Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 2013 Year-In-Review

I was decidedly distracted this year, working on Season of the Witch, due out next year from Tarcher/Penguin. The research for that book, however, led to all sorts of wonderful discoveries that made 2013 a very strange and interesting time. Some of the highlights include:

-Spending considerable time listening to the 1970s band Ramases, who produced two outstanding records: Glass Top Coffin and Space Hymns. Uncanny progressive rock by a man who believed he was the incarnation of Rameses of ancient Egypt.

-Getting to interact with some incredible people including Rodney Orpheus, Arik Roper, and Pam Grossman.

-Finally getting a handle on the relationship between historical witchcraft and modern Wicca, helped considerably by the excellent book Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton.

-The original logo of The Monterrey Pop Festival (seen here)

I did manage to peek outside my book research a bit and here are the things that occupied me when I could carve out the time:

-I had a load of fun playing old-school Dungeons & Dragons--first by way of OSRIC and then making the switch to Basic Fantasy--with some great pals, including Ethan Gilsdorf, the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

-I had the honor of doing a number of Gweek podcasts with Mark Frauenfelder, most recently alongside one my favorite artists Jim Woodring.

-I wrote two pieces for The Quietus, probably the best online music magazine. A real honor and privilege.

-I built a computer with my son with help from the good folks at reddit.com/r/buildapc.

And here is the required list of my favorite things this year, in no particular order:

Fuzz (s/t)- Simply, one of the best garage-psych albums of the last few years; druggy but lucid, raw but technically flawless.

Mikal Cronin II- He runs in the same circles as Fuzz, but Cronin's album is their pop-cousin. It's filled with delightful nuggets, every song a top-40 hit from a 1970s that never existed.

Tim Hecker Virgins- Hecker's last album Ravedeath, 1972 is an ambient masterpiece, but this follow-up is every bit as good. Hecker is not afraid of noise, but he doesn't overdo it either. There are moments are wonder here, and while the record can be challenging, it is deeply moving.

Cool Tools- One of the things that I mourn the most is the end of the paper catalog. Sure, my home gets the ubiquitous Crutchfield and Crate & Barrel, but I long for the days of  thick catalogs as well as one-sheets of electronic surplus, magic tricks, telescopes, comics, and books (anyone remember the weird Information Unlimited laser kit catalog?) Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities by Kevin Kelly is a huge book, in the spirit of The Whole Earth Catalog. It the collects the best of, well, everything really: from tools to instruments to websites. Everything in it is currently available, but it also fulfills the nostalgia for this kind of thing perfectly.

And Every Day Was Overcast by Paul Kwiatkowski- A fictional autobiography in words and photographs,
Kwiatkowski's book is an unsettling and strangely beautiful work. The book is the story of a teenager in the early 1990s trudging through the debris of South Florida. Kwiatkowski's captures the underbelly of that time and place, but this is not exploitation. It is a melancholy tale, and the photographs, many of them on Polaroid, reveal the sad timelessness of misspent youth.

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea- Can you believe it? A boxed old-school RPG with rulebooks, map, and dice. Doesn't get much better. This is a great game, low-impact rules with plenty of pulp weirdness. If you want to get back in to gaming, this would be a great re-entry.

Arrow- A ridiculous superhero soap opera, it defies any sense of reasonableness and I can't get enough of it. I am a Marvel fanboy of the highest order going on 40 years, but this show has turned me on to the DC Comics mythos. The acting is great, the action sequences the best on TV since Buffy, and the myriad plot threads seriously engaging.

Saga- Every issue is a cause for celebration. The artwork alone by Fiona Staples is worth the cover price as every panel stretches her artistic imagination and she nails it every time. If you read comics, I'll just assume you read Saga. And if you don't read comics, you should at least read this.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Some Things I Wrote This Year

Love's Secret Ascension: Coil, Coltrane & The 70th Birthday Of LSD

"So now, during this anniversary of profound significance, I have come to a transformative idea. If you're not going to make music out of it, I don't want to hear about your last acid trip."

Interview with Alan Moore

"BLVR: But we can tell stories about the god being aware of itself.
AM: Yes, and to some degree, ontologically, the creation of a metaphysical being actually is that metaphysical being. If gods and entities are conceptual creatures, which I believe they are self-evidently, then the concept of a god is a god. An image of a god is the god—a little closer to hand."

Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Wizards of the Coast’s Problem Child

“To put it another way, Dungeons & Dragons has become a game preferring combat to role-playing. It favors prefab characters acquiring new skills and powers over a character that the player comes to identify with; a character whose development determines the course of the game.”

How to Unwrap a Mummy: On Roger Luckhurst's The Mummy's Curse

“In an attempt to unravel the belief in the mummy’s supposed hidden supernatural powers, Luckhurst’s book maps out not the actual country of Egypt as it existed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but rather the Egypt that existed as a simulacrum within British culture.”

