Monday, March 31, 2008

Bernard Cornwell: A Man's writer

The cover blurbs on Bernard Cornwell’s books read “Perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today,” and frankly, you’ll get no arguments from me. I've come to love Cornwell, who is in every sense a Man's writer. There's no romance in these books and no literary pretension, so if you're looking for those elements, try something else. On the other hand, if you like bloody battles, cowardice and heroism, grim suffering and cruel murder, oath-making and breaking, hard drinking and mirth, and, most importantly, darned good storytelling, Cornwell's your man. His greatest strength is probably his ability to spin a compelling, fun tale, and he does it with a keen eye for historic accuracy.

Here are a couple of my favorite Cornwell works, both trilogies:

The Grail Quest trilogy is an ode to the might of the English longbow. Set during the Hundred Year’s War between France and England, the story follows Thomas of Hookton, an archer, through some of the great battles of the age, including Crecy, the sack of Caen, and the fall of Calais. The bows wielded by Thomas and the English archers are six feet in length with a draw weight of over a hundred pounds, more than double the weight of modern competition bows. And they’re terrifying, able to punch clean through mail, and sometimes plate, if fired close at a flat trajectory. Medieval warfare was changed forever by these big bows of yew, which rendered archaic the old knight on horseback. Captured English bowmen invariably had their draw fingers cut off by the French, who hated – and feared – the archers intensely.

Couple the great, historic battle sequences with the story of Thomas on his quest to find the Grail and restore honor to his family, and you’ve got yourself a terrifically entertaining, satisfying read.

The Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur) are a three-part retelling of the Arthurian cycle. Unlike Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, with its dashing but anachronistic 14th-century knights in plate, Cornwell sets his tale in 5th century Britain, the age often ascribed to the “historic” Arthur.

Like the Grail Quest trilogy, the Warlord Chronicles is brutally realistic, and presents an unflinching, unromantic look at what really happens when spear and sword meet flesh. The filth and unsanitary conditions of the era are faithfully depicted, as are the clash of barbaric paganism and Christianity. Note that Cornwell is not sympathetic towards Christianity; while the pagans are depicted as coarse and willing to commit atrocities (human sacrifice, etc.) to honor their gods, Christians are portrayed as murderously intolerant and often pig-headedly stubborn.

Cornwell also tweaks (shatters might be a better term) some of the standard archetypes of the Arthur myth. Launcelot, for example, is a cowardly fraud. Merlin is a druid who draws his power from pagan gods. Cornwell also chooses to tell the tale through the eyes of Derfel, a character wholly of the author's creation who is nowhere to be found in Malory or T.H. White.

There’s not a single, overt show of magic in the series, and Cornwell’s deft hand as a writer makes its existence ambiguous--it could be real, or it could be mere belief. So strong was the power of faith in those times, that, when projected with someone of the charismatic force of Merlin, strong warriors could be rendered helpless, believing they were stricken blind or ill by a curse. But the undeniable magic is the courage of Arthur. You can’t help but marvel as he strives to bring order and some measure of peace to a savage, dark period of mankind’s history.

Overall The Warlord Chronicles are probably a best-bet for someone getting into Cornwell for the first time, particularly if you're a fantasy fan like me. I haven't read any of his Sharpe series, a long-running line of novels set during the Napoleonic wars for which Cornwell is probably the most famous, although they're supposedly fine books as well.

Currently I'm in the midst of The Saxon Stories, which recount the events of the rule of Alfred the Great and his struggle to free Britain from the grip of the raiding Danes, as told through the eyes of Uhtred, a young warrior born a Saxon but captured and raised by the Vikings. Uhtred is a fun character, as he's torn between hereditary love for his ancestral homeland and a passion for the Danes. Although they're murderous raiders, the Danes drink deep of life, scorn Christian "virtues" of humility and pity, and worship the pagan gods of Thor and Odin. These qualities appeal strongly to Uhtred, who grew to love the Danes during his capture and upbringing under Earl Ragnar. The battles in The Saxon Stories are damned bloody and very well-done, with men hacking and stabbing each other with swords, spears, and axes in great shield-walls.

