Aphex Twin – On

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Read about Aphex Twin and it all seems like a joke. He releases music under hundreds of aliases, puts his face in a track that has him with big breasts and in a bikini for a cover and releases an album of pure Ambient noise. Sometimes listening to him and enjoying the beauty of it feels like you’re being fooled, like there’s some kind of joke which you’re not clever enough to get so Richard serves you with accessible techno. If only you were intelligent enough, you’d realize Selected Ambient Works II was a parody, or that “Windowlicker” thing is meant to prove that Dance music is stupid.

Richard himself said he finds the tag IDM pretentious, though. So maybe he’s just really intelligent while also knowing how to have fun and enjoy pretty sounds. “On” is the definitive Aphex Twin track for that reason.

While “Windowlicker” is better, “On” is right in the middle. There is no joke here. The song consists of pretty electronic sounds over weird IDM drums that are steady enough to be danceable. Nothing about is extreme, not like the simplicity of Aphex’s debut or the emptiness of his second or the wackiness of his third.

It’s just a welcoming, warm track that defines Aphex’s approach better and makes it clear why he’s the dominating figure of IDM. In the end, he really is all about discovering and enjoying simple, pretty sounds. That puts him in contrast to Autechre and Boards of Canada, whose personalities weren’t so deceptive but more impenetrable. Autechre especially came off like two calculating geniuses so absorbed in their research of sound they forgot what’s the point of it all.

Whether “On” is one of IDM’s best tracks is a different manner. I’m too ignorant of the genre to say such a thing, but it is one of Electronic music’s best statements in how it welcomes the listener. Whatever you think of Electronic music, listen to this. It’ll give you a clearer image of the point of it all.

The EP also contains other tracks, and that’s a problem. “On” is so brilliant that the only way to include it in an album is to feature other tracks that sound like just dicking about. Aphex tries, but nothing close. It’s not like any other album by him can contain this song.

“73-Yips” comes close to being worthy. It’s a pounding, almost Industrial track that has no melody and just wants to grind the listener. If “On” is the chill out part, then “73-Yips” is a moshpit starter. The problem is it has no guts. Nearly all Aphex tracks are defined by how clear their idea is, how Richard knows exactly what kind of song he makes. “73-Yips” just doesn’t go hard enough. The sounds are loud and screeching, but it has none of the darkness of actual Industrial music. It actually feels more like a joke track, annoying the listener who enjoyed “On”‘s soft beauty.

The other two tracks are attempts at a darker Ambient, but he did it better in his first two albums. “D-Scape” is just “Tha” with slightly different sounds. “Tha” was pretty cool, but there was no need for a replica.

How come these 3 other tracks got so dull is beyond me. They’re interesting enough for one or two spins, since Richard is a talented and interesting enough producer. The safety net of IDM is that its nature means the worst track might contain interesting ideas. When your catalogue is so extensive though, average tracks quickly lose their point. Listen to “73-Yips’, and any time you need a loud Aphex track just bump whatever remix of “Ventolin” that comes up in the playlist.

Still, the EP does contain “On” and 3 b-sides Aphex Twin tracks which is never a bad thing. If only “On” had a more prominent place in his catalogue. He managed to be famous without it, but that song deserve more fame. How can anyone dislike such an innocent, welcoming song that only wants you to lay down on the beach, look at the sky and think happy thoughts? When IDM is pretty, it’s really pretty.

2.5 yips out of 5

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John Taylor Gatto – Dumbing Us Down

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Parents love to be scared. The news industry feeds on parents who want to be scared and then ‘protect’ their children. News is full of stories about things that could harm your children, like hot dogs or Marilyn Manson. If Stranger Danger was a band, it’d be the best-selling artist. It was a shock that no one told us we should stop going to rock concerts after the Eagles of Death Metal.

For some reason, no one started a moral panic around schools. No news media ever tried to scare parents about what goes on in schools and how terrible they are. I think it’s because parents love schools. Schools make raising children very easy. Let a bunch of strangers raise your child and grade them. They even do the job of telling you how good your kid is.

Although this book is pretty well-known, it hadn’t started a moral panic. Why? Could it be that parents don’t mind that their children are taught confusion, antisocial behavior, that their brains are being ruined by the confining environment of schools?

Gatto later says that the essay about the seven lessons isn’t the central essay. It is. It’s perhaps the definitive text about the wrongs of schooling. It lays down what schools actually teach, and asks us whether we want it or not.

He sometimes slides into conspiracy thinking. One of the introductions name-drops Cuckoo’s Nest and the Combine. Besides missing the point of the novel (It’s about how we must subjugate women), Gatto is never as paranoiac. He doesn’t talk about a huge organization controlling everything behind the scenes. Rather, our society is moving towards this.

