Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Lion of Cairo by Scott Oden, a review

I think it’s totally cool that the dedication page of Scott Oden’s forthcoming novel The Lion of Cairo (U.S. publication date Dec. 7) pays homage to a sword and sorcery legend:

To Robert E. Howard
whose tales of swordplay and sorcery
gave inspiration to a kid from Alabama
and caused him to take up the pen
in his own time

After the Howard name-drop you pretty much know what you’re in for: Pulse-pounding sword play, leagues of warring assassins, political intrigue, a hint of evil sorcery, and the clash of armies on a grand stage. On all these elements Oden delivers.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A review of Blind Guardian, Nov. 21 at Worcester Palladium

Until last night, Blind Guardian was on a short list of heavy metal bands that I’ve always wanted to see live, but for whom time and circumstance always seemed to run interference. Now I can scratch “best German power metal band of all time—see live” off my list of things to do before I die, though after the excellent show they put on Sunday, November 21st at the Worcester Palladium I’d certainly welcome the chance to see these guys again.

I must say right off the bat that the Palladium was a rather unexpected venue in which to see Blind Guardian. As my friend and I stood in line in the chilly Worcester air waiting to get in, we both noted that seeing a band the caliber of Blind Guardian at a venue this small was both a shame and an amazing opportunity. Overseas Blind Guardian is a band that plays to stadiums and packed arenas; in the states they largely play small clubs in front of hundreds. We were both amazed and perplexed by this phenomenon. I personally don’t understand why Blind Guardian isn’t bigger over here in the states. I suspect that U.S. audiences are more fickle, and that classic-sounding heavy metal has become a bit passe’. Which is a shame, because just like classic literature classic metal never ages. It may also be that Blind Guardian, though they’ve been around for 22 years (their debut album was 1988’s Battalions of Fear) was a “late-comer” on the metal scene and so never developed the hard-core loyal following that bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath still enjoy. I doubt Blind Guardian was doing any serious touring of the U.S. back then, and just a few short years later metal was out, and grunge was in. Europe meanwhile marched to the beat of its own drum of music fashion. Of course, it doesn’t help that Blind Guardian gets absolutely zero radio air-play, either. Even Iron Maiden gets some occasional “Run to the Hills” or “Number of the Beast” lip service. When have you ever heard “Valhalla”?

But onto the good: seeing Blind Guardian at the Palladium allowed us to view the show probably 50-60 feet from the stage. We were standing on a riser that gave us a great view over the top of the mosh-pit and crowd-surfers, nearly at eye-level with the band. I must say I was a little surprised by the moshing—not so much during Holy Grail, whose heavier music leant itself to moshing, but I was surprised when it continued for Blind Guardian, who has their heavy songs but are more melodic. Still, I was safely on the sidelines and so didn’t mind the frenzy of thrashing, flailing bodies. Everyone was into it in their own way: Most of the crowd just sang and clapped along and pumped their fists in the air, self included.

We got to the show early and so were able to catch both opening acts. Holy Grail, who took the stage second, featured a good singer and accomplished what a good opening act should—get the crowd riled up, and me interested in their music. My two second evaluation: They’re pretty good. Seven Kingdoms was average at best. They featured a female lead singer who was decent but in general lacked the sound and stage presence of Holy Grail. Holy Grail did have a classic Spinal Tap moment pre-concert when they brought out a tapestry no larger than those I used to hang on my bedroom wall. Two guys spent a good 5-6 minutes fiddling around with the stand to try and get the banner taut and the logo readable, and immediately after walking off stage the whole thing did a slow tilt right and collapsed to the delight of the crowd.

On to Blind Guardian. As pleasantly surprised as I was with Holy Grail, it was shocking to see the difference between the opening acts and Blind Guardian. Without denigrating Holy Grail or Seven Kingdoms, Blind Guardian played with a whole new level of sound and presence. The best way I can describe it is professionalism. You can just tell Blind Guardian has been doing this very well for a long time and are on top of their game. And of course Kursch is almost without parallel as a singer and showman.

Overall I was very pleased with the setlist which you can view here in full at Blind Guardian’s official website if you're concerned with spoilers. Some personal highlights included:

Sacred Worlds. I like it as the intro to their new album, but it worked even better live. A great way to kick off the concert.

