Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ All Them Witches

I hadn’t known All Them Witches at all before a friend of mine with compatible music taste, whom we’ve been exchanging musical tips with for the last 20 years or so (we’d even played together in my first band back in 1994/1995), happened to mention that they were playing in Berlin on 15 October. (Yeah, so it took me a while to write my impressions about it, what can I say, I’m a world-class procrastrinator.) So my pal decided to mount an expedition from Slovenia and drop by the now eternally dark and murky Berlin for a visit, and we’d go to this gig while he was at it. A grand idea, if you ask me.

I gave the blokes in question a good listen, like I usually do when I’m about to attend a concert by a band I don’t know, and, lo and behold, even though I hadn’t recognised their name, I already knew their whole Our Mother Electricity album by heart for some peculiar reason. Raising a semi-surprised eyebrow I thought, what the hell, man?!

Later I realised that my neighbour – this demented dipsomaniac who lives next door and keeps blasting his rock ‘n’ roll through the window for all the neighbourhood to hear – might have been a bit obsessed with this album for a while, so he must have played it frequently, without my registering it, really. As his musical tastes are quite OK – even if he’s otherwise an insufferable idiot – I don’t often get back at him back by playing Meshuggah or something, for example, to drown out his tunes… At least not until he really pisses me off. So I must have inadvertently picked up the whole All Them Witches album through the wall. Excellent.

Therefore this had been my favourite track by All Them Witches even before I knew the name of the band, and they did perform it here in Berlin, which I appreciated a lot:

The rest of their albums sounded perfectly cool to me as well, a sweet combination of blues and stoner rock, so I was looking forward to seeing them live. They played at White Trash Fast Food, a place I’d never been to before – a sort of a “moderately hipsterish” fusion food joint / tatoo studio / DJ lounge / (rock ‘n’ roll) concert venue. So of course I had my doubts with regard to sound and atmosphere and clientele et cetera – you know, the usual concerns of a cranky old fart. Unfortunately my pessimism once again turned out to be well-founded, though the actual reasons for the disappointment completely eluded me this time. I mean, we’re all used to bitching about the guy who is dying a slow, tedious death behind the mixer, but this time I couldn’t possibly imagine whose fault the poor sound was. I’ll explain.

My first impression of the place was very positive:


The second impression was that half of Berlin’s hipster population ate there, and the third was that the concert venue security was totally weird. We had to go in through a side entrance (NOT through the restaurant), where they punched our tickets and felt us up, of course, you know the routine, in order to prevent us from bringing anything illicit inside. We ended up in this neat hall, quite large, I estimated you could stuff around 1000 people in there (turns out I was close, just checked it, and the capacity is 450 seats, 700 standing). Then we were once again forbidden from vaping (this was the second time after the Katatonia concert the other day, I suppose they’re finally onto us), but we were told we could go “smoke” in a “designated smoking zone”. So we did, but it turned out that dragging your ass there meant you had to get a stamp and vacate the premises through the restaurant, so we, for all intents and purposes, ended up where we had already been before: outside, in front of the restaurant. At that point we could have loaded up on beer and suspicious pharmaceuticals… Or grown jihad beards, put our passports in our pockets for the police to conveniently find later and fetched our scimitars, AK-47s, hand grenades, rocket launchers, suicide vests and sarin gas, because nobody gave any of us evil smokers/vapers a second glance when we reentered the venue through the restaurant on our way back from the “smoke break”. Of course not: after all, we had THE STAMP. How typically German.

The gig was opened by infernally loud (hell, yeah!) Israeli stoner rockers who call themselves The Great Machine. I must admit I was impressed: the sound rocked and if this was how the rest of the gig would go, it would be one hell of a concert. As impressive as The Great Machine sounded, I was starting to feel horrendously bored about four or five tracks into the set, which is just something a full-on stoner rock setlist consisting of virtually identical three-chord tunes will do to me. Still, the sound and the band’s stage presence were a plus. I wondered how many cymbals per year their drummer cracks, because he kept slamming down on them like a deranged methaphetamine-abusing blacksmith. Nice, it makes an average rocker all warm and fuzzy inside.

After a most welcome break – because The Great Machine took their sweet time – All Them Witches finally got on stage. I’ll just get it over with and spit it out: THEIR SOUND SUCKED DONKEY BALLS. Well, isn’t that odd? Usually it’s the other way around, isn’t it? I mean, hasn’t it been etched in the great rock ‘n’ roll tradition with letters made of titanium that the sound of the support act should suck so as to underline the monumental glory of the headliners? Well, this time it was the other way around, and the difference was shocking. To sum it up in short:

The Great Machine: excellent drums with a good kick and punchy snare, gut-punching overall sound, massive and well-defined bass frequencies, radical guitar; but barely audible vocals (which nobody missed, really, as they were mostly nonexistent or consisted of tortured screams, for the most part quite gratuitously provided by the bass player for some reason – though, as far as I can see on YT, it’s usually the guitarist who “sings”?);

All Them Witches: bass frequencies horrendously poorly defined (puffy, muddy as hell, so you couldn’t distinguish between the kick, bass, and anything else), barely audible drums with non-existent kick and flimsy snare, frail guitar and feeble vocals drowning under an excess of electric piano.