It’s not because people are just power hungry, like a cliched villain. Our society moves towards this centralized structure because we think it’s efficient and will give us what we want.

What makes Gatto’s position worthwhile is because he’s not talking just about schools, but the worldview that gave birth to them. This comes to light in the last essay, the one that strays most from Gatto’s criticism of schools.

It’s one that’s destined to failure. Gatto waxes nostalgia about some past when we all lived in a small town and were a ‘community’. While he doesn’t go deep enough into describing the differences between networks and communities, his view isn’t black and white.

In fact, he addresses the flaws of these small towns. They cast out people. They caused great harm to those they deemed unfit. But, according to him, they did not have that much power. A person could have chosen to join that community to leave it.

In reality, it’s harder than it seems since we’re forced into existence, and born into a community that might not fit us. If it doesn’t, how do we know there’s something beyond it? Tolerance that people reach on their own is better, but I’d rather enforce tolerance than risk the damage the Quakers suffer. Even if it will slow the process a little, I’d rather illegalize these acts than wait until people decide to be tolerant.

While it may seem like he’s a religion apologist, he’s not. What he takes from religion is the sense of community. This is one of the most important ideas in this book. He demonstrates that the church was an environment where everyone took part – the old, the young and the in-between. Yes, they had roles but they were more connected than we are right now.

The problem with secular living, especially in big cities is how segregated we are. We are put into classes or schools or companies, all of which have a cause none of us agree with. He’s also wrong about the military. The military is intense. It creates an emotional experience that connects people. These networks don’t offer that.

He doesn’t view networks as completely useless. His problem with networks is that they serve a specific purpose, and can’t do more than that. The military can defend the country, but it’s not enough to bring meaning to a person’s life. We need networks to accomplish some objectives, but they must never be our whole lives.

The best part is Gatto’s criticism of schools. He uses the good old method of analyzing the form. Schools must, first of all, have a structure that encourages learning. Some may criticize Gatto’s anecdotes, but he describes in detail the type of ‘psychopathic school’. If your school functioned differently, then you’re lucky.

Humans are curious by nature. The reason parents have to scare us all the time is because we’re curious about what the fire feels like. Everything in the school structure goes against it. Standardized test limit what you can learn. You’re trapped with the same people in a setting where you’re punished for socializing.

The idea that we need schools to teach ‘basic skills’ is moronic. Reading and arithmetic don’t take too much time, and schools don’t teach basic skills anyway. How many schools teach cooking or fixing or building things?

It’s such a focused attack on the school structure that I’m surprised it didn’t make more of a splash. Sure, Gatto’s tone is often bitter and he sometimes repeats himself. It would have been helpful if there was more research involved, but then again these are speeches. He’s successful at explaining the exact problem and offering solutions. He never descends into black-and-white thinking, although he’s close to it. The idea of demolishig schools may seem radical, but some radical ideas have basis.

It’s not a perfect book. It’s a collection of speeches so it often slides into bitterness. Gatto’s dissection of the school structure is a brilliant one, even if Postman had better solutions. People often tell me that we can’t do anything about schools or that there aren’t any alternatives. Well, here they are. Even if it’s not the definitive text about education, it’s full of worthwhile ideas.

3.5 psychopathic schools out of 5

Veronica Roth – Divergent

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Hating the government is big business. Without a government we could hate, a lot of people will be out of job. I’m not just talking about scumbag officials. Imagine what Zack de la Rocha would do without hating the government. No one will listen to his pathetic attempts at rapping and lousy slogans. No one would buy his records. This is serious. Hating the government even mananges to pump some money into the publishing industry. Look at the Hunger Games.

Here we go. Here comes another review of Divergent that mentions The Hunger Games. I only do it because everyone else does, but that doesn’t make it right. The constant comparing of the two tells you more about how ignorant people are of the dystopia genre than about the books themselves. The Hunger Games was a heroic story about Defeating the Evil Government – no different than Star Wars. Divergent has little resemblance to it. It’s like a Young Adult version of Brave New World.

Roth wants to write about many things. She wants to examine ideas. She wants to write a love story. She wants to write an action-packed thriller. Sadly, she’s less successful than she deserves. There are plenty of moments where her approach to typical subjects are more unorthodox. Her love triangle, for example, is far more interesting and also tends to be more low key. Sometimes, she’s a carbon copy of contemporary YA. We’re talking about extended action sequences and love serving as deux ex machine.

There is potential in this premise. Roth wants to examine these ideologies. There is a satirical edge here, with how Erudite wear glasses to look smart or how the Dauntless try to look like metalheads. She manages to create distinct enough cultures that make us question and examine these ideas, rather than accept them as good or bad.

