Friday, April 29, 2022

My top 5 Frank Frazetta paintings

Frank Frazetta is to the art of sword-and-sorcery what Robert E. Howard is to its soul. He’s the visual OG. Not the first S&S artist, but the one who captured its essence better than anyone before or since, likely ever. Pair him up with REH and it’s no wonder we had the Lancer Conan Saga boom of the 1960s.

I have a framed print of The Apparition (1969), cover art for the John Jakes novel Brak the Barbarian Versus the Sorceress, hanging up in my man-cave. I found it in an old comics store back in the 80s. It’s a bit faded but has lost none of its power. It’s a great painting but not one of my all-time favorite Frazettas, an indication of just how much awesome work he did over the course of his more than 60-year professional career.

Inspired by a recent interview with Schuyler Hernstrom in which the author of The Eye of Sounnu was sitting in front of one my favorite Frazetta paintings, I figured it was time for a top 5 list. Here they are, in no particular order.

Against the Gods (1967)

Against the Gods was the cover image for the Lin Carter paperback Thongor Against the Gods. What makes this one stand out is its stunning composition, the feeling you get of up—above the flight of an eagle, above the highest peak, this promethean figure, arms upraised, catching lightning from the heavens. It’s a moving depiction of achievement, man at his utmost heights channeling the elemental forces of nature.

The Barbarian (1966)

Again, the composition—that triangle of corpses, the curvaceous female grasping a thigh, culminating in Conan himself at the top of the pyramid, rugged arm and hand downthrust on the pommel of a gory sword. It’s the barbarian, triumphant, and the iconic depiction of Howard’s most famous creation. I also love the stylized background imagery, the skulls and lonely castle, which add an air of pulpy weirdness to the iconic tableaux.

Chained (1967)

This image from Conan the Usurper inspired me as a kid to get in the weight room. I love the rippling, deep muscles of Conan’s back, striving against chains. Bridled but soon to be unbridled power, as you know he’s going to burst his bonds before that snake can strike. By the way that huge snake, between his legs, make of it what you will. The lighting in this one is particularly effective, illuminating some touches in a creepy dungeon and the skeletal remains of previous victims.

Conan Man-Ape (1967)

This one to me has always felt like a camera capture of figures in motion, the swirl of combat of Rogues in the House. Add in the startling color contrasts—a dark background set against the brilliant red of Thak’s cape, Conan’s white eyes and teeth set and flashing, as that wicked poniard is poised to strike—it all adds up to stunning. A primal image of conflict, man vs. (man-like) beast.

Death Dealer II (1987)

I know the original mounted Death Dealer is the more iconic image, used by Molly Hatchet as the cover of their self-titled debut album, but I prefer Death Dealer II. The upraised axe, Gath of Baal’s downturned menacing red eyes, ready to deal an irresistible blow. That horned helmet is so cool. The pillar of smoke, and the wonderful lighting illuminating the tangled ghoulish creatures below, make this one scream sword-and-sorcery.

A couple honorable mentions: 1972’s Silver Warrior (come on, a chariot pulled by polar bears?) and Kane on the Golden Sea (1978), my favorite image of KEW’s iconic character, although Bloodstone is close.

What are yours?

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

On suspect art, sword-and-sorcery, and good storytelling

Confession: I really like the old forms of S&S. I love my old purple-edged Lancers, and Heavy Metal (the movie, and bands like Manowar). I enjoy titillation and violence, with a cold beer for company. I like muscular dudes and attractive lasses in my artwork (not exclusively, but I do love the style championed by Frank Frazetta). I even love old S&S movies for their awfulness, in a mocking MST3K way. I enjoyed Deathstalker 2. 

I was born in 1973 which means my childhood and teenage years were spent in the 70s and 80s. I readily admit that I wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to art and pop detritus of that era. In general I try to focus on being positive and grateful for this life and everything in it, even suspect art. I like loud, and dumb things. Good things too, including Art (with a capital A), Shakespeare and Milton and Ernest Hemingway. But, I also like 80s hair metal, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entire film oeuvre up to about The Last Action Hero, and of course sword-and-sorcery. Make of this what you will. 

