Album Review: Crafteon – “Cosmic Reawakening”

Crafteon

“Cosmic Reawakening”

Independent, 2017

Rating: 87%

Band page: https://www.facebook.com/crafteon/

Crafteon - Cosmic Reawakening cover art

It is not easy to get melodic black metal right. Go too far into the melodic territory, and you risk descending into the quasi-gothic self-parody. Go too far into the black metal aesthetic, and whatever benefits the melodic edge would have provided tend to rob the music of its immediate impact. On Crafteon’s debut release, I am pleased to report that the band gets the balance between the atmospheric nihilism of black metal and its dark melodicism just right, producing a righteous slab of metal bound to satisfy the purists and perhaps even win over a few converts from other styles of extreme music.

On “Cosmic Reawakening”, Crafteon offer up eight tracks that go through an enviable amount of dynamics, interspersing blast beats and aggressive passages with slower yet no less impactful sections to inject just enough order into the chaotic soundscape. While the guitar work is suitably atonal and unsettling, as befitting a true black metal release, the band smartly adds melodies that are, dare I say, almost catchy at times, and which provide a focal point for the dark ambience of the material. I could not help but think back to the evolution of Scandinavian black metal when it acquired a measure of melodic death metal aesthetic without sacrificing any of the blasphemous intensity, with the classic Dissection as the prime reference point.

Indeed, more than a few of Crafteon’s songs harken back to the peak Dissection style without sounding like a clone. “The Outsider” and “Dagon” are the prime examples of this tendency, both well-written, memorable, and rooted in the same nihilistic foundations which spawned the genre greats. The melodies are intelligently crafted to retain the disturbing atmosphere without the saccharine overtones, reminding the listener that “Cosmic Reawakening” is a black metal release, as uncompromising and violent as one would expect from the style. The focus is not on speed but on the feel of the music, which creates a very rewarding listening experience without sacrificing the brutality.

Lyrically, the album is rooted in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, which is a great thematic fit for the music. The vocal approach tends towards the standard (albeit well performed) extreme metal fare, but the harsh screams are occasionally accentuated by debased chanting and subtle yet effective backing vocals. This works particularly well on tracks like “The White Ship”, where the melodies veer towards more hopeful territory somewhat reminiscent of early days of Gothenburg melodic death metal, only to be brought down into the nihilistic despair evoked by the lyrical content. By following a slightly more straightforward structure and a different melodic foundation, it is bound to be either one’s favorite or one’s least favorite track on the record, but it most certainly stands out and provides a good focal point for the album.

Crafteon is at its best when the music hits the listener like the proverbial wall of barely organized chaos, tied together with strong melodies yet never abandoning the intensity. While towards the end of the record, the aggression takes somewhat of a back seat to the atmospherics, the quality remains very consistent. The end result is a highly focused, interesting release bound to appeal to the cold dark hearts of the black metal audience, and with enough potential to interest fans of other genres of extreme metal music due to the intelligent use of melodies, memorable songs, and genuine atmosphere.

On Nations in Transition, and Future We Want

Most states have one of the three foundations – they are either ethnocentric, dynastic, or imperial. An ethnocentric state is built around, and for the benefit of, one distinct ethnic group, which forms the majority of the population, and the basis of the state’s culture, language, and government (i.e.). A dynastic state is built by a specific lineage of rulers, and does not have a general identity unique to it outside of the ruling dynasty (i.e. Saudi Arabia). An imperial state is a centrally ruled entity composed of multiple subject groups and not defined solely through the ruling dynasty, though one group can be dominant (i.e. United States and Russia at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with Russia bordering on an ethnocentric model).

Much of modern-day internal social conflict in developed Western states has to do with the transition from an ethnocentric state model to an imperial state model.

Since the purpose of an ethnocentric state is to benefit the ethnic group which set it up, the transition creates an impression of disadvantaging said groups, which creates considerable backlash and “us versus them” mentality. Further, an imperial state by definition has to maintain strong centralized authority, whereas other models can be successfully implemented in more homogeneous societies. This creates an opening for authoritarian, strongman regimes while also galvanizing the opponents of such regimes, especially if the nation is used to laissez-faire government involvement.

Interestingly enough, authoritarian regimes do not have to be built around the formerly majority ethnic group. They simply have to be strong enough to maintain a degree of control over a society with multiple potential power bases, whether through building a workable alliance of minority groups (i.e. Alawite regime in Syria), or by outright intimidation and terror. In time, an authoritarian imperial regime may morph into a dynastic state, especially if no common identity exists, and a singular succession of rulers can hold on to power. Of course, it can also turn into an ethnocentric state through less savory means which typically involve exile or extermination of dissidents and members of the groups excluded from power.

This brings me to the growing pains experienced by the Western societies, and specifically by the United States. The path from an ethnocentric state to an imperial state is not a clear one, and has a very real chance of an outright disaster. Taking into account the inherent factionalism of the human species, an ethnocentric state’s ability to successfully convert to a diverse imperial paradigm hinges upon it developing a shared identity that all of its components subscribe to – in essence, expanding the definition of “us” over the course of the transition.

A great example of this in the United States context is the definition of “white” (yes, the use of the concept is deliberate, considering the socially charged climate with respect to the American concept of “race”) expanding from strictly meaning English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon Protestants from England proper to a very amorphous idea of “white” label used today, and incorporating people with extremely diverse ethnic origins, who would not have been considered under the same definition even a century ago. I see a successful transition of the United States into a true imperial model being dependent on doing away with the labels of ethnicity, religion, and race, and replacing them with an overarching concept of “citizenship” which is not connected to any of those things, but is instead based on a shared ethos.

Some might say that we are already there, but I would point out the difference between theory and practice. When all is said and done, we are a divided society on many levels. We have real problems with unequal application of the rules, though it is not as straightforward as proponents of the extremes claim, and is not always one-sided. We have a real problem with racism, though it is, again, a much more complex issue than the politically correct paradigm, and is not limited to one group. We have a real problem with only allowing one faulty narrative to dictate the development of our culture instead of taking a sober look at who we are, and who we want to be.

