Saturday, February 28, 2015

Remembering Spock: Horner and The Genesis Effect

The passing of Leonard Nimoy affected me, but the truth of the matter is that I really didn’t know him. I knew Spock. By the time I was aware enough to enjoy Star Trek, it had already been cancelled for nearly a decade. Like a lot of kids in the late 70s, however, I became a dedicated fan of the show while it was in syndication. The original run only had three seasons of episodes, but I feel like my father and I watched a lot more than that. I played with the bridge playset that had the spinning transporter, and I climbed in trees with pretend communicators. I liked all the characters on the show, but Spock was the one that I really, really loved.

But Nimoy was not Spock. I still think it’s weird to see pictures of Nimoy out of character, smiling and laughing off-camera while in costume. By his nature, Spock was destined to be wooden and soulless, but Nimoy’s rendering was the exact opposite. It was his belief in the character that brought Spock to life, and the commentary that he made on the human condition in the following decades made Spock more than a fan favorite. It made him a cultural icon.

The original series was where I came to love Spock, and when I think of him I remember him in that black and blue uniform (or was it white and gold.....I can't ever tell). In the decades that followed, however, the Star Trek universe expanded far, far beyond its original late 60s run, starting with its move to the big screen. Even the most dedicated fan of the franchise will admit that the Star Trek movies were uneven, but many will also agree that The Wrath of Khan was one of the best. In fact, The Wrath of Khan was so great that it arguably saved the entire franchise after a rocky cinematic start.

The Wrath of Khan soundtrack was also a breakthrough in James Horner’s career. Any science fiction movie that came out around this time had to size up to John Williams at the height of his thematic powers, and The Wrath of Khan succeeds admirably in this regard.  Last year, I appropriated the music from a memorable scene in the film as Iceman’s theme for the Superhero Theme Project, and it evolved into one of the favorite tracks on the playlist for both of us.

I came to appreciate Enterprise Clears Moorings as a freestanding piece so much that I purchased the full soundtrack in the late fall and have had it in regular rotation for several months. The soundtrack vividly brings moments of the movie back to life, but it also stands very well on its own. Like its attendant movie, it is one of the strongest and most distinctive soundtracks in the franchise’s long history.

The Wrath of Khan also features a defining moment for Spock. To save the ship and its crew, he memorably sacrifices himself in a bath of invisible radiation. On his deathbed, he expresses his love and admiration for Kirk in an inimitable fashion. For those that grew up with the character, this scene is probably the most emotionally gut-wrenching in the entirety of Star Trek’s history. The effectiveness of this scene comes not just from Spock’s imminent death, nor from the viewer’s investment in the character. It comes from the commentary that it provides on two ubiquitous characteristics of humanity – friendship and mortality. This message is brought to life through the passionate eloquence of Nimoy’s performance.

Of course, Spock did not stay dead. His body was reanimated along with the planet that it was laid to rest on, and the sequel, which was directed by Nimoy, only emphasized further the importance of Spock to the Star Trek mythos.  Admittedly, by the early 80s, Nimoy was typecast. He probably could not have been accepted as any other character, and his career would depend on him keeping the character alive. I like to think, however, that he did not continue to play Spock only because it continued to extend his career, but because he continued to see Spock’s relevance.

Certainly, we all believed in Spock, even until the very end. The fans have lost several actors from the original series, but the loss of Nimoy was particularly unsettling. It’s hard to imagine a world without him. For those of us who like to believe, however, there does not have to be an end. An hour before I saw the first announcement of Nimoy’s passing, this clip caught my attention.

People have lots of wild ideas about what these spots on Ceres might be. In reality, I don’t know, either. The timing of their appearance, however, allows me to indulge in the idea that it might be Nimoy, bathed in the glow of the Genesis Effect and waving at the probe as it goes by. Perhaps we should go find him. I think it’s what he would want.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Blue Beetle and Green Arrow

For the past year and a half, I have been planting seeds in my daughter's artistic aesthetic though the Superhero Theme Project.  This clearly labels me as both a superhero fanboy and a music nerd.  Guilty on both counts.  Since before she was born, I have been eager to introduce my Little One to the characters I found inspiring as a kid, but I have bemoaned the general lack of kid-appropriate superhero media.  Arguably, one of the reasons I began this whole thing was to get her excited about reading, but I started to wonder where the superhero comics are that are actually written for kids - and especially little girls!