Moreover I am, for better and arguably for worse, pretty forgiving of old fiction for its warts. I cannot fault REH for his occasional bigotry and racism, given the age and place in which he grew up. Expecting an author to transcend their place and time is not realistic. Wagging your finger at people from a long ago past who were suffused in different belief systems and social norms often comes across as sanctimonious. We all have skeletons (I know I do). And, I happen to think the positive contributions Howard made far outweighs the negative. Very few authors of fantasy can match his natural storytelling instincts, pace, poetic flourishes, and wild romance. I can count them on one hand, minus a couple fingers.

So, I will not reject Howard, or Leiber, or old S&S. As in, ever. I won’t rug-sweep S&S’ faults and will gladly talk about them. I love the academic work on these issues being done by the likes of Bobby Derie. These issues should be spoken about at conferences, written about, and generally acknowledged. But, I think these authors should still be read, and celebrated, and championed, at the end of the day. They have endured for a reason.

Social issues are important for most, and critical, maybe everything, for some. I respect that. There is a place for these battles to be fought. But when these are fought on every front, including sword-and-sorcery, I find it tiresome. Your mileage may vary.

I’m a fatigued Facebook ex-pat who turns to this type of fiction, and other pursuits (music, exercise, my kids’ sporting events) to get away from the constant, non-stop fighting, the civil war, that is social media.  

Whether or not you can truly put politics aside and write apolitical fiction is another debate for another day, but I do think it can be de-emphasized, and the focus placed where it should be—on story.

When it comes to sword-and-sorcery, good storytelling is really all that matters at the end of the day. Not a precisely worded definition of S&S, or following established rules of the game. Good stories will prevail over marketing. Unimaginative, derivative, or bland, safe writing will doom the genre, just as it did with S&S in the 70s and 80s. You need to have an edge on S&S, lest it become milquetoast and fail to scratch the heroic itch, and urge, in us.

In summary.

Write good stories. 

Take your influences, and create something new. Write for you. As an individual.

Make it impossible for readers not to be moved by your stories, and to talk about them.

Write good stories. The rest will take care of itself.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Defending 80s KISS

Big hair, and hair shirts.
According to some "fans" (I won’t name names—yet), KISS was only good in the 70s, and once the makeup came off they were irrelevant. The same types think that KISS is entirely a gimmick, a circus act that, minus the costumes and fireworks, would be forgotten to history.

Needless to say I don’t agree with this argument, and push back hard on it. I would never compare KISS to Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, nor even the better metal acts (Maiden, Priest). But nor would KISS, frankly. They’re a party rock band who happened to do that type of music as well or better than anyone. They know this, we know this, we’re all in on it together. And having fun.

I started listening to KISS somewhere around the dawning of my interest in rock music, 1987 or so, circa my freshman year in high school. The first KISS album I ever owned was Crazy Nights. By then, KISS had long been out of makeup, shorn away two members of the original band (and a few others like Mark St. John and Vinny Vincent had also come and gone). In place of fan favorites Peter Criss and Ace Frehley were Eric Carr and Bruce Kulick. 

I knew KISS from the likes of Beth and Rock and Roll All Nite, but it wasn’t until 1987 and Crazy Nights that I became a true fan. So, I categorically reject the argument that KISS is a gimmick who roped in kids with the makeup. I’m sure that occurred in some instances, but come on, be serious—how long can that infatuation and shock stage possibly last? A year, three, 10? Surely not 50 years. A wave of trash bands with more shock and awe came along in KISS’ wake, and today no one remembers them. Underneath it all, KISS wrote a lot of good, straightforward rock-and-roll that kept the fans coming back. Simple stuff, yes. But if writing commercial rock hits were easy everyone would be doing it. 

KISS was of course awesome in the 70s, taking a rocket ride straight to the top with the likes of KISS Alive. They were on lunchboxes, comic books, even starred in a terrible made for TV film (KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park). And, underneath the limousines and seven-inch leather heels, they wrote some of their best material in the 70s. Hard rock hits like Parasite, Strutter, Deuce, and Detroit Rock City, were great then and still are. Everyone loved KISS in the 70s—how could you not?

I do too. But, I’ve always had a soft spot for 80s KISS. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of my Crazy Nights tape, which I still have by the way. Maybe it’s one too many beers in the 90s, or in general a suspect taste in music. 

Possibly, but I don’t think so.