The proverbial tormented person behind the mixer apparently worked on it and gradually improved the sound somewhat as the concert went on, but didn’t succeed in saving the day for whatever reason (one of which might have been that the guitarist’s amp died and the Israelis lent him their hulking Marshall stack, which made a notable improvement). Besides, at least the infernal electric piano was eventually toned down a little and the vocals pushed some more, but the morbid muddiness of the bass/low-mid frequencies plagued me until the very end.

Nevertheless, it was good to hear songs like this one live:

…though I really ached to sit down, because my back and my knees were killing me. Next time I’ll get there sooner and appropriate one of the seats. Yeah, so I’m a grumblin’ ole geezer, but due to all of the above the concert felt as long as a day at the dentist’s. To make matters far worse, it was sold out, so one could barely move, which was quite a surprise after the “relaxed” Katatonia and half-empty Leprous concerts recently. Well, at least we could secretly vape by hiding in the crowd, just like everyone else (hell, people even smoked, the criminals!). What a crowd, though… You’d think that there’s something odd going on with the stoner scene, but judging from the sickening mass of full-blown hipsters around me I immediately suspected what it was. I mean, for crying out loud: where do they put all of the woodwork that such vast quantities of these bearded, man-bun-toting blokes, preferably sporting silly hats to boot, can crawl out of?

Rick Harsch: The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman

AoD2-300pxI have been shamelessly procrastinating for quite a while now and have avoided writing this review, figuring that I’ve had many more “pressing things” to do – for the very simple reason that this is one of those books that are certainly not “easy”. As such it has called for quite a bit of pondering, because writing a hasty review would have not done it any justice. Let me start by typing a few words about Rick Harsch first. In fact, I’ll just pilfer a bit of my own text from the review of Harsch’s Arjun and the Good Snake that I wrote a couple of months ago.

Once upon a time, Rick Harsch was well on his way to becoming internationally renowned for his traditionally-published and widely acclaimed “Driftless Trilogy” (The Driftless Zone, Billy Verite, and The Sleep of Aborigines), which has also been translated into French and made its way into the curriculum of the somewhat obscure University of Tasmania (as Rick defines it in Snake, “the intellectual center of the only block of land to exterminate all its aboriginals“). However – rather unsurprisingly, if you know what an onerous conundrum of uncalled-for incidents tends to surround Rick most of the time – due to an extremely unfortunate sequence of events, including but not limited to the vastly premature death of his Hollywood agent, a bitter though hilarious (to an external observer) dispute with his subsequent literary agent, the bankruptcy of his French publisher and other similarly torturous circumstances, Rick Harsch’s tenacious infiltration of the world literary canon has been on a rather involuntary and undeserved hiatus of late. The infamous downward spiral of the traditional publishing industry that has got out of control after the advent of e-readers has only further complicated Rick’s theretofore cunning world-domination scheme.

In light of all of the above, Rick has recently decided to join the indie author tribe, and I’m helping him out by formatting his books for e-readers. Arjun and the Good Snake was the first book of his to be re-released as an e-book, in a series of others that should follow shortly. The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman was the second e-book to be published, and I’m almost done with three more, which should be out soon. Appearance goes together with Snake and represents the second half of Rick’s Indian Duology, or however he may refer to the pair of novels. Like in Snake, in Appearance he once again focuses on India; on, as he puts it himself in his description of the book, “…the spaces where love and delusion, myth and existence weave sinuously, rhapsodically, through the Indian world.

The resulting “love story” is an extraordinarily poetic and meticulously thought-out narrative, describing a pilgrimage of an US American man through India in an attempt to overcome the dark forces (mundane as well as otherworldly, even demonic) that would prevent his reunion with his Indian love. However clear and relatively simple this basic plot may seem when you “boil it down” like this, Rick’s writing is, of course, not nearly as straightforward. What starts out as a tale of love in the face of culturally-related obstacles (with the traditional Indian family opposing their daughter’s relationship with a Pisaka, eater of dead flesh, as the girl’s mother refers to the narrator) soon develops into a feverish, phantasmagoric journey of a man-out-of-place through the unknowable intricacies of Indian history and myth. The pilgrimage itself may or not be real, and on his path the narrator is derailed by “suspicious” characters, assailed by demons, and drawn into “the foul game” (as one of the characters refers to it, and which involves a horrendous case of dysentery). Soon the story takes on a somewhat magic-realist dimension that makes it difficult to separate reality from delusions. After darker and darker turns the story culminates in a feverish monologue of the narrator whose pilgrimage has, apparently, not succeeded quite as he has imagined – or has it? Perhaps what really happens is that he finally succumbs to the demon Theengu Karuppu, as he suspected he would (and was warned about it)?

