Ukraine

For several weeks now, not a day goes by without someone asking my opinion about the recent events in Ukraine. The news headlines are pretty unambiguous on what is supposedly happening, at least in this part of the world – a popular pro-democracy movement to remove corrupt and ineffective pro-Russian government in Kiev. The reality leaves the actual events open to interpretation at the very least.

The following are my thoughts on what is happening in Kiev and around the country, the background to these events, and my predictions for the future. The situation is very close to home to me – as some of my readers may know, I am a native of Ukraine, and lived there until mid-1990s. I still have close family there, and have experienced many of that nation’s divisions first-hand before emigrating. As such, I will not pretend that this is an impartial account. The recent events directly impact people I care for, and make me think both of Ukraine that once was, and of what it is turning into. It is not a cold analysis of something happening in another part of the world, and don’t expect it to be unbiased. It is what it is, for better or worse.

First of all, the backdrop to all of this. It is hard to understand the dilemma facing Ukrainians now, and the roots of modern-day problems, without knowing the history. And in this case, there is a lot of history leading up to this moment.

Ukraine is a land in turmoil, and has been for the past eight hundred or so years. Once the cradle of proto-Russian civilization (the Kievan Rus), it bore the brunt of Mongol invasions in the XIIIth century, which threw the territory into anarchy and lawlessness, devastated its infrastructure and population, and created a power vacuum which was filled alternatively by Tatars, Poland, Lithuania, Ottomans, Russia, Germany, Austria, and just about every other nation with interests in Eastern Europe. While Ukraine was recognized as a separate territory for centuries, the roots of modern Ukrainian nationalism did not come about until the XIXth century. Even then, there was little agreement on what exactly Ukrainian nationalism was supposed to be about – the imagery of Zaporozhian cossacks and distinct clothing styles and language, for example, came from Eastern and central Ukraine, which has very distinct idea of Ukrainian nationalism as opposed to mountainous Western Ukraine at the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Many parts of Western Ukraine were assimilated into the country as a result of World War II-era Soviet expansionism, and as such even the dialect spoken there is often incomprehensible to Ukrainian speakers from the East. I remember being in the West of the country in early 1990s, and having extreme difficulty understanding people there, despite turning to Ukrainian as opposed to Russian language.

The modern Ukrainian state has precedent in the aftermath of World War I and the short-lived independent nation that existed under German aegis until the Communist-led assimilation into USSR. I vividly remember Ukraine declaring independence from USSR in 1991, the hysteria associated with establishing a new nation, a mish-mash of ideas that were espoused by political forces of the time, the uncertainty and even some optimism that brought hope to people used to dour fatalism and enduring the worst. I remember the sensationalist politics and the call of would-be Western-educated “experts” who claimed they knew how to get the nation’s moribund economy on track. I remember corruption and cronyism in the government and the impression that nothing really changed with the fall of the Soviet Union – the same people were in charge, just under different monikers, with different titles.

Most of all, I remember the first flickering signs of ethnic nationalism – knowing that having an ethnically Ukrainian last name was a boon in a country where ethnic rivalries are still alive and well; seeing more and more people from Western territories move to Kiev with expectations of paying jobs; noticing the growing divisions between the people.

When I left Ukraine in 1996, I remember many of my friends amongst the upper-middle-class Russian speakers dismissing the Western Ukrainians as vyiky, a derogatory term that is equivalent to hicks. It is easy to understand why. Not only is the Western part of the country much poorer, but it is culturally distinct, with splattering of influences from Polish, Hungarian, and other cultures and languages; the influence of Uniate and Catholic churches is very prominent, as opposed to Orthodox church elsewhere; and, during and immediately after World War II, it was the hotbed of anti-Soviet insurrection that made common cause with the invading Germans. For the people whose parents and grandparents served in the Red Army during the German invasion, the thought of anyone aligning with the invaders and considering leaders of that insurrection national heroes was insulting.

The fact that Ukrainian nationalism began to coalesce around Western Ukraine was a disturbing development for the rest of us. The fact that it took on some very questionable characters as heroes was  a sure sign of things to come. The fact that it attracted ethnic supremacists and neo-nazis by score was a harbinger of trouble. Those same people are a major part of the anti-government movement, and play a very prominent role in chaos in Kiev.

