March 17, 2014

Celebrating 30 years of “Structures From Silence”

Celebrating 30 years of “Structures From Silence”

Steve Roach’s Structures From Silence is one of my favorite ambient albums, if not my favorite. Containing barely any trace of melody or rhythm, it’s largely an exercise in pure sonic drift, with Roach conjuring and gently manipulating vast pools of shimmering, celestial sound. However, the album never feels cold or remote; a remarkable warmth and intimacy gracefully flows through its three compositions.

As a result, I find that it’s the perfect album for those times when I want to enter a more tranquil, contemplative state of mind, be it late night programming sessions or when I’m trying to subdue a migraine. As I wrote in my review of Structures From Silence’s 2001 remaster:

If you actively listen to Structures From Silence, you’ll quickly be distracted by something else. I can’t explain it, but by letting it sink into the background while doing something else — struggling with HTML code at work, reading a good book, or writhing in bed with a migraine — it has a way of coloring and suffusing that activity with added depth and color. Or, in the case of a migraine, comfort and relief.

Structures From Silence was originally released in 1984, and has since been regarded as one of Roach’s finest releases, as well as an album on par with Brian Eno’s landmark Music for Airports. To celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary, Roach and Projekt Records will be releasing a three-disc edition of the album. The first disc contains a remastered version of the original album based on the original analog tapes. The other two discs contain newly recorded pieces inspired by the original album. Or, as Roach puts it:

Over the years since the creation of Structures From Silence, certain pieces would emerge in the studio that instantly had the resonance of a direct relationship to the place that birthed this work back in 1984. As this anniversary approached — like the light slowing emerging in an early morning sunrise returning from a thirty year orbit — the desire to draw from this place of stillness, and deep inner quiet became the soul tone for these new pieces. Like the three original tracks, these were created in moments spent simply being present in the studio, tapping the flow state and guiding this sense into these recorded moments.

Listen to one of the new tracks, a thirty-minute piece titled “Reflection,” below.

The three-disc edition is available via Bandcamp, as is a single-disc version that contains just the remastered album.

March 14, 2014

Makeup and Vanity Set venture into the “Wilderness”

Makeup and Vanity Set venture into the “Wilderness”

Since discovering Matthew Pusti’s take on ‘80s electronic sounds — think Vangelis by way of Tangerine Dream by way of John Carpenter — last year, his vintage/retro/nostalgic music as Makeup and Vanity Set has really struck a chord with me, hitting me squarely where my computer geek meets my sci-fi/videogame/anime nerd meets my child of the ‘80s status.

Last year, he released one of my favorite albums as well as an ominous, haunting score for Anthony Scott Burns’ Manifold short. Oh, and his Charles Park trilogy was recently reissued. But beyond these releases, Pusti has been planning something big, something he's been hinting at for months and has finally revealed: a double album titled Wilderness and an accompanying short film titled Eidolon. And suffice to say, these rank high among my most anticipated releases of 2014.

Makeup and Vanity Set’s music has always had an edge and drive that sets it apart from a lot of the ‘80s-influenced electronic music out there. Those often seem like a kitschy exercise in nostalgia, which is fine for what it is, but Wilderness is coming from an especially personal place. As Pusti writes in his official album announcement:

A year and a half ago I watched someone very close to me die from cancer. While this was happening, I kept going over the last 48 months leading to that moment and I kept thinking about how the limitless feeling that technology gives us will never allow us to outsmart the technology of the human body. I thought about how my memories will endure with me but even they start to fade over time. No matter how hard we seek that, something infinite or eternal is always just beyond our grasp and even if we caught up to it, would we truly want it? Could something artificial replace something real to satisfy our natural need for realism? That is the crucible of this record and the part of the album’s concept that became the basis for Joey’s film.

As for the Eidolon short film, it’ll be directed by Joey Ciccoline, who previously directed the acclaimed 88:88 short film (for which Makeup and Vanity Set did the soundtrack). In this case, however, the roles are reversed. Eidolon will be inspired by Wilderness, or as Ciccoline puts it:

Matt has envisioned a whole world and characters, and through them an impressive collection of music exploring loss and grief and humanity in the face of technology and our own finite nature… Eidolon is my (along with writer Daniel Shepherd) attempt at taking the story of the concept behind Wilderness and bringing it to life beyond the music.

In order to fund the development of both the film and the record, Ciccoline has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 by April 11. More details, along with some footage and some of Makeup and Vanity Set’s music, can be found in the video below.

In addition, Makeup and Vanity Set has posted the first single from Wilderness online. Titled “Results, Revision,” it feels like an interlude of sorts, a teaser that leaves you wanting more (in the best possible way).

