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.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Soundtrack to the Snowpacalypse: Wild Belle's "Isles"

This whole “snowpacalypse” thing has gotten a bit out of hand here in Austin. The first time, it was fun. I went on a foot trek to get some coffee on streets that were noticeably free of ice, snow, or danger. The second time, it was embarrassing. It seemed as if someone had merely looked at the thermometer and decided it was just too cold to go to school. It might have been understandable if there was a reasonable expectation of rain, but the chances were at around 15% - hardly enough to justify a delay.

This was starting to get frustrating. These repeated closings were starting to threaten our summer break. I have no desire to celebrate the 4th of July in the band hall. More immediately, UIL Concert and Sightreading Contest is happening at the beginning of March, and no amount of added days is going to make up for the rehearsal time that I am losing due to shutdowns and mock STARR testing. The culture of fear that we live in is going to have a direct effect on my student’s success, a fact that I find almost intolerable.

Make no mistake, however - it is nice to have unexpected family time. I have really enjoyed spending some time with the Little One and the wife. We’ve all been in close quarters, which means that my listening habits have veered towards the accessible. Fortunately, I received the absolutely stellar Isles from Wild Belle in a pretty robust stack of birthday CDs, and this album has emerged as the "Soundtrack to the Snowpacalypse."

Wild Belle obviously defers to reggae and other afro-Caribbean music. The sunny, beachside association that I often associate with reggae styles, however, is absent on Isles. Instead, the throaty, sultry voice of lead singer Natalie Bergman and the distorted bari sax of her brother Elliot perfectly complimented the lone cup of coffee I had in the house that I was using to beat back the bright, cold day outside.

There are a whole range of interesting issues that can be addressed anytime there is a cultural schism between a music’s point of origin and its current form. No, they are not from Jamaica. Yes, they are white. No, they have probably never lived in a shanty, but they can refer to them out of respect for the style. None of this is really weird in today’s musical landscape. There are no record bins anymore, so it doesn’t matter if you call them “reggae” or “alternative.” They cross over, and in the process, write excellent, catchy tunes with a distinctive, consistent vibe that permeates the entire album.

I was listening to Isles last night as I was driving home from the dojo on a completely clear road when I heard that the school districts were closing today for the third time in two weeks. I refused to believe they would do such a thing until I started fielding calls from my CrossFit crew, asking if 5 am session was still on. I dismissed their fears, and told them that if they slipped on the sidewalk on the way to their car, not to come. I did not expect anything to actually happen, and sure enough, nothing happened. It was cold, of course, but there was not even any water on the ground outside, much less ice. We knocked out that WOD and I went back to sleep, to be met by unsettling dreams of embarrassing scores at UIL.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Spock's Beard mk. III: Isn't This Where We Came In?

Spock’s Beard was one of a handful of exciting neo-prog discoveries that transformed my listening habits in the late 90s. When lead singer/keyboardist/guitarist/primary songwriter/all-around talented freakboy Neal Morse left in 2002, however, I felt that the band’s incredible chemistry was irreparably crippled. I believe that a band can survive, even improve, with such significant lineup changes, but 2003’s Feel Euphoria, their first album with drummer Nik D’Virgilio as lead singer, just didn’t do it for me. Despite some of their subsequent recordings receiving accolades from the prog community, I ceased following the group.

In 2011, D’Virgilio announced that he, too, was leaving the group. Spock’s Beard was without a vocalist or a drummer, and down another contributing songwriter. Yet in 2013, Spock’s Beard released Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, an album of new material that, despite featuring a drummer that has never recorded with the band in the studio and an entirely new vocalist, I find quite easy to accept as part of their oeuvre. In fact, Spock’s Beard in 2013 feels much more like the band that I remember finding so inspiring a decade ago.

Admittedly, this is partly due to my own totally subjective distaste for drummers that “come out from behind the set” to sing lead. Phil Collins established this practice in the 70s when he took over the lead vocals for Genesis, playing drums for the band in the studio and relegating his drum throne to a freelance hire while on tour. I really hate that. I recognize that there are unique stage presence considerations for a drumming frontman, but Jellyfish proved my hypothesis that it can be done effectively with a little conviction and creativity. It seemed to me that D’Virgilio had both of these qualities in spades, and I, perhaps unfairly, always held it against him that he did not just push the drumset up to the front of the stage and go for it.