The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman is the sixth book by Harsch I’ve read, and such “uncertainty” with regard to his writing, resulting from the frequent “phantasmal” passage, seems to be his modus operandi: it’s simply something one comes to terms with and learns to love, or one doesn’t. When reading Appearance one should also be prepared to tolerate the frustration one might feel (if one is not exactly an expert in India) by all the Indian names, places, Tamil and Hindi words and concepts, and especially Indian mythology, which Rick, naturally, rarely bothers to explain (such “India-for-dummies” explanations would not have any place in a narrative like this, anyway). Rather than resorting to googling all of this one can also do oneself a favour and just remain relatively ignorant – as far as I’m concerned, one doesn’t have to know exactly what is going on to appreciate the story.

What I mean to say is, if you happen to be one of those readers who like their books clear, to the point, and lacking any digressions and seemingly gratuitous “asides”, you would probably do yourself a favour by staying away from Harsch’s Appearance (and probably Snake as well). However, if you can appreciate a random hint of obscurity and see value in an occasional internal monologue and cryptic passage, this is for you – especially if you can relish the exquisite “prose poetry” language that Appearance has to offer.

Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ Leprous

Leprous is a Norwegian prog-rock/metal band I found out about from a pal of mine with a compatible taste shortly after they released The Congregation last year. As soon as I got around to listening to it carefully, this and their previous album, Coal, easily “qualified” among some of my favourite albums. The band brings everything I like go the game: superior musicianship; goosebump-inducing vocal lines and superb harmonies in combination with mind-bogglingly complex polyrhytmic (often odd-time, yay) structures; and massive sound.

I was overjoyed to find out they were about to play at the Musik & Frieden club in Berlin on Thursday, because I really wanted to hear them live, obviously. I am even happier to report that their live act is just as great as their last two albums: these guys can play, and they can sing (the lead vocalist is incredible, and the guys on backing vocals are really good as well). And, finally (after two very “subtle” concerts I’ve been to), last night’s gig sounded really good – and was actually loud enough that I felt as if I was actually attending a damn rock ‘n’ roll concert!

But, first things first.

Leprous, the headliners, were accompanied by Earthside from the U.S. and Voyager from Australia.

The music of Earthside was great, actually, and quite an unexpected bonus to the evening. Unfortunately they resorted to a rather extreme kind of “semi-live” performance that I just couldn’t get into. OK, I really understand the ins and outs of live (or pseudo-live) acts and I understand why bands without lucrative budgets will often resort to various “provisional solutions” in order to bring their vision to life despite the “logistic obstacles”. But I tend to be somewhat old-school in this regard: using sequencers, loops and pre-recorded synths in case you don’t have a small army of proficient keyboardists at your disposal is one thing, but having a whole symphonic orchestra and even SINGERS accompany you from a projection screen at the side of the stage just makes me grumble. There’s something about a four-piece band (guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and drummer) accompanying a pre-recorded vocalist that’s just unholy, and such a solution will bother me to the degree where I can’t seriously enjoy the show. I’d be much happier with unembellished instrumentals, which the guys would have easily been able to play, had they wanted to (they are, without any doubt, awesome musicians). I’m also too old to appreciate statements like “you might have seen the following song on YouTube”… Yeah, I might have, and if I wanted to see it yet again, performed in a completely identical manner, then I could have just stayed at home and listened to YouTube real loud. Too bad and a wasted opportunity, because music-wise these guys have a LOT of great things to say. If somebody happens to throw some cash at them, they’ll definitely be going places, because they can rumble with the best of them.

Voyager was, fortunately, more “organic”, though they still used loops and pre-recorded synths. But OK, as long as an actual human is singing and two guitarists (one of them female!), a bassist and a drummer are blasting away, fine with me. However, music-wise I wasn’t very convinced by this particular blend of techno-metal. OK, if it floats their boat… But I couldn’t help scowling a bit at quite a few relatively cheesy tunes (with major chords, perish the thought) and a specifically mellow voice of the singer. This also resulted in one of my more cynical pals defining Voyager as “Modern Talking thirty years later (including perms)”, so after that the whole thing became hilarious: I couldn’t get the notion out of my head, so I couldn’t help laughing into my Weinschorle LightTM (heavy on mineral water) for the next fifteen minutes. As Voyager exhibited a clear ambition to be a “party band”, and did manage to persuade a good portion of the audience, our whole gang snickering at my cynical pal’s diatribes was actually in line with the general sentiment. Voyager was definitely not bad, don’t get me wrong, and they’re obviously great musicians, but their particular blend of genres and “let’s party” attitude is simply not my cup o’ tea. I much prefer your normal gloomy, dark, depressing epic metal – and I finally got my share when Leprous finally came on stage.

