Friday, April 27, 2012

Metal Friday: "NM156" by Queensryche

All this talk of the Singularity and out of control technology got me thinking of one of my favorite metal bands from back in the day: Queensryche.

"NM156" is from The Warning album and takes a decidedly darker view of our technological future than that theorized by Ray Kurzweil, predicting a world in which "Machines Have no Conscience." It's got all the hallmarks of Queensryche's best material, including thoughtful lyrics and wonderful guitar work by Chris DeGarmo and amazing vocals by Geoff Tate.

Have we come too far to turn around? Are we doomed by our own hands, destined to be enslaved by machines? I don't know... I just know that I want to turn up some Queensryche about now. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

33 years to immortality. Maybe.

In 2045 we will reach Event Horizon, aka the Singularity. In that year we will transcend biology and our bodies will meld with machines. “There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality,” predicts author Ray Kurzweil in his 2005 treatise The Singularity is Near.

Though it built computer intelligence, humanity will be surpassed by its creation. Powered by artificial intelligence, machines will design their next generation without human intervention, growing exponentially beyond all human potential. These machines will not only be smart, but indistinguishable from humans. Writes Kurzweil: “Within several decades information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the pattern-recognition powers, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself.”

Kurzweil’s predictions of the Singularity are optimistic: Rather than being reduced to ineffectual dinosaurs headed for slow extinction, or wiped out in some Terminator-like rise of the machines, we will merge with technology, and our bodies will no longer be subject to disease and weakness and age. “We can expect that the full realization of the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions will enable us to eliminate virtually all medical causes of death,” writes Kurzweil.

So 33 years until immortality. But what sort of a life will we lead in this Brave New World of man-machine perfection?

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

Friday, April 20, 2012

Metal Friday: "Falling off the Edge of the World" by Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath's wheelhouse years were roughly 1980-1981, when it released Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules back-to-back with Ronnie James Dio as vocalist. Not that Osbourne-fronted Sabbath wasn't great (they were), but for a short period with Dio they were sublime.

I've always identified very strongly with the apocalyptic/escapist lyrical subject matter of "Falling off the Edge of the World." Not so much about "closing the door" (I'm not that deep in despair; no worries), but rather the bit about "living well out of my time." I too should be at the table round, with Dio on my right and Launcelot on the left, ready to ride out in search of the Grail or rock the night with electric axe. Instead I'm a computer jockey at a desk all day. Oh well, one can dream.

On top of its wonderful thematic material, "Falling off the Edge of the World" features a great, deep, powerful riff by Tony Iommi, a great bassline, and of course Dio at the top of his game. A tough combo to beat. I'm also a sucker for the epic and that certainly describes "Falling off the Edge of the World" with its languid intro, morphing to a heavy drumbeat like the footsteps of an approaching doom, and finally switching to a high-gear eruption of sound at 2:07.

Turn it up, and enjoy.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Robert E. Howard “Red Nails” podcast Saturday

“Five dead dogs!” exclaimed Techotl, his flaming eyes reflecting a ghastly exultation. “Five slain! Five crimson nails for the black pillar! The gods of blood be thanked.”

--Robert E. Howard, "Red Nails"

This Saturday I'll be taking part in a podcast “readalong” of Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails,” hosted by Jesse Willis of It's called a readlong as it will feature an unabridged reading of the story, followed by commentary.

“Red Nails” is one of my favorite tales of Conan of Cimmeria. It was the last story Howard wrote about his most famous creation, completed just three months before he died and published posthumously as a serial in the pages of Weird Tales. For those unfamiliar with the story, here's a brief outline: Conan and the beautiful but deadly Valeria of the Red Brotherhood enter the ancient, forgotten city of Xuchotl (they are more or less chased inside by a rampaging dragon/dinosaur). While at first the city appears deserted, the pair soon discovers that the final stages of a centuries-old blood feud between two warring tribes (the Xotalancas and Tecuhlti) is playing out to its grim, apocalyptic end. Into this incendiary mix Howard tosses a crawling monster from the crypts, a mad sorcerer, and dark magic. The story culminates with a murderous orgy of violence in the labyrinthine halls of the city. Awesome.

While preparing for the podcast I re-read the story and also took the opportunity to bust out Conan Saga #9 (pictured), featuring a wonderful adaptation of the story by Roy Thomas and legendary artist Barry Windsor-Smith. I bought this issue in 1988 or so and am proud to have it in my collection.

