My Visit with the Goon Squad:Book Review

In 2014 I was assigned the first five short stories (chapters) from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Having been involved with music, I found one instance in the text that I didn’t think was historically accurate, finished my studies, and moved on. It wasn’t until I had started playing with a band on campus that a peer redirected me toward Egan’s novel that I opted to give it another chance…and by another chance I mean I bought a copy and let it reside in my bookcase for a few years. I’ve since moved, got married, had a child, and have read quite a few other books. In 2021 I’ve started thinking about music again, and as I consider my options I decided it was time to give Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winner the chance it deserves.

On one hand, I wish I hadn’t waited so long. On the other hand, I needed this read now. It’s a moving book that captures the human element in a way that tends to be background noise in stories in orbit around the music business. A lineal narrative is withheld for time jumping aesthetics. Each short story is centered on a specific character during a particular moment in history. Some of these characters are vessels for highlighting someone else’s trajectory, and aren’t referenced again, but it’s through the glimpse each story offers that provides this point of contact that makes the world so real. Music producers and A&R people are more than two-dimensional figures for satirical abuse. Hopes and fears are presented through the veil of toxic personalities, and I find myself relating to these characters because of it. They’re imperfect people who ache with want, and I see myself in them. Between each fragmented chapter, I found myself taking a breather. I’d put the book down, sigh, and think, ‘damn…that’s good literature.’ I don’t feel that way with every book, so forgive my abuse of the five star system(it just so happens that I enjoy reading)…this novel is nothing short of absolutely fantastic.

With this read, I’m breaking the ice on a project that I’ve been considering for quite some time. This research is a starting point from which I hope to craft a novel, or possibly a series if I can make that much happen. It feels good to be inspired…that’s how good Egan’s novel is. I’m looking forward to her followup, scheduled for release in April, 2022, The Candy House.

Book Review: Calibration 74

This short book by William F. Aicher is a quick read if you opt to treat it as such. On the other side of the same coin, we find something dense that is better digested in smaller pieces over time. The later is how I decided to approach this work. Aicher takes us through a narrative of a mind that is haunted, though it seeks a closure that can never be found. Short chapters, or ‘calibrations’ offer 74 separate segments over 186 pages. It’s an uncompromising romp through psychological terrain of the damaged variety, right up my ally. Calibration 74 is a harrowing exploration of experimental fiction that is worth a deeper dive, so give it the time of day. 

            Rich in thought provoking prose and vivid imagery, I take solace in relatable poetry, if such a thing should be admitted. Our narrator is unreliable in direct ways that relate to numerical obsession, in the moments where he miscounts. It happened on one occasion where he’s counting large numbers, making big picture statements/asking big picture questions between the numbers, 

[One billion four hundred twenty-eight million two hundred sixty-three five hundred and nine. 

The soul is indistinguishable from the body. 

One billion four hundred twenty-eight million two hundred sixty-three five hundred and nine. 

Where do we go when we die?]

Numerical obsession and the fallacy of the human mind is the vessel that moves the story forward. Before and after this hiccup, the count progresses as expected. This break from the logical pattern is enough to suggest the blur is intentional. 

I found solace in the rhythmic use of language. It’s a scattered collection of ashes and even at my slow pace I struggled with authorial intent, so I placed my own meaning where I saw fit. Between the covers, Aicher’s philosophical background is in full view. Direct answers are elusive, but that’s the fun of this kind of read. I definitely recommend Calibration 74. Give it a read.

Intruder by Gary Numan: Album Review

If Edgar Allen Poe or Alfred Tennyson were alive today, had access to synthesizers, and made music of their poetry, I firmly believe they’d make Intruder by Gary Numan. The lyrical theme of the new record puts emphasis on what has been lost to circumstance in such a way as to ache with the particular sting of tragic romance that resonates with certain 19th Century poets. The end of the world reminds me of heartbreak. The hurt that is communicated is so clear and that transparency sounds authentic. There’s poetry in these songs. Collapse and distance are offered with genuine concern that makes the content relatable. The past is haunting to those who’ll have it, and I was struck again and again while listening to this album. Lyrics like, “sometimes when I’m dreaming I forget that you’re gone. Now when the wind cries, I remember you,” uses the simplicity of our shared human experience to cut as deep as anything. The end of the world has a lovely soundtrack. 

