All posts by Ashley Messinger

Beyond Here – New Dangers

Beyond Here Cover

New Dangers is a new EP from Nashville-based band, Beyond Here. This album consists of solid and straightforward alternative rock tracks, featuring full, emotive vocal harmonies and brawny guitars. The melodies are dynamic and colorful. This isn’t the depressing or melancholy style of alternative, rather the atmosphere is one of invigorating intensity. It’s actually somewhat motivational, with theme centering around the pursuit of personal improvement. The performances are competent, and the songs have enough structural creativity to stand out. My favorite track on the album is probably, Young One which is memorable and feels like it could be a sleeper hit.

For more info:

https://beyondheremusic.com/
https://twitter.com/beyondheremusic
https://www.facebook.com/beyondheremusic

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A Glimpse Into the The Expanse

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I recently viewed all four series of The Expanse, in toto, in a matter days; I played it at 1.5-2x speed and skipped all the boring parts: indulgent sex scenes, bickering, screaming and yelling, prolonged phases of general inactivity, revolting sentimentality and moralising, etc (it’s the same policy I take with nearly all TV). I get the sense that it was going mostly for the character-study mode of storytelling, which is kind of the opposite of what most science fiction tries to do and seems to play much better with mainstream audiences than the alternative: i.e. a focus on setting, ideas, and world, which is what I prefer. And as a character study, it was compelling, and I was genuinely invested in the characters’ lives and histories, so the series definitely has that much going for it even though I prefer the “worldbuilding first” style of fiction. I guess the ideal story, which would please both the mainstream and literary types, has a balance of both approaches; nothing immediately comes to mind, though.

In high fantasy stories, there are really no rules except internal consistency; the rules are all your own. But with science fiction stories, which generally purport to be concerned with the future of the actual world, there is a far greater need for realism, which is why sci-fi authors brag about the alleged realism of their stories, why so-called realistic stories are afforded greater prestige in general, and why fans get pissed off when you point out to them that their beloved stories don’t make sense – even if they claim that lack of realism does not bother them. Of course, most of these authors, and screenwriters in this case, are only interested in making their worlds seem realistic to the minds of their average viewer, which I’m obviously not, and that is in part why, over the years, as I have learned more about the world, I enjoy science fiction less and less. Realism to me means that the underlying assumptions of the story, vis a vis technology, have a probability of occurring that can at least be argued for (say, 20%), and the sociological consequences of the technology are what one would actually expect to happen.

So, as to the issues with the setting that immediately jumped out at me. You’re told within the first few minutes of S01E01 that this is a world centuries in the future in which “water is more valuable than gold,” which is already bizarre: why? Water is the second most common molecule in the universe, the solar system is surrounded by comets which are fucking loaded with the stuff, we know that there is water ice on Mars, more water on Jupiter’s moon Europa than there is on the entire Earth, etc. No answer to this is ever really forthcoming except that it’s the greedy evil corporations … or governments (it makes no odds either way) limiting who has access to water, and they’re apparently so hell-bent on doing this they are willing to waste money patrolling the solar system to ensure that no one gets water without their explicit say-so, thus artificially driving up prices. I’m not even going to bother looking up what the approximate volume of the Solar system is, or how many people or how much money this would take, but try to imagine an organisation putting artificial limits on who is or isn’t allowed to have sand across the entire face of the Earth, and they put so much effort into this that sand sells on the black market for 100 USD per gram. And if it were necessary to consume sand for survival, such artificial limits would be even more of a vain effort, quite obviously.

Automation and artificial intelligence is next to non-existent in the story, despite the fact that this was written in the 2010s and depicts a future centuries ahead, and they have nuclear fusion, the ability to fly between planets in a matter of hours or days, and are engaged in terraforming projects. How they manage to build spaceships kilometres in length and hundreds of meters in diameter is never really explained. If they do have automation, why do the major powers, Earth and Mars, need a human slave class in the form of the Belters (underclass humans living in the asteroid belt)? The Martians are obsessed with making Mars like a “second Earth.” Of course, the money that they’ve wasted trying to make a barren planet with barely any atmosphere and one-third Earth gravity habitable could have just been spent building habitats in space that would be far more liveable and have their own ecosystems on board. “Spin gravity” is treated as some miraculous technological leap, even though it’s fairly trivial to do and we know basically exactly how to do it now; you just need a counter weight to your space station to create the centrifugal force.

