Music of the Week

I’m always searching for new stuff to listen to, both for inspiration and variety, and lately my favorite bands have been female-fronted metal bands along the lines of Lacuna Coil and Tracktor Bowling, and some of the more progressive punk/post-punk groups like The Receiving End of Sirens. I don’t seem to have been able to find many female vocalists doing the latter style, although I’m not really sure why. I don’t see anything fundamentally “male” about it.

This week I’ve come across two new bands that are making my playlist for the next few months, probably.

First, we have Head Phones President, a crazy Japanese project featuring Anza, a singer/actress/model who apparently did a long stint as the first Sailor Moon and has a disco-esque side project (Vitamin-Q).


The vocals remind me a bit of a cross between Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) and Björk. There’s a definite “experimental” quality to the band, and the lyrics are nonsensical for the most part (and when they aren’t, the vocalist’s accent is too strong to make sense of them anyway). I like the energy, and the way the sounds cross from melodic to heavy and back again.

Secondly, a Korean find – 49 Morphines. This one is basically screamo, I think, with a definite progressive streak. It reminds me a bit of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, if GBYE had screamo vocalists and more of a metal edge.


The song takes a while to develop, and while I’m not a fan of screamed lyrics beyond the random word or line by a female vocalist, these guys somehow manage to do it grating on my nerves. I have no idea what the lyrics are about, since I don’t speak Korean, and even if I did, the screaming makes them practically indecipherable, but the music is great.

Microreview: Lacuna Coil’s Karmacode

I’ve been a fan of Lacuna Coil for a couple of years now, but wasn’t hugely impressed with their last album, Comalies. So when Karmacode was released this month, I found myself surprised to be quite addicted. This album has more in common with their earlier work than with Comalies, yet injects some fairly interesting sounds and rhythms that are a little more playful than some of the plodding, measured songs.

The highlight of the album has to be their cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” though. I never liked the original mix much, given that I’m not a fan of the over-reverbed, electronic style of that mix. This one injects some Lacuna Coil metal into it while staying true to the original, so it’s eminently listenable. I’ve been playing that one song more than any other from the album for a few days now.

If you’re new to Lacuna Coil or goth-tinged metal, I’d recommend this album as a good starting point. If your only exposure to this kinda music has been Evanescence, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that Cristina Scabbia can actually sing without an autotuner. Give it a listen.

Book Review: Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale

I really cringe at buying new books these days, because my attention span is too limited to bother re-reading most novels and therefore whatever I pay is for the one-time experience. It’s not that I’m unwilling to shell out $20 for a book, but rather that I hate to do so for a book I might not read ever again.

Still, occasionally I find myself in a bookstore browsing, and a couple months ago, Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale caught my eye. The cover is in stark red and black, and the silhouettes of a male and female stand beside each other under the jagged title. Eye-catching, to be sure, especially when swimming in a sea of lurid, Darrell Sweet-esque covers in the fantasy/sci-fi section. So caught my eye it did, and I picked it up. The storyline intrigued me: a bunch of students on an island are forced to kill each other. I resisted buying it until this past weekend, when I also failed to resist watching Ice Age 2 (I have a weakness for Scrat the squirrel). But I digress.

In any case, the novel was definitely my type of story. Take 42 junior-high students, toss ’em onto a deserted island, randomly hand out weapons and supplies, and force them to kill each other. Oh, put explosive collars on their necks as motivation and control. Every few hours, parts of the island become off limits, enforced by the collars. Failure to play the game is a sort of no-win prisoner’s dilemma: if no students are killed within 24 hours, everyone dies.

The story largely twists and turns around how the island brings out each student’s inner motivations. From the sociopathic to the psychotic, nihilist to hero, the students all respond to the unimaginable stress in their own unique ways. To say more would spoil the joy of finding these things out for yourself, but the read is worthwhile.

Oh, did I mention that the story is relentlessly gory? If you can’t take a description of a cut throat sounding like a fresh lemon sliced with a very sharp knife, or jelly-like brains exposed from a massive head wound, then this book is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, Happy Tree Friends fills you with glee, then you don’t want to miss this story.

