Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, And Games To Take Your Mind To The Next Levelby Ron Hale-Evans and Marty Hale-Evans

First of all, the title Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games To Take Your Mind To The Next Level needs a bit of explanation. The word hacker is used here in its original context, not in its later criminal association. The term dates back to the early sixties at MIT, and was defined as, "A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary." It had nothing to do with the malicious mischief later associated with it, such as ID theft and the like. True hackers are intent on the intellectual quest to gain knowledge, never to harm others.

It is in this spirit that Mindhacker has been published, and it is full of various strategies for us to improve our brain functions. The book focuses on ways to improve performance in nine distinct areas. These are memory, learning, information processing, time management, creativity and production, math and logic, communication, mental fitness, and clarity. The 60 tips, tricks, and games mentioned in the title are referred to as “Mind Hacks.” and are associated with each chapter. They are not equally distributed, however. For instance, the “Creativity and Production” section features 11 hacks, while three others only have five.

The book is not meant to be read as a straight narrative though, or as a textbook. In the “Introduction,” the authors encourage us to flip through the chapters to the ones that intrigue us most, then use those lessons as a jumping off point to other sections. In this type of usage, we mimic the brain, which tends to work in that way on its own.

Short-term memory is something I struggle with, and so that is where I began. Taking the age-old, string-around-your-finger method to remember things is an easy metaphor to begin with, so we are shown other ways to expand on this rudimentary technique. They suggest that the string should not just refer to one particular thing, but rather a whole “string” of related items, so that the whole string can represent an entire course of action.

Keeping a checklist is another simple, but very effective tip as well. After explaining a study at Johns Hopkins University, where nurses were instructed to follow doctors prepping for surgery with a ten-point list of basic steps, the results were pretty incredible. Over the course of a year, post-op infections had previously ran at 11% for patients, but with the checklists in place, the rate of infection dropped to zero. This was seen as evidence of an over-familiarity on the doctors part. The basics such as washing their hands and such were so second nature to doctors, that they often overlooked minor items on the list, which the nurses were able to remind them of.

The real life application of this would be for someone who has a morning routine, yet always seems to forget something. This is definitely a problem for me. Armed with a checklist every morning however, it becomes very simple to take all you need at one time. I like the final line on this list also, “Prepare tomorrow’s list.”

In the “Creativity and Productivity” chapter, I found the Hack 35: Ratchet to be very useful as well. The concept here is that when faced with a big project, work incrementally. Funnily enough, in this case blogging is mentioned first. It is a small and easy way for each of us to build up our writing skills, entirely at our own pace. Using small time is another excellent point. “Whenever you have half an hour, or even 15 minutes with little to do, consider how to fill it,” they write. Small jobs such as folding a pile of laundry, cleaning off the table, or reading an article are some examples of productive things that can be done. By using small time to complete small tasks, soon you will find the big tasks completed.

Besides the tricks and tips, there are also games one can play to make learning these lessons more enjoyable. They have even included various online resources for those who wish to delve deeper into the project. Many of these are accessible on the website for Wiley Books

The examples mentioned are just a couple that I found immediately useful, but this book seems like one I will return to again and again. Areas that may not seem as pressing to me today may well become very important to me tomorrow, and Mindhacker may be my best hope yet in fighting off senility.

Article first published as Book Review: Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, And Games To Take Your Mind To The Next Levelby Ron Hale-Evans and Marty Hale-Evans on Blogcritics.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review: The Man Who Found Zero: Eary Science Fiction and Weird Fantasy from The Black Cat, 1896-1915

One of the earliest science fiction digests was The Black Cat. It was published from 1895-1920, then unsuccessfully revived in 1922. The glory years came under the leadership of the magazine’s founder, H.D. Umbstaetter (1851-1913), who had a knack for discovering great unknown writers. The Man Who Found Zero: Early Science Fiction and Weird Fantasy from The Black Cat, 1896-1915 is a collection of 24 short stories from The Black Cat, and it is a fascinating look at turn-of-the-twentieth century sci-fi.

The back cover blurb calls this “More of your great-grandparents’ science fiction,” which is a reference to the previous Black Dog Books collection from a magazine called The Argosy. It was another early fantasy digest, and contained some great stories, but I am partial to The Black Cat. For this reader, the sheer weirdness factor cannot be beat.

Take “The Transposition of Stomachs” by Charles E. Mixer. In this tale, we find a self-described “gourmet” with a delicate constitution. His proposal to a longshoreman acquaintance of enormous girth is to pay him to trade stomachs. When this works, the longshoreman then goes into business for himself, exchanging stomachs with all and sundry for money.

Then there is “The Annihilator of the Undesirable” by Clifford Howard. In this story the narrator discovers an ad that claims to permanently remove anyone the buyer deems “undesirable.” To test this, he anonymously hires the man to remove a town tramp, and watches as the fellow literally vanishes into thin air. When the Annihilator himself shows up to inform his former customer that he is now in his sights, the twist ending is worthy of The Twilight Zone.

In fact, many of these stories are very reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Although it is true that most of this material was written over a century ago, this by no means diminishes their incredibly imaginative qualities. I find myself as thoroughly enthralled in fantasies such as the frozen in time narrative “In The Sierra Madres” (Newton Newkirk) today as I think I would have been in 1901, when it was first published.

It is not just the fantastical elements of these short stories that make them so compelling though. As we reach the end of “When Time Turned” (Ethel Watts Mumford), the bittersweet realization that it is an account of a man who has lived his life backwards from the time of his wife’s death is heartbreaking. In this and many of the others, we are given tales that work both on the supernatural and natural levels. Like all good fiction, the interpretation is left to the reader to decide.

Jack London is the most famous name to grace these pages. His first published story was “A Thousand Deaths,” and appeared in the May 1899 issue of The Black Cat. It is a wild piece, about a man discovering a process to liquefy people, cleanse them, then bring them back to life. It just so happens that his experiments are done on his own wayward son, and when the old man starts talking about vivisection, the tables are turned.

Editor Gene Christie has selected a great assortment of short stories for The Man Who Found Zero. While a few of the references may be obscure today, the imaginative nature of this material is as vibrant as ever. It may be "your great-grandparent’s science fiction," but it is as good or better as anything you will find on the shelf today.

Article first published as Book Review: The Man Who Found Zero: Eary Science Fiction and Weird Fantasy from The Black Cat, 1896-1915 on Blogcritics.

Music Review: The Dramatics - Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get

The early seventies saw some of the most gorgeous soul music ever made. The Stylistics, The Chi-Lites, and Blue Magic all used strings, heartbreaking lyrics, and transcendent falsetto voices to create some of the most bittersweet songs of their time. The irresistible “Oh Girl“ by The Chi-Lites and “Sideshow” from Blue Magic are a couple of examples. Perhaps the finest of all was “In The Rain” by The Dramatics.

The song is a masterpiece of studio construction. Writer and producer Tony Hester recorded the group’s vocals before they went out on tour. While they were away, he had added the storms and falling rain which so perfectly dramatize the raw emotion of the track. As singer Ron Banks says, “When we returned from the road, we knew we had a smash.”

“In The Rain” turned out to be The Dramatics’ biggest hit of all time. In typical record company style, though, the song was almost never released as a single. Stax Vice-President Al Bell did not believe in it at all, but thankfully was eventually persuaded.

Bell’s reluctance may have been due to the previous hit the group had enjoyed, “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get.” This is the other side of the soul renaissance of the early seventies. Funk was all over AM radio back then with tunes like The O'Jays’ “Backstabbers,” and The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady.” The Dramatics fit right in with “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” followed by the number sixteen R&B-chart single “Get Up And Get Down.”

