Surprise! Surprise!

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I listen to music all the time and all I ever really want is to be surprised.

This week I’ve been listening to lots of Arthur Russell. To discover Russell’s haunted avant-disco in the present day is to hear it through the mouths of ghosts, tainted and stained by all the artists who have been influenced by him. It is impossible to get rid of this context — of his death, of his legacy. The echoes of his echoes. It is not just Russell singing, but everyone who has paused at Russell’s singing in the past, who has his smudgy thumbprint on their ear. And everyone who has written on him, read or not. (And so it is, now, my voice too).

And yet it is still surprising. It still sounds totally and utterly new. Not just because of the unusual combination of sounds — the tortured, drenched sound of his cello colliding with his disco beats — but because of the spirit inside it, his unique voice. A colour or emotion, a hue that is unusual and distinctly his.

 

This is the case with all great music. It is like Ezra Pound’s idea of literature – “news that stays news”. Whatever order you hear them in, the classics stay new. They leap the narrative forward again. They build on what came after them. They develop their influences.

Because you might know the story but you haven’t read it until you’ve actually read it, and in the reading the story is reimagined, determined by the order of each fragment. No one listens in order. No one is born listening to the earliest recorded alien warble, only to grow up with the forties aged four and the sixties aged six, crawling forward through the years, slowing as the amount of recorded music exponentially increases. That would be silly. No one swallows the narrative of music whole. It only exists, insofar as it does even exist, as various, overlapping, contradictory and above all piecemeal versions, assembled out-of-order.

To hear Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day today is to hear the ideas of Devendra Banhart’s Rejoicing in the Hands and Joanna Newsom’s The Milk Eyed Mender clarified, purified — a reverse expansion.

To hear Can’s Ege Bamyasi today is to hear every ‘Vitamin C’ breakbeat lifted from it reimagined again as live drums. Like when I saw the entire DJ Shadow album Endtroducing… (widely credited as the first album to consist entirely of samples of other records) played by a live band, complete with two voices reading out all the sampled snippets of speech. (A magical live show — the absolute passion for that album by everyone on stage could be palpably felt.)

And more embarrassing examples abound — the surprise that the Pulp Fiction soundtrack did not, in fact, “pump it louder”. The no-surprise of the fourth, the fifth, by the time I actually got back through the thicket of covers to the real ‘Hallelujah’.

(Ironically, every time I listen to OK Computer, it’s ‘No Surprises’ that catches me out, sequencing-wise. I always forget it’s coming.)

Yet this ahistorical listening is of course supplemented with historical learning. It’s not like I take in Bunyan or Can without context. My point is simply that there’s no such thing as historical listening because we can’t un-hear the things that come chronologically later. One could draw a line and only listen going forward, to things on their release date — but you’d actually end up hearing less really new things, because most of the really new things are actually old things. History tends to repeat itself. To go forwards you have to (mostly) go backwards.

So it is that the two newest albums I’ve heard this year were released in 1972 and 1983: Lal & Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus and Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass. Why? Because they sound like nothing I’ve heard before, couple with the simple fact(s) that I’d never heard them (or of them) before. Both were reissued this year to wide re-acclaim, re-reviewing (re-re-viewing). Their physical rerelease not only pleased collectors but gave them a chance to be re-released— the dove exploding from the cage — and heard as though new again, by new ears.

It is easy to equate newness with technology, synthetic sound, fragmentation, formal experimentation. In fact, the newest-sounding, actually historically new album of 2017 is, to these ears, Richard Dawson’s Peasant. This glorious, ambitious, compassionate, moving, bloody, terrifying, uplifting album is about as far away from ‘now’ as one could hope to get — it is ‘set’ (so to speak) in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bryneich, in pre-medieval northern England, about a thousand years before recorded music began. Listening to it, you are transported back into that time, as Dawson tells the imagined stories of different members of that community (‘Beggar’, ‘Prostitute’, ‘Scientist’, ‘Soldier’). The instrumentation, too, manages to conjure something of the muddy, rural, and above all (and in all its senses) dark age in which these songs are set. That is, it actually sounds old. So why does it also sound so new? Because it says things about community and society that need to be said and heard in 2017? Partially. But also because it just sounds, once again, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. A new way of sounding, a new way of feeling, a new way of thinking.

