a moneygrabbing maneuver first and foremost (although a scene involving some Chinese triads does offer an opportunity for Nicholson to spew a few epithets). I think this says less about the film-makers themselves than their audience, or possibly more about their level of respect for their audience. Maybe I just naively think first-is-best, which is a common enough delusion after all, not just in film. It may be that originality forms an overriding meta-aesthetic (metaesthetic? measthetic?) by which I judge film. This is, of course, the personal, situational approach to film that generates limitless perspective and confounds our attempt to evaluate absolutely. A superior remake would make for a more interesting study on this subject.

And so, the walk home, wrenching up from the sofa, creaking up the stairs, switching off lights. The end was neat, meaningless, perfectly OK. There is nothing to say about The Departed.


*Being English means never having to pronounce correctly or add foreign punctuation.
** Film-watching is an important shared activity for us, but he is overly fond of Steven Segal and does not care for subtitles, so consequently I leap at anything respectable. Furthermore, our loose alliance is the only thing banishing terrible US teen-rom-coms from the living room. It is a battle for resources.
***With hindsight, this was the point at which I should have stopped caring about the Oscars - much though Scorsese deserves a lifetime achievement award, much though The Departed did a credible impression of a top-notch film, it's astonishing really. Little Miss Sunshine was more enjoyable, Letters From Iwo Jima more consistent, Babel more 'worthy,' and United 93 undoubtedly more interesting to watch (and clearly better directed, provided you can put up with Greengrass' shaky-cam)
**** Or, Mak Siu-Fai, Lau Wai-Keung and Leung Chiu-Wai. I think I got those half-right. Yes, it is funny that someone would choose such vanilla names to make themselves more glamorous/saleable.
***** It is of course, obligatory for Western reviewers to use this word at least once when discussing foreign cinema. Indeed, for British people to use this to describe anything foreign (unless one wishes to demonstrate xenophobia; here the appropriate word is 'smelly').

02 July, 2009

You're Not Punk And I'm Tellin' Everyone

Before the beginning of Hated: GG Allin and The Murder Junkies, their "one week only" video feature, Pitchfork have put up a fairly stark warning:

The following film contains obscene violence, explicit sexual content, and ridiculous music. If you're not into watching guys push things into their anuses, people pissing on each other and smearing themselves in shit, or dudes dancing around with corpses, please consider reading some of our highly professional music reviews instead.

The Management.
Well, there certainly are bodily fluids. If there's one consistent thread that can be traced through this film, it's the presence of nudity, aggression, excretion and anal manipulation. I think we are meant to be offended, and I sometimes wonder if Allin and his fans are leering at the 'norms' viewing. I wasn't particularly offended, but I wouldn't say I enjoy watching these things*. "Kids leave the room" seems somewhat ironic though: as an attempt to shock these tactics may be extreme but they are also juvenile.

The film explores the world of GG Allin, then with his band The Murder Junkies, and incorporates footage from the late 80s through to a tour in the early 90s. Tours would typically end in the police station or the hospital; Allin, usually performing fully naked, would not hesitate to lash out at members of his audience, who were expecting it. Gigs ended in scrums or were broken up by the police, and Allin delighted at all times in pushing the proverbial envelope of punk rock to it's furthest extreme.

Fascinatingly, this 1994 documentary is directed by the same Todd Phillips whose more recent work has included Road Trip, Old School, the Starsky and Hutch remake and the current box office hit The Hangover. It's another small reminder that the 'mainstream' is not necessarily as far away as I like to think. It shouldn't really be a shock that a successful filmmaker started small, with a rock-doc about a punk act with an obscene stage show and little musical finesse to back it up.

Although Hated is full of footage from live shows, the one thing that is conspicuously absent in the film is any real mention of music. These performances are really just an opportunity to view GG in situ. Closer to performance art than music (as the spoken word performances hint), punk rock was simply the best stage for his abrasive, aggressive style. Arguably, he doesn't display any other talents beside his showmanship (which is remarkable). In one segment he plays a guitar and sings. It's a short song rendition and pleasant enough, with a rough, croaky aesthetic. Today, he'd add some distortion and call it lo-fi, and we might well love it, but beyond this, music is sidelined**. The Murder Junkies are not a particularly inspiring musical force.

His bandmates are adorable. Brother Merle Allin plays bass and boasts a spectacular moustache. A totally addled "Dino the naked drummer" runs through some of the technical details of playing naked, and sprays out some narcotic remarks about spirituality. An ex-bandmate delights in dissing his former buddy, whining impotently about how GG is nothing special. But Allin had a number of devoted fans who evidently thought he was. One clearly knew him quite well, and revels in telling the story of the time GG told him to get a woman, any woman, to urinate on his face. The occasion was Allin's birthday.

