Like many classic metal albums, Bonded by Blood‘s legend is bigger than the album itself. The shadow of Exodus’s debut looms massively down the years, and the modern listener might be surprised – even disappointed – by the smallness of the album that cast it.
Exodus (along with Overkill) is often cited as “true” thrash metal, back from the days when men were men and FUCKIN’ POSERS MAAAAN hadn’t invaded the scene with their mainstream influences and melodies and coherent songwriting et cetera. Thrash metal can be awesome, but it can also be snobbish and insular, and strangely proud of its own smallness. In 1990 Exodus released a cassette entitled “Four Albums And Still No Ballad”. Is that a thing worth bragging about? Particularly when you couldn’t write an interesting ballad if your life depended on it?
Released in 1985, Bonded by Blood was actually recorded in August 1984 under the title A Lesson in Violence. The album was famously delayed for nearly a year through circumstances such as label shenanigans and a totally inappropriate cover designed by a hippie friend of guitarist Gary Holt (although that same guy also designed the Exodus logo, so maybe hippies are more brutal than is commonly believed). While the album languished, the Bay Area was flooded by bootleg recordings of the album. One wonders if Holt ever bragged to Lars Ulrich that he was fighting music piracy before it was cool.
Bonded by Blood is about riffs. It has no time for anything that’s not a riff. It demonstrated Gary Holt’s prowess as a rhythm guitarist, almost to the expense of the rest of the music. It’s the canonical example of thrash metal songwriting, where you get your best guitarist to improvise riffs for an hour, takes the five best ones, and presto, that’s a song. There’s just not a lot of thought given to anything that doesn’t have six strings.
The title track features a bruising yet intricate main riff, reminiscent of THAT part in “Fight Fire with Fire”, where even when you think you understand what’s happening on the fretboard you probably don’t. But chorus is boring and shapeless, with the guitars and drums and vocals all doing three different things. The band themselves seem to think “Bonded by Blood”‘s chorus is underwhelming: when they re-recorded the song with Rob Dukes in 2012 they added a bunch of extra drum fills to try and make it more interesting. The exact same problem occurs over and over.
The band doesn’t really “get” songwriting. They repeat vocal patterns from song to song (“Bonded by Blood” has the same verse as “Exodus”), Tom Hunting ride the same punk rock d-beat for half the album, and when they hit paydirt with a certified classic like “Strike of the Beast” and “A Lesson in Violence”, it seems almost accidental. The riffs are amazing, but they need to be. They’ll all the album has.
Paul Baloff sings on this album. It was the only studio LP he recorded in his life, and it made him a legend. I wish he lived up to the hype.
He sings like a drunk man pisses, squealing and yelping and cackling and generally flinging his voice all around the place. Maybe he’s not Darkwing Duck, but his voice has a definite cartoon character quality. You know when the villain sings his “I am evil” song? That’s Baloff. He’s hilarious and sounds like he’s having the time of his life, but the album would be much better with an actual performance on it.
So the vocals aren’t so hot, and the recorded-in-the-toilet quality vocals do Baloff no favors. Even the album’s best cuts rely on speed and power to overwhelm their shortcomings, and the bad songs could literally be modern pizza thrash shit if they were 10-15% stupider.
Forget 1985, what was happening in 1984?
Slayer’s transcendental heaviness on “Chemical Warfare”. Metal Church and Metallica’s sophistication. Bathory and Celtic Frost stepping outside the confines of thrash entirely and forging a new, blackened path. Next to those bands and albums and moments, Bonded by Blood is well-executed but a little stunted: a 40 minute exposition of Gary Holt’s right hand. The Bay Area sound was already burning itself out, and incorporating new sonic influences out of sheer necessity. Baloff was wrong, and the posers were right: thrash metal ultimately had to evolve or die.
I enjoy many parts of Bonded by Blood, but the popular perception of it as a paragon of metalness that we’ve all strayed from seems a little wrong. This is a powerful but limited album in a powerful but limited style. Where do you go from here, now that you’ve stretched Bay Area thrash to its limits? What does Bonded by Blood 2, 3, 4 etc sound like? How many times can you bang your head against the stage?
One sign you that you had overbearing egotist parents is that you have “Junior” after your name. Maybe a similar rule applies to rock bands that are titled “[Frontman’s Name] Group”.
Michael Schenker is known for his guitar skills, as well as his turbulent personality. He’s fortunate that he had most of his crack-ups in the days before social media: otherwise he’d be the heavy metal Kanye West: 30% musician, 70% source of amusement.
