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!

Midgard – “We are the Destroyer”, installment 5 – new album preview

Midgard - We are the Destroyer album cover

The new Midgard album is almost here! Today’s installment is the last before the album release, and sheds some light on the back story behind this record, and what you can expect from us this time around!

We are the Destroyer

Today’s post brings us to our latest release, “We are the Destroyer”. Writing this album was a unique experience for all of us, as for the first time Travis was fully involved in the songwriting process, and was the primary writer on two of the album’s tracks – “Storm Clouds Over Cydonia”, and “The Seed of Creation”. At the same time, we learned our lesson from “Satellite”, and decided that the recording and the mixing of this album should be done by a professional; as a result, the final recording quality is considerably better, and provides a good picture of what we are trying to do.

This album went through quite a few changes and false starts before we finally entered studio in February 2015. Although the first new song written for the new record (“Storm Clouds Over Cydonia”) was premiered live at some point in 2013 (we do not count “Victory or Death”, as it was a leftover track from “Satellite” sessions, and was performed live multiple times in the past), we spent much more time than usual on arranging the songs we had, and on selecting which tracks would go on the album. We tried to learn many different songs brought to the album sessions, but not all felt right, and not all felt like they fit well together. By late 2014, we made a decision that we would specifically focus on the album, so that we could go into the studio in 2015, and get it out hopefully by the middle of the year. Naturally, like all plans, it went awry quickly.

In the beginning of 2015, I received the news I was both hoping for and dreading at the same time. I received a job offer that was everything I could have professionally asked for – however, it was on the other side of the country. This pending relocation added a sense of urgency to our album process, pushing it forward by several months and forcing us to rethink our plan of approach.

Our original plan was to make “We are the Destroyer” a lengthy, drawn-out record with 10-12 tracks of original material. With less time, and with fewer songs ready to be recorded, we had to reevaluate the kind of an album we wanted to put out. As a result, we focused on the songs we had, and on a common theme between them, finding out that they presented a concise, cohesive whole with no filler, and a plenty of killer material.

The title track and “Black Out the Sun” rage forth, respectively setting the tone for the journey and providing a boost of aggression half-way through the album. The more complex, intricate weave of “Storm Clouds Over Cydonia” and “The Seed of Creation” balances out against our customary melodeath-meets-traditional-metal sound of “Kaleidoscopic”, or power metal-tinged “Victory or Death”. Different versions of “The Last Rose of August” existed as early as immediately after “Within the Darkness” era, but the song was not actually finished until the present, and incorporates what we have learned about songwriting this far. With “Sky Full of Ghosts” (the title of which owes much to an episode of “Cosmos” with Neil deGrasse Tyson), we tried to give the album a fitting closer, and to tie back the lyrical and the musical themes of “We are the Destroyer” – the nature of space and time, distant worlds, life, death, and humanity’s place in the wider cosmos.

“We are the Destroyer” is not a long album, but we think that it feels right with eight songs, and just under 34 minutes of material. It is a representation of where Midgard is now, and hopefully another step on the journey of where we are going to be as a band and as individuals. Every song has its place in the overall theme, and although it is not a true concept album, all eight tracks tie together. We worked hard on making this album happen, and on making it into the best album it could be. We only hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed creating it. Look forward to “We are the Destroyer” on iTunes, BandCamp, Amazon Music, Google Play, Spotify, and most other music stores and streaming services, coming your way on July 31st!

Midgard – “We are the Destroyer”, installment 4 – “Satellite”

Midgard - Satellite album cover

Today’s post will take us to much more recent history. Before “We are the Destroyer”, there was…

Satellite

Ah, “Satellite”. This album was many years in the making, and almost did not happen several times over. It represents many things for us – rebirth of a band, pushing forward creatively, friendships, shows, and good times all around. While we released “Satellite” at the tail end of 2012, the roots of it go much, much deeper.

By 2006, I was unsure if Midgard would ever continue. The core band lineup was no longer together; the very idea of Midgard was starting to sound like a pipe dream. Yes, the songwriting process continued, but by that point, it seemed that there was no real chance to put the band back together, or to release any of those songs with a proper lineup recording them. Then, fate intervened.

In 2009, me and Ryan (drums) started to play together in a heavy/power metal band Oblivion’s Curse. It was a fresh start, something different, and, at first, a lot of fun. We played several shows, wrote some new music, and found out that we got along marvelously both as friends and as musicians. Though we knew each other since “Within the Darkness” era, our musical paths had never crossed until then – and when they did, we found out that we clicked on musical and personal level. Already by that point I started having thoughts about recording some of the material I had laying around, and releasing it as a new Midgard album, if only to get some form of closure (and because the songs sounded like Midgard songs, a worthy follow-up from the style set forth on “Within the Darkness”). When Oblivion’s Curse went its separate ways in 2011, me and Ryan stayed in touch, and decided to give Midgard another go. Not long thereafter, Travis (lead guitar) joined, and after a false start with a different bass player, we welcomed Jenn (bass) into the band. This is still the band’s lineup at this time, and is the longest-lasting lineup we ever had, with over three years together at the time of this writing.

