Sisters of Mercy cornered in Melbourne

They weren’t, of course. I spied just the one fan hovering by the stage exit, and he was fended off by the driver, and then waved off through the glass, clutching his LP as the English trio piled into their escape vehicle.

Inside Melbourne’s packed and venerable shed, The Corner, there were two, perhaps three people wearing white. One was Andrew Eldritch, lead singer and founder and main man of the Sisters of Mercy. Through the constant fog, the bald, sunglassed figure looked astronautical at times; sadly, the image was belied by the reality of the terry towling hoodie. This was rock ‘n’ roll in gym chic. This was NOT GOTH, okay?

The crowd was, largely, so corseted and coiffed, a delight to behold, the goths and the rockabillies and the rock hounds, the veteran fans and the newest generation flocking to see the UK legends roll out 90 minutes of classic not-goth rock. Hm, perhaps best not to write songs such as ‘Lucretia My Reflection’ — an absolute winner tonight, holding up one of the two encores — if you don’t want the children of the night to bulk out your fan base.

Kyla Ward reports from the front line!

Points to Eldritch, his wonderful guitarist and so-active bassist: they changed the set list from last week’s Auckland gig, even whacking the instrumental into the second encore. The hits were still there, of course: ‘More’, ‘Detonation Boulevard’, ‘Vision Thing’, ‘This Corrosion’, ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’, ‘Alice’, the closing ‘Temple of Love’, and others. Unknowns were there, too, moreso thank in NZ if feeble memory serves, allowing the chitter-chatter to rise. My advice, should you be so inclined as to attend this Thursday’s gig, is to get up close, where you can peer through the fog and catch some of the action, and perhaps lip read the lyrics you know so well. Because from the back, Eldritch was largely unintelligible save for those occasional lupine howls, those particularly enunciated choruses.

He was, however, compared to the Auckland outing, verily loquacious, even addressing a couple up the front, and exhorting attendance on Thursday for the band’s second and last sideshow outside the Soundwave festival.

Kudos to the Corner bar staff; have I ever been so quickly, efficiently and politely served at any live venue before?

All of which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy tonight’s gig. The Sisters are formative to me, comfort and mood music, and to hear them play, even in this thoroughly competent and enjoyable incarnation, is a delight. I like Eldritch’s onstage super-cool persona, I love the lights strobing out from the mist, I love the beats and the songs of decay and loss and displacement, the cynicism and world-weariness and the headbanging riffs. It’s rock ‘n’ roll to be lost in and taken away by and moved by. But yes, perhaps, live, best appreciated from up the front.

On time and technique, with Nicole Murphy

Canberra’s Nicole Murphy (The Secret Ones) had me over at her blog recently to gab (in two parts) about the technical stuff — how to organise a writing schedule, look after health and get stuck into the words. It’s always fun, though perhaps also confronting, answering questions such as Nicole’s, because it makes you check the balance between intentions and practice. Note to self: must get act together and get nose to writing grindstone.

Sisters of Mercy bring it on home in Auckland

It was the gig I excpected it to be. The gig I’d waited 20 years or so for. The Sisters of Mercy — well, founder and main man Andrew Eldritch with a guitarist, bassist and laptop wrangler — live and loud at Auckland’s Powerstation on Wednesday night.

It was a no-nonsense set-up. A plain, industrial stage dressing of pipes, guitar, bass, smoke machines working so hard the band sometimes vanished. And holding court, Eldritch – bald, sunglasses, goatee, military blacks. Delivering virtual spoken word in uber cool style, cigarette in hand as he whispered and moaned into the mic. For an hour and a half. Song after song, notorious drum machine Dr Avalanche not giving a moment to pause.

They offered a playlist to die for: an assortment of hits, b-sides and a couple of unrecorded tunes including ‘Summer’, played to an ecstatic full house. A young crowd with a presentable smattering of overt goths. Not enough to rankle the infamous goth-shy Eldritch, or if so, he made no comment. In fact, he said barely a word that wasn’t a lyric.

‘Ribbons’ opened. There was ‘Dominion’, ‘First and Last and Always’, ‘Detonation Boulevard’, ‘Alice’, ‘Vision Thing’, ‘More’ (not the 12″!) … and two (albeit seemingly scripted) thumping encores featuring a highlight of the night in ‘Lucretia My Reflection’ and a strangely uninspiring ‘Temple of Love’ to close.