We’re talking stints in rehab, near homelessness, hunger strikes, feuds with with singers and producers and journalists and his own brother, cancelled tours, and a long list of other bizarre behavior.
Wikipedia advises me that forty-one musicians have played in Michael Schenker Group and have since quit or been fired. Schenker would probably fire himself from his own solo project, were such a thing were possible.
But he’s definitely brilliant. I listened to power metal for years, and one thing I’d always heard was that the style’s guitar playing owes a lot to Schenker. This is correct. There’s a straight line between most of what Schenker plays on this album and Helloween, and in the case of “On and On” – with its harmonized bends and cod-Bach synthesizer lines – it’s not even a line, it’s a dot.
This is one of the best-produced 80s albums I’ve heard, particularly the deep, thudding character of the drums. MSG has a real sense of precision and space in its mix, with everything built on top of each other like layers on a cake. It’s like you can throw a fishing line into the album and find where the vox are, where the guitars are, where the drums are, etc. Listening to MSG is a seriously good time before you even appreciate the notes.
“Ready to Rock” is an okay-ish cock rock anthem. “Attack of the Mad Axeman” seems like more of the same…but then Schenker pulls a drag-chute on the song and turns it into something adventurous and fascinating. His shredding over the final 32 or so bars…you are listening to power metal, at least five years before. Seriously revolutionary stuff.
“On and On” continues down this path, trading ethereal keys for smoldering wah pedal soloing. I’m struggling to think of more hard rock/heavy metal from 1981 that sounds like this. The Michael Schenker Group was an odd band: they didn’t sound out of place on MTV, but on a compositional level they had a quality that nobody else really possessed. Some quality of uncaring naffness and unfocused coolness.
“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “I Want More” are forgettable. “Never Trust a Stranger” is the power ballad, and sounds like Elton John covered by Aerosmith. “Looking for Love” is a burning and agitated uptempo track with some great hooks and guitar moments. The final track is pretty good too, except for when the music drops away and they let Gary Bardem sing unaccompanied. He’s one of those guys who sounds great, but only if he’s located somewhere in a pile of 200 watt Marshall stacks.
Here’s a question: how many people live in Australia? About twenty-five million?
That’s right, but also wrong. Twenty-five million people don’t live in Australia; they live in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth.
Leave the coastal enclaves and Australia quickly becomes indistinguishable from Mordor: arid bush, thinly grassed plains, and wastelands of sand and dirt. We have ten deserts in total – two hundred years after white settlers made landfall they were still discovering new ones – and they’re every colour you can name. The Simpson Desert is blood-red. The Tanami Desert is orange. The Painted Desert (which contains mica) is white streaked through brown. I am comforted by the fact that although Australians might run out of water, oil, coal, and food, we will never run out of deserts.
Only fourteen percent of Australians live in remote areas…but these remote areas are virtually the entire country. This has engendered a decades-long cultural dialog about who’s the “real” Australians – the masses packed into coastal sanctuaries engineered to look like their European countries of origin, or the minority who actually live in Australia.
Wake in Fright is a particularly nightmarish depiction of life in the Australian outback. The main character is a schoolteacher, posted out to some flyspeck town, who has just received his Christmas pay packet. He obviously intends to return to Sydney, citydwellers view the outback like astronauts view the vacuum of space – fun to visit, but you don’t stay past the airlock a second longer than you have to.
En-route, he stops for the night at the slightly larger flyspeck town of Bundanyabba (modelled after the real town of Broken Hill). Everyone – police, bartenders, miners – is superficially friendly in a way that’s scary, as though they’re all wearing masks. The town has secrets hidden in plain sight: moral depravity, suicide, and sexual corruption. Past nightfall the schoolteacher decides to go gambling, and loses all of his money. He is now dependent on the town’s generosity to survive…and the masks start to slip.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright it was written in the 1960s, and achieved international fame through a movie. There the similarities stop. Picnic was oneiric and hallucinatory, Wake is blunt and stark. Hanging thrusts you maddeningly far away from itself, In draws you close. Rock is dainty and ladylike, Fright is like watching a blood and shit covered tapeworm being drawn from a cat’s asshole.
It’s a really vile book. There’s a scene in the middle as unpleasant as anything I can recall reading, and unlike something like American Psycho it achieves this feat while remaining believable. Even descriptions of harmless events seem coated in filth and poison. Riding a train and eating breakfast at a hotel are seen through an authorial lens that captures the dust-cauled sunlight and focuses it on filth, dirt, and unpleasantness. There’s exactly one moment where Kenneth Cook blurs the camera and stops us from seeing the action on the page (perhaps out of fear of censorship). But even here, he leaves enough clues that the reader understands what’s going on.