As part of their current Stax/Volt reissue program, The Dramatics’ Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get album has just come out. For those who may only know them the hit singles, let me assure you--the whole thing is great. One of the difficulties of the LPs that produced many of the chart-topping R&B songs was the amount of filler on them. This is definitely not the case with Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get though. For funkified album cuts, try “Mary Don’t Cha Wanna,” and “Hot Pants In The Summertime.” On the ballad side, “Thank You For Your Love,” and “Fall In Love, Lady Love” are winners as well.

Although listed simply as bonus tracks, the extra material is actually the entire follow-up record, A Dramatic Experience. It is a complete mystery to me as to why Stax are not trumpeting this fact, because the second album is easily as strong as the first.

A Dramatic Experience was originally slated to appear as The Devil Is Dope, which then would have been the title song. This was deemed too provocative however, and changed at the last minute. In any event, the primary focus remains on the inner-city drug problem. “The Devil Is Dope,” “Jim, What’s Wrong With Him?” and “Beware Of The Man (With The Candy In His Hand)” specifically address the situation. All three give off a heavy Superfly vibe, and should be heard by fans of the Pimps, Players and Private Eyes genre.

The ballads are also outstanding. Two of these, “Fell For You,” and “Hey You, Get Off My Mountain,” were R&B charting singles. The songs are note-perfect displays of sweet soul music at its finest.

For those of us who savor this period, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get is a gift. It also shows that without a doubt, The Dramatics were one of the most underrated groups of the era.

Article first published as Music Review: The Dramatics - Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Sonny Rollins - Road Shows, Volume 2

Last year the legendary Sonny Rollins turned 80, and decided to celebrate by having a party at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Four of the six tracks on his new Road Shows, Volume 2 were extracted from that night, and one of them made history.

There were a number of artists who played guest slots that night, and Jim Hall was once of them. Among a very few others, Hall virtually defined the role that guitars would play in jazz. He guests on Beacon opener “In A Sentimental Mood.” Hall plays the tune in his inimitable style, and it is the perfect introduction for the evening.

The smooth-swing of Hall’s guitar is one thing, but for the next track the music gets a little wilder. Among those who showed up to play “Sonneymoon” are the great bassist Christian McBride, and John Coltrane’s former drummer Roy Haynes. What truly stunned the crowd, though, was the appearance of Ornette Coleman on alto sax. Although Coleman and Rollins have known each other for well over 50 years now, this marks the first time the two have appeared onstage together. The back and forth between these two men is remarkable. Each has his own singular style, and hearing them trade off this way is simply magic.

It would be hard to top that, and to his credit, Sonny goes back to his regular band to knock out two more classic tunes. Both "I Can’t Get Started” and “Rain Check” were recorded that night at the Beacon with Roy Hargrove (trumpet), Russell Malone (guitar), Bob Crenshaw (bass), Kobie Watkins (drums), and Sammy Figueroa (percussion). Each are a fantastic example of a jazz band working at all levels.

This same outfit, minus Hargrove’s trumpet, recorded the two tracks that frame the Beacon songs on Road Shows, Volume 2. Both “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “St. Thomas” were recorded in Japan, about a month after the Beacon show. “They Say It’s Wonderful” opens the proceedings in an appropriate way, offering Sonny’s working band the chance to shine before the guest stars arrive. In closing, “St. Thomas” is also a perfect choice, as it incorporates that old showbiz cliché’: “Always leave ‘em wanting more.”

In that regard, the entire set works extremely well. It never ceases to amaze me how long a man with the talent of a Sonny Rollins can remain active in music. His sax playing is as colossus (to borrow an old LP title) as ever, and his band is on fire. Here’s looking forward to his 90th bash.

Article first published as Music Review: Sonny Rollins - Road Shows, Volume 2 on Blogcritics.

Music DVD Review: Emerson, Lake and Palmer - 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert

The night was perfect for the 40th anniversary concert of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Playing before a huge crowd at the High Voltage Festival, ELP took the stage just as the sun was beginning to set. For the next 90 minutes or so the gods of prog graced us with their presence, and those halcyon days of the seventies were back.

ELP opened with the classic “Karn Evil 9: First Impression Part 2” from Brain Salad Surgery. When Greg Lake belted out those famous words; “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends,” the crowd was ecstatic. His vocals were spot-on, as they were throughout the concert. He was especially strong during two of his signature songs, “From The Beginning” and “Lucky Man.”

“Lucky Man” is famous for Keith Emerson’s monumental soundscapes in its closing segment. Since it is just not possible to recreate those tones on modern equipment, Emerson brought the old gear with him. Watching him play his ancient Moog beast, with its old dials and hundreds of patch cords everywhere, looked cool as hell.

The other instrumental powerhouse in the band is drummer Carl Palmer. While his kit may not be quite as over the top as that of Neil Peart, it comes close. Palmer was all over the skins, often a blur of motion, and the physical workout looked pretty intense. At one point during his solo, he very theatrically took off his shirt, revealing his pudgy chest for all and sundry.

Towards the end of the show, Keith Emerson offered up his trademark destruction of the organ bit. He went all out too, beating the crap out of it, and then sticking knives in. Eventually he tipped the organ over, where it lay on the stage, howling in pain.

For me, the slowest portion of the evening was “Pictures At An Exhibition.” At 20 minutes in length it was a bit much, although the strobes and onstage explosions at the end were still pretty great.

MVD Visual has just released Emerson Lake and Palmer: The 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert on DVD and Blu Ray. The set features the full concert from July 25, 2010, plus some bonus materials. The most impressive of the extras are three new interviews conducted with Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer.

After all the trials and tribulations Emerson, Lake and Palmer have been through over the years, it is gratifying to see them together again. They still put on one hell of a show too.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Emerson, Lake and Palmer - 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert on Blogcritics.

Book Review: The Brotherhoods: Inside The Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs by Arthur Veno

Believe it or not, those mean, bad-ass outlaw motorcyclists that scare the piss out of middle America are referred to as “bikies” in Australia. I think if you went up to a member of the Hell's Angels in the U.S. and called him a "bikie" you would get your ass whipped pronto. But that is about the only difference between the biker gang member down under from any of his brothers around the world.

Professor Arthur Veno has been studying the outlaw bikie phenomenon since 1981, and has been granted remarkable access by the Aussie clubs over the years. His new book The Brotherhoods: Inside The Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs is the result of his research, and provides a fascinating insight into their world.

The obvious comparison would be to Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga. But they are two fundamentally different books. Where Thompson got inside the club out and rode with the Angels, Veno takes a different approach. Although it is obvious that he has gotten to know some members well enough to be trusted with certain things, he is always an outsider.

The Brotherhoods certainly does not shy away from the subjects that make the outlaw bike culture so dangerously intriguing. With chapters such as “Bombs And Bastardry,” “On The Nose: Clubs And Drugs,” and “Chicks And Ol’ Ladies,” there are plenty of examples of outrageous behavior. The book has a definite voyeur appeal. While most of us do not wish to live the life, it is fascinating to view from a distance.

The look of The Brotherhoods is particularly appealing, for it is filled with pictures. It is so beautifully put together, with a faux leather cover, and tons of photos as to make a great coffee-table book. The tea and crumpets crowd would probably salivate over it too.

Ever since The Wild One film, and the emergence of the Hell's Angels, the outlaw bike culture has seemed to be a strictly American affair. The Brotherhoods shows us that the lifestyle has permeated every corner of the globe. It is a captivating study with some amazing photographs, and definitely worth a look.