Last fall, I was overjoyed to discover the Superman Family Adventures, by Baltazar/Aureliani. DC comics is well-known for its multiple universes, and this series proposes one in which all superheroes are slightly silly, engage in relatively low-key violence, and have pets. The Little One really latched on to this last bit, and wanted to know the name of every animal that came into view. Krypto and Streaky were easy enough, but no amount of online research could keep me informed of all of the super-pets names.

During a browse at the local comic shop, however, I found the holy grail – the Super-Pets Character Encyclopedia. This tome listed an exhaustive set of super-pets and their attendant owners in Baltazar's universe, both hero and villain. There was no plot to the encyclopedia – only images and descriptions. Regardless, at her request, over the course of two months, the Little One and I read the entire thing cover-to-cover three times, and she became surprisingly well-versed in the DC universe.

Despite having no relationship to a storyline or character development, there were some characters that she became very excited about. In particular, she became enamored of the Blue Beetle. When she saw him in the book, she wanted to skip ahead to find out who he was and she immediately insisted that I put his song on my phone.

This was a character I knew absolutely nothing about, however, especially in his current incarnation. From what I could glean, he was like a weird cross between Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Greatest American Hero. I had only the vaguest impressions, so the research in finding a good theme was rather like clutching at straws.

There was an interesting lead I tried out from Elmer Bernstein’s score to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, a b-rate science fiction movie from the 80s.  In some ways, this theme would have been really great, but it ran just a little too long and I felt like there were themes that were similar in style already on the list. Despite my strict “no-edit” rule, I was considering cutting it in half, when she unexpectedly asked me if I had Blue Beetle on my phone. A trial run confirmed my suspicions: at about 2:15, right when the second theme came in, she said “this is a long song.”

Fortunately, I had a back-up. Around the same time I discovered the Grand Canyon Fanfare, which seemed perfect as a general superhero theme. At 2:10, it fit within a very comfortable attention window, and it was clearly distinctive from many of the other themes that I had used. It also covered a lot of thematic ground in its short running time, with a little choral section in the middle that added just a hint of sci-fi.  By the next time she heard Blue Beetle, I had "rewritten" him in the form of James Newton Howard’s theme, this time in the car at full blast with an attendant graphic, much to her delight.  This one was the keeper.

We soon discovered that Blue Beetle plays a recurring role on the animated series Batman: the Brave and the Bold, and for her TV time, she began consistently requesting these watching the four or five episodes in which he appears. She now refers to this series as "Blue Beetle." This Christmas, I gave her a Blue Beetle action figure based on his design from this series, and it was one of her favorite gifts, along with her Anna and Elsa alarm clock.

I also took advantage of this new wave of interest to throw a theme from the Arrow series on the list. She saw Green Arrow in both the Pet Enyclopedia (with his pet porcupine "Quill") and on Brave and the Bold, so it was a pretty easy sell. Although the Arrow theme is not particularly rich in melody, thanks to the show it has come to evoke the character for me. Don’t fret, conservative parents, I recognize that Arrow is way too adult-themed for her. She will not be watching it any time soon. It is a personal favorite, though, so I have to concede that this one is kind of for me as much as it is for her. Still, she likes it enough to be able to recognize it without the graphic.

These last entries came in on what I thought might be my last opportunity to expand the playlist.  At three and a half, her own personal music tastes were beginning to emerge, but I was able to ride her interest in superhero characters just a little further before she began to really assert herself.

To go to the previous post in this series, click HERE.
The next one happened several months later, and you can find it HERE

Friday, February 13, 2015

Circa:, iamthemorning, and Another Yes Proposal

Last summer, the successes I saw in Yes’ Heaven and Earth album caused me to rethink the band's future in a big way. For the first time, it seriously seemed that the band could survive, possibly even move forward, without a single original member. I started to play “fantasy football” with some potential line-ups. Billy Sherwood would be a key player in this dream team, filling the shoes of the irreplaceable Chris Squire while Jon Davison, Yes’ current lead singer, would stay on. Davison’s contributions to Heaven and Earth capture the spirit of Yes in a convincing way and for him to similarly collaborate with Sherwood in the Yes name would, I think, produce amazing results. I had a lock on this creative core, but at first I was not as convinced about the other 3/5 of the band.