Finally, Makeup and Vanity Set’s 7​.​25​.​2148 — the aforementioned “favorite album” — is currently available on Bandcamp for name your price. You can get it for free, though I’d recommend you’d pay something to help support Pusti’s music and vision.

March 5, 2014

Elsewhere: Gender stereotyping for kids, The Sisters of Mercy, “Final Fantasy” weddings

Elsewhere: Gender stereotyping for kids, The Sisters of Mercy, “Final Fantasy” weddings

Laura Hudson calls Left Behind “the most emotionally powerful experience” she’s ever had in a video game: “It’s difficult enough to find a game where a woman is the main character. Finding one where you play as a woman and have positive, meaningful interactions with other women? It’s like spotting a goddamn unicorn.”

Mary Flanagan considers the complexities and issues of gender stereotypes in games and toys: “Parents may argue that girls like being addressed as a particular demographic, and social pressures force them to buy ‘girlie’ toys. I’ve heard many swear girls are born from the womb wanting princess dresses. Yet we know this is not entirely true if we look at the history of advertising toys and see how play is represented. What may seem quite ‘natural’ is wrapped in images on television, in games, and in ads.”

We all know that girls need better role models in toys and movies. However, Rachel Marie Stone argues that boys need better role models, too, than the action-loving, muscle-bound superheros currently marketed towards them.

The Sisters of Mercy and Andrew Eldritch were basically a goth version of Meat Loaf, and “This Corrosion” is their masterpiece. “As much as The Sisters are called goth, this is not music for shrinking violets. It became the anti-anthem of a jingoistic decade in dire need of one: aggressive, decadent, magnetic, metallic, and in the case of ‘This Corrosion,’ downright operatic.”

When my brother, who’s a huge Final Fantasy video game fan, got married, he incorporated some of Nobuo Uematsu’s theme music into the service. However, he and his wife could’ve taken it one step further and had a true Final Fantasy wedding.

Steven D. Greydanus revisits The Incredibles 10 years after its initial release and finds that it’s just as delightful as ever, if not moreso: “Of all the films I reviewed in 2004, The Incredibles is surely the one I’ve rewatched the most — and the one I would most readily rewatch again.” I heartily agree. I love Finding Nemo and the Toy Story films, but The Incredibles is by far my favorite Pixar movie. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too much longer for a sequel.

Greg Knauss describes the Internet as an “empathy vacuum”: “Exposed to the entire spectrum of human enthusiasms, it’s basically impossible not to judge. Our empathy overloads and gives up and we sit, staring at the screen aghast, that somebody, somewhere might actually believe that what they’re doing is OK, is acceptable, is even appropriate… Everybody is somebody else’s monster.” Via

The Digital Comic Museum has thousands of public domain “Golden Age” comics available as free downloads. You won’t find any Spider-Man or Batman adventures, but you will be able to finally complete your Black CobraSpace DetectiveFighting Yank, and Nyoka The Jungle Girl collections.

Edward Frenkel wants to teach kids about the timeless beauty of mathematics: “In elementary and middle school and even into high school, we hide math’s great masterpieces from students’ view. The arithmetic, algebraic equations and geometric proofs we do teach are important, but they are to mathematics what whitewashing a fence is to Picasso — so reductive it’s almost a lie.”

Earlier this year, I linked to an article concerning the spiritual aftermath of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Now, Rebecca Solnit looks at the social and political upheaval caused by the disaster. “An earthquake can be a great social leveller at first, but policy and prejudice will decide who gets aid and recompense and compassion later, and it will never be equitable, as this farmer knew well. Disaster solidarity often fractures along these lines.” Via

In light of the upcoming Noah movie, Michael Cieply looks at Hollywood’s relationship with religious movies. In response, Noah Millman wonders what makes a film “religious” anyway?

It’s the end of an era: Carl Kasell is retiring from Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! this spring. And in a fitting tribute, people can leave him “thank you” voicemails.

February 26, 2014

“Says” by Nils Frahm

“Says” by Nils Frahm

I’ve written about Nils Frahm’s Says before, as part of Slowdive’s recent Slowdaze mix, but it’s such an amazing song that it deserves a post all its own. Taken from Frahm’s Spaces album, a live recording culled from 30 different concerts, “Says” is a bit different than the melancholy, nostalgic piano ballads that one finds on previous albums like 2012’s Screws.

“Says” starts out tentatively, with softly fluttering electronic pulses and tones. Clusters of echoing piano notes sound out here and there, as if Frahm is slowly testing the limits of his sounds, to see what that bed of electronics can possibly support. By the midway point, the electronics grow in urgency, volume, and intricacy until they seemingly take on a life of their own, wildly undulating and arpeggiating until matched in the final moments by Frahm’s pounding piano.