This new record is rich with dark electronic textures that eclipse all hope. It contains beats that are fine-tuned and tweaked to appeal to new fans while pleasing those who’ve been listening for decades. It’s contemporary sounding, which speaks to a desire to always be learning and applying it to the craft. It’s scarier than Numan’s earlier work, but that’s a wonderful thing. He’s changed quite a bit over time, which is the desired route of a quality artist who has had the longevity of his career. With that longevity comes a sort of freedom, so it seems this is the kind of music Numan wants to make right now, and it’s nothing short of fantastic.

Distorted beats mingle with authentic sounding pianos and strings with eerie intent that is often both high energy yet subdued at the same time. Sharp percussion hammers at the psyche while the music it holds up offers relief. The production is sleek, bright, and beautiful, an aspect that shines through the darker qualities of the record in a niche where production typically aims for something with a bit more dirt. For that, it stands out amongst its peers. I’ve been listening to the record on repeat since it dropped. I’m still impressed. The song Intruder is my personal favorite. It’s aggressive and angry, and the music reflects that without deviating from the production that shines through the shadows of the subject matter. It represents the tone of the record as a whole, as the dark beat carries soaring electronics to heights I didn’t know I could find in what I think of when I consider ‘industrial’ music, but the tracks don’t lie. It’s a heavy hitting industrial record with just enough pop elements to maintain a lure and a hook in every song. There’s nothing to skip on Intruder. Gary Numan is where it’s at. 

Recent Developments: Sellout Productions

I’d like to take this opportunity to indulge what I’ve been up to. While I’d prefer to reserve this blog to a few specific topics, like reviewing music and books, I’ll drop in to give an occasional update from my side of the screen.

Sellout Productions has long been a name of a fantasy of mine. I came up with it in high school, and all these years later it feels right for these endeavors. At this time, Sellout Productions is more or less a front for my work. My self-published novels and a singular set of enamel pins embody the beginning. While my books will continue to be my primary focus, the itch to make music has returned to me, and I intend to utilize my previous experience in audio production to work on new material with a tangible goal in mind. I hope to finish writing and producing an album in 2021. I fully intend to release it on my Bandcamp page, with wider distribution to follow shortly thereafter. From there, I hope to establish some consistency and produce/release new material on a regular basis. For the sake of soulless branding, the name of the project will be the same I had used for the music I made in college: Sellout. I’m looking to make instrumental electronic music, but that’s pretty broad. I’ll just have to shout it from the rooftops again once there’s something for you to hear.

Branching out in another direction, I’ve opened an Etsy shop. That’s where the enamel pins are available, with other products in the works. These items may take some extra time to produce, as I don’t want to simply flood the market with whatever product that could bear a logo. I may’ve gotten ahead of myself in opening the shop before I had more than one item available, but as any stable business owner will tell you, “I’m winging it.” It’s fine…I’m learning lessons on the fly. I got excited, and the first set of pins has been well received thus far. There’ll be more options soon, just not a plethora for the sake of quantity.

For those of you still around, I appreciate you reading this far. This is my attempt to dehumanize myself down to a brand, all while remaining vulnerable and authentic.

WE ARE NUMBERED_ Debuts with Solid Mix of Dance and Experimental Electronic in “Valley of Tunnels”

WE ARE NUMBERED_ is the electronic dance project of musician/author: Logan Ryan Smith. The first record is called Valley of Tunnels and was released by Club Garage Records last month. The album consists of ten instrumental songs that presented me with the fresh air of something new, juxtaposed with the familiarity that suggests I’ve been here before…a soundtrack to an 80’s science fiction flick that never was.

            The opening track, Running Thru Miami With Swords introduces the project with a pulsating rhythm that has characteristics of an instrumental Blue Monday. With this up-tempo dance anthem to kick things off, synth stabs get to the heart of the matter with rotating hooks that had me on board to give this record a chance. 

            Cloud Break is the second song, and there’s reverb on the opening drums, a departure from the opening song. The notion of dance music takes a backseat to something a little more experimental here, as the drums abandon the four-on-the-floor approach for something a little more thought out. Synth blasts, coupled with the drum patterns took me out of the club and into a sci-fi storyline. 

            We return to beats, melodies, and structure of fun electronic dance in the title track, Valley of Tunnels. Science fiction vibes move through this song as well, but bring the catchy hooks that have this one playing in my head long after it’s over. 

            Andromeda Dropout is the first track where I noticed what I interpreted to be electronic guitars. To this point on the record I’ve only made out programming and synthesizers, but this song is layered with roomy, ambient guitars that again, shows Smith isn’t one to reveal all of his tricks and talent in one place. 

