Strapped to the My Bloody Valentine Rocket

We all have our formidable, life-altering events. There are many—a lot more than we think. Nestled within those myriad moments are a handful that are absolutely pivotal, sublime… extraordinary.

Hearing the psychedelic-era Beatles was one of mine. The closing notes of “A Day in the Life”, heard with 11 year old ears, were effectively the closing notes of my childhood. Sure, I still acted the child well into my 20s, but what of it? The sustained piano of “A Day in the Life” sent me hurdling down a path I could not have known at the time. Then punk rock came along. The energy appealed to me more than the music (exceptions made for The Clash, The Damned and The Misfits). Nirvana, age 10 was a big influence as well. I couldn’t articulate why I liked Kurt Cobain, but I know now that he was a gateway. A subconscious one. To borrow a phrase from Aldous Huxley, one of my doors of perception was being cleansed.

But a gateway or door into what exactly? The Pixies.

I had once heard Cobain state in an interview that he was simply ripping off The Pixies with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” So when I was 15 years old and bored with punk, I sought out this band that was so good even Kurt Cobain would lift their sound. The attraction was instantaneous. In short order I was dipping into the aural fields of Sonic Youth and Pavement, and discovering filmmakers like David Lynch and Luis Bunuel, which led me straight into Surrealism. From there, my life spun off into the aether of imagination. I was after a particular arrangement of sound, words and visions in my head. Soon after these musical and artistic forces converged (before I could even drive), I was to find the unifying force that brought it all together in a strange, synaesthetic way: My Bloody Valentine.

Yes, I am too young to be of that first wave of MBV fans. But when I did stray into their path—5 years removed from their monolithic album Loveless—I was musically mature enough to understand the gravity of what they’d done with sound. (Kevin Shields’ guitar technique and studio wizardry have been enumerated enough over the years and, indeed, recently that I feel no need to add to that sickening collection of flowery, impressionistic adjectives, metaphors and similes.)

And so, when in 2008, My Bloody Valentine reunited for a series of gigs that were to culminate in a headline spot at Coachella, I bought a ticket to their Santa Monica tour date. Not a one of my friends would join me. Fine, I will go alone, I thought. I had always been alone in my love of MBV. I would share that love with other fans. Damn my friends.

So I drove to Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

I’d heard that Kevin Shields had selected SMCA precisely because its inner confines would, at the decibel levels MBV played, essentially act as an echo chamber. This was exciting, of course, because MBV is incredibly noisy; but if I’m being honest, I would admit that I was more than a little concerned. Over the years I’d read online that MBV hadn’t been a great live band, especially on the Loveless tour. Well, I would soon find out.

Outside the venue there were earplugs. I grabbed several, just in case the incredibly loud swells of guitar disintegrated the noise-cancelling foam. Inside, the venue was already full. I zig-zagged my way into the middle. After an interminable wait, MBV came out on stage.

Now, to describe the sound of an MBV performance is to grasp at adjectives that don’t really exist. One has to look for analogues. Fresh ones. Except there aren’t any fresh ones. So now you’re thinking of anything that will do.

The sound unleashed by Kevin Shields, Belinda Butcher, Colm Ó Cíosóig and Debbie Googe is high-impact. The sonic field all about you, as a member of the audience, seems to have weight. It’s a bit like being pounded by the ocean’s waves. All established rules of physics seem irrelevant, as if MBV has managed to suspend time and space in a singularity. The sound blasting out of the speakers has the force of wind. Remember the Maxwell commercial with the guy in the chair and his scarf flying in the wind? Yeah, that’s you at an MBV show. I’m perfectly serious.

