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Crystal Castles are the punks of dance music, to the point that III was apparently made without computers (which is quite something considering this really is dance music, as in the electronic thumpa-thumpa kind) and three of the tracks appear on the record unmixed. If you’re intrigued, you should be. Inevitably this collection is shouty and rough around the edges, so at times you turn these tunes down rather than up. But it’s also extraordinarily majestic, and it’s music for the brain, even the soul, not just for the dance-floor. We really do need to love musicians – any artists – who are committed to pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working within, and not caring a damn about whether dollars will flow or not.
As I wrote earlier on Under the counter, I wasn’t convinced that this latest Sigur Ros long-player was going to be any good, primarily because we’d heard how difficult it was for the band to get their act together and record something they themselves actually liked. In the end they roped in lead-singer Jonsi’s boyfriend to make sense of it all. The fact is Valtari is one of Sigur Ros’ best albums. Yes, it’s glacial, and ethereal, the words that you’d expect to be used in connection with these Icelandic post-rockers. But it’s also their bravest, and richest, and deepest. As always the music patiently builds and builds and peaks before gliding out into nothingness, but it’s in the stillness where the real beauty is to be found, and that’s in the stunning closing third. You really shouldn’t miss this.
I’m a longstanding fan of Patrick Wolf, and we were lucky enough to see him at the Sydney Opera House this year right at the beginning of his worldwide acoustic tour. I’d feared that the rather flamboyant Wolf would be precious and precocious and – dammit: let’s call a spade a spade – outright queenie, but on this evening at least his company was warm, engaging and surprisingly self-effacing; I would have been more than happy to go back the next night and sit through it all again. Sundark and Riverlight is essentially a best-of collection, but the Lupercalian has re-arranged and re-recorded the selected tracks into a folksy, baroque stew, and it’s tasty fare indeed. And intimate. In short: a rare joy.
This second album by The XX is, as others have said, a little on the underwhelming side, though there’s something appealing about that – like a wine that’s not much on first taste but keeps on getting better and better until it’s all that you want to drink, and think about. The XX sound like no one else, which is something we should be very grateful for as it’s the best thing about the band, that and their skills in arrangement and production, which are always excellent. I like Coexist best at the end of the day, just as the light’s fading and the melancholy sets in.
Like Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are moody bastards, but this time around (after the band put themselves on a long self-imposed hiatus) it’s all straight-out grim anger. At what exactly, it’s hard to tell – capitalism, the state of political discourse, modern life in general? – but this record is certainly a rally against something or other. Perhaps it’s against anything that’s safe and predictable and lovely and polished within an inch of itself. Enter Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at your own peril – it’s utterly relentless – but this is a very sublime kind of misery.
That one special extra: if you’re a fan of thoughtful, haunting and intricate electronica that’s all dripping-wet streets, shadows in the dark and an overall feeling that hope is slithering down the nearest gutter-drain, go search out Kindred, a three-track gem from UK dub-step pioneer Burial. The coda of ‘Astray Wasp’ is simply staggering and is easily some of the best music recorded all year; it starts around eight minutes into this eleven-minute epic, but you really need to engage with the whole track to get the maximum effect. You can listen to it by clicking on this.
Another year of writing comes to an end and it’s been a ripper, even if every second day I ask myself, why am I doing this? It’s not that I don’t enjoy it – mostly I love the wrestle with words and their meaning, with characters (who more often than not want to do their own thing), and the evil beast that is plot and event – but it is a strange occupation when so much time is spent worrying about what’s not real. Though we plough on, don’t we. And I mean that ‘we’ – I’m just one of thousands who are embroiled in this whole writing caper, plus around every writer is a bank of people who are very generous with their interest, support, advice, and encouragement.
So, an update on a few things:
I’m Ready Now…for novella no. 2 to have its moment in the sun
Two reviews for I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012) have come in to-date: the really very interesting and thoughtful literary blog Whispering Gums and the indispensable ACT-based street-press BMA Magazine.
Whispering Gums said of this novella, Nigel Featherstone builds tension and mystery around his characters’ behaviour without undermining their realness or humanity, and without alienating readers. We warm to them even while we wonder about the wisdom of their decisions and motivations. Besides the characterisation, I also like the novella’s voice and structure. It’s told first-person in the alternating voices of Lynne and Gordon, and is effectively paced, largely through varying the length of the chapters. And so for me, the book is about ‘living imaginatively’ and about liberation, but it is also about how the past can stall us if we don’t get it in the right perspective. Featherstone opens the book with two epigraphs, one being TS Eliot’s ‘Home is where one starts from’. I think that, in a way, says it all.
