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.