Thursday, 31 January 2013

Mysterious Traffic

One of the things interesting to me about my blog that no one reads is what does on occasion draw traffic here.

Misogyny and death metal
How to make guitar harmonies like Death
Allan Holdsworth Death Metal
Sean Reinert, Gay
Chuck Schuldiner AIDS

What is more, just this morning (January 31, 2013) on checking my traffic stats I noticed a large volume of traffic to my site directed from Facebook. As readers will know, I retired from Facebook some time ago. Even when I was using that site the traffic to this blog from my Facebook page was negligible. So why the sudden increase? Who knows? However, the particular entry that has been drawing increased numbers is my Death Metal and Misogyny entry. I'm quite happy that people are viewing my blog but if only they would leave comments as to why, I could be happier.

It is humbling to know that it is not my writing on comics or just about anything else that brings people here. The constant draw card aside from google image searches is obviously death metal. I need to start thinking about what else I can create, can link to the genre. Perhaps this site will become a repository, a Lovecraftian multidimensional shrine to mortis ferrum. Frankly if that is the case, I have no qualms about moving in this direction. What is a writer with no readers?

I have noticed throughout the time I have kept this blog that my own voice is one of the few critical and reflexive voices within death metal, a critic and a fan. I have strived for a serious analytical tone yet tried to balance it with a fans perspective. I have employed theory to crystallize certain conceptual relationships yet I am not interested in typical theoretical analyses of the music that I love.

Academic encounters with death metal (and heavy metal music) tend to occur from within a sociological or literary, cultural studies analytical framework. The drawback of these methodologies is that they are frequently interested. What I do here is certainly not disinterested and I have never attempted objectivity. The interested-ness of academic approaches forces analysis into a paradigm of peer-reviewed publishing, conference papers and book chapters designed to demonstrate the usefulness of certain theoretical and analytical methodologies. My aim has never been to legitimize death metal in an academic sense. Rather, it has been to create a space where it can be analysed, discussed and appreciated on a level beyond like/dislike, where its conceptual nuances and history can be unpacked from the perspective of a listener and fan without fear or favour.

So where to now?

After my recent declaration regarding moving towards seeking permission to online use of copyright images from owners and creators I have found myself in increasing contact with the individuals responsible for creating these products. Even though they are all a world away this is a very rewarding experience as an artist and a fan. Before this digital age and the collapse of the creative arts market I would never have had such expectations. But now, I am starting to see the importance of person-to-person online networking. Building a web of connections has become transparent, with a little hard work and genuine commitment it is possible to create an ecosystem of creativity that exists parallel to and independent of mainstream, commercial practices. I can create independent, new knowledge about others, in collaboration with them.

So here is another declaration: the overriding theme of this blog will henceforth be death metal. I will still write about other topics as they interest me but the overall tone will move to a fuller engagement with the subject that brings people here. Stay tuned for big things ahead.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Big Bottoms: A response

Photo by Peter Matis, Supplied by Jeroen Thesseling
Used with permission.

Last week Metal Sucks 'John Myungnotta's* inaugural Big Bottoms (interviews with metal bassists) regular feature was posted with Killswitch Engaged's Mike D'Antonio as the first interview subject. As a metal (head and) bassist myself I am always looking for flickers of resonance and recognition of metal's (quite often deservedly) unsung laborers. Starting with D'Antonio marks an interesting choice, Killswitch Engaged are not exactly renowned for their up front bass grooves. They are however a popular and polarising band and as suggested in the commentary beneath the original article, have the potential to bring a greater volume of traffic and therefore a greater potential future readership to the site. Nevertheless, DAntonios perspective does require some unpacking.

While D'Antonio certainly appears to enjoy his craft, again as noted in the comments his attitude is (stereo)typical of a certain type of bassist: stay out of the way, don't practice, don't "muddy up the sound", be simple and don't practice. It is no wonder that with this attitude bassists tend to earn little respect as musicians in metal. However, let me be clear: bassists in most musical situation are wing (wo)men. Their sound frequency range, their chosen timbre does not always lend itself to prominence. Some of the best non-metal bassists do stay in the background, in the pocket, pushing and pulling the beat and swangin' that thang in a way that most (non-musicians and for that matter many musicians as well) are unable to cognitively apprehend.