Article first published as Book Review: The Brotherhoods: Inside The Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs by Arthur Veno on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Fante: A Memoir by Dan Fante

John Fante’s Ask The Dust is one of the finest American novels of the Twentieth Century. It was also basically lost for 40 years after its 1939 publication. In fact, it may have remained forgotten forever had it not been for a drunken poet by the name of Charles Bukowski.

The Bukowski connection is telling, because the legacy of alcohol runs deep in the Fante family. Fante: A Memoir is the autobiography of Dan Fante, John’s son. His recollections of growing up with a hard-drinking father who abandoned his art for decades to write for Hollywood are both heartbreaking and hilarious.

John Fante was an old-school Italian, a man for who wine, friends, and gambling always came before family. Reading Dan’s account of those years is fascinating. He describes a Southern California that is gone forever, and sounds idyllic, from the outside at least. It also sounds like he went through hell.

Dan Fante got out of the house as quickly as possible, first by working as a carny at Pacific Ocean Park. As he describes it, POP was the sleaziest carnival show in town. The fresh paint and ocean beach initially worked to mask the true identity of the place, but it came through anyway.

The bulk of the book is taken up with Dan’s experiences in New York. He left to put as much distance as he could between him and his unhappy childhood home, and wound up spending 18 years there. Fante’s vivid recollections of what the city was like during the sixties and seventies are powerfully evocative. His time there reads like an extended version of Midnight Cowboy, in all of its down and out glory.

There are flashes of insight throughout. Fante occasionally gives himself “the cure,” with dire results. This was in the years before much was known about alcoholism, and the various ways the author tries to deal with his problem are harrowing.

When he finally returns to California in the late seventies, John Fante’s diabetes has him pretty debilitated. It is heartwarming to find the two making up all those years later. John encourages Dan with his writing, and Dan comes to understand just how incredibly talented his father always was.

John Fante lived to finally get some recognition for books such as Ask The Dust and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. But he would not live long enough to see John Fante Square in Los Angeles’ old Bunker Hill neighborhood.

Dan Fante definitely has inherited his father’s talent for a well turned phrase, and Fante is bittersweet remembrance of days gone by.

Article first published as Book Review: Fante: A Family's Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving by Dan Fante on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

Blame it on Steve Jobs. As a young man searching for something interesting to study, he audited a calligraphy class at Reed College. Jobs became fascinated with the myriad variety of fonts, a.k.a., typefaces he was exposed to. Ten years later he decided to incorporate an assortment of fonts into Apple's Macintosh computer. It would prove to be a popular addition. When Microsoft's Windows added the feature later, interest in fonts by the general public skyrocketed. And with Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, we now we have an entire book devoted to the subject.

Author Simon Garfield's often hilarious study of all things font-related was initially published in England in 2010, and became a surprise hit. With that in mind, Gotham Books have just published it in the United States.

A major reason for the book's success has to be the quality of Garfield's writing, and the way he makes such a seemingly dry subject come to life. Consider this sentence from a description of the Helvetica font: "On the upper deck, the G has both a horizontal and vertical bar at a right angle, Q has a short straight angled cross-line like a cigarette in an ashtray, and R has a little kicker for its right leg."

The very first font was Gutenberg Textura, introduced with the Gutenberg printing press around 1450. Over the course of the book, the author walks us through the history of printing and type, and it is a lively journey. In so many ways, a government, business, or individual's choice of font creates the de facto first impression.

For example, there is the Comic Sans font. Developed just in time for inclusion with Windows 95, Comic Sans became ubiquitous almost overnight. Just a few years later however, there were people so incensed by it that websites such as Ban Comic Sans sprung up.

On the other side of the coin, a man by the name of Tobias Frere-Jones developed a typeface he called Gotham in 2000. It was moderately successful for the first few years, then 2008 rolled around. Barack Obama chose to use Gotham for all of his printed material, and the popularity of the font exploded. Frere-Jones now happily takes full credit for Obama's presidential win. In a wonderful bit of irony, this dyed-in-the-wool Democrat's creation has now been adopted by the other side. First Sarah Palin, and now the Tea Party have gone Gotham.

Another intriguing font fact is their misuse in the movies. The Coen Brothers film The Hudsucker Proxy is a case in point. In almost every detail, they meticulously depict the 1950s, from Hula-Hoops, to beatniks, and men in grey flannel suits. But the font used in the newspapers of the day is Bodega Sans, which was not designed until 1991.

In between stories of the uses and misuses of fonts, Garfield takes "Fontbreaks." These quickies focus on specific fonts such as Futura. Developed by Paul Renner in 1924, it has been the typeface used by Volkswagen for decades. It is also the font chosen for the plaque left on the moon by the astronauts of Apollo 11, in 1969.

There was even a movie titled Helvetica (2007), which took the ubiquity of the font as its premise. Director Gary Hustwit contends that on the streets of the world, Helvetica is so prevelant as to be like oxygen. You have no choice but to breathe it in.

Who knew font trivia could be so much fun? Simon Garfield did, and Just My Type makes the subject come alive in ways I never thought possible.

Article first published as Book Review: Just My Type by Simon Garfield on Blogcritics.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Music Review: Average White Band - Live At Montreux 1977

Average White Band seemed to appear out of nowhere in 1974 with their worldwide smash, "Pick Up The Pieces." It was a funky slice of mid-seventies jazz, and fit the mood of the times perfectly. Not only was it a great song, but the group's back story was pretty interesting as well. For one thing, there was that name - not to mention where they came from. A multi-racial six-piece jazz-funk outfit hailing from Scotland was an unusual combination, then or now.

AWB continued to hit the charts with albums such as Cut The Cake, Soul Searching and the 1976 live Person To Person. For many years, the only available document of the band in concert was Person To Person, and I wore out my copy of the double LP. Back in the seventies, I think there was an actual law on the books that required live albums to be two-record sets. With Person To Person, there was really no getting around it, as "Pick Up The Pieces" took up all of side three by itself.

By the time of their appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977, AWB's set had changed. On Eagle Rock's newly released CD Live At Montreux 1977, they open with "Pick Up The Pieces," which clocks in at a moderate 6:38, rather than the 18-minute version on Person To Person. They had tightened things up considerably by this time, although they do stretch things out a bit towards the end of the show. In any event, this single disc collection contains some excellent material.

Their choices are interesting. Four of the eight Montreux tracks previously appeared on Person To Person. The big surprise is that "Pick Up The Pieces" had been replaced as the show's centerpiece with a 14-minute version of "Cut The Cake." And on both, their final big-selling record Soul Searching is given short shrift. This is understandable on Person, because the album was not even out yet when the shows were recorded. But at Montreux, it was the one they were touring behind. The group's take on "A Love Of Your Own" is adequate, but what I was really hoping for was a live "Queen Of My Soul."

The big closer at Montreux is a 12-minute "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." Evidently they loved this song, because it also closed Person. Sure, "Grapevine" is a classic, as the many cover versions over the years have proven, if nothing else. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I would have preferred something a little more original. In the end, it is hard to argue with music played this tightly however, and on that front AWB definitely deliver.

Live At Montreux represents a high point in the Average White Band's career. As the seventies wore on and the eighties dawned, there would be a series of misguided attempts to remain current, culminating in their 1982 breakup. Since then there have been numerous reunions, both for recording, and for playing the nostalgia circuit. It is a fairly common story for groups of this nature, and I might even go see them at the local casino one of these days.