Eight out of ten “Satellite” songs were written long before the band reformed, while the remaining two (the title track and “As the Phoenix Falls”) were actually played a few times at Oblivion’s Curse practices when me and Ryan spent a few minutes jamming. We felt that it was important to make an album that made a statement of who we were as people and as musicians at that point in time, and that condensed everything that made Midgard unique in one package. As a result, “Satellite” has pretty much every element we built in: thrash-influenced riffing in the title track and “Hellfire”; acoustic guitars combined with doom-death feel of “Absolute Zero Heart”; power and heavy metal injections on “Waves of Acheron”; melodic metal influences surrounding the death metal core on “Empire”, “Oracle”, and “If”; modern metal touches on “Until the Sirens Call”; and more traditional melodeath of “As the Phoenix Falls” and “Winter Assault”.

In retrospect, we made one mistake with “Satellite” when we decided to record it ourselves rather than go into a studio and have a professional take care of all aspects of the recording process. While the result gave it somewhat of an old-school feel, not too dissimilar from very early Gothenburg sound, the sound could have been better. We learned our lesson for the next Midgard release, but for now, “Satellite” stands as a testament of the band’s full spectrum, all elements of our songwriting combined into one package. Despite perhaps some shortcomings on the side of recording quality, we are very proud of the material, and think that it is a good representation of where we were as a band, a great starting point on our renewed journey. As a side note, we had the album remixed during the recording sessions for “We are the Destroyer”; while the remix does not supplant the original version, it provides an alternate look at some songs. If it sounds interesting, why not give “Satellite” a listen, and download your copy from BandCamp, or check it out on Spotify:

https://midgard.bandcamp.com/album/satellite (original version)

https://midgard.bandcamp.com/album/satellite-remix (remixed version)

Midgard – “We are the Destroyer” – installment 3, “Ignite the Shattered Sky”

Midgard - Ignite the Shattered Sky album cover

Today’s blog installment will talk about the “Ignite the Shattered Sky” EP, released in 2004 and probably the record most different from the rest of Midgard’s back catalogue.

Ignite the Shattered Sky

Fast forward to 2002, and Midgard is a very different band from where we were only a year prior. After a lineup change that saw us become a five-piece band (with me relinquishing guitar duties to only perform vocals), and several changes to that lineup, we tried our hand at a heavier sound influenced by modern (for the time) thrash metal – Darkane, Dew-Scented, and bands of that ilk. The lineup was different, the sound was different, the songwriting, which was previously very centralized, was more spread out. And then, it all fell apart.

Just as we were starting to talk about going back to the studio to record our new material and to make a concerned push for making music our career, our trip to 2002 Milwaukee Metalfest was a disaster that pretty much broke up the band. For a time being, there was no certainty that Midgard would even continue, let alone that any of the music would end up being recorded. Still, this band was a beast that refused to die.

We had some good songs left over from that interim period. The key songwriters were still in the band, and we brought back Andrew (guitar) from “Within the Darkness” lineup. We still had issues with filling the bass player and drummer positions, but those were surmountable issues, especially after we met Shru, who agreed to play drums on the eventual record (ironically, just as we were about to ask him to join the band full-time, he let us know that he was moving out of state – but he was still kind enough to record his drums for the album). At the time, we hoped to do a full-length album with five new songs, and two re-recorded “Within the Darkness” tracks… but of course, plans tend to go awry.

“Ignite the Shattered Sky” was recorded in early 2003, though the album was not released for another year, and even when it came out, it ended up being far different from the original intention. The songs ended up having a transitionary, experimental feel that sometimes worked, and sometimes did not, though the lack of a stable full lineup and the lack of shows to promote the record did not help. The “Ignite” lineup did not as much break up as drift away into separate projects, putting the existence of the band into question and leaving us with half-finished album. By the time we finished the four tracks that made the EP, the band essentially consisted of just myself and Andrew, and though we eventually recruited a bass player and a drummer to complete the band, the plans to keep that lineup going came to a screeching halt as Andrew relocated out of state, and we could not find an adequate replacement.

Out of “Ignite” tracks, “Never Again” was actually written around the time of “Within the Darkness”, and was excluded from that album as we did not have time to properly rehearse it for the studio. The title track actually went through several incarnations with the pre-Milwaukee Midgard lineup, and while the final version was perhaps more melodic than the one we performed live, it is an interesting relic of that era. It was also Eric’s (guitar) first full writing contribution on a Midgard record, along with “Grey Seconds Crawl”, a very different song for us where I sung clean all the way, giving it an almost power/heavy metal feel. “Supremacy” was a curious leftover – as a heavy, fast song with pronounced death/thrash feel, it sounded like it belonged in our death/thrash period, but was actually never a part of that lineup’s set list.

Overall, “Ignite” is a strange record for us. It was done without a stable band lineup, took stabs at several different musical directions, was not given much support or promotional effort, and was not heard by many people. As a result, it represents an interesting “what might have been” for us, a chronicle of a turbulent time, and an experiment, however, there is still some very good material on it that deserves to be heard. The “Ignite the Shattered Sky” EP can be downloaded from BandCamp (“pay-what-you-want” download) at:

https://midgard.bandcamp.com/album/ignite-the-shattered-sky

Midgard – “We are the Destroyer” installment 2 – “Within the Darkness”

Midgard - Within the Darkness cover

In preparation for release of the new Midgard album later this week, I thought I should share a retrospective of our past releases to get you ready for what is to come. Here is the first installment, dealing with our 2001 debut EP, “Within the Darkness”!