Alcohol is the grease of the story, allowing the action to move. Everyone drinks all the time in Bundanyabba, and refusing to drink is an insult. Several times the protagonist tries to plead off the beers forced on him, and the nice bloke offering them turns into a spitting viper. You have to be an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba. To be otherwise is to violate a sacred pact.
This “get drunk or else” attitude is an authentic one. My father used to listen to Australian country musician Slim Dusty, who wrote dozens if not hundreds of songs about drinking, such as “You’ve Gotta Drink the Froth to Get the Beer”, “Love to Have a Beer With Duncan”, “My Pal Alcohol,” and (most famously) “A Pub With No Beer”. “The maid’s gone all cranky, and the cook’s acting queer / What a terrible place, is a pub with no beer.” Karl Marx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. In rural Australia, the opiate of the masses is an actual opiate.
The outback doesn’t come off looking very good in Wake in Fright. It would be considered racist if the characters were brown or black people (as happened with Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, and Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express). To what extent it’s modeled on reality isn’t for me to say – I’m not sure that Broken Hill was ever the antipodean Gomorrah that Bundanyabba is. But there’s romantic depictions of outback life (“Waltzing Matilda”) that seem equally alien to me, based on my brief exposure to outback towns. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. And it may be my privilege as a citydweller that I never have to learn it.
“Hey, it’s ya boiiiiii. Thanks for the 200 bits, cancerfart420. Holy shit, these queue times are seriously pepega. I just wanna frag out, man. Okay, my team’s here. PogU. Ready to get carried, boys? Here we go.
“Oh my God. That guy was trash. Trash. Terrible. Complete dogshit. The only reason he killed me was because I missed my shots and he hit his shots. Literally, that’s the only reason he beat me. If I hit my shots and he missed his, he’d be dead. That’s how trash he is.
“Holy shit, that gun keeps melting me. Nerf that shit already. I asked a dev about adding some extra bloom to the recoil pattern, and he said they’d consider it. That’s right. I talk to game devs on Twitter. No kappa. You won’t hear me mention it, though, I keep that fact on the down-low.
“This kid’s aim is feelsweirdman. I don’t want to be that guy, but could he be…hacking? Okay. That does it. I’m spectating this little shit. Oh, look, he has “TTV” in his name. I’m not telling you to go to his Twitch stream and bully him. I’d get banned if I did that. All I’ll do is insinuate that he’s hacking and then loudly read his Twitch handle to my viewers.
“Goddamn, I’m actually whiffing everything. Okay, I’m changing my mouse sens again. Please watch me for 5 minutes while I do this. This is now a tech support stream. Wait, why does my mouse have “CPI”? Is that the same thing as “DPI”? Can someone tell me? Also, why aren’t my stream alerts working? I need my chat to diagnose and fix everything wrong in my entire life.
“This is gonna be a huge nade. Huge. Kobe. Do you know that ‘kobe’ means a grenade thrown with accuracy and precision while ‘yeet’ means a grenade thrown with raw power ? I’m sure this is the first streamer you’ve ever seen explain this. Glad to help educate y’all.
“Okay, I see some little kids causing trouble in chat. Where are my mods? For the last time, I’m not a racist. All I did was call a black teammate a monkey and tell him to get back to Africa. How’s that racist? Technically we’re ALL monkeys and we ALL come from Africa. Try reading a book sometime, 4head. Anyway, that incident happened fifteen whole days ago, and I apologised for it. Yes, you heard me. Even though I did nothing wrong and was 100% in the right, I still apologized. That’s the kind of guy I am.
“Just drop it. I’m not here for drama. I just come on here to chill with you guys and to spread positive vibes. Yo, thanks for the 500 bits. My boy cancerfart420 going crazy today.”
“Fan theories” have become increasingly popular in recent years (now you know what they are). Like the related phenomenon of “creepypastas”, they’re exciting at first but soon fall into repetitive cliches: bad guy is secretly good, good guy is secretly bad, dumb guy is secretly a genius, up is secretly down, main character is secretly dying of cancer and hallucinating. There’s 10-15 basic fan theories and soon you’ll have seen them all.
However, the best fan theories are compelling enough to make people forget that they’re theories, and start talking about them as if they’re accepted canon.
In Star Wars, the Imperial stormtroopers miss a lot. They do more missing than Graham Lineham addressing a transgender man. Their accuracy has become such a joke that it’s given rise to terminology such as the Stormtrooper effect.