We have a complex history, but we do not often consider that we are not unique. Discrimination, exploitation, ethnic violence, religious suppression, tyranny – every nation with sufficiently long history experienced most or all of these things. Many nations and groups still cling on to the legacy of these events and stroke the fires of conflict with centuries-old and often imaginary justification. The longer we cling to the legacy of strife, the longer it will take for us to overcome it.

From here, an ethnocentric state in transition can become several things. It can successfully establish a new identity for all of its’ people as a unifying factor, and become a nation where ethnicity matters about as much as the hair color, religion matters as much as your favorite sports team, and sexual orientation is about as important as the color of your underwear. It can fracture into various components, which become ethnocentric states all their own – sometimes peacefully (Czechoslovakia), sometimes not (Yugoslavia). It can become an authoritarian regime unafraid to use force against the dissenters, ruling its subjects with an iron fist (Russia or Assad’s Syria). It can even become a dynastic state if the conditions are right. In the many cases, a nation can fall to civil strife to get there.

I do not want to see this. I would like to see a world where our divisions are meaningless, and where all segments of our society can operate under a shared set of common values regardless of where we came from.

The way to get there is not through further division. The way to get there is in finding an identity greater than the sum of its parts, looking forward instead of ruminating about the past, focusing on the ways in which we are alike, and being honest about all truths, politically correct and not. If we are not honest about the very real problems in all corners of our society, and are not committed to a true multi-faceted approach without claiming exceptionalism or devising ways in which the rules of conduct should apply to some (but not to all), then the future we want will not be the future we will get. I want to see the Federation, not post-1991 Yugoslavia, but the modern populist rhetoric on both sides will get us the latter, not the former.

Album review: Poseidon’s Anger, “Tales From Near and Far”

Poseidon’s Anger

“Tales From Near and Far”

Rating: 80%

Studio projects are often a mixed bag in terms of quality and consistency, though sometimes they offer creative opportunities not often available to conventional bands. While a traditional artist has to at least consider the possibility of performing the material live and maintaining a stable lineup, these constraints do not apply to studio bands and projects with their vast stables of contributors and use of arrangements or instruments that would be difficult to faithfully replicate in concert. Therefore, a band conceptualized in this manner has to thread the fine line between making the best use of myriad talents involved in the creative process, and keeping to an artistic vision that is internally consistent, cohesive, and overall greater than the sum of its parts.

As a studio-only creation, Poseidon’s Anger is surprisingly consistent in style and approach, and managed to create a very solid sophomore release with “Tales From Near and Far” despite few hiccups. The band has achieved this end through staying true to a singular core style of American power/heavy metal popularized by the likes of recent Iced Earth output or a heavier version of classic Manilla Road, with the variety provided through the use of multiple vocalists on various tracks. Occasionally, the band employs keyboards and exotic instrumental and vocal melodies, however, these are not overused, and rarely take center stage, which helps to keep them as welcome additions instead of an overpowering presence.

Most of the songs stay in the mid-paced territory, though there are both faster and slower sections throughout the record to create a sense of dynamics. Those looking for all-out speed metal should probably look elsewhere, but the majority of the material on “Tales” is well-crafted, and has an epic feel suitable to the history-themed lyrical content.

Each of the album’s nine tracks (plus a short keyboard-and-spoken-word intro) employs a different vocalist to give the songs a distinct feel. For the most part, it works very well, though there are few mismatches between the prevalent vocal style and the songs (most notably on “Son of the Dragon”, which could have benefitted from a more aggressive vocal approach, and on “Vercingetorix”, where the vocal acrobatics are sometimes overpowering the rest of the song). The use of both male and female vocalists with diverse styles was a welcome addition to the album, and while all singers are clearly coming from a power/heavy end of the metal spectrum, they are individually distinct, and add unique flavor to the songs. In particular, both “Deborah” and “Sinhagad” benefit from unusual vocal phrasings, while “Goliad”, “Dragon of the Morn”, and “The Last Cavalier” are elevated by strong performances that stay within genre confines but showcase the talent and the professionalism of the singers.

The songs are typically built around several riffs, which range from raise-your-fist classic metal of “The Last Cavalier” to more aggressive modern metal rhythms of “Sinhagad” and Iced Earth-ish tempo changes of “Vercingetorix”. The use of electronic drums (albeit with a live drummer) occasionally creates an interesting effect of giving a slight mechanical edge to certain hi-hat sounds, though it is not a distraction, and the smart use of double-kick segments on faster tracks tends to give the songs a good sense of dynamics. The guitar work, particularly the leads, is melodic and varied without being overly flashy, technical when it needs to be yet subdued when the vocals take center stage.

All in all, “Tales” sounds like a record made by a cohesive band, with a singular concept, and a tight sound. While there are areas for Poseidon’s Anger to grow on future releases (more variation in song tempos and exploring fits between vocalists and songs on certain songs being chief amongst them), the band delivers a strong and consistent album that is both entertaining in its present shape, and bodes well for its future development. Good stuff.

Get the digital release of the album at:

https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/poseidonsanger1

In Flames – “Battles” album review

In Flames

Battles (2016)

Rating: 74% (decent)

in-flames-battles-cover

We all have to grow up some time. At a certain point in our lives, we care less about late-night party scene and more about getting up for work early in the morning, less about the latest craze and more about getting our children into better schools while encouraging their first accomplishments. Our living rooms are now covered in family pictures rather than in band posters and edgy counterculture proclamations.

It only goes to reason that our musical heroes have also aged. Where the teenage version of me raged against the world along with the seminal melodic death releases such as “The Jester Race” or “Whoracle” made by the guys only a few years older than myself, the mid-30s version of me begins to recognize that In Flames of 2016 is considerably closer to middle age, and is probably dealing with many of the same existential dilemmas I have found myself in at this point in my life – parenthood, matters of personal and artistic legacy, a general change in the pace of life. The band’s last several albums hinted at this, but now, with “Battles”, In Flames had delivered the record fully immersed in the mindset of early middle age, where youthful exuberance and aggression are generally tempered by considerably more sedate and introspective emotions.

