Concert Review: the Mars Volta in Stockholm


After work today I had dinner with my friends Asko & Eva and then went to the Cirkus concert venue to hear the Mars Volta. For those of you who have missed them, they’re a US psychedelic progressive rock outfit whose fourth album just entered the US top-10 at #3.

The band was an octet tonight: singer, lead guitar, drum kit, bass and keyboards, plus a rhythm guitarist who also played keyboard, a saxophonist who also played flute and percussion, and a percussionist who also played a keyboard. Yes, there were at least five keyboards on stage.

The set was about 2.5 hours long, covering all albums except the second one, I believe. I would have liked to hear some of the mutated merengue piano from that disc. The playing was intricate and energetic, extremely tightly rehearsed, with very good sound engineering, not too loud — but it was all a bit too much of a good thing for me. I kind of tuned out toward the end. Because really, though I love the Mars Volta, I would never listen to their intense albums for 2.5 hours without pause.

I was surprised to hear a song based on a barely modified version of the bass riff of Black Sabbath’s 1970 track “Hand of Doom”. Can anybody tell me what song that was?

The Mars Volta is one of this decade’s signature rock bands: effortlessly productive and wildly creative. With a multiracial lineup, lyrics in English and Spanish and surrealist imagery both in the lyrics and the visuals, they feel very much like heralds of the future of US rock music. Highly recommended in judicious doses!

Posted an hour and a half after the end of the gig.

Update 23 February: Kat points out that the song with the stolen Sabbath riff is “Goliath” from the Mars Volta’s latest album, Bedlam in Goliath.

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Ruins of Childhood

The other day I found and photographed another tree house ruin. I decided to re-post the following piece from September 2006 and make these things a steady presence on Aard, with a category tag of their own.

If you’ve ever taken a walk in the woods near a housing area, you’ve seen them: modern archaeological sites, full of artefacts and building debris, abandoned to the elements in a way that is unusual in the well-organised industrialised world. They’re settlement sites of a particular subculture with its own rules and customs, thriving on the fringes of mainstream society. I’m referring to abandoned treehouses.


At these sites you’ll see rotting boards and beams hanging from clumsily bent nails on a group of trees, gradually collapsing to the ground. Perhaps some old shag pile carpet decomposing on the forest floor. The woods strewn with an enigmatic collection of objects, haphazardly selected, mostly old household gear. When visiting these sites, I always have the feeling that the inhabitants didn’t choose the objects they brought there: they took whatever they were given by someone more affluent and powerful than them. By grownups, in fact.

My eight-year-old son recently told me of a nearby ground-level clubhouse (Sw. koja) he had visited. It has an actual working typewriter. Old useless tech given to the kids, doesn’t even need electricity. I wonder what future archaeologists will think when they find the remains of a 1970s Selectric in that context.

These sites and their formation processes reflect children’s psychological characteristics. Kids have little sense of order, short memories and strange rationality. They also have no idea that childhood is brief and transient. They will happily fill their treehouses with junk without any thought that they might one day stop coming there. When adolescence strikes and the hormones get going, old childish haunts like these suddenly become the last places they want to visit. So everything is left wherever it dropped the last time someone came to play in the house.


Grownups hardly ever leave their sites that way: we keep any useful stuff and tidy up the place before we leave. Often we will even tear the house down and bring the building materials to our next place of habitation. The grownup type of site most similar to abandoned treehouses is the homeless substance-abuser camp, which is also inhabited by people with thinking impairments. Such sites may be abruptly abandoned when their inhabitants die of overdoses, get thrown into jail or find someone with an apartment who’s willing to take them in.

And the treehouse sites are hardly ever cleaned up. In fact, the children’s parents often have only a vague notion of where the treehouse is. They may help to build it, but they don’t feel responsible for it. It’s out in the woods where only children and mushroom pickers see it: out of sight and out of mind. The mess there would never be tolerated in the back yard, just as most Westerners of today feel really uncomfortable in the stench and litter of Third World villages.

So the next time you come upon an abandoned treehouse site, you might give some thought to the fact that you’re standing in the ruins of someone’s childhood. The children who used the site no longer exist: they’re grownups now, living somewhere else, disposing more rationally of their belongings. And some of them very probably have kids of their own now who are wheedling them to buy a few boards and a box of long nails, a rope ladder and some tarred roofing cardboard. And daddy — can I please have your old drum kit / dough mixer / rollerskates? I’ll take them out of your sight.

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New Archaeology & History Journal

Thad at Archaeoporn and Alun at Archaeoastronomy have alerted me to an upcoming new journal: the Past Discussed Quarterly.

“PDQ is a journal designed to provide a bridge between blogging and academia. It will provide stable citeable references for selected weblog posts focussed upon or of interest to the pre-Renaissance past. It is compiled from articles submitted by bloggers on a quarterly basis.”

And imagine me thinking that P.D.Q. were just the initials of classical music humorist P.D.Q. Bach, and that the acronym meant Pretty Damn Quick.

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All Her Favourite Fruit


Here’s a particularly fine song lyric from Californian 80s indie band Camper Van Beethoven, off of their 1989 disc Key Lime Pie. The song is a folky number in march time with violin, and David Lowery’s singing is exquisitely pained and raw. Following this, they released no new material until 2004.

