April 12, 2014

Tsutomu Nihei’s “Knights of Sidonia” is coming to Netflix this summer

Tsutomu Nihei’s “Knights of Sidonia” is coming to Netflix this summer

Kotaku recently published their massive guide to this spring’s anime titles, and it runs the gamut, from supernatural horror to high school comedy, from historical action dramas to lots of mecha action. Needless to say, I immediately began noting promising titles, and one title jumped out immediately: Knights of Sidonia.

Now ordinarily, the story of a young loner learning to pilot a powerful mecha to protect the few remaining fragments of humanity from a powerful alien force wouldn’t necessarily pique my curiosity because — let’s face it — we’ve seen it before. But Knights of Sidonia is based on a manga by Tsutomu Nihei, and that’s enough to interest me. Nihei is best known for the cyberpunk/transhumanist/post-apocalyptic titles Blame! and Biomega, which leads me believe that this’ll be something more than just your typical, run-of-the-mill mecha series.

Seth T. Hahne, who normally dislikes mecha titles, reviewed the first two volumes of Knights of Sidonia and had this to say:

Remember that when I recommend this, I’m a reader who’s just as invested in mechas as I am in bicycles or tricked-out lawnmowers or tandem strollers or any number of other things I don’t care about at all. This is a mecha book that doesn’t really feel like it’s about mechas. Knights of Sidonia feels like a series of character studies in what would be a drastically different social environment from our own, only punctuated by colossal acts of violence. And so far, it’s pretty keen.

Also, Knights of Sidonia will be streaming on Netflix this summer rather than Crunchyroll or Hulu, which is pretty interesting news. I’ve always been disappointed by Netflix’s anime offering, especially in light of Crunchyroll’s service, so it’s nice to see them acquire something like this (if only to offer some competition to the devoted anime streaming services out there).

April 10, 2014

Elsewhere: “Journey,” free speech & social justice, typography, Kickstarter censorship & more

Elsewhere: “Journey,” free speech & social justice, typography, Kickstarter censorship & more

For lapsed Catholic/secular humanist Jorge Albor, playing the video game Journey has become akin to a religious ritual, albeit one sans the social component that marks so many rituals. “Perhaps these solitary rituals must necessarily be acts of self-reflection or even confrontation. Trekking through Journey alone, I started to explore my own approach to the game and to my sudden sense of loss. More than ever, Journey became a ritual experience.”

I’ve been following the case of UCSB professor Mireille Miller-Young since it deals with so many hot button issues (e.g., abortion, freedom of speech). Some are saying that Miller-Young had every right to respond the way she did, and that speech that promotes racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., should not be allowed at all: Fredrik deBoer finds such ideas in the left wing troubling. “It’s immoral, and it cuts directly against the very human rights that are the foundation of feminism, the campaign against racism, and the campaign for gay rights. That this could be possibly in question among self-defined members of the left demonstrates how unhealthy the left has become.” He’s posted a follow-up with some clarifications here. Via

On a related note, the controversy surrounding the promotion and sudden departure of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has been fascinating. (Gay marriage advocates demanded Eich apologize and/or step down for donating $1,000 to support Proposition 8.) Many articles have been posted supporting and condemning Eich, but some of the most pointed pieces supporting Eich have come from gay marriage adovcates. Conor Friedersdorf slams Mozilla for being inconsistent with their policies: “Mozilla's actions will undercut tough conversations by making fewer people willing to engage in them. If you believe that an open, robust public discourse makes the world better, as they purport to, they've made the world worse. This action is a betrayal of their values, not a reflection of them.” (I posted some thoughts on the Eich controversy at Christ and Pop Culture.)

You’ve probably seen the news: the government could save millions of dollars by switching to Garamond, since that font’s characters require less ink/toner to print. However, Thomas Phinney explains how reality (and typography) is a bit more complicated: “[M]ost scientific studies comparing typefaces first compensate by resizing the fonts to eliminate differences in the lowercase height (called x- height by us font geeks). This study failed to do that. As a result, they actually get results that are the exact opposite of other studies.”

A pair of filmmakers making a documentary about the infamous abortionist Kermit Gosnell originally tried to raise funds via Kickstarter, but left the crowdunding site because they claim Kickstarter tried to censor their project. (Kickstarter’s CEO denied any censorship.)

Matt Crosslin is irked by bands charging a premium for “collectors’ edition” vinyl releases. “I’m tired of having to decide between wasting big money buying tons of junk that I don’t need… or picking an inferior listening experience.”

