Category Archives: Music

R.I.P. Jeff Hanneman, and Why We Need Slayer

This week saw the passing of one of heavy metal’s greats: Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman. Hanneman had been in poor health for a couple of years following an infected spider bite, but his passing took many by surprise.

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I’ve taken some time to think about Slayer and about metal.

Metal tends to be a “take it or leave it” genre for most people. It tends to be music that you hate, ignore, or worship. No middle ground. Slayer, as one of the most brutal and extreme metal bands, is even more polarizing. Most people don’t even listen to Slayer, and most of those who do are immediately turned off by the hyper tempos, squalling and growling guitars, and rapid-fire vocals that are only occasionally intelligible enough to understand “death” or “flesh” or “hell” or perhaps their most-used lyric, “blood.”

And then there is the core of Slayer fans who get full-back tattoos of the band’s logo, or carve inverted pentagrams into their flesh to show their love of the band. I like Slayer, but I haven’t gone this far.

I have seen Slayer twice in concert. I don’t think the guys in the band are evil. I don’t think they worship Satan or any of the other ridiculous charges leveled at them over the years. But their concerts are…unnerving. The darkness is a little darker than it is around other groups on stage. The red and orange underlighting could be flames, not floorlights. Smoke machines emit brimstone. You know you’re in an arena, but if you let go of the veil of reality for a few moments, you’re transported.  The guitars groan like tormented souls, the drums pound out primal, visceral rhythms, and Tom Araya, lead singer, declares in his sing-shouting voice:

Close your eyes
Look deep in your soul
Step outside yourself
And let your mind go
Frozen eyes stare deep in your mind as you die

You feel you could be staring not at a rock band, but into the yawning mouth of hell. You are listening to “Seasons in the Abyss.”

So why would anyone want to witness that?

My good friend Dave, my “Metal Mentor,” wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking tribute to Hanneman, Slayer, and metal on Facebook.  Insightful as always, he nailed it:

The music doesn’t hide the bad parts about humanity. People are fascinated with evil, but they try to hide their fascinations. Metal bands however, in writing music which evokes a passionate response from fans, turn some incredibly negative things into a positive. It’s that conversion that I think makes metal such a great genre. Evil exists throughout humanity. People do terrible things all the time. In making music which expresses the side of humanity, it creates an outlet for negative feelings in a positive way.

In short, we need Slayer. We need artists who show us the beautiful and the sublime, but we also need artists to show us the darkness, the horror, the evil. It is the same reason we need Poe and Steven King and Black Sabbath and late period Goya. To acknowledge only the fairies and rainbows and cute puppies is to be blind to half of the world. By taking the negative– violence, evil, hatred– and turning it into something positive– a musical experience being shared by artists and fans, Slayer is necessary. They guide us to the light, but only by dragging us into darkness.

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Bang Your Head! (Against the Monitor)

It’s been about six weeks since my last blog post. Between deaths in the family, an impending birth, frantic renovations (to prepare for said birth), a freelance project, and a nutty school schedule, the blog fell by the wayside. And in that time, I’ve had one of my short stories published in a new anthology, Song Stories: Volume 1. The story is “Equilibrium of Chaos,” which was published a couple of years back in another anthology (Hall Brothers Entertainment’s Villainy). The theme of the anthology is stories inspired by songs. “E of C” is exactly that. Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine may not be rock’s finest poet (or a nice guy, or even remotely sane), but he’s written some great riffs and some very cool songs. One of my favorites is “Hangar 18,” which is a fictional place that is reminiscent of Area 51. The song is a bit of sci-fi campiness, which transferred into my story. Once I developed a main character, the story really wrote itself. The antagonist, an ice-cold colonel in charge of the hangar, was a ton of fun to write. If you haven’t read my story before, pick up the anthology on Kindle here and try it out.