I actually think KISS peaked musically in the mid-80s. Eric Carr was without question a better drummer than Peter Criss. Ace Frehley is an underrated talent who wrote some iconic solos and hooks, but Kulick can play, and at this point was far more disciplined in his craft than the dissolute Frehley. KISS was also facing much stiffer competition from younger, more energetic bands like Van Halen, and had to step up their game. To its credit KISS delivered with some awesome music in the 80s.

I’m going to leave one example, right here.

I love this song. Paul sounds phenomenal. In the 80s he grew fully into this voice. This was his  best decade vocally. The guitar tone is perfect. The deep backing chorus is magnificent. The lyrics are what I want—empowerment, girl you messed up when you left me ‘cuz I’m the best, stuff I wanted to hear then, and still has a place now. It’s got power and punch. It’s better than just about anything you’ll hear on the radio these days but that’s not saying much, either.

I could go on and on with further examples. A few others: Creatures of the Night, War Machine, Lick it Up, Fits Like A Glove. KISS had it going on.

KISS was undoubtedly less popular in the 80s, ceding space in the limelight to the likes of Def Leppard. By the turn of the decade they already seemed a little old, perhaps a little out of touch. And they hurt themselves with a pair of turkeys out of the gate (I like a couple songs off 1980’s Unmasked and the ill-fated The Elder (1981), but no fan would call these largely lousy efforts their finest hour). But, for those who kept listening, after some initial stumbles they soon started putting out some really good material. It started with Creatures of the Night (1982), which holds up as an outstanding example of 80s hard rock/nosing up to heavy metal. I think it’s one of their best albums, ever. KISS continued to crush it on Lick It Up (1983), which got big props from the likes of Kerrang. Animalize (1984) was a step back, but who doesn’t love “Heaven’s on Fire” and the terribly underrated “Thrills in the Night,” one of my favorite all-time KISS tracks? Asylum (1985) had “Tears are Falling” and “Who Wants to be Lonely.” (“Uh! All Night,” a song about as subtle as a Penthouse centerfold, is embarrassing, but not really). Then of course came 1987s Crazy Nights, with its rousing anthemic title track, “Reason to Live” and my favorite, “Turn on the Night.” Which still makes it into my regular rotation when I want to hear KISS. 

KISS closed out the decade with Hot in the Shade (1989), which I don’t think holds up as well as the previous albums I’ve listed, a bit of whimper to be honest, but since I danced with my wife to “Forever” at our wedding, because of “Hide Your Heart” and “Rise to It,” AND because it was the first tour on which I saw KISS, it still holds a soft spot in my hard heart.

So there you go. 80s KISS. You probably won’t find too many riding out to the defense of the band in the decade of excess. I can’t defend the most garish of Paul’s outfits (green sleeve gloves and tight white jeans?), his trapeze acts, or Gene’s hair. But their music? Yeah, I’ll defend that.

Friday, April 22, 2022

First Blood, David Morrell

Don't push it, or I'll give you a war you can't believe.
Growing up in the 80s, surrounded by larger-than-life action heroes, one of my favorite films was First Blood. The first in what would become the “Rambo series” was my favorite, darker and more serious than its sequels. First Blood and John Rambo became a minor obsession among my friends, one of whom got hold of a “special forces” knife with the wicked serrated back edge and a hollowed-out handle where he stored a needle and thread—just in case we needed battlefield stitches. You never know.

As most know First Blood tells the story of a special forces soldier, John Rambo (played wonderfully by Sylvester Stallone), coping with post-traumatic stress syndrome from a brutal stint in Vietnam in which he was captured and tortured. Now stateside and adrift, a post-war vagrant, he just wants to be left alone, but quickly runs afoul of an overzealous small-town chief of police (Brian Dennehy), who ushers him unceremoniously out of town.

Pushed too far and humiliated, Rambo refuses to acquiesce, and turns back. That sets in motion the events of the rest of the film—a rousing jailbreak, a cat-and-mouse game in the mountains of Washington State with Rambo using his survival skills honed as a Green Beret to maim (but not kill) his pursuers. 

I loved the film, and still do. But all this time I had never read the book upon which it is based—David Morrell’s First Blood. Published in 1972, it was out a full 10 years before the film adaptation, which spent the better part of a decade in “production hell” before finally making it to the silver screen.