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood

Here's a little Halloween treat by way of one of the best of the classic "weird" short stories, "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). First published in 1907, it is considered by many--including H.P. Lovecraft--to the be on the finest stories of supernatural dread:

"Creeping with silent feet over the shifting sands, drawing imperceptibly nearer by soft, unhurried movements, the willows had come closer during the night. But had the wind moved them, or had they moved of themselves? I recalled the sound of infinite small patterings and the pressure upon the tent and upon my own heart that caused me to wake in terror. I swayed for a moment in the wind like a tree, finding it hard to keep my upright position on the sandy hillock. There was a suggestion here of personal agency, of deliberate intention, of aggressive hostility, and it terrified me into a sort of rigidity."

Read the entire story at Project Gutenberg.

And here's a recommended soundtrack by the great Ghost Box label band Belbury Poly:

Related: Interview with Jim Jupp of Ghost Box Recordings

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Space Jockeys of the 1970s

As with all things paranormal in the 1970s, there were two paths you could wander down, that of "true-tales" or the one that produced some of the best comics, movies, and music of that era.  Two of my favorite alien-related fictions from that time are The Eternals comic book and the film Alien.

Others have pointed out this before, but I still find the similarities between the first page of The Eternals #1 by Jack Kirby, published in July of 1976:

 and the fossilized "space jockey" in Ridley Scott's Alien, released in May of 1979 to be remarkable:

Both images tap directly into the 1970s uni-mind that was obsessed with UFO, alien encounters, and abductions. But both also recognize that story and myth are better matched to these kinds of ideas than trying to exploit and sensationalize them.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Lego Secret Society Members

Freemason (Master of the Lodge w/ gavel)

Mathers-esque Chief of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (w/ dagger and cup)

Kabbalist and his golem (sefirotic tree, of a type, in background)

Rosicrucian (1600s, wholly imagined)

Reptillain Illuminati

Thursday, August 29, 2013

My Essential Classic Psych Albums (and the unofficial soundtrack of Too Much to Dream)

Soft Machine 1 and 2
A masterpiece. One of the tragically overlooked bands of the sixties, but well-known to the musicians they inspired. A glorious synthesis of pysch, free-jazz, and early prog.

Moby Grape
One of the essential San Francisco bands, stellar musicianship, melody, and a subtle but effective psychedelic vibe.

Pink Floyd, Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Truly, the great psychedelic album of the sixties, filled with songs both whimsical and sinister, transcendent and earthly, all guided by the sure but slightly unsteady hand of Syd Barrett.

Syd Barrett,  The Madcap Laughs
Barrett's great solo album, teetering on the verge of full-blown psychosis, but somehow keeping it all together long enough that by the end you are completely and helplessly in love. "screaming through the starlit sky."

The Electric Prunes
The true inspiration behind Too Much to Dream, at once delightful and infuriating, a triumph that reaches heights as often as it falls flat. Essential nevertheless.

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King
Going from psychedelic rock to prog rock was not going to be an easy task, but this is the album that gets you there unabashedly. It scared the hippies for sure. The flute makes it one of my all-time favorites.

Zombies, Odyssey and Oracle
Often overlooked because of the wide shadow cast by Sgt. Peppers, this is undeniably one of the most perfect albums. The songs are more pop than psychedelic to be sure, but the songs like "Beechwood Park" and "Time of the Season" beautifully capture the expansive and altered mood of the time.

Alexander "Skip" Spence, OarPsychic dissolution turned into musical genius. A warm, heartbreaking album, and a genuine document of the darker side of the sixties.

Olivia Tremor Control, Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle
27 songs of lo-fi psych-pop perfection. Next to Neutral Milk Hotel's Aeroplane Over the Sea, the best thing to come out of Elephant 6 collective.

Blithe Sons, The Great Orthochromatic Wheel
Lots of albums are labeled psych-folk, but very little actually surpass the label. Blithe Sons expand the definition of psychedelic from an overused trope to a profound inspection of psychic isolation within the midst of the natural world.

White Rainbow, New Clouds
Oscillating between the immanent and the transcendent while playing joyfully in a sandbox of prog, psych, Krautrock, with fuzz keeping it all contained. One of my favorites albums.

Dungen, Ta Det Lugnt
Fantastic Swedish psych/prog super group pull out all the stops. Cymbals and flutes galore!

Intimate, spiritual, with melancholy lysergic undertones, this is one of the great psych albums of the last ten years.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Classic Microgames Museum

While it hasn't been updated since 2002, The Classic Microgames Museum is a Wunderkammer of gaming from the 1970s and 1980s. The site includes cover scans of games from Metagaming, Steve Jackson Games, TSR, and Task Force Games, among others. There are some personal favorites here, including Intruder, probably the solo game I played the most as a kid having become obsessed with the film Alien. (My older brother snuck me in to see it by telling the lady a the ticket counter that I was an orphan and he was indeed my legal guardian.) Others that I spent hours poring over were Swordquest and Valkenburg Castle. The fold-up maps that came with these games were terrific and inspired my own for D&D campaigns.

The other game that I recall fondly and have since found on eBay is the mostly impenetrable and seemingly unplayable oddity Demons, in which players are magicians who battle each other by way of conjuring demons. Much of the game is inspired by an actual magical grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon or the Lemegeton, a medieval text that purports to contain the formula for calling forth demons. The rules contain a nice "Historical Notes" section and even offers players a text of the actual conjuration if they send a SASE to the game company. Actually trying to play the game was a different matter, but the game pieces and map are a pleasure to look at again.

What were some of your favorites?