This led me to Circa:, a Sherwood project that was, at least initially, made up of musicians either in Yes or closely related to them. I watched many YouTube clips of the band and soon decided that guitarist Jimmy Haun would be a worthy successor to Peter Banks, Steve Howe, and, of course, Trevor Rabin.

What I did not do, however, was actually listen to a Circa: album, so I put HQ my wish list.  The album gave me a little more insight as to what kind of boundaries the Yes name has. Circa:’s lineup on HQ is, arguably, another “Yes that never was,” and undoubtedly, the compositions and performances make this relationship clear. Billy Sherwood’s voice, however, though adequate, doesn’t evoke the kind of celestial expansiveness that is necessary to invoke Yes. And that’s fine. Circa: is not calling itself Yes. No touch, no foul. Give Davison a call if you want to go there.

Given this concession, however, with Sherwood’s contributions woven into Yes’ history and Tony Kaye freed from the synthetic production styles of the Rabin era, there is a whole lot of Yes going on. Jimmy Haun’s vast array of sounds and melodic prowess name him clearly as the man for the job. Circa drives this point home with the guitar interlude “Haun Solo,” a nod-of-the-head to the Yes tradition of Steve Howe features. Additionally, drummer Jay Schellen attacks the drums tastefully and aggressively in the same way that Alan White did when he was forging his own distinctive identity in Yes.  His pedigree with Asia, a band with close ties to Yes, makes him even more compelling as a potential member.  In fact, after living with HQ for awhile now, I think that the members of Circa: as they are realized on this particular recording, with the addition of Jon Davison, would be a fine nu-Yes, but with one exception.

Kaye is in excellent form on HQ and contributes a significant amount of “Yes-ness” to the project, but it defeats the purpose of proposing a next-gen Yes with a first-gen member. In my previous lineup, I put Oliver Wakeman on keys, mainly because I don’t think that he got a fair shake as Yes’ keyboard player in that great expanse of lost creative time between Magnification and Fly From Here. I still think he would be interesting in the role, and he would be relatively easy for the fans to accept, but it also seems a little too easy. Let’s be forthright: is he really a keyboard innovator, or is he just a good keyboardist blessed with a familiar last name?  The problem is the very long shadow of his father.

Say what you like about Rick Wakeman’s distinctive brand of keyboard gymnastics, but I have always found his approach to be beautiful, electrifying, and, in its own way, totally genuine. He is, in my opinion, perhaps the finest rock keyboardist in history, and any other musician that has ever had the role of keyboardist in Yes has had to unjustifiably deal with that comparison from the fanbase.

But finding inventive keyboard players in the age of sequencing and triggering is not so easy. Again, the Kscope Sampler I was checking out earlier last month provided an answer. The track Os Lunatum by Russian duo iamthemorning featured an explosive performance from Gleb Kolyadin’s that brought Wakeman to mind.

I put their album Belighted on my wish list, and it thankfully showed up on my birthday. As a whole, it is a refreshingly original and compelling release, and not just from the standpoint of Kolyadin’s highly dexterous technique. It conjures a broad variety of unique moods that recall the best of progressive rock while remaining quite novel. A superficial listen will reveal that Kolyadin plays piano pretty exclusively on Belighted, and the attentive fan will rightfully demand to hear his synthesizer chops before making the leap to naming him Wakeman’s successor. Fair enough, but I will argue that although Wakeman is also known for his innovations in the synthesizer world, his conservatory- trained piano technique as always laid at the very core of his playing. Kolyadin clearly shares this background with him, as well as a passion for innovation that would add a lot to an entirely new Yes configuration.

So perhaps my current dream-team, for those that have been following, would be Davison, Sherwood, Haun, Kolyadin, and Schellen. Again, this is only for fun, and not meant to take anything away from the work of the current Yes lineup. But if anyone were to put together a petition with these five names on it for future planning purposes, I would sign. I think that they could make an album that would be at least as good as the late period success The Ladder, which was, in my opinion, great.  On the other hand, a 21st century Fragile, with "solo" spots for all the new players to assert their roles, would be interesting.  In either case, we would certainly be better off than with no Yes at all.