Nuclear fusion is the most commonly referenced source of energy, but apparently it hasn’t occurred to anyone in this world that the most obvious source of massive energy immediately at their disposal is the Sun: the Earth receives a pitiful fraction of the Sun’s light, harvests it with grim inefficiency, and even having a relatively small solar array orbiting the Sun would provide more energy than anyone could possibly know what to do with – among other things, it could be used to build interstellar probes, and facilitate much better material production (natural resources, etc), which is something people in this world seem completely obsessed with.

There are planetary governments, Earth and Mars, even though there is basically no precedent for anything like this in human history and no sign that it is ever going to happen. We live in a decentralised world with very little real central control, and there is no sign of people ever abandoning smaller forms of identity (race, ethnicity, nation, clan, etc) in favour of some amorphous bureaucratic identity like “Earther” or “Martian” which offers nothing to them. Why this is such a common “trope” in sci-fi, presumed to be almost inevitable apparently, is beyond me. Mars manages to support 3 billion people living under “domes” somehow, while the planet is, by their own admission, still barely habitable, and the Martians look like normal humans despite spending most of their time in sub-Earth g. There are numerous scenes of people walking around in what looks like 1g in situations where it should be impossible, e.g. Ganymede station. In some scenes they are wearing magnetic boots, but Ganymede’s surface is made of rock. Farming is done in bizarre locations like the moons of Jupiter and in the most inefficient way possible; apparently hydroponics and vertical farming haven’t made many strides in 300 years (or whatever).

The Belters speak some strange patois that sounds like the misbegotten child of Chinese accents and West African Creole despite the fact that none of them look like they came from those regions of the planet and everyone else speaks with a generic US accent, with very, very occasional smatterings of Chinese and French. The idea is presumably to make them seem “foreign” or more like an underclass, even though it doesn’t seem that they’re any more linguistically isolated than anyone else on the show and have constant exposure to English. Almost all of Earth’s population of 30 billion lives in poverty and lives off government handouts despite the fact that, again, you basically never see any AI kicking around, so it’s not clear where their jobs went, and since 30 billion doesn’t even come close to the Earth’s true human carrying capacity, there is no reason that they should have had a Malthusian collapse – fertility is regulated by the world government (descended from the UN apparently) to the point where wages ought to be rising if anything – considering that they have an economy that can build fleets of spaceships.

If you remember what I said at the start, you can still enjoy the show even with these problems in mind, and there are indeed fewer glaring scientific inaccuracies than in most sci-fi shows, but where it falls down is in the social realm: so many people praise this show for its alleged social realism. There’s probably more social realism in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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CE Da Bear – It Been Snowin

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It Been Snowin is a new mixtape from hip hop artist, CE Da Bear. He definitely goes hard with this release, as the tracks capture a spirit of determined intensity. His professional, focused and no-nonsense delivery is backed by climactic beats, theatrical music and strategically placed samples. The sense I get is that this guy is very driven. He’s all about plans and goals, and these songs don’t waste a moment of their duration on anything distracting. His performance is consistently action oriented the whole way through. Production is solid, with a much better quality mix than I anticipated. Everything sits at the levels they need to be at, and the sound is crystal clear. It Been Snowin will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat.

For more info:

https://www.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/51944/ce-da-bear-it-been-snowin.html

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LaBronn Conner Jr. – Freedom on My Mind

labronn

Freedom on My Mind is a new single from artist, LaBronn Conner Jr. This ultra cool blues jam features lush backing music and a loungy ambiance. The song is largely driven by LaBronn’s emotionally charged vocals. A dynamic vocalist, he demonstrates he really has some singing chops in this recording. His performance is not only competent on a technical level but passionate and deep. You can really feel the energy in this track, which could liven up any night club even on the slowest evening of the week. LaBronn has a knack for storytelling and an attention commanding persona. His accessible music and undeniable skill allow for enjoyment even as he interweaves sensitive subject matter. Heartfelt and sincere, this artist clearly put everything he had into this creation, and the results speak for themselves.

For more info:

https://labronnconnerjr.squarespace.com/
https://soundcloud.com/labronnconnerjr

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Deluca – Over It

deluca

Over It is a new single from Deluca, a 22 year old artist based in New York. This Deep House, EDM jam is rich in its musical complexity. Ranging from ambient and ethereal to pulsepoundingly exhilarating, this dynamic track dazzles and mesmerizes from start to finish. There are quite a few transitions, and the beat alternates throughout, sometimes unpredictably. There’s practically an entire album’s worth of sound variety packed into this one 3 minute song. The portions where the beat really kicks in offer up supreme danceability. Production is very clean and professional, with the mix juggling a complicated blend of elements quite well. The song combines surreal and futuristic synths with tight beats to create a sound that’s slick and powerful but never overbearing or pretentious. In that sense, it’s very true to the EDM spirit. Over It is an impressive release all around. It’s becoming increaingly difficult for artists to stand out in this crowded genre, but as far as music goes, you really can’t ask for much better than this.