Underpinning it all were those familiar, at times repetitive beats, lashings of superb guitar, a stray wish for a drummer to help kick things up and around a bit. Eldritch was a little hard to hear early in the piece, but there was no denying the power of the constant battering to transport the listener. Twenty years in the waiting, and the Sisters did not disappoint, even if they didn’t surprise.

Bring on Melbourne, where they play two gigs at the Corner in their only non-Soundwave tour appearance Down Under!

Aurealis #47 in the wild

aurealis magazine issue 47

Very pleased to say that Aurealis #47 is available for download, for $2.99, at Smashwords. It features a Greek mythology story from Jenny Blackford and my Aussie dark fantasy, ‘Breaking the Wire’, plus loads of other tasty tidbits such as punchy reviews and links to recent happenings in spec fic. The download is free for subscribers.

It’s also worth noting that Aurealis is once again open to submissions. It publishes 10 issues a year in the newly adopted digital format.

Aussies in Bram Stoker Awards running

Congratulations to the Aussies who have crossed the sea to make the final ballot for the Bram Stoker horror awards (five I’m aware of made the long list):

Kaaron Warren for her short story ‘All You Do Is Breathe’ in Blood and Other Cravings.

Jack Dann as editor (with Nick Gevers) for Ghosts by Gaslight.

Rocky Wood for his non-fiction Stephen King: A Literary Companion. Note that Rocky’s Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished
has been updated with a Q&A from the King himself, with profits to go Rocky’s ALS Fund. Available as pre-order only from Overlook Connection Press.

The Courier’s New Bicycle delivers a worthy message

This is the fourth book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge

AWWNYRC#4: The Courier’s New Bicycle

By Kim Westwood
HarperVoyager, 2011, ISBN: 978 0 7322 8988 1

couriers new bicycle by kim westwood

WHAT a fascinating picture Kim Westwood paints of dystopian Melbourne, right from the striking Darren Holt-designed cover. Australia has been ravaged by a flu vaccination gone wrong – I can hear the shouts of told you so from the anti-vac lobby from here – with the result that fertility levels have fallen through the floor. The religious right has ascended to an almost Orwellian command of the government and the streets, patrolling morality with a puritanical fervour that would make the Rev Nile dance the snoopy dance. Hormones are a hot property in a society where reproduction is a struggle.

Our journey into this well-rendered terrain is through the eyes of Salisbury Forth, a bicycle courier whose life has been characterised by a fight for acceptance of her transgender status. She identifies as androgynous, meaning even her family shun her. Sal (the story is told in first person, so eliminating annoying pronoun conflicts) found a measure of freedom inside the underground community of the inner city, ‘pedalling’ hormone and liberating factory animals; it’s only a matter of time, of course, till the wheels come off.

Intrigue on an almost cyberpunk level ensues as bad drugs are sold, corporate interests clash, desires stoke the belief that the ends justify the means.
Issues of sexuality and identity, and the prejudice levelled against the perceived ‘other’ by the ‘moral majority’, are key issues, and Westwood puts us firmly in the saddle.

The story is narratively more straightforward and the prose more accessible than in her previous, debut title, The Daughters of Moab, a post-apocayptic Australian tale which likewise evoked a most believable world.

australian women writers challenge 2012It’s refreshing that in CNB there are no action heroes; while the world dips into science fiction concepts rooted firmly in the here and now – glow-in-the-dark pets, anyone? say no to battery farming? – the characters are uniformly of the average human variety. They get tired, they make mistakes, they hurt.

There were two minor speed bumps in my reading of the novel, and both probably reflect more on my reading habits than Westwood’s skill and style.

the first was a preponderance of info dumps filling in details about the back story, particularly early on as the stage was being set. There’s a certain level that fits the noir tradition that this story draws on so well, but there’s also a limit to just how much is needed at any one time without interfering with the story, or indeed, interrupting conversations.

The second, equally minor, annoyance was the Salisbury ‘voice’. For a young person who left home at 16, has limited formal education and lives an unsettled life, Sal’s vocabulary is extraordinarily wide and her knowledge of art likewise remarkable. Unfairly assumptive and prejudicial? Perhaps.