As I’ve already stated above, in my book Leprous are simply amazing. Their live act was completely on par with the best bands I’ve seen over the years and did perfect justice to the ingeniousness of their last two albums. If anything in this world still happens because of merit and superb achievements, they should be one of the bands that go places. Their professionalism and amazing music will hopefully place them on more “prominent” stages in the future, because it was somewhat sad to see them pour their guts out to a half-empty hall (which I really didn’t expect: I mean, what the hell do folks do with their time these days, if in a city of 3.5 million people not more than 200 souls can be bothered to spit out the meager 21 euros for a prog-metal feast such as this triple concert)?

But OK, at least this way a wish I’ve been toying with for a while came true on this occasion: we found a great spot on the comfortable bleachers in the far corner, where the sound was absolutely the best due to the extra bass boost, and we could lounge there in our makeshift thrones, in a strategic position slightly elevated over the enthusiastic crowd jumping directly in front of the stage. Even visibility wasn’t too impaired because of the relative emptiness of the hall, and whenever one of us felt like it we could actually stroll to the front and stand six point six six meters from the stage. Perfect for grumblin’ ole geezers. The only thing I was worried about throughout the continuous onslaught of the greatest tracks from The Congregation and Coal was whether Leprous would play my two favourite tracks –

– and they finally did. Down, my (temporarily) second-favourite track, was (without counting the single-track encore) their penultimate choice; and they blasted through my (momentarily) favourite track, The Valley, last (with perfect vocals: the stamina of their lead singer / keyboardist is simply astounding, and this was after tracks with growls and screams et cetera). Perfect.

The only hesitation, preventing me from being completely fascinated by the whole affair, was a peculiar, nagging suspicion that I was once again witnessing the death of “rock ‘n’ roll” concerts as I have known them; live performances on their way out. First of all, the lack of people interested in this event was astounding; and as I stood in front of the stage absorbing The Valley it was blatantly obvious to me that I was standing among musicians, mostly – a small, inbred tribe of fans that knew many an insidious syncopated trick, pulled off by Leprous, by heart. There was a notable lack of any innocent bystanders (save for the few obligatory bored-looking musicians’ girlfriends); of people who weren’t “in the know”, but still enjoyed the show; just another case of musicians playing for musicians.

Furthermore, prog rock/metal has – in the last decade, with the technological advances in music hardware – progressed (pun intended) to the point where the sound of these bands is virtually indistinguishable from one another, as well as from their recorded work. Three hours into mastodonic, larger-than-life, “God’s-own-amp” riffs I started thinking, holy fuck, when did this happen… And the zero-tolerance-for-any-errors-or-deviations attitude, exhibited by the bands, obviously stems from the absolutely rigid, in-ear-monitored, metronome-dictated song structures of today’s top-notch performances. Once upon a time underground bands were happy if they could get their hands on a few beat-up Marshall heads, and rejoiced at every opportunity to decently record anything… While nowadays underground bands actually live in their own studios, and all the “zero-mistake” perfectionism of creating (and editing) music in studios trickles over to live performances to the degree where you’re actually listening to studio albums, only louder… And everything is fuelled by the digital conundrum of computers, sequencers, software, amp simulations, cab emulations, time-synced effects and visuals, eight-string guitars quadrupled through Kemper/Axe FX/etc. processors, gates, compressors, EQs, exciters, saturators and limiters and maximisers to the point where you’re not sure – particularly if you’re a grumblin’ ole geezer – that any of what you’re hearing is actually organic at all… Or whether the bands are simply aspiring to simulate every nuance of the digital fabrications they have been constructing in their virtual studios to the point where the once separate sides of the creative process (songwriting, studio production and live acts) become indistinguishable. I mean, how far away are these simulations from simply becoming full-blown “virtual” performances? Hell, for all anyone seems to care, what would actually be the difference of modern rock/metal bands simply performing in their own living rooms and being projected as holograms into their audience’s living rooms (or clubs, for the purpose of sheer loudness) all over the world? I’m afraid the only thing separating us from that is some good and affordable 3-D projection technology.