            Dynamics are often compressed out of contemporary productions, especially music that’s meant to make you get up and dance. I can appreciate it when dynamics are used to enhance the flow or altogether change pace. It’s a rarity that catches me off guard these days. When the engine-like sound cuts through Requiem For a Synthetic, I was made to feel uncomfortable, which seems to be the intent. This kind of hard dynamic stab surfaces again in Mannequin Sunshine, when the synthesizer lead blankets the rhythmic flow of my favorite song on the record. 

            We conclude with See You When It’s Over, where we are again shown that not all of Smith’s cards get played at once. The beat deviates from the standard four-on-the-floor beat for something a bit more experimental. I live for the kind of programmed drums that deviate from expectations, and it’s delivered here. A pulsating rhythm sets the foundation for an electronic wall of sound experience, and I will run headfirst into this wall again and again…because it’s that damn good. 

            Valley of Tunnels is a fantastic first effort by WE ARE NUMBERED_ and while it’s been on my rotation, I’m already thirsty for more. Check it out, give it a spin on whatever streaming service you use. There’s far too much good music that gets lost under the radar, but I’ve taken notice of this, and you should too. There is potential for furthering the catalog and if this project continues, I will be there to hear it out. 

Skold delivers with ‘Dies Irae’

After 2019’s industrial release ‘Never is Now’ the 2020 release of the “Not My God” record with Nero Bellum, it comes as no surprise that the new Skold solo record would incorporate a healthy dose of metal guitar riffs and intricate leads. ‘Dies Irae’ is broken up in a back-and-forth pattern of guitar centric rock/metal tracks juxtaposed with the trademark heavy electronic/industrial sound I’ve come to expect from more current projects from Tim Skold. This parallel mixing of musical styles keeps the record moving in such a way as to never feel stagnant. The constant change up results in a refreshing album. While it may be the honeymoon period talking, I’m confident in feeling that ‘Dies Irae’ is my favorite Skold record yet.

The album opens with hard hitting ‘Dirty Horizon.’ This track has crisp sounding guitars that sound both contemporary, yet familiar in a nostalgic way. A scathing chorus hooked me, and I knew I was in for something fun. The guitar solo is a solid tell of things to come, and sets the tone for more metal aggression. That expectation is subverted when the second song starts up. ‘Unspoken’ breaks the ice with some of the more electronic elements I had expected. There’s a guitar solo in this one that shows off the best of Skold’s vast talent, which shouldn’t surprise me at this point, but it’s so good.

My favorite track is ‘Love is a Disease.’ There’s drum programming in the chorus that has this haphazard hi-hat pattern that is percussive icing that coats a bigger wall sound. The lyrical part of the chorus hits in a way that has lost zero impact after multiple listens. It feels like a confession, and I’m here for that kind of honesty. Another authentic confession is offered up in the atmospheric song ‘Terrified’ where Skold sings, “I’m not afraid of dying…I’m fucking terrified.”

Another track with intricate electronic drum programming is ‘Silicon Dreams.’ It’s made clear that Skold isn’t comfortable falling back on old habits when producing new material. The rhythmic work on this track reflects the coexisting grit and shine of trap music with hopeless undertones, and sparse guitar work that makes use of dynamic range.

The album ends with ‘Goodbye.’ This leans more toward elements of a metal track, and was released early as the album’s teaser. It rings as a highlight for me, as this final track was the first one I heard. It gave a good impression regarding the direction of the album, without revealing all of the tricks Skold deals out over the course of this record. This effort feels like one cohesive work, while showcasing an impressive variety and range Tim Skold brings to the table.

Nonfiction Undercover Drug Bust

This was a fun read in addition to being informative. I was in need of some nonfiction research materials regarding undercover police work and illicit narcotic distribution, and Stephen Bentley delivers the goods in his book. It offers personal accounts of the happenings in his life on both sides of the veil, knee deep in underground drug culture, and the burden he carries home when he gets to go home at all. It’s a firsthand account from a former detective who’s been there and done that. It’s a smooth and fast read that I delighted in for it’s factual depiction, and the various touches of personal charm.

Once I had started turning pages, I knew I couldn’t skim through it. Bentley weaves his story with the qualities and personal defects of a person all too relatable, and for such quality, I felt compelled to go cover to cover where I had initially sought a handful of facts and observations. I feel it provided me what I was looking for and more. The people he examines are real, and they’re fleshed out as real people. I especially appreciated the scene where Bentley is revealed to a drug dealer in a jail cell, as it was a moment that struck me as significant as people relate to one another in the midst of deception.