BMA concluded, I’m Ready Now is masterful in its execution. This is not high impact, flashy narrative. It doesn’t need to be. So delicately does Featherstone introduce the nuances of his characters and the incidents in their lives that – despite their simplicity – you are drawn in, eager to learn how these flawed and real characters fare. It doesn’t end in a walloping climax or the decisive nature of a bullet but with a simple yet life-changing decision. This is a perfect companion to Featherstone’s previous novella, Fall on Me, and both prove the man has a commanding grip on the novella form.
I’m Ready Now can be ordered in through your local bookshop, or purchased direct from Blemish Books.
Fall on Me…is rising
There was more than a spring in my step when I left the Mercure Hotel in Canberra on the evening of Thursday 13 December, because Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011) had just won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction). The judges’ concluded: A clever, poignant and engaging plot, and the pace is quietly and consistently held. Interest grows as the story and the relationship between the father and son unfold, polished and compelling. Carefully drawn and cannily observed characters, who develop in a plausible and appealing way. Judicious use is made of back-stories to define the characters; the reader never loses curiosity. This work is carefully and beautifully crafted, no showiness, no gratuitous sentiment, an example of skill and talent being put to outstanding use. I do hope the award, and the sticker that can now adorn the books, ensures that Fall on Me, a novella about a father who is surviving the senseless murder of his wife and the couple’s now teenaged son who insists on doing radically creative things with his body, continues to have a life out there amongst the big books.
Like I’m Ready Now, Fall on Me can be ordered in through your local bookshop, or purchased direct from Blemish Books, the best indy small press in the country, as voted by me.
A long-lost interview finally gets an airing
You know, there’s been a private saga that’s been simmering throughout much of this year. Back in autumn, I received an invitation from eminent South Australian literary journal Wet Ink for an in-depth interview. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity – these things come around once in a very blue moon. Over a total of twenty-five questions, the interviewer, Susan Errington, asked me about a wide range of topics, including what makes a novella, why I write so much about men, and my favourite authors and their books. For months and months I eagerly awaited this interview to appear but, sadly, Wet Ink went belly-up just before publication day. Thankfully, Whispering Gums came to the rescue, and the interview, which is 4,500 words long, is being serialised every Friday for the next few weeks, with an extra section added to bring it all up-to-date. Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful to Sue Terry for saving the day, but it’s also an example of how rapidly the world of literature is changing, particularly in terms of the ongoing tsunamic (is that a word?) shift from paper to the online environment.
The latest installment of the interview is here.
A massive thanks to everyone who’s bought a copy of Fall on Me and/or I’m Ready Now; to all those who’ve shared with me their responses to the books, I appreciate it very much. Yes, writing literary fiction is a bizarre pursuit, especially in an age where we’re all so pressed for time and are being bombarded with an avalanche of information (first a wall of water, now rushing slides of snow!), and the international economic climate is wobbly at best so people are understandably careful about what they do with their coins, but after the year that’s been I’m pretty damn keen for 2013 to start.
To all those who subscribe to Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, who comment, or just drop in every so often, I hope you enjoy the festive season (if there is one where you live), and all the very, very best for the new year.
At the vet’s recently, because Cat the Ripper has had a stroke, his back-end’s gone skew-whiff, he’s old so apparently these things can be expected, I saw on the counter a brochure from an animal-health company. ‘Is your dog missing out on playtime?’ it asked. Of course there was an accompanying picture: a white pooch, its head softly resting on the carpet and eyes looking glumly into the distance (impersonating a writer perhaps), an abandoned chew-toy on the other side. ‘They could be suffering from osteoarthritis,’ was the answer provided.
Being a writer, and a pedant, which is a dangerous combination, I noticed that clunky they. In my old-fashioned opinion, a singular dog cannot be a they. So as I waited with Cat the Ripper in his carry-box for us to be called into the consultation room, I silently rearranged the sentence: ‘He or she could be suffering from osteoarthritis.’ Still clunky, plus the sentence should be more precise. ‘Osteoarthritis could be the cause.’ But we need that suffering word; at least the animal-health company does. It forces us to relate to and empathise with the four-legged members of the family. We need to know they might be in pain, or uncomfortable, or just plain unhappy. Then we can act.
Artists, writers especially, are besotted with the idea of suffering. They (and I’m using that they to hypocritically distance myself from the others of my ilk, or ink) explore it, try to resolve it; some even wallow in it, creatively, or personally, or both. Thankfully we (ah now I’m back amongst the fold!) have the ability to analyse and order and communicate. We use words to make sense of it all; sometimes we can make it all go way. Think of a novel and its heart will be suffering. Gillian Mears’ extraordinary but distressing Foal’s Bread (2011) is an example. So is Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). Even amongst the articles of this newspaper, every story, the sports ones too, and the latest weather report, there is that thing: suffering, or the potential for it.