Again, this series is highly recommended. Be a Man and read some Cornwell.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Some scenes I'm looking forward to in The Hobbit

The recent news that Ian McKellen definitely wants to reprise his role as Gandalf in The Hobbit got me all excited again about the possibilities for this film. And of course, a bit apprehensive as well.

While I'll admit that The Lord of the Rings is superior as a work of art (and I'll argue until I'm blue in the face that it's one of the finest novels ever written in the English language), The Hobbit holds a special place in my heart. My first exposure to it remains fresh in my mind: My fifth grade teacher had us listen to a reading of the book in class over a couple days, an experience for which I still owe him thanks. Afterwards we cut our favorite characters out of sheets of construction paper and created a huge mural on the wall of the classroom. There was probably 8-10 Bilbos and a dozen dwarves; I was the only one who made Beorn (and I gave him a giant double-bitted axe, as I recall). Anyways, that experience helped foster my love for the book and I probably have read it at least a half-dozen times since then.

The coming movie adaptation anticipated for 2009 intrigues me on a number of levels. For instance, I wonder what tone rumored director Guillermo Del Toro will take with it. Most likely it will be a serious epic and a clone in "feel" of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, due to the highly successful formula established by those films. And that isn't such a bad thing. I've read a number of critics at various web sites who are dreading this very thing and are hoping for a light-hearted children's film, but evidentally they aren't too well read. Although The Hobbit is certainly geared more towards children, especially at its outset, over the course of the tale it gradually changes tone, and by the Battle of Five Armies it morphs into a rather adult, grim story. If this wasn't enough, J.R.R. Tolkien himself expressed everlasting regret that he tried to write The Hobbit for a juvenile audience, and later chided himself for not having the foresight or the determination to buck the trend of fantasy at that time (which critics and publishers alike believed was a genre strictly for children). By the time he started work on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had already decided to write it as a full-blown adult fantasy.

Still, part of me wouldn't mind a slightly lighter version of The Hobbit, and I certainly wouldn't be averse to a few songs making their way into the script. For what it's worth, I'll be sorely disappointed if this doesn't make it into the finished product:

Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns cold

We must away ere break of day

To seek the pale enchanted gold

Following is a chapter-by-chapter rundown of my favorite scenes from the book and what I expect (and hope) to see make it to the big screen.

An unexpected party. I hope they film the whole bloody thing. I want to see Gandalf carving his mark on Bilbo's green door (Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward), the dwarves drinking ale and eating cakes and singing, and Gandalf unrolling Thror's curled, yellowing map of the Lonely Mountain. I can picture Thorin telling a captivated Bilbo the tale of the coming of Smaug and the decimation of the dwarves, perhaps done as a voice-over with images of the attack, dwarves roasting in the dragon fire in the dark halls of the mountain. And at the end poor Bilbo hurrying out the door without his hat, walking-stick, or any money. Speaking of which, the casting of Bilbo will be critical, and as much as I loved Ian Holm in LOTR, he's certainly too old for the role.

A Short Rest. A return to Rivendell and the last homely house would be welcome sights, as I thought the Rivendell set-piece from LOTR was well-done. It would be great to see Elrond examining Orcrist and Glamdring, and watching the dwarves' faces light up in surprise as the moon-letters appear on Thror's map.

Over Hill and Under Hill. I'm envisoning a great scene of the dwarves slogging through the Misty Mountains in a driving thunderstorm, stooped over in the swirling winds, and a scene of stone giants hurling rocks into vast, bottomless chasms. The entire sequence with the goblins--the crack opening in the cave; goblins emerging and grabbing the sleeping dwarves; Gandalf to the rescue, rushing in with magic and sword to slay the great goblin; and the pursuit through the tunnels--should be great on film, and is cinematic enough to probably make it more or less intact.

Riddles in the Dark. Need I say more? This should be the centerpiece of the film. I fear it may lose some impact because the audience has been saturated with Gollum from the LOTR films, and I also wonder whether the riddle-game will translate well on the big screen. Some of the riddles are lengthy and could bog things down, so some cutting/revision will probably be necessary.