I appreciate the invite and I’m very much looking forward to the podcast. Not only is it a rare chance to talk about one of my favorite authors, but one of the other guests is supposed to be REH celeb Al Harron of The Blog that Time Forgot, a fine writer, scholar, and gentleman whose byline once appeared alongside my own at the now defunct The Cimmerian website. It should be fun! The gods of blood be thanked, indeed...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review of Richard Morgan's The Cold Commands on Mythopoeic Society

I've written the piece many (some? none?) of you have been waiting for: a review of Richard Morgan's The Cold Commands, book two of his A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It appeared today over on the Mythopoeic Society website. Linkage here.

You might remember my previous critical posts about Morgan. I still utterly disagree with his statement that The Lord of the Rings is for children/a simple tale of good vs. evil (see Gollum, Denethor, Boromir, Frodo's "failure" and its implications, etc. for numerous examples to the contrary). I was surprised to have Morgan actually drop by and comment on the latter post, which was unexpected and in good form, I thought.

As I stated in my review I do give credit where credit is due: With The Cold Commands Morgan wrote a pretty good sequel to The Steel Remains. Not great, but an improvement, and a solid work of fiction that belongs firmly to the swords and sorcery tradition, even though it is the middle book of a planned trilogy and thus breaks the traditional S&S short form. I'll certainly read book three to see where this all ends up.

The Cold Commands is very much Grim and very Dark, so if that's not your cuppa tea stay away. But as I state in the review there are signs of something developing beyond the series' apparent philosophical core that everyone is equally shitty so life is equal to shit/we fight purely for mercenary, selfish reasons/etc. Though the jury is still out.

My review of The Steel Remains is here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Metal Friday: "Jerusalem" by Bruce Dickinson

Someone recently forwarded me a link to an article listing the top 10 heavy metal albums of the 1990s. They asked for my comment.

That list did not include The Chemical Wedding, so my comment was that the list was not valid. Here's why:

Turn it up loud!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Ode to the Berkley Medallion Conans all their tattered glory
Karl Edward Wagner was and remains the most qualified individual to weigh in on the issue of Conan stories penned by someone other than Robert E. Howard, given that he wrote arguably the best pastiche of them all (“The Road of Kings”). So it behooves us to listen to what he had to say in the foreward to the Berkley Medallion Edition of Conan: The Hour of the Dragon (August 1977):

“I have written Howard pastiches myself, so I can speak both as a reader and an author: Every author leaves his personal mark on whatever he writes; the only man who could write a Robert E. Howard story was Robert E. Howard. Read Howard pastiches as you will—but don’t let anyone kid you that you’re reading Robert E. Howard. It is far more than a matter of imitating adjective usage or analyzing comma-splices. It is a matter of spirit.”
While Howard fans these days are spoiled by the Del Reys, prior to 1977 you could not buy a collection of the Conan stories without editorial emendations or the presence of pastiches. Both the widely printed Lancer/Ace collections of the 1960s and 70s and the rarer Gnome Press editions from the 1950s were marred by editorial changes and additional non-Howard material. That all changed with the Berkley Medallion Editions, published by the arrangement of the late, great, Glenn Lord (1931-2011), and edited by legendary horror and swords and sorcery author Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994). These consist of three books in an aborted series that was supposed to run longer and include all 21 of Howard’s original stories. They include The Hour of the Dragon, The People of the Black Circle, and Red Nails. To prepare the Berkley Medallion Edition manuscript Wagner made photocopies directly from the pages of Weird Tales, correcting only obvious typographical errors.

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Some nice ink for a deserving writer

I came across this story at the New York Times and thought it worth sharing: Joe R. Lansdale is a Fresh Discovery, Decades in the Making.

It's so nice to see hardworking mid-listers who do their job and do it well eventually get their due. Lansdale in my opinion is one of the great storytellers of our generation. By that I mean he writes fun, captivating tales that are almost impossible to put down. Though often violent and visceral, his writing also contains that rare quality that only a few authors are able to pull off: Humor.

Lansdale has written many books since his debut novel in 1980 and also seems to crop up regularly in anthologies. I've recently read two of his short fiction pieces in the George R.R. Martin/Gardner Dozois anthology Warriors and the John Skipp-edited Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead. Both were among the standouts in these respective collections (if I see an anthology with Lansdale's name on it, I will buy it. I can't think of a handful of current writers for which I would say the same). He also wrote the foreward to Mark Finn's biography of Robert E. Howard, Blood and Thunder.

If you ever want to explore his writing, I personally recommend starting with Mucho Mojo or The Bottoms, which are probably my favorite two works of his.

I did not know until I read the New York Times piece that Lansdale was recently honored with a Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Horror Writers Association. It's certainly well-deserved. Lansdale speculates in the article about why he is enjoying a sudden run of recent popularity: “People who grew up on my books are now able to get the point across to others that they’re worth reading,” he said.