The film itself starts by placing a quote onscreen:
"GG Allin is an entertainer with a message to a sick society. He makes us look at it for what we really are. The human is just another animal who is able to speak freely, to express himself clearly. Make no mistake about it, behind what he does is a brain"
This is attributed a few seconds later, once we've had a chance to take it in: John Wayne Gacy, Death Row, Menard, IL. There are a few mentions of Gacy in the middle of the film, highlighting the acquaintance of Gacy and Allin, who visited him in prison, as did several of Allin's fans.

I can't agree with Gacy's statement. The presence of "freaks" is not a comment on society. Rather, it is that these "freakshows" find an audience who wish to view real destruction as entertainment. Maybe this does involve a sick society, but the grisly obsession with serial killers as people who have gone beyond regular boundaries again seems juvenile to me. I agree that a human being is "just another animal," but the reaction most would have to GG Allin must if anything emphasise our differentiation. I am not aware that Allin did express himself clearly - if anything, his actions are an undeveloped response to his existence, environment and his own makeup. They certainly give us a lot to think about, and he was certainly possessed of incredible charisma, but the assertions of his intelligence are, I think, excuses to enjoy this voyeurism for a while longer.

In the latter parts of the film Allin and others discuss his assertion that he will commit suicide on Halloween 1992, possibly on stage, possibly with zealous fans also killing themselves alongside him. It seems a logical progression in the manifesto of "no limits," and in one spoken word performance, Allin lashes out at a spectator who tells him to do it sooner. But Allin does not say he is unhappy - he makes overtures about wanting to have "a strong spirit," but I wonder how much this action would be his own choice, how much it would be the product of bravado, hype and his own mischosen words. GG Allin actually died accidentally of a heroin overdose in June 1993.

Is there something about GG Allin and his fandom that runs deeper than bodily functions and senseless violence? Something in the extreme personal libertarianism, the undoubted anger and reticence to relate to others, suggests this really was a case of a distressed man, possibly unwell, attracting an unpleasant freakshow of fellow sufferers and disenfranchised youth. It must have been quite a spectacle. Maybe my efforts to medicalise are precisely the mainstream sentiments that he and his fans would have derided. Maybe he was healthy, I'm sure he had some fun.

Would I recommend Hated? Because I'm not sure whether I was watching it as a voyeur myself. It's a decent documentary that some people might find hard to stomach. GG Allin was a fascinating character who was undoubtedly very talented at what he did, who could have formed his fans into a cult, if that had been what he wanted. As a subject matter, he was repulsive, honest, intimidating, purile, and often tiresome. But never dull.

At any rate, be quick, the film will be up on pitchfork for maybe a couple more days. Youtube would have your back, but there's a bit too much nudity and faeces in this one.

*"Nothing offends me" is basically a challenge, and besides, it's not true. There are things that offend me, in fact deeply and on a daily basis, but it helps not to get too wound up about them and proceed in a catatonic glazed-over fashion. On the other hand, things like disgusting photographs, clips of surgery, these don't offend me. Sometimes, what offends me is the apparent intention of the person who is putting these images in front of me. Offence is difficult to monitor and while I'm probably not "easily offended," a large element in the perception of this is the amount of things I simply have to let slide.

** In modern indie culture this should not really be surprising. Music is not necessarily the natural environment for the concepts we load it with, it is merely the next best place to store our desired aesthetic - it can be deregulated and decentralised, it needn't be expensive, it can form a fully interactive culture, it lends itself to film, writing, fashion, nights out, visual art, and it has a physical output, which can be produced cheaply, circulated wildly, and associated with as many additional concepts and ideal-images as we wish to give it. The Murder Junkies are not even a particularly great example.

23 May, 2009

You Talk Way Too Much

What could it possibly be, you wonder?

"What if everything you knew was a lie?" - well, that would clearly be on a par with the moon landing, the New Deal Jesus, Pearl Harbour, JFK assasination, Obamania, 9/11... and some other ones I can't work out, but don't seem too important. Our Air, Our Water, Our Life... Creation! 25/05/09!!! What on earth could this be?

Prepare to be underwhelmed. It's the unveiling of a fossil. Specifically, it's the unveiling of the first Darwinius masillae fossil, a very well preserved one, named Ida:

Ida is a VIP (very important primate) - and as Ed Yong reports, the media response has been nothing short of rapturous. This revolves around the notion of a "missing link" - even before we knew what the discovery was, John Wilkins on Evolving Thoughts had his doubts about this term - he also worries about announcing the "common ancestor of primates".

We are by now very much aware of the hype our media plasters over news stories. To translate them to large numbers of people in an interesting way, in our contemporary news-as-entertainment culture, they have to be blown up to significant proportions, and made 2-D and digestible in the process. It's difficult to imagine a more inappropriate or common example of this than in scientific discovery, where a public that often lacks the scientific knowledge to comprehend the raw importance of discovery needs it processed. This is the root cause of the foodstuff-causes-cancer news story.

