I might have to change the subtitle of this blog, as only 8 of the 26 books I read in 2019 were science fiction, and 3 were fantasy. I’m not sure if that trend will continue. We’ll see what crosses my path, or what grabs my attention from the stack pictured a few scrolls down. I’ll continue with a few art books in the mix though: titles on James Turrell, Bernd & Hilla Becher and Cy Twombly are in the queue.
For now, a genuine thank you to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. All the best to you and yours for 2020!
The new year should see a review of The Lord Of The Rings – I’ve finally started that, it’s great so far – and the massive Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, a book I started last January, digesting it in small doses. I had hoped to finish it before the second volume of translations comes out this month, but I won’t manage that. I also plan to write on Intermediary Spaces, the Éliane Radigue interview book by Julia Eckardt. I will also continue my rereads of the Dune series. (Update 26/02: my LOTR review turned out to be a massive 7000+ words, so enter at your own risk…)
A few blog stats for those of you who might be interested in such a thing… There were 14,913 views in 2019, and 8,719 visitors – a bit more than in 2018. The review I wrote the past year that was most successful was Destination: Void with 255 views. The most read reviews so far are those for New York 2140 (979 views since published), The Dosadi Experiment (957 views) and The Wandering Earth (768 views). Also still going strong (+500 views) are reviews for Green Earth, Death’s End, Last And First Men, What Kind Of Creatures Are We?, The Algebraist, Uprooted and Whipping Star. Most of these keep on getting views every couple of days. Herbert, Cixin Liu and KSR always seem to be do well, but I have no quick explanation for the success of my texts on Stapledon, Chomsky or Novik.
As for the actual list: below are the books I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2019, only 4 in total. Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology and Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings each got 4 stars, and are all highly recommended too.
I might not have had that many perfect reads last year, but I enjoyed all the more music. If you scroll down, you’ll see that I’ve written a whole lot more about albums as I did the previous years – 2019 has been great on that front.
Click on the covers for the review.
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (2014)
Very few things can revive the completionist I was in my twenties. Because of this, I bought all other books Mitchell published, it’s that good. Part supernatural fantasy, and at the end part dystopian near-future sci fi. Speculative fiction of the literary kind. What most if not all reviews missed in 2014 is that this is a bleak warning about the future of mankind: what a difference 5 years can make… These are bleak times indeed, and David Mitchell is a prophet. “It is no coincidence what happens to Holy Sykes on the final pages, waving goodbye to her genetic future, hoping for the best, but being slowly erased by an incurable cancer.”
Dune – Frank Herbert (1965)
What can I say? I wrote a 5500 words analysis you’ll be taken to if you click the cover. One of those rare classics that have not aged one bit. I’m curious to reread the rest of the series, and especially to see how Herbert’s philosophical outlook on human determinism might have changed in the later books. I’ll try to reread at least Dune Messiah and Children of Dune in 2020, so stay tuned for more on that.
If you haven’t read Dune and consider yourself a science fiction fan, remedy your ignorance asap. It tends to rival with The Left Hand Of Darkness as sci fi’s greatest novel ever, but I think it’s loud and clear Dune has the upper hand. If you’re not a sci fi fan, I think general readers might enjoy it as well – if you like Shakespearian tragedy & can put aside your bias for giant sandworms.
The Ethnic Phenomenon – Pierre L. van den Berghe (1981)
I’m a sucker for sociobiology. It has a bad name to some because of associations with social darwinism and the likes, but rest assured, there’s none of that in this book. It’s always refreshing to see humans described as what they are: biological creatures, and as such books like this are kindred to science fiction – at least, the science fiction that takes an alien lens to describe humanity as a life form.
Van den Berghe does a fantastic job to unravel the complexities of how humans deal with (phenotypical) ethnicity, without taboo or dogma, achieving great insights on racism, nationalism, colonialism, slavery and so forth. It remains very relevant today to enhance understanding of the “backlash against globalism on both sides of the Atlantic”, the rise of Modi’s branch of Hindu nationalism, Brexit, much of Europe’s reaction to the immigration crisis, the West Bank, Belgium’s institutional problems, the position of black people in the USA, and so forth.
Picasso and the Art of Drawing – Christopher Lloyd (2018)
I would have given Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings 5 stars as well, if not for the clunky writing – German is hard to translate. On the account of the art reproduced alone, the Van Gogh is the better book: 800+ paintings are no match for the mere 143 drawings in this volume. But this is not a picture contest. Lloyd’s book on Picasso’s drawings – in the end the foundation for painting – may be the best entry level Picasso book there is: it is focused, and it doubles as a biography.