The authors in Song Stories: Vol. 1 are doing a blog-hop on the connections between writing and music. I have lots to say on this topic. I could address what I listen to when I write (classical, ambient, electronic, jazz, computer game music, anything without lyrics– can’t write with other people’s words in my head). I could talk about how music inspires my stories (the aforementioned Megadeth. I once wrote composed a story listening to Rage Against the Machine’s cover of NWA’s “F— the Police” to get in the narrator’s mindset. My novel I’m working on is thematically tied to Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime). But I’d like to talk, instead, about being a performer.

One author I like (I forgot who) once said that many authors are frustrated musicians. I can relate to that. I’ve been playing music since age ten or so. I began playing violin in the 4th grade. My parents were incredibly supportive (quite a feat, if you’ve ever heard a kid learning the violin). I stuck with it all the way through high school, usually enjoying it but never becoming great. In high school, my musical tastes expanded beyond classical, and I began learning guitar. This past year, I’ve begun to teach myself bass. I’ve never had a band, though I’d like to be in one. If I couldn’t be a writer, my next choice would be to be a rocker. I just lack the musical talent. I can play the instruments, but I can’t really make them sing. My gifts (if I may humbly call them that) are in the written word, not in the performed note. But this doesn’t change that ache I have in my bones to perform and share the music.

Confession: sometimes I sit at my computer desk, writing a story, and when the words are flowing, I imagine myself writing the words in front of 20,000 screaming fans, sweat pouring from my brow in the heat of the spotlight, the stage thundering under my feet.

Maybe what I really want– since I know I’ll never make a living playing a musical instrument– is the feedback that musicians get. When a musician performs, he’s there, in the moment, playing the notes. If he plays them notes real good, the crowd goes wild. Hell, even if you don’t play well, if you play with enthusiasm and energy, that gets the crowd so worked up that the response is the same. But writers have a different fate. Their feedback comes weeks, months, years, or decades after the writing. There is no immediate joy or rejection. I’ve published stories that I wrote years ago, and it’s weird accepting praise for something that was part of me a long time ago. Maybe that’s why I like to imagine myself rocking out as I write– because for me, the thrill of being a writer isn’t in the dream of someday having a fanclub or signing autographs for two hours (though I would be honored). For me, it isn’t even about having my name on a handsome hardcover in a bookstore. No, for me, the thrill of writing is in the composition. When I’m at the computer, I am on the stage, the drummer pounding away behind me, the guitars squealing, the bass thundering, and the crowd is right there with me, and we’re sharing the making of the music.

 

 

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Hark! The Clockwork Angels Sing!

Clockwork Angels is the sort of project I admire and envy. I’ve often dreamt of a project bridging music and narrative. Well, 2012 saw the collaboration of the prog-rock band Rush and speculative author Kevin J. Anderson. Neil Peart had wanted to work with Anderson for decades, and it was on this project that everything finally clicked (as noted in the novel’s endnotes). Both the novel and album  tell the same story, but through different media. So let’s look at each.

First of all, I should mention this is my first encounter with Anderson. I know he is an extraordinarily prolific author, but he’s one that just slipped through the cracks for me. I will say this for the novel: the story was stronger than the writing. Clockwork Angels is a hero’s journey story, the tale of young Owen Hardy. His life is quiet, safe, and pretty much mapped out from birth. The Watchmaker, a sort of benevolent dictator, has established The Stability that keeps everything safe and predictable. Of course, Owen finds himself dissatisfied, and soon falls in with circus carnies who embrace a wilder sort of life. Owen’s path crosses with The Anarchist, the Watchmaker’s nemesis, whose sole goal is to disrupt the Stability. Throughout the course of the novel, Owen bounces from one adventure to the next, being used as a pawn by both sides, until he is finally able to create– or realize his power to create– his own destiny. As a heroic adventure, and as a philosophical exploration, it is wholly successful.

That being said, the prose is rather…prosaic. Not every author needs to be Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon, but Anderson’s prose is littered with over-explanation and telling rather than showing. A typical passage might run like this:

At the man’s refusal, Owen hung his head and sighed. He was very disappointed that the man rejected his offer.

