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…

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…


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: (original version) (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:

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:

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 !

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.


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