Biggest disappointment of 2019 was Blake Crouch’s Recursion, a book that just won the Goodreads Choice Award for science fiction for crying out loud. While entertaining, it doesn’t care one bit about inner consistency, even though the author consulted with quantum professors and the likes.
To end the book section, here’s a shot of most of my current TBR – there are 125 titles in the photo. If you click on it, you’ll get the high resolution image.
albums of the year
For more than 10 years experimental and improvised music dominated my year-end-lists. There was the occasional Joanna Newsom album, and a few metal titles, but other than that, ‘regular’ music? Not really. This year is different. While I’ve heard quite a few excellent ‘avant garde’ releases – see the list below – the albums that connected most with me were all song form – two or three of which are even big name commercial pop products. Most of these albums seem to tap on to experimental music a bit, incorporating a minal feel, resulting in sound itself emphasized amid melody, rhythm and lyrics.
Tool – Fear Inoculum (Tool Dissectional)
I didn’t have high hopes for this one. I didn’t like the title track that was put out a few weeks before the release. I didn’t like the track that was put on YouTube a few months before the release. I finally saw them live in 2007 and was indifferent to their pompous festival show. I think 10,000 Days is weak. I even think Lateralus was a step back from Ænema, too new agey, so to say. In short, I had given up on Tool.
But I still love Opiate, Undertow and Ænema. Even Salival has aged well. I can’t overstate Tool’s importance to me: Undertow was one of the few defining albums of my teens. So out of nostalgia I decided to give Fear Inoculum a chance. An album 13 years in the making, how bad could it be? Would this be their Chinese Democracy?
Terrible, I thought upon first listen. I streamed it on YouTube. I listened to it again on Spotify. Terrible, boring, pompous. Listened to it again, nothing happened. I’ve always hated Pink Floyd and it seemed Tool turned out 100% soft prog metal.
One of my friends is a superfan, and he had a physical copy of the CD – the package is overdone, true. I borrowed it. Well, what a landslide. I’m not audiophile, but Fear Inoculum doesn’t show its true colors in 192 kbps, let alone on laptop speakers. I’ve owned over 5000 records, and this must be one of the very best sound production wise.
What can I say? It has grown on me. It’s the very definition of a grower. And yes, it’s self-indulgent, bordering on self-parody. It seems like they recycled bits and pieces from previous albums. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s long. It’s polished. James Maynard Keenan doesn’t use his angry voice. It’s full of tribal drums. But it’s absolutely brilliant. I love every second of it. I cried to it. I still fist pump to it, even after 50 plays. I played air guitar in the living room – that had been ages. Sure, it’s part nostalgia. But it only works because it delivers more than just a throwback: it’s carefully distilled, no mere repetition.
This is Tool’s pinnacle. Balanced, mature, subdued aggression amidst flowing rhythms & soothing synths – clean picked & crunching, chugging guitars & long solos right in the center, almost simplistic in their bare essence. Drums, a bass, a guitar. A miracle of sorts – an album like this in 2019, who would have thought?
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (Ghosteen Ltd)
I’d given up on Nick Cave too, since 2002’s Nocturama didn’t do it for me. I stopped paying attention, but some singles of 2016’s Skeleton Tree piqued my interest again. When Ghosteen came out in October I read some glowing reviews, and its origin story – Cave’s first album of songs written after the tragic death of his teenage son – obviously struck a nerve. But it was not until I heard Bright Horses on the radio that I realized I had to give this record an honest change. It turned out to be haunting & beautiful, a synth album that’s both sparse and lush. Cave’s voice & his tragic lyrics are unadorned in the center. It’s a double album: one with shorter songs, and a second disc with two songs almost 15 minutes each, separated by a short one.
Just click that Bright Horses link and give that a listen, it’ll be its own champion.
Deathspell Omega – The Furnaces of Palingenesia (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
Deathspell Omega is not real black metal to some. True, there’s dissonance and a vague, distance influence of free jazz maybe. But this is not rock music, or black metal blended with something else. The Furnaces of Palingenesia might be their best record yet – even better than their previous record, The Synarchy Of Molten Bones, or the Kénôse EP, another favorite. Incredibely, it was recorded live in the studio, everything you hear is just one take. The lyrics are outright fantastic, showcasing totalitarian speech.
