Drinking the Cole-Aid

After several years of intense focus on Go, studying, reviewing games, playing almost daily, I’m burned out. I barely play any more, and I expect the upcoming European Go Congress in Toulouse to be my last tournament for the foreseeable. I’m extricating myself from the affairs of the Association, winding down as tournament director.

In compensation, I’ve developed a raging thirst for other boardgames. After several years of intense focus on the classical, highly abstract, literally black-and-white world of Go, emerging into the densely crowded, richly varied ecosystem of modern boardgames feels almost hallucinatory. Despite the rival attraction of videogames, boardgames continue to sustain a community large enough to support development of complex, demanding, richly involving games.

In particular, I’m fascinated by the work of designer Cole Wehrle. Perhaps because his background is in wargaming rather than the eurogames I usually play, his games feel very fresh to me, a whole new world to explore. On the one hand, his work for Leder Games (Root, Oath, ARCS) conceals surprisingly vicious fantasy/SF conflict beneath the wonderful artwork of Kyle Ferrin (comparable to the most flamboyant of Bill Watterson’s Sunday pages for Calvin & Hobbes). On the other, the games from the company Cole runs with brother Drew, Wehrlegig (Pax Pamir, John Company), are alive with historical flavour and detail.

If I were to pick one, it would be John Company, in which players take the part of families jockeying for position within the East India Company, negotiating and scheming for prestige while the Company pillages India. It has the sense of historical sweep and development of the legendary (but unplayable) Republic of Rome, compressed into something you can finish in an afternoon. The gameplay is multilayered, offering several avenues to explore en route to the Company’s nigh inevitable collapse amid the corruption and self-interest of those who run it. The implicit critique of the imperialist project is underscored by the artwork, which draws heavily on period caricaturists such as Cruikshank and Gillray.

It doesn’t hurt that Cole is deeply embedded in the community, publishing extensive design diaries for each of his games on BoardGameGeek, actively participating in discussion and responding to questions online. His academic grounding in literature studies perhaps accounts for his interest in narrative and the stories players tell through the games they play, his games explicitly providing the hooks on which stories can hang without imposing a set storyline. And he’s not embarrassed to slip into theory mode, once memorably describing Root (a Game of Woodland Might and Right) as an exploration of Foucauldian biopolitics…which maybe it is, as depicted by Walt Kelly.

His current project is Molly House, in which players will “throw grand masquerades and cruise back alleys as a gender-defying molly in early eighteenth century London.” I foresee a few problems getting that one to the table, but I backed it anyway…it’ll be worth it just to see where he goes next.

Terrible People

“The deathhauntedness of the Irish brethren was frequently a complication in the working life of Sheriff Stephen Devane. Soaked in an ambience of death from the cradle, they believed themselves generally to be on the way out, and sooner rather than later, and thus could be inclined to put aside the niceties of the living realm. Terrible people, born of a terrible nation.”
— Kevin Barry, The Heart in Winter

The Firing Range (5.1km, 375m, 7.3%)

Map and Elevation Profile of the Firing Range climb


The climb to the Firing Range at Kilbride army camp is my favourite training climb, five kilometres sustained effort, much of it along a quiet, well-paved road. Although it’s a fraction of the length of the marquee climbs in the Alps, the gradients and smooth asphalt are comparable.

The first couple of kilometers follow the Ballinascorney climb. Near the summit, bear left onto the slip road (signposted for the Lodge, L7462) and stay left past the Famine Cross. The road levels out for a few hundred meters, then ramps up after a small bridge, briefly hitting double-digit gradients before settling at 8–9%. As the trees give way to open land on the left, the gradient eases and you can gear up for the short ramp to the top.

The road is narrow enough at points that cars will struggle to pass, but it’s little used and during the week you can expect to have it entirely to yourself. Settle into the climb and enjoy the ambient soundtrack provided by streams, insects, birds and sheep, and maybe the odd burst of gunfire.

Stone cross on a grassy knoll, commemorating the dead of the Great Famine
The Famine Cross

Afterbirth of the Cool

A highly entertaining interview with Kramer, stuffed with scurrilous detail on his time with Gong and the Butthole Surfers. Rick Moody (a name that hasn’t crossed my mind in two decades–plus) asks the questions. Hat tip to Rory for this one.

While we’re on the subject of the Butthole Surfers, Tone Glow offers up an equally exhaustive conversation with their guitarist, Paul Leary.

The Thin Line between Interesting and Boring

Over at Tone Glow, a typically in-depth interview with David Lance Callahan, formerly of the Wolfhounds and Moonshake. As Callahan comments, Moonshake were a schizophrenic band, the sneering edge of his songs rubbing up awkwardly against the breathy sensuality of Margaret Fiedler’s. For me, Moonshake were always outshone by the brilliance of her subsequent work with Laika, but listening to the songs laced through the interview reminded me that even if Moonshake weren’t the easiest band to listen to, they were consistently inventive, never dull. Stacks of interesting detail in the interview, the remastered Eva Luna went straight to the top of my shopping list.

Burning Ambulance runs the ruler over Sonic Youth’s first decade. It can hardly be controversial to suggest that their early work is far and away Sonic Youth’s best, a dislocating, psychedelic collision of noise, dissonance and rock. The further they travelled from their roots in no wave and Glenn Branca–esque drang, the more musicianly they became, the less individual they sounded, until the last reminders of their former abrasiveness and darkness were Kim Gordon’s vocals. The decision to hive off their experimental and improvisatory tendencies into the SYR series probably did much to keep Geffen on side, but surrendered the essential tension between pop and avant-garde that fired their eighties work. You could argue that the arrival of Steve Shelley was as much a curse as a blessing: without his power and fluidity, Sonic Youth could never have rocked like they did on Sister and Daydream Nation, but it’s hard to imagine they would have gone on to become so mature and assimilable with Bob Bert still on drums. In 1990, Sonic Youth were my favourite band by a country mile; does anyone say that about the Sonic Youth of ten or twenty years later?