During the hour-plus performance I consciously fought to keep my mind clear. All extraneous thought was expunged. I had to attain a Zen-like state in order to more fully soak in the experience. And for the most part I was successful. The only thoughts that crept in were ones such as these: ‘I can’t believe I’m here watching MBV’ or ‘Look at how happy people look.’ No grand, journalistic observations. I’d been reduced to a type of blissed-out catatonia, in which my brain could only process the performance—verbal functions had effectively ceased. Every few minutes I would remove my earplugs to enjoy the deafening beauty of the band’s white noise. When MBV closed with “You Made Me Realize” (holocaust section), I snapped out of my trance and attempted to find a means of expressing the sound I was hearing. And, like any true music fan, I could only express it with words to describe an event that I could not possibly experience in my lifetime or any other:

The show, and more particularly the holocaust section of “You Made Me Realize,” was like being strapped to a rocket that was heading straight into the heart of the Sun.

I know, I know… it’s utterly useless metaphor. But in that moment, that singularity where My Bloody Valentine broke down time and space, I could have sworn that I felt the very vibrations at the core of stars.

Read my review of My Bloody Valentine’s new album m b v Death and Taxes.

Next Story — Atheists Do Not Need to Wake Up After Chapel Hill Killings
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Atheists Do Not Need to Wake Up After Chapel Hill Killings

Craig Stephen Hicks violated a basic code of human decency that has existed for hundreds of thousands of years with or without gods.

Where to begin with Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists,” published two days ago on The New Republic website. We might start with the headline, sensational as it is. Bruenig, a self-described Christian ethicist, certainly brought the readers in with that one.

For the unfamiliar, “vehement atheist” and “angry man” Craig Stephen Hicks murdered three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, presenting Bruenig an ideal opportunity to flog the atheism of militant and “aggressive disbelief” championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the deceased polemicist Christopher Hitchens.

The time Bruenig spends articulating why this New Atheism — the term is obnoxious — has a problem would have been well spent if atheism, like religion, were actually a belief system or preoccupied with dogma. But, it’s not, so Bruenig’s effort is a bit like pissing in the wind. One wishes Hitchens were alive to respond to her piece point by point. Man would Hitchens have had a go at this epic bullshit; he lived to confront bullshit of this deep brown hue.

Rational people can look out at the world and understand what is decent and what is not... Humans do this every day without a thought of whether a god may be watching. And if they were unable to do this, civilization would have collapsed long ago.

“New Atheism takes as its core creed a species of Enlightenment liberalism that exalts reason and free inquiry, without bothering to define reason or to explain what is worthy of inquiry, and why,” Bruenig writes. “For a school of thought that presents itself as intellectually robust, it is philosophically bankrupt and evidently blind to its similarities to the religions it derides.”

Reason, Bruenig seems to forget, is not dogmatic. Evolving over several millennia, philosophers from Friedrich Nietzsche to Michel Foucault have defined it differently, and even identified several types. Is it really the responsibility of Harris and Dawkins, or this New Atheism, to define reason, achieving what some of the world’s greatest philosophers could not agree upon? Are they to do this so that another Hicks — whose true motivations are unknown — doesn’t commit such violence?

The same applies to free inquiry or free thought. Are Harris and Dawkins required to locate for all atheists what is worthy of inquiry? It sounds awfully like Bruenig, who curiously calls atheists “adherents”, is demanding that an atheist dogma be established; and, in doing so, create a hierarchy with the most visible atheists influencing how the rest should think. This is contrary to the very idea of reason and free thought. That this must be explained at all is mind-boggling.

Bruenig also has a problem with the following Dawkins tweet, which he sent out on February 11th.

“Dawkins takes the obviousness of his moral frame for granted…” Bruenig writes. “But this is a persistent problem with the New Atheist movement: Because it is more critical of religion than introspective about its own moral commitments, it assumes there is broad agreement about what constitutes decency, common sense, and reason.”

Again, in the midst of making assumptions about atheists’ ethical and moral reflection, Bruenig seems to think that atheism is a system. It seems fairly clear that Dawkins’ “any decent person” phrase isn’t just limited to atheists, but applies to all decent people. And that’s the point: rational people can look out at the world and understand what is decent and what is not, and do so without a religious system enforcing morality. Humans do this every day without a thought of whether a god may be watching. And if they were unable to do this, civilization would have collapsed long ago.