It’s both a cathartic release and beautiful struggle between the two aspects of Frahm’s sound. You forget that it’s a live recording until the last few seconds when a crowd erupts in applause, and justifiably so. And then you’re overcome with envy because they got to experience such a piece of music firsthand and you did not.

But of course, there’s always YouTube.

Elsewhere: Progressively pro-life, spectacular Spider-Man, anonymity & a new Christ and Pop Culture

Elsewhere: Progressively pro-life, spectacular Spider-Man, anonymity & a new Christ and Pop Culture

Most people who know me know that I fall in the “pro-life” camp. I think abortion is a grave evil — consider the near annihilation of unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome — but I also realize it’s a very complicated issue for a host of social, philosophical, and economic reasons. Which is why I appreciate Luke T. Harrington’s call for a “progressive pro-life ethic”: “It must be about making things better. This is actually a natural fit, since a society hostile to children or reproduction has no future at all. By the same token, a progressive pro-life ethic must stress that it is not opposed to abortion because it is looking to impose an archaic social order.”

The short-lived Spectacular Spider-Man is probably my favorite onscreen incarnation of the ol’ web-head that I’ve seen to date, and I’m not alone: the illustrious Steven D. Greydanus agrees. “For awhile there, ‘Spectacular Spider-Man’ was perhaps the most exciting entertainment for family audiences to come from the small screen in a very long time. When it wrapped up its second season, it was still getting better, still building to a crescendo.”

Kudoes to Amtrak for offering this very cool “writer’s residencies” program, which offers long distance train trips to writers. Writing while traveling via train sounds glamorous and inspiring and distraction-free and all but it’s going to be hard to beat my typical writing environment (i.e., the family room couch around 1am).

People, and especially liberals (for lack of a better term) tend to get worked up over the pseudoscience espoused by creationists and climate change deniers. However, wonders Michael Schulson, why don’t they have the same level of outrage for the pseudoscience found in the aisles of your local Whole Foods Market? “By the total lack of outrage over Whole Foods’ existence, and by the total saturation of outrage over the Creation Museum, it’s clear that strict scientific accuracy in the public sphere isn’t quite as important to many of us as we might believe. Just ask all those scientists in the aisles of my local Whole Foods.”

Online anonymity is all the rage now, after years in which we shared anything and everything on Facebook, Twitter, etc. One of the newest “anonymous” apps is Secret, and Casey Newton interviews its creators and discusses the pros and cons of online anonymity.

Speaking of anonymity, Julia Angwin wants to remind you that you’re never really anonymous if you’re online: “We've learned from [Edward] Snowden, for instance, that the NSA is getting data from Google and Facebook and Yahoo and all the big companies that are out there, and in fact, even from things that I wouldn't have thought were worth our time — like information that flows between an app you're playing like Angry Birds and an advertiser that might be trying to advertise within that app.”

The Oscars are coming up, meaning that Hollywood’s best and brightest will soon indulge in a night of massive self-congratulating. However, did you know that Christians have a similar evening? It’s called the “Movieguide Faith & Values Awards Gala” and it took place earlier this month. Critic Jeffrey Overstreet discusses with The New Yorker about Movieguide founder Ted Baehr’s approach to film criticism: “In Baehr’s world view, Christians are always admirable, they always come out winners. That’s why Christian movies love sports heroes: choose Jesus, and you’ll win the championship! What makes art truly bad isn’t swear words and sex. It’s advertising for a product or agenda. That’s not art. That’s about selling satisfaction.”

The Arts & Faith community recently announced their list of the top 25 “divine comedies” — or, as Steven D. Greydanus writes in his introduction to the list, “It focuses on movies that explore the space between the ridiculous and the sublime. Explicit religious themes are not a notable feature in most of these films, yet all of them, in different ways, touch on questions of ultimate import.” I haven’t seen all of the movies on the list but I can’t argue with their #1 pick.

Things are quite exciting in the Christ and Pop Culture neck of the woods: we recently went independent and relaunched our own website with a brand new design, with lots of new functionality in the works. As part of the relaunch, Editor-in-chief Richard Clark penned an editorial explaining CAPC’s approach to culture: “Christ and Pop Culture’s purpose is to edify the Church, glorify God, and witness to the world by encouraging and modeling a biblical presence within culture. We want to be characterized by thoughtful criticism and appreciation while resisting the extremes of thoughtless condemnation and uncritical embrace.”