Queer Lodgings. I hope Jackson and crew don't cut Beorn from The Hobbit, but I can see him going the way of Tom Bombadil. While it seems like an easy cut--the diverson to Beorn's home isn't necessary to advance the plot, and it introduces another narrative-slowing character--cutting Beorn would rob him of his grand entrance into the Battle of the Five Armies, whereby he smashes the bodyguard of Blog in bear-form. For this alone, I hope he makes it in (or at least in the Director's Cut).

Flies and Spiders. Given Jackson's love of monstrous spiders and other nasties (witness Shelob, and the insect cave in King Kong), I fully expect to see a CGI feast in Mirkwood. My guess is they'll make the spiders more insect-like and remove their speaking voices to increase their menace, which would sadly rob Bilbo of his comical taunting ("Attercop, Lazy Lob," etc.). Regardless, it will be great to "see" an invisible Bilbo driving off the spiders with Sting.

Barrels out of bond. The barrel-riding scene is naturally cinematic and should add some nice comic relief.

A Warm Welcome. Seeing Thorin come into his own as the King Under the Mountain, revered by the awed populace of Laketown, would be cool to see on film. Cue epic music.

On the Doorstep. More opportunity for a CGI-fest as the dwarves pass the wreckage of old Dale and the Desolation of the Dragon on their way to the Lonely Mountain.

Inside Information. A chance for some horror as Bilbo makes his way down the dark tunnel into Smaug's cave. I can't wait to see what the CGI gurus do with Smaug during his converation with Bilbo, and I hope it's as terrifying to see him fly into a red rage on film and smash the secret door as it was when I first read The Hobbit. Smaug's treasure horde should be suitably awesome cinematic eye-candy as well.

Not at Home. I was impressed with the way Jackson handled Moria in LOTR and I expect a similar great tour of the halls of the mountain king here. It should be fun to see Bilbo and the Dwarves arm themselves with ancient gem-crusted weapons and mithril shirts of mail.

Fire and Water. The action of the film will pick up here as we get Smaug's attack on Dale. Again, let's hope Jackson and crew keep the character of Bard and let him slay Smaug with his black arrow. Sure, Dale is a minor character but it would be cheesy to rewrite the script to have Thorin or Bilbo playing the hero's role here.

A Thief in the Night. I hope we don't lose the cool little interlude of Bilbo handing over the Arkenstone to the elves and the men of Laketown in an attempt to bring Thorin to the bargaining table. But I fear we might.

The Clouds Burst. Get ready for an epic battle, at least on par with Helm's Deep and perhaps even Minas Tirith. I'm looking forward to seeing dwarves get their due as great axe-fighters, which is one of the criticisms I have of LOTR (Gimli was used too much as comic relief, largely ignoring the fact that he was also quite a grim fighter in the book). And what red-blooded fantasy fan isn't looking forward to seeing men and elves and dwarves of Dain fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against goblins and wargs? What insane individual doesn't want to see Thorin and co. wading out into the mass of fighting bodies like a wedge, driving their foes before them until they break on the bodyguard of Bolg? And as I stated before, I hope the battle climaxes with Beorn in bear shape crashing into the bodyguard and bringing down Bolg himself. All in all, this has the potential for Serious Awesome.

The Return Journey/The Last Stage. The last two chapters appear to require little to no modification, as they provide a perfect cinematic wrap-up to the tale. We get Thorin on his deathbed, repentent at last (and I hope to see his dying lines verbatim: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world"); gift-giving with the elven king; tearful farewells with the dwarves; and Bilbo's return to Hobbiton bearing his two small chests of gold, placing Sting over the mantelpiece. It's probably not necessary to include Bilbo's presumed death and the scene with the Sackville-Bagginses clearing out Bag-End. I can see the film ending on a portent-laden scene with Bilbo protectively tucking away the Ring, a possessive gleam in his eye as he does so.

If done right, this could be a phenomenal film.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Iron Maiden--the true kings of metal

Heavy metal as I see it: An irregular series about the highest form of music known to man.

In a heavy metal steel-cage death match involving every heavy metal band that ever was, Iron Maiden would win.