Surprise. Equal parts emotional flip-in-the-tummy and intellectual startling. Both jolt awake, increasing attention and focus. How does this square, though, with the kind of somnambulant music that seeks not to jolt but to lull us? Is there not good music which acts as lullaby, as balm, or even as wallpaper? Forms which are antithetical to surprise? Where is the surprise then? I propose it is in the dreams induced. You don’t have to pop a balloon and make a bang to surprise someone. You might tie a thousand balloons to their chair and let them drift off, see new shapes in the clouds. There is such a thing as a soft surprise. A new tint of light. That is what it means for music to be truly psychedelic — the slow surprise of consciousness expanding.

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A Steel Sea Lapping

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Latent in the language of pop is the language of fishing: ‘catchy’, ‘ear worm’, ‘hook’. Generally these descriptors are used in a positive sense, but there is a kind of violence in them too. After all, the listener is the fish in the analogy. Unaware of the trap. Or aware of it, but happy to go along anyway, to submit to the violence of the trick. Like believing in an illusion.

I am talking about a certain kind of melody here. It is obtrusive; it sticks in your mind and is irremovable. You know the kind. “I want something just like the shape of you under my umbrella.” These kinds of melodies, laced throughout the thin waters of mainstream (main-stream) radio, dangling like so many baited hooks, are designed to ‘catch’ our attention. To catch our mind’s ear and stay caught there. Sweet at first, offering an immediate gratification (a juicy worm) that makes us want to listen; then later, replaying over and over in the mind, whether we want to hear them or not. Thus making us want to hear them again. To jump back again and again into the same stream, even though we know of the barbs hiding under the surface.

For a few months earlier this year I was working in a sweet shop, and was subjected to the trickle of lukewarm sewage that is Kiss FM for hours on end. I don’t know what any of the vile bilge in the top 40 is called, but I now seem to recognise every ugly burble of melody that doppler-blasts by me in cars. And every time I do, these songs get stuck in my head again.

This might not be such a problem if the lyrics weren’t so troubling. Nearly all these songs are about sex, coached in oh-so-subtle metaphors like “I want to see your peacock” or “I just want to be part of your symphony”. Or, increasingly, no metaphors at all, as in the utterly cringeworthy: “I’d like to get to know you better, I’d like to get under your sexy body”. (One longs for the quaint days of “I wanna hold your hand”.) But the kind of sex this music depicts is hollowed out and empty. It takes something sacred and mysterious and makes it cheap. This music teaches us as much about real sexual experience as pornography does: which is to say, nothing at all. Sometimes – as on the deeply troubling ‘Blurred Lines’, a song that suggests it’s OK for sexual consent to be ambiguous – the things it does try to teach us are incredibly damaging.

This combination of bluntly effective melodic hooks and sordid bastardisations of love and sex are what I dislike so much about mainstream pop. It has become somewhat fashionable in indie circles to profess one’s love for pop music. I don’t understand why. It is not that I am am anti-melody, or even anti-catchy-melody, but that modern pop music seems to me so manipulative in its use of it. Its simple melodies and thick, electronic textures have the same appeal as junk food: they taste (kind of) good but make you feel sick afterward. Most of these songs give me a headache. Their lurid, insistent colours and overt sexual content place these manufactured products in the same circle of hell as TV adverts, which use the same cheap tricks. One can’t not listen; one can’t not look.

But enough ranting. I am finished swimming in these streams. Shower like a horse, I’m done.

Let me seek an antidote.

Ambient music is the opposite of pop music. If pop music positions the listener as the fish, then ambient music positions them as the fisher. That is, afloat on a sea of sound, fishing for meaning within it. This music will only exist in the moment it is played; it is impossible to recall afterward. It also, in its tendency to drift into the background, requires effort to actually listen to it, the opposite of the pop music that forces you to hear it whether you want to or not.

