Thursday, December 27, 2007


TYBS#16 (MARCH 2007)
Being sick is like a handicapped challenge for me. Like a test between your body and you on how fast you can get better, how much chemical aid you get while you’re at it or whether you do get better or worse. And it can always get worse.

It always feels that sickness isn’t just something to get over but (probably because of the gamut of Eastern literature on medicine I’ve read through the years) a confluence of neglect, environmental factors and the universe telling you in no uncertain terms: “you’re asking to get sick” or “you’ll kick yourself in the nuts when you realize how you let it get this far.”

With this kind of attitude it’s easy to see why getting sick for me is always an emotional experience. The self-reprisal and the feeling of culpability never really leave. This in turn forces a wave of self-analysis which leads to some pretty bad neurotic episodes.

I wonder if anybody else feels this way? What do sick people think about when they’re bundled up in bed, the phlegm clogging up most of their senses, reduced to helplessness, feeling both chill and hot?

For four days straight this previous week I was in bed with a debilitating flu that had me hacking phlegm that ran the colors of the spectrum, coughing in fits day and night. The lack of sleep didn’t do any wonders either. I blame this on the insufferably arctic temperature of my office (I work at a mall), the sudden on-set of summer and the often faulty air-conditioning on the MRT boxcars.

Two weeks previous, there was a day that had been recorded locally as “the hottest day yet” with temperatures in the shade holding level at 34 degrees. Combine that with a pile of work and carelessness with wearing jackets or other thermal wear and you’ve got a recipe for a magnificent breakdown.

I’m still coughing intermittently as I type this but nothing compared to the sorry sack of bones I was last week. Thank God for antibiotics and Strepsils and anti-histamines. I love narcotic antihistamines. Pop one in and, thirty minutes later, the world turns into a fuzzy ball. Ten minutes after that you’re dead as a dodo, snoring like a Muppet, cough or no.

Good thing they have an armory of chemicals for the flu. Diseases that you need to ride through to the end, however, are something else. The weird thing about my diseases is I pick up particularly virulent ones not out on field (on assignment or shooting something) but in the city. I always pick them up here, like those circular, spiky spores you get on your shirt after a trip through high grass.

Diseases are a different animal altogether and, as nasty as they are, are loopholes in my whole guilt-trip process. You can’t really guard yourself against these things. You can be healthy as an ox and still get them, so don’t even try to blame yourself.

In 1999 a chicken pox epidemic had broken out at the office of a national daily where I worked. I caught the tail end. Water-filled pustules breaking out on adult skin is not pretty. In kids, when the disease is over, the skin easily rejuvenates and leaves you almost the same. You can’t say the same for adults. The skin loses its resilience as you age. When the pox had run its course, my girl back then instantly cried when she saw me again for the first time -- the amount of scar tissue left had spoiled and blemished my face.

I shrugged. I wasn’t overly concerned because I was still euphoric over actually getting to touch other people. Two months of isolation in your room is a trial in itself. A few years after though I spotted an old ID of mine pre-pox and was shocked at how much the disease had f*&^ed up my skin. Trust me, you never think you’re pretty until after you get the pox.

Dengue in 2003 was even worse (or was it 2002?). One day I just couldn’t get up. No fever, no noticeable symptoms. I just felt like my bones were heavier than a sack of rice. I blamed it on the drinking binge a few nights ago and tried to sleep it off. No luck. To top it all off I couldn’t hold anything in for long. I kept shitting it out. Foul-smelling stuff, too.

After being misdiagnosed for five days my aunt decided to get my platelets checked. Bingo. The next few weeks was spent in bed with an IV stuck through my right wrist. My aunt was a doctor so I was lucky I didn’t have to be confined but living with that IV and performing a complicated stunt whenever I had to piss (as well as trying to discern whether I had the strength to do it right away or take several deep breaths to muster enough of it) was as close as I ever felt to dying.

You try to get up but the disease laughingly says, “No, you will stay down.” And you just know that if it kept you down long enough you’d kick the bucket. The will to fight ebbs subtly. The effort to keep it alive seems pointless.

I hate needles but I got expert at fiddling with the IV whenever I put my hand down too far and the blood would rush into the drip. When I came out the other side I was 15 pounds lighter and I had the strength of a kitten. Being mortal is a messy, bloody affair.

The only good thing about being sick or getting a disease is coming out of it and feeling reanimated. The sheer radiant texture of the world post-illness is a set of stimuli that is phenomenal. Food tastes better, there’s more detail in sounds, girls you previously thought average now look stunning. It’s something to enjoy even after such bitter harvest.