But where it was really at for AWB was when they were setting stages on fire around the world in the mid-seventies. Live At Montreux 1977 captures one of those nights for posterity, and sounds great to these jaded ears.

Article first published as Music Review: Average White Band - Live At Montreux 1977 on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Rheinhold Friedl - Inside Piano

Like many of the ideas John Cage proposed, the concept of prepared piano was originally thought of as scandalous. And like so many of his proposals, it was brilliant in its simplicity. What Cage did was literally prepare a piano before performance by attaching various objects to the strings to make them resonate as they never had before. These items were usually fairly small, such as bolts, washers, buttons, rubber bands, and the like. His experiments were first done in 1940and seemed to slowly catch on, with other artists expanding and refining the ideas in later years.

As mastermind of the Zeitkratzer collective, Rheinhold Friedl may have worked up the most significant new directions for piano, which he came to call Inside Piano. Where previous efforts tended to use the keys of the instrument to vary the sounds, such as striking them in particular ways, Friedl has chosen to open his up and play the strings themselves. This approach has led to a revolutionary way of playing the instrument. By bowing the strings, placing rocks and many other objects on them, Friedl's piano is able to produce previously unheard tones.

In fact, many of the pieces on his solo, double-disc collection Inside Piano sound as if a veritable orchestra is at work. One of the most inviting aspects of this over-two-hour set is the ways he explains each of its nine pieces in the liner notes. Beginning with the relatively short "evasions pour deplaire" 8:03, the composer wishes to expose the listener to the short, "harsh" effects of noise piano, by playing a series of springs on the springs.

With the listener now suitably prepared for what is to follow, Friedl delves into the longest track on the disc "l'horizon des ballons" (39:16). As he puts it, "It is almost a monadic piece concentrating on sounds produced with a metal tube on the strings. Starting scanty and unassertive, it takes almost ten minutes until the piano really sings before finishing much later with the vibrato sounds." Disc one is completed with "la consequence des reves" (11:42), and is constructed with diversified sounds, which serve to bring us back down to earth a bit.

The second disc opens with "l'espoir des grillons" (21:10), another lengthy track in which Friedl expands his sound palette. In fact, this one is most representative of what could be called the "orchestral" sound of his Inside Piano. During "ombres d'ombres" (12:12), the compser treats us to the sounds of wobbling objects on the strings, and their juxtaposing with contrasting materials. Of the nine tracks present here, I find this one to be the most evocative of something Bernard Herrmann might have come up with for a Hitchcock film.

"es cris des cantharides" (8:50) is described as a "short study of piping and scratching followed by another juxtaposition." "chevelure des cognasses" (8:46) uses vibrating tones along the strings to come up with a glorious sound, and is one of my favorite pieces. With "pendeloques de glace" (15:40) it seems the composer has one more elongated track up his sleeve. During this piece, the composer takes the vibrating strings to the lower registers, producing a deep and somewhat disconcerting sound at times. This all leads up to "la grimace du soleil" (4:09), or "the singing piano, which finishes the recording," as Friedl explains.

Inside Piano is a remarkable avant-garde work, but that should come as no surprise considering the quality of artists Friedl has worked with. Some of the more well-known names include Lee Renaldo, Lou Reed, and Merzbow, among many others.

Remember the old LP covers that used to advise record store clerks as to where to file various albums? The covers would say things like "File Under Pop," or "File Under Easy Listening." Friedl has his own categories listed on the back of his CD: "File under experimental, or contemporary music, or modern classic, or avantgarde."

I have always found this system rather humorous, but in Friedl's case it certainly makes sense. Inside Piano probably would not fit comfortably in between Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga at the front of the shop. No, I expect this set to be found deep in the experimental, classical section, and only by the truly dedicated fan seeking out the most extraordinary music.

Before closing, I would like to make a note about the incredible sound of the set, for it is magnificent. Rheinhold Friedl recorded these nine compositions at the Philharmonic Luxembourg last year, using a Steinway D-274 piano, and Neumann U87 and Neumann KM184 top-of-the-line microphones.

Inside Piano is a master class on composing and playing what is in effect a completely new instrument. It is an absolutely stunning achievement.

Article first published as Music Review: Rheinhold Friedl - Inside Piano on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism by Jay Strongman

If the term "steampunk" evokes a vision of the past and the future colliding, that is exactly as it is intended. In Jay Strongman's new book Steampunk: The Art Of Victorian Futurism, we are offered over 250 pieces of art that represent this relatively new movement. Many of these objects are absolutely beautiful, in a very oddly retro-futuristic mashup. The overall effect of the book is stunning.

To break it down, steampunk takes as its base the Victorian visions of the future as written by literary heroes such as Jules Verne and H.G. Welles. Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine from Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is a prime example. Simply put, the dichotomy between the gorgeous machinery of the late nineteenth century coupled with technology that was pure fantasy at the time is a major component of the style.

One of the more extraordinary examples of this is The Clacker. This was created by Richard "Doc" Nagy, a.k.a. Datamancer. It is a complete PC, retrofitted to look as if it belonged in an office of the 1890s. Each keyboard key is of the antique round style we have seen on the era's typewriters. There is a mouse which looks like a telegraph clicker, a wooden mousepad, bell-style speakers, and a monitor that looks like an apothecary cabinet. Painstakingly putting something like this together must have been an enormous labor of love, but it is something to see.

The Clacker is just one of the many highlights of this collection. While there are a number of three-dimensional objects like it, the majority of the pieces are digital artworks, paintings, and even drawings. In looking through the book, it becomes more and more difficult to actually come to a strict definition of steampunk, as the various artists combine a huge amount of elements into their work.

In the introductory chapters, Strongman mentions a large number of antecedents to what has become known as steampunk. And while the text is interesting, one can easily pick out what makes the artists tick by what they have produced. The concept of steam engines is obviously a big factor, but by no means the only one. There are beautiful renderings of zeppelins engaged in airborn battles, the aforementioned submarines, a steam-powered motorcycle, and many other types of transport.

The elements of goth have also crept into many of the artist's works. The English Moors are a popular setting, as is Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory (or ones like his), and crumbling castles and abbeys all play significant parts.

is a window into a world of art with a vision uniquely 21st century, yet beholden to a past that never actually existed. Strongman uses the term "forgotten future" at one point, and it is this idea that seems central to the thesis. What forward-looking writers thought the future would look like 125 years ago is such a marvelous concept to build present-day artwork around. It is this type of thinking that powers (if you will) Steampunk. It is a gorgeous book, filled with imagination.

Article first published as Book Review: Steampunk: The Art Of Victorian Futurism by Jay Strongman on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Brainticket - The Ultimate Anthology Nektar - Retrospektive, Hawkwind Space Chase

For progressive rock fans, there is an amazing tour going on this summer. Three of the most incredible seventies-era European bands have gotten together for a one of a kind US tour. The groups involved are Hawkwind, Nektar, and Brainticket - and these shows look to be every bit as wild as they were back in the heyday of prog.

In celebration of this event, Cleopatra Records have issued retrospective box sets for each of the artists participating. The label have always prided themselves on going the extra mile with these type of packages, and this series is no exception.

Of the three groups, Hawkwind are the most well-known. As indicated in the title, Space Chase 1980 - 1985 represents the early eighties incarnation of the band. The collection contains material from six albums, one EP, and a single. The list of guest stars is impressive, and reflects the amount of respect Hawkwind had amassed since thier 1969 debut. In addition to such names as Ginger Baker, Nik Turner, and Harvey Bainbridge is former Hawkwind member Lemmy Kilmister, who went on to form Motorhead. Lemmy always said that he was sacked from the band for "Doing the wrong drugs."