In this week's Bad Science column, Ben Goldacre draws attention, as he does most weeks, to shoddy and hyped reporting of science news, including the current "men experience worse flu" story, which has nothing to do with flu (the pathogen tested causes food poisoning), may not be applicable to humans (tested in transgenic mice), and isn't as globally applicable as advertised. Scientific discovery gets mangled into headlines on a near-daily basis.

And in this case, there are even doubts as to the real meaning of this discovery - this article on Laelaps is fairly technical, but the consensus being reached is that the PR-heavy unveiling of Ida is ugly business. PZ Myers on Pharyngula describes it as Barnum-esque, and even to a total layman the comparison to the earth-shattering dates in the advert above seems totally absurd. For one thing, there is no single link between primates and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Ida is a significant fossil that should have been remembered for its incredible degree of preservation, and the energising effect it could have had on palaentology. Instead it could be remembered as a watershed event in our mangling of scientific coverage. Unfortunately, I fear it will be no more than a really great example - both as a primate fossil, and a hysterical headline.

20 May, 2009

A Placeholder; An Idea; A Dire Warning

I am very, very busy, being a very busy person.

However, I need to put up a thought while it's here in my head. Recently, friends have raised the idea of teleology in evolution. Traditionally, biologists are very much not fans of teleological notions in evolution, possibly much more wary of it than they should be - I think this is at heart a matter of starting points, of didactic necessity, of the tendency to over-stress differences between new and old schemas of thought in order to press their significance. Sometimes the short-term necessity is to rebuff too strongly, spilling over into the awkward reversal some way down the line, in our constantly-revised science.

I am specifically looking at Simon Conway Morris' speculation that convergence is meaningful, and too much emphasis has been placed on contingency. My major problem with Conway-Morris on this issue is that he is very happy to pick patterns of convergence in evolution, but it is unclear what they mean. For example - squid and humans develop eyes, independently (Praise the Lord! - unfortunately, this is ultimately where SCM's argument ends up). It is unclear to me why this is meaningful, and further, if it is meaningful, does the fact that our eye is wired backwards also become significant? What does it mean where species continue to diversify?

More specifically still; Conway-Morris seems to believe that the existence of human beings is a unique mould that life would inevitably pour into, a gentle restatement of the anthropic principle. I have always found this anthropocentrism to be scarcely above contempt - to postulate that because this universe exists in this way, and not another one, x must be true, seems to me to represent the most profound lack of imagination and wilful disregard for existence in general. To propose a convergent principle of my own: where sentient organisms exist, they will come to the conclusion they are unique and the universe exists in order for them to be just so.

With this in mind, it should be clear that certain tentative trends could be expected in evolution. In exploring the gene-space Dawkins postulates in The Blind Watchmaker (this is essential reading, a powerful visualisation of the step-wise nature by which incredible variation can be reached - and also a demonstration of how deploying simple computer programming can produce valuable models) we might realise we come across stronger forms and weaker forms. Flight, sight, predation on other species and increased decisison making power are good candidates here; major advantages that can be reached. And if they can, presumably they will, eventually. And if they will, one imagines they will establish a niche, all things being equal. But contingency must rule here also - the variety of individual steps that can be made are huge, and yet elephants will not develop wings soon, and bats have little use for eyes.

I find it amusing that the internal evolution of evolutionary theory into a non-directional and thoroughly atheistic area of study is in fact a work of contingency, as is the subsequent backlash. Let us re-wind the tape of scientific discovery, press "play," and see if Dawkins re-emerges. Another little aside to evolutionary history is the similarity of teleological rebranding with that of Stephen Jay Gould and the Punctuational Equilibrists - a re-placing of emphasis on a theory that can already handle the disputes being laid on it, possibly a useful re-balancing of certain skewed views.

Critically, however, Stephen Jay Gould and his cohort were not loading their rejection of gradualism with theology. Conway-Morris considers his convergence to give evidence for the theistic nature of evolution - a belief I've always felt one shouldn't think too hard about, and pressing onto others is fraught with difficulty. Assuming a deity is involved in a process in a manner basically indistinguishable from the naturalistic method itself kicks up endless questions, not least the harped-on-about-yet-very-real problem of suffering.

In this article, Conway-Morris reveals his hand. You'll have to imagine the sneer, and it is admittedly difficult to read:
"But there is more. How to explain mind? Darwin fumbled it. Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog? Or worse, perhaps here was one point (along, as it happens, with the origin of life) that his apparently all-embracing theory ran into the buffers? In some ways the former possibility, the woof-woof hypothesis, is the more entertaining. After all, being a product of evolution gives no warrant at all that what we perceive as rationality, and indeed one that science and mathematics employ with almost dizzying success, has as its basis anything more than sheer whimsy."
There is a reason that scientific discovery heavily stresses experimentation, the referentiality of theory to the world outside it. We take apparent confirmation seriously - although unfortunately we don't have the luxury of a divinely-sustained universe with clearly delineated truths. Removing absolute knowledge of truth from the table is regrettable, but I'd be lying if I said I relied on it much in my day-to-day existence anyway. Relying on God to sustain a universe we increasingly describe in material terms is a folly - there are reasons to consider a deity, but these are not them.

