Archive for Music

When Science Fiction Becomes Current Events

How ’bout a book review? How ’bout a recent sci-fi novel that bizarrely predicted part of our current situation? Let’s take a look at A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker.

Let’s get this out of the way first. From our current vantage point in the early spring of 2020, this is a shockingly prophetic book. It’s set at some point in our near-future, when a combination of terrorist attacks and a deadly plague epidemic convinces the government to ban all mass gatherings. Sporting events are no more. All schools are taught online. Shopping malls, conventions, parades, amusement parks, festivals, movie theaters, and music concerts dry up and blow away.

It is, I will tell you, deeply weird to be reading along in a book of science fiction, published about six months ago, and find incidents that closely mirror the evening news.

So what’s our plot about? We follow two main characters. There’s Luce Cannon, rock star on the rise — at least until concerts get banned nationwide. She has a little extra fame because she played the very last major concert before large gatherings got shut down. So years afterwards, still jonesing for the thrill of playing live music for an audience, she runs secret and illegal concerts out of her soundproofed home in Baltimore. And there’s Rosemary Laws, a younger woman who has spent most of her life sheltered and protected in the rural Midwest. She’s attended online schools, has few real-world friends, lives with her technophobic parents, and works as online technical support for the Superwally retail giant.

Rosemary gets a new job working for a company called StageHoloLive — they specialize in recording holographic music concerts for live or recorded replay on Hoodies, which are basically wearable virtual reality interfaces. Put the hood up, and you can go online, watch a concert or movie, and order your groceries (with convenient drone delivery). Expecting to go into tech support, she instead finds herself in what’s now called A&R — Artists and Repertoire — essentially finding new performers in whatever secret venues they may be playing, recruiting them, and getting them signed on as StageHolo artists, ready to gain worldwide fame and make the company a lot of money.

Rosemary has no idea how to find any secret concert venues, but gets a hint from a StageHolo artist that she should check out a particular club in Baltimore. So even though she’s been told her whole life that cities and large gatherings are full of disease and probably terrorists, Rosemary gathers up all her courage and travels to the big city. Once she finds Luce’s secret music club — and once she overcomes her fears of human contact — she starts making friends, including Luce and a bunch more people in interesting and very talented bands.

But StageHoloLive has some dark secrets that cause serious repercussions when exposed. Can Rosemary continue working for them? Can Luce find a way to keep making music? And is there a way for both of them to break the hold fear has over the country?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This was a really fun book — and not just because it was so weirdly prescient. I’d actually stopped reading somewhere around the middle — not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I had a different book I was reading that had hooked me into focusing on it. But once the urgency about the Coronavirus outbreak started making the news, once all the sports venues started closing, all the conventions cancelled, all the schools started shutting down, and everyone was told to distance themselves socially from friends, coworkers, and even family members — well, the bizarre accidental topicality of the book’s background brought me back and kept me glued to the page. And honestly, the topicality means it deserves a lot more readers. Hint, hint, guys.

I loved the characterization — Luce and Rosemary are the most obvious examples, but there are great character bits everywhere, from the members of Luce’s various bands to Rosemary’s parents to the corporate middle managers at SHL to the music fans willing to risk jail for the sake of new music. LGBT representation is everywhere — both Luce and Rosemary identify as queer, and they’re far from the only ones. And the fact that being gay is rarely remarked upon and never condemned is one of the few ways this future society is better than our current one.

The worldbuilding is also great. There’s a lot of stuff we’re shown without having everything specifically laid out in detail. Drones are everywhere, both for deliveries and for people wanting to see the world without leaving the house. Hoodies are rarely worn by older people but almost universal for the young — except for young people who’ve decided they can live a better life without the corporate surveillance and gatekeeping the Hoodies bring. Certain areas are completely closed to any vehicles but self-driving cars, and rural cops will stop any car with license plates from urban states out of simple racist paranoia. The characters barely remark upon these things because it’s part of the landscape of their lives, but it still manages to paint us a very clear vision of this corporate dystopia.

I was also impressed with how well the author incorporated many current issues into the story without absolutely overpowering the plot. The book addresses the question of whether concerns over public safety should trump personal freedom. It jabs a hard, angry finger at the entire concept of health care inequities. It ponders the fact that technology and social media have just as much power to oppress us as it has to liberate us.

And the story reserves its greatest venom for our system of predatory capitalism — not through diatribes and jeremiads, but just by recounting how outrageously stupid and greedy our corporate overlords can get. Is StageHoloLive over-the-top in its stupidity and evil? Maybe a little — but do you know how many restaurants make their employees come to work sick? If fiction’s villains are unrealistically vile, the real world has more than enough ridiculous evil, too.

