Metal Tuesday: thoughts and considerations.

Academically and compositionally speaking metal, is a heavy (pun intended) and advanced music. Bred from Rock, Blues and Punk, metal has an transcendent musical ability to capture the parts of any sub-genre, bringing metered ballads and high-speed finger-blisterers in equal quantity. Bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin composed canonical hits that will remain popular for decades, despite their initial critical pannings. And from those beginnings, bands like Motorhead, Iron Maiden and Dio took the burgeoning rock sect in entirely new directions emphasizing speed, volume, and growling vocals. These trends advanced through the '80s, '90s and '00s to popularity and then a decline as metal drifted from style to style; from prog-rock to something like emo and back to the rock/punk origins that made it famous.

Why am I writing about metal today? Well, I've been exposed to metal more in the last couple of weeks through recommendations from friends and some of the music brought in for listening by my coworkers. Metal was never a passion of mine because I tended to side with more folk/classic/pop compositions and assume that there was something to fear (or popularly dislike) in metal. I've come to realize that metal, as with all things deserving admiration and respect, evokes a fear because it provokes emotion and challenges values, or at least "values" in some sort of Reagan-esque pseudo-sense. As abrasive musically as it can be, it is also some of the most technically advanced production music available. Really, the solos can be likened to the result of plugging in and distorting a classically trained guitarist. And some of the more complex drum beats are so incredibly intense that it seems they could rewire the listener's heart.

And yet, metal remains a sort of fringe music that is alternately associated with Satanism, violence and adolescent anger. Certainly metal addresses all of these topics, but it doesn't promote them so much as voice them. In the same way that folk voices love, or glam-rock voices sexuality. Given the incredible musicianship required to play metal (especially the speed/punk varieties) we should respect it just as we might a symphony due to its brilliant composition and complexity. The only reason we do not is the unfavorable/culturally-less desirable emotions attached to it. For a "peace-loving, advanced person" revelations in anger, death, violence and adolescent fantasy seems inappropriate, regardless of how artistically they may develop. Metal is challenging in the same way modern art can be, and Rock 'n' Roll was when it first popped up in the '50s. Both modern art and Rock have entered the popular canon, and while taste may dictate liking it, both are recognized as artistically valuable.

For metal, it seems like the field isn't even. People who love metal, LOVE metal, but there lacks a compromising middle-audience who gets how awesome it is, but doesn't love it. It's like metal is the Brussels sprouts of the music world: love it or hate it.

The play list from the last couple of days has included: Pantera, Motorhead, Dio, Black Sabbath, Danzig, Tool, and Led Zeppelin (on my own time) among others. And I haven't heard a song I didn't genuinely enjoy, despite the screeching guitar, growling vocals and agitating drums. The dichotomy deserves challenging, metal should instead toggle a new way: love it or appreciate it.
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Notable Text: Eleven Kinds of Awesomeness.

There are spoilers coming for any of you who participate in the Puma Book Club, but not the "Nate's-gonna-ruin-the-story-like-a-big-jerk" kind, just the "Nate's-gonna-give-away-some-thoughts-on-the-book-in-advance" kind.

Richard Yates is famous to this recent generation as the old gent who wrote the book Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate "Perpetual Hotness" Winslet. See, but before they made it into a movie, it was a book, which is like a Kindle, but with tree parts. And after writing Revolutionary Road in 1961, Yates followed with a collection of short stories in 1962 called Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. As math, and planning would have it, there are 11 stories in the collection, and each addresses loneliness in a unique way. Consider that "loneliness" conceptually is usually something we consider individual. Being lonely is about being alone. About me being alone. But really, there are ways to be lonely even with other people around; surrounded with friends, and even with everything in life ostensibly successful. Loneliness, Yates shows, can be as simple as feeling a lack of control over a decent life.

Yates taps into his patented 1950s failing American Dream concept with the same brilliant richness as his first novel, but in this case addresses his protagonists (sometimes each their own antagonist) as if they are photographs beneath a microscope. Each vignette comes to craft carefully, with vivid description and lively, never wasteful dialogue. The characters, as sometimes plain as they are, breathe and move with a vivacious accessibility that makes them impossible to ignore. And Yates succeeds greatly in allowing/showing us how to love secondary characters while his protagonists and narrators deride and ridicule them. He commands a reader's emotions like the colors on his palette as each venture into a new character's world brings us reflections on our own successes, failures, hopes and dreams. Very often the writing is naive, cute, or simple, but never without proper effect or by accident. It's always delicate.

And it's often heartbreaking. Entirely. Tangibly.

