Saturday, September 13, 2014

Concert Review: Man or Astro-man?

Last night my wife and I took a trip to one of Cambridge MA's best new venues for music, The Sinclair, to check out a band I've been a big fan of since college but have never seen live, Man or Astro-man?

And I'm writing about this gig here at Renfusa because between their musical aesthetic (60s surf rock with helping portions of punk and a space-age twist) and their visual aesthetic is right up Renfusa's nostalgia-choked alley.

Man or Astro-man's always been a DIY outfit; some of their members went to college for industrial design, much like another signal outfit of ironic American musico-cultural kitsch, and as such they've had a solid conceptual grounding since their first singles in the early 90s: B-movie science fiction sound samples, the glissando of the American surf idiom, and the detritus of a technology-ridden 20th century.

Last night's show certainly did not disappoint on the musical front: it was a power-packed hour-plus set with theremin duels, light-up cosmonaut helmets, and plenty of anecdotes from the band's early days playing in nerdy Cambridge MA twice a year. But I was personally blown away and left speechless by their video projection display (held together after a long tour with duct tape, which the band, consisting ostensibly of alien invaders, cited as "one of you Earthlings' greatest inventions"), which presented a barrage of Cold War military films, familiar animations and movie sequences (like the classic Charles and Ray Eames-directed "Powers of Ten" and the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey), and found footage-like creepy video loops.

I mean, come on. The only way this video accompaniment for "Name of Numbers" could've been any better is with a Nixie display instead of LEDs:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Delving into the Trove: The Electronic Games of the Late '70s/Early '80s

Last weekend I attended PAX East, a primarily video game-oriented convention here in Boston. I'm not much of a video gamer; as I've probably hinted, tabletop games are more my thing. I think in the modern taxonomy of gamers I fall squarely in the "casual" camp. So as sometimes happens as my friends and I are hanging around the convention hall, waiting for the next board game to break out, conversation went to the age difference between us and many of the attendees at the convention, which is a topic that is sure to light a fire under me. And in the course of this conversation, a flood of deeply-buried memories came out about the primitive electronic games that flooded the market in the years just prior to and during the big Atari boom (and bust) of the early '80s.

The first one that came to mind was Merlin, for some reason, maybe because of its distinctive design. Looks kind of like a phone, right? I can tell you that in 1980, around the time I got mine, not many people had phones that looked like this (Merlin actually came out in 1978). Visually I can remember it vividly, but the actual games you could play on a device with 11 game buttons (other than tic-tac-toe) escaped me. Apparently there were six games, but at the age of 5 I think for me it ended up being a glorified tic-tac-toe machine, really.

Then I thought of Name That Tune, based on the very popular 1970s game show on TV. Now, let me be completely honest; I never got this thing to work right. Like many of these handheld electronic games of the period, if you lost the instruction booklet, you were right out of luck. Remember, there was no internet to download instruction booklets from. And Name That Tune was particular enigmatic, as I remember. Fun fact for the other MSTies out there, this used to be the "Movie Sign" button during the KTMA episodes and when I first recognized it on a blurry VHS, my heart leapt in delight. Not surprising because I know for a 6- or 7-year-old, those big colorful buttons were just begged to be smashed.

Blip. BLIP. This is the one I couldn't remember during the conversation at PAX and struggled to discover the name for. (It didn't help that I had gotten it confused with the classic Mattel Electronic Football game. No, not electric football, which I also had and which was even more analog and possibly even more sonically annoying than Blip). I had to explain it to my Generation-Y companion (our esteemed Euergetas) as such: "It was an ostensibly electronic game that had an actual moving light inside it, and you had to wind it up! It buzzed so loudly while you played it that you'd think you were holding a tiny buzzsaw!" And lo, my faded memories were spot on. What a piece of garbage. I played it incessantly. Probably because for an only child, it had a 1-player mode that made those years less lonely.

Finally, there is 2-XL. We had a little controversy over this one; my Gen-Y companion also remembered a game tape-playing robot, which we quickly identified thanks to the internet as Alphie. Alphie used cassette tapes, okay, fine, that's nice and retro, sure. But 2XL used 8-tracks. 8-track tapes. And yes, he asked you questions and you clicked on the huge chunky buttons and answered them and he had a demonic giggle and yes, he's not a very welcoming-looking sort of toy but back then we didn't care about that. We just wanted a box that could accommodate a huge 8-track tape and play them back in a way that approximated an interactive AI experience. 2-XL was apparently re-released in the '90s to accommodate cassette tapes (and to be made to look friendlier) but that to me is just a bastardization of the true 2-XL, its intimidating unfriendly shell and all.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Obligatory Gaming Post of the Half-Decade

One of my hard and fast rules for Renfusa from the beginning has been: NO GAMING! I would not bring in incidents or episodes or stories from my various role-playing games into what is supposed to be a "serious" blog about Weird obsessions.

Of course, when your game is entirely about your own Weird obsessions, that becomes more difficult.

So I present you with a capsule of the themes explored in last night's Mage: the Awakening game: Early Modern memetics, proto-Rosicrucianism, and how I integrate the historical occult into a game where characters have actual magic powers.

(No more gaming posts for roughly another 5 years, I promise.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

SAGEs of Old

In the spirit of our posts on Nixie clocks and science-islands and all other kinds of retrotech, our esteemed Mercator Lucis pointed me in the direction of a story of the disposition of a major early computer at NORAD, designed to watch the skies and protect the U.S. from nuclear annihilation, ended up chopped up for pieces and sent... well, where else, to Hollywood.

As the SAGE AN/FSQ-7 computer slowly became obsolete, parts of the machines were sold off: first, to legendary TV producer Irwin Allen who used the blinking lights and radarscopes of the SAGE to populate the sets of Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel. When Lost needed to populate the DHARMA Swan station with retro computers, they dug the half-century-old banks of the SAGE out of storage and used them. (If you visit Mike Loewen's AN/FSQ-7 site, linked in the TV show titles above, you'll boggle at how many times the panels have been used over the past 50 years on TV and in movies.)

How many of us baby boomers and Gen-Xers had our Platonic ideal concept of what the word "computer" signified shaped by these national defense machines that were designed to protect us from the great anxiety of our generations: nuclear conflict? What does the use of these iconic machines in so many areas of popular entertainment tell us about the relationship between the prosecution of war in the Cold War period and the reflection of that war in the broader culture?

In a largely comic episode of The X-Files, Agent Mulder jokes about the "military-industrial-entertainment complex." It may have seemed like a joke at the time, but in the early '90s, around the time of the Gulf War, there was a lot of thought given to how the media and the military were aligning to fulfill their own agenda. After all, wasn't the Cold War purportedly won by a combination of runaway military spending and Western consumer products, by blue jeans and McDonald's? The culture in which we were incubated took these kinds of "victories" very seriously, and it seems now somehow poignant to consider the fate of a world-saving computer as set dressing for B-movies and cheesy genre television programs now, more than two decades after "the end of history."

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Saturday Links

In recognition of our earlier post describing Boards of Canada as Renfusa's house band, as well as other various sojourns into the media of our childhoods, here is a tumblr full of Experimental Music on Children's TV.

If you'd like to see more interesting links, some of which are Renfusa-adjacent, check my new linkblog at memexprime.