Nektar were always considered part of the German Krautrock scene, even though they were English. A big reason for this was the fact that they lived in Hamburg, but their music played a big role as well. The Nektar Retrospektive 1969 - 1980 is a two-CD affair drawing from a total of eight LPs, and a couple early singles from the days when they were known as Rainbows.

Nektar were a textbook progressive rock band, whose metiere was the long-form track. They really began to hit their stride in 1972 with A Tab In The Ocean's 15-minute title tune. In 1973 they upped the ante with one of prog's classic maneuvers. Side one of Remember The Future was Part I of the title cut, side two was Part II. By 1974's Down To Earth, they were writing a concept album about the circus, and appeared on the cover as clowns. Folks, you cannot make this stuff up.

Of the three groups, Brainticket are undoubtedly the most obscure. They didn't even make Julian Cope's 1995 book Krautrocksampler - the book that launched an awakened interest in the genre worldwide. Be that as it may, they were the real deal. Cleopatra have done an outstanding job with the Brainticket box set. There is no skimping on this four-CD set, which contains six full albums recorded between 1971and 1980.

Brainticket were primarily a vehicle for the unlikely named multi-instrumentalist Joel Vandroogenbroeck. Their debut Cottonwoodhill is probably their proggiest effort, and comes with one of the greatest album covers of all time. There is a veritable plethora of fantastic music contained here, all the way up to and including Biomechanoid from 1980. Again, the artwork is superior. Vandroogenbroek managed to secure the use of a powerful image from the hand of H.R. Giger.

All three of these packages come with much more than simply the music of these bands. Cleopatra have included extensive booklets chronicling each groups history, along with mini-posters, and even old-fashioned buttons. My suggestion is to get each one of these sets, familiarize yourself with the artists involved, then hit one of these once in a lifetime shows.

Article first published as Music Review: Brainticket - The Vintage Anthology, Nektar - Retrospektive, and Hawkwind Space Chase 1980 - 1985 on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Robert Plant's Blue Note

The "blue note" is one that very few artists in this day and age attempt. It denotes vulnerability, sadness, and most of all, a sense of loss. It is a note sung or played at a slightly lower pitch than that of the major scale in a song. It is also generally heard as the artist baring his or her soul.

Examples abound. I am drawn to a 14-year-old Leann Rimes singing the song "Blue" for one. That tune obviously hearkens back to Patsy Cline's version of Willie Nelson's "Crazy." Patsy had clearly listened to Hank Williams, and his (among many others) "You're Cheatin' Heart." Hank Williams Jr. called country music "White man's blues," and I believe him. How can anyone deny the link between Robert Johnson's "Hellhound On My Trail" and Hank Senior's music?

The arrogant thought that the blues, and the blue note arrived fully formed sometime in the early 20th Century is as understandable, as it is laughable. For musical "scholars," we only have the music of the recorded era to go by. But when you think about it, this fully-formed genre had to come from somewhere.

The somewhere is the main subject of the new DVD Robert Plant's Blue Note. Now this is not a scholarly treatise on musical history, but instead a journey of how this man followed his love of music step by step back. Not to where it "began," but at least (in 2011) as far back as made sense to him.

In Robert Plant's Blue Note, we eventually find ourselves in the deserts of North Africa. It certainly makes sense that the music that was a part of the culture hundreds of years ago would have been imported in some way with the people who were taken and turned into slaves. It also makes sense that the music of the Scots and Irish who left voluntarily for the new world would eventually mix with it.

But the blue note seems to be an integral part.

This two-and-a-half-hour DVD walks us through Robert Plant's journey from his hippie-era Band Of Joy with John Bonham, through Led Zeppelin, through his often misguided solo attempts, to his "redemption" with Allison Krauss.

It is a fascinating journey, filled with fantastic rare footage. There are also some very incisive interviews with the likes of Jimmy Page, Chris Dreja, and Robbie Blunt - among many others.

It is easy to dismiss Robert Plant as an ultimate seventies icon - and that image is certainly true. What Robert Plant's Blue Note does is show how far this artist has travelled since his time with Zep. And in the end, that is why I like this documentary so much.

The only extra worth mentioning is a piece with John Lomax III talking about Leadbelly, and Zep's version of "Gallis Pole," which they retitled "Gallows Pole."

Robert Plant will always be thought of as the golden god of Led Zeppelin. But as T-Bone Burnett so eloquently puts it in this documentary "Jimmy Page lives Led Zeppelin, Robert has moved on."

To be honest, I haven't bought a Plant record in years. But it sure is cool that the guy is still at it, and does not give one shit.

Article first published as DVD Review: Robert Plant's Blue Note on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Rockpile - Live At Montreux 1980

"Switchboard Susan won't you give me a line..."

Rockpile were such a breath of fresh air when they appeared in 1980, it is hard to describe. The initial blast of punk had been co-opted into the more commercially appealing New Wave, and dinosaur stadium bands still ruled the world. Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams - collectively known as Rockpile, made rock 'n' roll fun again.

Although there would only be one "official" Rockpile album, titled Seconds Of Pleasure and released in 1980, there were actually four recorded by the group. The remaining three were released as solo Dave Edmunds (Trax On Wax 4 and Repeat When Necessary), and Nick Lowe (Labour Of Lust) efforts. This confusing situation was necessitated by the individual's conflicting record label commitments, which made tracking down the elusive "Rockpile" beast somewhat tricky.

When the call came from the Montreux Jazz Festival (unlikely as it may seem), the band had plenty of material to pick from. Thanks to the folks at Eagle Rock Entertainment, that show is now available as a new 16-track CD titled, Rockpile: Live At Montreux 1980. The choice of Rockpile to play this prestigious jazz festival was a little daring, but the guys clearly relished the opportunity to play together.

From the opening notes of "Sweet Little Lisa," it's on. The band's signature sound was a mix of rockabilly, power pop, and good old rock 'n' roll, which they combine to perfection on this track. "Sweet Little Lisa" is one of four cuts from the 1979 Edmunds-credited Repeat When Necessary. The other three are stellar as well, including "Girls Talk" (written by Elvis Costello), the barn-burning "Crawling From The Wreckage" (written by Graham Parker), and "Queen Of Hearts" (which would prove to be a huge hit for Juice Newton later on).

Nick Lowe's Labour Of Lust was recorded at the same time as Repeat When Necessary, and also released in 1979. Just imagine if these two records had been combined and released as a double Rockpile set. It could have been huge, as they say. But record company politics did not allow for this, and I suppose it is pointless to pose such a "What if" question. In any case, Labour Of Lust is certainly as good, if not a better record than Repeat. Strangely enough though, the lone representative from Labour is "Switchboard Susan."

Dave Edmunds was the first out of the box with a hit sing with "I Hear You Knockin'," from way back in 1970. Rockpile nail it with ease here, and the crowd is obviously thrilled. Finally the guys land on a classic Sun-era Jerry Lee Lewis number, "Let's Talk About Us," as this smoking show comes to a close. As Malcolm Dome writes in his liner notes, "It all passes in such a blur. Surely we can't have heard the set in its entirety?" Yet that was Rockpile.

As Lowe sings during his great "So It Goes," "So it goes, so it goes, so it goes, so it goes, where it winds up, no one knows." Personal and musical differences blew them apart shortly after this concert. None of that was evident onstage at Montreux however. The quality of the music they blasted out that night 31 years ago still sounds remarkably fresh. In fact, it sounds timeless. It would prove to be a short-lived situation, but when it worked, nobody could touch Rockpile. The proof is right here on Live At Montreux, which captures the band at the peak of their powers.