There is a joke in Central and Eastern Ukraine that if Ukrainian national ethos was distilled to its very core, only two words would remain – klyati moskali, “accursed Russians.” There are elements of the nationalist movement currently “protesting” at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) who take that to the extreme. They are the people who would have threatened violence in the 1990s unless you admitted to being a khohol (slang term for ethnic Ukrainian, once used as a derogatory term, but since adopted by many Ukrainians). I am hearing stories from relatives still in Ukraine about nationalists making proclamations that they would violently enforce Ukrainian language and assault or murder anyone speaking Russian, and as much as Ukrainian politics thrive on sensationalism, I cannot dismiss those statements made as downtown Kiev burns. I fear for the safety of my family members there, for my friends who I grew up with and who I shared so many experiences of childhood and adolescence with. I am afraid that they will be swept up in a maelstrom of anarchy and violence as the revolution devours its own children, and as the extremist elements of the movement are given free reign.

But as much as the anti-government forces include some very suspect characters, Ukrainian government is not without fault. Corrupt, underhanded, and downright criminal in its tactics, Ukrainian government was often indistinguishable from organized crime operating in the country. Two decades of sensationalist polemics made for poor governance, and the role of money (both domestic and foreign) in Ukrainian politics cannot be understated. Many Ukrainian politicians made a living of being a front for shadowy business and foreign government interests, often switching allegiances on a whim depending on who was offering a bigger payroll at a given moment. This is why the Parliament’s sudden shift in mood towards the Maidan movement was not surprising. Very few Ukrainian politicians have anything resembling principles, and it was not hard to expect popular discontent.

Maybe there are some leaders in the Ukrainian government who truly believe that they stand for something. Maybe some of them are even sincere. But too many have their hands stained with others’ money and with shifting allegiances to ever be trustworthy – kleptocrats that make the worst of US politicians seem like saints. And whatever new crop of self-important political mercenaries emerges, it is unlikely to ever get better.

Ukraine has a misfortune of being at the crossroads of geopolitical interests of many major powers. Up until 1991, it seemed that Russia won the contest against its competitors, but since then, all bets were off. As Putin’s government attempts a desperate gamble to restore Russia’s power and influence, it goes contrary to the geopolitical interests of European Union and United States. Both sides poured money and resources into either keeping Ukraine in their orbit, or into denying it to their opponents. One could say that the Great Game of the XIXth and early Xxth centuries is alive and well, and the people of Ukraine are caught in the crossfire.

Let there be no illusions that the Ukrainian people would be better off under EU-aligned nationalist rule, or under Russian rule. Until the people of Ukraine figure out what exactly it means to be Ukrainian, what the Ukrainian nation is supposed to be, and what independent course they want to chart for their future, it will always remain a battleground. There seems to be little thought inside the country on what will happen next – all that comes about are promises, threats, vague hopes and little nothings that do not represent any tangible improvement for the nation’s citizens. Things have not changed for the better. The so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2007 did not make much of a difference, and the Maidan movement is so far only succeeding at deepening the divisions in the nation, not solving those problems (unless supremacist rhetoric is to be believed, in which case their “solution” sounds perilously close to what Bandera’s wartime ally espoused). The current chaos can be summed up as supremacists versus organized crime, with much of the nation caught in between and, once again, led astray by false hope, endless inflammatory rhetoric, and external geopolitical interests on both sides of the conflict who could not care less about the Ukrainian people.

And while the Great Game continues, the nation bleeds, people are afraid to leave their homes, and there is no future anywhere in sight for Ukraine.

 

2013 and beyond

With 2013 winding down, it is time to assess the year from both literary and musical standpoints. While it perhaps did not see a lot of tangible activity, there were still things accomplished – a number of literary submissions, quite a few Midgard shows in support of our record “Satellite”, and quite a bit of writing of both music, lyrics, and prose. So all in all, it was a relatively productive year, even if it did not result in publication or in another record.

This will hopefully change in 2014.