The following essay is my explanation of why I believe Iron Maiden is the best metal band of all time, better even than Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Against some stiff competition, Maiden would emerge from this epic fight of metal heavyweights bloodied and bruised, but victorious, standing atop the heap as the most consistent and best metal band of all time.

Iron Maiden is my top pick not only for the soaring heights of their peak, classic albums (which include Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, Somewhere in Time, and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son), or for their groundbreaking punk/metal fusion early albums with then-vocalist Paul DiAnno (Iron Maiden, Killers), but for the amazing music they're still putting out today, slightly lesser known but terrific titles like Brave New World, Dance of Death, and A Matter of Life and Death. Greatness is measured in many ways, and one yardstick is longevity. All three of these latter critically acclaimed albums came out after 2000, in Maiden's fourth decade. Maiden is still as creatively fresh and vital as they were in the mid 80's.

In this regard, Maiden has it all over Black Sabbath, whose classic self-titled debut, Black Sabbath, came out in 1970, but whose last great album was 1982's Mob Rules. A great 13-year run, but not nearly as good as Maiden. Likewise, Judas Priest has put out exactly one good album (2005's Angel of Retribution) in the last 17 years. Harsh, but true.

...close, but no cigar for Sabbath, Priest

Black Sabbath is the popular choice in most "best of" heavy metal polls, but I think a huge part of the reason is simply because Sabbath was first on the scene. Their self-titled debut is generally regarded as the first pure metal album, and as pioneers they deserve incredible respect and suitable props. And I'll also admit that Tony Iommi might be the best metal guitarist ever--not necessarily for technical ability, but for his unique sound and amazing riffs.

No one can doubt that classic sabbath albums Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality, and Sabotage are the very essence of metal, or that the very names of Black Sabbath/Ozzy Osbourne aren't inextricably linked to the public perception of heavy metal. When you say 'heavy metal,' the mind immediately conjures up the classic Sabbath lineup, pounding out the headbanging "Paranoid."

But Sabbath hasn't put out a decent album in 26 years, and there's too much water under the bridge now. They hit with a hammer impact that will last forever, but ultimately, their window of greatness closed too quickly and their catalog is a bit too thin. Plus, to be honest, Ozzy has tarnished his legend with his recent buffoonery on and off-stage, and even at his peak was nowhere near the talent of a Bruce Dickinson or Rob Halford. So while Black Sabbath started it all and set the ball in motion, they've since been surpassed.

Judas Priest is the other true contender to the throne. In fact, like Maiden I think Priest is also better than Sabbath. Like Sabbath, Priest pre-dates Maiden, arriving on the scene well before Steve Harris and co. with 1974's Rocka Rolla. While Maiden was still kicking around in clubs, Priest laid the foundations of the genre with some seminal albums, including 1976's Sad Wings of Destiny, 1977's Sin After Sin, and 1978's Stained Class. Although these albums aren't among my favorites, they contain some great songs.

Arguably, guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton are better than classic Maiden counterparts Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. And you can even argue that Rob Halford is (or at least was) a better singer than Bruce Dickinson. But I'll leave the best metal vocalist of all-time discussion for another day. Priest has also written some of all-time metal classics like You've Got Another Thing Comin', Breaking the Law, The Sentinel, The Green Manalishi, Beyond the Realms of Death, and much, much more.

But Priest has some flaws that drop it a notch below Maiden. Most notable is a very uneven discography, noteworthy for its soaring heights of greatness interspersed with some real lows. For every Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith there's a Point of Entry and a Ram it Down. Then there's Turbo, which (although I like this album), is pretty much regarded as a sell-out. I love Priest, they're an all-time great, but selling out is something Maiden never did.

Priest put out its last great album in 1990 (Painkiller, one of their best) but then spent 15 years in the basement, releasing a few forgettable albums with an unremarkable singer (Tom "Ripper" Owens). When Rob Halford rejoined the band Priest pulled itself together with a very respectable release, 2005's Angel of Retribution. But while good, it's not in the same class as any of Maiden's albums after the reunion with Bruce.

Thus, Maiden wins out over Black Sabbath and Judas Priest in consistency and longevity.