I recently got a hold of a copy of Morrell’s novel and rectified that, burning through a read in all of 2 nights. I enjoyed the heck out of it and was surprised by the differences from book to film. Chiefly, that Rambo turns on a blood spigot and kills at least 20 of his pursuers, maybe more. Holy hell there is a lot of killing, including a pack of dogs hard on his scent. There is also more characterization. Teasle, the police chief, is portrayed far more sympathetically and three-dimensionally in the book than the film. Morell places a heavy emphasis on his service in the Korean War, a sad separation from his wife, and his obsession and eventual identification with Rambo. I won’t spoil the ending but that is also quite different, and much grimmer, than we see in the film.

 Otherwise the movie follows most of the major beats of the book.

I have this edition... 
but not the knife.
Make no mistake, like the film the book is mainly pure action, unrelenting page-turning glory. There is a deeper and more serious undercurrent, commentary on the invisible scars soldiers often bear (made doubly hard on the veterans of the war in Vietnam, an unpopular and unfavorable conflict that most of the U.S. populace either wanted to sweep under the rug and forget, in some cases treating its returning Veterans with disdain). But principally it grabs you from the opening page with a compelling pace and refuses to let up with its action.

As a sword-and-sorcery fan headlong action and violence is part of what I enjoy in my reading. And First Blood scratches the same itch. In fact, outside of being set in modern times, there are several S&S parallels—an outsider protagonist, suffused with gray, wandering from place-to-place. Low stakes/survival plot. We even get a “dungeon crawl,” a hair-raising sequence in a cave where Rambo encounters filth and bats, rats, the skeleton of an unlucky miner. And a final showdown with Teasle and his men. The equally shared POV between Rambo and Teasle is not something we typically see in S&S but it could work.

Near the end of the book Colonel Trautmann, architect of Rambo’s Green Beret training (played in the film by Richard Crenna), offers up an interesting commentary on why the modern age is anathema to sword-and-sorcery heroes. With the manhunt in full swing, Trautmann—who is both helping Teasle capture Rambo, while also admiring his pupil’s incredible survival skills—laments the coming “machine” that will spell the end of heroism:

“In a few years a search like this won’t even be necessary. We have instruments now that can be mounted on the underside of an airplane. To find a man all you need to do is fly over the spot where you think he is, and the machine will register his body heat… a man on the run won’t have a hope. And a man like me, he won’t be needed. This is the last of something. It’s too bad. As much as I hate war, I fear the day when machines take the place of men. At least now a man can still get along on his talents.”

Morrell, now 78, has lived an interesting life. A former university professor, he gave up his tenure to pursue a career as writer. First Blood earned him a handsome payout from the movie rights and he went on to write novelizations of the ensuing films. He also wrote horror (winning an award from the Horror Writers Association), non-fiction, and for the comics (Captain America, Spider-Man, Wolverine). A pretty cool mid-list author success story, increasingly rare these days.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Some scenes from Uncle Eddie's

Update: Maiden New England and The Hellion were excellent. Both had female lead singers who could belt it out, and great musicians backing them up. Much fun was had. A few scenes from the evening. 

We did not plan matching outfits...

The dumpy charm of Uncle Eddie's...

Ready to rock.

Bit of "Wasted Years."

Friday, April 15, 2022

British steel on the docket tomorrow night

Tomorrow night I'll be seeing two tributes to a pair of British heavy metal legends.

Uncle Eddie's Oceanside Tavern is probably not a place you want to bring a first date. Or a female in general. Unless she is OK with spilled beer, loud music, and the occasional bar fight that spills into the streets of Salisbury MA.

Or happens to like British steel. 

I can't wait for this. Maiden and Priest are my two favorite heavy metal bands of all time. And typically these tribute acts go deep on the cuts, deeper than the original bands themselves who have to appease mass audiences, fake fans who only know and demand to hear a handful of hits.

I'm hoping for "Steeler," "Rapid Fire," "Dreamer Deceiver," or "Starbreaker" out of The Hellion. Maybe Maiden New England will dip into the likes of "Prowler," "Burning Ambition" or "Judas Be My Guide." 

Who knows. Regardless, it will be fun, I'm sure. I need a metal fix and I'm about to get it, double-barreled.

Robert E. Howard Changed My Life

A window into the soul.

I'm glad I’m not the only one. 

I knew I wasn’t, of course, but it was nice hearing the voices of so many other passionate souls for whom the Texas writer made an impact, either on their reading habits, their journeys as writers, or in some cases, a decision to press on in dire personal circumstances.

Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (Rogue Blades Foundation, 2021) collects 33 essays, with additional foreword/afterword/and a fun “Appendix REH” for further reading. It has been nominated for The Atlantean (best book about the life and works of Robert E. Howard) by the Robert E. Howard Foundation and is deserving of the honor. I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable.

An essay by Charles Saunders is particularly poignant as it is likely the last published piece he ever wrote, prior to his death in early 2020. Several other “name” writers have contributed pieces, including the likes of Michael Moorcock, Joe Lansdale, Keith Taylor, Steven Erikson, Howard Andrew Jones, and Mark Finn. Some heavy hitters here.

Many of the essays were excellent, but I think the most powerful may have been Scott Oden’s (author of Men of Bronze and Twilight of the Gods). Certainly it was the most personal, along with Bill Cavalier’s, from whose 2018 Howard Days address the project was launched. Oden lays out his early failures as a writer, his bouts with self-doubt, heavy personal blows including an eviction and a divorce, and finally, after decades of struggle, breaking through with the publication of Men of Bronze. Only to have his career halted as he became caretaker with a father with dementia and a mother with Parkinson’s disease. His insights on Caregiver Stress Syndrome offer a glimpse into Howard’s well-documented struggles caring for a terminally ill mother. Years later Oden’s imagination and pen were rekindled after drawing inspiration from the Howard hero Turlogh Dubh, in the story “The Grey God Passes.”

Robert E. Howard certainly changed my life as well. I’ve documented my discovery of Howard here on the blog and in the introduction to Flame and Crimson. I discovered Howard in the pages of The Savage Sword of Conan in the early 80s and that cemented my love of this weirder, wilder, more muscular brand of fantasy fiction that I would later come to know as sword-and-sorcery. That led me to branch out to other like writers such as Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Poul Anderson, write more about the subgenre here and in places like The Cimmerian, and finally decided to offer a full treatment in my book. Howard was a blessed refuge for me, who endured the usual maladies of a suburban kid (alienation, self-doubt, rejection, etc.)

It's a marvel, isn’t it? How did a pulp writer from rural Texas working largely in the pages of a defunct pulp magazine nearly a century ago alter the future courses of so many? The answer is the power of stirring writing, and the force of imagination of a writer who, as Patrice Louinet notes in his essay, is a true American original, “the definer of American fantasy.” I have not heard Howard’s case quite made like that, but, if you consider J.R.R. Tolkien the architect of British fantasy, Howard arguably deserves that moniker on this side of the Atlantic.

So too does Edgar Rice Burroughs. It struck me how many of the essay authors came to Burroughs first, pre-Howard, during the Burroughs Boom of the early 60s, before discovering REH in the purple-edged pages of the Lancer paperbacks. One essayist after the next—Cavalier, Jason Durall, Lansdale, Adrian Cole, on and on—all thrilled to the adventures of Burroughs first, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, before finding REH. I think we need a companion volume on ERB.

In short, this one is worth picking up.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Gordon Lightfoot recap

So the Judas Priest concert was cancelled after 70-year-old Rob Halford came down with a bad cold, but 83-year-old Gordon Lightfoot powered through on Sunday with a memorable concert at the Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, NH.

Yeah, my musical heroes are aging--check that, are aged. Or, more charitably, well-seasoned. Gordon as you'd expect has changed quite a bit vocally, losing his resonance and richness, and doesn't move too fast on stage anymore. Not sure if he ever did. 

But, none of that mattered. With a good band behind him, a great venue, and my old man and brother by my side, it made for a memorable evening. It was quite cool to see this old legend still performing, after all these years.

Gordon played 90 minutes and we were out of there by 8:30--old men all around, early to bed :). But he got through (almost) every one of the classics I was hoping he would. "Sundown," "Early Morning Rain," 
"If You Could Read My Mind," "For Loving Me," "Carefree Highway," "Song for a Winter's Night," and of course the highlight and everyone's favorite, "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." The latter was the highlight, and maybe it was my imagination but Gordon seemed to channel some deep wellspring of strength for this one. It was powerful and sounded pretty darned good.

In an era where everything can be immediately captured on video and shared instantly with the world, it's interesting that this song, which became a no. 1 hit in Nov. 1976, almost a year to the day after the maritime disaster itself, outlives the ephemera, and the crisis of the day that really isn't. That's the power of art over instant gratification. We remember the doomed ship when we hear those sad opening bars, even now.