I endeavor to finally complete the long-suffering solo record, and to hopefully record the next Midgard album by the end of 2014. Better yet, I come into the new year with the goal of making a concerned push towards being professionally published. And since the literary landscape is changing, I intend on trying something little different this time around.

It is no secret to most people who know me that I always had a fascination with the Warhammer 40,000 universe and its offshoots. This fascination included a “for-fun” alternate history writing project, based on a reimagined WH40K universe but with original characters and a heavily modified setting. While this project is not publishable, due to it falling under the umbrella of “fan-fiction”, it is still, in my opinion, a good example of my take on dark space opera genre.

As a result, I intend to put the project in question out there as a free promotional tool of sorts, both to put my writing out there, and to test the waters of public interest for prospective future Kindle publishing or similar. As fan-fiction, this project has no commercial value (not to mention copyright issues), but as an example of my writing, and as a good story in its own right – who knows, it might give exposure to my original works, and give my efforts to get published a swift kick in the posterior.

Wish me luck guys! Hopefully by late Spring, the project in question (a trio of novel-length works) will be out and about. Stay tuned, there will be more to come!

Here we go again

It must be the time of year where this blog, long slumbering under the sheets of unintentional neglect, is brought back from dormancy. Why? Well, because it is time for another push towards publication, and hopefully that means more updates (and occasionally amusing stories) in the air, soon!

So, here is to hoping that 2014 (or even late 2013) is the year when my literary endeavors finally get off the ground. Wish me luck!

Book Review – “Vulkan Lives” by Nick Kyme

 

Among the tie-in fiction set in Warhammer 40,000 universe, the Horus Heresy series always stood apart. Long an opportunity for Black Library’s most promising authors to flex their literary muscles, the Heresy novels tend to be measured by a uniformly higher standard than much other Warhammer 40,000 fiction. Their plots tend to be more complex, their characters deeper and more conflicted, while the scale tends to be epic even in a universe where galaxy-spanning civilizations routinely come into conflict, worlds die on a daily basis, and trillion-strong populations can be forgotten due to a simple clerical error. As such, any time I buy a Horus Heresy novel, I expect a thrilling ride through the mythologies and origin stories of everyone’s favorite grim darkness of the far future.

This brings me to “Vulkan Lives”.

While I enjoyed Nick Kyme’s Salamanders novels set in “contemporary” 40K (as well as “Fall of Damnos”), I did not know if he could write a full novel up to Heresy standards of quality, where battles were interceded with character development, psychological struggles, and interesting tidbits/interactions – his previous Space Marine novels explored aspects of Adeptus Astartes archetypes, which, while enjoyable in their own right, do not make for great Heresy novels.

As such, I approached the novel with a bit of apprehension, fearing that it might be another action-driven romp without substance. Instead, Kyme delivered a work that reads and feels like a Horus Heresy novel with all the nuances one would expect from the series, and more than a few surprises (not to mention several MASSIVE cliffhangers at the end). More than anything, he proved without doubt that he is up to the task of writing Horus Heresy novels, and doing it well.

I thought that the characters had distinct feel to them, and carried their individual themes pretty well. Numeon and his men were a study in trauma and PTSD – adrift with little direction and somewhat of a death wish, lashing out like a wounded and cornered beast yet struggling to keep to their sense of purpose. Vulkan himself was the rare instance of the Primarch done right – it takes skill to keep him as a larger-than-life figure without making him too difficult to relate to. Yes, some of his struggles against the “monster” within felt a little contrived, but overall, I thought he was a sympathetic character with some depth.

Curze was, well, insane, and his death wish was very well done. I can see how far gone he was even during the events at Kharaatan, and by the “present” time he was essentially the Heresy series’ own Hannibal Lecter. His mind games were interesting, and his unbalanced nature showed through to great effect.