To take issue with one more thing: SCM, having rather inelegantly and confusingly typed his way to conclusions, leaves a real horror for those who venture into the final paragraph:
"Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material?"
As I have said in conversation: be very careful, theists. I don't want to watch anyone reaching their hand over the nearest boundary of human knowledge and plucking an argument for god out. It has happened before, again and again, and I don't expect it to ever produce empirical evidence for God - indeed, I think it would be a very cruel God indeed that would wait until we had developed so far, technologically speaking, before revealing himself. It would be some coincidence if the next frontier turned out to be the last one. This is a route religion does not want to go down.

18 April, 2009

Where Shoddy Predictions Happen

The NBA Playoffs are started today, pretty much as I wrote this (I promise I had already written my predictions for the Celtics and Cavaliers series before they tipped off, OK?). So, here are my calls for the first round (and a stab at beyond).
Eastern Conference
1st vs 8th: I honestly can't see Detroit pulling it together enough to take more than a single game against the Cavs, who have too many weapons, too much depth (LeBron alone probably has too much depth). Their 3-point shooting will be key this post-season, as will their inside threat. But I think the Pistons, especially Hamilton and Prince, may have enough pride to win one home game. Rasheed Wallace can be a force when he wants to be. Shame there's no Iverson in this series to add a bit of drama. Cleveland Cavaliers to take the series 4-1

2nd vs 7th: Interesting matchup between the ailing, KG-less Celtics and the resurgent Bulls. The acquisition of John Salmons has greatly benefited Chicago and how he matches up with Paul Pierce will be key to deciding this series. Boston will struggle to find new routes to score without Garnett and one of Glen Davis or Leon Powe is going to have to shoulder a heavy load on offense. Maybe then it'll be good for them to 'ease' into the postseason against Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas. I think the champs will get through the first round but I wouldn't be surprised to see this go to 6 or 7. Rondo and Allen will have to provide fire from the backcourt or PP34 is going to have to carry this team again. Chicago need to pinch one of the first two in Boston to make it a fight. Boston Celtics 4-2

3rd vs 6th: I haven't watched much of either the Orlando Magic or the Philadelphia 76ers but this seems to be something of a mismatch. There are a few doubts over Dwight Howard's ability to dominate games in the 4th quarter, but provided the Magic's shooters remain sharp it's hard to see Philly matching them. Orlando have tremendous strength on defense as well. I'm expecting them to take this in 4 or 5. If I watch any of these games I'll be looking to see how Howard steps up, and whether rookie SG Courtney Lee looks quite so composed in these playoff games. Orlando Magic 4-1

4th vs 5th: This is certainly appetising on paper, pitting Dwyane-Wade-fired Miami against a very solid Atlanta Hawks team. Neither are likely to trouble Cleveland too much in the 2nd round, but most expect this series to go to 7 games. I'd expect that to include Wade taking over in a huge way once or twice. But the Hawks won't have to go to their bench much and I expect their compact unit to be too much for Wade. Miami PG Chalmers is playing his first playoff games, also. Atlanta Hawks 4-3

Western Conference
1st vs 8th: The Lakers have looked like such a supreme force in the West, it's hard to imagine the shaky Utah Jazz stopping them in the first round. With Bynum and Gasol in the middle, and Kobe looking menacing absolutely everywhere, this will be too much for Deron Williams to steer through, although I doubt they'll be swept. Lamar Odom's attitude will be key for the Lakers throughout the playoffs. LA Lakers 4-1

2nd vs 7th: If Tyson Chandler and James Posey are fit, the Hornets have a chance in this one, given that Chris Paul is simply remarkable. Like all the top players in the playoffs, Paul's minutes will be up and the pressure will be on. Unfortunately for the Hornets, his opposite number Chauncey Billups is a superb defender and extremely experienced. His supporting cast in Denver seem much healthier and better drilled. Denver Nuggets 4-2

3rd vs 6th: The Dallas Mavericks looked a spent force 3 months ago, when they looked likely to be the 9th team in the West, but they're now on a decent run and preparing to face a San Antonio Spurs side missing one of their big three and fervently hoping another can get back to full strength. I expect that Howard and Terry will continue their form into the first round and Dallas will take this series. Tony Parker won't be able to carry the Spurs over 7 games against Nowitzki & Co. Dallas Mavericks 4-2

4th vs 5th: It's hard to judge how much weaker the Portland Trailblazers will be for their lack of playoff experience, but there are few players in the league that play better at crunch-time than Brandon Roy. Meanwhile Houston, much improved since McGrady's season ended, may be a touch over-reliant on Yao Ming, but under the right conditions convert his presence to free points. Still, if the Blazers continue to shoot well, I expect them to take this. Portland Trailblazers 4-3

A pretty conservative outlook, definitely. But real upsets look like they'll be hard to come by this year. I think if there's going to be one, Chicago-Boston might be the major candidate. If the Bulls can win a game in Boston then the Celtics should be concerned.