Can anyone really dispute that Hicks was irrational, not some New Atheist putting an imagined system or dogma, highly organized and militant, into violent action? Some, like Bruenig, will say that violent Muslims and Christians are also irrational and unrepresentative of their religions. Maybe so. But, these zealots find justification for violence within their holy books, dictated by a god that is often psychotic, murderous, genocidal and intolerant of free thought.

Atheists have no such single book or belief system. They do not need to answer for Hicks, a man who violated the basic code of human decency that has allowed humanity to flourish and evolve over hundreds of thousands of years.

Next Story — In ‘Young Americans’, Lance Bangs Lets Millennials Speak for Themselves
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In ‘Young Americans’, Lance Bangs Lets Millennials Speak for Themselves

After watching Lance Bangs’ VICE and Scion AV series Young Americans, I was struck by the reality it lays bare: that the people who express opinions on Millennials, or Generation Y, are often granted a greater air of authority than the generation itself. Lazy, entitled, delusional, and selfish—these are just some of the the recycled descriptors leveled at this generation… my generation. But, Bangs, unlike others in his generation (and older), doesn’t make assumptions—he allows this generation to speak for itself, instead of having words stuffed in its collective mouth.

Writers and commentators, as in decades past,regularly trade on the Millennial psyche to make their money. Joel Stein is a prime example of this. His article, “The Me Me Me Generation,” was a piece of cynical and sensationalist opinion meant to extract a nice paycheck from Time magazine. Good for Joel. Way to make suckers of Time, I say. It shows there is a bit of the Generation X rebel in him yet! Maybe.

Am I making an assumption about Stein? Sure I am: one good turn deserves another. Especially when a journalist sees a few lazy, entitled Generation Y kids on the street, cites some questionable studies, make a few observations of social media and technology usage, and then extrapolates this all towards a general conclusion of epidemic, mass self-entitlement. And, like all provocation and sensationalism, it sells.

In Young Americans, however, Bangs doesn’t concentrate 80 million Americans into a single organism. Various ethnicities, sexual identities, and other strands of Generation Y are allowed to speak—to frame the debate. And while they may not speak for the generation as a whole (how could they?), they do present a facet of the whole. Many Millennials may see something of themselves in Bangs’ subjects. Others may not.

Going to the source is not unlike, say, Occupy Wall Street’s efforts at constructing its own media—to craft the message before others distort it.

Granted, Bangs is a film and TV industry veteran, but he allows these “young Americans,” who would otherwise be muzzled and subjected to a type of arrogant, misinformed cultural ventriloquism, to frame themselves. He could have colored the proceedings with his own commentary, but he doesn’t. And that is to his credit.

The first episode, “Coming to America,” delves into the immigrant or second generation immigrant experience. It’s an interesting move on Bangs’ part, because here he sort of deconstructs the idea that there is a uniform parental influence on this generation that gives rise to a legion of spoiled brats. The subjects only reveal a bit of themselves, so how could we possibly generalize the young American experience the way observers do with such vindictive, arrogant relish?

The “LGBT Experience” episode is another great cultural window, allowing the subjects to dive into that diverse group’s sexual identity and inter-personal politics. Sure, we’ve welcomed homosexuals into TV series and the workplace (to varying degrees), and examined some of the cultural repercussions; but have we really addressed the full LGBT experience? Not at all, and certainly not in the mainstream media. In as puritanical a country as America, the LGBT experience is only allowed to transgress so far across cultural taboos. The line is always being pushed, but not fast enough. And Bangs’ subjects reveal this experience, presenting the various shades of sexuality, gender roles, and labels in a way that turns a critical eye back on the LGBT community itself.