I was glad to see John Grammaticus make a comeback, and think that Kyme did him justice, but at times Grammaticus felt more like a plot device than a character. Still, his presence was not an eyesore, and overall he fit within the novel’s overall theme of trauma and dealing with emotional injury. Similarly, while some of the Word Bearers (Elias in particular) felt like caricature villains, Narek was the Legion’s redeeming factor, making the sons of Lorgar seem less like stand-in baddies and more like a complex group that is not as united as one would think. I really hope to see more of Narek in the future Heresy stories, as he was an interesting character. Yes, Erebus felt a little of deus ex machina, but I also wonder how much he knows about the Cabal’s plans… and what those plans might be. I would really like to see a novel about Erebus at some point in the Heresy series, as he has a lot of potential. It would take a lot of skill to write him as an interesting, multi-dimensional character, and not as the series’ moustache-twirling villain, but it is doable by a skilled author.

Some may not be crazy about the use of flashbacks, but I thought they filled the story nicely, both providing some background to Vulkan’s relationship with Kurze, giving glimpses of how the Salamanders Legion was before Isstvan V, and also going into some depth of what caused the trauma exhibited by the surviving Salamanders (and their Iron Hands/Raven Guard cohorts) during their segments. To me, the flashbacks felt like an integral part of the novel, and not as action scenes to take up word count.

While “Vulkan Lives” may not be the best Heresy novel, it is definitely in top quartile by my account. I have really enjoyed it, and hope to see more Horus Heresy from Nick Kyme.

Book Review – “Snake Oil” by Bruno Lombardi

And here it is, the first book review on this blog! The honors go to Bruno Lombardi’s debut science fiction novel “Snake Oil”, a very enjoyable and humorous look at first contact that is bound to entertain and amuse in equal measures.

Having had a chance to read an early draft of the novel, I was privileged to see its development into an excellent work of tongue-in-cheek science fiction it is today. The story starts out strong and does not let go, incorporating a varied and unique cast of characters and interweaving plot lines that all come together in the end. Amongst the novel’s protagonists are secret agents, UFO believers, and (literally) tinfoil-wearing conspiracy theorists – and that is only tip of the iceberg. Each archetype is played up for humorous effect, and when they do interact with each other, the results are often hilarious, and yet still believable.

The plot of “Snake Oil” thrives on taking fiction and pop culture clichés and spinning them with new, unique twists. The aliens come to Earth not as conquerors, but as – rather sleazy – salesmen, all answering to the name “Bob”, and interactions between the aliens and various stratas of human society take on a decidedly commercial bent, up to and including a bidding war between governments lining up to purchase alien technologies. And while the aliens do have questionable intentions, the nature of their intentions and methods was refreshingly different from many science fiction clichés.

Lombardi’s writing is witty and fast-paced, and his characters are instantly memorable, with each having a distinct persona and interesting influence on the book’s events. The protagonists are intentionally written as caricatures of certain archetypes for great comical effect, however, the book never descends into cheap parody. “Snake Oil” is a smart, funny, and imaginative romp through unconventional first contact scenario, and is highly recommended.

Buy it now at Amazon.Com

(Iron) Maiden Voyage: Forging the Legend (Chapter 2 of 7)

To this day, Iron Maiden’s 1982 opus “The Number of the Beast” is considered one of all-time metal classics, and it is not difficult to see why. The album’s seamless mixture of raw, punk-infused NWOBHM energy with more complex, ambitious songwriting that owed equally to Led Zeppelin, Queen, and even Yes and Genesis produced a blueprint for the band’s ultimate sound, as well as unleashing several successful singles that still get obnoxious amounts of airplay in 2013. Out of the album’s eight songs, no less than three (“Run to the Hills”, progressive epic “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, and the title track with its then-provocative name and lyrics) are still an integral part of Iron Maiden’s live show.

While the guitar work of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith became one of Iron Maiden’s trademark features, it was the arrival of Bruce Dickinson on vocals that defined Iron Maiden as most of us known it. Often imitated but never equaled, Dickinson’s operatic howl finally gave the songs the dramatic tension they needed, morphing them from raw byproducts of NWOBHM into mini-narratives, reaching operatic climax on tracks like “Children of the Damned” and aforementioned “Hallowed Be Thy Name”.