Peter Chattaway has been doing some really great work to covering the various religious angles and responses to Noah. For example, this indepth piece concerning the Jewish influence in Aronofsky’s film, as well as a collection of Jewish responses to it. However, I particularly like his thorough takedown of the claim that Noah is a Gnostic film: “Put simply: Gnosticism hates Creation. Aronofsky’s Noah loves Creation. So whatever else you might say about Aronofsky’s film, it is not Gnostic.”

Google’s venerable Gmail webmail service recently turned 10. Here’s how it happened, and how it changed the Web forever: “…Gmail didn’t just blow away Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, the dominant free webmail services of the day. With its vast storage, zippy interface, instant search and other advanced features, it may have been the first major cloud-based app that was capable of replacing conventional PC software, not just complementing it.”

First Things’ Stephen H. Webb considers the Christological nature of Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”: “Bryars’s composition, like all great music, I suppose, gives us a sonic foretaste of what it might mean to enter — with the dispossessed at our side — into heaven.” (My own review of this beautiful piece of music can be found here.)

I know I’ve been a bit critical of Medium in the past, but I do appreciate their attention to detail, such as their attempt to create the perfect underline for links. “This is a story on how a quick evening project to fix the appearance of underlined Medium links turned into a month-long endeavour.”

April 5, 2014

Remembering Under Midnight

Remembering Under Midnight

Back in the early ‘90s, the Christian alternative scene was flooded by a number of industrial bands. Following in the wake of such pioneers as Blackhouse and The November Commandment, bands like Mortal, Circle of Dust, Generation, Deitiphobia, X-Propagation, globalWAVEsystemPassafist, and Under Midnight all released albums that, at the time, seemed incredibly groundbreaking, especially for the staid Christian market.

I remember the first time I heard Mortal, courtesy of my friend Daniel: I was a junior in high school at the time, and I remember thinking “Christians are finally making good music.” This was also right around the time when Ministry released Psalm 69 and Nine Inch Nails released Broken, so it was cool to hear Christians making cutting edge music that didn’t feel a decade behind the times… or so it seemed to my angst-ridden, 16-year-old self.

Those bands’ albums have all aged to varying degrees. I still have a great fondness for the first Mortal albums, Lusis and Fathom, due in large part to Jyro Xhan’s lyrics, which are bit more poetic (think Gerard Manley Hopkins) than your typical industrial fare. A few weeks ago, I rediscovered Circle of Dust’s first two albums, which I enjoyed quite a bit (especially Brainchild). And I have a special fondness for Under Midnight’s debut, a concept album about a cult using virtual reality to control people’s minds, all told with copious metal guitars and Blade Runner samples.

Over the last few years, Chad Thomas Johnston has been doing a great work trying to shed some light on this era of Christian music, and many of the artists that operated on the fringes of CCM (e.g., Undercover, The Choir, Michael Knott, The Prayer Chain). So it’s not too surprising that he tracked down the former members of Under Midnight for a lengthy interview for the March 2014 issue of Down The Line Magazine. A couple of snippets…

Chad Thomas Johnston: Where did Under Midnight come from, creatively speaking? What were the origins of the band, both in name and concept?

Mark Robertson: Caesar came up with the name. I was in a band called The Stand and we were signed to Wonderland. I coproduced the In Three Days record, and Caesar thought I had strong production instincts and asked me to come up with a project.

I’d been messing around a lot with sampling/programming, was a huge fan of Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept, Skinny Puppy, etc. I was also intrigued by the second wave industrial bands that used metal/punk guitar: Ministry’s Land of Rape and Honey and Nine Inch Nails’s first record, which appealed more to Caesar than the original industrial ‘musique concrete’ thing I was into. I had also gone off the deep end for cyberpunk literature — William Gibson, in particular. Blade Runner was a very obvious influence, with all that dystopian stuff.

Caesar Kalinowski: At the time, I thought we needed a name like PM Dawn — such a cool band name — and then Under Midnight came up. And then Thom Wolfe came up with the logo, and it was so freakin’ perfect.

[…]

It’s been 20 years since your self-titled debut was released, so we are living in the future — at least as your 1992-self might have thought of it. How does that future measure up to your expectations? Do you think there are elements of our present day and age that make Under Midnight’s records seem prophetic?

MR: I think it’s exactly the way we envisioned it, but not because we were so smart. Orwell and Huxley saw all of this years before we were born. Things are moving along more or less the way it appeared they would back then. The cautionary side of those records is still the same: Be careful what you wish for.