In a time in writing where the emotional is dedicated to romance novels, "chick-lit," and young adult stories about Mormon vampires, reading Yates' straightforward take on life (even if it was life in the '50s, written in the '60s) is refreshing. Being a character driven collection means it never feels dated or stuck in a time space. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness brings out the best and the worst in each character. Which is exactly what makes them so real, and so easy to embrace. While we love reading about morally absolute characters, those great heroes and villains battling over concepts of freedom, love and justice, we're never quite so taken in by them as we are by our friends and loved ones. Yates greatest success is that he creates people, real people, and lets his readers follow them through some of their darkest moments. And through being by his characters' sides, we can empathize and assuage some of that loneliness, just as Yates does for us.

Favorite story: "No Pain Whatsoever" for the power it imparts to silences, and the sadness in necessary things left unsaid.
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Putting the gore in Victorian.

Ever since Robert Van Winkle's pseudonym Vanilla Ice confidently sampled the bass line from Queen and David Bowie's classic "Under Pressure" the creation of new materials pilfered from past successes has become American artistic custom. We now see movie theaters overwrought with remakes, reworkings and re-imaginings of once classic films. Gus Van Sant made a nearly universally panned shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock classic Psycho, Spielberg and Lucas brought an underwhelming belated sequel to the excellent Indiana Jones trilogy, and remakes like Death Race, The Amityville Horror, and The Cat In The Hat have all proved more disappointing than the originals. It is a great, career-endangering gamble to attach oneself to the re-creation or redesign of what was already great. We even have a timeless adage summing that danger, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

When I first heard that Seth Grahame-Smith had infused Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with the gore and brutality of zombie invasion, I was intrigued. The book found a solid spot on the New York Times Best Seller's list, and reviewed extremely well across the internet. But I did not know upon first purchasing the book, just how well Grahame-Smith worked within the boundaries of the original story to create something different, but altogether the same. The back cover description closes with the inauspicious author's notes: "Jane Austen is the author of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and other great masterpieces of English literature. Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature. He lives in Los Angeles." Grahame-Smith's lack of pedigree does not foretell a failure in his endeavor to change a classic into a newly riveting, entirely enjoyable tale of love, refinement and brutal decapitation. In fact, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies succeeds in almost all of his efforts. And his failures are extremely minor.

The story opens just as does the original. Mrs. Bennet eagerly attempts to secure husbands for her four daughters. The story centers on the elder two, Jane and Elizabeth, who in this rendition, have been well trained in the deadly arts of Kung Fu and rifling by their father and the Shaolin monks of China. Both are competent warriors who feel responsible to protect their neighborhood and countryside from the plague of "stricken unmentionables". These zombies wander the countryside making travel by carriage, by horse, or by foot a complicated ordeal. And when it rains, the ground softens, allowing more than the usual horde to rise easily from their graves.

As a whole the original text is intact. Elizabeth disproves of, but later warms to cavalier Mr. Darcy. Jane's romantic feelings for Mr. Bingley are thwarted. And Elizabeth's friend Charlotte weds the disgusting, overly doting Mr. Collins. The motives for these actions, though, are altered by Grahame-Smith's infusion of a brutal world wrecked by the undead. Elizabeth grows to love Darcy for his skills as a warrior and his actions against Wickham's youthful attempt to murder a stable boy. Mr. Bingley leaves the countryside after a pack of unmentionables devours his house staff, leaving Jane despondent. And Charlotte, discovering herself stricken following an attack by a zombie trapped beneath a fallen carriage, marries Collins in hopes of enjoying the wane moments of her life. Grahame-Smith demonstrates the fracturing of Charlotte's humanity through gradually collapsing dialog and a difficulty using silverware or behaving in a ladylike manner. There are more infusions that work successfully, providing additional motive to the characters that seems more real to a modern audience than those of fearing never marrying at 24 years. Lady Catherine remains as a stalwart antagonist to young Elizabeth's hopes for success and happiness.

For fear of spoiling the entire work, I will halt my summary here. The book includes excellent illustrations that capture a few powerful scenes of zombie mayhem, duels with ninjas and a standoff between Elizabeth and Darcy. And, as expected, the story ends like the original, with their coupling. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies affords Elizabeth, Jane and Lady Catherine an extreme power as women and as warriors. They are not fragile and instead present a strong model for young women lost in the trappings of love. It is a modernisation of the classic, one that respects and lauds its strongest characters even more than the original.