These quibbles can’t diminish the impact of Westwood’s world and the gender and social issues she explores. Atmospheric, considered, with likeable characters in a fascinating world: bravo.

Previous Challenge reviews:

  • The Road, by Catherine Jinks, horror.
  • The Shattered City, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, fantasy.
  • Frantic, by Katherine Howell, crime.
  • Andrew McGahan’s White Earth chosen for Our Story

    white earth by andrew mcgahan

    As part of the National Year of Reading, the Our Story program set out to select one text from each state and territory to fly the flag for a reading campaign. Six titles were shortlisted for each; the winners were announced earlier today.

    Queensland’s book is The White Earth, by Andrew McGahan, and it’s a cracker story. It riffs off the Mabo land rights decision and the incredible fear and uncertainty in rural Australia about the right to continue to live on and work land that had, in some instances, been in the same family for several generations. A lot of terra nullius talk, a lot of right wing clap trap, some very real concerns.

    McGahan draws on his childhood in setting the piece on the Darling Downs, where a young boy and his widowed mother come to live on their grandfather’s property, there to see the politics of the era played out and to uncover some unsettling family truths harking back to the days of white occupation and settlement.

    The other finalists in the Queensland selection were:

  • Affection, by Ian Townsend (Townsville, 1900, the plague, a social scandal)
  • Brisbane, by Matthew Condon (one in a series of capital city ‘biographies’)
  • House on the Hill, by Estelle Pinney (romance in the west)
  • Journey to the Stone Country, by Alex Miller (a collision of colonial past and the impact in the present present)
  • The Tall Man, by Chloe Hooper (Doomadgee and Palm Island under the microscope, with a wider view).
  • AWWNYRC #3: The Road, by Catherine Jinks

    This is the third book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge.

    The Road

    by Catherine Jinks
    Allen & Unwin, 2004, ISBN: 1 74114 356 X

    the road by catherine jinks

    IT’S no surprise that The Road namechecks The Twilight Zone and The X-Files several times. It’s premise is quite supernatural, taking more than a dozen travellers and subjecting them to the strange phenomenon of not being able to get anywhere. This particular stretch of rural road is cursed, it seems; running out of petrol is the least of their problems.

    The story begins with a woman and her infant son hiding from her abusive partner on a rural property. He finds them, bad things happen, and then the weirdness kicks in.

    Out on the bitumen, car after car of disparate travellers — holiday makers, a truckie, locals going about their business — are caught up in the loop, driving without getting anywhere outside a certain radius.

    It takes a while for this large cast to be assembled, primarily because each group gets its own point of view. We find out who they are, what has brought them to be driving this stretch of highway, what they hope to find at their destination. The characters are wonderfully drawn, but the back stories become tedious, a way of trying to provoke some care for the fate of each increasingly desperate set of travellers, but ultimately operating more like speed bumps or cattle grids, forcing the story to slow right down while the latest piece is introduced to the board. Few of the pieces have much to do; their back stories generally tend to be of negligible connection to their plight or the situation’s resolution.

    australian women writers challenge 2012There are two characters who provide some continuity, thankfully, but this is a far cry from the incredible tension to be found in the work of another master of this kind of ensemble story, Stephen King. Perhaps because the situation the stranded travellers find themselves in never manifests a deeper message — ordinary people behave ordinarily — or because the characters have only the vague sense of the danger they’re in. The reader knows, which is where the suspense comes from as the story picks up its pace.

    Having said that, however, the story is, once it gets out of low range somewhere around the halfway mark, most enjoyable, primarily for its use of landscape. There are some wonderfully descriptive scenes of nature gone awry; provoked, it seems, into being an agent of justice. And Jinks’ prose is a delight.

    This is one of those yarns where patience is rewarded — where the destination is actually more rewarding than the journey.

    Previous Challenge reviews:

  • The Shattered City, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, fantasy.
  • Frantic, by Katherine Howell, crime.
  • Roger Waters’ The Wall: quite the spectacle

    Looking back at last night’s opening performance of the four-night run at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena of The Wall, the stadium spectacular led by Pink Floyd great Roger Waters: what a triumph for staging.