February 25, 2014

Slowdive’s “Slowdaze” mix explores shoegaze’s legacy

Slowdive’s “Slowdaze” mix explores shoegaze’s legacy

Though heavily derided by a press more interested in grunge and the burgeoning Britpop movement, the influence of shoegazers like Slowdive has been quite pronounced in recent years. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine post-rock artists like Mogwai, Sigur Rós, and M83, or indie acts like Memoryhouse, The Radio Dept., and Yuck — not to mention the whole “nu gaze” movement — without Slowdive and the other shoegazers having paved the way back in the early ‘90s.

So it only makes sense for the recently reunited Slowdive to post a 75-minute mix of their favorite songs that consider shoegaze’s influence. Or, as Simon Scott puts it:

Since we broke up shoegaze began to globally snowball as an influence on new artists, and today it is crossing over new musical boundaries into genres including metal and hip hop. Therefore we've included a few bands, not naming any names, who have gone on to form bands after hearing shoegaze music or seeing Slowdive play live back in the early 1990s.

Most of the featured bands (e.g., Mogwai, Sigur Rós, Bowery Electric, Boards of Canada, Fennesz) are no-brainers. However, others, like Pedro The Lion and Sun Kil Moon, might raise a few eyebrows, if only because billowy clouds of guitars aren’t really in their sonic palette. But as Scott puts it, “these different styles and individual tracks flow well together and create a vibe that feels like shoegaze tinged with each track worthy to be included whatever genre it derives from.”

If nothing else, be sure to listen to the stunning Nils Frahm song that closes out the mix. (It begins around the 1:07:45 mark.)

Benny the Astronaut’s Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP! is one sweet ride

Benny the Astronaut’s Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP! is one sweet ride

Like many others, I saw The Lego Movie and thought it was thoroughly entertaining and enchanting, and even a bit emotional. The movie is filled to the brim, and then some, with gags upon gags, and to the movie’s credit, they’re all hilarious. (I’m hard-pressed to think of a single joke that truly fell flat.)

One of my favorite running gags involved Benny, a “Blue Classic Spaceman” who spends most of the movie wanting to desperately build a spaceship (and operate computer technology from the 1980s). I won’t spoil anything for the nine of you who haven’t seen the movie yet, but suffice to say, Benny gets his time to shine and it’s one of the best moments in a movie filled with great ones.

Benny’s moment was particularly fun for me because the craft he builds is a reference/homage to the one Lego set I wanted more than any other as a kid: the Galaxy Explorer. Benny’s own spaceship, a.k.a., “The LEGO Movie Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP!” may be a bit more complex and modern looking, but it definitely evokes the classic’s shape and lines.

The 940-piece set arrives in stores in August and will cost $99.99. I think it would make for a nice weekend project with my boys. If I don’t decide to keep it all to myself, that is. (Which, I know, complete goes against the movie’s theme.)

Photo by Miriam Kramer.

February 20, 2014

Elsewhere: Google goes faster, musical robots, Olympic logos, science’s martyrs & child suicide

Elsewhere: Google goes faster, musical robots, Olympic logos, science’s martyrs & child suicide

There’s been plenty of controversy and debate surrounding Comcast’s impending purchase Time Warner. Here’s a pretty straightforward, even-handed assessment of what the deal might mean — and here’s one that’s a bit snarkier. Meanwhile, Google has announced that they’re developing high-speed internet connections as fast as 10 gigabits/second, or 1,000 times faster than your average internet connection. Which shouldn’t be too surprising, given their previous Google Fiber program. Hopefully, Comcast/Time Warner is paying attention and realizing they can’t rest on their laurels (or their crappy service).

Squarepusher is teaming up with a band of robots — which features a 78-fingered guitarist and a 22-armed drummer — for the aptly titled Music for Robots EP. He promises that “in this project familiar instruments are used in ways which till now have been impossible.” (Or, as my friend Ryan tweeted, “Nice to see the Chuck E. Cheese band’s been practicing, honing their chops. I saw ‘em back in the day—had a raw, rough sound.”)

The 2014 Winter Olympics logo may not be as showy or graphical as previous Olympics logos, but that’s by design: “These days, to woo the Internet generation, brand logos need to not only fit on posters, hats, clothing, and jumbo-TV screens but work successfully on tablets and iPhones.”

On the 400th anniversary of Giordano Bruno’s execution, who was burned at the stake for heresy (and has since been seen as a martyr for science), James Hoskins considers what we moderns can learn from his death: “We have been sold a 19th century cultural narrative that science and religion are at war. We’ve uncritically accepted that narrative and allowed it to skew our interpretation of the past, distorting how we view such episodes as Bruno’s execution and Galileo’s trial.”

