Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project Part 12: Wrapping Things Up

For those of you just tuning in, a few months ago, I began an experiment on my daughter. It was not as ominous as it sounds - I noticed that she made some connections between several superhero characters and the attendant soundtracks from their more visible cinematic adaptations. I encouraged this and went so far as to create a playlist that included other superheroes, adopting obscure themes from movies, TV, and orchestral repertoire. We listened to it in the car. A lot. I kept up with her expanding repertoire in a series at the end of last year, but as her enthusiasm began to wane, there were a few undocumented themes that I’d like to go back and catch.

As the Little One was becoming familiar with various superheroes, it was inevitable that their foes would arise as well. I decided early on that I would avoid giving these characters themes, with one exception. When she was an infant, she received a Catwoman “Funko POP” figurine that stood alongside Superman and Batgirl. Catwoman has been characterized many ways, from brilliant thief to hypersexualized vixen. When she began to ask about how “Catwoman’s song” went, I obviously wanted to emphasize the former. I settled on Funeral March for a Marionette, which felt playfully sinister in a way that suggested Catwoman creeping in the shadows and surreptitiously grabbing loot.

As her imagination began to expand, the more intense themes of superhero cartoons seemed less and less appropriate. The last jag of superhero programming she was into was, oddly, a show I used to eagerly watch on Saturday mornings – Spiderman and his Amazing Friends. Although not without its own somewhat violent overtones, the type of 80’s “zap” violence felt a bit less visceral than the “pow” violence of more contemporary programming. What this meant for the project, however, was that Iceman and Firestar, a couple of relatively obscure characters from the Marvel universe, needed themes.

Both of these characters were a clean slate, so I was free to render them in any way I saw fit. I also had a back log of excellent musical themes that had found no character. On the path that ultimately led to Robin’s theme, I acquired some familiarity with the long tradition of outstanding themes from the Star Trek movies. The passage from the mooring sequence on The Wrath of Khan made a particular impression on me, mainly because I remembered it so vividly through the music. It shimmered evocatively and developed in ways that made it distinct from many of the other songs in the playlist, so I adopted it for Iceman.

Firestar was created specifically for the Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends in lieu of the Human Torch, a character who was embroiled in the usual legal disputes. She was later retconned into the Marvel universe. On the show, she was predictably flat, like any cartoon character from that era. She was relatively freewheeling, though, and quick with a bad joke, but selflessly heroic in her own way. I ended up using the theme from Back to the Future for her for two reasons: to acknowledge her heroic but lighthearted attitude as well as the 80s era that spawned both her and the movie’s theme.

These themes rounded out a sixteen track playlist that consumed the Little One’s listening habits for several months. For awhile, she would ask for the pieces by the character’s name. Later, we would put it on shuffle and name the characters as the various themes came up. I only ever did this by request, though, and I started to notice that the requests became less frequent. Even today, she sometimes asks to listen to the playlist, but certainly not on a daily basis.

The goal of this project was twofold. From a superficial standpoint, I had hoped to familiarize her with some of the superheroes that inspired me as a kid, so that later on we could share in the wealth of reading material that is out there. From a different perspective, though, I wanted to open her ears to the narrative capacity of melody and the wide array of sounds that the orchestra can create.

The Superhero Theme Project was, and is, really only meant to plant seeds that may not take fruit for a very long time. I can say, however, that it has made an impression. When she is playing by herself, I can often hear her humming the theme from The Great Gate of Kiev. When I ask her what she is singing, she will smile as if caught in the act and shyly say “Aquaman.”


To see where this all began, click HERE.
To see the previous post, click HERE.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Who is the More Foolish? Glass Hammer's "Chronometree"

There was not a lot of music that made it through the divorce. Most of what I was into at the time was rendered unlistenable for quite awhile. The good news was, however, that I could listen to whatever I wanted to without fear of judgment or complaint. When I started brushing the dust off my shoulders and standing on my own again, I was relatively free to delve into whatever progressive rock nuttiness I pleased. For several years already, I had been listening to several variations on the “neo-progressive” style. Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree, and The Flower Kings had already proven to be bands with distinctive sounds worth a devoted following, but, predictably, I was convinced that there was more out there.

Although my horizons were widening in the progressive rock scene, there was a lot out there I could not get behind. The founders of the progressive style made music that I identified with, but I was mindfully critical of “clone” projects. Every argument could be made that Glass Hammer falls into this category. Especially in their more recent iterations, they wear their influences on their sleeve. Back in 2000, however, when Chronometree was released, it seemed that they might have the potential to take a different direction than they have.  Certainly, they still toggled between Emerson- and Wakeman-isms with fluid ease. However, aside from these stylistic keyboard affectations, I thought that Chronometree was relatively distinctive, and I really came to enjoy it in the wake of my newfound bachelorhood.