Here's one other person who feels the same way. I personally think HBO should scoop up the rights to his Hap and Leonard series. They would make for some great viewing.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Metal Friday: "Light Comes Out Of Black" by Rob Halford and Pantera

Today's edition of Metal Friday features "Light Comes Out of Black," sung by Rob Halford with music/backing vocals provided by Pantera.

Gotta credit my friend Falze for tipping me off to this lesser-known metal gem. I've never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor have I any real desire to do so, but had I known it contained this headbanging masterpiece I would have watched it long ago.

Halford recorded "Light Comes Out of Black" in his Fight/solo years, after leaving Judas Priest in 1992 and before rejoining the band in 2003. It's such a pleasant surprise because it sounds so different than anything we're used to hearing from Priest era Halford. I love the heavy, raw crunch of the guitar and bass, so unlike the heavily synthesized Glenn Tipton/K.K. Downing sound. When Phil Anselmo starts backing Halford's vocals around 4:00 in some sort of hellish harmony, and then the pace picks up around 4:22, man, it's a treat. As is the classic Halford scream at the end.

The beat just makes you want to pound a heavy bag, or something. Very visceral. Turn it up loud and enjoy your weekend.

Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson, a review

Themistocles, Alexander the Great, Cortes, and the British and American officers of the last two centuries enjoyed innate advantages that over the long duration could offset the terrible effects of imbecilic generalship, flawed tactics, strained supply lines, difficult terrain, and inferior numbers—or a simple “bad day.” These advantages were immediate and entirely cultural, and they were not the product of the genes, germs, or geography of a distant past.

--Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture

Carnage and Culture (2001) serves as a corrective in some ways to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Military success is not just about east-west vs. north-south axes and favorable climates for growing crops, Hanson argues, but about cultures that value individual initiative in conjunction with discipline, and whose armies and soldiers take to the battlefield because of personal choice or the decision of an elected official. As units comprised of free individuals Western armies are invested in conflicts differently than their eastern counterparts.

Hanson says that Western armies discuss and vote on strategy before battle, have the initiative and flexibility to make changes during the heat of the fighting, and audit the performance of their military and non-military leadership afterwards. This cultural mindset makes for a better individual soldier and a more cohesive unit, one that fights in close ranks (the Macedonian Phalanx, British squares, and so on) and prefers open, head-on combat of annihilation (“shock battle” is one of Hanson’s favorite terms). The historical result is a track record of victories over lesser-motivated, more inflexible, and lighter-armored foes, even when outnumbered, such as Alexanders's rout of the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela, for example. In nearly all the major engagements in which west triumphed over east, “the same paradigms of freedom, decisive shock battle, civic militarism, technology, capitalism, individualism, and civilian audit and open dissent loom large,” Hansen writes.

Technology has certainly played a role in the military supremacy of western forces, too. Because free inquiry and rationalism are Western trademarks, European armies have been traditionally been equipped with better arms and armor, Hanson adds. But technology alone cannot account for this long track record of victory: “Themistocles’ triremes at Salamis were no better than Xerxes’, and Admiral Nagumo’s carriers at Midway had better planes than the American’s did,” Hanson explains.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Les Miserables--wow

It's funny how you can reach a point in your life when you think you can no longer be surprised by art, that you've experienced the depth and breath of music, painting, or literature, and art begins to seem a series of minor disappointments, a recombination of existing works, or pale imitation.

While I never quite reached those depths, I flirted with the feeling. I'm glad to report that Les Miserables woke me up out of my doldrums and made me feel a fool.

This past Christmas I got my wife and I a pair of tickets to a March 31 showing at the Opera House in Boston. I had not listened to any of the music of Les Miserables previously and I scarcely knew the storyline, save for the barest outline. I had planned to listen to some of the songs beforehand but never got around to it, and by the time Saturday rolled around I thought, "screw it, too late. I'm sure it will be a good show anyway."

I was wrong. It was great. I was not prepared for the emotion of the show, the soaring voices, nor the frank depiction of religious material. Not knowing what to expect--a rare experience in this age of the internet and instant communication and gratification--and having my expectations greatly surpassed made it all the better.

"Stars" was when I knew this show was something special. It was not sung by this gentleman, Philip Quast, but the actor who played Javert at the Opera House on Saturday looked and sounded much like him.

All in all a memorable night out on the town. Les Miserables is art at its peak. I am so glad I got to see it.

I guess one can like heavy metal and show tunes. Go figure.