Article first published as Music Review: Rockpile - Live At Montreux 1980 on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Manorexia - Dinoflagellate Blooms

I really have to wonder if there is anyone working in music today who is as prolific as JG Thirlwell. Just keeping track of his various nom de plumes is a challenge. As "JG Thirlwell" he is currently providing the music for the wonderfully subversive Venture Bros. show on Adult Swim. But that is merely the tip of the iceberg. Beginning the early eighties, he took the name "Foetus" to release his "rock" oriented music, with four-letter titles such as Nail, Limb, and his most recent Hide. Beyond that he has branched out considerably with Steroid Maximus and Manorexia.

Thirlwell's most recent release is Dinoflagellate Blooms, issued under the Manorexia moniker. As is the case with the previous Manorexia titles, Thirlwell finds interesting juxtapositions between relatively obscure scientific terms that have little (or maybe everything) to do with the instrumental music within. Personally, I always look forward to each Manorexia release, because this is where some of the man's most experimental sounds tend to wind up. Dinoflagellate Blooms is no exception.

There is a marked tendency to play certain tones off of each other during many of the album's 11 tracks. Those not familiar with Thirlwell's style might consider some of the results dissonant, but not if they are really listening. For example, the opening track "Cryogenics" begins with a segment that reminds me somewhat of where the Art Ensemble went during their magnum opus People In Sorrow. Like that very avant-garde 40-minute piece, "Cryogenics" has a great deal to say, although it is a much shorter track at only 3:18. What it does provide is a suitably thought-provoking beginning for a disc that gets very dark at times.

The very next cut, "Anabiosis," clocks in at 8:16, and is almost frightening at times. This is a new version of a tune originally comissioned for the Bang On A Can ensemble, and Thirlwell gives it a suitably over the top rendition. The lengthiest track is titled "Krzystl," and best sums up what I have always enjoyed about Thirlwell's music, no matter what name it is given. Beginning with what sounds like either breaking glass, or radio crystals exploding of their own volition, this is definitely not what one would call "easy listening." But Thirlwell has never been interested in simply traveling down the usual listener-friendly path. He unflaggingly expresses what is in his heart, and if that is not all peaches and cream, then tough luck.

For this listener, the physical and spiritual center of Dinoflagellate Blooms is "A Plastic Island In The Pacific." Like those of us who do not have our heads in the sand, it is obvious that Thirlwell is very disturbed by the recent discovery of a virtual island of plastic grocery bags and the like steadily growing in the Pacific Ocean. I just read about an extremely disturbing fact that one in ten fish caught in the Pacific have plastic debris in their stomach. How can that possibly be good? Manorexia perform a moving lament to this ominous development with the 7:26 composition.

The theme of mankind moving towards a slow, and inevitable suicide seems to continue through the remainder of the album. It may be the whole point for all I know, but with "Plastic Island's" title, it is spelled out specifically. One of the greatest things about instrumental music is that nothing is fixed; the listener brings whatever they want to the experience, nothing more or less. Continuing on from "A Plastic Island In The Pacific" is "Hydrofrack," which begins with what sounds like an electronic reproduction of a whale song.

"The Perfect Patsy" follows and may or may not signal a return to more mundane concerns. It is a compelling piece, in any event. The abbreviated (0:23) "Hoarse Platitudes" works as an introduction to "Vika," another intriguing track whose ambience suggests a song recorded underwater. "Kinaesthesia" is the longest of the second half of the disc at 8:47. This is a tour de force, with what could be construed as the sound of an emergency signal leading things off before a wave of powerful yet subdued sonics take over. Finally we come to "Struck" in which Thirlwell's vision seems to leave us at a crossroads between Armageddon, and possible peace with our environment.

These observations are mine and mine alone. I feel like I stand on solid ground with "A Plastic Island In The Pacific," but beyond that, I am just going with my heart. These opinions could be wildly off-base. This is one of the joys of listening to a recording such as Dinoflagellate Blooms though. Every exposure to it can lead to new insights, or none at all. The Thirlwell-designed cover art showing a series of hypodermic needles and capsules may offer some completely different clues for people as well.

In keeping with the artist's unflagging embrace of new technology, the set contains a bonus 5.1 DVD of the album besides the standard CD. The deluxe 2-disc set is available exclusively through In a rare instance of adding a guest artist to a Manorexia recording, Kenny Wollesen plays autoharp and piano strings on "Cryogenics."

As Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey once put it, "Thirlwell always amazes me." I heartily agree - In his many guises over the past 30 years, JG Thirlwell has provided some of the most consistently fascinating music produced in any genre.

Article first published as Music Review: Manorexia - Dinoflagellate Blooms on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Eddie Trunk's Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal by Eddie Trunk

Very few radio disc jockeys ever achieve much in the way of fame and fortune beyond their local markets. Sure, there is "King of All Media" Howard Stern, and back in the early days of rock 'n' roll we had such characters as Murray The K and Alan Freed. But in terms of household names, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Through his stubborn promotion of heavy metal and hard rock through the years, Eddie Trunk has become one of the most respected non-musicians in the field. His unwavering loyalty to the form brought him out of the swamps of New Jersey radio and into the largest market in the States, New York City. Despite his "perfect for radio" appearance (the guy is pretty chubby, as he readily admits), Trunk's That Metal Show on VH1 Classic has become one of the biggest hits the station has ever had.

For all these reasons and more, Eddie Trunk holds a special place in metal fan's and musician's hearts. So much so in fact, that for his 25th anniversary in radio, Judas Priest played an invitation-only party for him at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York. In fact, Rob Halford even wrote the Foreword to his new book, Eddie Trunk's Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. While there are tons of these types of collections on the market these days, Eddie brings something different to the task. Rather than simply offering short biographical sketches of the major bands in the genre, as most do, Trunk adds his personal reflections about the groups. It makes a big difference.

Most fans know the basics about groups like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, but reading stories of Eddie's personal encounters with the artists adds a whole new dimension. This type of writing could have easily degenerated into name-dropping and starfucking, but he does not come off that way. As a fan, his reactions mirror that of what any of his listeners would probably feel. It is a fine line to straddle, but Trunk makes it work.

The book contains 35 entries, arranged alphabetically. These include Metallica, Aerosmith, Guns N' Roses, and Iron Maiden - just to name a few. But the ones that are obviously close to Eddie's heart are the interesting choices. I don't think I have ever seen one of these books (especially one with only 35 artists) include Billy Squire as one of the essentials. But it Trunk's his book after all.

As mentioned previously, it is the personal reflections that make the book a cut above others. One of the unfortunate tendencies of those who consider themselves musical "experts" is the snob factor. Most rock/metal fans of a certain age cite Ozzy-era Sabbath as one of the first groups they got into. Not Eddie though. His honesty in telling us that it was the 1980 Heaven And Hell album with Ronnie James Dio that first turned his head is refreshing. He goes on to explain that only after hearing that one did he go back and get the double-LP best of collection We Sold Our Souls For Rock 'n' Roll, to get familiar with the Ozzy years.

Dio's passing in 2010 was keenly felt by his legions of fans, and Eddie Trunk was no exception. His many contributions to music are honored here with entries on Sabbath, Rainbow, and his own Dio band. In one of the sadder moments in the book, Trunk talks about hosting one of the memorial events for RJD. With a mixture of pride in being chosen for this honor, and profound sorrow at the occasion, he takes us there.