    Drawing heavily from both previous Floyd gigs and the movie of The Wall, there’s an aeroplane and an inflatable pig, giant marionettes, fireworks and gunfire; a performance stage that extrudes from the main stage and a living room that extends from a wall. There’s the trademark Pink Floyd circular screen above the stage, though the high tiers probably didn’t see much of it past the massive speaker stacks suspended from the ceiling. Fortunately, it was only really in play during the first half. And of course, there’s the wall itself: an extremely clever edifice stretching the width of the arena, constructed to full height — between 20 and 30 feet, I’d guess — during the first half, and then forming a backdrop during the second, until its eventual demise — almost an anticlimax, coming quite suddenly, as it does on the album, at the end of The Trial.

    The wall, in all its stages of construction, acts as a massive screen for various film clips — some from the movie The Wall, most successfully perhaps the marching hammers — and effects, even a projection of various walls on the wall. A subway train is brilliantly detailed.

    For ‘Hey You’, the opening song of the first half, there is only the wall: a gutsy bit of performance to have an entire song sung with no one on stage and fairly minimalist projections as well.

    For ‘Comfortably Numb’, a real crowd favourite, Waters is alone in front of the wall, with a second singer doing some of the heavy vocal lifting from the top; he doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do, Roger, standing out from his black-suited compatriots due to his white trainers for the duration of that tune. He came across as a man in need of a guitar. Which he gets, on and off, and very nice it is, too.

    flowers from pink floyd movie The Wall

    For ‘Mother’, Roger sang to the backdrop of himself singing the song during the original Wall tour some 30 years ago. The voice doesn’t quite make some of those notes, but The Wall is theatrical enough to allow some licence. I do wonder how the mum sitting in the next row is going to explain that tune to her whippersnapper son; that or the big-screen naked boobs and crotch grabbing of ‘Young Lust’; the animation of fornicating plants might’ve gone over the young’un’s head this time around.

    It really is a hell of a production, but the politics are a little dodgy. Trying to update the work, essentially a nightmarish autobiography about a wretched childhood, a dead solider father and the high cost of fame, into a plea for world peace feels like a stretch at times. Still, great art work; massive heart. ‘Bring the Boys Back Home’, indeed, but let’s not oversimplify here. There was at least one casualty of 9/11 on the memorial wall screened during intermission; the solutions aren’t as simple as we might like.

    Still, I love the way that religions, warmongers and multicorporates are lumped into the same basket of Bad (a real game of pick your fascist!), although given I’ve just paid a hundred bucks to see it, there might be a degree of irony going begging there as Shell, Mercedes and McDonalds logos rain down amid dollar signs like 1000-pound bombs from hoopy Stratofortresses.

    Highlights? Well, the album brims with them, but seeing the school kids on stage wagging their fingers at the giant school master is pretty cool; ‘Run Like Hell’ lifts the pace wonderfully. The sound is superb and the band and backing singers first-rate. Definitely worth a gander if you’re lacking a little rock opera in your diet. Hell, you might even leave with a sudden urge to donate to a famine-relief charity or buy a poppy on Anzac Day. Assuming you don’t already.

    No support act, two halves of about an hour each, plus 20-minute intermission.

    Meanwhile, here’s one of my favourite songs from the album, ‘Comfortably Numb’, and a spine-tingling moment of reconciliation when Dave Gilmour joined Waters in London to play it. Tear down the wall!

    Vale: Samuel Youd, aka John Christopher


    Word is spreading of a sad loss in the speculative fiction community, that of British Writer Samuel Youd, on February 3, only two months shy of his 90th birthday. <Update: Locus has confirmed Youd’s passsing.>

    As John Christopher, Youd provided two of the great texts of my childhood, both of which have survived the recent pogroms of excess literature cluttering the household shelves: The Tripods and The Sword of the Spirits trilogies. Tripods in particular made a strong impression.

    This is barely scratching the surface of his output published under numerous pseudonyms.

    He ranked up there with the likes of Garner, Cooper and Le Guin in my early reading. I hope more generations come to appreciate his legacy.

    Update: the Guardian looks at Youd’s work and provides a short obituary and a longer one.