In short, “Battles” sounds like a metal album made by a group of guys pushing 40 and feeling it. For the most part, the album is mid-paced, with more emphasis placed on vocal lines and catchy melodies than on outright riffing and speed. Some of the arrangements have a very distinct pop influence, most notably on “The Truth” (which for some reason rekindled my memories of such 1990s radio-rock wonders as P.O.D.), but also surfacing throughout the record. While this produces the sound guaranteed to turn off the metal purists, the end result is surprisingly listenable, and might broaden the band’s appeal to the crowd with nostalgic feelings for the nineties.

There are several songs where In Flames attempt to harken back to their trademark twin guitar riffing (“The End”, “Us Against the World” – the latter being a definite throwback to older era as one of the fastest tracks on the album), but “Battles” is less about guitar heroics and more about the general atmosphere. Unlike 2014’s “Siren Charms” with its often directionless meandering and rushed songs, “Battles” presents a rather cohesive whole, and has a good amount of diversity within the material. Sometimes it works very well to produce an atmospheric, moody modern metal record – at other times, the experiments get in the way (for example, the electronic s in the beginning of “Save Me” are a distraction), but for the most part, nothing on “Battles” is outright offensive.

Perhaps this might be the album’s biggest critique. It feels honest, but it also is not very challenging, and seems content to tread the same waters as the last several In Flames records. Everything on “Battles” is decent to good, but not much of it is great, and some of the experiments veer dangerously into the territory where they lose the core In Flames sound of intricate dual guitar work and folk-inspired melodies in modern arrangements. In place of those melodies, the band takes an almost synthpop-inspired approach, which challenges the core of what this band is, and further alienates many of the older fans who were angered by “Reroute to Remain”.

 At its core, “Battles” is about 30% “A Sense of Purpose”, 30% “Siren Charms”, 30% nineties-era heavy rock, and 10% outright heavy pop of bands like Amaranthe. The songs are generally good, and while many represent relatively safe ideas, they feel like they represent who the members of In Flames are at this stage in their life. So, perhaps the “Battles” they are talking about are less about turning the world upside down and more about making it to the next PTO meeting or paying the bills on time, but at least it sounds like In Flames care, and this is all I can really ask of them at this stage in their career.

 

Post-election blues

This has been a contentious electoral process, and it brought out the worst in many of us. That said, it was also a learning experience, both for me personally, and for us as a nation. It produced both good, bad, and ugly outcomes while shaking our political and social alignments to the core.

The good: the process of voting for candidates maintains its integrity. I will admit that I had my doubts about the electoral process prior to the election, and was expecting to see a preordained result, however, the fact of Trump’s unlikely victory suggests that the candidates are, by large, elected through the votes of the citizens rather than by some clandestine process… unless, of course, you are the Democratic party (more on that later).

The bad: while the public trust in mainstream media was already low, this election has essentially put a nail in the coffin of the idea of truly independent press in the United States. The press coverage of the 2016 election has removed the doubt that the mainstream media is a tool of the political establishment, and will continue to provide slanted, one-sided, and oftentimes outright false coverage of the events to benefit their candidate of choice.

The ugly: oh my, where do I start? Let’s skip the obvious (the election of a political equivalent of a shock-jock to the highest office in the nation), and examine how it got to this point. The Washington political establishment has created this mess themselves by encouraging polarization of the country in naïve hope that it creates reliable voting blocs to push their candidates through the gerrymandered districts, while the core of the government policies has not significantly changed outside of social window dressing. As such, the politicians acted without any accountability, pushing through ill-advised policies and acting in their own benefit rather than benefitting the nation at large. Now, the results of this polarization and arrogance are rearing their heads.

This 2016 election season, the voting public sent a clear message to Washington – the status quo just will not do, and Washington insiders and career politicians failed to heed it. This is what powered the rise of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, and the rise (and the eventual victory) of Donald Trump on the Republican side of the election. The voters made it clear early in the primary season that they did not want an establishment candidate, and that they wanted a candidate who actually addresses the things that matter to them, with a degree of believability.

It did not matter that Trump’s campaign promises might turn out to be worth less than the air expelled from his lungs while speaking. It did not matter that Hillary Clinton publicly subscribed to certain policies championed by Bernie Sanders. In the end, the voters wanted to take a chance on Trump (never mind his own dealings with Washington insiders over the course of his time in the public eye), and did not believe Clinton’s sincerity (after her decades of being, well, a politician, and doing what politicians routinely do). The public wanted change. We were promised change with Obama, and got more of the same leadership by politicians, for politicians, never mind that Obama himself was in retrospect a fairly decent leader who would have easily won a third term if he was eligible. If this new fresh face did not deliver real change, the voters asked themselves, why would another career politician?

And this brings me full circle to the Democratic party’s selection process. It appears that the party’s thought process for selecting a candidate was rooted in an outdated paradigm that once a voter can be galvanized into the party, he or she will vote on the party line. They mistook the enthusiasm many people felt for Bernie Sanders with the enthusiasm for the party, and did not realize that many Sanders voters represented the same rebellion against the status quo which produced Donald Trump. These voters were not vested in the Democratic party, and could no longer be swayed by traditional fearmongering (vote for our candidate, because the other candidate is a monster). The selection process by the DNC did not help, as it created well-founded suspicions of collusion and foul play to push their preferred candidate at the expense of what the more enthusiastic voters actually wanted. The Democratic VP candidate was a nail in the coffin, a non-entity outside of Virginia, and a slap in the face to the progressive movement who did not want another establishment choice. As such, the Democratic party could not galvanize their voter base, while the Republican party managed to galvanize theirs in spite of resistance from the party elites – in fact, the very fact that the Republican party elites offered Trump lukewarm support at best probably helped his chances with the anti-establishment voters.