In the second round I expect the Cavs to cruise through in 4 or 5 again, as neither Miami nor the Hawks can match their firepower. Similarly, I'd expect the Lakers to make it to the West finals, although their record against the Trailblazers could make that a tough series. I think it would take something of a miracle for Boston to reach the East finals without KG, so I'd expect Orlando to win through to a matchup with the Cavs, and either Denver or Dallas to fight it out with the Lakers. I think this will be Denver's role, and although I'd love to see them beat the Lakers, I can't see it happening.

I expect the NBA finals to read Lakers-Cavaliers. It'll be a tough matchup that'll go all the way, but I think L.A. will have the slightest edge at the end.

Maybe we'll get to see some bits as good as this (I adore these ads - anything that combines slow-mo or black&white with sports):

11 April, 2009

Don't Lose The Faith

Did Darwin Kill God? aired a few weeks ago. Being produced by a member of the theology department here at Nottingham, it caused a buzz among many of my theologian friends! I had a few reactions and ideas at the time, typed a few out, but didn't click the publish button then. Belatedly, and after a re-watch, here are some thoughts, cleaned up and influenced in no small amount by several people I've discussed it with since. It's no longer on the iPlayer, but you can find it easily on Youtube. Apologies, this is gonna be long!

First, a confession: I am no longer watching for the science. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly hard to remember a point in the BBC’s Darwinian double-anniversary coverage at which I was captivated by the obligatory re-hash of Darwin’s theory of evolution that must precede any discussion. I have a developing awareness that it is not normal behaviour to watch every one of these Darwin docs. It’s not a useful adaptation.

It’s OK this time, however, because we know what we’re really here for: a fight. In Did Darwin Kill God? University of Nottingham theologian Conor Cunningham promises to delve into the question of extremism on either side of the evolutionary ‘debate.’ Thus plugging directly into the reason we love this quarrel anyway – stupid rednecks vs snobby uber-atheists. There’s a voyeurism in observing this conflict. We want harsh words. We want blood.

Unfortunately, this is a BBC documentary through and through. Nothing terribly remarkable about the way it looks, the tone held the right side of respectability, but often flirting with cheesiness. Cunningham cuts a presentable and affable figure, and is lit dramatically while he whispers his way through Genesis. Establishing that Genesis was not taken as a literal account of creation, he travels to Israel and Oxford, tracing the roots of biblical literalism to the reformation, and explains that geology and Christianity were perfectly compatible in Darwin’s time – indeed, many of the top geologists were clergymen. This is all useful stuff. It’s good to put the current spasm of mouth-frothing evangelical protestantism in some sort of context. Heavyweights such as St Augustine are in his corner, after all.

We also have a brief look at the course Darwin’s own faith took following publishing the Origin. This thread of reasoning always bemuses me: the originator of the theory was a Christian, and became an atheist, so is atheism inevitable following understanding of his theory? The question is stupid; the undignified bickering over the beliefs of the late biologist by believers and atheists alike awfully ugly. Alongside whether or not “Hitler believed in evolution,” this is neither of scientific nor philosophical import. At least this segment was brief.

Enough of this moderation. Let’s go to America, where hillbilly music plays as we delve into the Scopes trial and an increasingly fundamentalist reading of the Bible in the 60s. We get to see inside a creationist museum and listen to some daft claims; it’s all rather predictable fare. More interesting is Cunningham’s contention that by treating the Bible as a science textbook, the creationist is effectively worshiping science. The transition to intelligent design raises the question for Cunningham of why an interventionist designer would allow evil to occur in the world. Unfortunately, this seems something of an own goal; it’s certainly not clear that his God allays suffering either. Indeed, one might say that natural selection is as suffering-intensive as creation is likely to get.

Similarly, Cunningham states he sees God operating through evolution, in a way that leaves one wondering: is this divine evolution still automated, unguided, without direction? If God is responsible for mutations that grant us intelligence, sight or even flight, is he also responsible for the mutations that cause Cystic Fibrosis or Tay-Sachs disease? If he was not the active evolutionary force, then what function does he serve in the Creation? Cunningham’s role for God in evolution seems no more robust.

Asserting that the ‘clash’ between Christian belief and evolutionary theory is an artificial one, Conor turns his attention to a different group of fundamentalists. Immediately the use of terms ‘Darwinian’ and ‘ultra-darwinists’ bother me. Generally speaking, these terms flag a less-than-amicable relationship between the speaker and evolutionary theory. They are also meaningless: modern ‘Darwinians’ have a very different view of evolution, one that involves genetics, for one thing. But I suppose, no-one does like labels. They are necessary evils. My main criticism here would be that having used ‘ultradarwinian’ as a slur for the final twenty minutes of his documentary, Cunningham ends imploring us to “let Darwin rest in peace.