Within the Darkness

You can look at our first release, and find that very little of that band remains now. Only one person from that lineup is still in the band; only one song from “Within the Darkness” regularly makes the set list when we play live. And yet, I think that it, more than anything, defined the style of music we are still performing to this day.

For many of us at the time, this was our first recording experience. Though Midgard was already a band for about a year at the time we went into the studio, we spent much of that first year figuring out what we wanted to do, who would be in the first stable band lineup, and what kind of music we would write. Needless to say, “Within the Darkness” has elements of what the band would eventually become, but also harkens back to our beginnings trying to figure out if we wanted to be a heavy metal band, a death metal band, a doom metal band, or something in between.

I think that most start-up bands go through that stage when they start writing their own music, and try to do something different from rewriting “War Pigs”, “Angel of Death”, “Hammer Smashed Face”, or whatever their members tend to listen to. You can hear our influences on “Within the Darkness” – there is a healthy dose of In Flames and Dark Tranquillity in the title track and “Sky Falls Down”, while “Passion” (which we still occasionally play live) harkens back to older Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride – with instrumental “Requiem” split in its own separate track, but it might as well have been an intro to “Passion”. “Terminus” is the kind of song that every start-up band probably writes at some point, a straight-up, primitive death metal track with little frills that actually predated Midgard by a couple of years, and probably was the product of a time, but it fits the album. Ironically, “Failure of Utopia” was the last song written for the EP, and almost did not make the cut, as we were unsure if it was sufficiently rehearsed, but it ended up being a fan favorite, and we still get requests to play it now. Maybe some day we will make a point of relearning how to play it and adding it to a set – I am sure it will make quite a few people in Colorado happy!

As a side note, we were originally planning to include eight tracks on “Within the Darkness”, and did the drums for two more songs, “Into the Crimson Unknown” and “Inside the God”. At the time, we were having difficulty playing the songs to make them sound good – we struggled with making the fast part in the middle of “Into the Crimson Unknown” sound clear, and I think that at some point, we pretty much just gave up on “Inside the God”. I still have those drum tracks, and in fact we ended up recording guitars, bass, and vocals for “Into the Crimson Unknown” during the “Satellite” sessions, eleven years later. “Inside the God” did not receive such treatment, though perhaps at some point, we may revisit that recording and finish it (I have to be honest – it was not a bad song for the time, but I don’t think it would stand up well against the material we wrote since).

Does this sound interesting? If so, BandCamp has “Within the Darkness” available for “pay-what-you-want” download:

https://midgard.bandcamp.com/album/within-the-darkness

Midgard – “We are the Destroyer”, installment 1 (guest post by Travis Boylls)

Album cover for Midgard's "We are the Destroyer", artwork and logo design by Travis Boylls

Album cover for Midgard’s “We are the Destroyer”, artwork and logo design by Travis Boylls

While I typically use this blog to discuss writing, and, sometimes, to opine on current events, it is time to talk a bit about another endeavor I am involved in – Midgard, melodic death metal band where I sing and play guitar. As our new full-length album is coming out on July 31st, we thought that we would share our thoughts on new album, our past releases, and the process of making this record happen.

Today’s post is a unique addition, as I would like to welcome a special guest for this installment – Travis Boylls, who is both the lead guitarist in Midgard, and a fast-rising artist and graphic designer. This is the first installment of posts discussing the new album, and here, Travis talks about the new release, and about his process in designing the album artwork and the new band logo. Without further ado, welcome Travis – and follow Midgard on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/midgardmetal !

New Album

We are the Destroyer” by Midgard will be our second release with our current line-up. For this one we pulled out all the stops. Rather than record from home, we rented a studio and hired an audio engineer to produce it. This was the first album to feature some of my own musical contributions. All the lyrics where written by Alex Shalenko, but the music to “Storm Clouds Over Cydonia” and, “The Seed of Creation” was written by me. The digital release for this album will be July 31, 2015.

As with the last album, I elected to do the cover art and interior design. While much of the interior design is still a work in progress, the cover art is completed.

This was a challenging cover to do. Alex was the one that came up with the title, We Are the Destroyer. At first, I really didn’t like the title. I thought it sounded too cheesy. The rest of the band wanted to keep it so I was out voted. What makes the title sound a little ominous is it’s use of the word “Destroyer” (singular) instead of “Destroyers” (plural.) What does it mean? As Alex put it:

The title was actually inspired by a PC game Dawn of War (it is the stock language for Chaos troopers), where it refers to the concept of primordial gestalt entity – in terms of the album, it is a reference to the quantum physics concept of multiverse, and the idea that at every decision point, we create alternate universes branching off from this one. What if we do something else – our collective choices make this universe the only possible one, and we as species are that gestalt destroyer of infinite possibilities?

It’s confusing. I guess you could say it’s open to interpretation.

Perhaps one of the more difficult tasks was just coming up with an idea for the album art. With an name like “We Are the Destroyer,” you almost need to include some destruction in your artwork. Yet, the lyrics really weren’t about destruction all that much. In fact, songs like “The Seed of Creation” (which is about the birth of the Universe) have the complete opposite meaning. “The Seed of Creation” also makes mention of the Tree of Yggdrasil from Norse mythology. The tree on the front of the album is representative of that. If anything, the albums lyrics of the album seem to have a destruction-followed-by-rebirth” theme.