Looking back at “The Number of the Beast” in 2013, the album is far from perfect, and contains its fair share of lesser tracks – after all, not many people would actively scream for “Gangland” or “Invaders”, while Adrian Smith-penned “22 Acadia Avenue” feels like a throwback to the earlier, less developed form of the genre. That said, it was also the first Iron Maiden album on which everything came together – performances, songwriting, energy and drama that made the band a success in the 1980s and beyond. For that reason alone, it is a bona fide classic in the metal community, and many still consider it their finest hour despite the subsequent albums correcting its shortcomings.

I must admit – it was pure dumb fun to scream the chorus of the title track when I was sixteen and wanted to shock parents and non-metal friends. While Iron Maiden were never the most extreme band, there is a certain attraction to yelling out comprehensive lyrics that invoke everyone’s favorite fallen angel, not because of any inherent belief, but rather out of desire to challenge the status quo. For a still-awkward teen, it was the means of forging one’s identity as distinct from the others’ expectations, creating a self-image as a member of heavy metal subculture with all its idiosyncrasies. It was a declaration to the world that I have arrived, and this was the sound and the imagery that spoke to me, a superficial sign of identity as a metal fan.

As an adolescent, I remember separating the world by musical genre, just like others may separate it by literary interests, preference of Star Trek versus Star Wars, or any other criteria. Music was a form of identity, a form of knowing friend from foe, a way to meet others with similar persuasions. As a recent immigrant at the time, it was the latter function of the music that proved decisive in my life afterwards, as the Russian-speaking community in this area has never been very interested in metal, prompting me to seek friendships outside of it, to acquire greater degree of fluency in English, and to eventually have most of my social circle comprised of non-Russian speaking individuals.

Discovering Iron Maiden in the 1990s gave me the luxury of picking and choosing the order in which I listened to their albums for the first time. As such, I recall buying copies of “The Number of the Beast”, “Piece of Mind”, and “Powerslave” at roughly the same time, and my memories of three records are thus intertwined. And yet, the albums have sufficiently distinct moods and structures to still stand apart from one another, and to appeal to different aspects of growing up and discovering oneself.

Where “The Number of the Beast” was the soundtrack to rebellion and forming an independent identity, “Piece of Mind” was the sound of development and growth. The songs were more mature, the playing was tighter, and the lyrical themes reached for science fiction, history, fantasy and mythology. While the opener “Where Eagles Dare” was a relatively straightforward narrative based on a movie about the second World War, “Flight of Icarus” was no mere retelling of the myth, instead becoming a tale of ambition and pride. The titular Trooper of the Crimean War is not a mindless automaton killing for glory or excitement, but a man swept in a desperate charge of the Light Brigade, lamenting his own demise in the chaos of combat.

Bruce Dickinson’s involvement with the writing process produced several tracks with darker, more pensive feel, such as “Revelations”, or often overlooked “Sun and Steel”, while the lyrical themes began to involve darker side of mysticism and prophecy on “Die With Your Boots On”, “Still Life”, and epic “To Tame a Land”, the latter of which was inspired by Frank Herbert’s science fiction triumph “Dune”. Simultaneously, the arrival of Nicko McBrain on drums was the final piece of the classic-era lineup, serving as a solid background for Steve Harris’ always adventurous bass lines.

To this day, “Flight of Icarus” is one of my favorite Iron Maiden tracks, to the point of inspiring a scene in the first novel I managed to finish. The titular character’s declaration to “fly as high as the Sun” resonated with my then-teenage self as the unattainable yet worthy goal, something to strive for no matter the adversity. And while my teenage mind put a pessimistic span on it (after all, Icarus’ story did not have a happy ending), something of that ambition remained, enough to still be meaningful almost two decades later.

As “Revelations” foreshadowed interest in the esoteric (to be developed on latter-era Iron Maiden records), it held a special sort of appeal. Many youths wonder about their place in the world, and it is even more poignant in our age, where some form of apocalypse is always around the corner – 1999, 2012, nuclear holocaust, zombie plague, alien invasion… We as a culture have developed an unhealthy fascination with the end to our way of life, and when our art evokes it, it pulls at the heart strings and fascinates, amuses, and even entertains. To a bookish teenager with a long-standing addiction to science fiction and fantasy (an addiction that, if I may add, is something I actively feed to this day!), the song’s literary references and darker theme were, if you excuse the bad pun, a revelation.