P.S. If you're wondering what happened to TYBS#15, the short answer is: I published an excerpt of a sorta, kinda new short story there. That story is now coming out in an anthology of genre fiction. So now I can't reprint it on-line. Sorry, guys.


TYBS #14 (MARCH 2007)
T*&g I#a Mo Andaming Nagugutom sa Mundo Fashionista Ka Pa Rin
Terno Recordings

This is the third album from the most innovative fusion band of rock, jazz and spoken word in the country. On one hand, you could say the title and the scathing cover by Louie Cordero serve a political message, on the other the Sago might just be totally pissed, venting their frustrations in the best way they know how.

Whatever the case the music on . . .Fashionista is probably the most punk album the band has ever produced. Put it side by side with the poppy, groovy self-titled debut, and the all-out stylistic experimentation of Urban Gulaman and you’ll see how, on this one, the fury just comes seething through.

Listen to the swagger of “Wasak na Wasak” or the tongue-in-cheek lampoon of “Basagan ng Mukha” and tell me you don’t hear strains of hellraiser mohawks behind the screaming brass who’d just as soon bash your head with a bottle as give you a sermon on Frankl’s existentialism. It’s heavy and lovingly dissonant in places, too.

What I love about Sago is how much they value the details in their music, that the layers and repeated listens will yield more gems of insight and perspective than it did on the first one. The fact that they soldier on in their vision of hepcat bliss and satire couched in excellent fusion means they have reconciled themselves with reaching out to a cult following that can decipher what they’re trying to do. Not that the greater number of radio listeners won’t dig the cool stylings of “George Estregan Groove Explosion” or the penultimate encapsulation of Sago politics that is “Alak, Sugal, Babae, Kabaong.” Heck, you can even buy the t-shirt.

While their music is light years ahead of any award-giving body (“We never win awards for our music, it’s always the video or something else,” laments frontman Lourd De Veyra), . . .Fashionista ensures that Sago will go on more musical drinking sprees for years to come. “Buy it,” adds Lourd. “May poster pa sa loob.”

Reise, Reise
Universal Records

I love Rammstein for three reasons: they make a deliciously heavy stew of Teutonic metal, classical, industrial and punk; their live gigs are virtual performance art (the lead singer sometimes sings whole songs engulfed in flames); and the concept for their songs are a mix of politics, German folklore and socio-cultural satire.

While the critics in the UK and America have been resistant to, and even dismissive of, Rammstein’s music, the fact that they always sing in their native German (save for a handful of English covers like The Ramones’ “Pet Cemetery”) and don't provide any official translations is a big middle finger to the musical hegemonists and record labels. The same critics have also conveniently glossed over the fact that they have sold tens of million of units across the globe, except for the two aforementioned countries.

To be more concise, the six members of Rammstein did not just grow up in Germany, they grew up in East Germany. To this day they remain stalwart socialists and adhere to its precepts so much that such egalitarianism often hamstrings their decision-making process. What this means is that they are the products of a unique and painful historical perspective that grants their music a matchless authority and strength beyond mere play-acting. Are you listening Marilyn Manson? How about you, Slipknot?

Rammstein are probably most famous for being indirectly involved in the Columbine shootings. That incident where a bunch of high school students laid siege to their school and started killing everybody in sight, from jocks to nerds. One of these kids had a Rammstein shirt on. Make an idiotic leap of logic and the school board is laying part of the blame on the band’s feet. To wit: listening to Rammstein makes you want to shoot up your school.

I agree in part. The stuff on Reise, Reise has the feel of call to arms music. It makes you feel inadequate, dwarfed, trivial. It makes you want to do something to remedy the situation. The album title means "journey, journey" or “sail sail” in old German fisherman’s cant. And there’s the ominous sense that this is going to be one unpleasant journey. I found the translation of the cover text that reads "Flugrekorder nicht Öffnen." It means: "Flight recorder, do not open."

This, then, is the black box of Rammstein’s thoughts and dreams. The harrowing tale of the title track tells of how men war against the sea to harvest fish, just like other men war upon their kind to harvest power. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Other hot tracks include "Morgenstern" (Morning Star) and "Mein Teil" (My Share), while "Keine Lust" beautifully illustrates how the constant flood of sex in media leaves us desensitized and flaccid when it finally comes to the real thing (check out the video for the song, too, where the band wear fat suits). “Los” adds a bluesy infusion to the relentless Kraut pomp with some rhythmic acoustic guitar and touches of harmonica and “Ohne Dich” is a moving ballad that retains gloom at its core.