While I did the artwork for the album, it was a collaborative effort. Alex had a particular color scheme of red and blue. in mind. Ryan wanted the tree. I came up with the ruined buildings and the river. While writing the lyrics, we talked a lot about quantum mechanics, and the possibility of multiple realities. This is represented by the two semi-symmetrical images on either side; as well as the river which represents waves of possibilities

New Logo

One of the major things that needed to be changed with the new album was the logo. I never liked the old logo. Apparently, Alex paid someone $20 to design the old logo over 15 years ago. I thought it was ugly and difficult ro read. I didn’t even think it fit our style all that well. I always wanted to design a new logo for the band.

We debated for a long time about whether or not to replace it. While I didn’t care for the old logo, there is value in staying loyal to a logo. People start to identify with a logo after a while. This is true for a band, or a corporation. Logos work best over the long term. Creating a new logo can be a bit like changing horses in mid-stride. Nonetheless, I felt the band had out grown the old logo and that it was time for something different.

One of the things I love about designing logos for metal bands is that metal is one of the few places where you can be purely artistic. Metal bands will often place aesthetics over legibility. This was definitely true of our last album. We decided that just because you can a logo unreadable, doesn’t mean you should.

As the name Midgard comes from Norse mythology, I began to study Norse runes for inspiration. The “M” and the “A” are derivative of Norse runes. I also drew a lot of inspiration from logos from 80’s metal bands. Logos that had a huge, epic look. It was important for me that the logo be able to accommodate a variety of styles and color schemes. It needed to be adaptable to whatever we decide to use it on.

Computer Graphics

One of the biggest technical improvements on this album is my use of Computer Graphics; also known as CG. The previous album Satellite was primarily done using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. For this album, I decided to construct a digital-3D model.

When I began designing the album cover, I sketched a quick drawing in Adobe Illustrator. From there, I decided to upload the drawing into Blender 3D and see how difficult it would be to model out the image in 3D. I quickly found that it wasn’t too hard at all. Plus me and the guys really liked how the software was able to simulate the water in the river. It was then that I decided that this was how I was going to do the album cover.

The CG process is fairly technical. First it involves having to create all the objects in the scene. These are called ‘wire meshes.’ It’s a little like sculpting. After that begins the texturing process. This involves UV unwrapping the object to create a flat spread of the entire object. From here I upload it into Photoshop to add texture and color to the objects.

I software also simulates lighting. I needed to set the lighting. . This scene required carefully controlled lighting to maintain the split color scheme. Texture maps can also be applied to the objects to control how they reflect light as well. It was a very fun project.

I software also simulates lighting. I needed to set the lighting. . This scene required carefully controlled lighting to maintain the split color scheme. Texture maps can also be applied to the objects to control how they reflect light as well. It was a very fun project.

New author interview!

Yesterday, I did an interview with Joseph Cautilli for the Indie Author Fan Connect Facebook group, discussing my latest published novel “Bring Out the Dead”. For those of my readers who are not members of said group, I thought I would share the interview here. Check it out!

Joseph Cautilli (JC): Hello all and welcome. Tonight, we will be interviewing Alex Shalenko on his first novel- Bringing Out the Dead. This is a wonderful story set with am American in Russia dealing with the culture and the occult at the same time. This is a list interview so please feel free to ask questions. y first question to Alex is why be a writer? What has motivated you to get into this field?

Alex: Good evening everyone, and thank you Joseph! I have always been interested in writing, since very early age. I realize that it is probably the answer given by many people, so I’ll elaborate! In my case, I have always enjoyed stories, the more imaginative, the better. Growing up in the Soviet Union in the 80s, the choices for entertainment were rather limited, and I got an early love for all things fantastical. From there, it was not a long stretch to realize that not only did I enjoy reading, but I always enjoyed writing, and had a knack for it. As I acquired life experience and learned more about the world around me, I saw stories to be told, both based on my own experience, and on the experiences of others, from history and mythology to everyday life. This is what drew me to write, to continue writing, and to eventually get to this point.

JC: It sounds like a very interesting start. One thing I like about your work is how it seems to be really alive with Eastern European culture. My wife is from Poland and it gives me the flare of when I go to my place there. So give us a brief overview of story

Alex: At its core, “Bring Out the Dead” is a supernatural thriller set in an exotic locale, offering a different take on the idea of otherworldly forces interfering in the modern world. In the far north of Russia, the town of Severozavodsk is a place where dark history and harsh environment keep its people isolated from the rest of the world. Hidden in the embrace of winter and sustained by the wealth of minerals mined from the frozen ground, Severozavodsk is the place where no one visits voluntarily, but for some, it is a ticket to wealth – and for Jake Levin and Bill Jones, financial analysts hailing from California, it is a job. As the blizzard closes the town off, and deadly supernatural forces begin to stir beneath the Siberian permafrost, Jake must face a secret history of his own if he – and the town – is to survive.

JC: Please give us a link for the book on amazon so people can get it if they like a copy.

Alex: The novel can be purchased at Amazon in two editions, paperback and e-book. The paperback edition link is http://www.amazon.com/Bring-Out-Dead-Alex-Shalenko/dp/1508470650/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid= . The Kindle/e-book edition link is http://www.amazon.com/Bring-Out-Dead-Alex-Shalenko-ebook/dp/B00TWVOYKK/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid= .

JC: The permafrost is really interesting place for the setting of a story. Indeed, unless people are familiar with the constant cold, it is often difficult to get an appreciation for such and environment. I know you are from the Ukraine- but have you ever visited those super cold regions? The story is highly detailed especially about the winter. It kind of struck me like you had been there before.

