Friday, May 17, 2024

As heavy as I’ll go

Slayer and Sepultura… really no heavier than that. There’s no need, from my perspective.

I can’t do cookie monster vocals. That means that Death Metal and Black Metal bands are out. 

To be honest, I haven’t made a concerted effort to break into these genres. The barrier to entry is so high that I just can’t bring myself to do it, even though I can appreciate some of the riffs and melodies. 

I need to be able to understand what the vocalist is saying, and I can do that with Max Cavalera and Tom Araya. 

Sabbath is heavy enough for most mortals, and will raise an eyebrow in mixed company. Slayer and Sepultura will get you flat-out kicked out of parties … but I still greatly enjoy them. As with here, on Refuse/Resist, and South of Heaven.





Both awesome, and really fucking heavy. But I don’t feel the need to go any heavier.

What’s your “max heavy?”

Monday, May 13, 2024

Why we need fantasy: Some thoughts from a Blind Guardian concert, May 11, 2024 at the Worcester Palladium

I'm in there! Somewhere back left...

No one ever dares to speak
It's nothing else but fantasy
It's make believe,
Make believe
No one ever dares to speak
It's nothing else but fantasy
But One day it will all come to life

--Blind Guardian, Fly

How did you spend your Saturday night? I was in a hall you might know, called … VALHALLA!

Or maybe it was the Worcester Palladium. 

Either way, I was somewhere else. And that’s a good thing. 

We need fantasy in our lives.

Blind Guardian lead singer Hansi Kuersch screams at the end of “Valhalla,” No, we can’t live without gods! He and his bandmates put to powerful music what many of us who breathe deeply of this type of thing have come to know: 

We can’t live without fantasy. It is indispensable as air or water:

Songs I will sing of tribes and kings
The carrion bird and the hall of the slain
Nothing seems real
You soon will feel
The world we live in is another Skald’s
Dream in the shadows

--Skalds and Shadows

We’re all just telling stories. Reality is what we make of it. 

Blind Guardian knows this, and takes us to other places, fair and perilous lands where magic is real. Lands we once knew, but have forgotten. As we age our fantasies wither. We prioritize work and money, and embrace conformity and dull routine. 

Stranded in the real world
Left in the world
No place for daydreams
Serious life
I fall into
I fall into a dark hole
And I can't come out
Do you know if Merlin did exist
Or Frodo wore the ring
Did Corum kill the gods
Or where's the wonderland
Which young Alice had seen
Or was it just a dream
I knew the answers
Now they're lost for me


But fantasy calls, from the other side.

We might be lost, but Blind Guardian knows there is another world. Which can break down the walls around your heart. For a short time on Saturday at least.

Blind Guardian delivered on this stop on The God Machine tour. They were great. The setlist is below.

As always it’s a privilege to see a band of their magnitude in a place like The Palladium, which has a listed capacity of 2660. Blind Guardian plays to much larger crowds overseas.

Take a bow, dudes. 
Maybe you don’t need German power metal bands in your life. That’s OK, with a good book or a well-done movie you can get (some) of what Blind Guardian offers. Enchantment, to restore a disenchanted world.

What you don’t get in a book or a movie however is the power of being in a big group of like-minded people, all experiencing the same powerful call. Chanting, “Valhalla, Deliverance!” like Viking warriors of old.

Where was I Saturday night? The lands of Faerie, or Worcester? 

Both my friends.

Setlist

Imaginations from the Other Side
Blood of the Elves
Nightfall
The Script for My Requiem
Violent Shadows
Skalds and Shadows
Deliver us from Evil
Secrets of the American Gods
The Bard’s Song
Majesty
Traveler in Time
Sacred Worlds
Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)
Valhalla
Mirror Mirror

Here's a bit of "Nightfall" from my cell phone:



Friday, May 10, 2024

Curse My Name, Blind Guardian

They plead for their king 
And they pity their lord 
Put him to death, that's what I say

It's been a while since I did one of these. Too long. And I've got Blind Guardian on the calendar tomorrow. So, time for another Metal Friday.

Blind Guardian is great for so many reasons, but starting a song with a lute and either a flute (or perhaps a fife?) is one. Another is songs like "Curse My Name," which could be a number in an alternative metal universe performance of Les Miserables. 

This is a great song, atmospheric, melodic, epic... and underneath it all some hard critique of monarchy. We are the nation, we are the law, and we won't take it anymore. How do we depose the monarch? Put him to death, that's what I say. 