I know, the last paragraph makes me sound like a technophobe, which I certainly am not (quite the opposite)… But the methodical approach to music – mechanically blasting through a collection of flawlessly-rehearsed mathematically-inspired phrases without an inch of room for improvisation – can be rather tedious and the bitter “inorganic” aftertaste of the whole affair lingers nevertheless.

Fortunate Finds: Scrivener

Ode to my precious novel-scribbling tool

Originally I never planned on including a piece of software among my “Fortunate Finds” posts, as I only intended to babble about music I love and books I may want to mention, recommend or “review”. However, as I continue plodding along as an “indie” author, I keep discussing things with other authors – either those I happen to meet online or those I had already known before I’d actually started feeling like one as well. One of the issues that has already come up quite a few times during various discussions is the traditional, recurring leitmotif along the lines of “Woe is me, for M$ Word is driving me insane“.

I know the sentiment. I’ve worked in Word for decades, first as a student; for a while, eons ago, even as a part-time typesetter (even back then, as a teenager, I was aware that Word wasn’t really a proper text formatting or desktop publishing tool, but I did not have any other means of doing it; besides, the texts I worked on were relatively simple and scarcely contained any graphics); and then for almost twenty years as a professional translator, with and without computer-assisted translation tools. So, knowing almost everything there is to know about Word (except for advanced macro programming and various bloatware options I’ve never used), I also wrote my first two novels in Word. Due to my diligence or even obsession with keeping (several redundant) backups I’ve never had any serious problems with it (though I’ve heard many horror stories). However, as most people trying to work on anything serious and complex in Word will surely know, Word can drive you insane. I will not go into details here, they are very well-known, even infamous, and this is not a Word-bashing blog post: it’s a “Lookie here, a great tool for writers!” post.

When I started working on my third novel it soon became apparent that Word would make the project very difficult. First of all, the novel will be quite long, full of strange names and foreign words, so the spell checker would sooner or later come up with the completely nonsensical message I’ve grown to absolutely detest over the years: “Too many spelling and grammar errors”, after which the spell checker would take the liberty of turning itself off and not displaying any typos anymore. I mean, pardon my French, but what the fuck? Word 2016 doesn’t seem to be able to digest any more spelling “errors” as the one back in the 1990s? I mean, really?! What, am I still working on an Intel 286 computer with 1024 KB of RAM and storing my book on a 5,25″ floppy disk?

Furthermore, the structure of the novel I’m currently working on will definitely keep changing as I type away – and it’ll change A LOT, at that: the envisioned ‘masterpiece’ will consist of an intertwining puzzle of two main story lines taking place at two separate locations roughly half a year apart, digressions into a teenage “novel” attempt written 30 years before and rediscovered at the time of the narration in one of the story lines, as well as some folk tales, rumours, hearsay and perhaps even excerpts from a long-lost journal as well… So making all of this click together into a fluent narrative of interchanging scenes in Word would have been an utter and insurmountable nightmare.

win-showcase-scrivener_headerCue in Scrivener. This baby was brought to my attention by other writers on various forums, so I decided to give it a whirl before I started pulling my hair out due to all the horrors involved in continuously editing and restructuring a 120.000-word (or possibly more, who knows where I end up?) chunk of text in Word. To make a long story short, I downloaded the trial version, got acquainted with it through the simple and clear tutorial that comes with it, and was typing away merrily the very next day. Just one day after that I “shelled out” the radically sensible amount of $ 40 for a licensed copy, and I’ll never write a piece of literature in Word ever again, period.

A few highlights – the main reasons why I love working in Scrivener:

  1. You can hide everything with a press of a button and just be left alone with your text, and you can set up gentle colours that don’t seem bent on poking your eyes out;
  2. While you’re in this “writing view”, the text can optionally scroll typewriter-style, so that you don’t have to keep staring at the bottom of your screen;
  3. You keep separate parts of your book in separate “sub-documents” that can be thrown around however you see fit without any danger of losing or screwing up anything;
  4. The folders/sub-documents make the whole structure of your masterpiece extremely visual and obvious: no more rummaging through hundreds of pages to figure it out, and no more manual outlining (you can use virtual index cards and corkboard if you’re so inclined, or a very clear “outliner”);
  5. You can “virtually stitch together” various sub-documents and see how they fit together, without jumping around the text or cut-and-pasting anything;
  6. The application is very secure; it keeps backups and “snapshots” that you can make before engaging in any in-depth editing, so you can store an endless number of “work-in-progress” versions (snapshots) of chapters/documents at various stages of development;
  7. You can store your research, notes, documents, files, even audio, in Scrivener without ever having to rummage around your hard drive to locate it;
  8. The spell checker doesn’t simply die on you because it’s “spent”;
  9. Project targets – yay! – so you always know (in real time, as you type) how far away from your daily “quota” and overall target you are (there is something extremely satisfying about that “progress bar” creeping along towards the “green”, which might motivate you to keep writing even when everything else might fail);
  10. The exported completed texts are tidy and clean, making further formatting a breeze;
  11. Last but certainly not least, it’s extremely sensibly priced, AND they offer a trial version, to boot.