While discussing the atheistic side of evolutionary theory, the central argument is that scientific theory can tell us only about things material, and so cannot disprove God. It’s a pretty elementary point – indeed most atheists accept this but counter that “he who asserts must prove” – but a key one. Michael Ruse puts it best, saying “If one goes into the lab…to do science, one is, as a scientist, not looking for God.” Francis Collins agrees.

Possibly this is a problem with the documentary as a whole. The notion that Darwin could have “killed God” is garbage! Rather, evolutionary theory is key in this battle of beliefs because i) it is the clearest example we can point to where material evidence contradicts the literal word of the Bible and ii) belief in God is functional, regardless of fact, and understanding our origins and place in the universe better diminishes the functional utility of belief.

The descent into meme theory in the final ten minutes is confusing. We are truly through the looking-glass here, and Cunningham seems rather lost himself, telling us that at its heart meme theory tells us “there is no me or you,” and “everything is an illusion.” This is somewhat misleading. Unfortunately meme theory is at its heart no more than a philosophical analogy that shows how ideas could be spread like genes. It certainly lacks the power to bring down religion – it should be obvious that describing an idea, for instance that of a crucified and resurrected deity, as a ‘meme’ does not alter the actuality. If it took place, then it took place, meme or otherwise. For the same reasons, Cunningham’s supposedly damning attack on meme theory – that it is tautological – ultimately falls flat.

‘Memetics’ merely describes the way the idea or belief has spread, although its proponents have been guilty of doing so with some fairly emotive language, it’s true. Maybe this grants meme theory too much credibility anyway. It’s not a truly scientific concept. But it is amusing to imagine that Conor is actually so aghast at Rickrolling, or the notion that LOLcats have ended belief.

From the start cards were laid on the table. Conor Cunningham is a Christian and an evolutionist, and through to this last section we have little reason to doubt it. But as we get in to the realms of more modern theory, a flicker of doubt takes life in my mind. Little instances of innuendo creep in, such as when Francis Collins vaguely denies that evolution is “all about genes”. There is an underlying hostility towards the “selfish gene theory” that is not at its heart scientific. (Here, the rather clunky faux-dialogue interview style employed throughout does really grate. When a point is made that feeds into Cunningham’s argument, the camera cuts to him so he can smile and nod encouragingly. It comes across a trifle smug.)

It’s natural for a theist to be hostile to the idea that we are nothing but the sum of our selfish genes. The implications for our moral grounding seem dire – although we do exhibit many separations from our natural origins, after all. Our understanding of genes should broaden in years to come, but this ‘selfish model’ is still the closest approximation we currently have. What rankles is that Cunningham’s criticisms are not scientific in nature – they pounce on perceived “dissent in the scientific community” and take this as their evidence.

Oh well. It is perfectly natural to pick and choose which bits you want to believe, when there’s no practical reason to get it 100% right. And there really isn’t, in this case.

The worst horrors should always be saved for the final reel. So it was for an atheist and scientist who so far can agree, if grudgingly and with however much nitpicking, with some of our conclusions so far: Science and Religion are two different things. Christians are not normally quite so belligerent, only Americans. Darwin cannot disprove God. Meme theory certainly does not disprove God.

Enter Simon Conway Morris, who also sees evolutionary theory as incomplete, much to Conor’s glee. But more importantly, he considers evolution might be the method nature uses to reach underlying, (dare we say divine) conclusions. This mysticism seems a pretty unforgiveable attempt to shoehorn God into evolution, and it violates Cunningham’s own scheme of separate science and faith. Our truce is broken. It’s a shame.

It’s a shame because there was some good stuff in this documentary. A condemnation of extremism (which is ludicrous on both sides), and a reminder that Christianity isn’t all about what happens in Colorado Springs. A few examples of theists who can get behind evolution. And an attempt at reconciliation. I fear I have dwelt overlong on the contentious aspects. But the key is this: evolutionary science is incomplete, and we must test it and understand it. It will take us wherever it will. And one gets the feeling that just as Conor Cunningham has an idea of the kind of God he can believe in, so too can he deal with evolutionary theory – on his own terms.

There, maybe that will be it for Darwin for the time being. I only just bought a copy of The Origin of Species, actually, so probably not (You may be surprised to hear that it's far from essential reading for the modern science student. Maybe you shouldn't be). Apologies to anyone's ideas I have pinched, most of these thoughts were my own, as far as I can tell. Maybe they were no more than memes. If you missed it on TV and iPlayer, Youtube has your back.

04 April, 2009

Stickmen and Chimneys

Follow up from my post aaaages ago about the wonderful music of Just The Architect: Chan has teamed up with Jed Hart and a bunch of matchsticks to make a sweet video for Stickmen and Chimneys:

The track is on JTA's 508 EP, which features some of his best tracks to date, including the stomping Countach!!, and is available for free from this link. A new EP titled Theo the Weak will soon be available for download, so stay tuned!