Nightfall. One of my favorite Blind Guardian songs and I was stunned by how well this worked live. I love songs with big, powerful choruses and this was a high note. My heart skipped a beat when lead singer Hansi Kursch gave his typical Tolkienian intro: “Let’s see what happens to the Noldorian race after… Nightfall.”

Time Stands Still at the Iron Hill. Yet more Tolkien. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s great to see material like The Silmarillion get such serious, epic treatment. Blind Guardian was born to sing songs like this.

The Bard’s Song. A crowd favorite, and again a reminder that Kursch can really sing wonderfully (as well as scream). This might be my favorite ballad by any band, ever.

Born in a Mourning Hall. Just like “Nightfall,” this one has a big chorus and when you’re in a packed hall, singing it out loud, it’s chill-evoking.

Bright Eyes. This is a great song and was thrilled to hear it live.

The Lord of the Rings. Singing “Mordor, dark land under Sauron’s spell” along with Hansi Kursch at the top of my lungs=worth the price of admission.

Mirror, Mirror. A fine song and always an excellent closer.

I had a couple minor disappointments, foremost not hearing “Mordred’s Song,” which is one of my top 5 BG songs ever. Also, I still think “Valkyries” is the best song on the new album and I would have preferred that or “Curse My Name” over “Wheel of Time.” But overall I can’t complain with the setlist. It was really a great mix of old and new.

There were a few rather humorous moments worth mentioning: The crowd chanting for “Majesty,” Hansi pausing dramatically, then saying “no,” was one (they wound up playing "Majesty" anyway). The other was the band playing through an almost entirely dark stage during “Sacred Worlds.” My first thought was that something was off, but then I thought perhaps the effect was intended (you could see the band, albeit as silhouettes). But as it turned out the stage lights had malfunctioned. The band got a good laugh out of it before the second song.

A couple final notes:

I was pleasantly surprised by the relative youth of the crowd. A few recent shows I’ve attended were dominated by late 30 and 40 somethings; BG seems to have attracted a younger crowd along with older dudes like me, which gives me some hope for the future of metal.

A $30 ticket price (including all fees) was a steal. I think I paid $30 back in 1992 when I saw Iron Maiden on their No Prayer on the Road tour.

As is the case with all metal concerts I had fun crowd watching. Some oddities included a guy with a sleeveless jacket that I think was denim, but was in effect a near seamless quilt of patches of bands ranging from Burzum to Megadeth. Some other dude had a Bob Seger concert tee (hey, I like Seger too, but it seemed a little out of place here).

It was good to see my friend, whom I see maybe once or twice a year at most. We both commented on the changes that had occurred in our lives since our last show at the Palladium circa 2001. He was living in a different place and we both had different jobs. I was kidless. Oh yeah, and we were waiting in line to see Ronnie James Dio, who of course is no longer with us.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blind Guardian tonight

Going to see Blind Guardian at the Worcester Palladium tonight. It's my first time and I'm pretty pumped.

It looks like BG is changing up its setlist from night to night, so I'm not entirely sure what they'll be playing, but a few setlists I've seen include "Born in a Mourning Hall," "Nightfall," "Time Stands Still (at the Iron Hill)", "Lord of the Rings," "Imaginations From the Other Side," "The Bard's Song - In the Forest," and "Valhalla." I'd be psyched to hear those. I'm not so sure about the two opening acts Holy Grail and Seven Kingdoms. Nothing too impressive from what I've heard on Youtube, but cool names though.

I'll post a report later on. If you happen to be there, I'll be the guy with the chain mail hauberk and viking helmet.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I've … seen things you people wouldn't believe part 2: Deckard as replicant “ruins” Blade Runner?

I came across this post today on and felt compelled to comment, as it concerns one of my top 10 films of all time: Blade Runner.

I’m not arguing with the author’s larger point that the plot of a story can be “squeezed” too much, and that too many “twists” can spoil the soup of a novel, if you will. I’m sure this is quite possible. But I happen to think her example to prove this point is a rather poor one: I don’t agree at all that Rick Deckard as replicant ruins Blade Runner.

Why does it weaken the story if Deckard is a machine, just like the machines he’s hunting? It shouldn’t, and doesn’t. Blade Runner is not just a story “about a man who has lost his humanity.” If you think that Deckard is a member of mankind and that Blade Runner offers no other interpretation, then yes, that’s what the film is about: A man who wakes up to his own life after seeing the "life" pulsing in the artificial heart of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). But if you add in the Deckard as replicant subtext, it becomes something more. This fascinating scenario deepens the film’s questions about what it means to be a human. Deckard-as replicant allows us to ponder scientific/metaphysical questions like:

  • Are humans mere machines of flesh and blood that also happen to empathize based on an accumulation of memories? Or are they something more?