In short, the Democratic party used a process which produced a weak, uninspiring candidate with too many flaws, and alienated a sufficient part of its voter base to make it count come November 8th. Had the superdelegates served their intended function of picking the most eminently electable candidate (especially knowing who the opponent was going to be), we would have been talking about President-elect Sanders (or Biden, if we were to be given a more mainstream choice) today, by a landslide. Instead, backroom political maneuvering and shady underhanded deals produced perhaps the only Democratic candidate Donald Trump had a realistic chance at beating.

As a side note, I have no regrets over voting the way I did, and will not be blamed for not supporting a bad Democratic candidate to prevent an election of an unknown. It was on the Democratic party to provide the voters with a candidate acceptable to all (or at least most) of the party’s base, and the party has failed to do so. If the Democrats wanted Democratic votes, they should have put forth a better candidate instead of going for the next-(wo)man-up mentality and losing an eminently winnable election.

To continue with the ugly side of things, this election has been as contentious as any in the recent memory. Even the worst of the insults and accusations thrown at Obama paled in comparison to what transpired between Clinton and Trump. I am thoroughly disgusted that we as a nation stooped down that low, and that such childish slurs actually impacted our thinking at the polls. E-mails? Russians? Benghazi? Grab them by the…? I was really hoping that we were more mature than this, and that our voting public had a greater understanding of what did and did not matter in this election. The amounts of sheer bigotry and hatred on both sides of the electorate made me shake my head. We are supposed to be the people of one nation, though of many different creeds, ethnicities, religions, and orientations, yet we certainly did not act like it. This is another side effect of long-standing polarization of the electorate, and I can only hope that as the newer generations enter politics, we can see some healing.

In conclusion, I can only hope that we can overcome the wounds caused by decades of two-party mismanagement and bitterness. Perhaps the system of checks and balances works as it was intended to. Perhaps Donald Trump proves the old idiom that your qualities as a person do not necessarily translate into your qualities as a leader of the greatest nation in the world. Perhaps he will surprise us all and go down in history as a great president (though there is no telling which way his time in the Oval Office will go). Perhaps we even need a flawed individual like him in the office to reflect on who we are as a people, and to find a way forward as a unified nation and, hopefully, a force for good in the world after almost losing our way. All I can do is hope.

The Last Rock Stars – Why Lemmy Matters

I must confess: I have never been a huge Motorhead fan. No, it is not due to any issue I had with the band or their music; while I have always appreciated their craft and importance in the grand scheme of all things heavy metal, my gateway to the genre remained firmly with the artists from the next wave of style – Iron Maiden, Metallica, and the like. Motorhead has always existed on the periphery of my musical interests – loud, willfully rude and gleefully obnoxious, yet oddly charming for the few times I gave them a listen (though neither “Ace of Spades” nor “Bomber” replaced “Master of Puppets” or “Powerslave” in my regular rotation through the teenage years).

With that said, it is very easy to overlook the substance behind the hard-drinking, hard-living bombast making up Motorhead’s stage image. I had a chance to see the band play live some time in mid-aughts, and though Lemmy and crew had by then settled in a comfortable, blues-tinged heavy rock style that pleased the diehards, they remained a potent act on stage and in the studio, producing a number of quality releases well into the present decade, when any pretense of commercial success from releasing new music gave up the ghost in the changing industry. While “Lemmy IS God” catchphrase has become a running joke thanks to “Airheads” (the movie that epitomized many of the hard rock/heavy metal clichés of the 1980s), there is no denying that the late, beloved frontman was one of the most widely recognized faces of an era, a spokesperson for everything that was loud, proud, and rebellious about the genre.

Perhaps some of my younger readers may not find it easy to relate, but for those of us whose teenage years encompassed the 1990s, this is another sad milestone in an era of popular culture. As heavy metal gained global prominence, it did so on the strength of larger-than-life personalities who embodied certain aspects of the genre, culminating in its modern image as the music of rebellion, individuality, and nonconformity to society’s often repressive aspects. From the leather-and-chains image popularized by Judas Priest to affinity for tales of both fantasy, horror, history, or darker, more violent aspects of psyche and mythology, the genre grew into public consciousness thanks to these metal gods who quickly became household names even outside of their fan bases.

I was fortunate enough to see many of these artists perform live while still in their prime or reasonably close to it, however, nothing lasts forever. Reading the metal-related news content is often a depressing exercise in seeing these erstwhile heroes leave us, sometimes as a consequence of lives lived with a careless abandon, but more often due to advanced age and health complications that often accompany it. While Lemmy Kilmister is the latest old-school rock star to leave us, he is not the last, and it is not infeasible that in the next ten years, many of the elder statesmen of metal and hard rock will no longer be making music.

It is an end of an era, because just as the old guard’s heyday passed into the glorious history of heavy metal, the very nature of the industry and of the music scene changed.

At the tail end of 2015, it is probably safe to say that the days of the great rock stars are numbered. With the ever-falling album sales falling beneath sustenance level for even the kinds of artists that would have been considered mid-level in the past, new music becomes more often than not an exercise to get on the road and to sell collectible merchandise. The record labels that once pushed the artists and helped to get them into the hearts and minds of the public are no longer making the kind of profits they were once used to, and as a consequence, are less willing or likely to support anything but a “sure thing” with a preexisting market and as broad a mass appeal as possible. While I can spend hours giving my thoughts on the nature and the reason behind music industry changes, this is neither the time nor the place for it.

It is also safe to say that the metal scene has seen a degree of fragmentation. A big part of appeal of larger-than-life characters like Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronny James Dio, Rob Halford, Lars Ulrich, Dave Mustaine, and the like is that love them or hate them, everyone has an opinion of them. They are instantly recognizable; they have their own personality traits and opinions that endear them to the fans or cause heated arguments; they are the subject of adoration whose music often takes personal meaning to people from wide range of backgrounds all over the world. As technology and declining conventional music sales make music easier to produce locally, and overall less profitable (so that fewer big-name artists can emerge), the number of channels where one can get their music increases.