One of the zeitgeist metal memes is the colonisation of the bass space by extended range (seven, eight etc stringed) guitars. Commentators frequently argue that the bass (guitar) is becoming irrelevant to an extent because a lot of the low end can now be provided by these new guitars which frequently have tunings that extend into the standard bass range (in fact, yours truly has an 8-string tuned to F# sailing up the Pacific to one day find home again). But just like bassists who use high gain distortion in their signal path these meme makers are missing the point.

Despite the common stereotypes the bass (guitar) is a complex instrument. Many guitarists display contempt for the bass, deriding it as simple for its mere four strings and decrying as unnecessary when it has six or more. But we hardly call the trumpet with its three buttons simple, the same again for the measly four strings of the violin and the cello. But what makes the bass guitar so complex. I would go so far as to argue that the electric bass is almost two instruments in one. As many a bassist knows (and usually doesn't let on) the low E and A strings have a completely different timbre to the high D and G strings. Many anonymous bass players rarely stray beyond the two lowest strings and almost never again above the fifth fret. And it that's what gets the job done in their context, more power to them. What I am moving toward here is a different approach to the bass, an approach taken by a significant few in which the bass guitar is conceptualised not merely as "an octave below the guitar" but as a guitar with a unique timbral range.

Jeroen Thesseling has demonstrated in both Obscura and Pestilence how a bass can seamlessly fit with, augment and enhance low tuned guitars while still being heard. His fretless tone blooms and slides underneath the guitars, moving between registers to fill space but also to provide it. Go and listen to Pestilence's Doctrine, even tuned to F# (yes, he is using a 7-string, extended low range fretless bass) his tone is audible and engaging. Steve Digiorgio does the same with Death and Sadus: he locks in with the drums with a sense of groove not normally possessed by linear thinking guitarists and knows exactly how and when to shine - even when the guitars are also at the forefront.

Then there is Roger Patterson from Atheist, where innovative, rhythmically complex thrash/death is composed on the bass guitar. The same applies for doomy heshers, Saviors. One would think that in bands such as Pantera, where the focus was all about stellar guitarist Dimebag Darrel, there is little chance for the bass to be noticed - but it is. The band and their production knew what they were doing and while Rex Brown is no Les Claypool, neither is he a slouch. Crank up Cowboys from Hell, you can even hear his bass back in the bad old days of smiley face EQ settings, over compression and over dubs. In short, even when guitars start to encroach on the bass frequency range (in actuality, they always did, such incursions arent always cognitively audible is all), recording smarts alone can be enough to bring out the bassist in a mix. With a solid understanding of timbre coupled with bassists willing to go the extra mile, who practice and get to write their own parts his/her role is safe from harm.

Meanwhile, groups such as Meshuggah and Gojira blend the bass into the overall guitar sound. In these situations the bass is not particularly distinct but it does contribute to the overall guitar sound of the album. It adds timbral depth and complexity.

Big Bottoms will hopefully engage many more bassists with different perspectives and willing to talk technique over equipment. The role of the bassist in metal needs a serious re-think by bassists and metal listeners equally.

*Presumably, like the rest of the Metal Sucks staff, a pseudonym.

Another lost summer

Though it is winter, and the north:
I see them.
An echo of colour
overlaid on flap, flutter and rise
Up through the grey, the brown,
the chill.
A distant summer splash.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Wot? No grafiks?

You may have noticed a distinct lack of images in the last few posts. This is the result of two experiences.

1.      My home computer situation is rather dire at the moment. The relic I am using groans to simply output a significantly usable wifi signal from the access point adapter in its USB 1.0 ports. Old faithful does not arrive for another three weeks or so which makes most processing tasks long and tedious.

2.      I recently read about the ethics of image appropriation and was mildly shocked at the blatancy of theft and recirculation of personal, public and corporate images without permission. I too am guilty, although I have yet to turn a profit from my use of copyrighted images on this here blog.

What does this mean for this blog? Well, aside from appearing a little sparse for the time being, from now all images used here will be with permission of the image/copyright holders or else photography done by yours truly. While this may slow things dow in does have a number of professional advantages including: rectifying rampant theft by correctly asserting ownership and building concrete relations with those artists and designers responsible for the images. Oh, and it gives me another channel to put my interpretive, painfully bad photography out there into the world.

Stay tuned…

Sweet Tooth

From the first pages I was inescapably caught up in this paradoxically hyper local yet global tale of a hybrid deer boy trying to find out who he is and where he came from. The stark, impressionistic artwork and peerless, compact, original writing elevate Jeff Lemire’s future classic into a stratosphere high above his end-of-the-world/apocalypse creating contemporaries. Human frailty, affection and compassion are at the heart of this adventure which strikes out across a number of familiar landscapes, breathing new life into a genre I thought was definitely past its “use by” date.