In 2015, a theory was proposed that stormtroopers are being ordered to miss, in order to keep Luke alive and fulfill Vader’s plans. It was posted on the Fan Theories subreddit, and the author never pretends it’s anything more than fanciful speculation. The theory quickly spread across the internet, however, and soon nobody was treating it as a theory. Soon, it became a generic “checkmate, atheists” rebuttal to the most casual mention of Stormtrooper accuracy. For example, this meme on imgur (with no less than THREE lines of text explaining the joke, holy shit dude) has the top-voted comment :
haven’t we established that the stormtroopers miss on purpose?
…No. We have not. There is zero textual evidence that they miss on purpose. There’s a theory that they do, and in light of the facts, the theory’s probably wrong.
1) Why fire guns at all if they want the heroes to live?
As any marksman is taught, you never, ever point a gun at something you don’t want to kill. It doesn’t matter if you try to miss. What if a stormtrooper kills Luke with a stray shot? Blast rifle bolts have an area effect (as seen in the Docking Bay 94 scene, where blasts take out large sections of concrete), so even a “miss” might kill Luke with shrapnel.
2) They miss when there’s no reason to.
We see Stormtroopers miss R2D2 and C3PO on the Tantive IV, miss Han Solo when he’s leaving Mos Eisley, miss Ewoks, etc.
3) It’s not true that they want everyone on the Millenium Falcon to escape.
Luke Skywalker needs to live because he’s capital-I Important. Leia needs to live because she knows the location of the Rebel base. They could have plausibly wanted Han Solo alive, as he was the pilot of the ship.
…But why miss when shooting at Chewbacca, a wookie of no tactical value?
4) there aren’t many positive examples of Stormtroopers hitting shots.
Here we see Stormtroopers storm the Tantive IV, and accomplish the feat of killing several guys in a narrow hallway with no cover. It looks like hard work.
Here’s the scene of the execution of the Jedi. Stormtroopers shoot them at point blank range. Not an amazing feat of marksmanship.
4) “These blast points… too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”
Ben Skywalker’s quote re: a wrecked sandcrawler doesn’t necessarily imply that stormtroopers are good shots. He could mean “they knew where to aim, as opposed to Sand People who just blast away indiscriminately”. This is the risk of using dialog as evidence.
When consuming art, it’s possible to see things that aren’t there. Sometimes these mirages persist, are spread across time and culture, and the imaginary thing becomes part of the “official” tale. Nowhere in the nursery tale of Humpty Dumpty does it say that he’s an egg.
“Stormtroopers miss on purpose” was created as an imaginative “what if” theory. However, it now seems to be accepted as the gospel truth of what’s happening in Star Wars. Much of history is probably composed in a similar way.
This book has 155 pages of the biggest text I’ve seen in a book not for children or blind people, and one argument: everyone is conspiring against everyone about everything.
Of course, when you point at everything, you’re really pointing at nothing. If a New World Order existed and included everyone from George W Bush, Gorbachev, Kissinger, Mao, “Adolph” Hitler, Stalin, Reagan, Osama bin Laden, and all the world’s royal families and billionaires, you could never write a book like this. The New World Order would control everything, and anyone seeking to expose them would disappear.
This is the odd thing about Alex Jones’ world: there’s no room in it for Alex Jones. The One World Government would never allow a man like him to live. His closing request that you send him money – “The Republic is in great danger of being completely overthrown” – prompts a rather incredulous response: “you just told me that every President since Eisenhower meets annually at Bohemian Grove to perform human sacrifice. What’s left to overthrow?”
But internal logic doesn’t matter to people like Jones. A 2012 scientific study found that belief in one conspiracy predicts belief in another conspiracy…even when that conspiracy contradicts the first. In other words, if you answer “yes” to the statement “Princess Diana faked her own death”, then you are more likely to answer “yes” to the statement “Princess Diana was murdered.”
I’ve seen Holocaust denialists simultaneously argue that 1) Auschwitz had no crematoriums, and 2) the rate at which Auschwitz could cremate bodies was insufficient to conduct the Holocaust. I’ve seen 9/11 truthers simultaneously argue that 1) the pilots were CIA patsies 2) the buildings were hit by a cruise missile.
Normal people are driven by a need to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theorists are driven by narcissism of the intellect: they alone know the truth, and everyone else is a gullible fool. This is why they binge watch Youtube and scroll Twitter for sixteen hours a day. Facts are dollars: the more of them you have, the richer you are. That these facts are collectively forming a mountain of nonsense doesn’t even register to them.