So, what’s not to like? To find out more, head over to the Scrivener homepage.

Rick Harsch publishes Arjun and the Good Snake

Snake300First of all, let me get the following out of the way: yes, I count the writer Rick Harsch among “real-life” friends (i.e., not one of those you only “talk” to via one of the antisocial networking sites), so my review of his first e-book (but hardly Rick’s first book – he has previously published a heap of those… what were they… oh, paper artefacts!) might not be entirely objective (as if any review is). The thing is, Rick’s relentlessly critical outlook but nevertheless remarkably positive opinion of my own debut novel was what I desperately needed at a time when my confidence in my scribbling ability was faltering on a daily basis, and he has also been invaluable in his efforts to help me polish my own books and get them in front of readers. This was, as far as my own previous experience had indicated, rather unusual for “old-school” writers such as Rick.

As it happens, Harsch is not (yet?) a member of the modern, agreeable, happy-go-lucky gang of “indie authors”: he hails from the “olden” days when the stereotypical image of writers was still – with good reason, I suppose – that of obstinate, loopy, unsociable, disgruntled old geezers who most likely hate all other writers, but especially any who might materialise in their vicinity. After all, Rick was, once upon a time, on his way to becoming quite renowned for his traditionally-published and widely acclaimed “Driftless Trilogy” (The Driftless Zone, Billy Verite, and The Sleep of Aborigines), which has also been translated into French and made its way into the curriculum of the somewhat obscure University of Tasmania (as Rick defines it in Snake, “the intellectual center of the only block of land to exterminate all its aboriginals“). However – rather unsurprisingly, if you know what an onerous conundrum of uncalled-for incidents tends to surround Rick most of the time – due to an extremely unfortunate sequence of events, including but not limited to the vastly premature death of his Hollywood agent, a bitter though hilarious (to an external observer) dispute with his subsequent literary agent, the bankruptcy of his French publisher and other similarly torturous circumstances, Rick Harsch’s tenacious infiltration of the world literary canon has been on a rather involuntary and undeserved hiatus of late. The infamous downward spiral of the traditional publishing industry that has got out of control after the advent of e-readers has only further complicated Rick’s theretofore cunning world-domination scheme.

In light of all of the above (as well as because I practically forced him to), Rick has recently decided to join the indie author tribe. Arjun and the Good Snake is the first book of his to be re-released as an e-book, hopefully in a series of others that should follow. I’ve had the honour of formatting it for e-readers, and it should look good – I certainly hope so, and if it doesn’t, feel free to complain to me and hold me personally responsible, and I mean that! This I did most happily, for Snake has been, to date, my favourite book of Rick’s (with the possible exception of an upcoming “paper” one, which is still in the works); though I, unfortunately, haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Driftless Trilogy, because it is, sadly, out of print. (Rick is currently looking at the possibility of resurrecting it, but the fact that he doesn’t have the manuscripts in the electronic form will make this “project” difficult and, above all, long-winded.)

Reading Arjun and the Good Snake for the first time a few years back was the perfect way of getting to know Rick better, along with all of his numerous remarkable qualities as well as considerable faults. As he puts it himself in the introduction to Snake, “No character, especially that of the author, is safe” (from assassination, I guess). The (sort of) journal supposedly focuses on the six weeks in India (without alcohol, woe was Rick!) that the author spent on a quest to track down a cobra and hopefully also a Russell’s viper, the ophidian preference of his son. However, the “diary” is interspersed with the author’s intimate musings and ruminations: on his own failings, particularly the harrowing alcohol addiction (paradoxically, simultaneously soul-sucking and soul-giving, as anyone who has ever struggled with their share of problems with alcoholism will surely know); on his family, especially his relationship with his wife Sasikala and son Arjun; on India and all her unknowable depths; on philosophical, existentialist, even suicidal enigmas; as well as on the various goings-on back at the Slovenian coast, where the author had emigrated from the United States, primarily, as far as I know, to escape oppressive idiocy… Only to witness, to his dismay, the quickening of rabid, unhinged capitalism in a former socialist country, with all the savagery that has entailed.