But more than years of service, Maiden wins out for its a unique combination of musical ability, showmanship, songwriting talent, and great marketing. Musically, Steve Harris is a terrific bassist and Dave Murray and Adrian Smith are vastly underrated guitar players with a number of great solos to their credit. I don't know a damned thing about drumming (other than Neil Peart is God) so I can't comment on Nicko McBrain. But of course, Bruce Dickinson is in anyone's list of great vocalists and is arguably the best ever.

Maiden can write fast, fist-pumping songs (Aces High, The Trooper), sing-along concert hits (Run to the Hills, Fear of the Dark, Two Minutes to Midnight), soaring epic tracks (Revelations, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Ancient Mariner, Paschendale), and everything in between. They have metal's most recognizable mascot (Eddie) and classic album covers and artwork. Dickinson is an absolute marvel on stage, even at 50, and their stage shows/props are great.

Of course, Maiden isn't perfect. 1990's No Prayer for the Dying marked the start of a downhill slide that hit bottom with the Blaze Bayley-fronted albums The X Factor and Virtual XI. But they've rebounded hugely this decade with new great music and they continue to sell out arenas worldwide as I type. What else need I say? Maiden is the best.

...and the honorable mentions

In my opinion no other metal band can even be mentioned in the same breath as The Big Three. But here are some other honorable mentions, veterans of the metal wars that garner a lot of respect (or at least did at one point in their career):

Metallica. This band was serious contender for six great years. Seriously, between Kill 'em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppers, and And Justice for All, the metal sceptre was within their grasp. But sorry, four great albums--and they were great--ain't gonna cut it in this contest. The black album was the start of the downhill slope, and it's been shit ever since. A major sell-out and a major disappointment, Metallica is a study in how the mighty can fall hard.

Dio/Ronnie James Dio. Dio is awesome, and was responsible for (in my opinion) Sabbath's best album, the post-Ozzy Heaven and Hell. Dio went on to a fine solo career with albums like the immortal Holy Diver, but his is also a career marked with a lot of mediocrity.

Blind Guardian. Another awesome band, Blind Guardian is the reigning king of fantasy-based power metal (beating out Manowar in this regard, IMO). If they arrived on the scene 10 years earlier they'd be in the running.

Pantera. This great thrash band with a respectable career, but a dozen years (1990's Cowboys from Hell through 2000's Reinventing the Steel) isn't long enough to put them anywhere near the running. Arguably they held the throne for one year with 1992's Vulgar Display of Power, but they haven't done a damned thing since Reinventing the Steel.

Megadeth. Another very good metal band, Megadeth flirted with greatness circa 1985-90 with three very good albums (Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?, So Far, So Good, So What, and Rust in Peace). But overall, a great light-heavyweight that lacks the clout of the big boys.

Anthrax. A lesser version of Megadeth. Scott Ian would be the first to admit that Anthrax, despite fielding a couple great thrash albums (Among the Living, State of Euphoria), is not as talented nor as influential as the other bands on this list.

Slayer. Slayer is a great metal band, with some all-time classics, and earn points for their longevity (they're still putting out respectable albums). Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, and Seasons in the Abyss should be in any metal fan's collection. But Tom Araya is not in the same ballpark as Dickinson, Halford, Dio, and other greats. Slayer is limited by the restrictions of the thrash/speed metal genres and Araya's limited vocal ability.

Manowar. This lovable, sword-wielding bunch of maniacs may be the self-proclaimed metal kings, and have some great albums and kick-ass songs to lend support to that lofty title, but they are also rather silly.

Queensryche. This band's path parallels that of Metallica to an eerie degree. Queensryche is (or was) an incredibly talented band whose premier album (Operation Mindcrime) should make any self-respecting metal fan's top 10 list of favorite albums. They also have some other classic material (Rage for Order, The Warning) that, up until 1990 or so, put them on or near the same plane as the other metal greats mentioned above. Then came The Crash, and I'll be kind and leave it at that.

If you've gotten this far and are wondering where bands like Led Zeppelin, KISS, and AC/DC are, you best stop looking and do a little more research. Folks, let's set one thing straight--KISS, AC/DC, and their ilk are hard rock, not metal. It's not that I don't like KISS and AC/DC--I love them, in fact, but metal they ain't. That goes for Deep Purple too.