Chuck Johnson’s Balsams, from earlier this year, and Daniel Lanois’s Goodbye to Language, from September last year, are ambient records made almost entirely from the sounds of the pedal steel guitar. This is a strange proposition, for the pedal steel is usually used to add accents and resonances to other instruments, particularly within country music. But in these strange, singular works, it unassumingly takes centre stage.

Balsams is the purer of the two. The only accompaniment to the pedal steel here are some deep bass tones, occasionally throbbing softly from somewhere deep down in the ocean. (I think of sonar pulses from a whale). The steel, though, is the sparkling, sunlit surface, upon which the listener drifts. Melodies slowly, imperfectly repeat, like gentle waves. Many have an aching sadness to them. The way a pedal steel can slide one note into another, blurring the boundaries between them. ‘Balsam’ is ‘balm’ is ‘calm’.

Goodbye to Language is a stranger, more discomforting beast. Lanois on pedal steel is joined by Rocco DeLuca on lap steel, so immediately we have a sense of things colliding and coexisting: ‘overlapping’ rather than ‘lapping’. The compositions themselves are also much shorter and more unsteady than Johnson’s, more likely to alter or stop without warning. The waters are murkier and choppier, the waves shredded and disturbed by changing winds. The two steel guitars are augmented throughout by subtle digital manipulations, bits of detritus floating in on the surface.

Both albums require you to make your own meanings as a listener. Both also invite you to lose yourself in them. Johnson’s music projects such a huge sense of stillness and calm that one feels one could drift there forever. Lanois’s, meanwhile, closes quickly round you, and won’t stop shifting and changing, so that one can’t swim away. Both, though, are in their own way meditative. Neither will hook you, or catch you. They are complex, and mysterious, and require you to make time for them. They are fundamentally quiet, in a world full of too much loudness.

The Instrumental

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It would be an easy record to put on in the background, this largely instrumental collection. Mirror of Wind, the new album from Jasper Lee, is full of sounds that feel ornamental, decorative: flutes flutter, strings swoop, mallets meander up and down scales. It is a kaleidoscope, its colours rotating, beautiful and meaningless. Listening to it, it very much strikes me as as fundamentally ‘instrumental’ music, in that it delights in the sounds of instruments, in the process of using different tools and gizmos and thingamabobs to make noises. Lee even builds his own instruments: his pyraharp looks like an upside down end table.

There is also something in the tone and structure of these pieces that reminds me of a mid-album instrumental in a song cycle. The tracks are generally song-length, and have an incidental feel to them, as though transitioning between more fixed points like verses and choruses, vocals and lyrics, things which act as pins in the fabric of songs. Only here there are no pins, just transitions and flutter. In such a landscape, the two tracks that do have vocals – ‘Quaint Gothic Spring’ and ‘Milk of Air’ – become bridges themselves, vocal interludes among the instrumentals, an inverse of the traditional order.

I keep thinking about this word, ‘instrumental’, and what it means. In reference to music, it is most often used to contrast a particular passage or piece with the vocally-led songs surrounding it. I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Green Arrow’ off of Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, or ‘Alma’ off of Grizzly Bear’s Shields, which would be described as ‘instrumentals’ between songs. The ‘instrumental’, then, is a bridge, a path, a transition. It takes its meaning from the things (words, songs) that surround it. There is little need to describe the music of Chopin or Duke Ellington or Toumani Diabate as ‘instrumental’, for there is no contrast to be drawn.

Yet it is also a word used to describe music which sounds like it could have vocals, but doesn’t: the post-rock of Mogwai and Do Make Say Think, for example, or the circling acoustic guitar workouts of James Blackshaw and William Tyler. Notably, these are all artists who occasionally deploy vocals, but generally speaking don’t. They invert the usual ratio of vocal tracks to instrumentals, and in doing so, challenge the association of ‘instrumental’ with ‘interlude’. For there is nothing transitory about the tracks without vocals here: rather, they are the main event.

What interests me in Jasper Lee’s music is that, while almost all of the tracks are instrumental, they have an interlude-like quality that is still very much present. Mirror of Wind is like a whole album full of interludes. It feels almost entirely incidental, oddly light and buoyant. It relocates the meaning of the instrumental interlude to within the interlude itself, rather than in the pieces it transitions to and from.