All Her Favorite Fruit

By David Lowery

I drive alone, home from work
And I always think of her
Well late at night I call her
But I never say a word

And I can see her squeeze the phone
between her chin and shoulder
And I can almost smell her breath
faint with a sweet scent of decay

She serves him mashed potatoes
And she serves him peppered steak, with corn
Pulls her dress up over her head
Lets it fall to the floor

And does she ever whisper in his ear
all her favorite fruit?
And all the most exotic
places they are cultivated?

And I’d like to take her there,
rather than this train
And if I were a civil servant,
I’d have a place in the colonies

We’d play croquet behind white-washed walls
and drink our tea at four
Within interventions
distance of the embassy

The midday air grows thicker with the heat
And drifts towards the line of trees
Where negroes blink their eyes,
they sink into siesta

And we are rotting like a fruit
underneath a rusting roof
We dream our dreams
and sing our songs of love, fecundity

Of life and love
Of life and love
Of life and love

Update 25 April ’08: I really like the way he reverses “sweet with a faint scent” and gets “her breath, faint with a sweet scent of decay”.

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I’m on a train in Östergötland. A while back I caught a fond glimpse of the barrow at Stora Tollstad in Sjögestad that me & Howard Williams trial-trenched and dated to the 9th century in 2006.

I’m giving a talk this afternoon to my colleagues at the Jönköping County Museum’s excavation unit about my research in Östergötland.

I think it’s pretty damn cool to have wireless broadband on a train.

Uppsala Archaeology Grad School Faces Imminent Extinction

Good news from Uppsala: after the end of the year, there will be only one PhD student in archaeology left in that august academic city. This is the result of a simple reform enacted ten years ago by Minister for Education Carl Tham: since that date, no student may enter a PhD program at a Swedish university unless she has funding. The reform was a non-event in well-funded economically productive subjects, but it hit the humanities like a bomb. PhD student seminars started to melt away as people graduated or gave up.

But, as I said: good news. It’s neither in the best interest of students nor of the tax payers that the education system produce a lot of over-qualified bus drivers with PhDs in obscure subjects.

Now, if we could just limit the availability of archaeology MAs severely as well, our labour market might actually reappear.

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Seed, It’s High Time to Kick Watson Out

Co-discoverer of DNA and Nobel laureate James Watson is the Seed Media Group’s board of directors’ scientific advisor. Not a member of some advisory group: the board’s single advisor. He has remained so despite a highly publicised racist utterance four months ago.

In October last year Watson was quoted as being “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” as “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” This is not the first time that Watson lets slip a really bisarre prejudice: he’s slurred women, obese people, gays and Hispanics before.

Seed owns ScienceBlogs. When Watson’s racist remark became known, a large number of us Sbloggers suggested to the board that it was time to sever all ties with Watson. We have received no reply, and Watson remains in place at Seed, although he has been removed from the director’s post at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and had any number of high-profile speaking engagements worldwide cancelled.

Now, a number of us have tired of waiting for a reply — including Zuska , Maria at Green Gabbro, Dave at Cognitive Daily and Grrl at Living the Scientific Life. We are not comfortable being associated with James Watson even at such a remove.

Seed, drop the man NOW!

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Archaeology Beyond Scientific Credibility

Post-modernist hyper-relativism unexpectedly rears its ugly dying head in the form of a call for papers from one Tera Pruitt for the otherwise respectable Archaeological Review from Cambridge. Note the scare quotes around the words truth and valid claims.

Call for Papers (April 2009 Issue)
Beyond the Facts: Invention and Reinvention in Archaeological Practice

The Archaeological Review from Cambridge invites papers on the theme of invention and re-invention in archaeology. The past quarter century has seen a rich academic debate about the nature of archaeological interpretation. Post-modern theories such as constructivism and relativism have encouraged archaeologists to debate the nature of ‘truth’ and to re-evaluate the influence of their own biases and judgments on the past. The topic of invention and reinvention in archaeological methodology has also proved insightful. Experimental archaeological methodologies give a great deal of room for imagination and invention. In archaeological theory and practice, it appears that many 20th century archaeological epistemologies might be ‘reinventions’ of earlier methods used by professionals in the past: archaeologists like Matthew Johnson, for example, have claimed that ‘phenomenology’ may be a ‘reinvented’ tradition from the British Romantic landscape studies. The discipline of archaeology has also promoted better awareness of alternative perspectives on the past, such as the recognition of indigenous values or notions of the sacred; however, lines are still uncertainly drawn between ‘valid’ claims of the past and other, ‘less valid’ fringe theories. In many cases of post-colonial archaeology, post-conflict heritage, or identity studies, the past is a debated realm. Meanings are often constructed, manipulated, invented or re-invented through the use of material culture. Professionals have also been more attentive to the role of the public in propagating myths and folklore, and the relationship between media and pop-culture to professional archaeology.

I trust we’ll never see themed volumes about “Chemistry: Beyond the Facts”, “Botany: Beyond the Facts” or “Musicology: Beyond the Facts”.

In my opinion, archaeology should leave the beyond-the-facts bit to historical novelists. Because if the public gets the impression that archaeologists are just uncommonly boring fiction writers, then our funding will dry up real fast.

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