In my opinion, this leads to existence of innumerable local scenes separated by genre, location, or even personal relationships (where a scene can form around social media such as a forum or a Facebook group, even if the participants are not in physical proximity). While this does make it easier to find like-minded musicians and fans, it also has an effect of lessening the impact of “wide appeal” artists – as the metal music becomes more complex and continues to diversify and specialize, there are far fewer artists who can elicit the same excitement from the fans of melodic hard rock as they could from the followers of the more extreme forms of metal, the prog listeners who like their music on the heavier side, or adherents of metallic hardcore. As a result, while the 1970s, 1980s, and even early 1990s brought us a number of widely known, charismatic personalities in heavy metal and associated genres, there has been a large dearth of such genre heroes since.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that there has been no great music in the past twenty years – far from it. What I AM, however, saying, is that we are seeing the last of the charismatic personalities that once embodied heavy metal for the public at large.

I am looking at the “elder statesmen” of metal, and am noticing a disturbing trend. While metal has no shortage of flamboyant and outspoken characters, the scene fragmentation led to many of such characters remaining big names in their respective sub-genres… and nowhere else. I do not mean to take away from the people like Jon Schaffer, Abbath, Timo Tolkki, or Tomas Lindberg (all great musicians in their own right), but none of them are at the general level of renown that can be compared to the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Bruce Dickinson, or Ronny James Dio. In fact, the closest thing I see to a metal-associated “rock star” to emerge since 1990 or so is Phil Anselmo (ex-Pantera), and even he is pushing fifty and probably in the last third of his musical career (one can debate whether or not Trent Reznor should be included here as well; I think he deserves an honorable mention due to being in a related genre).

The one thing in common between most of the older rock stars who made metal an unforgivable showcase of glorious flamboyance is that they were firmly entrenched in their positions by mid-career, when they overcame the potential for fading away as one-hit-wonders and proved their lasting power. Looking at the newer artists, I am struggling to find any who might be in the same place in terms of popular acclaim, and who might be as universally beloved and appreciated as Lemmy or Dio are now. Yes, there are some memorable personalities, but would anyone outside of specific genres know them? Would musicians and fans of all the diverse corners of metal appreciate and revere them, now or in ten, twenty years?

And this brings me back to Lemmy, the man who seemingly embodied everything a rocker was supposed to be, both in terms of image and lifestyle. He represented one aspect of the rock’n’roll fantasy for many of us, and even those of us who were not necessarily Motorhead fans could respect his place in the genre history, the influence of his works on other artists, and the fact that Lemmy and Motorhead continued to make quality music in spite of declining commercial viability until the very end.

We live in the waning age of the rock star; while there will always be smaller-scale celebrities in various subgenres of heavy metal, the true giants of the genre are not long for this world. In the next five to ten years, more of the beloved artists will probably call it a day. Who will come to replace them? Will there be anyone to carry the torch of metal as a whole, or will the genre continue to fracture into thousands of disparate scenes and fandoms, no longer united in purpose and mutual recognition, but becoming something quite hard to define and genuinely amorphous?

And therefore, I raise a toast for Lemmy, for Dio, for Jeff Hanneman, Clive Burr, Layne Staley, and many others no longer with us. I raise a toast for the greatest age of rock and metal music, when giants of hedonistic excess and undisputed attitude walked amongst us, and gave us all a peek at the fantasy that once was heavy metal. I raise a toast to all of us who were there, who got to see the ministry of the music and who witnessed the glory that once was while it was still with us – for those of us who remember.

Album review: Dark Tranquillity “Construct” (2013)

Dark Tranquillity

”Construct” (2013)

Rating: 85%

There are very few artists with 20-plus year history who manage to maintain a consistent level of quality in their recorded output without becoming stale. As one of the innovators of the famed Gothenburg school of melodic death metal, Dark Tranquillity had seen the genre grow in popularity, transform into more radio-friendly format, and eventually give birth to music bearing little resemblance to the style’s benchmark releases of yesteryear. Through all of this, the Swedish band continued to soldier on, carried by a sequence of strong releases which married the right amounts of experimentation, aggression, and underground credibility.

 While the band’s early years were marked by changing their stylistic approach from black metal-influenced “Skydancer” to Iron Maiden-on-speed of genre classic “The Gallery” and thrash-influenced riff-fest of “The Mind’s I”, the mid-career experiments “Projector” and “Haven” were succeeded by a return to concise, heavy, and definitely aggressive style with “Damage Done” and beyond. Though Dark Tranquillity kept certain experimental touches such as sparse electronics, rare clean vocals, and smart utilization of keyboards, the band’s recorded output settled into a style which did not deviate from the same formula distilled on “Damage Done” – roughly 60% “The Mind’s I”, 30% from the heavier moments of “Haven”, and 10% derived from brilliant and underappreciated “Projector”. While not a bad formula in and of itself, it also produced a feeling of sameness in some of their more recent releases, leading to the band considerably tweaking its approach on 2013’s “Construct”.

I recall reading an interview with guitarist/founder/chief songwriter Niklas Sundin in which he stated that Dark Tranquillity had to do something different in order to find the motivation to do a new album, and “Construct” definitely lives up to the billing. It is hard to completely reinvent the wheel for melodic death metal at this stage in the genre’s maturity, but the style itself is so expansive that simple emphasis on more melodic and brooding elements altered the result enough to sound fresh. Therefore, “Construct” is not a radical departure for Dark Tranquillity and it does not change the basic ingredients; however, it alters the proportion of those ingredients just enough to create a very inspired record.

As with the several preceding records, “Construct” sounds like an amalgam of everything the band has done to date, however, this time around the melancholic existential angst and anguish takes the spotlight over outright emphasis on melodic guitar lines, speed, or catchy clean choruses of imitators and genre followers. This is not to say that “Construct” has somehow compromised Dark Tranquillity’s melodeath cred – it has its fair share of fast and aggressive tracks (“Apathetic”, “The Science of Noise”, “Endtime Hearts”), but it smartly spaces them out amongst slower-to-mid-paced songs where atmospheric songwriting takes to the fore.