My largest complaint, if there’s really anything to complain about, is that the story is set in an alternate timeline where Asia’s political map is completely different and where the US is some sort of Mecca for rebellious teenagers. I realize that this may indeed be the case for people living outside of North America or Europe, but North America is rapidly descending into the sort of totalitarian, mind-controlled state that the Republic of Greater East Asia is depicted as being in the novel. There is also a small exploration of rock-as-resistance, where the “rebel” characters in the story that distrust the state use their knowledge of rock music as a way to identify each other and to communicate unapproved ideas. It’s cute, but a bit boring.

I think if you overlook the quasi-1984 aspects of the story and treat it purely as entertainment and a character study on a large scale, you’ll find Battle Royale well worth your time. It’s a novel that, for once, I’ll definitely read again.

Movie Review: Mirrormask

I finally had the opportunity and the time to see Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask this evening. I was rather underwhelmed by Gaiman’s novel American Gods, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect seeing Gaiman on the screen. Still, knowing his graphic novel background, I was hoping for better screen translation of his imagination than I got with that novel.

First, I’d say this movie gets a 4/5 on the strength of the visuals alone. It’s just stunning. I’m sure that people have commented on how surreal it seems at times, and with good reason. There’s a lot of allusion to fairy tale in the story, but everything is couched in imagery that could have jumped out of a painting. It’s breathtaking. If you appreciate visuals, you will love it.

The soundtrack is a weird cabaret/trip-hop fusion; I suppose this is what happens when you try to fuse circus atmosphere with the darkness that pervades the story and imagery. Funny enough, it works really well, although my girlfriend in the other room asked me if I was watching porn when she heard the soundtrack without knowing that I was watching the movie.

The biggest failing, in my opinion, was the lack of innovation with the story line. You can predict everything that happens in this movie ten minutes in advance, and there isn’t really any moment where you feel real fear or suspense. Still, the visuals are lush enough to keep you watching just to find out what you’ll see in the next scene.

The bottom line is that if you like visually stunning films, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time.

Book Review: Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon

I’d been browsing Wikipedia a few weeks ago looking for various authors, and noted with interest that Joel Silver had apparently purchased the film rights for Altered Carbon for a reported $1 million. Now, as a developing writer, I want to see what makes a million-dollar novel, so I thought I’d give it a shot and check it out.

Most of the reviews of the story say “gripping” – I think this is fair. True to its (post?)cyberpunk roots, there is a hell of a lot of noir influence on the story. The body count started building from the prologue, and never stopped. The main character, one Takeshi Kovacs, personally dies at least twice, is copied once, and switches bodies a few times for good measure.

Granted, this ability to switch bodies, to “resleeve” one’s consciousness in a new “sleeve” by transplanting a “stack” containing what might be best described as one’s soul (the exact functionality is never particularly spelled out), helps the body count along. Apparently a person can only be truly killed if the stack is destroyed, made “Really Dead” (a phrase which brings to mind the “Mostly dead” from the Princess Bride movie of yore). Of course, Mr. Kovacs (Pronounced Kovachs, with that “loch” sound for the “ch,” as we are duly informed shortly into the novel’s first chapter) seems to be somewhat heartless, and mercilessly “Really Deads” several people who tangentially inconvenienced him. Not that I have a problem with this.

I can see why the story attracted the producer behind The Matrix though. The novel has the same dark, gritty feel. Hell, Kovacs is “resleeved” in a gel-filled tank sounding remarkably like those little gel-filled tanks that the Machines stored their “human batteries” in (speaking of which, has anyone ever managed to make sense of why that was even remotely practical/efficient for advanced intelligent machines to do?). Kovacs shoots up a laboratory in the same fashion that Neo wastes the lobby of the building where Morpheus is held. Trepp seems to be the story’s Trinity, the ass-kicking female hardass who gets alternately detached and bubbly. (Hmmm…Trepp…tripp….triple…trinity? Too far of a stretch? It’s hard to say. In all fairness, Trepp is never attached to Kovacs romantically, that I’m aware of.)

The technology? At least there are no skul-guns. I can’t say why Morgan chose to arm his characters with spider venom monomolecular flechettes (wouldn’t these get tangled up at the slightest dense material?), either, as there are more efficient toxins out there, but hey, who am I to argue. Overall, I find the sociology to be more interesting, and the pharmacology. From betathanatine to hallucinogen grenades, there is enough exotic chemistry to make your neighborhood street pharmacist turn green with envy. And the Envoy mind-training, while sounding like a weird mix of the Force and NLP, is admittedly well-written.

Overall, the story is pretty well-envisioned, and the futuristic setting masks a standard noir feast of hard-boiled detective, big-breasted panting women, a murder-suicide mystery, and enough violence to make even a jaded person like myself raise an eyebrow at times. An entertaining read, to be sure.

MicroReview: The Receiving End of Sirens

I don’t really think I can say enough to do this band justice, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that if you haven’t heard The Receiving End of Sirens, you should give them at least half a chance. This band combines the best elements of punk, electronica, and progressive rock to come up with something that is distinctly their own. I’ve been playing this band nonstop for the past month. Definitely recommended. You can also catch a music video of the song Prison Break from the album if videos are your thing.

“…this is the last night in my body…”

Book Review: Robert Jordan’s Knife of Dreams (Some Spoilers)

Last night, I bought and read the latest installment of the never-ending Wheel of Time epic, Knife of Dreams. I had been fairly anxiously awaiting the novel for a couple of years, so it’s good to see that it’s out.

Funny enough, the “gasp” moment that we were supposed to get in the novel flew right by me. I actually had to go digging around at wotmania to find which scene should have so astonished me. It turns out that it’s the death of the Tremalking Ayamar islanders, who apparently decide to butcher themselves en masse after the giant hand statue melts on their island. Seems that it’s a trigger for their apocalyptic homicidal mania or some such. I dunno, I just read it as ‘huh,’ and moved on. I guess I’m a cold-hearted bastard.

There were a couple other minor scenes that bugged me, such as the wonderful, dripping, heartfelt reuinion between Perrin and Faile (after Perrin has just apparently carelessly killed the one Aiel guy helping her out. We never hear about this Aiel again, even though he’s been with us for a couple of books now! Faile doesn’t even get a POV to help us feel resolution. Just WHACK, bye.) Another would be the Semirhage scene near the end; it just felt so rushed, and BOOM, it’s over. I actually had to read that scene three or four times just to realize that yeah, that really was the entire scene.

But the book, overall, was great. I dunno if I’d say it was worth the wait, but as a writer, I’m not sure I could push out 750 pages in 2 years easily, so I can’t complain. The Nynaeve scenes were probably the best, and even tho I’ve always respected Egwene, I respected her even more so after what she is going through in the White Tower. Mat got lots of page time, which is good. He’s by far my favorite character in the entire story. I think Tuon got a bit tiring with all of the mind games. Rand got some time, Min was much less interesting than usual, Perrin was his normal sulky self. It will be nice to see if he gets some testosterone again in the next (last?) book. Elayne, as usual, is the least interesting one of the bunch.

Speaking of the last book, I really am not sure I’ll like it if Robert Jordan tries to close the series in only one more novel. It feels like there are still too many open plot lines, and that it would be entirely too rushed and out of keeping with the pace he’s set for the epic so far.

In summary, great read. Now I get to re-read the entire series and try to put it all in proper perspective again. Whee!

Music Software:, Moodamp

I was looking for music online to supplement my collection and decided to check out some of the more interesting new software available. A bit of searching around, and I stumbled over Moodamp.

The premise is good, at least. You tell the software what mood you’re currently in, and then rate each song as you hear it. Eventually, Moodamp “learns” what you feel like listening to in that mood and plays mostly songs that you’ve given a Good/Awesome rating. Moreover, Moodamp contains a P2P module that you can enable, which will search/download music “like” the songs that you currently think are “Awesome” in that mood.

Reality is a little rougher. Moodamp doesn’t have any way of scanning new music predictively in order to tell if you might like it. This, combined with the fact that it gets new music from P2P by searching for the artist name, leads to some amusing (but annoying) problems. For instance, I have a collection of Lamb (the trip-hop band) songs, which I rate as “Awesome.” Moodamp helpfully goes to download new music for me, and comes back with songs by “Lamb of God” (some sort of heavy metal screamer band) – needless to say, that isn’t at all helpful. And as you might imagine, Moodamp won’t find songs by Hooverphonic or Bjork which might sound vaguely similar to Lamb, since those artists are not named “Lamb.”

After a few more technical glitches, like having no way to tell Moodamp “never download any more Lamb of God music” and no way to delete what it already downloaded (close to 350MB of irrelevant music, most of which I rated as “Bad”), I gave up. A bit more searching and I found promises to be a search engine for independent, freely available music. That sounds good to me, since I don’t like the possibility of getting sued for downloading. I installed the player (and it has a very, very nice interface) and started rating songs. claims that the player will compare songs you rate favorably to the playlists of other people who have rated those songs favorably, and end up improving its offering such that you hear mostly things that you like.

I spent about 3.5 hours playing with it. After that, I still hadn’t rated a song higher than three stars (“I’d listen to the whole thing” according to the “How to rate” guide). There’s entirely too much pop, country, folk, reggae, and rap, and just plain people-being-silly. I prefer trance, rock, metal, trip-hop, etc. I only heard one song that vaguely qualified in a “techno/trance” category, and it wasn’t good enough to give three stars. I finally just gave up, although I intend to spend another evening playing with it in hopes that I gave up just before it gave me some really kickass music and it’s just waiting for me to fire it up again. (I doubt it.)

I guess I’m still waiting for a music search engine that will scan your collection of music stylistically and somehow match that to music out there. That way if you have no country songs, it won’t waste your time giving you someone’s rendition of Achy Breaky heart, or give you a thousand Bob Marley covers if you listen to nothing but drum’n’bass. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but they’re starting to fall asleep.

Reviewing Bruce Mau’s “Massive Change” Exhibit – AGO

A few days ago (Wednesday May 4), I found myself at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) looking at the Massive Change exhibit. Since I already have the book, I had a bit of an idea of what to expect.

The first thing I noticed was that the AGO building face had been repainted for the Massive Change exhibit. Formerly a relatively plain structure of stone and steel, it was now painted white with “MASSIVE CHANGE” painted in huge letters over the rather chaotic surface, so that it was actually difficult to read once you approached the building. I pointed out to my friend that “This is one change they could have done without.”

Once inside, I ambled on up the stairs leading to the exhibit space. The museum is apparently free this month to the public, in honor of “May is Museum Month,” but that only applies to the permanent collection. In something of an irony, the viewing public have no access to the “massively connected, socially aware” sort of world that the exhibit is supposedly promoting.

I think the exhibit really highlighted my ADHD tendencies, even though I’ve never been diagnosed as such. I stepped into the Segway room, where the ‘revolutionary’ human transporter was displayed in all of its design stages – full prototypes all. There was also the IBOT, which its inventor insists is not a wheelchair – trust me, it’s a fancy wheelchair.:-P

From there, I made my way into a darkened room with numerous projectors on the ceiling, each projecting a globe onto the wall. The globes showed different things – earthquakes and their severity, the hole in the ozone layer over time, light pollution of the night sky over a year. The light pollution globe was the most fascinating, particularly because it highlighted fires in red. Granted, it recorded all fires over the period of a year, but the result was intriguing: two massive parallel bands from West Africa across the center all the way to the east coast, and great burned-out areas in the Amazon areas in South America. You could also clearly see gas burnoff concentrated off the coast of South Korea and throughout Indonesia, little green dots on a black globe.

The next room was covered in photographs, floors and walls all; the photographs were arranged in columns by size and subject matter, with the largest photos on the outside edges and the smallest in the center. Most amusing to me was the pixellated porn column – at the distances you were viewing the images, the images across the room resolved clearly enough to make out a number of hardcore scenes that probably made visiting parents wince.

The next installation was a little set of human interface devices: mice, Nintendo’s Power Glove, the Newton, tablet PCs, etc. They were all traced out from oldest to most recent, with little lines showing what directly or indirectly influenced the design of what.

The military-commercial connection was highlighted as well, with long streamers hanging from the ceiling and breaking the space up into a maze. Each streamer featured a different aspect of the connection; MREs, ATVs, DSRVs, Predator drones, it was military- and acronym-itis. Basically the point was that the military both bleeds over into civilian design, and it occasionally takes from civilian design (specifically things like GoreTex).

Skip a little boring empty space with a nook for cuddling/reading books, and I found myself in a technicolor room with fabrics and ceramics spelling out little catchy graphic-design blurbs: “INNOVATE” or “INCREDIBLE” or whatever. The scale trick was used here again, with nanoscale materials on one side of the room wrapping around to insulators and fabrics made of larger materials. The most interesting thing, from my perspective, was the little brick of Aerogel, which I’d read about but never actually seen. It is every bit as amazing as it looks; it’s practically transparent in thinner layers, and only mildly cloudy even when it’s six inches thick. Crazy stuff.

Enter the ethics question: the next display was a number of things regarding genetic engineering. Each question had a clear plastic case divided into “yes” and “no” boxes, and a stack of yellow slips of paper. “Should we genetically engineer food?” “Should we create human-animal genetic hybrids?” In most cases, surprisingly, the “yes” votes outnumbered the nays, except for that last human-animal question, which I guesstimate was probably 85% nos. I dropped a few slips of paper into all the “yes” boxes. I imagine that the intent was for each person to drop a single slip, but there was no such rule posted anywhere. Based on the thickness of the stack I picked up each time, I must have voted 10-15 “yes” votes for each question. Score one for being unpredictable. 🙂

There was another section in the same room which basically illustrated how much garbage the average person tosses in a year, along with the expected “this is what recycling can do” section with everything from plastic cups to Ikea furniture (not recycled, but made with “sustainable” wood).

The final room was a series of audiovisual stations and some hanging “audio” stations, each featuring a presentation or, in the case of the hanging boxes, a “famous” speaker, talking about some aspect of the global society. There were some interesting presentations; perhaps the message driven home the hardest was that China is really a major contender for this century, something that cannot be underestimated. There was also a presentation on the ruthless efficiency that companies like Wal-Mart are able to bring to bear on the marketplace.

Overall, an interesting exhibit, although not as thought-provoking to me as it might be to other people. I blame my lack of excitement on having spent so much time studying both design and sociology, and on having read the book before seeing the exhibit. I made my way to the exit, feeling slightly persecuted as I was herded through the makeshift gift shop at the end of the exhibit. Down the stairs, and out into the night-lit streets, I took a deep breath of reality. It’s an interesting vision that Mau presents, one where technology has the potential to address every one of the world’s ills, but I’m not convinced that the will is there. May the coming decades prove me wrong.

Book Review: George Mikes’ Tsi-Tsa

I’ve decided that since I read a lot of books, I might as well review them here for other peoples’ enjoyment – or to spare them the trouble of reading the book themselves.

Cass suggested that I read a little (only 100 pages or so) book called Tsi-Tsa, by George Mikes, even though she didn’t really remember it. So since it was really short, I spent an hour yesterday reading it.

Warning: this review contains SPOILERS!!1!!1!!!1111

First, apparently Tsi-Tsa is phoneticization of Hungarian “cica,” meaning “pussy.” Just so we have that clear. (Specifically, it doesn’t mean “cat” – the concept, sure, but not the word.)

In a nutshell, the story is:

  • George doesn’t like cats. He remembers boys in his town killing them by inserting water pumps in their anuses and making them swell up until the animals explode. Seriously. I can’t make this shit up.
  • George leaves his doors and windows open for some dumb reason. (Later, George gets robbed because of this. Gee, who would have seen that coming?)
  • Cat walks into George’s house, so he feeds it.
  • Cat enjoys being fed by a sucker.
  • Cat stays at George’s house; Cat’s REAL owner gives George half of the cat. We’re never cleared on which half he owns.
  • Cat moves into George’s house because she got tired of eating Spanish food.
  • Cat’s owner gives other half of Cat to George.
  • Cat runs away.
  • George gets hit in the eye with a tennis ball and contemplates suicide. He gets robbed (see above re: doors and windows). His car blows up and catches on fire.
  • George finds Cat.
  • Cat gets hit by a car.
  • Cat stays in the hospital for a while.
  • Cat goes back to George’s house.

The end!

The only good thing about this novel was its length, and one minor anecdote: Some tough guy’s dog died, so he was crying to his mother. She said, “Get a new dog!” He looked at her and said, “And when you die, I’ll get another little old lady!”

Otherwise, this book was a barely-disguised attack on humans. First, by wasting their time by making them read it, and secondly by pretty much explicitly stating on the last page that it was written because humans aren’t more special than cats and a cat deserves a biography too. Take that, lame humans.

Now you don’t have to read it!