If anyone reading this is a resident of MA/NH or the broader New England region, the Tupelo is a good take. New, clean, small so the views are all great. Excellent bar with a good beer selection (I drank a couple local brews, a nice Battle-Axe IPA brewed by Kelsen). Reportedly good food too, if you want it. They open 90 minutes before showtime so you can get in and enjoy yourself, and have some cool art on the walls, acoustic guitars signed by a few of the greats, etc. 

Nice bar.

(L-R) my brother, old man, and me. The place did fill in to capacity.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Taking a (permanent?) Facebook break

If asked a few weeks or months ago I would probably not describe myself as a heavy social media user. I had Facebook, but not Instagram or TikTok. I have a Twitter account, but one I rarely use save for business-related tweets. But, I had Facebook, and that was enough. It had become my "home page." I followed news organizations by following them on Facebook. Sports, music, etc., were all fed through Facebook.

I got up in the AM and checked it first. Before bed, it was usually my last stop. In between, I would catch myself scrolling...and scrolling... Hours went by, daily, in small-ish chunks. I was not paying attention to the real world. I was perpetually distracted. 

Worse, I was perpetually irritated, occasionally angry. Because I was seeing a darker side of humanity, and occasionally contributing to the same base instincts.

When you join a Facebook group to follow your town news, who speaks the loudest? The crank with an axe to grind.

When you follow the page of your favorite band, whose comments rocket to the top? The troll, who shit-posts, and gets reactions.

Then, sometimes you respond. And get dragged down into the same mire. And for what reason?

I knew this un-virtuous, illiberal circle was not good for me, but I hung on, for months and even years. I was getting SOME value out of Facebook. I followed my favorite breweries on the platform, and saw their latest releases. I got value out of some old sword-and-sorcery groups, paperback collectors groups. The occasional post from a friend or acquaintance that was genuine, and made me smile. The local news, that fed me stories about a bridge being out so that I could plan a new route. 

And so I kept using the platform.

Unfortunately the noise was drowning out the signal. I saw fewer and fewer friends posting. The ones that were, were often complaining, looking for sympathy I could not deliver over a digital platform, or just posting memes and other nonsense. Arguably harmless, but also a very poor use of my time.

On Saturday I deleted my Facebook account outright, no warning, no good-byes. Did not want to chase one last bit of dopamine in some grand declaration to the world. So I just quit.

So far, I remain off. In a pavlovian reaction that speaks volumes I still go to the page regularly, without thinking, where I'm confronted with a login to an account that no longer exists.

I could undo this--Facebook gives you ample time, and warnings, and pleas to return. But, I'm not planning to. At the minimum, it's going to be a long break that I need.

It's going to be much harder for me to aggregate and follow news, particularly hyper-local stuff. But I"m going to give it a shot. My sanity is worth it.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Judas Priest! ... and Gordon Lightfoot?

This Monday, April 4, I get to see the gods of metal, Judas Priest, play at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell.

Then six days later on Sunday, April 10, I go to see ... Gordon Lightfoot.

It may seem like an odd combo, a pairing that seems to attract radically different fanbases. Except that both are badasses in their own respective spheres of music, each with an unconquered spirit that can be described as metal (using that term as an adjective). So, I'm equally pumped for both.

This post was meant for Metal Friday by the way but yesterday got away from me so I'm shoehorning it into that category. 

I was supposed to see Priest back on Oct. 31, 2021--Halloween night which would have added even more of a metal atmosphere to the show. But guitarist Richie Faulkner decided that an on-stage acute aortic aneurysm was too metal to pass up (the guy kept playing right though it by the way, finishing up the guitar solo in Painkiller. Honestly there is nothing, nor could there be anything, more metal than that). Faulkner nearly died after the dreaded widowmaker and only the presence of a first rate heart and lung center four minutes away from the stadium saved his life. Parts of Faulkner's chest were “replaced with mechanical components.” He added: “I’m literally made of metal now.”

Cue "Electric Eye."

So, that resulted in an understandably lengthy  postponement for the Priest.

But here we are, on the eve of seeing a band that is either my favorite metal band of all time or second favorite to the great Iron Maiden, depending on what day of the week you ask me. I'm super pumped, of course.