Prophetic would be a very generous thing to say about those records. Maybe you had to be there, but the church was very concerned with virtual reality, the World Wide Web, all that stuff. And I was reading tons of cyberpunk and futurist writing. The concept seemed pretty obvious to me at the time. Think of Under Midnight as the evangelical soundtrack to Blade Runner. That’s the easiest way to describe it.

As an added dose of nostalgia, here’s the video for Under Midnight’s big single, “Cyber Vision.”

Which has not aged very well… at all.

March 31, 2014

“One Lane Lovers” by Jensen Sportag

“One Lane Lovers” by Jensen Sportag

Hot on the heels of their recent debut album, 2013’s Stealth of Days, the Nashville-based duo return with “One Lane Lovers,” yet another skewed, kaleidoscopic take on ‘90s funk and R&B. Every time I listen to Austin Wilkinson and Elvis Craig, I feel like I'm back in junior high and listening to Sweet 98 play a mega-mix of every Top 40/R&B/“New Jack Swing” hit of the era — played at the same time. The resulting experience is as disorienting as it is nostalgic, and yet curiously kitsch-free.

The “One Lane Lovers” single will be released on April 8 by Cascine.

The Cure’s first live performance of “2 Late”

Back in 2010, I compiled a list of 12 of my favorite songs by The Cure. Number 9 on that last was “2 Late,” a b-side for the “Lovesong” single. I’ve described it as “one of the best pure pop songs the band ever wrote, a 2-and-a-half-minute masterpiece that perfectly balanced pop appeal with melancholy poignancy,” and I still stand by that description, years later. What I didn’t realize was that the band had never performed the song live… until March 28, 2014, that is.

That’s when The Cure performed a massive 45-song set at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which included “2 Late” (along with a couple of other rarities), and their performance of “2 Late” is spot on. As an added bonus, the video includes “Jupiter Crash,” one of the best songs from 1996’s Wild Mood Swings (an album, by the way, that I really disliked when it first came out but have since warmed up to).

In other Cure news, the band announced plans to release 4:14 Scream, a companion piece to 2008’s 4:13 Dream, at some point this year. But in a recent interview, Robert Smith downplayed the new album, claiming it represents the sound of a different band entirely. As such, he's not too keen on it… especially when The Cure’s current incarnation, which features new guitarist Reeves Gabrels, has already begun recording a new album — one that Smith teases is “really different than anything else we’ve ever done.”

March 28, 2014

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus promise that “Beauty Will Save the World”

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus promise that “Beauty Will Save the World”

Back in 2006, I wrote a lengthy article about, in part, how it’s easier than ever to learn about your favorite bands thanks to the Internet — and how it’s difficult to maintain a sense of mystery about music when everything you could ever possibly want to know is available via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc. And yet, one band still remained mysterious in the Age of the Internet: The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus.

For the longest time, I could only find scraps of info about the band, who released one of my favorite albums of all time: The Gift of Tears/Mirror/La Liturgie Pour La Fin Du Temps. However, it’s 2014, and in a world where My Bloody Valentine released a new album and Slowdive has reunited to play shows and record new music, I suppose it only makes sense that the Army re-emerge from the mists of time.

In June of last year, the band released After The End, a box set containing remastered versions of their previous recordings. The band also reformed to play a one-time concert for the release (though they’ve since scheduled additional concerts). And now they’re recording a new album, which they announced earlier this year on their Facebook page.

The new album will be titled Beauty Will Save the World. No other details, such as a release date, have been announced, but a song from the album was posted on the Army’s Soundcloud page earlier this week. Titled “Après le temps,” it’s a bit more straightforward, musically speaking, than the apocalyptic folk and industrial atmospherics heard on the band’s earlier releases. But there’s no denying the haunting beauty in those French vocals ringing out over churning guitars and melancholy drones.

Honestly, I’m still in a bit of shock that I’m actually hearing new music from a new album by The Revolutionary Amy of the Infant Jesus, long that most mysterious of musical ensembles. I’m only slightly less shocked that they’re on Facebook and Soundcloud. But again, this is 2014, and nothing stays offline for long. In this case, though, that’s something I’m very glad about.

I still know next to nothing about the band itself, like how many members it has, but that’s OK. I still appreciate a good enigma in the midst of social media et al., and the music more than stands on its own merits apart from its creators.

