Tuesday, 22 November 2011

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón

Icelandic magic realism, sinister comedy, and dark deeds unfold in a series of vignettes and set pieces in From the Mouth of the Whale. Natural historian, runic scholar, poet, and healer Jónas Pálmason has been exiled to a remote island in 1635 as the Protestant Reformation sweeps Catholicism and pagan superstitions underground. Literally.
In an early tale Jónas, aged five, is swept along with his family and the people of his village to a mound where spirits are said to live. The earth is cleared from the side of the hill to reveal a buried statue of the Virgin Mary, still venerated by the older people who have been forced to abandon their former faith and its icons.
As he grows older Jónas gains a reputation as a healer and a shamanic figure, an animist who seems to share a psychic link with the naked Iceland landscape in which he travels. But from early on he arouses suspicion.
Sjón—deftly translated into English by Victoria Cribb—writes a rich layered prose that, like his protagonist, seems to spring from the extremes of Icelandic dark and light.
Describing Jónas composing a poem on Iceland’s birds with a youthful accomplice Sjón writes: “Láfi had begun the poem, the first three stanzas were his, but had run out of birds and inspiration by the time I turned up. As we walked from farm to farm we took to chanting the poem together. He recited the first verses, which he had knocked together with some skill, and I slid into the metre—slipped into like a tongue into the socket of a well-boiled sheep.”
From early on we know that Jónas has been exiled with just his wife for company. She constantly berates him for “that sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place.”
“That sort of nonsense” is Jónas’s apparent mastery of dark arts, his reputation as an exorcist and healing skills that are rooted in the folklore of his country and pagan rites.
He admits himself that he brought unwelcome attention to himself by “meddling in affairs too deep for a poor poet, by which I had provoked enmity of powerful men with who I could not contend, failing to realize they were jackals, not lions, that they would not be satisfied until they had severed my head from my body.”
Jónas seems at times to live in a hinterland between the harsh reality of his life in 17th century Iceland—the deaths of three of his children and the communal frenzy that resulted in the slaughter of a group of Basque fishermen—and an esoteric hinterland, grounded in nature but which shimmers into other worldliness.
These experiences define him and draw down the antagonism of the puritanical Christians who now control his country, who burn books and execute heretics, and who want to impose their worldview on those who do not share it.
Switching from first to third-person narrative, From the Mouth of the Whale is a story of a man out of sync with the time in which he lives but whose very sense of being is wired into the physical environment into which he was born.
Beautiful prose, sharp observation of nature, folklore, poetry, grotesque violence, human loss, and outright comic chaos weave in and out of this confidently written novel in which the narrative tone is in perfect pitch with the story being told.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Acid Mothers Temple - Auntie Annie's, Belfast

Driving guitar noodles built around a single chord, aural landscapes layered in real time, bird calls, manic chuckles and all-out over-the-top explosive guitar.
An evening in the company of Acid Mother's Temple and the Melting Paraiso UFO takes you through gently nodding, hypnotic trance to moments when, if you’re that way inclined, you can headbang your way into head-rush ecstasy.
Yet somehow in the middle of the sonic chaos that they are producing the band members seem to be just outside of it all, gently swaying during even the most feedback driven frenzies.
This laidback attitude was evident from the point of entry into the upstairs venue at Auntie Annie’s in Belfast's Dublin road where drummer Shimura Koji and guitarist/synthesizer (and according to the album notes on their latest album) dancing king Higashi Hiroshi, sprawled at the door beside a table laid out with a dozen or so albums, including their just released The Ripper At the Heavens Gate of Dark.
Lead guitarist and band founder Kawabata Makoto was also wandering round with a glass of red wine in his hand being ignored, or perhaps simply unfazed, by those who had paid to see him play.
The audience of a 100 or so mixed serious musos, people about town, students, hippies, metallers, grunge kids - nearly all male.
The band ambled on stage and spent about 10 minutes messing around with equipment before Hiroshi began twiddling his keyboard to produce those '50s B-movie sci-fi screeches which somehow define AMT's 'space rock' credentials.
The Led Zepplinesque Chinese Flying Saucer from their new album was given a good 10-minute workout, allowing Makoto to flay at his guitar while not seeming to move very much.
Hiroshi seemed to sway, as if slightly out of time - not in rhythmical sense but as if he was in fact chronologically out of time, in a different dimension - to the frantic rhythms in whose production he was taking part.
Bassist Tsuyama Atsushi took on most of the lead vocals and, from where I was, seemed to be in control of the loop programme that allowed the band to record different noises, both vocal and instrumental, that were then banked and replayed and added to, to create an aural collage over which hypnotic guitar and bass riffs were laid.
Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix all suggested themselves as big time influences (tracks on the new album include Back Door Man of Ghost Rails, Shine On You Crazy Dynamite and Electric Death Manta, the clues are writ large for those who don't twig on musically).
Yet there is also something indefinable about AMT, I hate to say it, but a Zen-like quality, a musical Koan in which the absurdity of the sonic chaos and apparent stillness of the band shocks the audience in to a state of enlightenment.
Or maybe, as for the two headbangers who spent much of the evening in front of the stage, it was just pure kick-ass metal to swing your head to and occasionally raise a single-fingered insult towards the band.
If I was writing this review as a Haiku it would read:
Loud guitars screeching
reeds in rivers sway.
Acid Mothers Temple.