Alex: A great question! I have always enjoyed stories set in extreme environments, and writing “Bring Out the Dead” gave me a great opportunity to bring such an environment to life. I have been to Siberia at a fairly young age (as a tourist, believe it or not – it is actually a very beautiful place), though not as far north as Norilsk (which is the real-life inspiration for the novel’s Severozavodsk). That said, the frozen North is perhaps a bit less exotic for the people of the former Soviet Union…

In the days of USSR, many would go north to work for a few years, because the salaries there were considerably higher than elsewhere. As a result, almost everyone knew somebody who went north to make money, or who had stories to tell.

JC: The industrial pollution in Russia is very well known. The old Soviets really did not have a great love for the environment. It gives the story a realistic flair. The story takes place in Russia. I was wondering if you had some background of experience in Russia. The story is highly detailed especially about the winter. It kind of struck me like you had been there before.

Ok. So this is Jake’s first trip to Russia. Jake is an analyst and he is assessing a Russian mining operation. Can you tell us a little about what drives Jake?

Alex: Most definitely! I should make a bit of a disclaimer – I have spent the entirety of my professional, non-literary career in the financial industry. As a result, Jake is an amalgam of many people who seem to be attracted to that industry – young, bright, educated, ambitious… and totally ruthless. My challenge in writing him was to stray from the “Wolf of Wall Street” stereotype, and to dig a bit deeper. Yes, he does come to Russia because of greed, and because of ambition… but what makes him stay? What makes him do things that he does? Is there more to a person like that than raw ambition and desire to get ahead at any cost?

I hoped to answer these questions over the course of the novel, which also served to give Jake more depth, and to make him more relatable.

JC: I love the answer. I think it is true that many young men in their 20s and 30s developmentally are in their Empire building stage. It is during this time that they pursue bringing change to the world to bend it into their own image. Can you tell us a bit about your process in designing Jake?

Alex: When I started working on the novel, I tried to do two things. First, I wanted to write about things I knew well – Russia and financial industry topping the list. My initial intent was to write a ghost story, but the novel took me in a different direction, and for that, Jake was a necessity. He is an amalgam of several “Empire builders” who I came across in my own career path, and who represent the traits I do not always like seeing in people – and these traits often hint at shallow, one-dimensional personalities. That said, who is Jake? Is he really an archetype? I decided to dig a bit deeper into him, and to give him more definition and personality. Is he this way because he is truly a self-centered and shallow human being, or is he this way because he thinks it is expected of him, and he must show this side of his personality to keep up a measure of success? I like to think that very few people are truly one-dimensional and can be defined by a single ambition, so in writing Jake, I tried to challenge that paradigm and to present him as a multi-dimensional, realistic human being who starts off in a certain mode, but who has development and rediscovers a degree of his essential humanity.

JC: I think it is a sign of a very well developed character that they don’t stay one dimensional. The process of rediscovery is a painful one though. Speaking of pain, we have all been on a business trip with a guy who just don’t want to be there. There is another analyst assigned to the case as well, Bill. Bill is going through some emotional problems at arrival. Do you think Bill was stable before arriving for the assessment?

Alex: Oh, the poor, messed up Bill Jones! He was a lot of fun to write, especially as his… for the lack of spoilers… dysfunctions started to surface. He was written as a different archetype… at least at the beginning. We all know the stereotype, a middle-aged guy forever stuck in middle-management positions who tends to care more about his next fishing trip than about advancement (and who may guard his position with such jealousy that he can be every bit as vicious as the younger mavericks!). And then, I started to deconstruct him. I think that Bill was definitely not in a very good place at the beginning of the novel, but he started off by wearing his mask reasonably well. In a way, he is at his most vulnerable, and it makes him into the perfect character to, well… you have to read the novel to find out!

JC: Yes, Bill strikes me as type B personality and off the career track. Olga is assigned to help them assess the company. I guess she is assigned to be distracting eye candy but she becomes more. She seems very down to earth and have an understanding of Russia that it pretty unique. How would you describe it?

Alex: I found that there are certain aspects of Russian culture and mentality that are very unique to that country; having lived with it during my formative years, and having grown up with Russian literature and cinema, I think that Olga’s views are probably not unique amongst the Russians. It is hard to explain Russia and its culture in a short format, or even in a larger work – there is, after all, a famous Russian saying that you cannot understand Russia through reason alone. That said, imagine a country that sees itself as being surrounded by enemies on all sides, that had dozens of successive bad governments, that sees itself as a unique place neither East nor West, and that developed hybrid spirituality both fatalistic and mystical – then, imagine the kind of people such place would produce. Olga is the product of this environment, though I tried to give her enough traits that would make her relatable to Western readers, and easier to understand for someone who might not have been brought up in the midst of Russian society and its entire cultural baggage. Through Olga, I tried to give the reader a look through the spyglass, a look at the other side of the Atlantic (or, if you are on the US West Coast, over the Bering Strait!) – and to humanize the Russian mindset, the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.

JC: Speaking of mentally unique- the workers are sort of unique who are called to that type of environment. I like how you pull in a lot of thee trouble with running a mining operation in the cold of the Russian winter. It gives a person that you have strong knowledge of what mining is like and how important it is to this community. Indeed, you mentioned before that the Russians differentially paid the people who work in such climates. It is also mentioned in your book. This sort of work calls for a different type of worker. What would you say drives that type of person?