The final issue which came out earlier this month is an elegant masterpiece of comic literature and moved yours truly to tears. It ties up loose ends without abruptly ending them, is emotional without melodrama and it is as a good ending should be, rewarding the reader and surprising as well.

All images sourced from Jeff Lemire's blog and used with permission.

99 problems and being a gaijin ain’t one.

I recently viewed this appropriation of the Jay-Z song title over at Japologism (formerly Tepido). The context of this rather pithy one liner is an ongoing discussion around issues of belonging and exclusion in Japan for predominantly Anglosphere immigrants in Japan. At the heart of this discussion is a tension arising from a growing critical counter voice to popular/widespread/dominant Anglosphere knowledge on Japan.

This polyvocal position consists of mostly Anglosphere immigrants who have resided in Japan for significant periods of time, who frequently possess Japanese language literacy and often have made the commitment to call Japan “home”. It is a position criticized by the “old guard” gatekeepers of English knowledge on Japan whose positions, like their oppositional counterparts are complex, are frequently of a Western universalist position in which Western institutions of politics, law and human rights are posited as original and uniquely correct articulations. The result is that local articulations are accorded an inferior position and can only ever have inferior truth value and legitimacy. Any position falling outside of this framework is dogmatically posited as being “apologist”.

In my mind the tension between these two positions can be distilled as follows:

Expat versus Immigrant
The economic and military of the Anglosphere West created a global context in which the expat laborer was created. S/he jets out to a foreign land, frequently outside of the Anglosphere and arrangements such as housing, transportation and amenities are made by the company for a seamless transition of the worker from “here” to “there”. In many cases the expat worker is able to live in a strictly delimited community of peers with similar interests and aims while performing their work on foreign soil. S/he is able to return home at the end of a contract with minimal impact on the host culture, some pleasant (and often not so pleasant). The expat is a longer term tourist who frequently refuses local linguistic capability and has little opportunity for preconceptions and stereotypes to be unpicked by discourse with locals.

The immigrant on the other hand is a traveler who has decided to make the new local, a new home. S/he may start out as an expat or a tourist but for various reasons finds her/himself in a position where returning “home” is no longer relevant. Naturally, the type of home created and the path taken to permanent residency and naturalisation is dependent on the type of immigrant, the experience of Anglosphere immigrants is starkly different to that of Eastern European women, Chinese factory workers, Nikkei Brazilians and long term Zainichi Koreans and Chinese to name a few. Nevertheless this type of immigrant identity is characterized by a sense of becoming, a movement away from foreigner and toward resident and citizen.

To summarize: belonging is a complex and difficult issue for both expat and immigrant, however, the process of belonging and the commencement of an authentic local identity appears to be largely dependent on the concept, location and prospect of home. For the expat, belonging is neither a priority nor a necessity. For the immigrant it is an inevitability. Belonging is always a process, it is never complete. It is a constant negotiation.  

Linguistic Capability
The extent to which an immigrant (of either type mentioned above) attains local linguistic capability is a primary determinant of her/his ability to integrate into a community and find home. The dominant Anglosphere knowledges on Japan (which is invariably portrayed as weird, wacky, high tech and kinky) tend to draw on the same pool of translated information. As is the case in the present age, it takes only moments for information to gain currency and veracity through frequency and density of representation. Tracking down original sources can be quite difficult and for the dominant Anglosphere knowledge maker a brick wall of linguistic incompetence further frustrates the situation.

This linguistic incompetence is further compounded on a daily basis as her/his various interactions are mediated and translated. Glimpses of complex truths are viewed through lenses of incomplete comprehension and further interpreted by individuals within a matrix of exclusion, exceptionalism and hierarchy. The failure to integrate with community outside of the expat demarcations allows half-truths and interpretations to be perpetuated through un-reflexive repetition. This in turn is played out on a larger scale within the informational world of the internet where negativity as an outcome of culture shock, dislocation and exclusion is the primary mode.

The linguistically competent immigrant on the other hand, has her/his identity shaped by daily interactions in the language of the local. S/he is able to grasp first hand, without mediation local knowledges and issues. S/he frequently inhabits a context in which various issues, behaviours and events can be discussed and analysed from multiple view points. And while life may not be inherently any more/less sweet for the linguistically capable (after all, most of us could do with more money, more time, more peace, less stress and more love) it is easier to go about developing a rich and authentic, complex local identity.