I wasn't even sure there was an electric guitar in this song... but yeah there it is at 4:38. Yet despite the lack of typical heavy metal trappings it's heavy AF, heavier than many guitar forward tunes. 

Very dark. 

And awesome.

Hard to believe this came out 14 years ago, on At the Edge of Time (2010). I feel like this album just came out yesterday. But time is subjective. The passage of years is different now than it once was.



Monday, May 6, 2024

Some blogging odds and ends

Some stuff that might be interesting to you, but at minimum is important to me.

I’m not going to Howard Days this year. I was never planning to do so, but enough people have asked me that I figure I’d make it official here. I LOVED my first Howard Days experience and would gladly go again, but time and budget won’t permit me to go every year. I’ll just have to enjoy it vicariously and remember my experience of a year ago, which Deuce Richardson recently recapped on the blog of DMR Books in fine fashion here and here.

No book review requests, please. A public message that I’m not accepting any further books for review at this time. Recently I’ve received several requests to review new S&S and S&S adjacent titles, from authors and publishers, even a work in progress. I just don’t have time, due to personal and professional obligations. For more reasons why I made this decision please read this prior post. This is not to say I won’t be reviewing books here on the Silver Key, but they will be books I voluntarily seek out.

A terrific Mad Max conversation. I listen to a fair number of podcasts on topics that range from political to self-improvement to all things fantastic. Weird Studies with hosts Phil Ford and J.F. Martel has remained in my rotation when others have fallen out because the hosts are so damned good—even though I probably skip 50% or more of the episodes. I’m just not interested in the occult or tarot or TV shows I haven’t watched (i.e., most of them), but when these guys turn to a topic I love—i.e., the Mad Max film franchise—I’m in. This episode does not disappoint, even though it’s (as always) lit-crit heavy and intellectual AF.

A one-star review and 5-star feedback. I got my first one-star review of Flame and Crimson on Goodreads, from an individual whose review reads, “Meh, DNF.” This bothered me to some degree; I would never one-star a book I didn’t finish. But whatever, the book is definitely not for everyone and evidently was not for this dude. On the other hand, this recent email from a reader warmed my cold heart all the way through:

Hi Brian, I just wanted to tell you I'm on my second read through of "Flame  

and Crimson" and I'm enjoying it equally as much. I first read CONAN in the  

late 1960's as a teenager and found a world and a hero to identify with on  

an internal level. Here were stories that led me to realms of the fantastic  

and a cast of characters to cheer or boo, they even convinced me buy some  

weightlifting gear. (I never achieved the frame of the fabled warrior.) So  

many thanks for the research, the writing and the publishing of this  

wonderful book. It makes a 70 year old feel young and vital again.

That makes it all worth it, including the one-star reviews.

Blind Guardian powers into Worcester MA on Saturday. My personal heavy metal tour makes its next stop at The Palladium in Worcester this weekend, where I’ll be taking in legendary German power metal band Blind Guardian. With my old friend Dana, who introduced me to these guys a couple decades ago to my delight. Thanks Dana. Any band who writes concept albums based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion gets my attention, and these guys are always amazing.

I’ve got a college graduate. My oldest daughter Hannah, 22, just graduated from Colby-Sawyer college with a degree in professional and creative writing, and already has a job offer which she’s accepted teaching at a local boarding school. I couldn’t be prouder. She’s both like her Dad and very much her own person and I’m looking forward to watching her continue to grow into young adulthood. I’m a lucky man. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Silk Road Centurion by Scott Forbes Crawford, a review

I am not a historian of ancient Chinese history nor the legendary Silk Road that served as crucial trade route, but author Scott Forbes Crawford seems (at least to this layman) to be, and to have done his research. His debut novel Silk Road Centurion feels historic while maintaining a page turning sense of adventure. And so is a successful book I enjoyed reading.

Overall it’s a fine read for fans of historical fiction, of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, or a gripping story well-told.

In 53 B.C. Roman soldier Manius Titinius is taken captive by a nomadic group of bow-wielding horsemen called the Xiongnu. Manius is led on a forced march across a thousand miles or more with a handful of other survivors and placed in a slave camp, exposed to the elements. Hobbled physically though never broken mentally, he swears an oath of vengeance. Ultimately his goal is to return to Rome, but over time he learns the language and culture of the locals, enters platonic and romantic relationships with some of them, and ultimately recommits to helping others from a culture very removed from his own.

