August 24, 2009

Hear Again: Remembering the Future.

The last album recorded by Swedish electronic music duo Nasa isn't merely their best, but also one of the genre's most original. Steeped in the warm pool of retrofuturism rather than dystopian punk, it's an imaginatively packaged and skillfully produced album that checks off practically every box on the devoted synth pop fan's list of obsessions. It interpolates numerous instantly recognisable motifs, borrows all the prerequisite techniques, quotes all the hallowed sources — from the Beatles to Bowie, New Musik to Numan, and Kraftwerk in particular — yet never becomes derivative. It blends highbrow influences like the Futurist Mayakovsky, with pop culture phenomena like Star Trek. It's an album which despite a high level of esotericism should've appealed to everyone with even the slightest interest in electronic pop, never mind first class funky dance music. Yet it sank like a stone upon release a decade ago.

So what went wrong? Right from its beginning — which takes its cue from John Lennon's and Yoko Ono's response to the Nixon administration's attempt to deport Lennon from the USA, declaring themselves representatives of a fictitious "Nutopia" — it's clear that this is a collection of pop music far removed from the usual melancholy, minor-key minimalism commonly associated with preternaturally disaffected, black clad middle-class synth pop fans. Nasa's final effort to date is an upbeat, humourous album brimming with infectious hooks and grooves, not unlike those of Telex, the Yellow Magic Orchestra, or Yello, though not quite as flippant in execution. Which may explain why the album fared so dismally in the record kiosks: perhaps Nasa's exquisite balancing act displayed only too well how thin the line between earnest sincerity and feigned ignorance really is.

Initially a trio consisting of Patrik Henzel, Martin Thors, and Jonas Zachrisson, Nasa first garnered attention contributing to the soundtrack of Staffan Hildebrand's 1983 film G - som i gemenskap (literally "C - as in Community"). Patrik's older thespian brother Dominik played a part in the film, which became the closest Swedish cinema of the 1980s got the oeuvre of the recently deceased John Hughes, though with quite a bit more social realism. Then, after two albums, two Swedish top ten hits (Paula in May 1985, and The Bird in September 1987), and three top twenty hits (Stockholmssommar, a.k.a. City Girl, in August 1985, Point of View in November 1985, and Take Off Your Clothes in March 1986), Nasa were mired in the morass most Scandinavian bands recording in English eventually find themselves in: the attempt to establish an international career.

Signed to CBS subsidiary Columbia Records in 1987, Nasa arrived in America to record an album with producer and electronic music pioneer Robert Margouleff, perhaps best known for turning Stevie Wonder on to synthesisers, and were promptly asked to change their name. Allegedly so as not to conjure forth unfavourable connotations in the wake of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster, though somewhat ironic in retrospect considering they were recording for Columbia. However, in 1988 the CBS Records Group (including Columbia) was acquired by the Sony Corporation and, in the inevitable restructuring that followed, the person responsible for signing Nasa was replaced by someone a lot less interested in the band, and the third Margouleff-produced Nasa album was left to deteriorate in storage.

At this point the band, now whittled down to a duo, attempted to relaunch their domestic career as Henzel & Thors, re-recording some of the tracks from their shelved third album in Swedish. But as their efforts failed to chart, they retreated into session recordings and commercial jingles. Later, in the mid-1990s, the resurgent interest in electronic music — in Sweden, particularly in pioneering Swedish efforts — prompted the small, independent label Memento Materia to suggest Henzel and Thors contribute a new recording to a compilation of their older material the label was preparing. To their surprise, the duo was far more interested in recording a completely new album, having not only honed their craft but finally possessing the technology their musical ideas required as well. The compilation, Echoes Down the Hall, was released in May 1998, followed by Back to Square One, the first new Nasa single in twelve years, in April 1999.