 

Any binary we might draw between instrumentals and non-instrumentals is complicated by apparently instrumental music which heavily incorporates vocals. A recent example is Arca, an artist who makes predominantly instrumental music, but who on his new self-titled record brings his voice front and centre. Arca, the record, is dominated by the presence of Ghersi’s voice, which is by turns frail and bruised and confident. Yet though the emphasis is on singing rather than beats, as in his previous work, it still feels like an instrumental album. Part of this, I recognise, is my own inability to understand Spanish, and thus my treating the vocals as merely another sound in the music’s fabric. This is an important point to note – the degree to which music is instrumental is partially determined by the position of the listener. Indeed, context is everything here – the same album might be ‘instrumental’ if I put it on in the background and ‘non-instrumental’ if I listen to it closely.

And yet, I don’t think it is unfair to say that Arca’s voice is a material in Arca in the way that beats were a material in Mutant – that is, something to be mutilated. The voice is an instrument of both sonic and emotional exploration. The hallmark of Arca’s music is its bodiless – his mangled electronics have always evoked bruised and damaged bodies. That is refined here by focussing on one part of the body in particular: the throat, itself an instrument. And the manipulations are mostly done not with electronics, but in the way Ghersi stretches and warps his syllables as he sings. One thinks of Bjork (something of a mentor for Arca) and her all-vocal album Medulla. Indeed, while ‘a cappella’ music is surely, by definition, the conceptual opposite of ‘instrumental’ music, the affect of the two on the listener is oddly similar. The non-instrumental ‘song’ is perhaps a product of the interaction between ‘vocals’ and ‘instruments’, as two separate but equally present components. To remove one entirely, or to mesh the two, as Arca does, until they are indistinguishable, is to make the music ‘instrumental’.

 

The music of Forest Swords, whose new album Compassion was released this month, is also, like Arca, full of margins being blurred: the ancient past with the present, the organic with the synthetic, and the vocal with the instrumental. Clipped vowel sounds drift through this music, as fungal spores spread a species through a woodland. The spread of ideas. Blood filling a mouth. It is a fox, feasting on the carcass of a rabbit. The other day I had to brake hard when a fox – an urban fox – appeared suddenly, its quick, slinking body inches from my front left tire.

Is this instrumental? Am I writing instrumentally now?

The record Compassion is not a record of compassion, but an instrument of it, that is, something that enables or allows for it, that becomes instrumental in the delivery of it. (At least, one senses that this is the hope – why else would you call your record Compassion?) Confusingly, the word ‘instrumental’ is also sometimes used in a sense akin to ‘indispensable’ or ‘necessary’, but that is not how I mean it here. These sounds are obviously not prerequisites for compassion: rather, they are offered as potential tools for it. But the question remains of how they might act as such – how could a few instrumentals become instrumental in the delivery of actual, real world good? These are not protest songs, optimistically strummed and sung. They are just patches of smeared, ‘raw language’. Untranslatable, how could they ever translate into action?

And yet, of course, they can, and do. Music has a profound, mysterious effect on us. It is our universal language. Ideas conveyed purely through the form of instrumentals are often more powerful than the songs around them. They are pure expression. Among songs sung in the baggy clothes of words that never quite fit, instrumentals are naked, with all the attendant associations of nakedness: purity, rawness, sexuality, vulnerability. The music touches us: it puts its instruments inside our naked bodies. It is surgery. It cuts and shapes us. Compassion is a heart transplant.

There is a contradiction, then, between the instrumental as incidental and the instrumental as incendiary; between the instrumental as wallpaper and the instrumental as contact paper. It is somehow both more distant from us and more close to us than the sung song. I am still unable to reconcile this contradiction in my mind, and perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it is the tension rising from it than is generative of interesting instrumental music.

A Quiet Return

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I want to quietly return to trying to write about music.