This is a story of big stakes for the characters but small stakes when compared against the broader panorama of history. There are no big pivotal historical battles like you’ll find in Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt for example; Silk Road Centurion is small scale and personal and so in this respect will likely appeal to fans of sword-and-sorcery.

What I appreciated most were not the battles (of which there are several, violent and well depicted) but the quiet moments. Meditations on healing and what it means to be healthy in body in mind; of differing belief systems and how they help us navigate the world; of family and legacy and how they give life meaning; and of the importance of codes of honor as an operating system for how we should behave. Manius is a man of his word and when he makes a promise he keeps it. He also comes to appreciate the people of the far east and their quiet endurance as farmers loyal to the earth and to each other.

I liked this book for the same reasons I enjoy some historical fiction more than other; when an author gets too bogged down in place and time details and loses the thread of a rousing story, I’m out. Silk Road Centurion did not suffer from this flaw, and keeps you turning the pages. Crawford focuses more on plot and action than place or setting, which I appreciated. 

While I would not say this book is much like Gladiator save for the period, Manius’ fixation on a figurine of the goddess Fortuna, or fortune, is an echo. The way he holds it and reflects on the nature of fortune in critical life and death situations or when hope is at its lowest ebb reminded me of the way Russell Crowe's Maximus Decimus Meridius would rub sand into his palms and let it fall through his hands, or feeling the wheat fields of his distant home—a ritual, pregnant with meaning, grounding him to something larger. There is much going on in these pages of the interplay of fortune and fate, and the one we make through our actions.

Silk Road Centurion is not without some first novel issues. In places the pacing sags; in other places it feels like there is too much going on; a scene near the end of Manius and his friend (endearingly named Ox) crossing an ice-cold river and suffering yet another near-death mishap feels like a bridge too far. How much suffering can a man endure before it stretches him to break, or breaks the reader? Finally, I think some of the revelatory character payoff, while powerful on the page, perhaps did not quite feel earned to me. 

So what. 

This is an impressive start for a new author. Anyone who not only writes but pushes a work of this length and scope and ambition through to completion deserves our praise. It gets mine (and the likes of Howard Andrew Jones, who is blurbed on the interior). Silk Road Centurion is a good book. Read it.

Monday, April 22, 2024

A review of Judas Priest, April 19 Newark NJ

Scott (of Scott's Thoughts) and
I waiting for the metal madness.
I love heavy metal culture, unapologetically.

These days it’s not quite the same as heavy metal parking lot. Fans are generally older (though they hail from all age ranges). There is less innocence, perhaps more conformity to codes. 

But, the enthusiasm and joy remains.

If you watched a mosh pit as an outsider without any knowledge you’d think you were witnessing some wild fight, and expect cops in riot gear to come and break it up. Moshing looks like a fight—arms flailing, bodies contacting one another, often hard, sometimes resulting in falls on cement, bruises and a little blood. 

A closer look reveals no intent to injure. Just people “dancing” in an odd, flailing sort of way, out of sheer love of heavy music and all the emotions it draws forth.

It’s a weird, quirky, and lovely phenomenon.

Just like being a Judas Priest fan. Loving a 50 year old metal band with a 72-year-old lead singer is not going to get you into the same social circles as Taylor Swift. But I doubt Swifties have any more fun.

Judas Priest on April 19, 2024 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ had the feel of a spontaneous celebration, from a post-concert mosh pit (see below) to the concert itself.

I had an absolute blast.

The band sounded phenomenal. I knew they would, musically. It’s hard not to when you’ve got a killer rhythm section (Ian Hill and Scott Travis) and one of metal’s brightest guitarists in Richie Faulkner. What was surprising was Rob. 

Halford killed it, vocally. 

Today he uses some sort of voice extender that carries his notes and provides an echo effect, strengthening what he’s got. But it’s still obviously him singing. And damn, he can still do it. Rob moves around slowly, has to bend nearly in half to hit the high notes in the likes of Painkiller. But he can still do it. 

Amazing.

Setlist:
Panic Attack
You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’
Rapid Fire
Breaking the Law
Lightning Strike
Love Bites
Devil’s Child
Saints in Hell
Crown of Horns
Sinner
Turbo Lover
Invincible Shield
Victim of Changes
The Green Manalishi
Painkiller
Encore:
Electric Eye
Hell Bent for Leather
Living After Midnight

So many highlights, too many to mention, but here’s a few.