A stomping soul-tinged plea for a return "back to when everything was fine," Back to Square One was stylistically closer to the electronic funk revival of newer bands like Jamiroquai, though still owing a debt to New Musik's Back to Room One, as does the album it heralded. Its richly textured and processed vocals, relying heavily on phase vocoding, are particularly reminiscent of Tony Mansfield's early 1980s vocal work with New Musik. But the duo that recorded Remembering the Future could easily be a completely different band than Nasa of the 1980s. Even though their music was curiously analogous to Nattens drömmar (Nighttime Dreams), Nasa's very first recording from the G soundtrack, their new sound seemed lightyears removed from that which they were known for. Far more polished, more accomplished, with more depth, adroitly combining classic synth pop with R&B and drum & bass.

In a genre crowded with amateurs who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, the fact that Henzel and Thors are both excellent vocalists (with only a hint of the instantly recongisable Swedish inflection) further contributes to make this an exceptional album. As do the skills of veteran sound engineer Alar Suurna (best known outside Sweden for his work with Roxette), providing the album with a clean, crisp sound. But what makes Remembering the Future unique is Nasa's reliance on what was then a new type of hybrid instrument, the analogue modeling sythesisers pioneered by Swedish electronic instrument manufacturer Clavia. These virtual analogue synthesisers emulate the synthesis of the traditional analogue variety through digital signal processing, offering many of the originals' advantages while evading their shortcomings. A retrofuturistic instrument par excellence, the utility of which compelled Nasa to include a Devo-esque "jingle" on the album, detailing the tribulations of installing the Clavia Nord Modular's voice expansion board.

The album's title track initially appears to announce the rediscovery of that positive, utopian outlook once common among futurists, yet is quickly tempered by almost dystopian — if not contradictory — realism: "Nothing is warmer than tomorrow's promise / nothing is colder than yesterday's truth." As Nasa playfully explore the linguistic singularities created by our attempts to describe time, the exhortation "Remembering the future: at last!" could be interpreted not only as a rediscovery of past, Gernsbackian visions of the future, but also as acceptance of finally seeing those visions for what they were. Similarly, their postmodern Beatles-inversion Nexterday appears to both celebrate the promise of a brighter tomorrow (aptly referencing their second album, In the Mist of Time), and simultaneously dismiss blind utopianism.

Tell Me, Woman addresses the dubiousness of simply hoping for (potential) future solutions to contemporary problems - as well as the impracticality of time travel - with a simple allegory illustrating how that which requires no effort often seems of little value: "But the absence of yearning / doesn't that in fact stop the burning? / Have you crossed oceans of time / without learning?" As the album's most formulaic synth pop track, It's About Time, succinctly announces, the main theme of the album is the relativity, fluidity, and subjectivity of time and memory, as well as the ideas we project on the past and the future. The exceptions being Cloudcontrol, an arpeggio-driven rallying cry for a monocratic environmentalism; They Call Her Love, which toys with the chauvinist cliché of male science pitted against female nature in the manner of 1950s Sci-Fi flics; and the wry commentary on racism that is Xenophobic.

Musically the album's most intriguing track, Xenophobic begins vaguely reminiscent of Kraftwerk's Neonlicht yet builds toward a solo that betrays the progressive rock roots of practically all electronic pop. Almost transforming the track into an ambient piece, the solo could've been delivered by a simple sine wave generated by a synthesiser and processed by guitar effect units, or simply been a straightforward electric guitar solo. The "genre confusion" it evokes reminiscent of Front 242's Controversy Between — similarly a track about xenophobia — which employed a guitar processed by a synthesiser as its main melodic and solo instrument. The lyric, mining yet another trope popular among the genre's fans, tells the story of an alien being stranded in New Mexico around 1947, though quite cleverly told from the alien's perspective.