But though it describes a short-sighted dystopia, this is still a hopeful book. Throughout the book, the power of music to bring people together, to heal and uplift, to create pure joy is celebrated. Musicians and audiences are always depicted as being willing to defy the law for the sake of live music, and more than one music fan works to turn their home or their business or even just a barn out in a back lot into a performance venue, even at the risk of losing their property to the cops. And in the end, music has the power to change lives and the system. Music — and hope — have great power.

My friends, this book is highly recommended and highly relevant, not just because it manages to predict our current situation, but because it also offers a little hope for a way out. Musicians, artists, creatives of all sorts, you will love this book more than you can believe. Go pick it up.

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Wash Your Hands!

I’m really getting tired of this COVID-19 crap, okay? I’m tired of worrying about getting it. I’m tired of worrying that my family will get it. I’m tired of having everything shut down. I’m tired of no one being tested for the virus. I’m tired of our disease response and everything else run by the incompetent dumpgoblins in the White House.

Wash your hands, dammit! Wash your hands! Do you need a guide on how to do it?

Do you need superhero songs to help you remember?

Do you need Wonder Woman to help you remember?

Do you need Spider-Man to help you remember?

Do you need Ralph Hinkley to help you remember?

Do you need Flash Gordon to help you remember? Do you need Queen to help you remember?

Do you need the Spin Doctors to help you remember?

Do you need heavy metal to help you remember? Will you at least listen to Dethklok?

At long last, has it come to this? Do you need the stylish 1960s jazz stylings of Neal Hefti and the Dynamic Duo to help you remember?

Batman says to wash your hands! BATMAN SAYS TO WASH YOUR HANDS!

(And stay inside, if you’re able to. Don’t hoard needed supplies. Share with your neighbors if they need help. If you’re showing symptoms, call your doctor to get screened — don’t just rush to the hospital first. If your local comics shop or other local merchants have to close because of a lockdown, try to support them through mail or online ordering. And vote out the Republicans!)

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Heavy Metal Thunder

Wow, I am really, really late to the party with this one, but I love heavy metal, I loved their first album, so I really think I’d better get with it and review this one.

Dethalbum II by Dethklok

Let’s recap: Cartoon Network runs a late-night programming block called “Adult Swim,” devoted to more grown-up cartoons like “Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law,” “The Venture Brothers,” and “Robot Chicken.” One of their recent hits has been “Metalocalypse,” a show created by Brendan Small and Tommy Blacha, focuses on death metal band called Dethklok, which is, amazingly and awesomely, the most popular musical act in the world, with the 12th largest economy in the world, billions of insanely devoted fans, and the menacing attentions of world leaders terrified of their influence.

The band members include brooding lead singer Nathan Explosion, Swedish guitarist Skwisgaar Skwigelf (the fastest guitarist in the world), Norwegian guitarist Toki Wartooth (the second-fastest guitarist in the world), self-loathing bassist William Murderface, and balding, dreadlocked drummer, Pickles. That’s all, just Pickles. The entire show parodies heavy metal, but it’s very affectionate parody — metal fans and musicians love this show, and a lot of performers — band members from Metallica to Cannibal Corpse — have signed on to do short, silly cameos in the cartoon.

Well, a couple years ago, Dethklok released an album called “Dethalbum.” Yes, a fictional band releasing a real CD. Most of the music was provided by Brendan Smalls, with Gene Hoglan of Dark Angel, Death, and Strapping Young Lad working the drums. It was a fantastic album, and it was actually the highest-charting death metal album ever. Smalls and Hoglan even took a few other musicians on the road, performing (behind a screen) as Dethklok in live shows.

So now they’ve made a sequel — “Dethalbum II.” Smalls again provides all the vocals, guitars, and keyboards, with Hoglan back on board as drummer. It didn’t beat the first album’s record showing on the charts, but its respectable showing would seem to indicate that there’s still a lot of goodwill for Dethklok among the world’s metalheads (and Adult Swim fans, who probably picked up quite a few themselves).

Is the sequel as good as the original “Dethalbum”? No, probably not. The first record benefitted from having some of the band’s best-known songs from the cartoon series, including “Birthday Dethday,” “Awaken,” and the epic “Duncan Hills Coffee Jingle.” The new album doesn’t have any songs of that caliber.

The new album is also a lot less funny, with a ton more emphasis being placed on pure metal. This actually ends up harming it in comparison to the first one, because a lot of what made it stand out was the gleeful lunacy of a band that sang about how much they hate their fans, about murderous mermaids, about Vikings who get lost because they won’t ask anyone for directions.

The original “Dethalbum” had song titles like “Bloodrocuted,” “Briefcase Full of Guts,” and “Hatredcopter” — and while those are fairly silly titles, they’re also absolutely true to the death-metal spirit. The new album’s titles are relatively tame in comparison, with the notable exception of “I Tamper with the Evidence at the Murder Site of Odin,” which is an epic and fantastic title for a song that, while pretty darned good, isn’t really epic or fantastic.