The Dauntless take the center stage, and this quality appears often there. The Dauntless are sometimes painted as unnecessarily cruel. At other times, the harshness and cruelty is reasonable. How can you become fearless without actually facing your fears? She doesn’t take the easy way out. She doesn’t separate the Dauntless to kindhearted people and to ruthless sadists, but presents that cruelty from two angles.

Divergent often reads like a critique of splitting into ideological camps. Anyone who talked with people who are proud of being left/rightwingers knows how damaging these camps are to good discourse. By choosing sides, you no longer have a mind of your own. You have to agree with everything that side says and disagree with everything the other side stands for. That’s why you get secular right-wingers who are hesitant to admit they’re all for gay marriage because they won’t want to come off as leftists.

It’s not a desire to destroy and rebuild. It’s a desire to improve what already is. Young people are often angry (which makes them appreciate rock music) and we want, to quote Fight Club, “to destroy something beautiful”. I appreciate this more mature outlook, but it doesn’t appear enough.

She tries to make ideologies clash, but her clash makes little sense. How does the desire for knowledge clashes with selflessness?

She paints the Erudite as hungry for power, but none of it comes naturally from their ideology. The pursuit of knowledge doesn’t automatically result in megalomania. Often, the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know. You end up feeling smaller. People who pursue knowledge are often too busy researching and learning than exercising control. Learning is receiving. There are studies that prove suicide is more common among intelligent people.

The Abnegation or the Dauntless faction are more fit to slide to megalomania. The ideology of Abnegation includes the suppression of the invidiual. The only way to do it is to exercise some sort of control over him so he won’t try to act on his natural impulses. Roth is aware of that. This is where Marcus’ character comes in, but it’s a small moment.

The Dauntless are less fit, but are a good possibility. The slide from testing bravery to needless cruelty is addressed, but it’s used more to draw lines between Good Guy Four and Bad Guy Eric. Eric’s ideas can have some merit. He can be a bit of an Antichrist Superstar, a rejected person who works hard to escape from failure only to end up in ruins. His main role degenerates to be the Bad to Four’s Good. Maybe it’s fine if you’re a woman and the romance speaks to you more. As a male, I’m more interested in Eric’s attempt to make up for his failures.

This is a big hole that’s hard to ignore, because that’s what instigates the climax. She doesn’t go full retard and claims the pursuit of knowledge is bad, in and of itself. It’s just the desire to overpower that’s apperantly at fault, or something. She never makes it clear enough. She just attatches a bland desire for power to create an enemy.

What came before swings from interesting to bland. The initiatition arc gives us a pretty ordinary high school story with a Bullying Gang that exists only so we would hate it. It’s a jarring transition from a variety of viewpoints to people who are cruel because they’re cruel. I have faced real bullies, the kind that did it only because they could and Roth’s portrayal is lackluster.

Since this is a world where everyone is driven by the faction’s ideas, senseless cruelty is out of place. Even as an exploration of senseless cruelty, it fails. What is frightening about bullies is that they’re sure they are in the right. When a teacher asked one of my bullies, he said he did it because it was fun. Yet there is no sense of fun in Peter’s bullying that should remind us of how we love to shoot heads in Borderlands. He does it only to move the plot forward and so we’ll have someone to hate. It’s like the corrupt businessman who we hate because he has more money than us.

There are sometimes glimpses into character development. Al’s arc is good and lifts up the love triangle a bit. He’s he typical good, but unattractive guy. He’s kindhearted and nice, but he also has no spark of sexuality in him. It’s a moment where Tris is allowed to be a dumb teenageer, and we’re invited to understand even if we disagree. Al is also not portrayed as just a Love Interest but a human with a separate life. He’s allowed to make choices, to be vulnerable, to show affection and to take matters into his own hands even if it’s a tragic ending.

Tris is also a far more interesting protagonist than Katniss. Roth actually makes her go through tough choices and question her worldview. She doesn’t give her too many shortcuts. It’s not like how Collins allowed Katniss to never kill an ‘innocent’ person. Tris makes plenty of mistakes. That’s a small improvement, but not enough. She lacks a defining feature. There is something about being Divergent, but here it’s hinted that it’s biological, so perhaps it’s external. It’s not something she acts upon. She just gets up one day and people tell her, whoa, you’re Divergent!

The copy I read also came with the manifestos of each faction. That’s the best part. They’re each written in different style that suits the ideology (Amity all have anecdots. Erudite have lists). They each make a convincing case, but they’re also very absolute and strict. They’re ripe of finding holes in them. This can be a fun exercise. This is probably what Roth wanted, but it didn’t turn out too well. Maybe the next go round will be better.