“The Trooper”, though far from my favorite Iron Maiden song, holds a very special place in my heart. My first introduction to Iron Maiden was through a broadcast of “Live After Death” live album on Ukrainian television at some point in 1994 or 1995. Up until that point, my musical interests tended to remain on the rock side of things – Queen, Guns’n’Roses, Nirvana, and whatever was making waves in Europe at the time. “The Trooper” changed it all, courtesy of twin guitar harmonies played by Dave Murray and Adrian Smith that, at the time, seemed out of this world. Even after I have learned to play that song (and actually performed it live in a very early incarnation of Midgard), hearing those melodies played by Murray and Smith still gives me chills. Ultimately, those few seconds of one song started me on a path to metal, a truly life-changing event the magnitude of which I did not realize until much, much later.

It is then fitting that “Powerslave”, with its expansive songwriting and further development on “Piece of Mind” themes, was the album responsible for “Live After Death” tour, and, ultimately, for my fascination with Iron Maiden. Taking the basic formula of “Piece of Mind” and distilling it into even more epic, more diverse form, the album is rightly considered one of the finest heavy metal releases of all time, and many fans point to it as being the pinnacle of Iron Maiden’s sound. From World War II and contemporary fears of nuclear showdown to Egyptian mythology and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Powerslave” easily transitions between mythological and socially relevant, between rhyme and reason, between catchy singles like “Aces High” and “2 Minutes to Midnight”, martial “Flash of the Blade” and desperate “Back in the Village” (a sequel of sorts to “The Number of the Beast”’s freedom anthem “The Prisoner” and the TV series it was based on) and epic title track and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with their forays into supernatural and religious themes.

In my opinion, “Powerslave” is the sum of everything Iron Maiden did until that point, and perhaps the best summary of NWOBHM taken to its logical conclusion. Merging youthful energy and exuberance with accomplished musicianship and intelligent lyrical approach, the band created something special that resonates almost three decades later. As a teenager, I was mightily impressed by Iron Maiden’s ability to take the genre of music usually characterized by excess (and, at the time, usually associated with the glamorous offspring of Sunset Strip) and turn it into something more, something intelligent that piqued curiosity and prompted the listeners to seek out the inspiration behind the songs. Each song had a story behind it, and each story pointed to something more than a run-of-the-mill exercise in melodic riffs and soaring vocals. Even now, as a thirty-something year old, I can listen to “Powerslave” along with its predecessors, and still get the same fresh, innovative feel from the music.

Now that the band was at the peak of its creative prowess, with the worldwide fame to match, the only question remaining was how it could possibly top “Powerslave”. Would it go for a radical redesign of its sound, or would it attempt to recapture the magic at a risk of producing a pale imitation? As it turned out, Iron Maiden did something different – in fact, their next step was sufficiently distinct to warrant a separate chapter in this narrative.

Up next: Into the Future (“Somewhere in Time” and “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”). Stay tuned!

Critics and Negative Reviews

It is the unspoken truth of any creative endeavor – if you release it to the public, someone out there will not like it. Sometimes, it may take form of academically written, grammatically correct, exhaustive analysis of everything that went wrong in the reviewer’s opinion. Sometimes, it may take form of a foul-mouthed Internet simian failing to string together two word sentences without constantly invoking obscenities and CAPS LOCK KEY (because it has a magic power of validating even the most asinine of opinions). Most often, criticism will be somewhere in between, and it is the author’s (or the artist’s, if that happens to be the case) job to sift through it, and to distinguish between valid critique and barrage of proverbial feces from the monkey cage.

I can see this debacle from both ends, as a musician and author, and as a reviewer. In all honesty, it is rare musician or author who does not get dismayed by bad reviews, but they can also be a good reality check. If I were to spend months of my life writing or making music, I am almost certainly going to have a strong opinion about its quality and merits. It is not hard for an author to miss things that he might have rationalized or consciously chose to overlook. And as such, it is the reviewer’s job to catch those things – this is why the rest of us read the reviews, right?