  • If you could theoretically implant memories in a machine that allow it to empathize, and to comprehend the wonders in the universe and wish for more life due to the accumulation of experience, when would it cease being a machine and become a “human”?

  • Is Sean Young the hottest robot ever? (Yes)
I agree with the writer that the machines are ironically more “alive” than most of the humans in the film. But I don’t think that Deckard also being a replicant robs the film of its power. It merely illuminates the fact that we really don’t know what makes humans special, even today with all our accumulated knowledge as a species. Do we have a divine spark, or are we merely a more complex form of organic life? A future where machines are theoretically indistinguishable from humans is a scary thought, forcing us to rethink what—if anything—makes us special snowflakes in a sprawling, near infinite universe.

To be fair, if Deckard is just a human, the film still allows us to examine these questions through the example of the other replicants. But by not revealing any clues that Deckard is a replicant, Blade Runner sets up our expectations is that he is just a world-weary cop. This allows us to emphathize strongly with Deckard until the final reveal—and the revelation that he just might be a replicant, too. With that comes the realization that we’ve perhaps been empathizing all along with a machine. And that’s pretty amazing in itself.

Speaking of the final reveal, who isn’t blown away when Gaff places the origami unicorn on the landing, and Harrison Ford grimly nods his head, realizing that his dreams and “memories” are likely not his? That’s awesome storytelling in my book. Not a plot stretched too far.

In short, the possibility of Deckard as replicant defies our expectations and makes for a better movie--and a better story too.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

“Worms of the Earth”: Bending the rules of swords and sorcery

“Worms of the earth, back into your holes and burrows! Ye foul the air and leave on the clean earth the slime of the serpents ye have become! Gonar was right—there are shapes too foul to use even against Rome!”

–Robert E. Howard, “Worms of the Earth”

Robert E. Howard has received his fair share of criticism over the years, including the accusation that he wrote shallow, muscle-bound characters that cut their way out of every situation. Violence by strong, self-sufficient swordsmen is the end game for solving all problems in REH’s stories, his detractors argue, not wits or guile or diplomacy. For example, in his audio book survey of fantasy literature Rings, Swords, and Monsters, author Michael Drout declares Conan an uninteresting character who simply “smashes everything in his path.” L. Sprague De Camp, who penned the introductions to the famous (infamous?) Lancer Conan reprints of the 1960s and 70s, wrote that Howard’s heroes are “men of mighty thews, hot passions, and indomitable will, who easily dominate the stories through which they stride.” Howard wrote escape fiction, De Camp continued, wherein “all men are strong…” and “all problems simple.”

These generalizations lead casual readers to conclude that Howard considered violence to be the answer to all of life’s problems. They reduce Howard’s stories to brutish pulp escapism and denude them of subtlety or complexity. Sword and sorcery and its fans are painted with the same broad, clumsy brush by association. “Sword and sorcery novels and stories are tales of power for the powerless,” wrote Stephen King in his overview of horror and fantasy Danse Macabre (1981). “The fellow who is afraid of being rousted by those young punks who hang around his bus stop can go home at night and imagine himself wielding a sword, his pot belly miraculously gone.”

These criticisms aren’t entirely groundless. It’s rather easy to find examples of Howardian heroes hacking their way through a problem. Kull of Valusia butchering a horde of Serpent Men in an orgiastic, cathartic red fury in “The Shadow Kingdom” springs immediately to mind, for instance. Howard was in many ways bound by the conventions of the pulps in which he made his living as a writer. But there are an equal number of examples of Conan using his wits to extricate himself from situations when brute force won’t suffice, his reaver’s instinct restrained by sovereign responsibility. And of course, Howard penned many more characters than his famous Cimmerian.

Howard’s 1932 story “Worms of the Earth” features the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn on an ill-advised mission to enlist supernatural aid to defeat an invading force of Romans. In it Howard substitutes complexity and compromise for crashing swordplay and victory in arms. While “Worms” is a tale of vengeance, it’s of a rather hollow, unfulfilling sort.

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website .