Needless to say, dogs aren’t that interested in this philosophical stuff – they just be – and Cat the Ripper has other things on his mind. So we have vets to act as our intermediaries, and we have animal-health companies with their questionable grammar. In the end, everything hinges on language, doesn’t it.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 December 2012.)
In the past on Under the counter I’ve compiled a brief list of the best books of the year, according to no one but old muggins here. In 2012, however, my reading has been much more scattered, partly by design and partly by circumstance, so that I’m less up-to-date than I’d like to be. Thankfully that hasn’t meant that I’ve not been moved by books and the experience of reading. What follows is a list of six books I’ve read this year that have ended up meaning a lot to me. What’s a good reading experience? One where I’ve been utterly convinced by the words on the page, so much so that I’ve believed that they are true, the people are real, and the predicaments they are in dangerous, that important information has been conveyed, that in the end it has all just meant so much. In short, my life would be poorer if I’d not experienced these books. So let’s get the party started.
The Unfortunates by BS Johnson (Picador, 1999). This was a gift from He Who Can Sniff Out A Good Present At A Thousand Paces, and it intrigued me from the moment I undid the wrapping. First published in 1969, this is an unbound book where, apart from the first and last chapters, it is meant to be read in random order; Johnson believed that it provided the ‘solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness’ better than ‘the imposed order of the book’. The story itself is about a newspaper report who is sent to an unnamed UK city to cover a football game but is forced to remember a friend who died a rather horrible death from cancer. Needless to say, this isn’t the cheeriest of reads, but despite the experimental format it packs an emotional wallop. The book’s melancholy, if not tragedy, is underscored by the fact that Johnson, plagued by family trouble and a lack of critical success, killed himself in 1973 aged forty. Thankfully The Unfortunates, which many consider one of the great examples of Sixties experimentalism, was republished in 1999.
Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (Allen & Unwin, 2012). I was hugely moved by this novel. Even though I know next to nothing about its subject matter – the strange world of country horse-jumping championships – I found myself engrossed in the people of the book, their hardship and tenacity, the tragedies that strike (and strike they do, in more ways than one), but the great love-story that ties it all together. To be sure, it’s a grim book. However, the prose, which others have described as ‘knotty’, which is most apt, is so superbly composed that it’s hard not to be affected by this incredible work. Foal’s Bread won the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction, and deservedly so.
The Invisible Thread, edited by Irma Gold (Halstead Press, 2012). It’s a little odd – and self-serving – to list a book that I am in, but it’s worthwhile rising above that, because this is one almighty collection (and in this company I’m a very minor player). Amongst its pages, the book celebrates one hundred years of words from those who’ve had a connection with the Australian Capital Territory. There are names such as CEW Bean, Judith Wright, Roger McDonald, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clarke, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Miles Franklin, and Omar Musa. Iceland has a population of about 300,000 people but has a reputation for producing some of the most influential contemporary musicians of recent times. The ACT’s population is only marginally higher – might it be that with The Invisible Thread this region may soon be credited with having an impact Australia’s literary culture?
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, 2009). This novel is three years old now but I didn’t read it until very recently. It’s scored an enormous range of accolades, including being short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2010. The Monthly described it as being an ‘Australian To Kill A Mockingbird’, and, surprisingly enough, the hyperbole isn’t that far off the mark. The narrative, which is essentially one of two boys growing up in small-town Western Australia, is simple, the prose engaging and accessible, and there’s humour and heart. Jasper Jones may not be Australia’s very best novel from recent times, but it’s certainly one of the most readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable.
Spirit of Progress by Steven Carroll (Fourth Estate, 2011). Let me make it clear from the outset: I love this man’s writing. Carroll puts word down on the page with such precision, so that even though little happens across the arc of the novel you’re swept away by the sheer artistry. Amazingly, despite this lack of plot, I really couldn’t put this book down. Carroll clearly knows his history – Spirit of Progress focuses on the years immediately after the end of World War Two – and he brings it so alive that the reading lingers for months after the turning of the final page. I adored The Time We Have Taken, which won the Miles Franklin in 2008, and adored what is essentially that book’s prequel.