For more info:

https://www.instagram.com/deluca.music/

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Queen Pepper – Magic (Connie’s Song)

queenpepper

Magic (Connie’s Song) is a new single from Toronto based R&B artist Queen Pepper. The song appears on her latest full-length album True Stories, Vol. 1. Her soft and delicate vocals carry the song against a colorful and lightly ambient musical backdrop. The singer demonstrates an impressively dynamic range as her voice does maneuvers others can only dream of. The sound comes through with brilliant clarity and without any abrasive processing. I haven’t really heard an indie R&B song in a while that was this pristine and innocent. This release is quietly sentimental and the work of a true professional.

For more info:

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/thequeenpepper/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/thequeenpepper_
Website: https://www.queenpepper.com/

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Hello Kedi

Kedi-film-poster

Kedi is a 2016 documentary about feral cats, or street cats as they are called in the film, in Istanbul. This makes it seem more niche than it is. It is a foreign-language film, but it will be of interest to anyone who likes anthrozoology or observing the psychological relationships between humans and other species.

The film is at pains to point out at the start that the cats have been native to the area for a millennium or more. This suggestion of the depth of time elucidates a premise of the film which is expounded upon in detail later, which is the way the local population seem to deify the cats just as Hindus revere cows. There is talk in the interviews of acting as intermediaries between the cats and God as they feed them and shelter them. At one point, a man says he believes dogs think that humans are God, but cats recognise that humans are just the middleman.

As one would expect, this is accompanied by a good deal of anthropomorphising, and just as equally one sees the cats behaving in ways that seem to imitate humans with no external prompting in that direction, such as watching TV, which shows how much the city environment has changed them. One could compare it to the disposition of foxes in the UK, which become bolder and more acclimatised to the urban ecosystem with every passing year.

The camerawork is masterly and fun. A good deal of the time, maybe three-quarters of the time, the camera hangs at the eye level of the cat. You do not see human faces often apart from the interviewees. The narrative plays out as a series of vignettes about the individual cats profiled in the film, told from the perspective of their human caretakers for whom the cats have become part of the texture of daily life. In fact, the cats seem a universal therapeutic mechanism for the inhabitants of the city. One woman says she came to love a huge troupe of them after recovering from some unnamed sickness. Someone else says that his fondness for them came after one of them pointed him towards a discarded wallet on the ground with just the right amount of money, so he says, when an unfortunate series of events bankrupted him.

Seeing the interactions of the interviewees gives the viewer some idea of the constancies of life in the city as well, such as one incident where people at a cafe were playing backgammon. As ancient as the game is, I have never seen anyone play it in real life, so this was a novel stimulus.

Some viewers would doubt the existence of consciousness in nonhuman sentience, but most of the people interviewed for the film would contest that. As they say, the cats have their distinctive character traits, which you can see in their facial expressions, hence the specialised camerawork style.

The cats receive names usually based on these personalities, such as one “Psycho” who was apparently so brave that she would chase around local dogs, including pit bulls. Another cat is in the employ of a restaurant-owner who needs him to chase away rats. Briefly, the film shows one example of such a chase. Although captivating superficially, it is also in its own way grim, and makes you wonder if we ought to begin the process of deprogramming predators and making progress toward a peaceful, post-Darwinian biosphere as some have called it. When the technology is ready, anyway.

The foreign language is in some ways useful. When a man is shouting, “Come, girl,” to a cat in Turkish and you just hear gobbledygook, you are hearing as the cat does, or at least closer to it, since they do not really understand anything people say; they just know that those sounds mean either attention or food. It is noteworthy that on two occasions in the film, the phrase “Erdo-gone!” can be seen on a wall in plain view with little else in the shot apart from the cat(s). This seems an unlikely coincidence, but who knows if it actually means anything in the context of the film.

The soundtrack is understated and atmospheric in all the right ways even if it is nothing unusual for this type of film-making – light, jangly percussion as the human characters (it seems fair to regard the cats as characters in themselves) are describing the cats, while the cats do as they do – fighting, being territorial, chasing and eating, etc. Whereas, it retreats into a more contemplative, ambient sounds when the narrative is drifting and between the vignettes. Like many 21st century documentaries, there is no narrator, but rather, each of the interviewees narrates in turn, which gives the narrative an easygoing, freeform style – although it is by no means directionless.