Wicklow Gap (W) (5.5km, 221m, 3.9%)

Map and Elevation Profile of Wicklow Gap West


The western approach to Wicklow Gap is undeniably the less attractive option. It lacks any clear starting point: arguably the R756 starts to rise eleven kilometres away, at the bridge across the King’s River below the Hollywood hills, but only when you’re halfway to the Gap does the gradient become visible. You’re definitely already climbing by the time you reach the Quintagh turn-off, but it offers one of the few obvious landmarks on a long, wide road.

For all that road is wide, the lower reaches of the climb are closed in by trees and hillside, and there’s no view to speak of until you’re close to the top, the ground falling away to your right revealing the line of pylons leading up to the ESB station. By then the hardest parts of the climb are behind you, and you can pick up speed as you approach the summit.

For all that, it’s a good climb for early in the year. By whatever quirk of local climate, conditions around Wicklow Gap are generally more forgiving than Sally Gap — you’re less exposed to the gales which in any case funnel up the valley, pushing you up the road. As the main east-west route across the mountains, the road is well-maintained and gets enough sun that frost clears quickly. The gradient is never severe, maxing out at 8–9%, and it’s long enough an effort to build endurance when you’re laying down your base miles.

But the reward really comes with the descent to Laragh on the other side: a wide-open road that swings smoothly around the mountainside, offering clear visibility of any approaching traffic. It’s largely free of potholes and gravel, and confident descenders will take it like a luge run.

A wide road rising and swing left over a mountain pass under scattered cloud
The final metres…the barely visible signposts mark the top

Ten Albums for 2023

2023 already seems like a long time ago, but I suppose if the Quietus can publish their list a month before the end of the year, I can publish mine a month after. In any case, I’m so laughably out of touch these days that it would be the height of presumption to call these albums the best of 2023. Rather, these are the ten albums (not necessarily released in 2023) that represent best what I was listening to last year.

Deena Abdelwahed — Jbal Rrsas (Infiné)
Oren Ambarchi — Shebang (Drag City)
Big|Brave — Nature Morte (Thrill Jockey)
The Bonk — Greater Than or Equal to… (thirtythree-45)
Jaimie Branch — Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((World War)) (International Anthem)
Mabe Fratti — Se Ve Desde Aquí (Unheard Of Hope)
Goat (JP) — Joy in Fear (Nakid)
Bill Orcutt — Music for Four Guitars (Palilalia)
Radian — Distorted Rooms (Thrill Jockey)
Vanishing Twin — Afternoon X (Fire)

If I were to single one out, it would be the Mabe Fratti album, which has some truly breathtaking moments that give it the edge over Vidrio, the debut album from her new project, Titanic. But if I hadn’t come late to Se Ve Desde Aquí, Vidrio would be in the list instead.

Likewise, Afternoon X nudges the Holy Tongue album, Deliverance and Spiritual Warfare off the list, both sharing the rhythm section of Valentina Magaletti and Susumu Mukai. Having seen Magaletti drumming with Holy Tongue and Raime last year, I had concluded that she’s more about precision than swing, and it’s interesting to hear her laying down a muscular boom-bap on the title track of the Vanishing Twin album, even if the effect is more vintage DJ Shadow than James Brown.

The Radian album barely made a ripple as it slipped into the world — the only review I saw was on Brainwashed — but it’s a tense, vivid collection of dubbed, glitched post-rock. Maybe there were obvious points of comparison when they started out back in 2000 but at this point they’re in a league of their own.

Neil Kulkarni

Sad to hear of the unexpected death of Neil Kulkarni, one of the handful of Melody Maker journalists whose name and style were unforgettable. He was, it turns out, exactly the same age as I am, but I could only aspire to a fraction of the verve and confidence of his early work in the MM.

I lost sight of him when MM folded so his reappearance in the early days of the Quietus came as a bolt from the blue, the more so because it heralded his A New Nineties series, still the most memorable articles I’ve read on that site. At a time when I was groaning from the surfeit of post-punk reissues, A New Nineties came as a salutary reminder of the febrile genius of the music I grew up listening to: the shattered-glass post-rock of Disco Inferno, the austere reductions of Main, the bruised, sombre moods of Codeine and Come.

More recently, it was pleasure to see his byline appearing frequently in the Wire, even if he was usually touting something I wouldn’t have listened to in a blue fit. Farewell Neil, you will be missed.

Island Universe

A fascinating, in depth report on the DIY music scene in Cork, by Mariana Timoney. It’s hard to imagine that there’ll be many more like this on Bandcamp Daily, since Songtradr sacked nearly all the staff writers immediately after acquiring Bandcamp, but credit where credit is due—few other sites would have commissioned it in the first place.

The Quietus were unusually restrained this year, letting three whole days of December pass before publishing their Albums of the 2023 list. It’s as dementedly eclectic and esoteric as ever—I doubt I’ve even heard of two-thirds of the albums listed, much less listened to them.

Consuming Normativity

“Consuming normativity can give us the illusion that we get to sample it when we choose, that it isn’t pressing in on us at all times. But at the same time, the desire to seize control of normativity…also generates a certain ambivalence. It confronts us with our lack of autonomy and the instability of our social position; it testifies to the necessity of constant self-presentation (as opposed to being accepted for how our intrinsic being “naturally” appears).”

—Anti-Instagrams, Internal Exile