I found Descent into Tyranny to be a slog. Jones has the wearisome, hectoring style of a loud-mouthed radio host who’s used to shouting over guests and callers, and reading it made me pity whoever has to sit down with him at Thanksgiving. You couldn’t have a reasonable discussion with this person about anything.
Sometimes Jones’ shoot-from-the-hip writing style produces funny results. On page 15 he repeats the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but he gets it jumbled: he has Nero fiddling while setting fire to Rome (perhaps while holding a firebrand between his toes.)
Most of the time, however, it just makes the book even sloppier and less grounded in fact. On page 101, he writes “For years, we warned people about FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). The federal documents have been around for decades and include round-up plans and concentration camps.” End of section. New section. Such vapid handwaving would be fine on the radio, but this is a book. Can we please see excerpts from these supposed “federal documents”?
Descent Into Tyranny was written in 2002. I was curious to see how Jones’ political outlook evolved over time, as I vaguely remember Infowars being a left-libertarianish outlet at the start. The book has a lot of time for conspiracies beloved of left-wingers: IMF, the World Bank, David Koresh being a harmless hippie who was victimized by the feds, etc. It’s published by a small outlet called Progressive Press, whose other titles can be viewed online. (Sample excerpt: “The “Arab Spring” is revealed as part of the scheme to extend the Anglo-Zionist empire and its neo-liberal regime of plunder over the entire planet.”).
Jones was certainly less fond of “Vladymir Putin” (sic) in 2002. In the section entitled “Putin Uses Terror”, he reveals that Putin destroyed an apartment complex using explosive plastique, killing 350 people. Fifteen years later Jones would be on Twitter writing stuff like “Looking forward to Putin giving me the new hashtags to use against Hillary and the dems… “ In fairness, Putin’s killing of 350 people happened a long time ago. You have to let stuff slide eventually.
The book runs out of material by the end, so Jones pads it out with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Communist Manifesto (which he insists was written by“global banking cartels”.) It’s gratuitous and pointless. All you need is Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men and the book could serve as a middle-schooler’s summer reading list. Infowars’ slogan is “there’s a war on for your mind!” Jones’ personal solution is to not have one.
Some people become JoJo fans naturally; I was forcibly converted. I was part of a movie-watching group and whenever we ran out of material our host would inflict JoJo marathons on us. I still recall his mounting panic when we didn’t share his enthusiasm (“…this gets really good around Stardust Crusaders, I promise!”)
It took me a long time to like JoJo, and even now I’m not a superfan. But I “get” what it’s about. Not in the sense of plot (a cursed mask, sibling rivalry, an ancient blood debt), but what it’s really about: the glory of the West. Or, less politely, weebishness in reverse.
Traditionally, weebs are white kids who are fascinated by Japan (or the Japan they see in anime) and assign various romantic ideals upon it. The stereotypical weeb is overweight, undersocialized, a disappointment to his parents, and a failure with women – he holds no love for the place of his birth. Japan represents a kind of Avalon to him, an isle across the waters where nerds and misfits are accepted.
Hirohiko Araki is an anti-weeb: a Japanese person who’s in love with Western culture. I guess the bamboo is always greener on the other side. Japanese authors are often attracted to a certain element of Western culture (Edogawa Rampo loved the Gothic movement, Yukio Mishima loved fascism, Haruki Murakami loves bohemians) but Hirohiko Araki’s tastes are exceptionally omnivorous. He loves everything about us.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is about rockstars, pirates, highwaymen, knights, athletes, gangsters, gamblers, and rakes. Everyone’s an archetype of masculinity, cool beyond cool, a muscular, flamboyant ubermensch. JoJo takes Western machismo and exaggerates it to cartoonish, absurd levels.
It’s pretty gay at times. I don’t know whether JoJo’s homoeroticism was intended, but it’s striking that the manga has one female character, and she’s passive and pathetic, serving as a prize for the strutting male peacocks to fight over.
The love weebs have for Japan is often an intellectually shallow one, and they tend to get stuff wrong. Hirohiko Araki gets details about western culture wrong, too. For example, the villainous Dio resurrects a pair of medieval warriors, Brufold and Tarkus, to help kill Jonathan Joestar. We’re told that they’re knights who served Mary, Queen of Scots…but neither of them look like knights. Tarkus (left) is armored like a Roman Centurion. Brufold (wearing a horned helmet) is clearly modelled after a Viking warrior. These are not knights.