The primary way in which Chronometree stood on its own was due to the contributions of vocalist Brad Marler. In some circles, Marler had received some criticism on this release, but I always thought that his unique style stood in opposition to Jon Anderson, Greg Lake, and other classic singers in the style. Most importantly, Marler was impassioned without coming off as overly melodramatic, which is the downfall of many progressive rock singers.

A Perfect Carousel by Glass Hammer on Grooveshark

Like many classic progressive rock albums, Chronometree is a concept album, and in this regard it really shone above its contemporaries. The protagonist in its narrative is a pot-smoking prog-rock junkie that starts to think that aliens are trying to contact him through lyrics. In the end, he drags his friends out to a field where he waits, “Great Pumpkin”-style, for four-dimensional alien enlightenment. In other words, it’s a rock opera/concept album about a guy who listens to too many rock operas/concept albums.

Obi-Wan Kenobi once posed the question, "Who is the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?" Chronometree makes the hard-core progressive fanboy its fool. At its core, it is a self-referential satire, gently poking fun at the listener for looking too closely at its meaning. It’s more musically derivative moments reinforce this point while paying respectful tribute to the pioneers of the style.

I hoped that Chronometree would be the baseline for further work, so I followed Glass Hammer. None of the albums that followed, however, really stuck with me. While the level of playing and composition on Lex Rex and Shadowlands are respectably high, they seemed a little sterile in execution. There were also constant lineup changes that prohibited a clear chemistry from arising between anyone but primary writers Babb and Schendel.

The consistent participation of Jon Davison in recent years has seemed to lessen this issue, but has also strengthened their status as a Yes clone project in my mind. His rise to prominence as Glass Hammer’s ad hoc lead singer occurred after I stopped following the band, though, so this opinion is based on an outsider’s impression. Glass Hammer has gained some visibility recently, however, due to the installation of Davison as the lead singer of Yes. His participation in Glass Hammer seemed to help the group gel in more recent years, and it is my hope that his presence will do the same for Yes in the band's twilight years.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Dawes' "Stories Don't End:" Yesteryear's Rainy Afternoon

It rained for two days after she left. I spent most of my time on a well-worn yellow naugahyde couch staring out the window trying to figure out how what had happened and what I was going to do next. On the third day, it finally stopped raining and, in attempt to find some closure, I wrote a short, desperately worded letter to her. I rolled it up and corked it into one of those small jars she used to inexplicably keep around and went out for a walk in the cool, wet afternoon.

There was a creek that ran through the neighborhood, and it was bloated from the rain. It was my intent to throw my message in a bottle into the current and watch it float downstream. When I found an appropriate bend in the creek, I tossed in the jar, but, rather than bobbing in the waves as I bid it a tearful farewell, it simply disappeared into the stream with an unceremonious "plop.” I never saw it again. No poetry or romance - it was merely swallowed up into the muddy water.

Dawes wasn't around in 2002 back when I struggled to come to grips with my marriage ending, the reality of what had happened, and my delusion surrounding the whole thing. Stories Don’t End\ ended up in rotation earlier this year, however, and its brilliant lyrics reminded me of the way the world seemed when I was emotionally numb and fragile. I don't mean to say that the narratives found on  Stories Don’t End directly map to my experiences. On the whole, it’s not all about dealing with life in the wake of finding yourself suddenly alone (although that situation does come up).

What Dawes does so well, though, is speak profoundly about the paradox that arises as we look for something meaningful and poetic in the world and are instead presented with something we perceive to be mundane. From a different perspective, the profundity often arises when we notice poetry and beauty that is inherently embedded in the mundane.

When that jar slipped beneath the surface on that rainy afternoon, it seemed like a slap in the face, but it soon came to have meaning. I made a few vain attempts at kickstarting a songwriting hobby by mining the experience for lyrical ideas, but I was not, nor have I even been, the type of musician that could adequately capture this kind of humorous realism in words. 

Stories Don't End, however, ruminates on the dissonance that seems to exist between how things are and how they are subjectively seen. Due to my walk that day and the path I took in its aftermath, both positive and negative, I genuinely admire Dawes’ capacity to consistently capture these esoteric feelings in lyrics.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Yes' Big Generator and Previews of Coming Attractions

The Yes identity is partially defined by its constant lineup changes, some of which have had a more noticeable impact on the band's sound than others. One of the more dramatic changes came with the installation of Trevor Rabin in the early 80s. His textured, muscular, and (most importantly) accessible take on progressive rock was a purposeful turn from Yes’ sweeping epics of the 70s. Even today, nearly thirty years later, Yes fans are sharply divided on whether this lineup had the right to carry on the Yes name. Inarguably, however, the Rabin-led Yes produced the band’s greatest hit. Owner of a Lonely Heart became almost ubiquitous towards the end of my elementary school career in 1983. As a result, Rabin’s lineup was the one that I came to initially know and love as Yes.