It's tempting to wonder whether Xenophobic is a reflection on the Henzel brothers experience of growing up as Czechoslovak immigrants in Sweden, a highly homogenous and in most respects particularly parochial society on the outskirts of Europe. It's equally tempting to suggest a link between the Henzel's heritage and the affinity for Central European Modernism that permeates this album. Though a likelier explanation would be that Nasa tied their colours to Kraftwerk's mast. The progenitors of techno pop have frequently stated their ambition to reconnect the future with the Modernist past it was riven from by war and totalitarian intolerance. In fact, the booklet for Remembering the Future features a cover, created by Elin Mellbrand, lifted straight from a 1929 exhibition poster by Russian Suprematist El Lissitzky (more notoriously invoked on Kraftwerk's 1978 album Die Mensch-Maschine), with Henzel's and Thors' faces superimposed on the original's pioneers.

Despite being one of the most technically proficient and thematically smart of its kind to be recorded in Sweden, Remembering the Future was (ironically) lost on Memento Materia, a tiny label unable to compete with the majors, even as the arrival of the digital music trade began pounding the first nails into the traditional music industry's coffin. The sole video accompanying the album, directed by commercial film maker Mats Stenberg (likely a favour called in return for the band's contributions to that field), serves as an example of a smart, economical, and modern solution to the budgetary constraints Nasa laboured under. The album did however inspire American New Wave revival magazine Lexicon's editor David Richards to establish Ninthwave Records, a label dedicated to the much ignored and maligned synth pop genre in North America. Since its release in August 2000 as one of the new label's very first albums, Remembering the Future remains one of Ninthwave's bestsellers.

Perhaps the album's greatest obstacle was the intended audiences' inability to decide whether to laugh along or be offended. Though judging by Nasa's comments at the time, their intentions were quite sincere, wanting to create the best synth pop album of all time. In the process, they created one of the finest electronic pop albums ever recorded in Sweden, and one of the most memorable anywhere. Setting out to create a synth pop album with a capital "s", they ended up producing a pop album with a capital "p," an accomplishment contributing to the international appeal of electronic music, a genre with little regional inflection, sounding practically the same everywhere. An aspect the forward-looking Modernists of the interbellum years, with their internationalist, cosmopolitan outlook, would no doubt have approved of.

August 12, 2009


To the delight of Anglophone Moomin fans everywhere, Montréal's Drawn and Quarterly have published the fourth volume of the classic Moomin comic strip. Originally created by artist and writer Tove Jansson (1914 — 2001) at the request of the British Associated Newspapers comic strip syndicate in 1953, the strips have since appeared in some 120 publications in 40 countries, reaching over 20 million readers daily worldwide: likely the most successful Finnish comic ever published. The D&Q reprint, published in yearly instalments since 2006, provides readers with no knowledge of Swedish with an excellent introduction to the world of the Moomin trolls, having been created specifically for an international audience.

The quarto hardcover volume, largely resembling the classic Scandinavian ones, is quite beautiful in itself; printed on thick paper subtly tinted light yellow with pictorial cloth grain paper covers. Unnumbered, distinguished (as the previous three) mainly by the colour of its spine, and slightly different jacket bands, it features the same introductory essay by art professor Alisia Grace Chase as do its companions, as well as an impressed quote on the back board, unique for each volume. The sole complaint would be the utter lack of bibliographical information; particularly pertinent to the fourth volume which collects the first stories written by Tove's younger brother Lars Jansson between 1957 and 1958. Nevertheless, the thoughtfulness and philosophical slant of the Jansson's stories will likely be enough to keep parents awake long after the little ones have gone to sleep.

Tove Jansson's brilliant Moomin novels — from which the settings and characters of the comic are drawn — are considered classics for readers of all ages, though unfortunately many adult readers entirely miss the references to the adult world, the parody and satire of its culture. They helped usher in a golden age of Swedish children's literature, with the first being published in 1945, the same year the other two giants of Swedish kid-lit, Lennart Hellsing (Krakel Spektakel) and Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking), published their first works. The popularity of the Moomin trolls and their escapades have made Tove Jansson the most read Swedish-speaking Finnish writer, translated into 34 languages, with the comic strip introducing readers far beyond Scandinavian shores to the happy-go-lucky troll family.