2.5 factions out of 5

Saul Bellow – Herzog

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Feminists got it wrong with the whole ‘strong female character’ thing. Anyone who talked a little about fiction should know that by now. What’s more puzzling is how they got that idea in the first place. When they obsess over the strength of female characters, what are the example of male characters they wish to emulate?

Herzog belongs to the line of books that trap you inside the character’s head. It’s less of a story than a psychoanalysis of a character, which you probably already read in Pornoy’s Complaint and Catcher in the Rye. Like in those novels, a lot of effort is put into developing the main character. Also like these novel, the character is far from strong, independent and beautiful. He’s a wreck. He’s self-destructive. He’s a joke. Like the best characters, we’re encouraged to explore Herzog, not to wish to be with him.

That’s the key to making a great character. Good characters are not ones we wish to be, but ones who have an interesting psychology we want to explore. It’s easy to make a strong, independent women. All you’re actually making is a Clay Golem from Diablo II. Attempting a character like MosesĀ is a harder and more rewarding effort. It’s not a wonder this style gave birth to a lot of acclaimed novels.

Herzog is weaker than those novels though. Bellow is talented, and the writing flows so smoothy it was jarring at first, considering I read Frog Music before it. Bellow has the skills to make enjoyable prose, but he doesn’t use it enough. He fails in the same way that other Jew failed, Bernard Malamud.

Paul Auster saw what was wrong and fixed it. A rambling style is fine. It could even lead to a great work, even if it’s difficult. This style works when all of the ramblings comes clearly from the character’s head. Everything the character says, then, reveals something about it. Even repetition, or copy-pasting paragraphs can have its purpose. The repetition of Something Happened is annoying, but it does wonders to build its character.

Bellow’s ramblings often seem to be outtakes from his essay collection. I understand Bellow was pretty prolific and had a lot to say. If you can’t say it via literary means, then maybe this fiction thing is not for you. Too often there are whole paragraphs which lose contact with the story. It’s not just when the letters Moses writes to others that these paragraphs appear. The novel is written in third person, which may make you want to take drugs. Any character study must be in first-person, because the third-person creates too much distance. When these snippets of essays appear in the mouth of the third-person narrator, the brain turns itself off.

The reason for this is because these snippets are pretty meaningless. There are people who think philosophy is pure bullshit and not worth anyone’s time. These people should have their rights revoked. Reading Herzog, though, you just might think these people may be on to something. What does a phrase like “the hedonistic joke of a mammoth industrial civilization”? It’s a great Marilyn Manson song title, but its meaning is lost. Philosophy should use jargon only when it makes the writing more clear. Piling a lot of big words is a way to cover up the lack of ideas.

Worse, there isn’t any lack to cover up. As a satire of the intellectual, Herzog is pretty good. Bellow is too slack on him, though. As a person that this book makes fun of, I wish I had such a great sex life. Intellectuals are often criticized for not being able to experience life. Yet, MosesĀ is a bit of a pick-up artist.

This is a theme ripe for exploration. Intellectualism, the desire to know shouldn’t distance us from life but to bring us closer. Yet you could easily find yourself reading too much instead of going out to see the weather has changed. Moses can’t enjoy a house out on the country, surrounded by green scenary, animals and quiet.

This intellectualism can easily wreck your relationships with other people. Spend too much time in heavy thinking, and you can become self-absorbed. We should gather new ideas and experiences not just from great dead authors, but with people who we can interact with. Bellow understands that too many books and you forget how to interact with a human being. Moses is a person stuck in his own world of ideas who can’t reach out to others. This causes wrecked relationships and with bad people, sometimes at the same. The reason he chose Madeleine was because of what it said about him. He managed to get a beautiful, intelligent women. Yet, he couldn’t see she was also not right in the head.

If Moses is such a social wreck, how could he have all these affairs? Intelligence is not sexy. Having a lot of sex is always a good thing. It’s a sign you’re well-adjusted socially. Perhaps this was written before people understood that anyone who preached to you how awful sex is was afraid to admit he wasn’t getting any.

There is a great author buried in here, but Herzog is too indulgent. The book fails exactly where its main character fails. It’s too self-absorbed, afraid to reach out to others (in this case, it’s afraid to reach out to its main character) There are wish-fulfillment fantasies and incoherent paragraphs. It doesn’t reach out enough for the reader. Like Moses, though, when it does it’s great. Moses is less coherent than Portnoy or Caulfield, but he’s an enjoyable pinata. Bellow is a good enough writer to not let the pen get away with him too much. Despite the occasional pointless paragraph and weird sexuality, Herzog is a good satire of intellectualism. It’s a must-read for anyone who reads a lot. We all need to laugh at ourselves sometimes.

3 Jews out of 5