aquariusAqua were a one hit wonder, and this is the album they released after the all-important “one hit” DMZ line.
Diagnosis: the band tries too hard. They throw everything at you, including the kitchen sink, the pipes behind their house, and parts of the Norwegian public water distribution system. The album fails to supply any songs as good as “Barbie Girl” and “Dr Jones”, and is quite dull most of time. The arrangements are overstuffed and undernourished, with too many ideas, and not enough really catchy hooks. Aquarius accomplishes the odd feat of being simultaneously boring and overwhelming.

“Cartoon Heroes” and “Goodbye to the Circus” are symphonic, but not in a way that improves the music. The orchestral sections are unnecessary, existing only for their own sake. “Around the World” is barely enough to keep you awake. “Cuba Libre” is an uninteresting latin pop song. Ricky Martin was big at the time, and the band rips him off with all enthusiasm of a foreman ticking a task off a list.

The best songs are “Bumble Bees” and “Freaky Friday”, which may have passed as crappier tracks on Aquarium. The outrageous sexual innuendo is still there and maybe even exaggerated a bit, while other lyrics have a kind of downbeat fatalism. “Welcome to the cliches, welcome to the part…We are what we are, what’s built up will fall, do what you want and be happy.” Slow down, you party animals. Male vocalist René Dif sounds muted and depressed. I guess discovering that your girlfriend is getting deep-dicked by your bandmate doesn’t do wonders for your self esteem.

There’s not much on this album worth listening to. What a disappointment. I was a big fan of Aquarium, it was well-realised and executed, didn’t take itself seriously, and had lots of great songs. There’s no great songs here, just one or two that that maybe pass muster. Some songs sound utterly terrible, like “Halloween”, with its painfully acted skits and annoying chorus. Mostly, though, Aquarius exists at the level of boring. Just listen to “We Belong to the Sea.” My brain just shuts itself off after a few bars. It’s like a fuse blowing.

If you want stupid late 90s pop music, go with Aquarium, go with Vengaboys, go with The Spice Girls, maybe even try Lene Nystrom’s solo album Play with Me. Even Aqua’s godawful comeback album sounds better than this. What we’re witnessing here is a band killing their career. They try, and try, and try, and it’s all for nothing.

Aquarius is desperate, and slightly disturbing. Aqua always did sound a little creepy, like music made by a robot. This album is where the robot realises it doesn’t have a soul and starts crying.

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pearlsoflutraThe eighth Redwall book is the critical moment where the series faults – which are many, and present from the beginning – finally pull it down. Jacques provides us with some exciting fight scenes and an exotic setting by way of apology, but the story is a mess. The villain’s motives make no sense, a huge number of pages are inconsequential to the story, and the heroes get helped by author’s convenience so often that they seem to have Brian Jacques on pager.

The setup is good. Several valuable “Pearls of Lutra” are brought to the Abbey and hidden by a mutinous vermin, who then dies, leaving their location unknown. The vermin’s friends come looking for the Pearls, and when they can’t find them they abduct the Abbott of Redwall and hold him to ransom. Mattimeo’s son and a group of friends give chase to the retreating vermin, and their search for the Abbott takes them to the tropical island of Sampetra – controlled by the tyrannical pine marten Ublaz, who needs the pearls to accomplish…what?

If there’s any significance to the Pearls, it’s not explained. They’re not magical pearls. There’s quite a big deal made about the mice of Redwall looking for the Pearls (cue 10+ tedious chapters of mice deciphering clues), but exactly what this will accomplish is similarly not explained. They have no boat, and no way of getting the Pearls to Ublaz. The Pearls are a MacGuffin but they feel curiously out of place in this book. The kidnapped Abbott is what propels the story forward, never mind a pointless search for buried treasure.

The Sampetra scenes are fun, with the warring and realpolitiking between Ublaz’s warriors being more interesting than the main story. Jacques writes the most interesting villains in the world, while his heroes are boring.

The fights are, as usual, well done, but the heroes have it too easy. A dreadful thing called “plot immunity” is in play here, with Jacques not wanting to kill or hurt any of his named characters, so he has them fight stupid, ill-prepared, unsuspecting dolts. Where’s the tension? Is one of the main characters even going to break a nail in this quest? A boy scout troup could have rescued the Abbott.

The characters make nonsensical decisions, get jerked this way and that by careless yanks of the plot, and the result is a story that doesn’t make sense. There’s no point in the mice collecting the pearls, I have no idea why Ublaz even wants the pearls, and plan to rescue the Abbott only works by writers’ fiat: Jacques stacks the deck so that they can save the day by lucky and unlikely fluke.

The Redwall books that came after this resemble the gag in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the king keeps building a castle and it keeps collapsing into a swamp. Jacques never recovered his old power until the day he died, and his most famous series decayed into something almost unreadable. To be honest, even the early Redwall books aren’t that good. They’re best read when you’re a child – so that you don’t notice all the parts held together with Sellotape.

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PS-ToolPeter Sotos’s early zines have pictures of ejaculating penises juxtaposed with pictures of missing children. Pure #1 and #2 were shocking, but also educational: front of house seats to a society where Rota Fortunae crushes even the smallest, the most innocent, and the least deserving. Rota Fortunae soon crushed Sotos, too – in 1986 he was charged and convicted on possession of child pornography. This book is part fiction, and part descriptions of his arrest.

Pure was disturbing, and parts of it had a hero-worshipping quality that I didn’t especially care for (“The tape recording of the torture is remarkable. Although much is inaudible, and it is certain that much more took place than what is on the tape, it is still a great joy to hear – Brady’s mastery is clearly in evidence.”), but what happened to Sotos doesn’t feel right.

What he does is not morally different to what a news channel does. He exploits human misery, and so does ABC. He just happens to be direct, rather than mincing and prevaricating and pretending to be above it all. Tool describes a telling event. “The front cover of Pure #2 was an extreme close-up of a child’s hairless cunt being spread open by an adult. The night of my arrest, the three main networks in Chicago used me as their lead story, and they all showed close-ups of the cover.”

The first story is written in the second person, and consists of a psycho’s one-sided talk with (apparently) a kidnapped child. Cruel games and Faustian bargains ensue. There’s nothing but dialog in this story, and we’re left to imagine what’s happening to the child in between the kidnapper’s words.

The second story takes us on a exploration of inner-city prostitution, except it’s from the view of a laughing and jeering punter instead of a well-meant liberal documentarian. I like how Sotos writes from the perspective of the bad guy. Normally people writing from “the other side” do so mawkishly, as if they’re trying to make us aware that they’re not really like this in real life. Sotos relishes the role. “Eight” is framed as a sympathy letter to a mother who has lost a daughter, but midway through it changes into something unwholesome and disturbing.

In “Five”, Sotos takes it upon himself to educate us about kiddie porn. Porn featuring young babies, apparently, is not very interesting. The real kicks come from kids who are old enough to have some awareness of what’s happening. In the 80s, the media branded Sotos a pedophile. I’m wondering that he might be something worse than a pedophile. All a pedophile wants is to have fun. But what kind of neurosis would drive a purportedly normal man in his 20s to collect kiddie porn instead of postage stamps?

Superficially, I can understand the appeal of this kind of atrocity tourism. Innocence traduced makes for quite a spectacle, and Tool collects a lot of it. But I’m not convinced that’s the real reason. Sotos has published dozens of books in a career spanning thirty years, and for him it seems not a hobby but an obsession. Anyone will stop for a few seconds to rubberneck a car crash, but Sotos looks far longer and harder than most people…and inevitably, he ended up in a crash himself.

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