The Moomin valley is a paradisiacal utopia with touches of both enchanted exoticism and familiar - from a Scandinavian perspective - coastal archipelago. The stories, in the novels as well as the comic, are characterised by their dynamic alternation between the sheltered life in Moominmamma's aegis and various threatening perils and catastrophes, the plot only lightly obscuring various existential queries. It's perhaps their anarchy that captivates in particular; the Moomin trolls continuously challenge and break with convention. Like a Winnie-the-Pooh with brains, they appear completely devoid of that particular gene that encourages practically everyone else to cower before authority.

In this volume, the Moomin family's adventures commence when Moominpappa decides to simultaneously repair Moominmamma's sewing machine and the family clock. Neither need repairing, but Moominpappa feels that as the man about the house, repairing them is precisely the kind of thing he should be doing. In the process he manages to inadvertently construct a time machine. And as there's few things the Moomin family like better than an outing — complete with a picnic basket prepared by Moominmamma — they're soon off on adventure. First they travel to the Wild West, which isn't quite as they expect it to be. Its settlers are less concerned with adventure than getting the time-travelling trolls off their property and keeping them away from the cattle, while its natives seem entirely preoccupied with commerce. Eighteenth century Moominvalley proves equally unromantic, its inhabitants so persistently preoccupied with either reason or etiquette they actually accomplish very little of essence.

"I'm off to the shore.

Think of all the seashells

we haven't found yet."

Though the Moomins set off with good intentions, they can't help but alter the past, the most important lessons learned being that bygone days are rarely what one imagines them to be, and that the Moomins can scarcely inhabit a past era when they are considered too liberal and emancipated even in their own. As if aware of this constant (and obvious) criticism aimed a their creation, the Janssons address the Moomins perceived lack of responsibility in the episode on conscientiousness. The family of bohemian trolls try hard, though not successfully, to conform with societal norms - and it's Snufkin (Moominvalley's proto-slacker) to the rescue. The most apprehensive, and perhaps therefore most rewritten story, is Moomin and the Comet, the comic strip version of the second Moomin novel, Kometjakten (Comet in Moominland).

Originally published in 1946, and finally rewritten in 1968 as Kometen kommer, it was in fact the basis for the very first Moomin comic strip, which ran in Folktidningen Ny Tid (at the time a publication belonging to what practically was the Finnish Communist Party) between October 1947 and April 1948 (collected in a book as Jorden går under! (Moomintroll and the End of the World) in 2007). The comic version included in this volume, originally published in 1958, shares the premise of a comet apparently heading for the Moomin valley, though the details of the plot are quite different. However, at its core it remains an allegory of nuclear warfare, constructed in a manner similar to the very first Moomin novel, Småtrollen och den stora översvämmningen (The Moomins and the Great Flood), which sought to provide an outlet for the anxiety war and invasion causes in the minds of those not quite yet grown-up enough to grapple with the complexities of such conflict.

Though the Moomins can currently be found on sneakers, towels, mugs, jewellery, t-shirts, pens, stationary, beverages, as a variety of toys, in their very own Moomin World near Naantali (drawing some 220,000 visitors yearly during the two summer months it's open), a museum in Tampere - and besides the novels and comics even in a cook book - they're not quite as common currency as other children's favourites from around the world. Moomin Characters, chaired by Lars Jansson's daughter Sophia, is charged with protecting the Moomin legacy and tends to be quite strict with how the characters can be applied. Not that continuing in Tove's spirit has hindered the company from becoming one of Finland's most successful businesses, with a yearly turnover of nearly C$ 3 million. Disney did offer to buy at one point, but was turned down. The Moomin trolls aren't an expansive venture, after all. The interest in them may be international but far from global, the core audience residing mainly in Scandinavia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and to a somewhat smaller extent in Germany, Great Britain, and Poland.

"It's sometimes better to

look at things than own them.