There has been a lot of fuss about DSO’s vocalist, the Finnish Mikko Aspa, who holds extreme right wing views. In origin, metal was a transgressive genre, and the ethics of buying records from murderers & neo-nazis have been debated at lenght. In the wake of this new release, Deathspell Omega showed a way out with a rare interview on Bardo Methodology. It turns out Aspa’s views are not the same as those of the French core collective, but they hope the inclusion of different viewpoints might prove fertile – in a Bataillean sense.
Here’s a quote form the interview on the matter. It’s formulated quite pompously, but it’s ultimatly true, I think, in this age of echo chambers & defriending anybody who holds different views. Trench warfare is a trap. Coincidentally, I wrote a bit on this topic in the comments to my review of Butler’s Bloodchild and other stories.
A minority of the collective’s contributors – shall we say, parts of the second circle – who’ve been invited to partake because of their incredible talents as musicians are involved with earthly politics, but stand on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum and are therefore irreconcilable political foes. Were it not for dialogue on the grounds of transgressive art, they’d be shooting each other. That tension is what interests us. It’s also an echo of more complex days – times when childhood friends Aragon the communist, Malraux the Gaullist and Drieu La Rochelle the fascist, while never reneging on their respective irreconcilable combats, for years lost neither the ability for sincere and profound dialogue nor their admiration for each other’s unique talents.
If you make art ‘safe’, no matter your concerns – moral, aesthetic or otherwise – you sterilise it and, in the long run, with utmost certainty, kill it. If, on the contrary, you allow and even invite conflict and chaos at the core of the matrix, you enhance the possibilities infinitely. Ironically, by taking this approach – which in many ways mimics life itself – we espouse a Nietzschean life-affirming stance whilst potential detractors to our method stand within the ranks of those slowly choking the human mind, paving the way for the aforementioned ‘last man’. If only things were as simple as good and evil!
Kate Tempest – The Book of Traps and Lessons (American Recordings)
Rick Rubin decided to step in and help 34 year old Kate Tempest with her new album. I’m not sure what he did, but the result is a stripped down, slow version of Tempest’s spoken word fury. Instrumentation almost zero, this is bare, brave music. In 2013, The Guardian wrote this about her: “She is one of the brightest talents around. Her spoken-word performances have the metre and craft of traditional poetry, the kinetic agitation of hip-hop and the intimacy of a whispered heart-to-heart… Tempest deals bravely with poverty, class and consumerism. She does so in a way that not only avoids the pitfalls of sounding trite, but manages to be beautiful too, drawing on ancient mythology and sermonic cadence to tell stories of the everyday.”
6 years later, that still seems to ring true. As Tempest is a poet, I’ll just quote her opening lines:
I came to under a red moon
Thirsty for water
My eyes were like shovels in the soil of the sky
Digging in to the night to find solace
I was heart-broken
Because I’d promised her everything
Then I did what I could not to recognise anything
So, here I was
Marching the town like a priest in my rapture
So desperate for tenderness
So raw from the grating of senses
The way the day drinks every drop of my strength
I was digging out pence for a length of bad whisky
Me and my friends
Or at least
The others who slumped at the bar without peace
They embrace me as kindred, but
Something is missing
So, I was sat there at the bar with my forehead on my wrist
Thinking I had given all I had in me to give.
Sounds familiar? Give The Book of Traps and Lessons a try. I’ve also teared up to this one, multiple times, if that counts for something. Very contemporary, very British too – you might not like her accent. The Brexit features. Political, yes, that too, but first and foremost a very human record.
Maybe this bit from the album’s last song will convince you?
I saw it roaring
I felt it clawing at my clothes like a grieving friend
It said there are no new beginnings
Until everybody sees that the old ways need to end
But it’s hard to accept that we’re all one and the same flesh
Given the rampant divisions between oppressor and oppressed
But we are, though
More empathy, less greed, more respect
All I’ve got to say has already been said
I mean, you heard it from yourself
Sammath – Across the Rhine is only death (Hammerheart)
With 2014’s Godless Arrogance Sammath made what I think is the best metal album of the 21st century, hands down. That is, if you approach metal in a conservative manner, and seeing most of today’s metal for what it really is: dressed up rock or pop or jazz or punk music with metal aesthetics. I have no beef with genre mixing – creativity must flow – but I myself am only interested in real metal. When I want rock or pop or jazz, I’ll listen to rock or pop or jazz, thank you. Godless Arrogance was what Immortal could have done if they build upon Blizzard Beasts, not on Metallica.