Episode 3, “Media Representations,” is equally fascinating, but probably for the exact opposite reason Bangs intended. He asks various subjects if they see and appreciate media representations of themselves. As expected, he gets some pretty typical responses. But, what is fascinating is that when we discuss any subject in the media, young Americans in this case, there is a filter in operation (Bangs’ subjects dissect this in the episode, “Cultural Stereotypes”).

To be specific, if an African-American doesn’t feel properly represented in a TV series, well that is to be expected because the media can hardly be bothered to portray reality at all! Everyone, from journalists and filmmakers to talking heads and religious fanatics, and all in between, are filtering life through their version of reality. So, in a sense, this episode reveals the futility in trying to represent anything. Takeaway? Never miss an opportunity to call a cultural observer out for their endless streams of bullshit.

The final words from Bangs’ subjects comes in Episode 8, “Where Are We Headed?”. The future—what does it hold for Generation Y? Bangs jumps immediately into the question to address the elephant in the room: sure, there is arrested development amongst Generation Y, but is it really laziness and entitlement? The first subject to answer, says:

“Part of it has to do with the fact that we can’t get a good start right off the bat, right? As soon as we get out of school we’re in debt. We don’t have any accumulated wealth, and we are living off our parents and… the older generation. It’s no wonder that we’re in this state of arrested development.”

“Part of” not all of this condition is attributable to student loan debt and a shit economy. It’s an acknowledgement that the answer to this question is as complex and varied as the generation itself. A generation that has its dreams and wants to contribute, but is, like other generations before it, struggling to pull it all together. There is nothing particularly unusual here.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, these individuals who get paychecks from observing and critiquing Generation Y (that’s you, Stein) just have short memories of their own experiences, and no sense of cultural history. Generation X was lost and lazy, and so were the Hippies, the Beats, and the Lost Generation. It’s a condition with a long history, in which a number of variables—social, political, economic, religious, etc.—were at play.

Millennials are particularly adroit at communicating their fears, failures, successes, and dreams via social media and other electronic forms of expression. In that sense, Young Americans can only provide an isolated, frozen moment in time. But, to sleep on Bangs’ series would be a mistake. Every story has a myriad of branching strands. And Young Americans is one node on the constantly evolving rhizome that is Generation Y.

Next Story — After Bradley Manning Verdict: Time to Amend the Espionage Act of 1917?
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After Bradley Manning Verdict: Time to Amend the Espionage Act of 1917?

Ever since Bradley Manning’s identity became known, and certainly before it, there has been a dynamic interplay between the definition of the whistleblower and the spy. How could an act written in 1917 possibly address or, rather, handle the complexity of a whistleblower of Manning’s scale and intent? The fact is that the Espionage Act of 1917 was never written with Bradley Manning in mind. Its goal was not to address whistleblowing at all, but the delivery of intelligence to foreign governments.

We must keep this in mind today as Manning was found not guilty of aiding the enemy, but found guilty of over a dozen other violations, including five related to the Espionage Act.

Now, it is one thing to create the legal mechanism to prosecute spies who deliver information to the enemy. But it is quite another to prosecute a soldier, or any American for that matter (journalists, for instance) for publishing documents that shine a light on shameful deeds. Manning wasn’t paid for his work by any foreign nation or agent. He wasn’t working on anyone’s behalf apart from his countrymen.

All of this is to say that the Espionage Act needs to be amended to make room for whistleblowers. Because, as it stands, any whistleblower is at the mercy of the law, and the President’s particular whistleblower policies.

Take Obama, for instance. His Justice Department has charged seven people (including Edward Snowden) with violating the Espionage Act for simply leaking information to the press. More cases in five years than George W. Bush managed to accumulate in his eight years in office. This from the man who heralded whistleblowers. Now, as the Sunlight Foundation recently pointed out, the Obama administration took the shady route of removing from his website any mention of the president’s 2008 call for whistleblower protections.

Read the rest over at Death and Taxes.