The Explosive Heights of Anathema's "Distant Satellites"

The Kscope Label Sampler vol. 6 seemed like a pretty good deal: ten full length songs, two of them new tracks by North Atlantic Oscillation and Steven Wilson, both of which are artists I really like, as well as several other tracks by artists I had seen bouncing around end of year “best-of” lists. The deal was particularly sweet because it was totally free. I put it on repeat during the long, quiet overnight plane ride home from Hawaii.

Because of that appealing price point, I won’t go too much into detail on the collection. I will say (and I don’t get paid to do so) that it is totally worth the effort to download it. I will to make special mention, however, of Steven Wilson’s cover of ABBA’s The Day Before You Came.  Undoubtedly, there are progressive rock conservatives that will take exception to this track, but I think its brilliant. It is hard to imagine another artist injecting more character into what at first glance might seem like a funky 70's pop song. In any lesser hands, it just wouldn’t work. Wilson’s characteristic melancholy, however, creates a uniquely forlorn sense of nostalgic longing by juxtaposing the reflective aspects of the lyrics to mine the deeper implications of the song

Another song that caught my attention was Anathema’s The Lost Song part 3. This band had already caught my attention on a DPRP “Editor’s Choice” list. The soaring melodies of this track set me out beating the streets for a copy of the full album.

This ended up being a great, great move. It has been a very long time since I found an album as immediately engaging as Distant Satellites, and even longer since an instantly gratifying album continued to reveal new rewards after almost a month and a half of constant play. Anathema has all the grandeur of Marillion, the drama of Tears for Fears, the atmospheric variety of Radiohead, the climactic pacing of Sigur Ros, and the dynamic impact of Opeth, all gathered under breathtakingly emotive lyrics. In short, Distant Satellites is my new favorite album.

Anathema’s songs are infectiously singable, passionately performed, and intelligently constructed. In fact, structures of their songs have a bit more in common with “post-rock” or, in some ways, maybe even contemporary dance music. Like other current “post-prog” artists like Syd Arthur, Anathema employs odd metered ostinatos as a framework for composition, letting their songs flow naturally and logically from a relatively simple idea. Through subtle variation and the layering in of new material, they push these initial statements to explosive heights. No matter how far they push these ideas, however, they never lose track of the power of melody to pull the composition together.

Many artists from the sampler do not fit neatly into the classic conception of progressive rock, and Anathema is no exception.  I could see how prog conservatives might give Anathema the "not prog" stamp, but to me, they represent a new idea about what the genre could look like in the 21st century.  I often wonder where the new great progressive bands are, and I think Anathema is emerging as one of them.  If I had discovered it at the end of last year, it would most likely have unseated Dawes at the last minute as my favorite album of the year. It has made that kind of impact. Coming at the beginning of 2015, however, it has set the bar impossibly high for the year to follow.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mr. Bungle Goes to Persia: Ethnos and the Secret Chiefs 3

Late in 2013 I was invited to by some ethnomusicology students to play in an original world music crossover ensemble. To me, this invitation seemed auspicious.  Although I don’t think fate dictates our path, I do think that things happen for a reason. It’s not always easy, however, to tell if the path path you have chosen is authentic or self-serving. For example, I often wonder if I took up Chapman Stick because I was “supposed to,” or if it was some desperate personal gambit to forge an identity for myself after the divorce. Perhaps the meaning of my ethnomusicological studies is yet to be revealed, or maybe they were merely an unnecessary and expensive exercise in egoism. Playing with this group, however, which came to be called Ethnos, seemed to make sense of so many disparate aspects of my experience that I could not help but accept.

I was nervous, though, because when I got the call, my Chapman Stick chops were nowhere near what they were during my master's studies. I have always grown as a musician, however, by putting myself in difficult musical situations and working my way through it. This is certainly where I was when I started in this group, but I was fortunate. They were quite patient with me as I got (and continue to get) my Stick playing where I want it to be.

This was to be an all-original group, and not one tethered to the conceptual restraints of a university, which I found particularly exciting. Authenticity has never been quite as important to me as influence, and it always seems to hang in the air in the academic setting.  The majority of our book currently consists of reimagined arrangements of popular music from around the world, but I have secretly been thinking about what sort of original tunes we could generate. For inspiration, I revisited an album that captured my attention a couple of years ago: Book M by The Secret Chiefs 3.

No, I don't know what's up with the cloaks.  Let's move on.