A lot can happen in four years, especially during the early teens. By 1987, I was a self-proclaimed progressive rock devotee. I had learned every gesture that I could discern on 90125 and gained some familiarity with Yes’ back catalog. It would be an understatement to say that I had built up a lot of anticipation for Big Generator. This was also the year when driving a car by myself was a new and beautiful thing.  As a result, when the album was released it played incessantly in my blue Subaru GL as I learned to commute across town to my desegregated eastside school.

I genuinely liked Big Generator. I felt like there was an effort to recapture the successes of 90125 by tracing its more defining moments, but I also thought that there were also efforts to redefine the band’s sound to more closely align it with the Yes tradition. Especially on the second side, as the songs passed the six and seven minute mark, Jon Anderson’s vocals began to soar above the rhythm section in a way that was distinctly Yes.

As much as I outwardly advocated for the album, though, even back then I secretly sensed that at times, Big Generator seemed a little forced. As I revisited Big Generator recently in anticipation of Yes’ upcoming release Heaven and Earth, time and nostalgia has not eroded this feeling. The album is not unlistenable by any means, but there are a few moments that just seem to ring hollow. In retrospect, the discrepancy between accessibility and experimentalism that this lineup was forced to wrestle with would not be fully resolved until nearly a decade later with the release of the woefully unrecognized Talk album. Big Generator itself, though, is still a somewhat jagged listening experience, with great highs and a few dubious lulls.

I have always held that despite the somewhat radical change in style that Rabin’s songwriting and production brought to Yes, this lineup was as valid as any. The thread that held the legacy together through this period is, I think, Jon Anderson’s distinctive vocals. Certainly, the band could not have convincingly carried on the Yes name if Anderson had not returned to the fold when Rabin overhauled the Yes sound.

With this in mind, it might seem contradictory that I also cite Drama as one of Yes’ best releases and also unashamedly support the flawed but enjoyable Fly From Here. While both of these albums feature lead vocalists other than Jon Anderson, from a musical standpoint they fit more readily into the stylistic conventions of the Yes oeuvre. In both cases, the presence of Trevor Horn and Benoit David  challenges the group’s musical identity far less than Rabin did.

In a month, a new Yes album, with yet another lead singer, is due out. Jon Davison, who over the course of the last few years evolved into the lead singer for Glass Hammer, stepped into these very big shoes. When I first heard, I was very, very apprehensive. To see so many big changes in such a short amount of time did not sit well with me, even for Yes. Then this video surfaced:

In my opinion, Wondrous Stories is virtually a Jon Anderson solo piece executed by Yes. I think that it would have been a hard sell for Fly from Here's Benoit David to pull off.  In this clip, however, Davison’s stage presence and his clear passion for the song buoys the band's admittedly geriatric performance, and it convinced me that he might be an even better fit for Yes than David was.  This has piqued my interest in Heaven and Earth because Davison, in addition to being a good Anderson sound-alike,  is also a pretty prolific writer.  Since 1980, Yes has been most successful when they have an inspired collaborator to act as conjurer. I hope that Davison is able to act in this role in the current lineup.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Space Battleship Yamato and the Thundersleet

In 3rd grade, I was a begrudging fan of was a fan of Star Blazers. In truth, I was a rabid fan of Battle of the Planets, but one day, after a particularly lively sprint home to catch it at 3:30, I turned on channel 9 to discover the familiar brass fanfare inexplicably replaced by the martial chant of Star Blazers. Initially, I was crushed. The show’s operatic structure certainly didn’t sell at first, but when the Wave Motion Gun went off for the first time, the Argo began to appear alongside the Imperial AT-ATs I drew the margins of my schoolwork.

Star Blazers, or Space Battleship Yamato as it as known in its original Japanese format, is more iconic in Japanese culture than American.  Like its American counterpart, however, contemporary Japanese cinema is mining and reinterpreting the cultural capital of last generation's youth for large-scale adult entertainment. A big budget live-action version of Space Battleship Yamato was released in 2010, and actually, it is quite good.

I discovered this movie through its soundtrack, which I stumbled across during my research for the Superhero Theme Project. Way before I saw the movie, I ordered the CD, mostly due to the significant critical acclaim it garnered among more visible English language movies released in the same year. This positive reception is, I think, very well deserved.