Is this a bad album? Absolutely not. Again, it’s a vastly more metal album, and if you love heavy metal, that’s great news. Lots of the songs here are great rockers — “Bloodlines,” “The Gears,” “They Cyborg Slayers,” and “Murmaider II: The Water God” are some of my personal favorites and are guaranteed — like, to be honest, most of the other tracks here — to get your head banging good and hard. Smalls’ devotion to heavy metal thunder is pitch-perfect, and Hoglan is a monster on the drums — if you can stop thrashing around for a few minutes to actually listen to him, he’s a revelation. If the cartoon Pickles can drum anywhere near as awesomely as the real-world Hoglan, Dethklok isn’t paying the dude near enough.

So it’s not as good as the first album — big deal. Being almost as good as the most popular death-metal album ever is still pretty fantastic. “Dethalbum II” is a brutal, merciless, metal-clad fist-to-the-face, and you should go out and buy it.

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Maximum Metal Mayhem!

I’m taking another short break from comics stuff to review something that’s not a comic book.

 

The Dethalbum by Dethklok

A little background — because, yes, you need to know some of the backstory here to really appreciate this CD. Cartoon Network has a late-night programming block called “Adult Swim” for cartoons that are designed to appeal to grownups more than kids — some anime programs like “Cowboy Bebop,” “FLCL,” and “Paranoia Agent,” some syndicated rebroadcasts from other networks like “Futurama” and “Family Guy,” even some live-action shows like “Saved by the Bell” and “Peewee’s Playhouse.” But most of what they do is original cartoons like “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” “Sealab 2021,” “Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law,” “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” and “Robot Chicken.”

One of their recent hits has been a show called “Metalocalypse,” which features what is my — and probably your — ideal dream world: a world where the greatest and most influential cultural force on the planet is a death metal band called Dethklok. As the 12th largest economy on earth, with billions of fans so fanatical that they’ll sign “pain waivers” to absolve the band from any liability if the fans are horribly mutilated or killed during their shows, the members of Dethklok are free to spend their days being impossibly rich and utterly incompetent, but still 110% metal and brutal.

The band members include brooding lead singer Nathan Explosion, Swedish guitarist Skwisgaar Skwigelf (the fastest guitarist in the world), Norwegian guitarist Toki Wartooth (the second-fastest guitarist in the world), self-loathing bassist William Murderface, and balding, dreadlocked drummer, Pickles the Drummer. The show, created by Brendan Small and Tommy Blacha, is chock full of cameo appearances by heavy metal musicians and seriously awesome heavy metal music.

Which leads us to this CD. It’s not a soundtrack of the show — it’s a bunch of the music snippets we have heard Dethklok play, but expanded to full length, and there are some brand new songs, too. The regular CD has 16 tracks — I got the deluxe CD, which has an extra seven tracks, plus a music video and an episode from the show. You may have already heard that this CD debuted on the Billboard charts at #21, making it the highest charting death metal album ever.

So how is it? It’s good. It’s really, really good. Yes, the songs are often pretty humorous. You’ve got “Fansong,” which is a song about how much the band hates its own fans, you’ve got “Dethharmonic,” which is a tribute to greed, backed by a symphony orchestra. It’s got “Murmaider,” which is about mermaids and killing people with a wide variety of deadly weapons in the depths of the ocean. It’s got songs with titles like “Hatredcopter,” “Castratikron,” “Briefcase Full of Guts,” and “Bloodtrocuted.”

And despite some of the goofy content, this stuff will absolutely rock your face off. It’s brutal, it’s unrelenting, it’s everything you want from a metal album. Every metal fan who listens to this is gonna be banging his or her head by the time the first song is over. And believe it or not, it’s also catchy as hell, which means, if it gets any kind of mainstream play out there, it’s almost guaranteed to manufacture more metal fans.

And I’m amazed that this whole album was blasted out by only a very few musicians. Brandon Small, the show’s creator, does the vocals, guitars, bass, and keyboards, while Gene Hoglan (from Dark Angel, Death, and Strapping Young Lad) works the drums. Heavy metal violinist Emilie Autumn performs as the entire symphony on “Dethharmonic.”

To make a long review short: If you’re a metalhead, you should go get this album. You will love it. If you’re not a metalhead, you should probably get it anyway, because this CD will turn you totally metal, and the world needs more metal heads. If you can find it, grab the deluxe edition, just because it has the “Duncan Hills Coffee Jingle,” which is the most metal coffee jingle ever, but if you can’t find the deluxe edition, get the regular version, which is still metal enough to shred the meat from your bones.

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