And sorry MTV, you don't know shit about metal and you never will. I mean, look at this heinous list--Maiden fourth, behind Metallica? That's about all you need to know about the veracity of MTV as an authority on metal (or any form of music, for that matter).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cormac McCarthy's The Road: A grim yet rewarding journey

As I've mentioned in past posts, I'm a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, but not for any perverse voyeurism derived from watching the chaos and violence associated with the end of the world (although Mad Max and its ilk are quite fun). Rather, it's the unique set of existential situations and circumstances of the genre--nuclear war, zombie invasions, climate crisis, food and fuel shortages, etc.--that, in the hands of a talented author, illuminate truths about human nature and make for great reading.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a fine example of a novel that uses the stage of a post-nuclear holocaust to say something meaningful. The Road is set in a world of bitterly cold nuclear winter and billowing ash, sparsely peopled with cannibals and scavengers. Cities are charred remains and homes in the suburbs are rotting and collapsed from decay. There is little to no hope for long-term survival of the human race in this dying world.

But in contrast with the bleakness and darkness I experienced while reading The Road, the good things in my life seemed all the brighter. The Road made me appreciate friends, family, and companionship, these lights we have in our own lives against the dark unknown at the end of the tunnel (and ones that we often take for granted).

Imagine what it would be like as a middle-aged man to try and survive in a world that is always cold, where gray, dirty snow falls constantly from the sky, where homes and buildings have been picked clean of food, and where survivors have resorted to cannibalism. In the midst of this, you have a 10 or 12 year-old son (his age is never revealed) who depends upon you for survival. You are literally his lifeline. You have a disease that makes you cough up blood with no hope for a cure. You're largely helpless to stop your son from shivering in the cold, wasting away from hunger, or giving in to despair. Using stark, simple, declarative language reminiscent of Hemingway, McCarthy thrusts the reader into this world. It's grim and unrelentingly awful.

So why read on? Well, as a father with two young children I can sympathize very strongly with the man's plight. His simple love for his boy keeps him going when suicide seems a better option. He carries a gun with two bullets left, and if found by scavenging cannibals, his plan is to use one bullet for his son and the last for himself. He wonders whether he'll have the courage to do so. The boy and his father sustain themselves with each other, and constantly tell each other that they're the good guys, and that they "carry the fire," a small, flickering flame in a world of cruel darkness.

I won't spoil the ending of The Road, but there's a lot going on under its simple surface. McCarthy explores the father-son relationship, faith in God, our curious need to cling to hope in a life that seems devoid of it, growing up and moving on, and coping with death. As you can imagine it's not a fun or particularly easy read, but it's a novel I couldn't put down, and when it was over I hugged my daughters a little bit tighter and felt a little more appreciative for what I have.

Any book that evokes such emotions is a good one in my mind. At times The Road seems to strike a repetitive note, retreading on ground it has already covered. But overall I give it a very solid 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Rime of the Aging Metalhead: A review of Iron Maiden in East Rutherford, 3/14/08

(Photo caption: From left to right, Dan, 29, Scott, 36, and 34-year-old me flash devil horns and metal faces while carrying home-baked muffins, cookies, and ear plugs).

An alternative name for my March 14, 2008 review of Iron Maiden at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, NJ might as well be called "Confessions of an Aging Heavy Metal Fan."

This was the seventh time I've seen the Gods of Metal and the two guys with whom I attended the show were both Maiden virgins (readers of The Silver Key will recognize Scott from "Scott's thoughts,", a post which landed him instant celebrity in his own mind). I'm proud to say I was with them as they broke their Maiden cherry. The photo I've embedded here is of the three of us before we headed out the door with metal in our hearts and baked goods in our hands.

While I'm not that old (34, to be exact) we had a good laugh that night at how much the concert experience has changed over the years. At past metal shows my friends and I have been known to pick up a 30-pack of beer beforehand and pound 6-8 beers in the parking lot. The object of course is to get buzzed, act a bit stupid, and save a few bucks on the ridiculously overpriced beer in the arena.