Secret Chiefs 3 is actually a collective of musicians guided by Ex-Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance.  Under his direction, the Secret Chiefs 3 have multiple configurations and identities that they operate under depending on the musicians and styles involved in any particular recording. Book M is one of their more ethnically influenced recordings, rather like “Mr. Bungle goes to Persia.”

The album’s exotic impressions partially stem from its modal composition. It deftly dodges the monotony that often arises in modal music, however, by using complex, intuitive rhythmic structures alongside contemporary techno and metal styles. If this sounds erratic, it is, but the album’s allure reverberates forth from the collision of these disparate elements. It is by sheer force of will and conviction that it works, but in the final analysis, Book M coheres into a singular statement incredibly well.

While The Secret Chiefs 3 hardly fit the current instrumentation of Ethnos, I find their general compositional approach and intensity very appealing. I am currently working up some compositions using very rudimentary versions of what I see in the music of the Secret Chiefs 3. While quite a bit may be lost in the interpretation, in the end that is what I hope will make it original.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Whole30 and the White Sea

When I began getting involved in CrossFit a few years ago, I made a dedicated attempt to align my eating with the paleo diet. Over the course of the following years, however, I slowly began to add things back into my diet, including regular “cheat” items. By last fall, I was eating a paleo diet that was being constantly undermined by a barrage of "sugar bombs." Despite keeping a relatively regular workout schedule of 2-4 days a week, my performance was declining. I knew that I was dealing with a sugar addiction, but I was doing nothing to aggressively address the problem. In fact, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I felt like had pretty much lost control.

To get back on track, I decided to do Whole30 challenge in conjunction with my close friends at CrossFit Denton during the month of January. The specific guidelines of the challenge are noted on the program’s website, but in essence, the Whole30 is a very strict paleo diet – no cheats, no shortcuts – for a 30 day period. On the morning of January 1, I drank black coffee by choice for the very first time ever and did not look back.

The core of my diet was not too far off from the Whole30 guidelines, but the challenge became to find and eliminate refined sugar. In some cases this was obvious (no more protein bars), but I started to see it hiding in some weird places. It turns out, for example, that sugar-free bacon is scarce. Fortunately an alternative arose, because bacon is a big common denominator in our house.  To remove it entirely from the family diet could have derailed the entire program.

Otherwise, I had already built up a pretty decent repertoire of paleo recipes that are Whole30 compliant. Finding time to prepare enough food to feed the family on a daily basis, however, was another challenge. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, but I came to enjoy taking responsibility for my family’s nutritional well-being. I often doubled up recipes to ensure that I had leftovers, and I tried out new ones with unfamiliar ingredients. I concluded that I really like parsnips and butternut squash, and although beets are pretty good, I am not convinced that they are worth the mess.

The changes in my energy level made all this time invested in the kitchen entirely worth the effort. Whole30 participants often report nearly uncontrollable cravings and mood swings in the first week. Perhaps because I have had previous experience with those kinds of withdrawals when I first began CrossFit, I did not experience them as acutely as some. The cravings subsided within a week, to be replaced by a noticeable boost in my workout performance, particularly in terms of stamina and endurance.

The biggest problem was January. My wife, my mother, and I all celebrate birthdays this month. Declining constant offers of birthday cake and navigating birthday celebrations became a real obstacle.

On the 30th day of the program, arguably the exit date, I was listening to In Cold Blood by White Sea, the solo project from M83’s Morgan Kibby as I again contemplated “to cake or not to cake” at my family birthday celebration. This particular album has been in rotation all month. Unsurprisingly, The White Sea is electro-pop with an unapologetic deference for the late 80s. What is surprising, however, is Kibby’s broad vocal range. The breathy tone that she uses with M83 is merely a facet of a much broader capacity that she displays on the album.  Overall, In Cold Blood is good, but it lacks the musical experimentalism that makes M83 so distinctive.  There is, however, no lack of visual impact in their videos.

I chose not to cake, by the way, which at the time made me a little sad. I was thankful the next day, however, when I worked out the next morning at 5 am with a clear head, free of any sugar hangover that such an indulgence might have caused. As per the guidelines of the program, I did not take any measurements, weigh myself, or take before/after pictures. I instead let my general sense of fitness serve as my primary gauge of progress. By this measurement, the program was a huge success.