Besides recounting the basic facts of each performer, and his personal reminiscences, Trunk adds a couple of other intriguing elements to each chapter. One is "Eddie's Playlist" in which he ranks his favorite tracks by each group. His choices may or may not mirror the reader's, in most cases mine were completely different. Comparing yours with his is actually a lot of fun. For example, who but Eddie Trunk would pick "Child In Time" as Deep Purple's greatest song? Or "Hear About It Later" as Van Halen's? My favorite has to be his number one choice for UFO. Eddie goes for Strangers In The Night "whole album, top to bottom." I could not agree more with one of the most sadly overlooked double-live records ever.

Another cool bit is "Underground Classic" in which he singles one of a band's (or a solo member's) most obscure records for special praise. Left-field selections here include Van Halen III with Eddie Cherone (formerly of Extreme), and Carnival Of Souls by KISS. Finally there is a "Did You Know?" section with little known facts about each act.

All in all, Eddie Trunk's Essential Hard Rock And Heavy Metal is one of those rare guides to music that actually has something new to say. It is a
refreshing change from the standard fare, and recommended

Article first published as Book Review: Eddie Trunk's Essential Hard Rock And Heavy Metal by Eddie Trunk on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Rush - Roll The Bones (24+ K Gold Edition)

As documented in the Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (2010) documentary, the band have stubbornly gone their own way now for nearly 40 years. This was shown by recording what was thought to be commercial suicide with a side-long suite on their do-or-die fourth album, 2112 - or by including a reggae break (of all things) in their otherwise radio-friendly track "The Spirit Of Radio." As they explain in the film, the various paths they have chosen over the years always had to do with the music they liked, not what would sell.

This tendency was made crystal clear with their 1982 album Signals, the follow-up to their all-time bestseller, Moving Pictures. The general consensus was that Rush had gone New Wave. Don't get me wrong, with songs like "Subdivisions," Signals was a classic. But the new emphasis on keyboards was pretty different. For some of us, the eighties were a tough time to be a Rush fan. By the time of their 1987 hit "Time Stands Still" I had lost interest. From "Working Man" to Aimee Mann in 13 years was a little hard to swallow.

With their 1991 Roll The Bones release, the band seemed to realize this. While the album did contain some keyboards, their use had been dramatically curtailed. The result was a record that many saw as a return to form, and has taken its rightful place as one of their finest efforts. As if to signify this, Roll The Bones has been selected as the latest 24K + Gold Edition CD from the Audio Fidelity label. The process behind these releases is a meticulous one, and quite intriguing for those of us who appreciate the ultimate in sound quality.

The first step is the remastering phase, which is done from the original tapes. Once this task is complete, the digital master is etched onto the glass disc surface in real time by laser. From this, the CD is made out of real gold, rather than the standard and often imperfect aluminum. The end result is a remarkably clean and “warm” sounding product, with the original analog depth intact, as well as the convenience and precision of digital technology.

As for the album itself, as mentioned there is a much stronger emphasis on the guitar of Alex Lifeson. The fact that the guy has never really been credited as a master of the instrument is beyond me. His solo during "Ghost Of A Chance" is a prime example of his talent. Lifeson's playing has always been full of dynamics, with the high and low ends of the fretboard equally represented. But one of the traits that may be less obvious is his sense of rhythm. In "Ghost Of A Chance" these qualities are all prominently displayed.

The title track may feature keyboards a little more than on most of the other tunes, but it is so damned catchy you hardly notice. All three members are such remarkable musicians that it is almost pointless to single anyone out. Yet certain songs showcase certain talents. For drummer Neil Peart, his turn on "Face Up" is his most powerful on the record - especially during the tune's introduction.

Peart is also the lyricist of the group, and while his words have always shown a philosophical bent, his thoughts on Roll The Bones seem especially metaphysical. Even my least favorite of the ten tracks, "Neurotica" goes this route. You have to pay attention to the lyric sheet to pick up on this however, because the "Neurotica - Exotica - Hypnotica - Chaotica" chorus may drive you Nutica. Hey, it wouldn't be Rush if we didn't have something to gripe about, right? I think I speak for a lot of long-time fans when I say that Roll The Bones was a welcome way for them to begin the nineties though.

This new Audio Fidelity 24K + Gold Edition CD sounds much better to me than my 20-year old original disc does. I played a favorite cut, the instrumental "Where's My Thing?" from each version to compare, and the differences were surprisingly noticable. To paraphrase Charlie Sheen, this audiophile Roll The Bones CD is "Winning."

Article first published as Music Review: Rush - Roll The Bones (24K + Gold Edition CD) on Blogcritics.

Music DVD/Book Review: ABBA: Thank You For The Music

This is a strange package, a four-DVD and 116-page oversized book combination which celebrates the Swedish supergroup of the seventies. It goes without saying that their popularity has remained high over the years, so a tribute like this makes perfect sense. However, the content is a not quite what I'd expected.

First of all there is the disclaimer on the back cover: “This independent book and DVD set was made with complete editorial freedom. It is uncensored and not in any way associated with members of ABBA.” To me, this implies that there is lots of juicy information inside. Come on now, salacious gossip about these squeaky clean and formerly married two couples — how could one resist? A quick glance disabused me of that notion completely. Of course, this being a book and DVD combo, it is sealed, so the curious are forced to purchase it first to find out just what it is all about.

The only thing the members of ABBA could possibly object to is the level of adulation lavished upon them. This is no mere acknowledgment of the group’s impressive achievements; it is a bid for rock immortality. Throughout the book author John Tobler repeatedly compares ABBA to The Beatles. While both groups did have four members, both were active for seven years, and both acts sold millions of records, the similarities end there. Yes, ABBA were a major international success. But putting them on par with The Beatles? Please.

Being completely unauthorized, the set relies on outsiders to offer their perceptions of the group. These include members of the ABBA tribute band Bjorn Again, as well as other musicians and industry figures. By making this a four-DVD collection, one is given the impression that there is a ton of material contained within. Not quite. Each DVD clocks in at about a half an hour. This means that everything could have been put onto one disc, with room to spare.

The first two DVDs are volumes one and two of “ABBA: Rock Case Studies.” They feature interviews with various ABBA-related authorities who discuss the merits of songs such as “Dancing Queen,” “Fernando,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” among many other classics. The other two DVDs are concerned with ABBA Gold, the 19-song greatest hits collection released in 1992 that reignited interest in their career.

There are three parts to the book. The first (and lengthiest) is an essay by Tobler titled “Thank You For The Music.” In it he recounts the history of ABBA, from 1973 to 1981, and their subsequent breakup and activities afterwards.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the makeup of ABBA, the group was composed of two married couples: Bjorn and Agnetha, and Benny and Anni-Frid (Frida). By 1981, both marriages were over, but everyone seemed game to continue on anyway. Solo albums from Agnetha and Frida, and Benny and Bjorn‘s work on the musical Chess came first, however. When the various projects were completed and it came time to reconvene, though, it seemed nobody had any interest in working on another ABBA album.

“In Their Own Words” is a section of interviews with ABBA insiders and Frida herself. The Frida interview dates back to 1982, when she was promoting her solo album, Something’s Going On. The third and final section of the book is “ABBA Track By Track.” In this portion, Tobler breaks down all eight studio albums plus ABBA Live, song by song.

ABBA: Thank You For The Music is a celebration of this quintessential seventies band. It is an appealing package, although a little misleading. In any event, it is something that I am sure big-time fans will not be able to live without.