March 27, 2014

Peering into the future of Telefuture

Peering into the future of Telefuture

One of my favorite musical discoveries within the last year or so has been the “dreamwave” genre, a sub-genre of electronic music that owes a heavy debt to ‘80s synthesizer music. But not that synth-pop stuff. No, think more Vangelis, John Carpenter, and Tangerine Dream than, say, Human League, Erasure, and Pet Shop Boys. In addition, the genre is heavily influenced by sci-fi, horror, and cyberpunk culture. Indeed, a lot of “dreamwave” music has a decided cinematic bent to it, as if you’re listening to the long-lost soundtracks of great straight-to-VHS sci-fi/horror movies that never were.

With a discography including Makeup and Vanity Set, Perturbator, and Vincenzo Salvia, the Telefuture label has been one of the genre’s primary proponents. According to the label’s website, they’re “an audio-visual celebration of the ideas and technology born in the 1980s that hopes to keep these visions alive.” To that end, they’ve released music on vintage formats like cassette and VHS tape, and are even planning an upcoming release as a Sega Genesis cartridge. (As they put it, “We don’t look at these things as novelties — we look at them as treasures and want to expose the current generation of music lovers to the things we cherished in decades passed.”)

To help fund some of their plans, Telefuture launched a Kickstarter campaign (which has already met its goal), on which they list some of their future releases. Besides the planned Sega Genesis release, there are new releases from Betamaxx and Protector 101, Le Cassette’s debut album Left to Our Own Devices, and a new box set release from Opus fave Perturbator titled Dangerous Days. Some of this new music can be heard on the recently released Eternalist compilation, which features Makeup and Vanity Set, Perturbator, Vincenzo Salvia, and my personal favorite, Mr. Nissness’ “Neoterique,” which sports some blazing hot guitar licks alongside the equally hot synths.

March 24, 2014

Elsewhere: Movie rating hypocrisy, a gloomy AI future, bronies, Giordano Bruno & the Big Bang

Elsewhere: Movie rating hypocrisy, a gloomy AI future, bronies, Giordano Bruno & the Big Bang

My Christ and Pop Culture colleague Luke Harrington has written a brilliant piece about the inconsistency, hypocrisy, and silliness of movie ratings: “I actually have some sympathy for the individuals tasked with issuing film ratings, but even the most generous reading of the situation could lead to the conclusion that the ratings system is thoroughly broken, for several reasons.”

I’m curious about the conniptions the ratings boards went through when confronted with these 30 must-see cult movies. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sight of Sean Connery in that outfit he wore in Zardoz raised a few red flags all by itself.

“Could computers become so smart that they become our rivals, take all our jobs and eventually wipe us all out? This Terminator-style scenario used to seem like science fiction, but it’s starting to be taken seriously by those who watch the way technology is developing.” It may be depressing to consider extinction scenarios for the human race, especially at the hands of our own creations, but that's precisely what Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute has set out to do… before it’s too late. (I wrote about the Institute for Christ and Pop Culture last year.)

Bronies, i.e., male fans of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, are redefining both fandom and manhood in the 21st century: “Socialized gender norms (not to mention marketing) dictates that boys are supposed to like things like trucks, while girls are supposed to like princesses and pink stuff. Bronies obliterate that ideal.”

The new Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted Cosmos is now airing, to much acclaim. But the premier’s segment concerning the “martyrdom” of Giordano Bruno has raised some eyebrows, and James Hoskins explains why: “[T]he show made it seem like Bruno was executed primarily for his belief in infinite worlds. In reality, he was executed for a long list of theological heresies (of which the belief in infinite worlds happened to be one) and for his vitriolic personal conflicts. These would be important details to emphasize if historical objectivity were the goal. But I don’t think historical objectivity was the goal.” Thomas L. McDonald is more pointed in his critique: “If you want to depict Bruno as a martyr for pantheistic cabalistic hermetic occultism, be my guest. But he was not a martyr for science.”

This is mind-blowing: Astronomers have glimpsed direct evidence of the Big Bang: “Reaching back across 13.8 billion years to the first sliver of cosmic time with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected ripples in the fabric of space-time — so-called gravitational waves — the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old.” Whoa. Via

Tom Bartlett takes issues with “neurothugs,” i.e., scientists who use neuroscience to explain beauty and aesthetics. Via

Using Schubert’s “String Quintet in C major” as an example, Jonathan Berger explains how music can play with our sense of time: “The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals, is fundamental to human survival. It allows us to find our place in, and navigate, our physical world. But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective — and an integral part of our lives.”