But times have changed. At my request, I brought my first pair of earplugs to the show courtesy of Scott. I've never worn hearing protection to a concert, but after my last show (Queensryche at the Hampton Beach Ballroom Casino, a small and very loud club) I had trouble hearing for four days afterwards, which left me a bit nervous that the ringing would continue forever. I've put my ears under a lot of duress over the years at many heavy metal shows and this time I decided to take appropriate countermeasures.

In and of themselves the earplugs weren't that bad, but combined with the next item--a batch of home-baked chocolate chip cookies in a ziplock bag, lovingly packed by Scott's wife--we had officially crossed the line from uncool to completely lame. The three of us joked about trying to smuggle the cookies into the show and getting busted by security ("Sir, you'll have to check those at the door. Cookies of any sort are not allowed in the Izod Center") but we opted for discretion over valor and left them in the car. You can see the offending cookies in the picture above, as well as my blue earplugs. Ah well. On to the review.

To begin with, I was shocked to see that Izod was sold out. Reportedly this place seats 20,000, and while some seats are blocked out for concerts, it was, in fact, sold out. We had nosebleed seats and a fine view of the whole arena, and there were no empty seats. Not a bad turnout for a heavy metal band with roughly 30 years under its belt. It's another testament to the enduring legacy of Iron Maiden and heavy metal as a genre of music, critics be damned.

Iron Maiden is, in my humble opinion, the greatest heavy metal band of all time and this show again reaffirmed why. This tour showcased three of Maiden's best and most popular albums from their "golden" period (Powerslave, Somewhere in Time, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son), which made up the bulk of the setlist and the backdrops/props on the stage. The setlist was as follows:

Introduction (Transylvania/Churchill's speech)
Aces High
2 Minutes to Midnight
The Trooper
Wasted Years
The Number of the Beast
Run to the Hills
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Heaven Can Wait
Can I Play With Madness?
Fear of the Dark
Iron Maiden

The Clairvoyant
Hallowed Be Thy Name

Overall, its a great setlist and one for which I have only minor complaints. I would have much preferred another song or two off Somewhere in Time, an album that always seems to get the short-shrift by Maiden. Stranger in a Strange Land, Sea of Madness, or Alexander the Great would have been appreciated. Also, Can I Play With Madness, a good, catchy song on CD, simply does not come across well in concert and it again garnered little fan reaction. I would have preferred my favorite track from Seventh Son, The Evil that Men Do, in its place, but Maiden has played the heck out of that song in concert so I can't complain too much.

Maiden sounded awesome (no surprise there), the stage looked great, and Bruce was again in top form, both vocally and physically. Bruce is just about to hit 50 and yet he flies around like a man half his age. He was also having a great time and had no angry rants or disparaging remarks as he's occasionally want to do in concert. He commented that the band was here back in 1985 playing to a sold-out crowd, and here it was, 23-odd years later, with another sold-out show. Again, amazing.

Highlights for me included the following:

The Introduction. Transylvania really gets the heart pounding, and nothing beats hearing 20,000 or so fans in speaking along in unison with Winston Churchill during his famous Battle of Britain speech. The place exploded when Maiden ripped into Aces High.

Moonchild. Dave Murray brought out his acoustic guitar for the "Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Ways to Win," lead-in, and he and Bruce hammed it up a bit. Very nice touch, and the rest of the song kicked ass as well.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Hearing this live was worth the price of admission alone. Maiden broke out the smoke effects and lowered the lights circa Live After Death for a great visual look. Bruce lurked about the stage in some sort of a black cloak and really nailed this one vocally, Steve shined on bass, and the band positively exploded with force after the slow, melodic break in the middle of the song. I had chills after this one.

Powerslave. Another song that was great live, Dave ripped through a great solo in the middle, and best of all Bruce broke out the Horus "owl" mask circa Live After Death. An amusing and fun old-school touch.

The Trooper. Bruce wearing the British cavalryman's coat and waiving the union jack will never get old.