Last year I started a blog called Ice Mask Whale. This is the next evolution of that blog. A new site, a new name. Some attempts at definition…

Attempt No. 1

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The internet is obsessed with the new, feeding on new stories, new gossip, new quick-takes and hot-takes, newly generated content, empty puffs of novelty designed only to be clicked on. Gone are actual paradigms – all that remains are paradigm shifts, a constantly refreshing page. Yet, at at the same time, it is obsessed with the past, with the cataloguing of photographs and moments, viewed through the hazy filter of time, or the false nostalgia of an Instagram filter. Music journalism is often directed down these two lines as well: it feeds, too, on new artists, new album announcements, new gimmicks, new styles, and, simultaneously, on nostalgia for the old styles: best of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. If music is not new enough to fit into the former cateogory (“check this out”) but not old enough to fit into the latter (“remember this?”) then nothing is written about it – indeed, nothing can be written about it, because we don’t have a framework for it. It is lost in the cracks, dead in the water, caught between exposure and retrospective, between review and re-view. Yet obviously we still listen to this music. Obviously there are still things to say. To listen between the noisy bugle call of the new and the hazy nostalgia of the old is to listen in the quiet return: to music after it has emerged, hot and molten and glowing, but before it has hardened. Not a hot-take, nor a hardened, established viewpoint, but something in between: a cooling take, a sustained reflection.

Attempt No. 2

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Think of a song, and it quietly returns to your mind. It is a kind of conjuring magic. The way a ghost must sense things: there and not there.

Attempt No. 3

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Aside from the immediate pleasures of actual in-the-moment listening, what other pleasures are there in music? There is a second pleasure in reflecting on music, in hearing it again in the mind’s ear, in reimagining it through metaphor. The first pleasure is outside of language: we listen to music because it is better than language, saying less but communicating more. Yet this second pleasure – the afterburn of the music, the ghostly impressions it leaves behind itself – is accessible to language. All art has this dual pleasure: there is the pleasure of actually reading a novel, word-by-word, and then there is the pleasure of remembering it afterwards, inhabiting the haunted memory palace we build in our minds as we read it. So it is with music. But with the novel, both pleasures are tangible enough to write about: the material of the critic (language) is used on the material of the examined object (language). With the music writer, this is not the case, the music itself being untouchable by language (hence “dancing about architecture“). So the music writer is left with only the afterburn of it, its quiet (silent) return in the mind. This is all we can write about. As music passes from sensory experience (present) to non-sensory memory (past), a translation occurs – it becomes not just sound but colour, tone, texture, mood, image, and indeed, language. This might happen in a fraction of a second – as when we talk of “an immediate impression” – or gradually, over repeated exposures. It is these translations and impressions we reflect on, mull over, return to, when we write about music.

Attempt No. 4

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We are sometimes prone to expect immediate gratification from things. If something doesn’t immediately make sense, immediately reveal itself fully to us, we shut it out: label it as obscure, obtuse, “not for us”. But the deepest connections we have with things (pieces of music, places, people) are often with the things we don’t immediately like, the things that take some time and work to adjust to. The ‘growers’. The best records don’t announce themselves noisily or showily or immediately but require us to quietly return to them, again and again. This quiet returning breeds its own quiet return, like the return on a long-term investment: gradual, accumulative, but eventually extensive. This is the quiet return of music.

Melted, Removed, Beached

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Of course, before we had fridges, ice was the only way we could keep our food cold. We couldn’t make the stuff ourselves, so we had to harvest it and store it in ice houses, which sound rather exciting, like that huge melting ice palace James Bond has to escape from in Die Another Day, but are really just small, very cold rooms. Perhaps you’ve seen one in a National Trust property somewhere.

Under a microscope, the structure of ice cream is very similar to that of lava.

There are 16 kinds of ice, say the scientists. The kind in your freezer is kind number 4. Kind number 3 is actually denser than water, meaning that if icebergs and ice cubes were made of it, they would sink. Kind number 11 is ferroelectric – it exhibits electric polarization, which can be manipulated and reversed.

Aristotle was the first person to notice that hot water freezes faster than cold water. We still don’t understand why.