Alex: Another great question Joseph! To understand this mentality, I think it helps to get a feel for the larger culture of Russia. It is a country where, until fairly recently, free movement of people was restricted. More often than not, if you were born in a certain part of the country, you would end up spending a large part of your life there – you would have difficulty finding permanent living quarters anywhere else, and since the state was the largest (and usually the only) employer, you would have difficulty finding work. For many people, the only way out was through work reassignment, through education (which was much more difficult to obtain), or through military service (and even then only if they were lucky). This gave reinforcement to a uniquely Russian form of fatalism. As a result, the communities that formed in places such as Severozavodsk were rarely voluntarily formed; the few volunteers would view it as a temporary assignment, but the people who were born in Siberia would usually end up staying in Siberia. There is also a tradition of using the area as a dumping ground for all sorts of malcontents, which would further give credence to the idea that once you are there, you cannot leave.

It is perhaps less of what drives the people who live in places like Severozavodsk, and more the lack of hope they would have of finding a better life anywhere else.

JC: Siberia- brrr…Different workers different motivation. Like a lot of people I know in the Market, he sort of has a very self-centered way of greeting the world. Indeed, given his age and that he is sort of in the empire building stage of life this is not surprising. How does this view changes after his challenge with Bill?

Alex: While Jake definitely encounters a challenging situation with Bill, I view it as a trigger that sets him on a journey, not a major part of the entire journey. I think that the situation with Bill creates a nadir of Jake’s experience, and gives him just enough of a nudge in a different direction, so that when other, greater challenges come, he starts to view them differently. Without giving too much away, Jake’s world view will change, but there is more leading into it than just the situation with Bill – both his relationship with Olga, the influence of the supernatural forces at play in Severozavodsk, and ultimately the choices he will have to make (and their consequences) will leave him a much changed person by the end of the novel.

Something of Russia rubs off on Jake, in more ways than one…

JC: How does the episode with Bill change the relationship between Olga and Jake?

Alex: As the situation unfolds and the blizzard begins to isolate the city, all the fears and suspicions in Jake’s mind come to life. His dreams; his odd perception of Severozavodsk; the fears by which he defined himself – fear of failure foremost amongst them. The paranoia is a dangerous thing to have, especially in a foreign land infamous for it, and in a situation that pushes Jake to the edge. As far as his relationship with Olga, I think that this situation brings them closer at one level (after all, they have both been through something serious together), and creates a major barrier between them – which is not surprising, given Jake’s paranoia, and his belief that now Olga has some leverage over him. It is difficult for him to see the world in terms which do not agree with a dog-eat-dog vision he aspires to, and as a result, it significantly discolors his thinking. The episode also creates a certain level of common ground between the two, a connection that challenges both of them to reexamine how they view their relationship.

Fear both unites and divides them, and the realization of what stirs beneath the permafrost adds another layer to them.

JC: In some ways, I think Bill drives Jake and Olga closer. But that is just my feeling. On a different note, the winter in Russia is sort of out of ordinary for the time of year. I like how you use elements to foreshadow events to come. Can you tell us a little about our process in setting this up? Any particular literary techniques you use to build the suspense?

Alex: The elements play an important part in the novel, and I like to think of the Siberian winter as a character in its own right. It is rich fodder for metaphors, but also plays a role in the flow of the story. In fact, I think that I had the idea of a town in winter before I conceptualized anything about the story – the winter had to be the star, because without it, the story would not have happened.

One of my favorite literary techniques is to create a viewpoint character and to use “show, don’t tell” style of storytelling. I try to consider how this character might view the situation, what is going on through his or her head, and, most of all, if I were in this character’s shoes, how would I act? How would someone I know act? Further, I try to avoid plot holes, which probably makes me an overenthusiastic user of Chekhov’s Rifle (if there is a weapon on the wall in the first act of the story, it will be used for dramatic effect by the third act). Each foreshadowing is supposed to lead to something, and fits into the overall picture – and in order to do that, I try to have a good idea of the ending before I get much past the first couple of chapters.

Plus, Chekhov was Russian, so it was oddly fitting for this novel!

JC: I like you you focus in on people’s reactions. Now Zima is sort of the personification of the Russian winter. How would you describe her personality? Does she have human like goals? What was your process in defining and writing her?

Alex: I was going for something inhuman. Zima is quite literally the Russian word for “winter”, and I tried to express that unfeeling, strange character that has little reference point to our notions of morality, kindness, or mercy. It operates on another level that has little in common with us, and I tried to convey that – a force of cruel nature which cares little for human ants… until such ants hurt her by design or accident

JC: Nice comparison. How would you describe Chizhov? What are points of you do you feel he represents?

Alex: Chizhov is the human side of inhumanity. Evil has a way of being so very banal that you can almost forget its nefarious intent. He is the personification of that, the industrial side of cruelty and callousness that perhaps does not even realize its place on the moral spectrum.

I can imagine people like that coming home to their families at the end of the day, drinking their tea, hugging their spouses and children, and not thinking twice about what they had to do to acquire a comfortable life, or whose lives they ruined.

JC: What part of yourself would you say is in Bill? I know it is an odd question but if you can think of something, it might help to unlock the character for the readers. Is it a part that you like in yourself or don’t like in yourself?