When it works, the results are quite spectacular. “For Broken Words” sets the tone for the album in a way reminiscent of “Projector”-era glories, while “The Silence in Between”, “What Only You Know”, and “State of Trust” further “Projector” comparisons by combining newfound aggression with moody and melancholic parts incorporating heavy use of clean vocals and tempo changes, though it is the brooding and slow “Uniformity” that sounds the most like a “Projector” outtake. While there are a few parts with “heard-it-all-before” feeling, for the most part “Construct” is a powerful piece of work that harkens back to Dark Tranquillity’s mid-period experimentation, creating expansive sonic landscapes that feel truly inspired.

“Construct” is a welcome present for the fans like myself, who preferred the introspection of “Projector” to much of post-“Haven” stylings. Best of all, while many of the songs are naturally catchy and utilize accessible elements (occasional clean vocals, keyboard sections, and sometimes conventional song structures), it is hard to mistake it for more pop-driven In Flames or American-style metalcore derived from Gothenburg sound. This is the sound of a band still firmly rooted in the genre they helped establish, but not afraid to veer off the beaten path even when the end result remains less accessible for casual listeners looking for musical equivalent of fast food. Though not perfect by the virtue of aspiring to the band’s mid-career highs rather than pushing the envelope, “Construct” is an excellent addition to Dark Tranquillity’s back catalogue, and to the melodic death metal genre as a whole.

 

Album review – In Flames – “Siren Charms”

In Flames - Siren Charms cover

In Flames

Siren Charms (2014)

Rating: 71%

Typically, I have little difficulty deciding if I like an album, hate it, or cannot remember a thing about it seconds after it is over. For better or worse, “Siren Charms” by In Flames gave me quite a dilemma. At times throughout the record’s eleven tracks, I simultaneously found myself enjoying the music, wondering what went wrong, and trying to recall what happened mere seconds ago with little success. But more on that momentarily.

It is little secret that present-day In Flames has little in common with the band that pioneered and popularized the infamous Gothenburg sound of melodic death metal. While fragments of that style are still occasionally present via smartly placed guitar melodies and occasional use of extreme metal rhythms, the majority of the music dwells firmly in the strange space between heavy alternative, emo, radio-friendly hard rock, and splattering of metalcore and industrial touches. Though the vocalist Anders Friden has been with the band since their melodic death metal heyday, he now opts for a clean, not particularly refined style that is heavily reminiscent of Korn’s Jonathan Davis, with few rare screams and growls thrown in. If these songs were released in mid- to late 1990s, they would have been an easy staple of “rock” radio stations.

Tracks like “Through Oblivion” or “With Eyes Wide Open” are melancholic, dark, and, well, not particularly heavy, however, it is not necessarily a bad thing. While I cannot imagine In Flames circa “The Jester Race” writing songs like these, something has to be said about the band not trying to force a throwback sound despite declining sales and heavier music coming back in vogue. “Paralyzed” and “Monsters in the Ballroom” have just enough of those melodic touches to bring to mind what this band used to be, and though they would never be mistaken for “Whoracle” or “Colony” outtakes, they would not have seemed out of place around In Flames’ supposed “return to the form” of yesteryear, “Come Clarity”. As uneven and warbling as Friden’s vocals can be, they are one of the easily identifiable hallmarks of present-day In Flames; while a more talented or technically proficient vocalist might have elevated many of these songs into stratosphere, Friden does the job well enough most of the time, with only few cringe-worthy moments sprinkled throughout “Siren Charms”.

To my ears, the album’s weakest moments come when In Flames attempt to sound as if they are still a heavy band. “Everything’s Gone” sounds like a disjointed mess of throwaway deathcore riffs, and “When the World Explodes” unsuccessfully meshes aggressive verses with melancholic female vocals on the chorus. The latter song is particularly jarring, as about two thirds of the way through the heavy track gives way to ethereal electronics that build up to a harmonized duet vocals in the last chorus reminiscent of something Sisters of Mercy could have created. The heavy parts feel tacked on at best, and while it may sound like heresy coming from a guy who still thinks “Whoracle” is In Flames’ finest moment, the band might have been better off going all out in their poppier direction. There are times when “Siren Charms” sounds like a metal band trying to write a pop album while forgetting that their playing style is still firmly rooted in the heavier genres, and as a result creating an odd hybrid that is not metallic enough for the purists, yet not convincing enough for the alternative music fans. While In Flames summons sufficient nostalgia for the sounds of 1997, it is not the sound of In Flames of that era, but rather of what was considered popular at that time.

It would have been easy to dismiss “Siren Charms” as a misguided attempt to chase the style that is about twenty years too late, but there is something about the album that is oddly, well, charming. Maybe it is the incremental addition of those old-school melodies that creep up during the poppiest moments on the album; maybe it is a distinct mood that reminds me of long days of my own vintage 1990s teenage angst; maybe it is that some of these songs are actually rather pleasant in spite of Friden’s vocal limitations and the band’s sometimes questionable stylistic decisions. When all is said and done, I have enjoyed “Siren Charms” quite a bit, though it is by no means an album of the year candidate or even a particularly great album. It is flawed, occasionally disjointed, and has a few moments that made me wonder what the band was thinking, but on the balance, there are more good parts than bad. If you scoff at anything In Flames released after “Clayman”, this is definitely not an album for you, but if you have found something to like on the last four or five In Flames albums, you could do far worse than “Siren Charms”.

Space Opera: World-Building, Planetary Politics, and Competency of Villains

Today’s topic is something near and dear to my heart: space opera. As an avid fan of the genre since the time when I first discovered science fiction, I have always enjoyed reading such works… and, eventually, writing them. With my current novel project very much within the confines of the space opera style, I thought I would revisit my notes on the topic (previously posted at the Counter-Factual.Net forum some months ago), and discuss creating believable universes – and believable villains.

I will talk about how I would write a science fiction space opera, and hopefully develop an idea or two that can be later reused to write a novel (or three). I will do it in the context of pitfalls common to many SF stories and/or novels. And hopefully it would result in a universe that makes sense, and is still entertaining to read about (we are not talking Warhammer 40,000 with its utter abandonment of anything resembling realism, but also not something so logical and boring that it might as well be non-fiction).

