Recently, I’ve been working on a huge update for my pet programming project. Since development is still pretty steady, this probably isn’t much of a surprise – recent commits have included a teleport tile that can send bugs to arbitrary points on the canvas, improvements to the style of menus, limited UI customization functionality, and so forth. I spent much of the last week overhauling Tracker2D’s audio ‘system’ by more comprehensively exposing the HTML5 Web Audio API’s various audio convolution and filtering features. This has been quite a task, and I thought writing about the process would be interesting as well.
After a nuclear apocalypse, Catholic monks are Earth’s only hope for rebuilding a technological civilization in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Well, not really, since humanity eventually recovers, but you get the idea. The subject matter, along with my recent reading, does mean I have trouble not comparing this one to recent Neal Stephenson (and it’s always possible there was a direct influence). However, since Miller’s work predates what I have in mind by about 50 years…
This book is organized into three short novellas, each separated by hundreds of years, and each one was initially published separately. Emphasis is ultimately placed on the Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz, holed up somewhere around what was once Utah and dedicated both to spreading Catholicism and preserving technological knowledge from before the apocalypse. We get a few glimpses into the progress of the outside world as well, from the restored Catholic Church in New Rome, to the nomadic hordes of the Great Plains, to hints of what’s been going on in Eurasia since the war. The actual worldbuilding is fairly light, but if someone devoted enough (and insane) wanted to flesh the settings out, there’s more than enough to get started.
Despite this, it’s actually the later sections of the book that pay off most effectively. The first section of the book (“Fiat Homo”) is honestly kind of a slog. The main character of this section spends much of his time fasting or fretting in a desert landscape that is apparently still overrun with mutants and reactionaries before eventually devoting himself to a megaproject involving a fortuitous find in a nuclear fallout shelter. By the eras of later sections, though, the Order of Saint Leibowitz interacts more with the world Miller has built in the distance, as their goals of spreading knowledge and piety come into conflict with temporal powers. By those points in the book, it might simply be a matter of the subject matter appealing more to my interests; if you’ve been reading my scattered book reviews (and reading some of my literature), you’ll know that I’m something of a history nerd and understand why I latched onto the parts of the book I did.
Needless to say, this book deserves its status as a classic of the genre, at least for the latter half, which gets quite poignant at times, especially in the climax of the third section. To explain why would spoil it, but the buildup to that point is worth your time as a reader. This isn’t something I can say about much media; never underestimate the power of a poor beginning to sour an entire experience, although I would argue that the alternative (a strong introduction that leads to a weak conclusion) is more depressing in the long run.
So I’ve written on the British EDM boom of the early-mid ’90s on several occasions. This may count, although if it does, it’s pretty late in the movement. Given the content of this blog, I’m no stranger to people carving out artistic niches in the music industry to varying levels of commercial success, but Dead Cities is kind of a weird recording, even in the context of previous FSOL albums – half ambient with excursions into frantic breakbeats and whatever “We Have Explosive” is (besides very much of its time; alternatively, besides a grammatically incorrect phrase).
If you got the impression that this record is fairly varied in terms of sound and approach, you guessed right; Dead Cities is a veritable carnivalscape. You can distinguish to a degree between the darker first half and arguably more experimental second half, but even within each side, mood swings and asides are the norm. If there’s one thing that ties the varied material on Dead Cities together, it’s definitely the rhythm section, although ironically it does so by constantly changing and tripping over itself and generally not being composed of basic four-on-the-floor beats. The percussion ends up very prominent in the songs, which makes for an interesting counterpart to some of FSOL’s previous work (Lifeforms, which wasn’t particularly beat and percussion oriented). I can’t say whether or not this would’ve continued on previous releases since my ability to decipher their career trajectory falls off after this.
What I’ve seen of discussion on this album tends to call it “post-apocalyptic”, generally referencing the first few tracks. As a primarily instrumental album (with some vocal textures), Dead Cities doesn’t exactly respond to this classification, but I can hear what people might be referring to. I consulted my own opinions on this – they told me the sheer quantity of lighter content and mood on here probably places this centuries after any cataclysmic events and at best puts the listener they belong to in the mindset of decaying ruins and archaeology. Whether or not this matches the authors’ intent is beyond me. I could do some research – for instance, I could look at the artbook that came with some editions of the album, but I don’t think that would negate any previous mental imagery.
Anyways, music possibly written to complement artistic installations is one thing, but in the absence of such installations, it has to be judged on its own. Dead Cities has taken much time to analyze and dissect on a conceptual level at least, and I’m of the opinion that music has to have some merit if allowed such contemplation. That’s the most you’ll get out of me, suckers! Now if only the internet had enough of a physical metaphor that I could jump out of a window and magically fly away…
Highlights: “We Have Explosive”, “Quagmire” (giggity), “Glass”
Attahk is the sound of a Magma allegedly more influenced by late ’70s pop trends such as disco, funk, contemporary R&B, with the caveat that such things (or at least their antecedents) might have played a role in shaping Magma’s initial signature sound. Does it mean anything that I can use to successfully interpret local musical developments? Not really, but it might be worth investigating if you have the resources to do so. I find that Attahk is structurally more accessible than most Magma recordings due to its shorter tracks, but otherwise doesn’t seem too out of field.
Magma does, however, end up more upbeat and manic than average. This is mostly a case of tempo; Attahk doesn’t peak as fast as some of the other tracks throughout Magma’s discography, but it’s more consistently rapid than their average album even when you allow for ballads. The condensed songs probably made it easier for the band to pull this off, but even then, the Magma of 1977 was an experienced band with a good deal of performing and gigging experience under their belts. Given that Magma spends a lot of this album exploring their “funky flow”, some velocity kind of comes in handy, although luckily for listeners this doesn’t prevent them from exploring a lot of the progressive rock ideas that permeate their discography. It does, however, mean that this album is rather less militant than something like Wurdah Itah.
That Attahk explores the excesses of the ’70s is with its ups and downs. At its worst, it results in abject filler like “Dondai”, which is a sugar-coated turd of a track for any band; I pity musicians whose entire output is in such a saccharine style. The rest of this album is better at employing some of the same elements, perhaps because they’re restrained a bit. It does result in a few particularly wacky excursions, but ironically, some of these tracks are strengthened by their oddities, like the goofy pseudo-disco of “Liriik Necronomicus Kanht”. That one has a strong rhythmic section backing it up and showcases yet another strength of this era of Magma – especially virtuoso bass, which backs up skilled play with a tone that’s actually influenced my ideas about how such an instrument should sound in my own work.
I’m definitely going to recommend this album, although some prognards (hurr) might have some issues with how it’s constructed, and how it’s admittedly less elaborate than most of Magma’s work. You won’t find this to be a problem, will you?
Highlights: “The Last Seven Minutes”, “Liriik Necronomicus Kanht”, “Maahnt”