Some other funny tidbits from the show:

Fathers and sons (and daughters). Maiden has now been around long enough that longtime fans (myself included) have settled down with families and children. I saw at least 8-10 dads with youngsters as we walked into the show and more inside, some as young as 7-8 years of age. A bit young in my opinion to bring to a loud metal show and I hope these dads were packing ear protection for their kids. Bruce commented about seeing generations of fans in the audience and it certainly was true.

Guy with mullet and leather pants. Crowd watching is always a fun part of attending metal shows, and the best/oddest sight was a guy in his late 4os/early 50's with a full-blown greying mullet and leather pants. He looked like he stepped out of a Whitesnake video and into the New Jersey night.

Guy with Manowar backpatch. In a night with many denim jackets with backpatches and buttons, this was the best of the lot. I give the guy credit for having the balls to wear this, but the question I continue to ponder is: Do these people wear this stuff outside of metal concerts, or do they keep the acid-washed jeans and black leather vests in mothballs until metal shows roll through? Half of me wanted to high-five the guy for sticking to his guns and wearing a rhinestone-studded Manowar back-patch in public, but the other half of me felt like telling him that 1985 was a long, long time ago.

In the end I managed to somewhat shake the old fogey image, buying two beers (at $7.25 each) and leaving the earplugs in my pocket. I didn't wind up needing them as it wasn't that loud. But don't tell my wife, she'll kill me.

And I'll be damned if those cookies didn't taste like manna from heaven on the way home. The only thing missing was the milk.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

...things are awful quiet around here

So in case you've noticed I haven't been posting much on The Silver Key the last couple days. It's not because I've lost interest or run out of things to say (quite the contrary--in fact, I'm just getting started), or because Gary Gygax's death stunned me to silence (although it did, for a good solid 24 hours), but it's because I'm currently working on an exciting bit of writing for an honest-to-goodness print publication. I want to write it as best as I can in the hopes it gets accepted.

I expect I'll be at this project for at least a couple more days, after which you'll be getting a lot more hot air from The Silver Key.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A legend is gone

T'was a sad day for me and the roleplaying community in general: Gary Gygax, co-founder of Dungeons and Dragons and the father of role-playing games, passed into the west at the age of 69.

The role-playing boards I frequent, including EN World, RPGnet, and Dragonsfoot, are full of threads about his passing. As I read them, I was struck at how many people this man touched. More than once I felt my eyes sting with tears.

My brush with the man came not in person--and I'm kicking myself hard for not making it to Gencon and shaking his hand--but over e-mail. Back on January 12, 2002, I sent Gary the following message. It sums up pretty much the impact D&D has had on my life:


As a longtime (18 years or so) player of Dungeons and Dragons, I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for creating the hobby that has been such a rewarding part of my life. I came across your name on the EN World boards and felt compelled to write.

D&D introduced me to a great new bunch of friends; it got me to read, inspired me to write (and think) creatively. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've referenced and read the old DM's guide, Player's Handbook and Monster Manual. Though AD&D has given way to new editions, I still turn to those great old tomes for inspiration and wonderful memories. In my opinion, they are still the best books the hobby has ever produced.

And your modules, especially the Against the Giants--Drow--Demonweb series, are still unsurpassed. I plan on converting them for 3E and running them for my current group. They will last forever.

Again, I thank you for your creative vision, and the courage to launch a hobby that has stood the test of time, the computer age, and even misguided religious fervor. You've made millions of people happy.

Brian Murphy

I honestly expected no reply, but just wanted to thank him for his labors in the hobby that he, for all intents and purposes, created. But, shock of all shocks, less than two hours later I recieved this reply:

Shucks, Brian...

Okay, thanks for those good words. You know I had a lot of fun both in writing and playing OA/D&D too, of course. Fact is, my love for writing and games burns as brightly as it did back in 1970 when I cut loose from the world of suits and "other business" to concentrate on what I wanted to do (^_^).

Come on back anytime,


I will save and treasure this simple message from Gygax, a man who changed my life for the better. I only wish I could break out a game of AD&D first edition tonight--perhaps the Tomb of Horrors--and honor him with a proper tribute.

But in the meantime, God speed Gary. I raise a tankard of ale in your honor.