You can also watch this on Youtube if you so choose. Subscribe to the JTA channel to see future moving pictures!

What Comes Next

A big piece of news came through last night, and I had to make a note of it, coming so shortly after my pre-emptive eulogy to the glory-days of Allen Iverson. Allen Iverson has played his last game of the season, and hence also his final game as a Detroit Piston. So much for being motivated by his next contract. Iverson, after a poor display against New Jersey on Wednesday, made it clear that he couldn't deal with playing off the bench. It's clear that for A.I. it's got to be a starter's slot or nothing. He plays the game in his way, and no other. That's why he was revered in Philadelphia. It's why he's a near-certain Hall-of-Famer. And we may be watching his last days.

NBA.com's David Aldridge considers "where next?" for The Answer, suggesting he could re-team with Larry Brown in Charlotte. It seems odd, considering the Bobcats are starting to look like a well-constructed, balanced team on the rise, and Brown's past history with Iverson in Philadelphia. But phrased as a last hurrah for a superstar and 'his coach,' it's certainly attractive, if not plausible. One thing the basketball world seems agreed on is that Iverson won't be joining a top team - they were all paying attention to how this one has turned out, and they know he won't settle for 'providing a spark from the bench,' the role that has commonly been suggested for him this season. He won't be earning an 8 figure sum on his next contract, either, assuming he even signs one.

I expect him to, though. This is a disappointing black mark on his stellar career, one that he will be keen to expunge with one more season on a playoff team, at least one more season as a superstar, and the All-Star farewell that the fan-voting system would give him. Many teams will steer clear, but a team will be prepared to take a punt on a brand like Iverson that can fill arenas and create a buzz, especially with some franchises threatened by takeover and transfer to new cities. I think his pride means he won't accept the paltry veteran's minimum, but a reasonable mid-level contract from a team that will let him play on his terms would do the trick. Add in this speculation that he shares an agent with LeBron James, making this an opportunity to 'cosy up' for the watershed Summer of LeBron in 2010, makes this look a little more likely.

It's too late for him to go out at the top, but as such a huge figure for so long, I think Allen Iverson will find one last shot irresistible. And I think in a system that suits him (one where it is all about him, and one that compensates on defense) it wouldn't be impossible for A.I. to surprise us all once more. A Shaq-style indian summer would, however, require him to use all his craftiness, ferocity and grit, and to play with a huge chip on his shoulder. It would also be the stuff of sports fantasy.

Was the Allen Iverson experiment a failure? It seems at first the answer is yes: Detroit were the second-best team in the East last season, but won't finish any higher than 7th this season. They probably won't do reach .500, and they're not a lock for the playoffs, although I anticipate that they'll scrape into the first round without the distraction of the A.I. story. Former PG Chauncey Billups, meanwhile, has propelled the Nuggets to second in the West and himself into MVP column top 10s, even though he's not seriously in the debate itself. Detroit gave away a great player, in return received a legend who can't play team, and have crumpled.

But Iverson's $20.8 million salary will expire this summer, giving the Pistons valuable cap space that a crafty operator like Joe Dumars will look to maximise (Aldridge suggests bolstering the frontcourt with PFs Paul Millsap or David Lee, both impressive this season and free agents this summer). With several years to come from Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince and the ongoing hope that Rodney Stuckey can become a dominant point guard who can knock down shots and impose himself on games, life will go on in Detroit, who should be a playoff team for several more years.

I don't think they'll replace Billups satisfactorily for a long time, but even with him, the Pistons wouldn't have been able to hold off the Cavs or Celts this season, and much though they enjoy playing the Magic, their days as an elite team in the East were numbered. The A.I. gamble was a risk worth taking, especially considering his expiring contract.

Now Detroit have to hope they can display some masterful ability to trade again. And the rest of us have to hope Allen Iverson signs elsewhere to give us a swansong worth remembering.

In other news, I really should have kept my mouth shut about the Cavs, going by their loss against the bottom-feeding Wizards and last night's destruction by Rashard Lewis and the Magic. They're still good, promise. Playoffs are coming!

02 April, 2009

Heroes Die

Another angle of my NBA fandom that's affected by geographical detachment: it's a lot less consistent and more personal than it would be if I were duty-bound to follow a team. Contrast the small rosters of a basketball team with the 20+ stars in a top football club's squad, and you can see the NBA becomes a veritable pic'n'mix of favourites the casual fan can choose from on any given night (see: Delonte West, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Big Baby Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Andersen, Shaq). I can get interested in the up-swing in Thabo Sefaloosha's fortunes in a way I never could with, say, a resurgent Wigan Athletic full-back. I won't lie - the glamour and action, games every night of the week, and relentless accumulation of stats help too.