Monday, November 1, 2010

Iron Maiden's The Final Frontier: Mediocre metal

Regular visitors to The Silver Key know the high esteem in which I hold Iron Maiden. They are, as I’ve said before and never hesitate to repeat, the greatest heavy metal band of all time. Yeah, even better than Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, man. If you don’t think so, I will fight you.

Which is why it pains me to have to admit to this next bit: Maiden’s latest album, The Final Frontier, isn’t that great. If I had to give it a letter grade it’d be a B-, maybe even a C+. That makes it, in my book, Maiden’s worst album since Fear of the Dark (I don’t count the two Blaze Bayley albums, which, a few good songs mixed in, seem to me written by another band entirely).

You can’t imagine how hard it was for me to write the above paragraph. Criticizing Iron Maiden is not fun. The closest analogy I can make is if J.R.R. Tolkien, were he still alive today, decided to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo came back from Valinor to go on some other, semi-bland quest to destroy a lesser artifact, in which the fate of Middle-Earth did not hang in the balance.

The Final Frontier is of course technically proficient (this is Maiden, after all). It’s not actively bad. It doesn’t contain any outright stinkers like “Weekend Warrior.” There’s just not much there to recommend it.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not one of those guys with a mullet and denim jacket still living in 1985 who thinks that Iron Maiden’s last good album was Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (or perhaps 1984’s Powerslave--there are some internet whackjobs who do hold this opinion, clutching onto it possessively like their vinyl, shrinkwrapped collector copies of Live After Death). I was a fan back in the 80’s and I’m just as big a fan now. Maiden in my opinion did some of their best work during the last decade. Brave New World (2000) was a remarkable return to form for Dickinson and the boys after seven years of separation (Dickinson left the band to pursue a solo career in 1993). Dance of Death (2003) was in my opinion even better. “Paschendale” is brilliant, and “Monts├ęgur” and the title track are incredible, too.

Maiden followed up those two releases with 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death, which many fans call their best record since Seventh Son. I got to see them play the whole album live a couple years back and was blown away by war-themed songs like “These Colours Don’t Run,” “For the Greater Good of God,” and “The Longest Day.” All amazing stuff.

But so far I’ve been rather unimpressed with The Final Frontier. It’s not actively bad, and listening to it in my car hasn’t been painful. It’s just—there, like some good background music. It’s lacking any strong, memorable hooks. There’s no killer riffs, no edge.

Maiden has always kicked off its albums with a throat-grabbing, fast-driving hit. Even 1990’s rather poor No Prayer for the Dying led off with the kick-ass “Tailgunner.” “Satellite 15…The Final Frontier” is four and half minutes of bland instrumentation and sound effects, followed by the four minute “The Final Frontier,” which is … merely workmanlike. If “El Dorado” is supposed to be the big single from the album, and I suspect it is, it’s only okay, too. “El Dorado” also isn’t helped by the fact that Bruce’s voice sounds a little strained.

I do like a few songs on The Final Frontier. “Isle of Avalon” is a nice long song, moody, with some great lyrics, and it holds a high standard throughout. But it just doesn’t deliver the shattering chorus I was hoping for. “The Man Who Would Be King” has an epic two minute buildup to … more mediocrity. I feel the same about “When the Wild Wind Blows.” With its apocalyptic lyrics and a terrific bass line by Steve Harris, it has the potential for serious epic—but falls just short. These are great songs to listen to as background music but not to bang my head or weep over, as I have done for “Paschendale” and “These Colours Don’t Run.” Something just seems missing.

The thoughtful, personal lyrics of “Coming Home” make it a decent enough song (it seems like it would make a nice fit on one of Dickinson’s underrated solo albums). “The Alchemist” is a fine, hard-driving little song. But a couple of other tracks are rather painful. I find the chorus of “Mother of Mercy” so repetitive as to be unbearable. “Starblind” and “The Talisman” are just there, and encapsulate a lot of the problems I have with this album. Some good material stretched out too far.

I do want to conclude with a whimpering, suck-up statement and say that I haven’t given up on The Final Frontier yet. I’m still holding out hope that it will be a deep and slow grower, an album that takes multiple listens to get into (I’ve been tied up with some audio books and Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time and haven’t given The Final Frontier as many listens as it deserves). But so far, I haven’t been blown away, and I’m sad to report that Maiden seems to be merely mortal on this one. But that’s okay—no one, not even the great Iron Maiden, can bat 1.000.