The good thing that comes from all this, however, is that Jimmy Keegan, the band’s touring drummer during the D’Virgilio years, was more than ready to step into the role. With almost a decade of live shows with Spock’s Beard already under his belt, Keegan had little problem establishing chemistry with the band. More importantly for me, however, is that what you hear on Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep is what you can expect to get in a live setting.

For most people, however, the real hot seat isn’t the drum throne, but that lead singer role. My interest was piqued when Ted Leonard, whom I knew as Enchant’s lead singer, was announced. Their album Juggling 9 or Dropping 10 was there for me during a time in which I could not emotionally bear to listen to much music. Since then, however, Leonard seemed to drift from one project to another, so I found myself anticipating the ways in which his Steve Walsh inflected vocal style might contribute Spock’s Beard if he were to find a home there.

Before either of these musicians were announced, however, my interest in the album shot through the roof when I heard that Neal Morse was collaborating on several tracks. His distinctive compositional style was, for all intents and purposes, the sound that defined early Spock’s Beard and it has since traveled with him through his various projects. I was very, very excited to potentially see it come home. When I began to seriously look at investing in the album, the track Afterthoughts was the big hook.

No matter who is singing lead or playing drums, any fan of the band will immediately identify this track as a Spock's Beard song, the giveaway being their signature vocal take on that "Gentle Giant thing.” Predictably, it is one of the Morse collaborations, in this case with Leonard and Neal's brother Alan.  It’s probably my favorite track on the album.

Although I have more readily accepted this version of Spock’s Beard than I did any of the albums with D’Virgilio, embedded in that last sentence is the one reservation that I have about the future of the band. The rest of the album is pretty convincing, but without even looking at the liner notes, my standout, favorite tracks were ones that Morse collaborates on, and they greatly contribute to the feeling that this album truly belongs to the Spock's Beard canon. Without them to scaffold on, I’m not sure it would have been as easy a sell.

I think it would be living a bit too much in the past to see Morse come on as the band’s primary songwriter in absentia. What I would really like to see, however, is Morse continuing to take on a collaborative role in Spock's Beard on future recordings, similar to the way that Brian Wilson did for the Beach Boys. This might not be an unreasonable wish, either, because Leonard seems to have a pretty good rapport with Morse. They shared the stage during a couple of transitional shows as Leonard took over lead, and he is standing in as Transatlantic’s 5th member for a leg of their upcoming tour. The potential for further collaborations between the two is pretty high. There is always the chance, however, that Morse is merely giving his former band his blessing to move on, and his loose participation on Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep is a one-off occurrence. All the more reason to enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project Part 11: Robin

I generally tend to be a fan of stories in which Batman is a standalone character, but like it or not, anytime you have Batman, sooner or later you have to address Robin. The two go hand in hand. For example, the Batman figurine in the Little One's superfriends collection included a tiny Robin which, due to its minute stature, has gotten lost several times. Somehow, though, he always seems to turn up. This ongoing game of "Where's Robin?" has emphasized the character and, eventually, brought attention to the fact that he did not have a song.

Although I am not the most devoted fan of the character, I inadvertently began looking into Robin when I was investigating Batgirl.  Because they both exist in Batman's universe, they share some conceptual overlap.  There have been many incarnations of the character with attendant variations in their origin stories, but generally Robin is depicted as young and headstrong, with motivations that are usually more serious than Batgirl’s. He is not, however, nearly as grim as Batman.

I still felt a need to pay homage to the already existing music in the franchise. Despite the fact that the movies themselves are some of the worst Batman movies ever made, I delved again into Elliot Goldenthal’s scores for the Joel Shumacher films. I was ready to pull the trigger on the title sequence theme from Batman and Robin.

Aside from being marred by an incongruous percussion break, however, it was, like the majority of Shirley Walker's work, more Batman than Robin, so I discarded it.  Shortly after I adopted Batgirl's theme, however, I discovered Michael Giaccianco’s score to Star Trek: Into Darkness, which I really liked.  In fact, the only thing keeping me from using this piece as Batgirl's theme was the very distinctive Star Trek watermark at the end.