As a reviewer, I am also held to certain standards. More often than not, the music I am reviewing (and, eventually, the literature) represents someone’s hard work and dedication. Moreover, a reviewer rarely purchases what he or she reviews – in my experience, most records I have reviewed were provided to me free of charge by the artists or their record labels, essentially as a marketing expense. If someone is willing to give me their work for free in return for critique, I will spend time and effort to respect that person’s work, and to give them constructive criticism if any is warranted. It does not mean that I will give only positive reviews, but it does mean that even in my negative reviews, I will point out to where improvements can be made, and not be dismissive of the effort that went into creating the work under review. As a musician and a writer, I hope to receive the same treatment.

So, if a negative review states precisely what is wrong, what could be better, and what is right, then it has accomplished its goal. I may or may not agree with the points it makes, but I will give them serious consideration instead of acting like a delicate flower with hurt feelings. Let’s face it – hurt feelings alone do not contribute to artistic or literary development. A thick skin, and willingness to learn from criticism does. Therefore, an honest critic who holds nothing back is worth his weight in precious metal of your choice.

Even when the review is not ideal in this respect, there is something to learn from it, as there will be kernels of constructive criticism even in less flattering reviews. Sometimes it takes thicker skin to dig for it – and while considering oneself an infallible creative genius is good for self-esteem, it is not very conducive to successful creative endeavors.

And then, there are the people who completely miss the point.

Over my musical career, I have received several reviews that blasted my albums because they were not “extreme” enough. In my humble opinion, it is an equivalent of criticizing steak for not being made of chicken. That said, there is a valuable lesson to it: sometimes, the reviews are just sent to wrong people who are not the target audience for the work in question. Further, it stresses out the importance of doing your research before submitting materials for review, and only targeting the publications that actually cover the genre, and can provide useful feedback.

Finally, there are the troglodytes, hailing from troll-infested basements and studio apartments worldwide. You know the kind – them of perpetual CAPS LOCK, incomprehensible scribbling, and vocabularies limited to insults and obscenities. These are the critters who alternate between misspelled not-so-witty one-liners and verbal equivalent of diarrhea, the definite proof that a million monkeys given infinite time will never reproduce the works of Shakespeare. These are the freeloaders who actively solicit the artist or the author to send them materials for review, even when they are very clearly not the target audience, and when they have no intention of providing anything resembling constructive critique, or even any critique at all.

The absolute worst case scenario for any author or musician is when one of these critters manages to acquire your works, posing as a legitimate reviewer, only to post something very poorly written and incomprehensible (and sometimes, to boot, in a language the author/musician does not understand). For all intents and purposes, it is a waste of perfectly legitimate promotional materials that could have been put to better use somewhere else, and money thrown away on postage (if the troglodyte asks for a physical copy). It is these “reviewers” who are most frustrating, because while almost all other negative reviews have a point, the troglodytes go out of their way to break every rule of reasonable discourse.

But wait! Even these bottom-dwellers have a purpose. They serve to illustrate how important honest critics are, and how much any creative individual should appreciate true constructive criticism. So ultimately, a negative review is usually going to be pretty valuable; a review that misses the point might be telling; a review by a troglodyte is a reminder to appreciate your friendly (or not-so-friendly) critics who will tell you what is wrong.

Hail Critics!

Review of Vermiform – “Of Chaos and the Void”

Vermiform
“Of Chaos and the Void”
Masters of Metal Productions, 2012
Rating: 8.5 / 10

One could be forgiven for thinking that Vermiform’s sophomore record, “Of Chaos and the Void”, is the work of a completely different band from the one that released “Everlasting Horror” three years prior. Where the debut album reveled in a distinctly American type of old-school death metal pioneered by bands like Obituary, the follow-up is an entirely different beast despite maintaining the core of the band’s lineup. The second coming of Vermiform is an entirely different take on dark, aggressive music that borrows heartily from black and melodic death metal without compromising atmosphere and intensity.