Next Story — Boards of Canada’s ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ Is the ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ of Electronic Music
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Boards of Canada’s ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ Is the ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ of Electronic Music

With Tomorrow’s Harvest, Boards of Canada create a type of hypertextual electronic tone poem to entropy.

There has always been something vaguely Pynchonian about Boards of Canada. Brilliant and groundbreaking in their preferred artistic forms, the both have obsessive attention to detail in exploring subjects as diverse as mathematics, paranoia, technology, tarot, astrology, psychedelics, conspiracy theory, cults, subliminal messaging, and so on. Unlike Pynchon, however, BoC can’t do slapstick on audio. It doesn’t play well in this form. But both the hermetic musical duo and author share something of a romantic attachment to a bucolic existence amidst the unrelenting crush of modernity.

With Tomorrow’s Harvest, Boards of Canada have created the Gravity’s Rainbow of electronic music. It is immense and cyclical in all its intense apocalyptic glory. Like the book, Tomorrow’s Harvest creates a luminous demarcation line of the before and after. It is an album full of foreboding, and proof that Boards of Canada’s skills haven’t atrophied since The Campfire Headphase (2005).

As youth convulsed in orgiastic glee over EDM this past year, BoC brought the long-gestating Tomorrow’s Harvest home. And not a moment too soon. Many years down the road, if not sooner, Tomorrow’s Harvest will be a singular sonic document; wholly removed from 2013's bevy of mainstream artists and producers launching themselves onto ephemeral EDM forms. There are craftsman and there are con men. So few of the former, and so many of the latter. We should revel in anything new from the dedicated tinkerers, even though they so rarely produce new creations.

Like Gravity’s Rainbow, Boards of Canada form Tomorrow’s Harvest into a cyclical, reflexive album. It is, as Michael Sandison noted in a recent Guardian interview, shaped like a palindrome. The opening track mirrors the closer. The second track, “Reach for the Dead” finds its opposite in second-to-last track “Come to Dust,” not simply on account of its sky high synth arpeggiations, but because the respective track titles invoke death. And “Collapse” is its own palindrome, but also the record’s axis—a bit like the “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” section (also post-apocalyptic) in David Mitchell’s great work of fiction, Cloud Atlas.

Pynchon has always been interested in entropy, and with Tomorrow’s Harvest, Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison create a type of hypertextual electronic tone poem to entropy. A feature of thermodynamic theory, entropy can be explained as a measure of the degree of order and disorder in a closed system, as well as the loss of heat and matter leading toward equilibrium. In this way, Tomorrow’s Harvest—a title that could be a reference to the identically-named survivalist website—becomes politically and ecologically-charged. Boards of Canada seems to be asking, “How much longer can the Earth handle humanity’s industrial and technological collateral damage?” The Earth will be just fine. But it’s very possible that, in the near future, we won’t.

Sonically, the album is without equal right now. The only electronic music artist currently operating at a similar level of genius is Burial. New electronic music fans, suckling at the teat of promoters and festival headliners, will probably get a stinkface look of confusion if they happen to listen to Tomorrow’s Harvest. You know, the kind of face you get after showing a real science fiction film to someone who has only seen Transformers: Dark of the Moon 3D. “Where’s the bass drop?” someone asks. To which another ripostes, “There’s no bass drop, fuckwit.”

Tomorrow’s Harvest announces itself with “Gemini’s” PBS-style program intro music, before diving headlong into darkness, a motif that carries over into “Reach for the Dead.” It is an apocalyptic, mind-bender of a track, and maybe a strong candidate for BoC’s single greatest song. It might be the best track of 2013. No hyperbole. Although the album teaser video featuring closing track “Semena Mertvykh” might technically be the first music video, “Reach for the Dead” got a memorable cinematic analog with Neil Krug’s esoteric post-apocalyptic short film. The song is the sound of matter coming undone in a science fiction sort of way. Krug’s short conveys this atmosphere with its empty wasteland visuals.

Read DJ Pangburn’s full album review over at VICE’s Motherboard.

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