Or consider the family name, “Joestar”, which sounds jarringly wrong to the Western ear – people don’t have surnames like that. It reminds me of the infamous Fighting Baseball player roster, where a Japanese game programmer had to invent a bunch of American-sounding names and came up with “Sleve McDichael” and “Bobson Dugnutt”.
But realism isn’t important in JoJo. Perhaps hyperrealism is, though: everything given a little push over the cliff (in the words of Nigel Tufnel). JoJo is the world of could-have-been truths that are exaggerated to compensate for the fact that they never existed.
Obviously a name like Dio Brando gives the game away – a stilted amalgamation of a heavy metal rockstar and a Hollywood actor. As is the character of Zeppeli, who is visually modelled upon Salvadore Dali. JoJo often surprises the reader with its degree of literacy and wit.
I enjoyed the start of Phantom Blood more than the end. The way Dio Brando whiplashes from gentlemanliness to psychotic brutality is hilarious and shocking, and puts the reader squarely in Jonathan’s corner. And the “down-to-earth” nature of the tale was pleasant: something gets lost when the hero is battling a sentient hairstyle.
The final few volumes sort of blur together. Jonathan faces a threat, learns a new power or ability to overcome it, faces an even bigger threat, learns a new power or ability, and so on. It’s like a treadmill that speeds up all the time – soon you’re tired and want to get off. It was probably more enjoyable in its original run, where the repetition is less obvious. Probably better as an anime, too, where colours and music help establish JoJo’s mojo. I’m curious to see where the Joestar family goes next: hopefully a Jonathan Joestar vs Sleve McDichael crossover.
The Argument, Grant Hart’s final solo album, was released in 2013, four years before his death.
Who is Grant Hart? If you know him at all, it’s probably as “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. There are worse obituaries, but if you ask a group of children who they want to be when they grow up, few will say “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. Not many will say “the more famous guy from Hüsker Dü” for that matter, either.
Hart deserved better than he got. Overshadowed both by Bob Mould’s pyroclastic distorted guitar chords and forceful personality, it was easy to see him as a lesser talent. But one day I took stock of my ten favorite Hüsker Dü songs, and about seven of them were written by Hart. From “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” to “She Floated Away” to his solo albums, he was a genuinely brilliant pop songwriter.
And he was weird. Bob Mould would never and could never have made The Argument.
It’s a 20-song adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, based on a treatment by William S Burroughs. It sounds (and is) cheaply made, consisting of noisy guitars, synth loops, and found sounds apparently recorded around Hart’s house (such as a barking dog). Seldom has such ambition been realised through such humble material. Hart has created a tableaux of the Original Sin out of carpet fluff, dryer lint, and spilled breakfast cereal.
There’s not a trace of hardcore punk to be seen, and little alternative rock. It’s just Grant Hart’s stripped-back and heartfelt (Hartfelt?) songwriting, which always seemed to exist beyond influences. Sometimes the cheapness of the album works against it: “Morningstar”, for instance, features a loud programmed drum loop. It’s distracting, and all I can focus on. But far more often than not an entrancing mood appear. “Awake, Arise” is dire, and builds up like a thundercloud. It’s followed by “If We Have The Will”, a military march of painted toy soldiers written in 9/8 time. “Sin” goes heavy on the blues.
By the time “Letting Me Out”, “Is the Sky the Limit?”, and “So Far From Heaven” roll around, the album is (metaphorically) on fire. None of these songs contain a single dull or uninspired moment. “War in Heaven” is woven from agonizing jagging synths and samples. “Underneath the Apple Tree” is focused around lyrical storytelling – Grant Hart’s devil is far more avuncular and likeable than the Rolling Stones’ or Marilyn Manson’s. The six minute title track is boring and can be skipped. But the album ends on a high note, the energetic and frantic “Run For the Wilderness”.
One of Hart’s goals for the adaptation was to remove explicit references to religion – a blind listener might not even make the Paradise Lost connection. Lyrically, the story jumps around a bit and is kind of out of order. I think he might have taken inspiration from CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters – you think you’re reading the demonic missives in chronological sequence, but the celestial method of dating need not overlap with that of mundanity.
But mostly, Hart hasn’t recreated the world of Milton, or Burroughs, or even Moses, but has created a self-referential cosmos that’s entirely his own. Obsessive, detailed, and tuneful: The Argument could be a concept album about its creator’s mind. Grant Hart is gone, but will not be forgotten. Hüsker Dü. Do you recall?