Owning means anxiety and

lots of bags to carry around."

Tove Jansson delighted in scaring those even smaller and more frightened than she was herself. She didn't enjoy being an idol, and imagined inhabiting a gilded pedestal rather dull. Like most of the greatest children's writers she wasn't one for sitting around telling stories to litters of little kids. Her father, sculptor Viktor Jansson, was a bohemian artist who desired to create freely, without much concern for the economics of family survival. It was Jansson's mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, who put food on the family's table through her commercial work as an illustrator and cartoonist (she designed 173 Finnish postage stamps, as well as bank notes and bonds). Young Tove too, though encouraged to indulge her talent and imagination, felt pressure to contribute.

Which may perhaps explain why she turned her family environment into the playful fantasy that is Moominvalley, a place where work and responsibilities have a remarkably small presence. With the exception of Moominmamma of course, constantly attending to the welfare of her family, their various relatives, friends, guests, and acquaintances. Quietly working in the background, she's always prepared to lend an ear or extend a comforting embrace, a measured voice of reason in their midst. Though Tove made the Moomins' indifference to material possessions a key part of their charm, she also steered clear of idealising their bohemian lifestyle. Making the Moomins not only ideal observers of modern capitalist society, but also of the "alternatives" that regularly populate its fringes.

Despite publishing thirteen books that had nothing to with Moomin trolls, they remain Tove's most famous creation. Throughout her artistic life she'd remain torn between trolls and paintings, between duty and the desire to create something new. As the Moomins grew (clearly discernible to those who compare the trolls' waistline in the 1940s to that of the late 1960s) they sapped more of their creator's energy, their success smothering her. Trollvinter (Moominland in Midwinter), the sixth novel published in 1957, is generally viewed as a pivotal moment. Suddenly, there were serious problems in Moominvalley, there was more fear, more brooding, and more introspection, as Moomintroll, having woken up from hibernation in the middle of winter, was forced to deal with his loneliness and make his own way until spring with his family still deep in sleep all around him.

Though Jansson occasionally referred to the trolls as an "artistic straightjacket," the reality of her relationship with them wasn't as black and white, just as things never are in Moominvalley. Though she sought the kind of privacy popular artists can rarely have, she was involved in the commercialisation of her creation right from the very beginning: as early as the 1950s there were Moomin toys, bed sheets, curtains, wallpaper, wrapping paper, neckties, candles, mugs and plates. The Moomin comic strip began its regular run in London's Evening News on September 20, 1954. Tove enjoyed the assignment at first, as it entailed a steady income, euphorically confiding to her brother Lars that the paper only demanded six strips per week. But with time, the work became a chore of constantly looming deadlines, and after struggling alone for five years Tove enlisted the help of Lars.

For the most part her travails aren't easily discerned in the comics themselves, except in the final episode included in this volume, which deals with sudden celebrity. It's the volume's most personal story, the last written by Tove before her brother took over — though she illustrated another seven stories Lars wrote — but it's by no means gloomier than the rest. Tove genially satirised her own life, family, and career, as well as everything around her in the guise of the softly rounded Moomin world. Though regardless of how many cuddly toys the carefree family of trolls have inspired, Tove's images always contained a little darkness. Black crags surround the flower filled meadows (a truly Scandinavian image), looming shadows fall on a blooming corner of the garden.

Overall, Tove's and Lars' comic strips remained cheerful, simple, and elegant, with as many references to ancient myths as to contemporary pulp fiction. Even without delving into the underlying significance of the stories, the drawings themselves are rewarding to study - despite methodically sticking to three frames per panel. Their playful framing breaking the fourth wall, the simple lines of the Moomins' noses and eyes, their ability to express a wide range of emotions with a simple cocking of a hat, a concerned eyebrow, a curious ear, or two happy eyes being some of the many reasons generations of children and adults alike have cherished immersing themselves in the tales of Moominvalley: a world so different yet so similar to our own.


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