This isn’t Godless Arrogance. Since 1994 Sammath has put out 6 albums, and they are all pretty different. Across the Rhine is only death doesn’t put the focus on melody like Godless Arrogance did. It is a much more violent affair – as others have written, Sammath this time also incorporates grindcore into their technical black death hybrid. As such, ATRIOD is yet another step in Jan Kruitwagen’s evolution towards the essence of extreme metal.
I must admit I was underwhelmed at first, but the same lesson as for Fear Inoculum applies: this needs more than a few spins via Bandcamp on your phone’s speakers. The jury is still out, but this might be even better than Godless Arrogance. It’s less instant gratification, a more complex, starker, relentless barrage. But when the melodies arise – and they do, but shorter, less prominent – things click and the friendly experiencer can truly connect. Your mileage may vary, but if you like extreme metal, give this an honest chance, and don’t give up after 4 or 5 listens.
other notable 2019 records
Klaus Lang & Golden Fur – Beissel (Another Timbre)
Jon Heilbron – Puma Court (Another Timbre)
Frank Denyer – The Fish That Became The sun (Another Timbre)
Catherine Lamb – Atmospheres Transparent/Opaque (New World Records)
Éliane Radigue – Occam Ocean 2 (shiiin)
Seamus Cater & Kai Fagaschinski – Secrets (self published)
Toshiya Tsunoda – Extract From Field Recording Archive (5cd box, Erstwhile)
Michael Pisaro – Nature Denatured and Found Again (5cd box, Gravity Wave)
Hélène Breschand plays Eliane Radigue and Kasper T. Toeplitz – Octopus (Bocian)
R.P.M. (Keith Rowe, Collin Potter, Phil Mouldycliff) – Circle Line (ICR)
older music discovered this year: highlights
First some fantastic jazz that reinvigorated my love for the genre, all pristinely reissued on Hat Hut. Second, Mark Hollis. In February 2019 Hollis died, and while I was aware of Talk Talk’s earlier singles, I never knew their final 2 albums and his solo work were so spectacularly beautiful & adventurous. After that, a few compilations albums with lenghty songs by أم كلثوم, Oum Kalthoum, an Egyptian superstar who was active from the 1920s to the 1970s. The list ends with the first three albums of Coroner, a Swiss technical trash metal band, a bit lesser known, but on par with the big names of the genre.
John Carter – Bobby Bradford Quartet – Seeking (Hat Hut, originally 1969)
Warne Marsh Quartet – Ne Plus Ultra (Hat Hut, originally 1969)
Horace Tapscott – The Dark Tree (Hat Hut, originally 1991)
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock (Parlophone, 1988)
Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden (Polydor, 1991)
Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis (Polydor, 1998)
Oum Kalthoum – Diva of Arabia / L’Astre de l’Orient (5cd, Recording Arts, 2005)
Oum Kalthoum – The Legend Lives On (3cd, Golden Arts, 2009)
Coroner – R.I.P. (Noise Records, 1987)
Coroner – Punishment For Decadence (Noise Records, 1988)
Coroner – No More Color (Noise Records, 1989)
Absolutely blown away by Twelve Ton Rose by Trisha Brown, preformed by Ballet Flanders in De Warande Turnhout on the 13th of March. It’s set to parts of Four Pieces for Violin and Piano by Anton Webern. Maybe the best dance piece I’ve ever seen.
I haven’t seen that much this year, but I can concur HBO’s Chernobyl was excellent – a must watch indeed. The jury is still out on the final, 6th season of Bojack Horseman – the second half of that season will air later this month, January 2020. So far, the first half was solid, but mainly build up. The big emotional suckerpunch is yet to come – I hope.
Easily topping half that Bojack season are 5 episodes of another cartoon’s new season whose first half was also aired in 2019: season 4 of Rick and Morty. So far, their best season yet. Relentless pacing, visually stunning, very clever, very funny – the best contemporary science fiction regardless of medium, I’d say. It’s wonderful how episodes always manage to be both laser sharp satire and exiting adventures. There will be 60 more episodes after season 4 – that seems like hubris, but we’ll see. The inherent creative potential of alternate realities & green dimensional portals is unlimited.