The only failings come in some all too obvious contrivances of narrative. As Grahame-Smith infuses some scenes with zombie attacks, allowing Elizabeth to unsheathe her Katana and fire rounds from her Brown Bess, he is trapped in the inability to address them in the bulk of the text. Instead, he relies on phrases like, "and she did not mention the events of the ride to anyone at the party" and "the girls agreed never to speak of it again." While tongue-in-cheek, these dismissals of the action left me a little disappointed. He did not endeavor to rewrite the story entirely, however, so their necessity is excusable, and at times, hilarious.

This reworking is more homage than alteration. Grahame-Smith clearly respects the original and tries to inject humor and action sparingly. At it's heart Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is entirely Jane Austen's work, merely boosted in spots with gore and horror that provide a goofy, nearly Raimi-an violence. I will end this post with a quote that sums up Grahame-Smith's caring for the original text and his passion for blood lust:

"It was some consolation to think that [Darcy] would soon fall at the end of [Elizabeth's] blade--and that in less than a fortnight she herself would be with Jane again, and enabled to contribute to the recovery of her spirits, beginning with the presentation of Darcy's heart and head."

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Crazy On You by Shara Wardon, Becky Stark and The Decemberists.

I had linked this video into the set list post from the Decemberists Fillmore show, but it's really so good that it necessitates additional linkage. So, here it is, Crazy On You, originally by Heart, covered by The Decemberists... LIVE AT THE FILLMORE IN DENVER!

Turns out, there's video from just about every stop on the tour when they've played it. Check out all the versions. And if you want to learn more about Heart, check out their Wikipedia page.
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St. Vincent LIVE!

I've harped on the poor acoustics at the Fillmore readily in this column, and despite the Decemberists success there last week, I stand by it. The rub is this: the sound at the Bluebird is worse. It's tinnier than the Fillmore, bartering intimacy, insofar as I would have been able to sign "I love you" to Annie Clark from anywhere in the 'bird, (in the proper light) against a shallower "can-like" sound. Being close to the band, even if they sound drowned in the venue, is a trade that only ends beneficially in some case. Seeing Seal live, as a random non-autobiographical example, would benefit from distance and better sound.

St. Vincent needed something a little more in between. When I first saw Annie, she was opening for Stars at the Ogden back in '07. The Ogden is more her size and style. It's an acoustically advanced venue that can make any band sound good and a great band (see: Mogwai, Rilo Kiley, Ted Leo + The Pharmacists) sound amazing. This is, of course, neither here nor there. The show was at the 'bird, and at the 'bird I was satisfied.

Annie opened with a slightly re-visioned version of "Marry Me" and then flew into the new album. The clattering, chaotic, but ethereal/orchestral style so dominant on Actor blasted through the speakers at left and right. It is amazing to watch Annie Clark work. A two-head mic stand, playing guitar, singing and kneeling down to adjust the pedals throughout each and every song. And remarkably there is never a missed change, strained moment or diffused bout of sonic energy. Clark wears her guitar high above the waist, rather than the conventional belt-high set up, liking because of all the kneeling to the pedals. But her style lead my friend John to coin the phrase, "She plays guitar like a gargoyle." He meant this as a compliment, it the way that you thin arms and fingers joint to finger the fretboard. And frankly, if she sings like an angel, playing like a gargoyle is just fine.

From there, the show was short; a resultant of curfews, Tuesday nights, and smaller bands at smaller venues. I was disappointed at how few people seemed invested in the show. This was more of a casual music-goer show. No one danced, and the crowd response to Annie's attempts at banter was generally weak. As a result, and powered forth by a couple of beers, I "Woo!"ed so loud as Annie announced she'd be playing "Laughing with a Mouth Of Blood" that the silent crowd turned to gawk. So, I blurted then, "What!? It's my favorite song on the album! It's why I'm here!"

That embarrassment aside, this was another excellent show. St. Vincent as Annie Clark's pseudonym is a speedily-altering artistic entity. As a band, St. Vincent is employing incredible musicians on brass/woodwinds, strings, and keys. And the manner in which as a unit they can bring the eclectic and noise-laden symphonics alive before an audience is stunning. In a better venue with a livelier crowd this show nears perfection. Set list follows:

  1. Marry Me
  2. Strangers
  3. Save Me From What I Want
  4. Now, Now
  5. Actor Out Of Work (Annie announces this song as next in the set... to hear only crickets. Criminal! She said, and I paraphrase, "I guess you haven't heard of this one," in a resigned mew.)
  6. Paris Is Burning
  7. The Bed
  8. Laughing with a Mouth of Blood
  9. Black Rainbow
  10. Marrow
  11. Just the Same but Brand New
  12. The Party (Encore)
  13. Your Lips Are Red (Encore) (My friend John and I called this one... at the start of the encore... not perfect, but damn close.)
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