Friday, May 30, 2014

Promissory Notice

“So when are you going to finish with G.K. Chesterton?” asked my wife.

Argh. This week — I promise. Once the Kings and Rangers settle into the playoffs for Stanley, I’ll be less preoccupied.

On another note: how do you think the Sin City sequel will do at the Box Office? Will it play like 300: Rise of an Empire (which pulled in a little better than half of the receipts 300 did)? Or will it play like the sequel to Star Wars? My guess: it'll do a bit better than the 300 follow-up, but not much.

Hey, they both star Eva Green! As good an excuse as any to post her picture:

Links: I thought the Sin City comics and movie were pretty much the signal of Frank Miller's artistic decline.  Still do.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Watching Jesus People USA Through A Telescope: Then & Now

When I was 16 I wanted to join the Jesus People.

The year was 1981. I chose to get baptized, and was doing my best to read and believe the Bible the way my bearded and bonneted forbears had — which was completely at odds with everything that seemed to be happening south of 49. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and the only book of the Bible he seemed to place any faith in was the Revelation of St. John the Divine. Christians were apparently on-board, professing themselves pro-nukes and anti-abortion, and pro-Free Market in a big, big way.

Life sucked.

To make matters worse, I was listening to Christian Rock, which also sucked. I liked my music HARD, dammit: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, RUSH. I mentioned this to my youth pastor. He said, “Have you heard Resurrection Band?” No, but the name alone did not bode well. “Give them a try anyway. They're pretty hard.”

I took a bus downtown to the Canadian Bible Society, then trudged upstairs to their second floor, where they had a small room devoted to Christian records. Sure enough, behind a divider labelled “REZ Band” were two albums — Rainbow's End, and Awaiting Your Reply. The second was larger, with a gate-fold, and looked just a tad more promising. I bought it and took the next bus home.

It rocked.

And not just the music, either. Even the lyrics were bracing: when frontman Glenn Kaiser sang,

“Tell me why did you come 
and why were you born 
where the dogs eat dogs 
and the pigs get all the corn?”

and put a little spit behind his emphasis on pigs, it gave me the shivers.

And the album art was first-rate — edgy and counter-cultural, but polished, and not at all amateur. There was a mini-sermon in the corner, addressing the sort of social ills suburban churches were keen to ignore. All in all, a package that spoke directly to the alienation and disaffection I felt as a pious young Menno.

Tripping the gate-fold fantastic.
The credits said the band were members of Jesus People USA, and were living in community in the mean streets of Chicago. At the time, JPUSA was publishing their own magazine, Cornerstone, which pulled together many of the same strains: hippie-ish left-of-centre political critique, a heightened social conscience, and heaps of on-the-street sass and verve, particularly in its graphics and lay-out. And these cats were serious about their journalistic exposes, often bringing to light some supremely unsavoury activities from deep within the shiny bastions of the Evangelical elite. I subscribed to the magazine for over a decade, long after I'd lost interest in the music.
Up from the basement.
Flash-forward nearly 35 years later, and stories have come out alleging that JPUSA's Chicago commune was pretty much a fallow field for sexual predation. And I'm depressed by two things: the horrific accounts, of course, but also the fact that I don't find any of this the least bit surprising.

JPUSA is locked in legal wranglings with at least one of the alleged victims. I haven't any thoughts about that, one way or the other. These things get very complicated very quickly, and very ugly right from the git-go. The only reason I mention any of this, is this week JPUSA's legal team issued a “Cease-and-desist” letter to the film-maker who brought this story to light.

Now, granted, I'm still working on my PhD in Stoopid. But I'll go out on a limb, here, and declare that nothing good is gained — ever — when a religious institution issues a “Cease and desist” order.

JPUSA should know that better than anyone.

The eyes of the world are watching.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Myth Of The Secular

I finally got around to changing the tires on the car, which means I finally got around to dusting off some of the podcasts mouldering inside my Infernal Device. Specifically, The Myth Of The Secular, from CBC’s Ideas with Paul Kennedy.