If you freeze water really, really, really fast then it doesn’t turn into ice at all, but into a chaotic amorphous solid called ‘glassy water’. This is pretty difficult to do at home – you have to get the water temperature down to -137°C in a matter of milliseconds. Surprising, then, that it’s actually the most common form of water in the universe. Comets are made from it.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, they brought a block of ice all the way from Lake Wenham in Massachusetts to The Strand in London, where they put it on display with the day’s newspaper behind it so that passers-by could marvel at how clear it was.

This, of course, was only after the customs officials at the ports got used to the idea. When they first shipped ice to Britain, packed in sawdust to insulate it, the officials were so confused about how to classify it that 300 tonnes of the stuff melted while they tried to make their minds up.

Sometimes I feel nostalgic because I can still remember when a 99 whippy ice cream with a flake actually cost 99p.

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A mask can be used for protection, or as a disguise, or, if you’re being hunted down by a madman with an ice pick, as both.

In Ancient Greece, masks had a brass megaphone in the mouth to amplify what the actor was saying.

In Venice, the situation is pretty much the reverse. Their ‘moretta muta’ carnival masks are held in place not with straps but with a little button that the wearer holds in her mouth, rendering her unable to say much at all.

The word ‘mask’ goes back to the 16th Century, to the French masque, meaning ‘a covering to hide or guard the face’, which itself goes back to the Italian word maschera, which itself goes back to the Medieval Latin word masca, meaning ‘spectre’ or ‘ghost’ or ‘nightmare’, which itself quite possibly goes back to the Arabic word maskharah, which is to do with being ‘a buffoon’ and ‘making a mockery’ of yourself. So if you’re applying mascara around your eyes before a night out, you’re really just being a fool.

There’s also an old Occitan word masco, meaning ‘witch’, a word which still survives in some dialects; in Beziers, it means ‘dark cloud before the rain comes’.

In Indonesia, the star of a Topeng dance has around 30 to 40 masks for his exclusive use. No one else is allowed to wear these masks on fear of upsetting the spirits that reside within them. When the dancer dies, his masks are never touched again, never moved from the place they happen to be lying at the moment of his death.

The oldest mask is 9000 years old and is a death mask.

In Japanese Noh theatre, the masks are so carefully carved that they can convey different expressions and moods simply by the angle the light falls on them.

You can make a mask out of almost anything: wood, metal, clay, stone, paper, cloth, ivory, fur, shells, feathers, corn husks, human skulls and teeth. You can even make one out of ice. And, indeed, whalebone.

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Blue whales are the largest creatures ever to have lived on the earth. Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant, their hearts as much as a car. Their aortas are large enough for a human child to crawl through. They are one of the loudest animals on the planet, though we can’t hear them. They hunt in the deep and breathe at the surface. In the early 20th century we nearly killed them all hunting for whale oil.

Sperm whales have the heaviest brains of any animal, weighing in at 9kg. Their heads also contain a cavity, large enough to park a car inside, filled with a yellowish waxy substance called spermaceti, a substance also much sought after by whalers.

Southern right whales have the largest testicles in the animal kingdom – each pair weighs around a tonne, which is like having 1000 bags of sugar strapped down there.

When a whale sticks its head out of the water it is called ‘spyhopping’. When it sticks its tail out of the water it is called ‘lobtailing’. These sounds like crimes, but aren’t. When it leaps right out of the water it is called ‘breaching’ and when it lies just under the surface it is called ‘logging’.

A whale’s brain sleeps one half at a time, so that the other half doesn’t forget to go up to the surface and breathe. If a whale fell completely asleep, it would drown.

Fin whales pee around 970 litres of urine a day, about as much as three very full bathtubs.

Humpback whales sing strange, eerie, and beautiful songs that can last for up to 30 minutes and include recognizable sequences of squeaks, grunts and other sounds. This makes them the jazz musicians of the whale world.

Bowhead whales have the thickest blubber of any animal, up to 70cm thick, but then they live exclusively in the Arctic, which is fairly cold, on account of all the ice.

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(This originally appeared as the “About” page of Ice Mask Whale, the predecessor of The Quiet Return.)