Article first published as Music DVD/Book Review: ABBA: Thank You For The Music on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Francois Couturier - Tarkovsy Quartet

Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) used everything available to him to make films of dazzling complexity, yet deeply personal. His work was afforded lavish praise from nearly every quarter, except at home. In totalitarian regimes, genuine art is often considered to be subversive, even dangerous. One need look no further than a comment made by Hermann Goering to understand the mentality, "Whenever I hear the word culture, the first thing I do is reach for my gun."

Despite the hostile climate Tarkovsky faced behind the Iron Curtain, he was able to produce films that resonate with audiences to this very day. His often dreamlike sequences had a particular effect on a young French pianist by the name of Francois Couturier. Tarkovsy Quartet is the final chapter in Couturier's trilogy of recordings reflecting his profound respect for the director. The first two entries in the series, Nostalghia - Song For Tarkovsky (2005) and the solo piano work Un jour si blanc (2009), received widespread acclaim. I expect Tarkovsky Quartet will be greeted just as enthusiastically.

Tarkovsky Quartet also refers to the group of musicians Couturier assembled for this recording. In addition to Couturier's piano, there are Anja Lechner (violoncello), Jean-Marc Larche (soprano saxophone), and Jean-Louis Matinier (accordion). The instrumentation is eclectic to be sure, but blend together wonderfully. The music of Tarkovsky Quartet could be referred to as "classical improvisation," if such a term existed. Indeed, on paper this sounds like a true musical oxymoron. Yet somehow these artists manage to pull it off.

The disc opens with "A celui qui a cu l'ange," which is the epitaph taken from Tarkovsky's headstone, and translates as "To the man who saw the Angel." It is a beautiful piece, beginning with an elegiac piano solo from Couturier, which gives way in turn to each of the members own ruminations. As the eight-minute track progresses, it is clear that there is a strong compositional structure to it, yet there are also places for each to improvise. Obviously there is a great deal of discipline involved in making such a structured yet open arrangement work. It is something that the quartet excel at over and over on these twelve tracks.

I was immediately drawn to the variety of moods the music evokes as well. There are pensive pieces, such as "Maroussia" and "San Galgano," that are almost mournful in tone yet never maudlin. Dissonance is also a flavor Couturier does not shy away from. Both "Mouchette" and "Mychkine" explore some of the more uncomfortable territories of expression, but never in a truly off-putting way.

For this listener, the two most effective tracks are "L'Apocalypse" and "Doktor Faustus." As would be expected of pieces titled for two of literature's most compelling works, The Book of Revelation, and Thomas Mann's Doktor. Faustus, these excursions highlight the very best of what the Tarkovsky Quartet have to offer. From the meticulously structured outlines, to the ever-so free, yet simultaneously restrained moments of improvisation, this is a quartet with a nearly telepathic ability to play together.

"De l'autre cote du miroir" closes the set, and does so with a nearly hymnal effect. It is the perfect conclusion to this marvelous tribute. Andrei Tarkovsky described his filmmaking technique as "sculpting in time." The phrase applies to the quartet named in his honor as well.

Article first published as Music Review: Francois Couturier - Tarkovsky Quartet on Blogcritics.

Book Review: John Wayne Gacy: Defending A Monsterby Sam L. Amirante

Imagine you are a lawyer, fresh out of the Public Defender's office and just starting out in private practice. Your first client will be one you will probably never forget, sort of like a first kiss or similar milestone. Now imagine that your very first client happens to be a fellow named John Wayne Gacy. As incredible as it sounds, this was the situation young Sam L. Amirante found himself in back in 1978. His new book, John Wayne Gacy: Defending A Monster has just been published, and it is a riveting account of what it was like to defend one of the most notorious serial killers in history.

On December 14, 1978, John Gacy called Amirante to ask his for his help in figuring out why the Des Plaines, IL police were watching him. The two were casual acquaintances, as Gacy was a low-level functionary for the local Democratic party, and Amirante had briefly met him once or twice at various functions. That phone call would prove to be the beginning of an unbelievable two-year roller-coaster ride for Sam, as he became the chief counsel in what (at the time) was referred to as "the trial of the century."

In all, Gacy confessed to having murdered 33 people - most of them younger men. One of his favorite targets were male prostitutes, usually guys who had little or no contact with their families, and very few friends. A great deal of the murders went unreported, as the men's disappearances often went unnoticed. The spree may have gone on indefinitely, had Gacy not become careless. His final victim, 15-year-old Rob Piest was working at a local pharmacy that Gacy was bidding a construction job on. In casual conversation, Gacy found out that Rob was saving up to buy a Jeep, but it was taking a long time because he was not earning much at the store. Like a hawk, Gacy swooped down on the teenager with an offer of a construction job, which would pay considerably more than what he was currently earning.

After his shift was over, Rob rode over to Gacy's house to discuss the offer, and was never heard from again. The difference between Piest and most of Gacy's previous victims was that Rob did not remotely fit the profile of a lost boy. He had a family that immediately knew something was wrong. There was nothing in Rob Piest's background to suggest he had run away or anything. His family life was stable; there had been no fights with his girlfriend, or anyone else for that matter. There were no troubles at school either. His family and the police very quickly realized that something had happened to him. They also knew that the last person he was with was John Wayne Gacy.

As the case slowly unfolds around Amirante, things just keep getting stranger and stranger. While the police are gathering evidence to indict Gacy, they quite naturally want to keep an eye on him so that he does not disappear. So they put him under watch 24 hours a day. But Gacy had an enormously engaging personality, and was able to befriend practically anyone. He had even had his picture taken with First Lady Roslynn Carter. So even though the police were investigating him for murder, they were friendly with him. In fact, they would often go out for dinner and drinks with him!

Then one day Gacy came into Amirante's office high as a kite on a variety of substances and spilled his guts. He confessed to all of the murders, and to where the bodies were buried - which was under his house. A few (including Piest) had been dumped in the river, but there were 28 skeletons to be extracted from beneath the Gacy home.

Sam Amirante (who is now Judge Amirante) takes us through all of the bizarre actions of his certifiably insane client, as well as the various twists and turns of the six-week trial. After confessing to his attorney, Gacy did so to the police as well - so there was never any question as to his guilt. The only defense possible was that of temporary insanity. But as we all know, that did not quite work out for Gacy. He spent 14 years on death row while the appeals process was exhausted, and was finally given a lethal injection on May 10, 1994.

I have read a few books about serial killers in the past, out of curiosity - but never anything quite like this. Hearing the defense attorney's side of things is a fascinating experience. One is able to see first-hand just how difficult the situation is. As Amirante notes throughout the text, he has an almost religious belief in our system of law, which is why he defended Gacy in the first place. His comments about people who said that Gacy did not deserve a trial, and should just be lynched hit home especially. As he notes, these are often citizens who consider themselves the most patriotic souls in America. Yet when it comes to the Constitution, and the fact that we are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, these people are the first to rush to judgment.

The horrific actions of John Wayne Gacy destroyed hundreds of lives, but Defending A Monster is anything but sensationalistic. The book reveals something I had never even considered before. And that is just how difficult it must be to believe in the rule of law so deeply as to defend the type of animal that John Gacy was. I am pretty sure I could not do it, but thank heaven for people like Sam Amirante who will. It is clearly a thankless job, which is born out by the numerous threats he and his family received.

John Wayne Gacy: Defending A Monster provides a very different perspective than that of the usual true crime books. As such, it is recommended.

Article first published as Book Review: John Wayne Gacy: Defending A Monster by Sam L. Amirante and Danny Broderick on Blogcritics.