“Of Chaos and the Void” sounds like a result of some particularly misanthropic residents of Gothenburg, Sweden taking a long sabbatical in a Norwegian forest with nothing but their instruments and recording equipment. It dwells roughly in the same territory as latter-day Dissection, Naglfar, or maybe Dawn, if the latter took greater interest in melodic death metal. While for many bands stylistic changes represent trouble, this is definitely not the case of confused identity, as the album is cohesive and focused. The band has obviously approached the writing process with a very clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish, and managed to produce a grim yet entertaining record for all of our shriveled black hearts.

In this, the idea behind Vermiform’s second album is similar to what they did on “Everlasting Horror”: take a genre they are fans of, and serve up a reverent tribute to it, while embellishing it with occasional catchy choruses (“All That I Despise” or “Children of the Darkest Night”), memorable riffs (“A Black Ash Inheritance”), sinister interludes (intro track “Entering the Void” and “Dreams of the Abyss”), or even an atmospheric, lengthy closer (“The End of All”). The band employs a number of guest soloists, who contribute to varied lead guitar stylings and give each song a distinctive edge. Vocally, Bryan Edwards still employs a sickening, gut-wrenching growl, which conveys the album’s misanthropy very well, and which serves as yet another weapon in Vermiform’s arsenal.

The album mix is a bit unusual, as it brings the drums forward over guitars, and may occasionally detract from the overall impression, as it takes some time to get used to. At times, the mix feels as if it was intended for a rawer, less melodic form of music, but it also serves to prop up the black metal feel on “Of Chaos and the Void”, so it might be a matter of personal taste. Similarly, the programmed drums are an occasional distraction during blast beats, particularly on “All That I Despise”, but it is a minor complaint, since the songs are strong enough to overlook these issues.

Once again, Vermiform delivers the goods with “Of Chaos and the Void”. The record is full of good songs, impeccable playing, and the kind of grim atmosphere that Dissection was famous for creating. Another highly recommended offering from Masters of Metal Productions.

Vermiform – “Everlasting Horror” review

Vermiform
“Everlasting Horror”
Masters of Metal Productions, 2009
Rating: 8/10

This is the album I should not have enjoyed as much as I did. While I occasionally enjoy few songs by bands like Malevolent Creation or Obituary, old school Florida death metal has never been my favorite genre, so Vermiform’s debut album took me by surprise and refused to let go.

Sometimes, a genre might need a decade or two in order to mature (or, as might be the case with some of the intentionally uglier styles, to fester in the ground) before it can become fresh again. “Everlasting Horror” is a result of musicians with appreciation for the genre getting together to pay tribute to everything that was good about the genre, and as such, it succeeds. This is raw old school death metal as seen through the eyes of the fans, but regurgitated into the XXIst century in all its primitive, ugly glory.

From buzzsaw guitars to gurgling low-pitched vocals, Vermiform makes no excuse for what they are trying to do. There are more than a few (intentional) parallels between “Everlasting Horror” and early works by Obituary or Morbid Angel, more so the former than the latter. And while I must confess that Obituary tends to lose my attention after a few songs, Vermiform has enough sensitivity for smart, hook-laden (as much as this can apply to death metal of non-melodic variety) songwriting to keep things interesting.

The songs have a certain charm and enthusiastic energy about them, raising them beyond the level of mere imitations and making them into credible contributions to the genre. The lo-fi nature of production is an asset to the raw atmosphere of the album. Whether Vermiform remains within the genre confines or ventures away from the safe grounds into more melodic territory (“At the Mountains of Madness”, which utilizes some melodic riffs and even occasional clean vocal), the result is a very satisfying experience. It may not be the most innovative or unique offering in the realm of old-school death metal, but “Everlasting Horror” knows its limitations, and delivers on all accounts.

Happy 2013 / Things to Come (soon)

Happy 2013 to all of you! For those of you who follow this blog with any degree of regularity, there will be a number of new and exciting updates coming your way shortly. The Iron Maiden series will be concluded, and a number of music and even literary reviews will be posted. Furthermore, expect a few more things of note, including a webzine coming soon, and maybe, just maybe, some new literary endeavor or two. Sounds interesting? If so, watch this space!

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