The icing on this one though is the overtly political “Amerika” that brilliantly satirizes the country not as a place, but as a collection of brands. The whole “We’re all living in Amerika” chorus thus gains a macro, Big Brother-like perspective on how much capitalism holds sway over our hearts and minds from the Zulus eating a Yellow Cab in Africa to Mickey Mouse dancing on the streets of Paris.

Rammstein’s most scathing phrase, however, is reserved for America’s two biggest imports: “Coca-Cola/ Sometimes war.” Yeah, shooting sprees it is.

A Beautiful Lie
EMI Records Phils

Let’s get it out of the way: yes, the front man for 30STM is Jared Leto -- Angelface in Fight Club, Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life and the main protagonist of Requiem for a Dream.

The actor takes breaks from his day job to play rock star and has done so since 2002 when they released their impressive (though highly underrated) self-titled debut . As far as actors turned musicians go, Jared Leto trounces most of them into dust. The likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Johnny Depp or Keanu Reeves don’t hold a candle to a real visionary like Leto.

That said, it is unfortunate that A Beautiful Lie turned out to be so much of a disappointment. According to the band, the album aimed to veer away from their debut’s eclectic sound. Says Jared Leto "We wanted to. . .cut away anything extraneous, to get to the truth of it all. For us, it wasn't about how much we could do but about how little."

This singularity of purpose ultimately causes the album’s downfall. Lacking color and nuances in emotion, the added irritation of Leto's shrill voice and pitiful caterwaul excuse for a scream, hampers musical details from coming to fore. Take brother Shannon Leto's precision drumming, that gets lost in the morass of sonic mud. This is a sad case that proves how minimalism can be detrimental to some bands. Talk about sophomore jinxes.

Still, there are some lucid songs, like the driving, atmospheric rocker "From Yesterday" and the trippy, psychedelic "The Fantasy." Elsewhere, "Was It A Dream?" has a moody, 80's vibe while "A Modern Myth" builds up from a quiet trot to a crescendo of a farewell. But songs like “Attack” and “The Kill” are truly dismal echoes of their debut album’s gems. Without the sense of urgency, conviction or passion that made 30STM such a cult hit.

Even the sleekly mixed extra tracks like “Battle Of One” and the notable, tasty rendition of Bjork's “The Hunter” can’t save this one from falling on its face like a Fight Club loser.
(With added critique from Tanya Tiotuyco)


TYBS #13 (FEB 2007)
If you’ve ever set foot inside an old church, university or building that has more than a century under its belt and have felt dwarfed by the immensity, age and history of the place then you’ve touched a vestige of the Gormenghast experience.

Gormenghast is the second novel in the trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Published around the late 1960s, some critics have hailed Peake as an even finer poet than Edgar Allan Poe, though they conveniently make no analogy to HP Lovecraft. Maybe accountant-looking HP’s works were too zany even for Peake’s devotees.

The premise of Peake’s novel is simple: Gormenghast Castle has stood for millennia under the rule of the Groan descendants, but now the 77th earl, the heir to the throne Titus Groan, is coming of age and with it the seed of his wish to escape the yoke of duty. Parallel to this, Steerpike, the ambitious young apprentice of the Master of Ritual, begins to execute his plans to seize the throne before Titus can ascend. In the wake of his praxis seizure follow murder, deceit and treachery.

While those are the two major plotlines that the novel tracks it is interspersed by a literal cast of hundreds that pass in and out of the novel like a great ensemble. Still, Gormenghast is not so much a novel of characters as it is a novel of place. The main protagonist is the castle itself.

Vast, ancient and derelict in places Gormenghast is like a hoary old beast that was, at his peak, the stuff of legend, but now his glory days are behind him. Nobody knows when he should have died, now only ceaseless ritual is his sign of life -- like the shallow breath of the comatose.

That the castle has a haunted air would be to understate the heavy and oppressive mood of the corridors, endless and serpentine, some of them with dust undisturbed for decades. This gloom exerts its own pressure on the characters and makes them react in different ways. Titus chafes under this and makes him question his birthright while Steerpike sees that the only way to success is to seize whatever remains of Gormensghast’s magnificence.

I have dreamt of the castle in sporadic, lucid moments of REM sleep. In a sense Gormenghast is like Dhalgren, Samuel De Laney’s post-apocalypse city with its shifting tarot sky. If Dhalgren is a gigantic urban animal then Gormenghast is its undying heart. Like Jackson’s House on the Hill x 100.