“Crown of Horns.” I enjoyed this new song off Invincible Shield from the first I heard it, but it was killer in concert. It’s a raw and soulful, weighty but ultimately hopeful song, rife with religious imagery (haven’t really talked about that aspect of Invincible Shield), defending the metal faith, and gratitude for life. Someone recorded it here; while I ordinarily hate cell phone recordings (the sound qualify is almost universally tinny and flat, and even a good recording fails to capture the loudness and atmosphere) this one is pretty good. 

Halford coming out on his motorbike for Hell Bent for Leather. You might think you're cool, but you’ll never be Rob Halford revving a Harley Davidson on stage at a heavy metal concert level of cool.

Love Bites and Devil’s Child back-to-back. Love both of these songs, and they were done well. The Nosferatu footage for the former added to the atmosphere.

The Green Manalishi (With the two Pronged Crown). I’ve always loved Priest’s rendition of this Fleetwood Mac song. No one remembers it’s a cover because Priest owns it, so hard. They did again this night. I was singing along very lustily.

The unexpected song disorder. I thought I was mishearing something when Priest launched into “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” as the followup to set opener “Panic Attack” (which I did expect, and was awesome). Typically “Another Thing” is the closer or at least encore material. “The Hellion/Electric Eye” is the best metal opener of all time and Priest didn’t waste that impact, saving it to open the encore.

Opening act Sabaton. These guys were very good—I entered knowing almost nothing about them, and left willing to give them a concerted listen. What stood out most was their harmonic vocals, like old Viking chants set to heavy metal guitars. The drummer sat on top of a giant tank armed with a pair of gatling guns. Despite singing about war and death exclusively they were having fun and didn’t take themselves too seriously, which I appreciated. At one point the singer slipped while running across stage and fell flat on his back, but sung a couple lines from the prone position. A little Spinal Tap.

Way more people in attendance than I anticipated. Sure, a couple of the topmost sections were curtained off, but the place was probably 85-90% full. 16,755 is the listed capacity of the Prudential Center, so there had to have been 13-14,000K in attendance. Amazing for JP, I thought those days were behind them. Among the crowd was an all-time record number of metal gear wearers—denim vests with quilts of backpatches, studded leather vests and wristbands. Chicks in black leather miniskirts and tall boots and black eyeshadow. It was glorious.

Damn this was good...
but probably not $18.25 good. 
A cold 25 oz Stella.
Giant beers rock, though at $18.25(!) one was enough for my wallet.

The mosh pit after the concert, outside on the sidewalk of the Prudential Center. It started when an enterprising street performer set up shop with a small drumkit and a couple speakers. Exiting the arena we heard “Aces High,” and as we drew closer saw a ring of concert-goers watching this guy pound out a very credible Nicko McBrain, with all the Maiden music minus the drum track emanating from the speaker. And then people started moshing, most notably an incredibly drunk dude wearing full Rob Halford getup circa 1979’s “Unleashed in the East,” complete with jaunty cap and studded leather vest. He was knocked to the ground a few times but kept getting up. I’m quite sure he and some other middle-aged dudes felt it the next day.  But on this night, no pain.







Saturday, April 13, 2024

Metal spring (and summer) kicking off, plus metal memoir update

This spring and summer I’ve got four bands/five shows on the docket. We get started this Friday with the legendary Judas Priest, touring in support of their killer new album Invincible Shield. Time to break out the denim.

Friday April 19: Judas Priest (with opening act Sabaton), Prudential Center, Newark NJ

Saturday May 11: Blind Guardian, Palladium, Worcester MA

Friday August 2: Metallica, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough MA

Wednesday, Nov. 6: Iron Maiden, DCU Center, Worcester MA

Saturday Nov. 9: Iron Maiden, Prudential Center, Newark NJ

Coupled with a pair of shows I’ve already seen (tribute bands Foreigner’s Journey and Lotus Land) that’s seven concerts this year. And who knows, I may add one or two yet. Not bad for an old fart.

Are you going to see any of these shows or bands? Which excite you the most? I’m sure I’ll have some after reports here on the blog.

***

The heavy metal memoir continues. This is easily the most difficult work I’ve attempted … which is not necessarily what I expected when I began. The challenge is trying to tell a well-paced, compelling story, with the right amount of detail and audience applicability. All while avoiding needless details and navel-gazing. I’ve been writing my whole life, but I’ve come to realize that journalism, academic work, and non-fiction are different disciplines altogether than memoir. 

Plus, many of the details of the book are obscured by time and the haze of alcohol.

Not easy, at all.

But I’m pushing, a few times a week, and making progress. I’m working on a second draft now. My goal remains to have it finished by the end of the year.