The last 5-10 minutes – the ambient soundtrack and basically a grafted-together compilation of all the cats – dragged on a little much, but that aside there is little to complain about where length is concerned since the film is only 78 minutes.

One could take some of the statements near the end as either poetic or platitudinous, such as:

“It would be easy to see street cats as a problem and handle them as a problem, whereas if we can learn to live together again, maybe we’ll solve our own problems as we try to solve theirs. In fact, I‘m sure that we would even regain our sense of humour and rekindle our slowly dying joy for life.”

But take from it what you will.

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Thoroughbreds

thoroughbreds

Watching eccentric low-budget films is a gamble. The writer and director, one and the same in this case, is at liberty to avoid using formulae in his creative process, the result of which is about as likely for the viewer to be either rewarding or punishing.

Wikipedia says Thoroughbreds is a thriller. It does have faint echoes of something like Rear Window thematically, but thriller is still not the word I would use. It also says comedy, but I remember laughing on only a couple of occasions while watching it. Despite this, I still found it enjoyable, and odd in a positive way.

The film is about two teenagers from a rich area of Connecticut. One of them, Amanda, appears to be psychopathic. Lily, Amanda’s friend, is not, but Amanda’s personality gradually impresses itself upon Lily throughout the film, eventually culminating in their plan to kill Lily’s obnoxious stepfather Mark. First they intend to blackmail a third party into doing it for them. When that fails, they speak of doing it together, and finally Lily just kills him herself.

From the outset, the soundtrack is remarkably good at setting a tone, particularly those parts that were ambient or just sounds rather than songs, e.g. discordant violins and what sounded like a guitar string snapping, along with odd jungle-music percussion, which was appropriately unnerving during tense moments, or character-establishing moments such as Amanda’s arrival at Lily’s house near the beginning as she explores all the bizarre, quaint finery within; Roman busts, a katana, etc, which gives an impression of Mark as an obsessive of some sort who likes to enrich himself with various aspects of Eastern and Western culture. This goes alongside the camerawork, the most striking example of which, and recurrent all through the film, involves following the subject just behind and above the head, with an attendant unsettling effect.

The only song I remember enjoying greatly was one made by an obscure French singer, and it plays while Lily experiences doubts about going through with the plan. This uncertainty later dissolves.

One will find that the aforementioned house, although aesthetically pleasing, is irrelevant to the plot. It is not, as far as I recall, made clear whether it belongs to Lily’s stepfather or to her biological family, but I would not think too much of it since it just serves as a backdrop and as a vessel for the eccentric outward expressions of Mark’s personality. That and the noisy contraption he keeps upstairs, on which he is killed by Lily near the end of the film. Similarly, the various shenanigans of Lily’s school life are barely worth paying attention to and only come up fleetingly, although it is implicit that she too has psychological problems.

The film depicts, in a way that reminds me somewhat of The Crush, a particular, unusually modern instantiation of WASP culture, which is as fascinating as it is charming even though it seems quite divorced from present reality. The most clear and obvious common thread is the convention of horse-riding in prestigious schools, which comes up at the start of Thoroughbreds when Amanda gets in trouble for gruesomely killing her horse. This is apparently what the title refers to.

The handling of Amanda’s psychopathic personality was fun; it becomes the subject of a lot of talk between the two protagonists, and Amanda remarks at some point that her diagnosis consisted of the psychiatrist’s “throwing random pages of the DSM-V at her”, briefly mentioning schizoid symptoms and other illnesses. She acts out her “feelinglessness” in an engaging manner, such as winning £300 (or whatever) in an online game and having no reaction whatsoever. This is what leads to, arguably, the climax of the film when Amanda allows Lily to drug her and then land her in a situation most people would obviously not willingly submit themselves to. Amanda does not care, because she lives, as she says, a “meaningless life”.

The division of the film into chapter headings, what would normally be called “acts” I think, seemed superfluous even if they did not noticeably detract from the experience; this was an effort to appear quirky that the film could easily have waived. Do most books have 4-5 chapters? The runtime I definitely appreciated, however. It is exactly as long as it needs to be; I normally have to go looking for pre-Code films  to find stuff shorter than two hours, and Thoroughbreds is 90 minutes, so I at no point felt bored.

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