Ryan Holiday on the “outrage porn” that is so prevalent on sites like Gawker, Jezebel, and Salon: “When I scan the blog headlines in the morning, pity is the word I feel. I see bloggers who have accepted a job — or in many cases, redefined their job in such a way — that requires them to be perpetually indignant about the most minor of things.” Via

Earlier, I wrote about some of the ambivalence I’d felt concerning the upcoming Noah movie, and how much of the ambivalence was due to Christian responses and concerns. E. Stephen Burnett discusses one such response to the movie: the urge to use it as a tool for evangelism. “This the worst of both worlds: questionable policy for movies, and probably bad evangelism. It bypasses man’s chief end to enjoy God in all things — including movies, perhaps even a film with a ‘parallel world’ version of the Flood account in which only God is recognizable.”

March 23, 2014

Reconsidering “Noah”

Reconsidering “Noah”

I originally had little to no desire to see Darren Aronofsky’s take on the story of Noah. Not so much because I was afraid that his version would be a lackluster, even disrespectful take on Scripture, but rather because the Noah trailers and promotional materials made it look like yet another generic, action-packed, CGI-heavy Hollywood period piece. (Sidenote: I wonder what that says about me, that I was more concerned by Hollywood genericism than, say, possible disrespect of my religion’s central text.) The “controversies” surrounding both the studio’s attempts to market to religious audiences and Noah’s supposed environmentalist undertones only further increased my ambivalence.

But I saw rumblings online that hinted that the film was something unexpected — and then I read Steven Greydanus’ interview with Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel. The duo’s comments concerning their inspiration for the movie, their approach to the various flood narratives, and the story’s moral/ethical quandaries were quite interesting.

SDG: The film takes us to a time when man’s understanding of God isn’t just pre-Christian: It’s pre-Davidic, pre-Mosaic, pre-Abrahamic. So Noah’s understanding of God may seem very foreign to us today. On the other hand, some nonbelievers reading Genesis argue that the Creator depicted there isn’t so good. How do you see the Creator in the story as you’ve told it?

Aronofsky: It’s a very good question. If you look at the story in Genesis, it begins with the wickedness of the world. And God forms this decision to start over again. And so, for us, the beginning of the story is about justice.

By the end, God makes a covenant and presents the rainbow as a promise that it won’t ever happen again. For us, that’s mercy. So the story has this transition from justice to mercy.

Noah in the text doesn’t have much of a character arc. He follows along with God. So we decided to give the same sort of path to Noah: of wanting justice at the beginning and eventually finding mercy.

There’s a lot of anger at the beginning. But I think it’s justified: God’s anger — in [the text and] in this film as well, because we do show how wicked man had become, as well as we could.

And then there’s Greydanus’ indepth review of the film, which discusses both the liberties taken by the filmmakers as well as their faithfulness to the original text.

For millennia, Judeo-Christian imagination has been haunted by the idea of the primordial world before the Flood: a world so close to paradise, with Eden itself around some forbidden corner, guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword. Men lived many hundreds of years, Genesis tells us, and chapter 6 suggests that giants walked the earth — offspring, on one interpretation, of human women and fallen angelic beings.

Some of these motifs inspired elements in J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of the earlier ages of Middle-Earth, an imaginative portrait of the primeval world. Tolkien’s best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, resound with echoes of this lost world. Aronofsky’s Noah includes imaginative flourishes akin to Tolkien: grim portents, grotesque Entish creatures called Watchers, battles in a Mordor-like blasted waste and a dark family struggle not unlike that of Denethor and his sons.

Yet the story’s biblical framework is taken seriously, even literally. There are glimpses of Eden, Adam and Eve in glory, the serpent, the forbidden fruit and the crime of Cain. Though paradise is lost, the Earth has not yet forgotten it, as Tolkien’s rocks and woods remembered the elves after they had gone. In a key sequence, an echo of Eden bursts forth in a rapturous effect recalling Genesis 2:9–10.

Then there’s Peter Chattaway’s comments on the film, particularly his conclusion:

I am very grateful that this film exists — partly because it has the potential to bring back the Bible epic as a genre to be reckoned with for the first time in almost half a century, and partly because I have learned a bit more about the Jewish tradition while reading up on this film and its source material, and partly because it’s a dynamic piece of filmmaking in its own right, but also because the film takes the Bible seriously and asks us to do the same.

On one level, it’s a popcorn movie, sure, full of visual effects and whatnot. But it also challenges its audience — believers and unbelievers alike — to think about how we balance justice and mercy in our lives.

When folks like Greydanus and Chattaway (to name a few) praise a film like that, particularly one with so much theological/Biblical content, that’s enough to make me have second thoughts.

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.