Midnight Empire by Andrew Croome (Allen & Unwin, 2012). Generally speaking I’m not much of a reader of espionage thrillers, but Andrew Croome’s follow-up to his The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award-winning Document Z is not only a page-turner but a finely crafted and thought-provoking warning-shot across the bow. There’s no doubt that drone warfare is the military tool of the very near future, and Croome examines it with considerable insight and lucidity. Much of the action in Midnight Empire happens on computer screens; that he is able to bring alive the drama and horror and tragedy is quite miraculous. This is a book that should be placed under thousands and thousands of Australian Christmas trees, and widely read and discussed.
Seasons greetings. Whatever that means.
In this day and age when there are machines all over the house demanding our attention and, perhaps worse, telling us what to do, it’s rare – or just fucking fantastic – when something comes along that truly reaches out and grabs you, yes, grabs you, around the neck, until all you can do is sit stunned on the couch, a candle or two lit, and you just stare into the near-darkness until you’re weeping, or you’re up on your feet and doing air-guitar in front of the French doors (the blackness on the other side adoring thousands, although in reality it’s just a crumbling old house in the night). What is this something? Godspeed you! Black Emperor’s new album, Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend!
Godspeed you! Black Emperor, or Godspeed, or GYBE, or, as they call themselves on this album, God’s Pee, is a Montreal-based collective that combines a wide range of instruments into what often amounts to a truly cacophonous climax of distorted and disturbing sound. On Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend!, their first record in ten years, members play guitars, drums, violins, cellos, dulcimers, something called a ‘portasound’, something called a ‘kemance’, vibraphones, marimbas, glockenspiels, even a hurdy-gurdy. Think Sonic Youth mashed with a string-quartet mashed with a few blown-ins who will play whatever the hell they want to play, all of them in flannies and rip-torn jeans, bottles of vodka at their feed, and a hatred of rabid, rampant capitalism in their hearts.
I’ve been following the band since their extraordinarily epic Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven (2000), and then discovered their back catalogue, which was equally impressive. Godspeed is a post-rock band, so it’s all patient ebbs and flows until building into near-out-of-control conclusions, resulting in general devastation all-round. There’s no singing, though every so often there’s a field-recording of someone speaking, an unhinged street-poet, say, or a manic preacher. The band is famous for not promoting themselves – for example, there’s barely a mention of this latest album on the band’s website – and they’ve only rarely allowed their music to be used in films. This is not easy-listening music, nor is it summer music, which makes it even more miraculous that I just can’t turn this latest bloody album off.
To give you an idea of the terrain we’re in, Godspeed offer us a blurry photo of an abandoned farm-house on the cover and on the back are the following words: ‘WRECK’D US OUR COUNTRIE’S AMOK/TORN THRU/WITH BIRDS THEE SKY’S A BRUIS’D UNRECKONING/THEE SHORE’S BED DRY BUT TEPID WATERS’ (the capitalisation is theirs). The Bible-esque broken English and fly-blown poetry is perfectly appropriate for what’s on the actual disc: a collection of four relentless but never-the-less strangely uplifting pieces of music.
The first, ‘Mladic’, is an 18-minute masterpiece of noise and riffing, all of it rising and falling before rising again but never losing the tension that is at the song’s pained and twisted heart. It’s such a grand gesture, but there’s no mistaking the typical Godspeed anger – even on low volume this song makes your ears and nose bleed. ‘Mladic’ deserves to be heard through half-decent speakers, but you can get a taste of how it’s performed live here. Interesting that the band allow fans to record their shows; also of interest in this video is the use of looped projections, which have been a long-time feature of their gigs (they include the artists’ names in the list of band members).
Contrasting ‘Mladic’ is ‘Their helicopters’ sing’ (is that poorly placed apostrophe on purpose?). This is a 6-minute drone where the strings are more prominent…and is that the sound of bagpipes? It reminds me of something that the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once said, and I’m paraphrasing here: ‘I have found that sometimes it is enough for a piece of music to be nothing more than a single note played beautifully.’ Pärt has always sought spiritual beauty, but Godspeed are after something much more frightening. ‘We drift like worried fire’ begins in typically sparse fashion, being built around a simple plucked-string (guitar? violin? sample?) motif, before loose-limbed drumming kicks in and the song is off, traveling here and there, lifting and lowering as usual, finding lightness, darkness, and more lightness. This song is Godspeed at their most majestic; in fact, it’s almost triumphant-sounding, maybe even beautiful, though be warned that this band would find beauty in a pair of sodden socks left behind by a wino.
Like those other post-rock marvels Sigur Ros, who came back from near oblivion with this year’s Valtari, which is a profoundly moving collection of songs, Godspeed you! Black Emperor prove with Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend! that this punky, almost underground musical movement remains as valid and as valuable as ever. This record is a plea for solidness, for depth and resonance, for real living, the sort that doesn’t begin and end with the click of a button.