Producer David Cayley acts as tour-guide through contemporary thought on the matter. He interviews people invested in some frequently unexplored aspects of secularism. I’ve only listened to the first two episodes, but what I heard was engaging, challenging, and generously humane. Every time I’d nod my head in agreement with someone’s sentiment, another would follow to provoke thought in an unexpected direction. And who among us couldn’t stand a little more of that?

The episodes don’t seem to be available for download any longer, alas, but you can still stream them on the CBC site, here. Highly recommended.

Chesterton's Shades

I have sometimes fancied that this practice, the true psychology of which we really know so little, may possibly have contributed towards the disturbed or even diseased state of brooding and idling through which I passed at the time — G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography

Chesterton seems to have experienced two breakdowns in his life, the first a depressive slough from which he emerged while courting his wife-to-be, and the second a full-out nervous collapse which neither his wife nor doctor thought he was likely to recover from.* Recover he did, however, and it is the first which is of interest to me, since it set the template for Chesterton’s second recovery, and the prodigious output that followed.

In the above quote, Chesterton speculates that perhaps his experiments with the Ouija Board contributed to his depression. He was, at the time, a young man in art college, hanging out with the hipster nihilists of his day. He conducted his forays into the occult, however, with his brother and father.

He only devotes a few paragraphs to the misadventures that followed. Whatever was moving the planchette during these experiments was, Chesterton thought, cunningly deceitful and intent on luring these would-be Spiritualists into grievous mischief. Chesterton promptly quit with the fiddling, but descended further into gloom.

He filled his journals with grotesque drawings of apparitions that seemed to follow him everywhere, appearing at the most inconvenient times. He slept poorly, if at all. His condition showed no sign of improving, and threatened to grow worse. Persuaded of an essential Evil at work around and within him, he determined to unveil its polar opposite.

Even at this unhappy point in his life, he somehow managed to court his future wife Frances, and she in turn seems to have enticed him into the High Anglicanism she and her family were rooted in. He quit art school and found employment at, weirdly enough, a publisher of occult works, and turned his creative energies from sketching to writing. The two literary works that emerged from that time of inner torment are Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday, both of which continue to define the public person that Chesterton became.

In his Autobiography, Chesterton seems happier with that early collection of essays than he is with his first novel. I may be misreading him (dude’s difficult to draw a bead on, more often than not), but he seems almost discomfited by the latter’s enduring popularity — particularly among the sort of folk he usually faced across from his podium during his many debates. He suggests Thursday is popular because it is widely misread.

At a superficial level, Chesterton’s opinion is surely correct. There are, however, many other levels to read a work, especially when it comes to weird fiction, which the authors themselves are often blind to. I hope to explore some of this in my next post.

What is notable to me is how Chesterton’s artistry in Thursday continues to serve as the model intersection of myth and contemporary imagination, not just for the usual Christian suspects (Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and Sayers) who energetically sided with Chesterton’s larger cause, but also for decidedly post-Christian Brits like Neil Gaiman, China MiĆ©ville and Grant Morrison.

*One curious aspect to the second episode: GKC wrote his most notoriously anti-Semitic stuff (the "Marconi Affair" hooey) just prior to his collapse.

Friday, May 02, 2014

"Rocky Horror" + "Godspell" = Devin Townsend Project

Rock ‘n’ roll is a treacherous genre for the mid-lifer — the older I get, the older my “exciting new” discoveries tend to be. Have you heard what Johnny Burnette has done to Tiny Bradshaw’s “The Train Kept A-Rollin’”? Cooks, I’m telling you.

So when I stumble across someone who is younger, and evidently at that zenith where energy and technical chops are in perfect sync, I get very, very excited.

Enter Devin Townsend.

Channeling Paul Burlison

I originally clued-in to Devin Townsend via this performance, from 2013’s The Retinal Circus.

Being of the faintly-metal, faintly-churchy stripe, the song and performance gives me the heavy shivers. So I was surprised when I cued up the rest of The Retinal Circus and found it a bit of a rough ride.