Arjun and the Good Snake is not an “easy” book. If you’re an ardent believer in the magnificent contemporary Western world and appreciate the constant pursuit of instant gratification, ravenous consumption as well as instantaneous excretion – then this might not be a book for you. However, if you’re willing to put a bit of effort in a literary work rather than just be “entertained” by it, you’ll doubtlessly unearth and come to appreciate many a touching contemplative passage such as, for example, the following:

We arrived to the sea – and this is where if I were ever to commit suicide, the time would be as appropriate as it would get, a wretched man standing apart from the alienated cluster representing all he’s got, unable to enjoy himself alone, alienated even from a circumstance too familiar to generate true despair; the waves relentlessly formed and reformed with their concealed force, spent themselves falsely, the sea sucking in with greed: There is much to be learned standing with pants rolled above the knees and feet planted on damp sand as the lace of water passes ankle high, and then the sand around the feet is stripped away with a surprising, even sinister, force that badly wants to take me under, too…

Fortunate Finds: Guido Henkel

Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Marketing still free today!

A few months ago, after I finished the first draft of my second novel, I started considering the possibility of joining the ranks of self-published, indie authors. I was thoroughly dissatisfied with the (non)strategy and unresponsiveness of the small U.K. e-book publisher who had released my first novel, Cynicism Management, as well as frustrated because of my lack of control over that release. Therefore I decided to educate myself in the matter of indie publishing, which I had previously consciously avoided, primarily due to two concerns: problems involved in e-book formatting; and my inability to promote my own work in any effective way (I have a long but infamously anonymous career as a composer, musician and producer behind me, spanning back more than 20 years with extraordinarily limited success, to prove that).

I decided to approach both issues the way I usually do: by reading about them. My ultimate decision to go ahead and self-publish was based on the most helpful works of two authors: David Gaughran and Guido Henkel. From Gaughran’s books (I intend to make a separate “Fortunate Finds” post about him and his work in the near future) I have gleaned a wealth of invaluable information about contemporary self-publishing in general, more than enough for me to decide this was indeed what I wanted; but they only touch upon the subject of e-book formatting briefly. However, as far as that pressing issue was concerned, Gaughran pointed me in the direction of Henkel.

Now, I know enough about IT and coding to have been seriously worried about how to even approach e-book formatting properly. I knew enough not to trust any ZenFautomatic conversion processes, and it turned out I was right. However, due to financial constraints (i.e., zero budget) I wanted to tackle this issue myself. The feat would have been impossible without Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting, which has been, for me, the definite go-to e-book formatting compendium, and it hasn’t let me down once. To boot, Mr. Henkel is a very generous and plain old “nice” guy, who will not shy away from any questions one might have. With the aid of his thorough instructions I was able to overcome my fear of formatting my e-books myself… And I can now do so with conviction that they’ll display well on all sorts of e-readers, phones and tablets.

For this reason I was very happy when I recently found out that Henkel was about to publish a new Zen book – Zen of eBook Marketing – this time focusing on e-book promotion, which remains a seemingly insurmountable problem for me. First of all, I dread most kinds of self-promotion and abhor marketing. I find most of it nauseating and utterly incompatible with my personal philosophy, especially as I tend to be an annoyingly compulsive cynic, even with regard to my own work. Thus I’ve always found any self-help books on marketing shady, suspecting them of mainly promoting themselves – you know, in the vein of get-rich-quick books: why would one write such a book if one knew how to get rich quickly? Unless writing a get-rich-quick book is a way of getting rich quickly?

ZenMHowever, by that time I had already been very grateful to Mr. Henkel for his book on formatting, so in spite of my inherent skepticism I will quite shamelessly say this: it is my opinion that Guido Henkel does it primarily because he likes to help people (no matter how cheesy that statement sounds); and if he makes a thoroughly honest living while doing it, that’s fine with me. If you disagree, check his instructions on eBook formatting: he could have taken this freely accessible information down when he wrote a book about it, right?

If you’re looking for get-rich-quick schemes, you won’t find any in Henkel’s book. Instead he approaches the subject of e-book marketing realistically and wittily, providing a treasure cove of information on everything every indie author should know: from editing, proofreading, beta readers, formatting, importance of cover design, keywords and metadata… all the way to reviews, online presence, social media and promo ideas. You’re free to pursue whatever you like, and ignore whatever it might be you don’t. Henkel will not tell you to do this or do that in order to achieve overnight success: he provides a comprehensive overview of everything you can do, topping it all off with an exhaustive and invaluable collection of links and resources, and then it’s up to you. It’s a book every indie author should grab – and you can do so without any risk whatsoever, because Henkel is still offering it for free until the end of today.

Fortunate Finds: Tigran Hamasyan

Classical folk jazz heavy metal fusion

Lately I’ve been writing a lot, so I’ve mostly abused jazz, fusion and classical categories on Deezer on a daily basis, simply because though I enjoy listening to music while I write I tend to avoid anything with lyrics. Especially the silly “I love you / but you left me / so my heart is breaking” variety or “shake yer booty” gems that plague music perpetually and seem to have a profoundly detrimental effect on my blood pressure (though, admittedly, even the most intriguing of lyrics don’t do much for my writing focus – quite the contrary). On the other hand, instrumental music, especially if it’s not too engrossing, can help me “get in the zone”.