So, space. The final frontier. La-deeh-duh-dee-dum. I don’t think many writers have a slightest idea of how big it is. Hell, in most stories you could probably replace spaceships with cars, and different planets with different parts of town, and you wouldn’t know the difference.

Therefore, in order for a space opera to truly work, a writer needs to take into account that space is huge. Ginormous. Massive. Ridiculously oversized. More than that – it needs to be integral to the story. The size must somehow be incorporated into the narrative, or it would end up a gimmick at best. And this brings up the next point – variety. We have no idea what is out there. There are probably things in space that we have not even invented words to describe, let alone understand. I doubt that every planet we encounter will be Earth with slightly different continents, or an example of a single biome we see on this planet. We have so much variety just on this one planet, that many writers show a distinct lack of imagination when trying to come up with memorable worlds. Yes, let’s make it an ocean/ice/desert/jungle world, without understanding for how a biosphere operates, and how certain homeostatic equilibrium must be reached. It worked for Arrakis because Herbert thought out his ecology, and it made internal sense. It worked for Hoth, because we only saw it for a few minutes, and we only saw small portion of a planet. It does not work when your entire galaxy is filled with Earth Juniors and single-biome planets.

Now, populations. Variety in planetary environments is bound to give rise to a variety of people living there. Even if we exclude phenotypes, there will be differences based on where people choose to (or are forced to) live. There are pronounced cultural differences between people who live in an inner city and people who live in the suburbs – of the same city, speaking same language, quite possibly even same ethnic group (although not always). And these people may only live few miles away from one another. If you have an entire planet to settle, who is to say that the group living in the next river valley may not be radically different from your own, let alone the group on the next continent? A Texan and a New Yorker may be culturally different despite identifying as a part of the same nation. A settlement pattern on a colony world, especially if given enough time, may result in differences as vast as those between Han Chinese and an Amazon Rainforest tribe.

From here, I am thinking planetary politics. Yes, it is possible that planets may maintain some form of unified government, especially when populations are low and resources are concentrated in few hands. However, given enough time, and assuming outward migration and population growth, such governments may end up heavily decentralized at best, barring technologies that allow a centralized government to maintain its grip on an entire planet. It is worth considering that for all the world powers on Earth, we don’t have one world government now, and the reach of each political entity is severely limited by the possibility of overstretch. Considering how much of financial and logistical endeavor it is to deploy US or British military against a target in, say Middle East, I am shuddering to think how much logistical effort a true world government must maintain to project force or to send aid in case of disasters globally.

Therefore, unless we are talking major breakthroughs in technology, availability of virtually unlimited manpower (robotics, clones, etc) for infrastructural operations, or centralized control of technology (i.e. hydraulic despotism or similar), a typical colonial world government is unlikely to look much different from, say, United Nations or Holy Roman Empire, depending on how dystopian the author may make it (and I can definitely see forms of feudalism making a comeback). And that is on the level of a single planet – we are not even talking about systems, star clusters, or stellar polities.

Next, industrial base. If such base is easy to build and maintain (again, robotics, advanced technologies, etc), then each planet is likely to be essentially self-sufficient in terms of producing its own equipment, looking to its own defense, etc. In order for a stellar polity or a system-wide civilization to exist, there must be an imbalance of power and a monopoly on power exercised by the government. This means the government must control some advantage that none of its potential rivals have, be it powerful military, large loyal population, control over rare resources, industrial base, or some combination of these and other factors.

This is where I am heading with this. If an industrial base is easy enough for any colony to produce on its own, such colonies may be hard for any outside government to control. If you are a leader of a colony, and word came from the homeworld that they want to tax you, your response will be different depending on whether or not you are in any way dependent on the homeworld. Considering the distances involved, and the importance of self-sufficiency, I am willing to bet that most colonies will be able to produce decent amount of space-based and technological defenses to make the homeworld think twice about making demands, unless the tech disparity is large. After all, if you can produce aircraft carriers on your own, you are not really threatened by the mother country… but if all you can produce is a canoe, then chances are the power disparity will be large.

This creates a dilemma from world-building standpoint. Do you create colony planets capable of surviving on their own, knowing that they will probably be hard to keep in line? Do you create planets that are barely surviving and therefore pliable to central government’s demands? If latter, one may wonder what benefits are there in colonization, since colonies would be greatly dependent on subsidies and may not be profitable enough to warrant development… but might be restless and costly to maintain. And then there is the fact that each individual colony is a political balancing act, as any large congregation of people would be.

As a science fiction writer, I would probably lean towards giving the central governments control over some rare technologies or means of production that cannot be easily reproduced elsewhere. Perhaps the government is the only faction with significant enough resources – after all, anyone can build a yacht, but only few nations can create an aircraft carrier from scratch. Perhaps space travel is so advanced that even the furthest colonies are only weeks away at most, and central government is able to react to crises quickly. Perhaps central government rules over such large population and tax base that it is the only entity able to afford acting in this capacity. After all, a little town in Montana may be self-sufficient and boisterous, but any borough in New York would have more people than half of the state, which should silence the hotheads who would seriously attempt secession.

This brings up my next point – why colonize? There must be some tangible benefits, lest colonies become prestige projects. This goes hand in hand with how easy or difficult it is to establish colonies. If it is a massive financial endeavor, it will only be open to governments and possibly some of the bigger businesses. If it gets sufficiently cheap (relatively speaking) where very wealthy private individuals might be able to found colonies, we might be getting to the point where colonies might become plentiful.

If colonies are out of price range of all but wealthiest governments/organizations, then there would have to be some kind of financial or other incentive for such colonies to be established. If colonies are cheaper, they may become a population safety valve, or otherwise a way for anyone with enough resources to create his own private utopia. It is the latter scenario which is more conducive to true space opera. In this scenario, it is feasible to imagine colonies that do not have anything particularly valuable, and that may escape the central government’s attention by the sheer virtue of flying below the radar. After all, if you are the US federal government, you probably don’t care about what a small commune in Idaho does, as long as they don’t cause trouble and pay their taxes (and if they are sufficiently far off, even taxes may be overlooked).