Pretty much as advertised.

The show plays as if the troupe from The Rocky Horror Picture Show marched into Godspell and started calling the shots — so far, so good. It’s got a cast of dozens, including a gospel choir, Cirque du Soleil-type acrobats and contortionists, various luminaries from the Metal scene — and puppets. All contribute not just to the musical performances, but to long stretches of “drama” meant to weave the various threads of Townsend’s music into thematic whole cloth — which is where the trouble lies.

By concert’s conclusion, the effort at narrative continuity strains past the breaking point, and Townsend himself frequently mocks it outright. But even a noob viewer like me could see this wasn’t an entirely misguided effort. Townsend is clearly attracted to Big Existential Themes, and Big Musical Expression. He may be a clown, but he trades earnestly in recognizable currency.

Townsend is an unregenerate headbanger, but also a polymath of the popular. Every album is a “What if?” proposition — as in, “What if Zamfir hired Meshuggah as the studio band for his next album?” If the question strikes the wary listener as a gag or novelty, Townsend doubles down on his commitment to the project until the listener is persuaded otherwise — and then he’ll fart, or belch.

So where ought the curious noob to start with Devin Townsend?

ADDICTED! (2009) is Townsend’s shot at making “an album you can dance to.” It opens with the deliberate crunch and heavy low-end associated with the more dirge-like modes of metal (think Rob Zombie), but subverts it from the git-go with disco polish and an almost giddy positivity. Townsend was, at this point, confirmed in his commitment to a clean-and-sober life. The album could play as a series of 12-Step anthems — if only Townsend weren’t attuned to the irony of self-improvement as an addiction in its own right. Start with “Bend It Like Bender.” If you like that, you could try the title track next. Or just trust me and get the rest of the album.

Epicloud (2012) is Townsend’s (current) magnum opus — his “Andrew Lloyd Webber” album — a grand summary of all the styles he had been experimenting with up to that point. If you like “Grace,” you’ll be on-board for the rest of this disc. It’s got metal, ballads, operatic desperation and carnal punchlines — all of it neatly bookended by a reassuring gospel choir. Its sudden switches of intensity get me giggling one moment, then dabbing at my eyes the next. Anneke Van Giersbergen, the lead vocalist in “Grace,” is frequently at the fore, playing either Yin or Yang as Townsend’s hijinx requires. Just one example: following the cathartic “Grace” with the fiercely comical “MORE!” Epicloud is probably the most accessible synthesis of Townsend’s zaniness and sincerity.*

None too hard on the ears, either.

Deconstruction (2011), in which our Pilgrim braves a face-to-face encounter with the Devil, to discover that the true nature of reality is . . . a cheeseburger. Too bad our Pilgrim is vegetarian. If this sounds like a Spike Jones goof, the vertiginous effect of the entire album is difficult to overstate. Very Proggy, and entirely Metal, it plays like the first time you watched a fractal pattern screen-saver. “Hey, that’s cool!” shifts to “Wow, it keeps changing” shifts to “. . . huh . . . “ shifts to “Mommy!

If you’ve swallowed all three of those pills, you’ll want to know what Townsend’s New Age music sounds like. Ghost (2011) isn’t something that gets a lot of play from me (I can’t quite shake my pan-flute bias), but it’s definitely worth the listen. Just when I’m ready to nod off, the mood turns dark and the drums kick out a double-bass fill.

If you want to look into Townsend’s Strapping Young Lad days, I can recommend The New Black and City — 90s Metal that wears the usual 90s influences (Slayer, the hardcore scene) all flavoured with Townsend mischief. But now you’re on your own, ‘cos I’m out of words. And it looks like he’s just getting started.

"More! More! More! More!"

*The double-disc set includes Epiclouder, a collection of cast-offs from the project. “Cast-offs for good reason,” I thought when I first gave it a spin. But they are catchy, and well-produced. And darned if they haven’t slipped under my skin as well. Quite the bargain, really.