Nakoi Sato’s soundtrack is particularly well-suited for the kind of high space opera that Space Battleship Yamato represents. In comparison to the majority of contemporary movie music Naoki Sato’s use of leitmotif-styled themes is relatively traditional. Given the show’s long history and reinterpretation over the past forty years, I find myself curious as to the sources of Sato’s thematic material. Echoes of the music of Star Blazers, which was the Americanized version of the show, reverberate throughout the album. It is possible that Sato, perhaps being more familiar with the material than I, could be pulling from the original series and its many sequels in other ways as well, which could potentially open up reservoirs of nostalgic meaning to the dedicated fan.

In any case, its juxtaposition of thunderous militancy and eerie menace was the backdrop for a memorable drive home in the increasingly unpredictable Texas weather.  In January, the media buzzword was the “Snowpacalypse,” but in this instance, Austin was bracing for the “Thundersleet," which is, I think, a much cooler term.

On the night of the Thundersleet (a term I reserve the right to use for some future artistic endeavor), I had a gig with Ethnos, a cross-cultural jazz ensemble I have recently been fortunate to play with. Outside, it was raining, windy, and well below freezing. Although I have publicly badmouthed premature school closings due to cold, but ultimately harmless, weather, this storm seemed to warrant concern.  Against all odds, however, we played one of our best sets yet - to a total of two people and the waitstaff.  Despite the weather keeping the surging crowds at home, I felt pretty satisfied with the gig and, perhaps more importantly, inspired.  As I drove home, the Space Battleship Yamato OST resonated satisfyingly as cold winds and disorienting lightning displays buffeted my car.

Friday, April 4, 2014

John Zorn's "Naked City" and a Disappointing 14.5

Although Mike Patton was far more visible as the lead singer of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle's jagged and sinister self-titled debut became the defining favorite for me in the early 90s. The album was produced by John Zorn, a fact that put this incredibly prolific composer on my radar when Naked City was released.  Back then, test driving an album before purchase, especially one by someone as avant-garde as Zorn, was pretty much impossible. Even while working at a record store, we really could only listen to promotional materials.  I had no idea what I was getting into when I bought Naked City.  It turned out to be an all-out assault.

Naked City eschewed all of the clownish imagery of Mr. Bungle and distilled its noisiest aspects into one to three minute blasts of aggression. To call it jagged and disorienting is an understatement. It was a hard listen, but it was also uniquely electrifying. It became a private favorite that I shared with only a few brave souls, but it opened up the doors to a broad variety of noise rock and avant-garde jazz.

There are not many venues for me to really dig in and digest this sort of music these days.  Naked City would drive my wife nuts and might irreversibly scar the Little One.  Nevertheless, the album resurfaced for me due to a recent post that popped up in my feed last week. I was looking for the announcement of 14.5, the final workout for this year's CrossFit Open.

The Open workouts were announced every Thursday when I am in aikido class.  I was barely out of my gi before people were texting me about the WOD.  I went home to find the official movement standards, but was distracted by this amazing live clip from the Naked City project.

This video is the first time I have ever seen a live performance of this material, and it shines a new light on what Naked City was all about.  The original recordings are so erratic that they seem like studio constructions, but these performances challenge that perception in a big way.  Yamasuka Eye, who recently showed up on a Battles album a couple of years ago, is particularly amazing in a way that just can't be captured on a recording. There are not many musicians that I can think of that throw themselves more fully into a performance of such complicated and intense music as I see him do here.


Not far away from this video was the announcement for workout 14.5.

I admit, I like being stronger and faster than the average joe on the street, but in truth, I am not into this CrossFit thing to be the strongest or the fastest. The system has a competitive component which is motivating, but ultimately I train so that I can maintain a high quality of life and, more functionally, keep my breath in the dojo. This mindset allows me to be pretty forgiving of myself, so I don’t beat myself up too much if I don’t come out on top. Still, its nice to perform well on a hard workout, and although burpees and thrusters don't bother me too much, there is a lot of work happening in 14.5. 

But the next morning I opened the garage and I was not ready. I was congested, short on sleep, noticeably gassed from a workout from the day before, and, worst of all, terribly grumpy. The result: my performance on 14.5 was awful - easily my worst Open workout of the season. I wasn't consciously taking it easy or trying to dial it in, I just couldn't get any traction. When I was done, I was jittery, and post-recovery, I still physically felt like I had pushed myself. 14.5 was just hard, and I was not in a place in which I could pull out my best. Despite being disappointed with my performance,though, I still felt more fit for doing 14.5, which is ultimately the point.