Alex: I think to me, he is complacency. All of us have been guilty of it… me as well. He is that comfortable place, hiding from your own demons by pretending all is well until the demons come into the light and refuse to leave.

JC: I agree people take much for granted. What would you say changes in the relationship between Jake and Olga?

Alex: I think that there is more of mutual… respect and understanding between Jake and Olga. At the beginning, it is a mutually parasitic relationship, as they both want something from each other, but eventually, it morphs into something else… and it is exploited by the powers influencing the unnatural events in the novel.

JC: We are sort of running out of time. So what do you plan to write next? Will you continue to make this a series?

Alex: I am currently working on a dark science fiction space opera novel, tentatively titled “Graveyard Empire”. Think large-scale, epic, post-apocalyptic, and quite grim. For “Bring Out the Dead”, it was intended as a standalone – I thought that the story was self-contained, and left little room to explore without losing the impact of the novel.

JC: Well I like to take a moment to thank Alex Shalenko for joining me in this interview. It has been a lot of fun on my end. I want to remind others to feel free to ask questions. One last one- Alex what has it been like working for JEA Press?

Alex: Thank you Joseph – the pleasure is all mine! I have really enjoyed working with JEA. Not only did they offer me a path to becoming a published author, but they were supportive and helpful along the way. I have had a great experience with them, and would recommend them as a publisher of many great works of fiction!

Gay marriage, religion, and absolute truth

I usually try to avoid commenting on every flavor-of-the-week news story, but I thought that I would make an exception for some of the recent events taking place in our society. With the US Supreme Court finally legalizing gay marriage in the United States, an important milestone was reached in separating the secular nature of society from its other aspects, often derived from religious visions of morality, often tied to specific beliefs. I think it is an important development, and am very glad that we as a society are finally learning to separate the inherent human rights from individually held beliefs.

Most religions have teachings with one implication – if you do not follow their rules, something bad will happen to you, in this life or in the next. Some call it hell; to others, it is lack of spiritual progression, or some other effect most people would consider undesirable. It is a rare religion that would not condemn anyone who would lead others to stray from its teachings, for wouldn’t such people lead the righteous into harm?

But herein is the dilemma. If we accept that there is one objective truth that explains the universe, the humanity, and the moral guidance we should follow, how do we know what it is? If such truth exists, then only one belief can get it right – everyone else got it wrong. Considering how many beliefs there are, and how vehemently their adherents disagree with each other, what are the chances that any individual belief got it all correctly? And if there is an overwhelming possibility that any given understanding of the universe has at least some incorrect parts, wouldn’t forcing that belief’s rules on non-believers go against the key tenet of most beliefs: do not lead others astray, do not lead them into spiritual harm?

This brings me to gay marriage. If the key argument against it is based on belief that it is an immoral choice, and therefore goes against religiously-prescribed morality, then this argument is extremely arrogant. Those who make it assume that they have the knowledge of the universal truth, and do not account for possibility that they are wrong, and that by pushing their interpretation of truth on the society as a whole, they might be doing spiritual or physical harm to the rest of the society.

Imagine a group of school children given access to a gym and playing field with every sporting accessory you can think of. Now, imagine telling them that in a month’s time, they will participate in an athletic competition, and that they will suffer severe punishment if they lose – and then, leave, without telling them what competition they will be participating in, what sport they will be playing, or who their opponent might be.

Should the children start kicking the ball and practicing their soccer skills? Should they shoot hoops and try to form a basketball team? Or, perhaps, should they practice freestyle swimming instead? What if the competition is an individual table tennis tournament – would the kid who tries to form a hockey team be harming their chances of winning, even if he thinks he is doing the right thing?

I make no pretense of knowing what the absolute truth is; my ethics and morals as a person, as a writer, and as a musician are my own. I am just happy that more people in this country are able to enjoy the rights the rest of us already have, and in the end, this is all that matters.

Album review: Kamelot – “Haven”

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KAMELOT

“Haven”

2015

Rating: 83%

Time flies. My love affair with Kamelot started in the halcyon days of 1999, when I stumbled upon a copy of “The Fourth Legacy” at a now-defunct Tower Records. I must admit – it was an impulse buy, prompted as much by trying to find new underground metal as it was by somewhat titillating album cover (I was 18, don’t blame me!). What I discovered was one of the better power metal releases of the era, made even more impressive by the fact that the band was American rather than European (with one notable exception, but I will get to that in a minute). For a youth whose flirtations with underground metal at the time did not much deeper than Iced Earth and In Flames, “The Fourth Legacy” was an eye-opening find, a melodic metal gem that owed its success to both strong songwriting, prominent use of symphonic elements and vaguely Middle Eastern melodies, and unique vocals of Norwegian singer Roy Khan.

While I felt that follow-up “Karma” was not as strong, the band upped their ante with “Epica” / “The Black Halo” conceptual duology, and continued the streak with solid “Ghost Opera”. By that time, Kamelot developed a very distinct sound, taking on elements of goth that proved to be somewhat divisive with their fan base, especially on 2010’s controversial “Poetry for the Poisoned” (for the record, I rather enjoyed those forays, though I can understand some of the backlash from the older fans).