This is one of the most contested areas of the expat/immigrant debate. Anglosphere immigrants (especially when of the ethnically white variety) tend to be monolingual and have enjoyed the benefits of cultural superiority find adopting local culture and customs difficult if not impossible. They see local behavior as beneath them, uncivilized and improper. They frown upon those immigrants who do make attempts to participate in their new culture.

Perhaps the pain of participation results from a primal human condition of shame. Adopting the unfamiliar requires an act of vulnerability, a giving up of the individual’s long held position in order to enter into the unknown. This type of shame and anger is frequently seen by the outbursts and red faces of white men as they loudly disapprove of their peers’ participation in distinctly Japanese cultural spaces from sports, to dress and traditional arts. After all, the Anglosphere has a long tradition of expressing disapproval of those who have “gone local” and thus “diluting/polluting” their original culture.

The other issue at stake is fixation. In the mind of the expat, the other is a fixed, known quantity it is defined against the known self, hybridity is not only considered undesirable but impossible. For many who have inhabited the heart of colonial empires, hybridity is akin to pollution, it is inauthentic and morally improper. They are them and we are us, superior.

Yet what many of these old men (though there are women and younger people caught up in this logic too, physical age is not always the best indicator of mental age) forget or are ignorant of is the speed and flexibility of the children of immigrants in regards to hybridity and becoming one, becoming other, both and neither. Youth the world over assimilate novelty and subject it to repetitive and rigorous, playful interpretation and reconstruction. The father and son live on the same planet but their life worlds are distinctly different. If only the Anglosphere universalist was capable of such intellectual and psychological reflexivity, perhaps (mostly) his passage through the place that is not home would be smoother, happier and more integrated.

The results.
Currently Anglosphere universalists are engaged in a dogmatic dismissal of complex becoming other immigrant positions. They reject the possibility of becoming other and see social change only if it can be imposed from above. The Anglosphere universalist further isolates himself from both mainstream immigrant experience as well as vanguard thought as he wraps himself in second hand knowledge and unbalanced despair at the hands of cultural chauvinism. The conclusion here is exclusion and the perpetuation of a gaijin identity apparently worthy of protection and promotion. But time is not on his side.

As China’s economic, social and political relevance continue to expand and influence Japanese affairs and former Anglosphere knowledge exclusivity about Japan is flattened by mass availability on the internet, we can see a changing landscape for Anglosphere immigrant. The old monolithic expert voice is being reduced to relic status and myriad, polyglossal, integrated, hybrid identities take his place.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Why I gave up Facebook

Aside from the fact I got stalked?

Way back at the restart of this blog referenced Jaron Lanier and his views on how the internet had changed from a space of open possibility to a place of restrictions. Not long ago I was reflecting on how the internet had changed shape from communities of common interest to communities of convenience. Somewhere around the pre-dawn of Facebook et al there was a lot of talk about the Web 2.0 a more creative space driven by user content on platforms provided by interested groups and corporations. We moved quickly from bare bones, clunky blog tools to streamlined integrated/embedded multimedia suites making the most of jumps in processing power, increased memory and storage. Youtube showed who we are and facebook showed who we knew all with a few simple clicks.

This social media landscape is now a given, it is likely the primary way in which people interface with the increasing body of information that is the internet. But it was not the way we always did it. Withdrawing from social media is a liberating action, it is a reclamation of an optic we were so quick to give up in the race to voice our opinions, however mediocre.

But what of the cognitive dissonance? After all, here I am writing on a blog, part of the initial 2.0 scaffolding. The difference between most social media platforms and blogs is the potential of the latter to allow sustained writing and at times even dialog. The standard of conversation tends to be higher because at the very least a blog has a pretence of literary quality. A blog entry frequently (though not always) requires greater commitment than a random Facebook screed or Disqus still huff and puff.

I have long thought and previously hinted: there are many internets layered on top of each other and a certain version, popularised in the late 90s has been increasingly papered over by subsequent waves of digital natives. The frequency and density of information produced by the young is having profound, transformational effects on the shape and tone of the internet. Perhaps even, one day as the platforms themselves are fully normalised the only way of access imaginable will be through these restrictive lenses.

Facebook is one of these platforms and combined with the platform's purpose, methods of data mining, questionable ethics about discrimination/hate speech and overall low standards of contributions has demonstrated that it is a community in which I have little interest.

That and the fact that I had a creepy stalker moment.

Nevertheless, however you found your way here, thanks for reading.