When all the submissions were reviewed this week, the top time for the workout was just over 7 minutes.  That's just ridiculous. To get a time like that, you have to come at this workout with an intensity that borders on pure insanity - not unlike Eye had on Naked City.

Monday, March 24, 2014

14.4, the Eroding Open, and Gabriel's "Car"

For those unfamiliar with CrossFit and its attendant culture, the Open is an event of little consequence, but for some it's a pretty big deal.  According to CrossFit philosophy, any person with relatively rudimentary equipment can achieve elite levels of athleticism in their own garage. The Open is an extension of this concept.  Any athlete that registers and can adequately perform the assigned workouts has the opportunity to be ranked amongst the community at large and, potentially, to participate in the CrossFit Games.  Despite the proliferation of CrossFit athletes that has caused the Open to grow to international proportions,  the programmers have done a respectable job of preserving its inclusive mission statement.  Last week's announcement of the 14.4 workout, however, suggests that the original spirit of the Open is subtly eroding, possibly due to corporate sponsorship and multimedia spectacle.

The 14.4 workout looks like this:

While most of the movements in this workout are pretty standard, the inclusion of the rower in an Open workout is bothersome. For the independent athlete or small box, its high price tag arguably renders it as non-essential. It’s nice to have one, of course, but that kind of capital is best spent on equipment that can serve the entire community. Including it the Open sends a message: if an athlete is serious, he or she must have access to a rower. Fortunately, Rouge Fitness, who has a close business relationship with the CrossFit Games, is more than happy to provide these to any athlete who needs one – for nearly $1000 apiece.

Its even more troublesome because there is a viable solution in the CrossFit Level 1 training manual.  On page 55 it states " low loads this (Sumo Deadlift High Pull) is our favorite substitute for Concept II Rowing."   Why not use this foundational movement?  Hmmm.....

Despite pervasive pressure from the CrossFit community to register for the Open, I have never signed up.  I currently have enough space and equipment to do about 90% of CrossFit’s standard movements, but there are a few that I simply cannot do because of our low ceiling. I don’t see the point of paying the $20 fee if I know for sure I am going to run up against wall balls and muscle ups. For the past three years, though, I have done as many Open workouts as possible when they are announced, and done close approximations when necessary.  To approximate this workout while still retaining as much of the stimulus from the 14.4 movements as possible, we did:

60 Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift High Pulls (25#)
50 Toes-to-Bar
40 Dumbbell Thrusters (30#)
30 Cleans (135#)
20 Burpees
10 Pull-ups

When the garage door went up this morning, everyone gave it their all and became a little more fit for their efforts. In the end, that is what it is all about.


Forty five minutes after the garage door closed on the 14.4 "tribute" WOD, I was on my way to school with the Little One in the back seat, a delicious cup of coffee blissfully slipping into my bloodstream, and Peter Gabriel’s first solo album humming on the stereo. I’ve had a renewed interest in Gabriel’s early work due to a localized buzz surrounding the Security Project, a touring repertory group of top-notch musicians that are dedicated to performing this period of Gabriel's work. Their performance of Moribund the Burgermeister is particularly compelling.

Predictably, the Security Project has no plans to come as far south as Austin, which is a real disappointment.  I have reconnected with Peter Gabriel's early work on a deeper level just from the few live clips that I have seen online, especially this first album.  Although I think that Peter Gabriel is one of the few artists whose vision warranted a solo career, I have always felt that his debut album suffered a bit from being overly diverse. Dipping at times into tinpan alley, orchestral grandeur, reinterpreted blues, and even barbershop quartet gives it the overall sense of being too erratic to be coherent. Given Gabriel’s increasingly bizarre stage presence with Genesis before his departure, the album's eccentricities were probably not too surprising to his fans. Despite the stylistic extremes it navigates, however, Gabriel's emerging abilities as a concise, poignant songwriter were definitely on the rise (starting at about :24).

In fact, as I have revisited "Car" (as it is called by Gabriel enthusiasts) this time around, the album seems to be full of excellent songwriting. Each track, taken on its own merit, stands on its own, but the jagged stylistic approach of the album makes it difficult to process as a whole. Even in light of Gabriel's history of experimentation, "Car" is a bold statement as a debut album that simultaneously acknowledges and cuts ties with Genesis.  As a self-examination of his own potential as a solo artist, it was a crucial move by Gabriel that paid off in the long run. The foundation of Gabriel's distinctive style, which would undergird the success of his subsequent solo career, is apparent in the album's most quintessential moments..

Gabriel would go on to do much more than what is found on his debut, but the songs on Car are still compelling and often quite moving.