The second sentence is unnecessary, as if readers need an explanation for every gesture (we don’t).

I don’t wish to imply that the novel was boring or unpleasant to read. It was quite a fun adventure. I was just a little disappointed that the grandeur of Rush’s album and music was lost in such unadorned prose.

Another shortcoming of the novel is that the story is driven by Idea. Specifically, the battle between Order and Chaos, and Owen must find his own way between the two. As such, it’s a novel of Ideas and Philosophy, rather than Character or Story. The characters’ depth really ends at their roles as symbols rather than as people. Owen is the only character to acquire much depth, but again, it is a depth of symbolism rather than of psychology or emotion.

One of the most pleasurable parts of reading the novel was detecting the Rush references that Anderson sprinkled throughout the story. He drops names of songs and albums all over the place, and this makes the novel more than a standalone book; it makes it a gift to the readers and fans. I was going to make a list of all the references I found, but in the endnotes, Peart suggests that some sort of contest for readers may lie in the future. And far be it from me to give anyone a leg up on that opportunity…

As I stated before, Clockwork Angels is Rush’s first concept album. And it’s a challenging listen. The music continues in the direction it has followed in the past decade– harder rock sound, darker lyrics, and more focused lyrics. By “challenging,” I mean there is no apparent single that standouts. No “Tom Sawyer,” no “Subdivisions,” nothing I’d expect on the radio. Instead, the quality is spread throughout the album.

There are some albums that have immediate impact on the listener. Some need two or three listens to get into. Clockwork Angels required eight or ten. But now, I can’t get it out of me. Reading novel greatly increases appreciation for the songs. The driving, pulsing rhythm of “Caravan,” the angry, big guitar swagger of “BU2B.” On the other hand, the album also carries melodic, gentler tracks like “The Wreckers” that ache with regret and bitterness. The knockout track here is “The Garden,” the closer, which provides us with complete catharsis and retrospect.

Musically, another shift listeners might notice is in Geddy Lee’s voice. No doubt, his voice is distinctive– high, chirpy, and to some, grating. Well, whether the result of stylistic choice or of age, his voice has come down out of the stratosphere (without losing its power). If you want to give CA a try but can’t bear to listen to an hour of Lee singing, give it a try. His voice is lower but no weaker, and more nuanced than in the past.

This may get me drawn and quartered by Rush fans, but I’ve found a number of Rush song’s lyrically disappointing. When Peart has an axe to grind, his songs come off more like essays, and frankly, I don’t listen to music to be taught or lectured. I listen to them to experience story or emotion. Thus, songs like “Freewill” or “Nobody’s Hero” don’t do much for me. They lack the grace or imagery that I want to see in song lyrics. I don’t think all Rush lyrics are like this. “2112” is pure story (saturated though it is in philosophy), and “Subdivisions” has  a big axe to grind, but is delivered with striking imagery. Even Snakes and Arrows, which is loaded with anger at social injustice, is written with nuance and style.

So we come to CA, and of course as a concept album, it’s all about story. Yet, as mentioned above, the story is largely Idea driven, Extreme Order vs. Extreme Chaos. And that’s what makes this album so remarkable to me, that it is so philosophical, and yet has a nuance and grace that it might not have been written twenty or thirty years ago.

And that’s why I declare this album an utter success. It’s not an easy listen, it’s not something you can pop in and be amazed by the radio-friendly tracks, but give it several listens, and you may find it to be some of Rush’s most potent and gracefully executed music they have ever written.

So in recap: The novel: great story, hampered by mediocre prose. The album: not Rush’s most accessible work, but some of their best.

Side note: This story could make a fantastic film. The story is there, and the imagery potential (think of all those clocks and gears and steamships…) is boundless. You hear that, studios? Get on it, already…

UPDATE: A draft of this blog post was written before the EXCELLENT news that Rush was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. Congratulations to the R&R Hall of Fame for finally getting it right!

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