Fast forward to 2015. Roy Khan has long departed, and his replacement, Swede Tommy Karevik, is on his second Kamelot album as a lead vocalist alongside Kamelot mainstays Thomas Youngblood, Casey Grillo, Oliver Palotai, and Sean Tibbets. While 2012’s “Silverthorn” served to introduce the fans to the new man behind the microphone, it was a transitional album of sorts, and perhaps a safer choice from songwriting and performance perspective as the band stuck to its familiar style, scaling back on some experimentation to produce a good, but not necessarily groundbreaking record. As such, it falls to “Haven” to show what the new and reinvigorated Kamelot could do.

First things first. “Haven” is not the second coming of “The Black Halo” or a clear shout-out to “The Fourth Legacy” or its three largely forgotten predecessors. At the same time, it has enough elements from those days to remind even the most jaded fan that yes, this is still the same band, and they have not lost a step. The symphonic element is as strong and as prominent as ever, and if anything, it is even more accentuated on most of the album’s tracks. The vaguely Middle Eastern melodies and the sense of dynamics which separated Kamelot from many hyperspeed power metal acts during their formative days come to the fore on tracks like “Insomnia”. The overall album pace, however, is probably in the mid-tempo territory.

There are two ballads, which are, as one would expect from Kamelot, good. “Under Grey Skies” made me think of something John Lennon could have conjured up, though it might have been due to lyrics making some pointed nods in the direction of Lennon’s “Imagine”. Both that song and “Here’s to the Fall” are strong, and sound sufficiently distinct to justify their inclusion.

This is not to say that “Haven” entirely lacks in speed. “Veil of Elysium” is as power metal as they come, fast, melodic, and an excellent choice to release as the first glimpse of the album. “Liar Liar” alternates fast and atmospheric mellow parts to great effects, and though the opener “Fallen Star” is more moody than fast, it is not without a degree of aggression. “End of Innocence” is pure symphonic metal magnificence with its orchestral arrangements, transitioning perfectly from short instrumental “Ecclesia”. Though Kamelot’s membership in the confines of the power metal genre might be more tenuous these days, it is good to see this venerable band maintain a clear connection to where it came from, and create music at least partially reflective of its roots.

There are, of course, nods to the more recent Kamelot works, which may prove to be more controversial. Several songs maintain a harder edge that is not, strictly speaking, bearing a lot of resemblance to power metal (“Beautiful Apocalypse” with its modern metal riffing and electronic touches, or “Revolution” with its flirtations with extreme metal). Simpler, slower Dio-esque “Citizen Zero” sounds like it could have fit on “Poetry for the Poisoned” (case in the point: “Necropolis”), at least until the operatic choir section in the middle changing the feel of the song. “My Therapy” is not a million miles removed from “Silverthorn” in that it makes a good use of poppy melody, creating a catchy chorus that would not have been out of place on any modern rock station.

From performance standpoint, there is nothing to fault. Karevik continues to fill Khan’s shoes with vigor and enthusiasm, sounding close enough to maintain Kamelot’s unique vocal approach, but adding enough of his own personality to be able to tell the two apart. Where Khan’s voice often took on aspects of operatic, Geoff Tate-esque dramatic pathos, Karevik adds some rock sensibility and grit while still capably hitting every note within his extensive range and alternating between silky smooth crooning, power metal heroics, and unbridled aggression when the songs call for it. The rest of the band plays like the consummate professionals they are, not missing a beat. As always, Kamelot brings on board several guests, including lead singers from Delain and Arch Enemy to provide female vocals (and, in Alissa White-Gluz’s case, adding an assortment of harsh growls on “Revolution” and “Liar Liar”).

The songs generally carry a darker mood, though this time, it is less about Faustian tragedies and more about the nature of human existence, the contemplative dirges about social ills and dystopian nightmares. In my opinion, it made for a different feeling from any Kamelot album past, as fantasy and mysticism are largely amiss in favor of the real world. The album is, therefore, fairly consistent in feel, and has a definite flow, with several standout numbers drawing attention.

That said, “Haven” is not without some flaws. I applaud Kamelot for continuing to experiment, but the results of said experiments range from stunning (“End of Innocence”, the closest “Haven” gets to a single focal point) to questionable (“Revolution”, which somehow feels less coherent as a song). There are no tracks I would want to skip, but while the strongest songs are easily as good as anything from the band’s classic releases, there are few weaker tracks – “Citizen Zero” with its plodding pace nearly breaks the momentum, and “Beautiful Apocalypse”, while not bad by any means, has the misfortune of being bookended by two of the album’s strongest tracks, therefore seeming lesser by comparison. The aforementioned closer “Revolution” feels somewhat forced during transitions between parts of the song, and its extreme metal stylings seem out of place on a Kamelot record.

Even with these misgivings, it is hard to argue that Kamelot have created a strong record. It grabbed my attention, and though it is less immediate than some of the band’s catchier material, I suspect that it will get more plays from me than anything since “The Black Halo”. It ranks in the upper half of Kamelot’s discography for me, and confirms that they are still a creatively viable band. Good stuff!

Now in print!

Just a quick post to remind you that this blog is still alive, and… oh, did I mention that I am now in print? My J. Ellington Ashton Press debut, “Bring Out the Dead”, is available now for only $10.99!

https://www.createspace.com/5315927

Also, I have a story in the “Inanna Rising” anthology from J. Ellington Ashton Press. Pick up your copy if you have not already done so – available in print and on Kindle!

http://www.amazon.com/Inanna-Rising-Women-Forged-Fire/dp/1508470219/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

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