Gormenghast is in every old structure, mansion and great house that reeks of the ancient and of symbol. It is in Malacanang, the Kremlin, the White House, Intramuros, Vlad Dracul’s Hunaedora abode, all those ancestral houses forbidding and inescapable for its children. They are all part of Gormenghast and vice versa. You can wander the corridors til your hair turns white and never once retrace your step. Some rooms are locked, others are not. Some of the locked rooms have no keys.

Peake has created an obra of mood and place that comes through despite the prose that’s so purple it occasionally stumbles on its own feet. The morass of descriptions sometimes trip the pace and action. Though the tone is certainly gothic and some of the characters uniquely grotesque, the plot never descends into mere macabre frolic.

Curiously enough Robert Smith of The Cure was one of Peake’s fans. He even penned the song "The Drowning Man" in 1980 about Titus Groan’s sister who accidentally drowns herself. Yeah, it’s complicated. "Fuschia was my dream. This idea of the infinite, of the unreal, of the inocence dying," Smith was quoted in a press interview in 2003.

At times ghoulish, perverse, circumlocutious, playful and comic, Gormenghast is as enjoyable a read about old places as they come. I can’t wait to get the first and third novels and step back into the castle’s embrace. Too bad Peake died before he could complete the fourth book, so it remains a fragment.


TYBS #12 (FEB 2007)
The TV series is one of the staples of horror in media and pop culture. Since this column is exactly about that I was glad to find the first season of MASTERS of HORROR out on DVD.

Aired in the States by Showtime Entertainment and carrying with it the cheesy tagline “Their Wildest Dreams are Your Worst Nightmares,” the series’ production premise is simple: get the world’s top-notch horror directors like Larry Cohen, John Landis and John Carpenter to do an episode each of one season, for a running time per ep of more than one hour.

The result is a cornucopia of delightful frights filled with old style sex and violence where the grotesque, the tongue-in-cheek and the kind of hideous enlightenment you get from meditating for a few days on a rotting corpse, can stand shoulder to shoulder on a single visionary ground.

This isn’t the subtle psychological terror of The Twilight Zone or the adventure-type good vs. evil of mainstream series like Supernatural. This isn’t your Hollywood-ized version of The Ring or Dark Water. This isn’t your cautionary campfire creep fest. Instead, MOH presents us with what I love most about a horror show: a story where man can literally battle it out with monsters both real and mental.

Of course there’s also the full-frontal nudity, graphic sex scenes and the truly explicit content (chewing on intestines anyone?) that can only be aired on late night cable. Tasty.

If these were the only points then MOH would already be a brave series, but what makes it a terrific one is that there is ample heart and sometimes a moral (though never the didactic kind) to the stories that are always pursued with strength to their narrative end – however far fetched that may be. No editing cop outs here.

Let me enumerate for you some of the more, er, interesting episodes so far. There’s the pilot “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” (directed by Don Coscarelli) where the serial killer Moonface meets his match in a girl who’s been trained by her recently deceased boyfriend in small weapons tactics, armed and unarmed combat and firearms. Not your ordinary damsel in distress, eh? Thousand points to anyone who can guess the boyfriend’s murderer.

“Homecoming” (directed by Joe Dante) answers the question: what happens when GIs from the Iraq war rise as zombies and want to vote? I kid you not. There’s also an off-kilter retelling of HP Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House” that tries too hard with the special fx, so much so that my sister, guffawing when the rat with the human face came out, asked “Is this a comedy?”

An excellent episode by John Carpenter titled “Cigarette Burns” revolves around the hunt for an uber-obscure film called La Fin Absolute Du Monde (The Absolute End of the World). The plot asks: what happens when you cut off an angel’s wings, capture it on video and enslave the angel in the process?

The best I’ve seen however is Dario Argento’s “Jenifer.” This one is truly strange and deeply affecting, too. What do you do when you take home a destitute girl that has a hideously malformed face and a body to die for, and she starts having mind-blowing sex with you? Keep it secret from the wife, of course. The twist being: how long can you stand this ugly sex goddess when she starts devouring your cat? The 10-year-old girl next door? The son of your boss? What a predicament.

It’s executed with politesse, style and an almost reportage narrative that just dares us to pass judgment on the unfolding events. For me, “Jenifer” epitomizes MOH as a series with a brand all its own. The horror here is adult, unapologetically in your face and values audience intelligence. You can make up your own mind when the credits roll. No Twilight Zone voice-over will neatly sum it up for you.

So when our hero, the cop who cared for Jenifer, finds himself in the same situation that began this episode (about to chop the girl into tiny pieces with an axe) I applaud and thank the inebriated network exec who greenlighted MOH, who let somebody like Mr. Argento work his perverse magic on my TV.