So far, my strict "no editing" rule had remained unbroken, but this one was giving me pause to reconsider when the Steamboy track showed up. Still, in retrospect, I felt a little regret that I did not use it, so I did a bit more scouting around in Giaccicano’s work. His soundtrack for the previous Star Trek reboot also received accolades from reviewers. Like the track from Into Darkness, the track Enterprising Young Men has a youthful exuberance that I thought represented Robin well, but also a slightly dark edge that acknowledges the deeper motivations of the character.

As all this was going on behind the scenes, the Little One's interest in the project was starting to wane. She was still enjoying listening to the music and enthusiastically identifying the heroes that the represented, but she was not initiating as much as she was a few weeks ago. When I introduced Enterprising Young Men as Robin's theme, however, it seemed to reignite the her interest. Not only does she regularly request Robin by name, she gets excited about playing the piece for her mother and other people that might be in the car.  She is also discovered that my phone, when equipped with headphones, can also play superhero music, and Robin is her go-to in this setting.


Additionally, I put the full soundtrack on my list, and it showed up in a robust stack of CDs that I received for my birthday. Although in my eyes it is not as innovative a as Hans Zimmer's recent work on Inception and Man of Steel, as an entire work, Star Trek is very good. Enterprising Young Men is probably the most succinct and cognizant expression of this "new" Star Trek theme, but Giacchino gets quite a bit of convincing mileage out of it over the course of the whole album. The ending credits music is particularly entertaining, as he quite ingeniously mashes this melody up with the distinctive theme from the original series.

By embedding essential characteristics from the old with a fundamentally new premise, Giacciano creates a very smart representation of J.J. Abrams' mission statement of the recent movie reboot.  It comes highly recommended for soundtrack fans.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project Part 10: Hawkgirl

Speaking of ancillary female superheroes, Hawkgirl is another DC character that owes her existence to a male character, except the one she is attached to is far less established than Batman. Hawkman has been retconned and rewritten so many times that only dedicated fans have an idea about what is canon, so it is no surprise that Hawkgirl is relatively obscure. This worked in her favor, however, when she was written as the second female lead in the Justice League animated series. Without an accepted canon to stick to, she was a relative tabula rasa and thereby free open to interpretation by the show's writers. She evolved into the most complex character on the show, grappling with some very grownup issues surrounding loyalty, love, betrayal, and regret.

These concepts were mostly over the Little One's head, I think, but doubtlessly, the show made her aware of Hawkgirl's existence. Once Hawkman entered the scene, I knew the request for Hawkgirl was soon to follow. Because these characters are often depicted as lovers, even spouses, I played with the idea of just collapsing the both of them into one song. She would have none of that. When I tried to play off the Shostakovich piece as Hawkgirl, she immediately called me out, stating that the song was "not Hawkgirl," but "Hawk-MAN."

It was clear that I was going to have to come up with something, but I knew nothing of her accepted background. Because the character has such an interesting arc on the show, however, I adopted her run on the animated series as canon and I used it as my conceptual reference for Hawkgirl's personality and motivation.

On the series, she is the team's loose cannon, but is also a fierce warrior with an equally fierceful sense of loyalty. Her dedication to her friends and sense of duty, however, becomes her downfall as she gets caught between her peers and her people. She turns traitor at one point, betraying the man she came to love, and grapples with the consequences of her decisions.

I thought that her personality asked for a martial quality in her theme, but I also wanted to acknowledge her inner conflicts. I did not push too hard on this one, but while doing research for another character, the Game of Thrones theme fell into my lap.

The drums lent the piece a menacing overtone while, simultaneously, its distinctive legato melody seemed to reflect Hawkgirl’s more melancholic aspects, and, more objectively, it contrasted my usual fanfarish brass-heavy selections. Consequently, it is also not most adrenaline-fueled song in the playlist. Although I can visualize Hawkgirl’s wings gently beating against a sky lit by the orange glow of the sunrise, the Little One rarely requests this theme. She has been known, however, to exclaim “I like Hawkgirl!” when it plays, so I think that it could still be counted as a success.