Occasionally, however, I’ll stop in the middle of a sentence, drawn irresistibly to what I’m hearing. That’s what I love about random mixes and pre-made playlists on Deezer: there you are, cruising along nicely, and then all of a sudden a particularly intriguing tracks pops up, seemingly from nowhere, and you know immediately you have another “fortunate find” on your hands. So about a month ago I was typing away indifferently, minding my own business, and then this starts playing:

Of course, as this is right up my alley, I immediately unglued my considerable posterior from my exercise ball… (Why are you frowning at me like that? Due to incessant staring at the computer screen, high-speed typing and mousing away I started having problems with my back, neck and wrists a few years ago, so I bought a ball to sit on and an ergonomic keyboard to manhandle, what of it? It helped.) I shuffled over to the laptop, plugged in my sound system just for music purposes, to check what was it that I was hearing – like I normally do when I notice something really great. And there it was, Entertain Me by Tigran Hamasyan.

Thoroughly entertained, I’ve since listened to his whole discography on Deezer and became quite a fan of his Shadow Theater and Mockroot albums. There’s nothing wrong with the others, of course – I listen to those as well, but the two I’ve enjoyed most contain a notable abundance of those “heavy fusion” moments I love and adore, complete with a good dose of melancholy, thoroughly odd time signatures, and some radical drum playing, which I, as a drummer, always appreciate. So I guess Mr. Hamasyan and his crew will be responsible for my inspiration for quite a few pages of the novel I’m currently writing.

Unfortunately, this Armenian prodigy pianist lives in Los Angeles for some reason (perhaps he likes the weather?), so I doubt I’ll be able to catch his band live any time soon – though I certainly would if I could. Here’s one of my favourites from Shadow Theater – live; so, yep, due to the exquisite musicianship exhibited by these guys it would certainly be worth seeing:

Fortunate Finds: Vennart

Many years ago – shortly after they released Effloresce – I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Oceansize. Here’s Unfamiliar, one of my favourite tracks from their superb third album, Frames:

I grew to like the band immediately, so much so that I eagerly followed all their releases until their unfortunate breakup in 2011. I particularly appreciate their wonderful blend of odd time signatures and superb melodies, as well as what are often quite epic running times of their tracks: they’ve always had a knack for developing their ideas slowly and meticulously, not adhering to some arbitrary postulates about what is an “appropriate” length and what isn’t. Furthermore, as a drummer I became quite disillusioned with the over-abused straightforward 4/4 beats sometime in the previous millennium, as soon as I was old enough to know better: why write a song in 4/4 (or 1/1, as I often refer to the lousiest and most horrendously simplistic examples of that – kick hat kick hat kick hat kick hat), when you can annoy people with something fascinating like 33/16, I say! On the other hand I’ve always had a weakness for haunting melodies. Hence my obsession with bands that blend superb musicianship, intricate rhythms and great harmonies (plus vocal lines, if applicable). If the lyrics also happen to focus on anything else apart from the eternally imperative relationships between lovers, preferably on something a little bit disturbing, all the better.

Anyway, as saddened as I was to learn that Oceansize fell apart – especially because I really wanted to see them live at least once, but haven’t had the opportunity – I never went as far as to check out any of the potential spin-off projects by any of the former band members. But, lo and behold – a few days ago a friend of mine, who has introduced to me a heap of musical discoveries over the last two decades or so, mentioned that vocalist and guitarist Mike Vennart, one of the founding members of Oceansize, had his own project now. So I checked it out, enjoyed it immensely, and here it is, in all its glory. Obviously Mr. Vennart still has his “mojo”, and I hope his band drops by Berlin sometime…

(The 30-second Deezer previews – if you don’t have a subscription – are not ideal, but in the absence of better options they should suffice. If the player doesn’t load, your browser is probably blocking third-party cookies, which you can always unblock in the browser settings if you wish.)

Fortunate Finds: Ibrahim Maalouf

Can’t wait to hear this live

I’ve recently stumbled across some of Ibrahim Maalouf‘s gems and took an immediate liking to his work. He seems to be quite renowned – especially in the Francophone regions, it seems – so I guess the guy is not exactly news, but he was a new discovery for me. Here’s the first track I’ve heard from him, which has persuaded me to explore the whole of his discography on Deezer:

The whole Illusions album is a great mix of jazz/fusion/rock/eastern ethnic influences, while some of his other albums also include more prominent classical elements. Here is another track from Red & Black Light:

The best news is that the guys are playing in Berlin in the end of February, and I fully intend to check them out.