Hmmm, I have just realized that Jenifer’s behavior is much like a parasite. Very cool. Now, just seven more episodes to go.


TYBS #11 (FEB 2007)
If you’re a local comics fan then you’ve probably read one of Arnold Arre’s comic books. Whether it’s the modern fantasy trifecta of the Mythology Class series or the fanciful romance After Eden, Arnold has always strived to give us a sense that magic and wonder need not be absent in our everyday, 21st century lives.

In 1999, as a fledgling reporter trying to cut my teeth on the cultural beat of the metro, I proposed to my editor a feature on Mythology Class. A few months thereafter it was good fortune that Arnold illustrated a short story of mine (about a reluctant magus who uses her most powerful spell to resurrect her roadkill love – I know, it’s complicated) in a music magazine. But instead of drawing the mad and livid sorceress Zodiac Hidalgo, Arnold had drawn me.

Against a backdrop of ragged slums and city lights both inviting and sinister, there I was in place of my character. I even had on the same clothes when we first met. How strange, to say the least, it is to see yourself in the medias res of your own fiction. How strange and illuminating.

See, prior to this, I had only felt Zodiac’s emotions from a storyteller’s aloofness, that second remove that is half-voyeurism and half-pathos so necessary to render tales authentic. After I saw the illustration though, Zodiac’s pain, frustration and helplessness came flooding in.

I understood completely her motivation for such a selfish act. With this understanding she became more human and thus forgivable. It is this insight into the acts of both monsters and supermen that Arnold gives us with compassion and energy in his latest graphic novel Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat (released under his own Tala Comics Publishing house).

Arnold was kind enough to send me his newest creation, and I owe him much thanks. With 200-plus pages of black and white comics, Ang Mundo is the tale of the title character, an anti-hero in the throes of existential angst battling to save Pinas from a prime evil as antediluvian as they come.

Two things are different here from Arnold’s previous works. First, this one is written in Tagalog and, second, this book is way more dark than either After Eden’s adolescent love story or Mythology Class’s ethnic X-Men gone magickal.

Key to all this is Andong himself (who kind of looks like a cross between Rudy Fernandez circa Markang Bungo, Zoren Legapsi and Ramon Revilla with a bit of FPJ thrown in). While the Manila he moves in is certainly fantastic enough in that the superhuman and supernatural are woven into the fabric of daily life (cult leaders are ghouls of demonic malignos, gangs have impakto members and goddesses roam the streets selling sampaguitas forgetful of their true nature) this is the same Third World country where 60 percent of the population is below the poverty line and crime is rife in the inner city.

Against this atmospheric setting Andong was born and raised, a true thug among thugs. The kind of guy who didn’t back down from any fistfight; the kind of bully who grows up, unsurprisingly, into a criminal who kills. While it would give too much away to narrate Andong’s transformation from “Most Wanted” to reluctant police asset in the superhuman organized crime division, suffice to say that Andong the Talisman Holder is much like Hellblazer’s John Constantine. Using his powers for money does not bother him (he has to eat, he readily explains) and to say that his talismanic gifts have brought him no joy would be to see only one side of this complicated character’s motives.

Catching gang bangers ensures that Andong can both survive and pay his dues or, literally, his sins. It is both his burden and strength – he wants to stop inflicting violence but it’s the only thing he’s good at, the only thing he can do. Plus redemption seems a bit more within reach when he does. Can I convey his catch-22 more clearly?

“Andong was more of a tribute to Classic 70s Pinoy action fantasy heroes,” explains Arnold, “with a darker tone to it. It was challenging to write because the superhero genre has been explored so many times, so I had to create a story that was fresh and original.”

No doubt. The fact that Andong sleeps on overpass stairs, pukes his guts out every morning after a drunken binge and is not above torturing suspects for information is grit par excellence. There is an immediacy and veracity (the kind that would make the young fans of Arnold’s previous work flinch) that Ang Mundo expresses beyond the sometimes awkward dialogue or the flawed world-building. Then again, Barker’s Imajica was as prickly in places.

This is the kind of story that is at once social commentary, superb genre work and homage to the komiks of old. I like it better than his other books, to be frank. I could roam the streets of Andong’s world in rapture for days, the danger and poetry of it exquisite, the taste of dust and gunpowder in the air an aphrodisiac – like a homecoming.

Read Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat and experience a radically different, gloom-tinged Arnold Arre still mining the raw gems of Philippine folklore and lower mythology to turn them into an obsidian obra of the dark fantastic.

Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is available at all major book stores.