A doorstop-sized work of historical fiction from 14th century China. At eight hundred pages, nearly a million words, and a thousand named characters, it has broken hardier men than you. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of those Mount Everest type books – can you possibly finish it?
It’s also the world’s first videogame. Explanation incoming.
Sometimes art has content that suggests it belongs to a different medium. For example, the first film directors had a background in theater, and the movies they produced are often stunningly derivative of stage plays.
Watch a film from the 1920s and you’ll see lengthy static shots, minimalist editing, flat and declamatory acting, etc. Only in the middle period of Hollywood’s golden age did the techniques and approaches of film qua film emerge. Early films didn’t leave the vaudeville behind: they’re well made, but…they’re not exactly movies.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is like that, but instead of being a play disguised as a movie, it’s a videogame disguised as a book.
More specifically, a strategy game. It reminds me of a six hour Age of Empires II game fought between skilled and stubborn adversaries amidst a mounting pile of energy drink cans. Battles without end. Thousands of men thrown into a woodchipper, often gaining nothing, or winning a victory that gets reversed minutes later. Numberless acts of heroism, which you see from God’s perspective and soon don’t even notice.
It’s about the fall of the Han dynasty and the three kingdoms (Wu, Wei and Shu) that ascended in the aftermath, trying to fill the power vacuum. They do this through a complex and Machiavellian mix of marriage, wizardry, and battles so bloody that it seems the population of medieval China gets slaughtered three times over.
The famous opening line “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been” was not written by Luo Guanzhong, but was added centuries later. Nonetheless, it sums up his text: cyclical periods of destruction and renewal. Events are either meaningless or all-meaningful, depending on your perspective. There’s nods to “empty boat” style Taoist philosophy at times. The soil drinks blood. The soil then produces trees. The trees are used to make axes. The axes…
It’s hard to describe Romance without making it sound like the dullest book ever. It’s not. Nor is it the second dullest book. It’s actually interesting, once you crack the “code”.
The worst way to read it is like a traditional novel. Forget rising and falling action, dramatic climaxes, etc. Romance of the Three Kingdom’s intense moments come out of nowhere like monsoons, blow the lives of characters to pieces, and then end. Also, large parts are based on history, which is under no obligation to be satisfying to anyone. A better way is to view it like a growing plant: continually evolving in a way that’s no more and no less sensible than real history or the life of the reader.
And it’s thrilling. Despite the nihilism of the whole, you’ll still feel tense when Cao Cao fails in his plot to assassinate Dong Zhuo, and cheer at cunning method Zhou Yu uses to overcome an enemy fleet. Certain moments (such as the Battle at the Red Cliff) are as cinematic as Game of Thrones. And there are passages that would fascinate anyone with an interest in cultural anthropology and medical history. For example, the great hero Liu Bei’s reaction when he sees weapons inside his bridal apartment.
The bridegroom turned pale. Bridal apartments lined with weapons of war and waiting maids armed! But the housekeeper of the lady said, “Do not be frightened, O Honorable One! My lady has always had a taste for warlike things, and her maids have all been taught fencing as a pastime. That is all it is.”
“Not the sort of thing a wife should ever look at,” said Liu Bei. “It makes me feel cold, and you may have them removed for a time.”
Lady Sun laughed, saying, “Afraid of a few weapons after half a life time spent in slaughter!”
One wonders at what Luo Guanzhong is trying to depict here. Is Liu Bei suffering from what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The biggest challenging to climbing Mt Romance is the colossal cast of characters. To reach the end, you need to develop a sixth sense as to which characters are important to the plot and which ones will never be seen again. A lot of the characters have similar names. It can be hard to separate Zhang Fei from Zhang He. Maybe I’m a racist colonial paleface who thinks all Chinese names sound the same. But maybe not – Luo Guanzhong seems to be winking to the reader at times, such as in this (humorous?) scene where a woman vows to only marry a man with the same name as hers:
“Why did you trouble your sister-in-law to present wine to me, brother?” asked Zhao Yun.
“There is a reason,” said the host smiling. “I pray you let me tell you. My brother died three years ago and left her a widow. But this cannot be regarded as the end of the story. I have often advised her to marry again, but she said she would only do so if three conditions were satisfied in one man’s person. The suitor must be famous for literary grace and warlike exploits, secondly, handsome and highly esteemed and, thirdly, of the same name as our own. Now where in all the world was such a combination likely to be found? Yet here are you, brother, dignified, handsome, and prepossessing, a man whose name is known all over the wide world and of the desired name. You exactly fulfill my sister’s ambitions. If you do not find her too plain, I should like her to marry you and I will provide a dowry. What think you of such an alliance, such a bond of relationship?”