One of the odd things about starting to follow any sport is a lack of context when watching ageing stars, or even that lack of comprehension when watching stars really in their prime. When I started following football in 1995 Liverpool's squad included the waning Ian Rush and John Barnes, while Peter Beardsley was playing up front for Newcastle. I was a couple of years late to really understand these players. There's a lot of regret here: if I'd really been paying attention I could have been experiencing Fowler, Bergkamp, Le Tissier, Ginola and Cantona in their primes. I blame myself less for this, but similarly I was missing the best years in Europe of Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo. I still feel the only player I really appreciated at the time was Steve McManaman!

With this in mind and my basketball obsession in its infancy, there's a degree of desperate conservation that sets in when I watch basketball just now, as who knows when some of the current 'living legends' might break down? Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki have gone down as fast as their teams since their MVP days. Kobe may be getting his best shot at a solo championship this June. Tim Duncan may only be a playoff force for another year, and Shaq's incredible burst this season, at 37, already seems to be defying the laws of time and physiology.

Allen Iverson, at only 33, is already assured of legendary status: number one pick in the extraordinary 1996 draft (ahead of Kobe, Nash and 7 other future All-Stars) his ten years in Philadelphia included a League MVP, 4 seasons as scoring champion and perennial All-Star selection. Still, Iverson has a combustible personality and the Sixers were beset with friction, beaten out by Shaq's Lakers in Iverson's only Finals trip. Despite his astonishing scoring ability (3rd highest average points per game in league history) A.I. looks likely to end his career without a championship ring. A trade to the Nuggets placed him alongside another big-time scorer in Carmelo Anthony, but it was soon apparent that the duo were going to prove too defense-lite to get past a first-round playoff series. The Answer was moved on to Detroit for Chauncey Billups.

It's become fairly clear that Denver got the better end of this deal - Chauncey has propelled them to second in the Western Conference at time of writing, and instilled a new belief in D. Meanwhile, it's become apparent just how much influence "Mr Big Shot" had with the Pistons, who have fallen apart. After 6 consecutive East Finals appearances, Detroit are now sub-.500 and scrapping to make the playoffs while Iverson seems a very poor fit as a solo star in a team that was once the very definition of 'chemistry'. A poor substitute indeed for a gritty defensive point guard who could pull the strings and make shots.

There were reasons for hope. I mentioned yesterday that the Pistons are still a tough matchup with Rip Hamilton back in the lineup, and that with a focused Iverson adding firepower to the second unit they could scare anyone. Don't forget that the guy is meant to be playing for his next contract. But it looks like it won't happen that way (main story). Allen Iverson is a superstar, and with that self-belief has also come an intransigence that has doomed any attempt to fit him into a system. Ultimately it may be that stardom that denies him another chance at a ring. And if his thoughts are starting to swing towards retirement, that means any opportunity to see A.I. take over a game is unmissable, a real collector's item.

It's a peculiarity of american sports that everything is set for parity, from salary caps to college drafts. Talented players landing at loathsome franchises often get things all their own way and no backup, sometimes ingraining that lone hero status and turning them into novelty scorers. LeBron is astonishing but he's only received real quality support in the last year. Because of rookie contract length, it's not uncommon for a young star to remain in that dark place for 4 or 5 years before joining a contender (e.g. the stars of the 2003 draft class who will be in that extraordinary 2010 upheaval). By that stage, 'fitting in' may be too much to ask. Concerned for OJ Mayo yet? You should be.

Maybe this is why the revival of the Celtics has been such a story. Paul Pierce had been the only reason to smile for the C's during the past two torrid seasons, Kevin Garnett had won an MVP in Minnesota but endured 7 successive first round playoff defeats, and Ray Allen (aka Jesus Shuttleworth) had been quietly pouring in 3-pointers and enjoying cult status as everyone's favourite shooter. After years in the wilderness, they found each other, formed a tight unit, reincarnated a stumbling franchise, and completed their resumés. It's a great story.

Which brings me back to the beginning. I've had many basketball infatuations, but my love for Ray Allen constitutes more than a crush. It's the real deal. 'Ray Ray' cuts a sleek figure and doesn't dominate games like Kobe, LeBron or Dwight Howard, but in this defense-orientated Celtics setup he fits beautifully, harrying opposition wings on D. On offense he can drive in to the paint or, more usually spaces the floor and works off Pierce or Rondo to bury a dagger. He's a brilliant shooter, with a stroke that's simply beautiful to watch. He has a cheeky smile and interviews well. He reads books, for crying out loud! And he's 33, which means I am desperately trying to grab memories and encase them, any time he plays well. I know I'll miss him when he's gone.

Last night's game against Charlotte gave me an opportunity to post this. I briefly mentioned yesterday that Charlotte's playoff push is a serious one, and having sprung a defeat on the Lakers they were more than ready for the Celts, forcing the game into double overtime. Good job Boston have a player that can hit clutch shots; I was more than pleased with the way this one turned out: