Outside the city ...

Outside the city …

I am finally away from my Greek Island and the “five star” resort with no internet access, so I am able to resume blogging. Yesterday evening I arrived in Athens for a three day stay, and as is my wont in a new city, the first thing I did was go out for a wander. My hotel has a rooftop bar with a view direct to the acropolis, which is pretty amazing, and is on the temple slopes so it’s a short walk to the old town. Walking through the old town one can catch regular glimpses of the acropolis from the streets, and also experience the pleasures of a summer night in the city. The streets were heaving with people, all out to enjoy the evening air. All the restaurants in Greece seem to be open to the sky, and alfresco dining is the norm, so everywhere you look people are enjoying eating under the stars. I passed a Suleimanese punch-and-judy show, where the puppets are dressed in Persian-style pantaloons and curled hats (but still beating each other) and the horde of gathered children scream at the villain in Greek. I passed a concert being held in an old temple ruin, all lit up with red spotlights. Every square was full of people sitting chatting and drinking; the main square was absolutely heaving with young people in groups just enjoying the night air. The weather was dry and warm, the temperature perfect, the sky a million miles away and clear and the whole balmy evening cupped within the bowl of the distant mountains, with the Acropolis the gleaming jewel set in the middle of that frame, seen occasionally between buildings and lit up against the night sky.

I found a stylish open restaurant in the old town, that served excellent food and had a massively camp Swiss host. They serve a chicken cooked whole inside a loaf of bread and cut up on your plate for you, and an exquisite lemon-flavoured pumpkin soup garnished with little cthulhu-esque octopuslets. I didn’t have my camera with me so didn’t order the cockerel; I may return to experience this strangeness this evening. I have to say, the way Greek people use lemons in their cooking – and the predominance of citrus throughout their cuisine – is excellent and commendable.

After dinner I wandered a little more, enjoying the chaos and light-heartedness of the city. I found myself in the area just west of the Syntagma square, which is supposedy full of bars and night clubs, and in front of a rock bar called Six Dogs. They were hosting an American band called The Shrine, some sort of classic heavy rock outfit that I’ve never heard of, so in I went, for my first experience of Greek punk/metal fans.

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

The band was average, I have to say, and somewhat hamstrung by the fact that their singer has exactly the same accent as the weird zoo-owner from the Mighty Boosh. They were a pacey, hard rocking classic metal outfit with a bit of skate-punk overtone, so pretty likeable overall. The crowd, however, were fascinating. First of all they were really lively and cheerful, bouncing around with way more energy than the band deserved, and managing to do spontaneous crowd-surfing efforts even though there were only about 50 of them. This meant that whenever one of their number wanted to go up, he had to get the others to lift him, and then a group of 10 or 15 fans would go charging around the room in a little chaotic loop, carrying the surfer aloft, and then drop him. It’s not quite lollapalooza, is it? But they were really into it. But the best thing about them was the way they looked so … classical.

I think every second rocker in the crowd was basically a classical Greek stereotype, come to life then covered in tattoos and stuffed into a pair of skate-punk shorts and a band t-shirt. They all had the broad shoulders and narrow waste of the classic Greek pottery or statues, and that particular style of Greek beard that you see in the classic pictures: the one that is cropped close to the skin along the jaw and near the ears, but extends to a block or point out from the chin, and merges in a perfect gradient with short-cropped hair. It works perfectly with the classical Greek profile of aquiline nose and strong jaw. The rockers also had the same classical hair style, that is neatly cropped at the back but then a little unruly or longer and forward-pointing near the front.

It was like moshing with the guys from 300, if they had bothered to put on t-shirts. It was one of those classic moments, like when a French waiter pulls a 110% expressive face, or a German man says very precisely about one of his most memorable experiences, “it was in general perfect” with German precision, or a Japanese person bows on the phone – one of those moments where the person you are talking to is subconsciously channelling a million years of cultural history and to the rest of the world they’re a stereotype of fantastic proportions, but to them it is so completely normal that they would never realize they were doing it, even if you could play them a video of the moment. So it was that these Greek rockers were moshing not to the tune of an ordinary Venice Beach band, but to a couple of thousand years of classical Greek history. The Pelopennese war through hardcore, or something. I think I will dub this style of Greek counter-culture “300-core.” I hope to see more of it as I wander this city of romance and history!

Rabbit-headed cuckoo clocks were all the rage!

Rabbit-headed cuckoo clocks were all the rage!

Yesterday was another Gothic Lolita-styled live event by the crew at A la Mode, the 42nd event of this venerable institution. This night had the same excellent value-for-money line up of 6 or so bands interspersed by DJs, for just 3000 yen, but this time there were less of the pretty little 5 minute floor shows, and instead there was an excellent steampunk fashion show, and a very weird 30 minute theatrical performance (pictured above).

This time gas-mask free...

This time gas-mask free…

The fashion show appears to have been organized by one of the two members of the band Strange Artifact, who I refer to as Miss Artifact (pictured above, singing). I failed to get any functional pictures of the fashion show, but it was excellent – mostly women in voluminous 19th-century-styled dresses, wound about with belts festooned with mysterious gear, all intricately worked with geometric designs and brasswork. One girl was wearing a leather shoulder-guard that held glowing potions in test tubes, like an elegant and feminine version of the Witcher; two carried briefcases studded with brass designs; another carried a tiny pistol and what looked like a glowing, arcane power tube on her back. There was also a man in velvet pants and fine waistcoat, festooned with accessories and carrying an elaborate clockwork-styled gun, a feather jauntily perched in his top hat. Overall, it was an excellent showcase of craftwork and over-the-top steampunk sense, relatively free of gothic influences and heavily influenced by cowboys-and-indians railroad America, and industrial-revolution England.

Death and the Angel...

Death and the Angel…

The show wasn’t lacking in gothic influences, though. The two bands that followed Strange Artifact, himemanik and Remnant, had a healthy dose of gothic style: himemanik with a nice electronic pulse, and (as can be seen from the photo above), Remnant with a large dose of over-the-top old school coffin-guitared goodness. I really liked himemanik, actually, but I failed to get any pictures of them. I also failed to get pictures of Elupia, who I have reviewed before. Elupia are working on a new album, and were really in fine form at this gig, playing with a lot of energy and strength. They really epitomize the level of technical quality that even minor Japanese bands achieve, and are a good advertisement for the Japanese live scene – which in my experience is worth spending money on even if you don’t know the bands, because they are usually at a very high standard.

At this event, I had noticed a couple of women who had turned up wearing zombie nurse outfits, and who spent the afternoon drinking and checking their make-up (and sleeping). One of them was wearing a badge that said “Satan,” also incidentally one of the band names, so I was thinking we might be granted an audience with a zombie nurse rock band. However, as time passed my friend pointed out that the hall was becoming something of a “midgetorama” (his words) as it filled up with really, really short girls, some obviously very young (this was somehow an all-ages gig). These women seemed to have no fashion sense or style in common, but we soon discovered that they all shared a deep, powerful obssession with the headline act of the evening, Satan. For when Satan began playing, they all charged forward, unveiling Satan-themed sweat towels or t-shirts, and lined up at the front of the stage.

You spin me right round baby, right round!

You spin me right round baby, right round!

What followed was a revelation. Satan (pictured above) are a standard thrash/punk band with nothing special to recommend them – good, savage, loud and raw, but so are all of their kind – except the slavish devotion and energy of their fans. They proved this early on by producing a troll doll and spinning it around before the audience. This was the trigger for all of their fans to form up in serried conga-line ranks and do a complete circuit of the dance floor, charging around in one revolution and returning to their places to resume head-banging crazily to the thrash. Satan invoked this ritual regularly through their songs, somehow managing to hold out an arm or do a spinning sign with one hand and get all their fans to charge around the room. The rest of us had to step back in stunned incomprehension to allow this horde of tiny 16 year olds to take the floor.

It was then that Satan produced his pogo stick. At the sight of this wicked device of ancient power, his fans formed into three neat ranks, all facing in the direction he pointed, and began pretending to be pogo-ing, moving slowly up and down as the guitarist drew out a deep, ferocious roar. Then, of course, off they charged. Their dark lord could reproduce this pogo action just by crouching down on stage.

Other things that Satan got his little girls to do included worshipping the guitarist – whenever a solo was played, the girls all fell to their knees and genuflected – and a kind of mini bus-stop dance, in which the entire crowd went through the same series of arm-crossing and uncrossing, head banging motions.

He also produced a rubber hammer with which he whacked girls at the front of the stage, got them to slap his arse, spat water on them, and whipped them with his dreadlocks. Thus does Satan rule supreme over the gathered hordes of Tokyo’s schoolgirls …

Unfortunately I couldn’t get a picture of all this because, even though Satan is just some second-rate Tokyo thrash/punk band with about 30 devoted followers, he fancies himself special, and has a staff member who came over to tell me further pictures were banned. Further proof, if proof were needed, that intellectual property law is the work of Satan.

At this point as well my phone batteries died (all these photos were taken on my phone), and I failed to get any photos of the last band, Velvet Eden. No loss, since they were completely boring aside from the fact that their singer was cross-dressing, and stopped halfway through the performance to tell us that the band had been running for 10 years and this meant he had also been wearing a “T-back” (g-string) for 10 years. It was, he told us, 10 years since he became TBO – T-back Ore (g-string me!). Just as well he had the gimmick, since the band was ordinary.

So, another a la mode gothic lolita night passed in style and (mostly) musical excellence. This one was quite different to the last, and it’s clear that they put a lot of effort into each night they run, with very different performances and themes for each one. The next will be in early March, and if you are in Tokyo then and have a chance I strongly recommend it …

Today we heard word of a scandal overtaking the modern Tokyo phenomenon of AKB48. Their 14th most popular member, Minegishi Minami, was caught by a journalist leaving the house of a “boyfriend,” a 19 year old member of some random boy band (compared to AKB48, the boy band in question is largely irrelevant). The pictures were published in some scandal rag, Shukan bunshun (週刊文春), a magazine which basically makes its income from printing shit. As a result of this indiscretion, Miss Minegishi has been demoted to research student (kenkyusei) status, meaning a massive loss of pay and  that in the strange heirarchy of AKB48 she will have to climb back up the ranks to reclaim her position as an enormously popular public figure.

The heart bleeds, doesn’t it? Actually the apology is a beautiful and heartfelt thing, and it’s clear that Miss Minegishi is under a lot of pressure, as one might expect if one were published leaving the house of one’s lover the morning after a trist and published in a magazine read by millions of people, in a country where everyone (well, not me!) is watching you and discretion in sexual encounters is paramount. This is a nation where holding hands in public is still frowned upon by many young people, and kissing generally avoided at all costs. Being photographed the morning after a shag is obviously going to be very embarrassing.

AKB48 sold $200 million of records alone in 2011, and endorse everything from elections to instant coffee. They are the very definition of a household name, and getting into the top 48 of this weird little business enterprise is a license to print money for the young women involved. It’s also not easy: their recent documentary carries the subtitle no flower without rain, which draws on an old saying about how beauty and/or success depend on suffering. The structure of the AKB48 system is redolent of university and the early years of the corporate system: it is intended to reproduce the sense of having to strive to make it, being indebted to one’s seniors, and being vulnerable in the face of life’s challenges. In many ways, AKB48 are perfect representatives of the Japanese notion of gaman, of having to suffer through adverse circumstances to achieve: this is the same spirit of gaman that enables Judo masters to bully their charges[1], but which makes a Sumo wrestler like Takanoyama enormously popular because he tries so hard. Two sides of the same coin … I don’t know if it could be said that Miss Meinegishi is being bullied in this instance, though … what she did do is fall foul of a contractual obligation not to go on dates. That’s right – AKB48 girls are not allowed to go on dates! The Guardian article makes it appear as if this rule is based on “the strict rules to which Japan’s young pop stars must adhere to project an image of unimpeachable morals” but this isn’t the reason at all – that’s just bullshit western misinterpretation of east Asia’s so-called conservatism. The real reason that Miss Minegishi has to live a sexless (or at least secret) life until she “graduates” from AKB48 is that her band is idolized by nerds and pre-sexual teenage girls, and to both groups of fans they have to appear pure and single. These are girls next door who are struggling through a metaphorical high school/university/early corporate life, and girls like that don’t get DP’d in love hotels.

Miss Minegishi’s extreme haircut is also not forced on her by her contract: she did this all by herself, to symbolize her abasement. This means she’s going to be trying extra hard to regain the favour of her fans, and my prediction is that this little cock up is going to be a goldmine for her and for the AKB48 business: she’ll soon be returned to the top ranks, fans will love her more for having fallen and strived, and there’ll be another documentary with tears and struggle – a genre that AKB48’s fans love.

Which brings me to my William Gibson-esque point: these girls are Japan’s modern shrine maidens, the modern equivalent of western nuns of yesteryear. They’re required to swear themselves to celibacy, live lives of constant self-flagellation and torment, and simultaneously have to symbolize everything that is admired in the women of their time: chastity, beauty, sexiness, innocence and endurance. They also have to tread the line of hypocrisy that characterizes modern attitudes towards young women: at the same time as they are making swimsuit videos and soft porn, these girls will get demoted if they are caught having sex. And because it’s Japan they also have to be educated: there’s currently a TV show about some of these girls going to college and trying to get a qualification. William Gibson has a few short stories about these kinds of characters in the cyberpunk world (I think Idoru is the most apt, though I haven’t read it): women whose celebrity depends on their embodying all of the ideals of femininity of their time, and whose personal lives are warped or ruined as a result of it. So let’s hear it for Minami Minegishi, embodiment of all the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood – and of the complexities of the cyberpunk era. Ganbare, Minegishi san! The hopes of a generation, and the weight of an entire society’s sexist expectations, are resting on your skinny shoulders …

fn1: though maybe not anymore: watch the video of the coach apologizing and listen to the cameras – the girls he bullied weren’t willing to tolerate it and his humiliation is pretty much complete. These guys’ world is changing, and it’s apparent that they aren’t catching up…

Last night I stumbled on this video of Bruce Dickinson, from Iron Maiden, singing William Blake’s Jerusalem with Ian Anderson (from Jethro Tull) accompanying him on flute. It was performed at a Christmas concert at Canterbury cathedral last year. He performed GK Chesterton’s Revelations, the inspiration for Iron Maiden’s song of the same name, at the same venue, and this can be viewed on youTube as well. The performances are stirring stuff, though at times Dickinson over-eggs the pudding and you can tell he’s used to a slightly different venue, but if you like good British poetry and appreciate the New Wave of British Metal (NWOBM) then you’ll get a lot of enjoyment from these two short clips.

The songs also show very clearly the strong influence of British classical poetry on the direction the ‘Irons took under Bruce Dickinson. Listening to these songs is like listening to any of their more famous efforts, though obviously the lyrics are more skilfully crafted[1], and it’s clear that Iron Maiden drew heavily on their British heritage when they wrote their works. Their most famous songs are steeped in what could probably be broadly described as the cultural origins of modern Britain – the romantic poets, the modernists, and some of the key debates in colonial and Victorian Britain that shaped the growth of the post-industrial British world, all feature prominently as themes in Iron Maiden’s work. Sometimes these are direct translations to metal – as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – and sometimes they are a pastiche of poetry and history, as in Revelations. In other cases they are merely inspirational material, as in The Trooper‘s interpretation of The Charge of the Light Brigade. But in all cases, these influences and thematic elements are obvious in the work.

British comedy, television and especially music is, I think, the strongest part of its modern culture, and even seemingly nihilistic and barbaric elements of it – like the NWOBM or modern genres such as britpop – can be seen as part of a cultural continuity stretching back 200 or more years. This continuity is often obscured by the blandishments of modern art – the gutter style of modern drama, the spandex and satanism of the NWOBM, or the very modern and superficial faux working class posturing of some of the reformed toffs of the britpop scene – and of course it is also unrecognizable in some of the less talented and more degenerate products of modern British culture. But at its finest, modern British art, comedy and drama shows a strong appreciation of, and indeed directly channels, that long cultural tradition. I think for those of us from newer countries like the USA or Australia, this long cultural continuity can be surprising and perhaps also something we can be envious of (hence Australia’s historic “cultural cringe”). It’s also something we don’t always notice or appreciate, being more focused on those things that are fresh or new. But I think Iron Maiden is a really exceptional example of this tradition, being on the one hand embedded in what is often seen as a nihilistic and cultural vacuum (heavy metal) while simultaneously enormously dependent on a long cultural legacy for its themes and artistic influences. It isn’t just a case of a diamond in the rough, but of the ability of a traditional and often conservative entertainment and cultural establishment to continually reinvent itself without losing its roots.

fn1: this may earn me a fatwa from the fan club.

It came from Mars … to ROCK!

Saturday night saw me at Ikebukuro Chop, a tiny underground live venue, to see a couple of bands. My partner’s friend’s friend’s husband is the singer for the band pictured above, The Lechery From Mars, whose style clearly begs to be described as Cthulhupunk. The music is a kind of raucous light metal, not really gloomy enough to fit the standard goth rock pattern of bands like Sisters of Mercy, and definitely with an edge of punk to it. You can hear it at the band’s myspace site. It’s a bit like a collision between Jello Biafra, the Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I don’t know what they’re singing about but I get the impression they take a light-hearted approach to horror and occult topics.

A servant of the elder gods?

In style, this band resembles a carnivalesque distortion of Garden of Delight or Fields of the Nephilim, and I suspect that the themes of their songs are similarly light-hearted reinterpretations of the original invokers. Garden of Delight act as if they really do believe in the ancient Sumerian gods and creeping abominations that they sing about, whereas The Lechery from Mars are probably just a bunch of guys having fun. Though I guess it’s possible that the bassist really is a creature from beyond space and time.

Invoker or Invokee?

Anyway, they were fun. Sadly – and this problem followed all the bands this evening – even though they were clearly playing with gusto and had a lot of skill, it was impossible to get a clear sense of what their music was all about, because the sound system was absolutely appalling. In a small room with low ceilings it’s a really bad idea to turn it up to 11, and on top of that the mixing didn’t seem to be very clear. There was a huge amount of that low-key electric humming sound when the bands weren’t playing, so I think something was wrong with the set up. In the tight confines of this space, the extreme volume simply meant that you couldn’t make out any sound beyond a roar. Taking these photos actually hurt when I crouched near the speakers (though maybe that was another manifestation of the dark will of the Elder Gods). Live Inn Rosa is vastly superior to Chop, and if you go there you would be well advised to wear earplugs. Though last time I went the sound was fine, so maybe it was just last night’s technicians…

After The Lechery From Mars we made a switch to the band Baal, a three piece that could probably best be described as operatic hardcore: a kind of high-tension mix of bands like Insurge with good old fashioned hardcore power, Ministry meets ebm. You can hear them at their myspace page, and their website gives a nice range of promotional pictures that pretty much capture their style. Their visual style is very reminiscent of post-apocalyptic, mad-max style survivalist, but when they played Chop they had added zombie-attack style injuries to their necks. It’s hard to see in the photos I took but it really gives them a zombie survivor look. Have we finally stumbled onto Zombiecore?

Post-apocalyptic Magua got bit!

It’s a nice mixture of post-apocalyptic zombie survivor, punk, and basic hardcore aggression. I frankly thought that hard core was long dead, smothered by its own genre restrictions,  but it’s nice to see new things being done with it in the city of lights … hardly surprising though, considering the amazing quality of Japanese live acts. Which makes the terrible sound mixing even more of a disappointment – these bands should have been raising the roof with their style, aggression and skills, but instead we were all being stifled like experimental subjects for some kind of new sonic death ray. Hopefully next time I see them the sound mixing will be better, and I’ll be able to experience the full joys of this new musical genre, Zombiecore!

 

I have always had a strong suspicion that the Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here is a homage to Ivan Denisovich, the fictional figure of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous novel of the same name. This possibility doesn’t become clear until you’ve churned through Solzhenitsyn’s opus – A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, and The First Circle at the minimum – because the references are oblique and cunning. They’re not so sneaky that I couldn’t ferret them out in Year 12 of high school, when I was obssessed with Pink Floyd and doing a full review of Solzhenitsyn for my special topic in English. Do a search on the internet and you’ll find all sorts of theories about what the song is really about, but they’re all wrong, because it’s about the Soviet prison camps and particularly, about the injustice visited on Soviet soldiers returning from the Great Patriotic War.

The big clue is in the following line:

And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
located somewhere in the middle of the song. This is exactly what happened to a huge number of Soviet soldiers – captured by the Germans but then rescued by the advancing red army, they were suspected by red army political agents to have been corrupted into the ways of the West, and thus to be ideologically suspect, so were banished to the Gulag for a period of 5 or 10 years after the war.
The first line of the song also evokes a strong image of prison camp tales, the train line passing through the vast and unforgiving wilderness of Russia to its cruel destination:
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
and follows with a sneaky reference to the ever-present stool-pigeons of the society Solzhenitsyn describes when it follows up this “can you tell” with “A smile from a veil?” Large sections of the song also speak to the disillusionment that Solzhenitsyn describes in Cancer Ward and The First Circle:
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have you found? The same old fears.
I think the latter part of this song is also about the futility of revolution, and the way that it always seems to shake the same filthy power mongers to the top. It’s an anthem to cynicism, really, which is pretty much what Solzhenitsyn managed to put together over the best part of his literary career. There’s an enormous amount of cynicism in Pink Floyd’s work – the song Mother (delivered at its best, in my opinion, by Sinead O’Connor) drips with cynical venom, for example, and The Wall Part 3 may seem like overly rebellious stupidity to anyone under the age of 30, but to anyone who experienced British schools in the 70s it is 100% spot on in its nastiness. They certainly give it a try, but it’s a rare Englishman who can match the cynicism of your average Russian, and Pink Floyd during the era of Roger Waters were exemplars of those few who were more than up to the task. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would have been able to take on the deep, dark and pure cynicism of early Solzhenitsyn. Without David Gilmour I don’t know how they would have avoided sublimating into pure darkness – how Solzhenitsyn does it I can’t even begin to guess.
So, I think Pink Floyd rote a song in homage to Solzhenitsyn’s experiences and never bothered to tell their fans what it was about. If Iron Maiden can make their most famous effort from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then why not? Good literature has always been the foundation stone of good rock, and Pink Floyd are no exception. So next time you’re listening to this fine song, spare a thought for all those people who only took the steel rail one way …

Is it Gypsies and Lace?

About a week or two ago I went to another goth-lolita night courtesy of a la Mode Tokyo. Three of the bands were the same as the last time I went, and the night seemed to be running on something of a steampunk theme. One of the bands, Strange Artifact, even claims to play “Steampunk Music,” and have been invited to the steampunk worlds fair (in Washington, I think) this year. Which got me thinking, what actually is “steampunk rock”? The picture above shows the singer from Strange Artifact – she is wearing a kind of gypsy/lace/punky outfit. The picture below is her bassist, who was wearing a gasmask last time but this time just looks like a standard leather-and-spandex rocker.

Parlour music, Ikebukuro style...

So I’m not sure what makes them steampunk. The other band that seems to have a bit of a steampunk styling is Black Dead Butterflies, pictured below in their pirate capes. These guys are calling themselves a Gothic Unit and styling themselves as lovers (I don’t know if they are). Surely pirate lesbians have a steampunk element?

Lesbian pirates are steampunk ... right?

So what is steampunk rock? As a genre steampunk literature seems to be marked out by a few simple properties:

  • Victoriana and the general industrial/technological trappings of the steam age
  • A fascination with Europe and European history
  • Girls in lead roles

The last part might not seem obvious but it seems to me that there is always a lead female character in a steampunk story, at least all the ones I’ve read. Philip Pullman, Stephen Hunt, Scott Westerfield, Steven Harper, are examples that spring to mind. Obviously steampunk as a literary genre is also not so perfectly defined, but it seems to have this as a strong element. And the goth-lolita scene is really noticeable for the prominence of women as organizers, performers and traders within the scene. So they at least have this in common with steampunk. But shouldn’t music genres be at least partly defined in terms of their musical style? What makes steampunk rock steampunk rather than just rock? Or is it just gothic rock wearing a bit more brass and lace, with the odd lesbian pirate thrown in?