Romance of the Three Kingdoms might also be an early example of the Draco in Leather Pants phenomenon. The antagonist of the tale is clearly meant to be Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom, but he’s probably the strongest and most interesting character in the story, and a lot of people seem to view him in a positive light. Tumblr, of course, has an active community of Cao Cao stans.
But Romance isn’t a character study, it’s a videogame. The market seems to back this idea up. Usually classic works of literature attract a slew of movie adaptations, and maybe a single throwaway text adventure game made in 1984 by Infocom. But according to Wikipedia, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to film eight times, to television twenty-four times, and as a game fifty seven (!) times. The book keeps rejecting its paper and clothing itself in binary. There might be three kingdoms, but ROTTK truly belongs in the realm of ones and zeros.
“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere,” – Albert Camus
Western horror relies on convention – Bram Stoker’s vampires, Shirley Jackson’s haunted houses, and Romero’s zombies. By contrast, Japanese horror more often relies on free-standing symbols and images – Kôji Suzuki’s rings of light, Junji Ito’s spirals, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s metal sculptures.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Art rooted in convention is easier to understand: the audience automatically comprehends Slasher Movie #23532 in light of Slasher Movie #23531 (or the last one they remember). But it’s boring, and makes you a slave to the past: modern horror film is consequently a cesspool of spooky dolls and cars that won’t start and ghosts in mirrors and clanging ADR. By contrast, Japanese horror (at its best) achieves a monolithic starkness: I gave up looking for things like Suehiro Maruo’s Paranoia Star because I couldn’t find any.
The Woman in the Dunes is an eerie psychological novel about…sand.
An amateur entomologist is seeking a new kind of insect in rural Japan. He ends up trapped in a deep pit of sand. He has food and water and even female companionship (although she seems odd), but no way of escaping. This is not an accident. Someone just out of sight has planned this fate for him. He has a little shack that he spends hours each day sweeping clear of sand (uselessly; the wind blows it straight back in). He can’t contact anyone from the outside world. They’ll declare him dead and maybe they’ll be right to. His horizons are made of sand.
The Woman in the Dunes might not be a horror novel, as I don’t think Kobo Abe was trying to frighten. Kafka’s a better comparison. Nonetheless, I’m now aware of “ammophobia” – fear of sand. More specifically: fear of sinking into sand, swallowing sand, having sand grains between your toes, and so on. Just as Uzumaki left me uncomfortably aware of spiral shapes, I put this book down and was plagued by thoughts of sand.
It’s creepy stuff. Silken, fluid, deadly. Viewed under a microscope, sand is beautiful, but it’s inhospitable to human life, and defiant of mankind’s attempts to control it. You can sculpt a castle of sand on the beach, but the next day, it will be gone. But won’t the house you live in be gone someday, too? All of mankind’s buildings, on a long enough timescale, will become sand.
This is sort of how Kobo Abe’s protagonist rationalises his fate. The outside world is just temporarily rearranged sand and dust, so there’s no reason to want to go back. Being trapped in a hole is probably a privilege; he gets to see the truth. Ozymandias’s kingdom wasn’t overtaken by sand, it was sand.
There’s a livestreamer called Dellor who plays Fortnite and other videogames. He has a PO box, and if you mail him a package he’ll open it on stream. Occasionally, he receives sand. I’m not sure if a single person is behind this, or if it’s a shared joke among his fans. He’ll rip open an envelope, and sand will spray across his apartment. He gets keyboards with sand packed in between the letters. Once someone sent him an airsoft pistol with sand stuffed into the barrel. This annoys him, because (as the narrator of The Woman in the Dunes could confirm) sand is extremely hard to remove. No matter how much you vaccuum a carpet, in six months you’ll walk over it barefoot and feel the bite of a silica tooth: a reminder of our fundamental lack of control.
Western horror can be likened to a vine, which can be followed back to its root no matter where it goes, and J-horror to a series of mushrooms, which sprout out of the ground with no visible connection to each other. Or perhaps particles of sand. The Woman in the Dunes exemplifies the J-horror approach, even if it might not be J-horror. It has one idea. One single idea. It could have been written even if no other book had ever been published. It does not want to be the first book in the series, or to answer questions raised by another book, or to get adapted into a movie.
The Woman in the Dunes doesn’t even want to be entertaining (and frequently, it isn’t). It exists to exist. No matter what momentary order we impose on sand, in the end, it has no purpose other than to be sand.