Now, this latter scenario of many worlds with low entry barriers can create conditions for a space opera setting. You may have planets with wildly differing levels of development, especially if you don’t have to bring in massive infrastructure or population to get started and to maintain your lifestyle. And because of different levels of capital and resources, you may have stellar polities established in which more populous/wealthier worlds (and by “worlds” I really mean whatever political entities establish prominence there) boss around less established ones.

I suspect that such relationships may look a lot like XIXth century colonial empires more than anything else. Depending on the expense of transporting troops, colonists, and personnel, outright conquest may not always be practical, especially if the stronger polity’s primary advantage is technological and organizational, not demographic (i.e. European takeover of China or India between XVIIIth and XIXth centuries as an example). Even then, a typical stellar polity would be more likely to have a core territory where its power is relatively centralized, and quasi-colonial periphery, at least until technology makes transportation between worlds an easy and an inexpensive affair. I would not be surprised to see many such stellar kingdoms as essentially a single-planet hegemon with formal or informal influence over weaker neighbors.

A good example would be a hypothetical Republic of Examplia, based on eponymous planet. While the Republic claims control of Examplia proper and perhaps ten or so other worlds, the Republic is really a conglomerate of Examplia’s national blocs, dominated by one political alliance with technological, military, and economic advantage over others. The relationship between national blocs on Examplia could be described as the relationship between, say, the United States (the dominant national bloc) and multiple countries that range in power and influence from the likes of Australia to the likes of Kazakhstan or Mexico. One is clearly dominant, but others maintain a degree of independence, and all other nations united may present a problem for the dominant bloc, forcing Examplia’s internal politics to be… interesting, and even somewhat unstable.

The planets claimed by Examplia range from what is essentially a homesteading environment with few thousand people to populous worlds that are so politically divided that the Examplians could play local power blocs against each other (think India during European conquest). Most of the Republic’s proper military and economic power is concentrated on Examplia, with other worlds primarily used as sources of cheaper labor force or perhaps resource producers (providing that such resources cannot be obtained from space, cheaper, without the problem of gravity well).

Now, on to larger scale.

As I mentioned before, space is huge. The amount of resources necessary to fully claim a large enough amount of it is enormous. In order to truly have a galactic empire, a civilization must be many levels of magnitude above “Examplia”. It must be able to react swiftly to threats and crises, and it must be able to mobilize sufficient resources without such mobilization being cost-prohibitive. It must gain constant financial and resource benefits from colonization. It must either be much stronger than all potential challengers to its authority, or the central government of such empire must provide benefits that colonies want (i.e. defensive pact, economic advantages, etc, if threat of force alone is not sufficient to keep them in line). And it must be at least semi-competently run.

Too many writers go for a lazy “idiot boss” routine. You know the drill. Plucky hero (a.k.a. “the only sane man/woman”) mobilizes existing resources simply because he or she is better at it than the people already in charge. Political decisions are made in a dumb, short-sighted manner, and characters are willing to stab their own foot for short-term or misguided advantage. The people in power are too blind to do the right thing, and the hero is the only one who can remove those obstacles before ultimate triumph.

Well, I got news.

Chances are, most bosses got to their position for a reason. Yes, for some it might be sycophancy, birth order, or good fortune, but more often than not, maintaining power requires at least some basic competency. Sometimes, it even requires a vision. True, this vision may not match our hero’s, but it is a vision nevertheless.

People are more likely than not to be rational actors. There will be stupid decisions made due to emotional rashness or irrational beliefs, but more often than not, there will be a reason behind every decision made by characters. I see no reason why I should make my characters into idiots – if I think about what socks I put on in the morning, surely my characters will spare a thought or two about how they will save the galaxy!

As a result, that malicious, incompetent, cretin in a position of power who stands in our hero’s way? There is probably a good reason why that character will not just step aside and go along with the program, and that reason does not end with “King/Captain/General Joe Bob is evil,” or some such nonsense. After all, very few people see themselves as evil, or in the wrong.

My point is, if Joe Bob the ruler was driving a country/planet/starship/etc into ruin, he would only be allowed to go so far. Joe Bob’s own superiors, for example, may take note, because it would make them look bad – for example, there were plenty of incompetent generals who got “promoted” out of combat and into a safe, comfortable place where they will never do any harm. An idiot king would not last long without support for his position, because his predicament benefits someone – without support base, no absolute monarch will last, let alone someone with more limited authority. Compare someone like the Kims of North Korea (whose rule is backed by military power, and benefits military-industrial complex) to someone like Egypt’s Morsi (whose rule ticked off the powerful military). The former, despite all damage they did to their country, are able to muster large amounts of support from the groups benefitting from their rule (who clearly see this situation as sustainable). The latter could not build a power base, and was removed from power.

Chances are, if our hero is a “lone sane (wo)man,” he or she is not so alone, and there is a good reason things look pear-shaped, but may not actually be as desperate. This is not to say that every star kingdom will be competently run – far from it. But sheer, blatant incompetence on the scale often described in science fiction will probably be as rare as true genius.

What does this mean for our characters? Simple – if the Evil Empire is run by an incompetent or by a maniac, there would be no shortage of collaborators (including those close to the seat of power) willing to unseat the Big Bad. If the Big Bad maintains at least some degree of loyalty from his or her underlings, then there is probably a reason for that (a.k.a. someone or something benefitting from the Big Bad’s reign), and that reason needs to be addressed lest the story drifts into fairy-tale realms of believability.

And that concludes today’s musings on the topics of space empires, competence of villains (and that of protagonists), and governance of distant worlds.

You can get the new Midgard album at…

https://midgard.bandcamp.com/album/we-are-the-destroyer

The album is also on iTunes, Amazon MP3, Google Play, Spotify, and just about every major digital distribution service.

Now that the new Midgard album is released, I would anticipate the future blog posts to go back to the topic of writing, science fiction, and other similar endeavors!