With his background in mind, I’m looking forward to exploring Bentley’s crime fiction.

The Little Demons Inside: A Book Review

In a story that follows multiple people, I found myself knee deep in personal reflection. The Little Demons Inside by Micah Chaim Thomas supplied me with a full range of emotion through clear, thoughtful prose. He’s created a story world that is all too real. It’s not a place I want to live, but I’m afraid we may occupy a version of it. 

The book opens with fire and action, we’re given chemistry that lingers and becomes romance, and the horrors of corrupt people with power threaten us from all angles. The writing is strong, transitions are fluid, and the characters are fleshed out people who have brought me to care. 

Various characters, coupled with the narrator offer personal insight that critiques human nature with modern technology. As we’re still breaking the ice, I caught a line that seems a familiar thought to me. While describing smartphones, “You see, these narcissism toys, they keep us looking at the surface, they keep us from searching inward” (72). What we find by the end of the novel is that internal vision…and it’s bleak. The constant cultural conditioning to be the best little cog you can be is only overshadowed by a dream where your digitized narcissism is harvested for profit, leaving the subject apathetic or depressed. As with social media, you are the product. The algorithm figures you out, and your own tendencies become the fruit for an advertising campaign. The story doesn’t beat you over the head with this, but it’s where I found myself.

Though the darkness of the philosophy wants to exist in a vacuum, Thomas offers various insights to humor and humility that shines through. We’re left with a quality novel that fulfilled my expectations in that I was both made to think, and entertained. 

On reading American Moor

I’ve held out on reading American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb, hoping to catch it live. The show had toured extensively, and I planned to see it if it ever landed somewhere in driving range. With the pandemic and the publication of the text as a paperback, I decided to read it on the page. It’s the first play I’ve read outside of Shakespeare since college.

Keith Hamilton Cobb plays a Black actor auditioning for the role of Othello. He’s the only person to appear on the stage, while the voice of a director can be heard when they interact with each other. Cobb speaks to the audience and director, often separately. He goes through his prepared monologue as he feels appropriate, and finds disagreement with a director who thinks he knows better. Tension is exposed as Cobb tells the audience what he thinks and feels in these situations where one plays nice to get at an opportunity. In pushing back against the director, the actor states, “Nobody ever plays the devil’s advocate. They play their own advocate, and hide behind that stupid idiom to avoid having to take responsibility for it” (30).

There’s pages of raw outpouring of emotion from the actor. Context, historical analysis, and personal insight all contribute to Cobb’s message on race and Shakespeare’s Othello. “Ya see, for you, at best, Othello is like your little exercise in understanding. You think you get him… you can commiserate, you have empathy for his condition. No you do not… there is nothing more infuriating that white folks actin’ like they know your story well enough to tell it without your help” (40-41).

This read left me with a lot to think about. Cobb’s insight spells out clearly, effectively, and with anger the weight of racism in artistic spaces. Every point hits hard, and the overall feeling I took away was one of contemplation. I can’t recommend this enough. American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb is a powerful text that has brought me to reflect upon my own biases. American Moor

 

Book Review: The Fuck-It List

Some people read for the purposes of escapism. The Fuck-It List by John Niven will not provide you with that, as his scathing brand of satire is all too realistic. It’s not a casual read that’ll take you out of the discomfort of our moment in history. The year is 2026, the troubles that burden America have only gotten worse, and Frank Brill has terminal cancer. The diagnosis doesn’t come as a surprise, and allows Frank to give himself permission to go on a murder spree. Does this sound similar to Breaking Bad without the crystal meth? Sure. But the unique perspective that Niven offers maintains my investment in the protagonist.

My favorite thing about Niven is his ability to stir empathy by creating flawed characters that are all too relatable.  Frank Brill is at the end of his life and decides to carry through as much of a hit list as he can manage. It sounds like a violent romp for the sake of it and I’d be a liar to claim it’s not, but the motives, sense of loss, and weight of the past that Frank reflects upon creates a believable portrait who gains my support. That probably says more about me than anything else.

I’ll admit, this book isn’t for everyone, but if you want an all too real satirical reflection of America in the filthiest mirror one could find, The Fuck-It List delivers. It kept me turning pages. The stakes get higher with each name Frank Brill stalks down. I enjoyed this immensely, as I do anytime Niven puts out a novel.

Fuck It List