Certain Christian leaders have criticized video games and those who play them (especially men), but Richard Clark pushes back against such thinking: “Men have been criticized by Christian pastors and leaders for continuing to embrace videogames well after adolescence, for investing themselves in imaginary battles and competitions when there are real battles to be fought and genuine challenges to embrace. But these criticisms are the result of misguided generalizations that assume that approaches to videogames are uniform and inevitably harmful.” Related: Here are ten video games that Jesus might love to play.

Kevin Roose infiltrated a “black-tie induction ceremony of a secret Wall Street fraternity called Kappa Beta Phi” and what he found was totally (but not really) surprising: “Here… was a group that included many of the executives whose firms had collectively wrecked the global economy in 2008 and 2009. And they were laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark.”

Ross Dreher writes about the misperceptions that often plague homeschoolers: “True, we Christians who homeschool — and by no means are all homeschoolers Christian — are likely to be more traditional on gender roles than others, but there’s a vast sea of difference between total egalitarianism and the strict gender roles embraced by the Quiverfull families.”

Back when the Internet was still in its infancy, it was easy to find a username, a unique identifier for your online activities. But as millions and millions of people interact online, the entire concept of having a username is becoming a relic. Or, as Wired’s Mat Honan puts it, “One of the best things about the online world is how it lets us be whoever we want to be. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice that just because someone else got there first.”

Who knew that a movie based on plastic building blocks could be so deep? According to Eric Brown, The Lego Movie (and particularly its catchy theme “Everything Is Awesome”) is actually a brilliant parody of creeping fascism: “It takes modern radio homogeneity to its logical extension and knowingly creates a pop hit celebrating cultural goose-stepping. The song gives a tangible weight to Lord Business’ desire for control over the Lego World and his desire for homogeneity, but it also comments on the real world.”

The Belgium government recently voted to remove any age restrictions from euthanasia, meaning that terminally ill children can now commit suicide provided they’re in pain and have parental consent. Not surprisingly, the decision has raised quite a bit of controversy. Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic when she was 17, recently voiced her own criticism of the new law: “We have long held that children do not have the cognitive ability to make adult decisions; this is why they are considered minors. We limit a minor’s decision on tobacco, drugs, and alcohol until they are adults; yet somehow Belgium believes that a minor can make a decision about taking his or her own life.”

February 19, 2014

I’m hooked on the “Guardians of the Galaxy” trailer

I’m hooked on the “Guardians of the Galaxy” trailer

If you’re of a geekier persuasion, then you’ve probably already seen the trailer for Marvel’s other comic book film for 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy. Heck, you’ve probably watched it numerous times throughout the day; I know I have. I’m a big Chris Pratt fan, thanks to Parks and Recreation and The Lego Movie, and I like what I’ve seen so far; I'd watch the movie just for him alone. However, the icing on the cake is the presence of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz as intergalactic police officers in the Nova Corps. (Serafinowicz’s line at the end of the trailer is just perfect.)

At the end of The Avengers, with the post-credits reveal of Thanos, I knew Marvel was about to take a risk by delving into some of their more cosmically themed titles. And when it was announced that they were making a movie based on Guardians of the Galaxy — one of the more obscure titles in their library — I was both confused and impressed. It struck me as a rather gutsy move following the huge successes of the Iron Man and Avengers films. (Of course, if you’ve made a couple of movies that have grossed over a billion dollars each, you can probably afford to take some risks.)

All studio politics and shenanigans aside, the film looks like it’ll be a hoot. I just hope the entire film maintains the irreverent tone of the trailer. Comic book movies can be a bit sanctimonious, which — let’s be honest — is sort of why we love them, but it’d be fun to see that get deconstructed a little by, among other things, a gun-toting raccoon. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this Guardians of the Galaxy intro, courtesy of Wired.)

If you’re feeling particularly geeky, then check out director James Gunn’s breakdown of the trailer. Geeks and nerds will appreciate the closeups of the various characters, including one of former Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan as the assassin Nebula.

Guardians of the Galaxy will open in theatres on August 1, 2014.

Rivulets returns to warm your wintry heart with “The Fire” single

Rivulets returns to warm your wintry heart with “The Fire” single

It’s been three years since Nathan Amundson released a Rivulets album — that’d be 2011’s We’re Fucked — but a new Rivulets album is planned for later this year. In the meantime, Amundson has released a new single titled “The Fire.” In keeping with the fine Rivulets tradition, it’s a sparse-yet-intimate song consisting of little more than Amundson’s hushed voice, some stark acoustic guitar, and the forlorn sounds of a train in the background. Definitely recommended for fans of Damien Jurado and Low.