Now on to Mr. Lightfoot.

It was my dad that introduced me to the Canadian singer-songwriter, decades ago, when he sat me down to listen to "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." I remember really liking the song, a haunting retelling of a boat that went down in Lake Superior in November 1975, taking all 29 of its crew with it to the bottom. Later I went on to discover the rest of his catalog, including hits like "Sundown," "Carefree Highway," "Song for a Winter's Night" and my personal favorite, "Early Morning Rain."

Now I get to see Lightfoot, age 83, with my dad, age 78. I'm glad both are still here. Lightfoot is still doing it even at that age, which is just remarkable. I'm sure he's lost a fair bit off the fastball but I don't really care. 

The show will be held in an intimate arena, the Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, NH, a venue that hosts acoustic artists and describes itself as a "friendly, relaxed, attractive, and intimate setting." The environment will likely be a lot more chill than Rob Halford storming the stage on a Harley Davidson in a hockey arena full of men in black t-shirts. 

But, equally cool.

Good times indeed.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Skallagrim: In the Vales of Pagarna

Grim, but not Grimdark
I have said I wanted to review more modern sword-and-sorcery written by contemporary authors, and so stepped up to that promise with Skallagrim: In the Vales of Pagarna. The author is Steve Babb, a name that you might recognize as one of the founders of the progressive rock band Glass Hammer. Steve is a sometime passer-through of my blog, someone I’ve mentioned here before. This is his debut fantasy novel, which published this month.

To cut to the chase:

Do read this if you are looking for something different, a book not easily categorized, that wears a handful of prominent influences on its sleeve. Some obvious ones are Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There are heavy echoes of both in here. I’m pretty sure I picked up on a few prog song references, too (Time Stands Still by Rush, Steve?).

Don’t read this if you are looking for traditional sword-and-sorcery. That this is book 1 should have already tipped things off. I would say it treads closer to mainstream fantasy, albeit with healthy doses of combat and weirdness that push it back toward S&S territory.

The book’s conceit is that the protagonist, a young rogue named Skallagrim, has lost his memory; he does not know who he is, and cannot remember his friends or his own history. He just knows the blue-eyed girl whom he loves has been abducted, and is due to be sacrificed on the altar of a sorcerer. This sets off a rescue mission through the Vales of Pagarna, a dangerous and weird valley. Skallagrim is also the beneficiary of a powerful but cursed sword with the portentous name of Terminus, a final point in time and space. It represents hope, with a bitter edge. Terminus is double-edged in every sense of the word.

The dialogue is pretty darned cracking. Babb has an ear for it, and that makes the book flow well, very easy to read. The quest is compelling and the encounters with the likes of flesh-eating ghouls memorable and fun.

I did have some minor issues with the novel. I’m an S&S guy through and through and prefer books where lots of things happen at a rapid clip. This book tends to take its time, although there is plenty of action, combat, and weirdness. To be fair there is no leisurely build up: Babb drops the reader into a swirling melee on page one.

The other issue is that I’m not entirely sold on the romance, at least through book one. As noted Skallagrim has lost his memories, but that makes his obsession with this girl not immediately apparent. His primary motivation is her rescue, and what is purer? But that doesn’t mean the reader understands why he’s so desperate and driven. I was deeply intrigued by Skallagrim’s encounter with a powerful and long-lived but fun and lusty water nymph, a memorable character who I hope returns for book two. And I suspect we’ll learn more about Skallagrim’s persona and motivations in the sequel.

A few other items I’m still chewing on… near the end of the book an aging sorcerer delivers a powerful soliloquy on aging. Although Skallagrim is young, the author of this book is not, nor is this reader. There is much in here about lost youth, and lost loves, and regret, and seizing the opportunity while you still can. The sorcerer’s words struck home, at least for this reader.

More ruminations… Skallagrim suffers a grim, face-altering wound at the outset of the novel and Babb expends lot of ink on the character’s disfigurement. Skallagrim is afflicted with bouts of self-loathing, guilt, and unworthiness, even contemplations of suicide. Some heavy stuff I was not expecting, and deeper characterization than you typically get in S&S protagonists.

Overall this is a solid first effort by Babb. Skallagrim: In the Vales of Pagarna can be read and enjoyed alone, as it ends with a satisfying final battle. Book 2 will presumably continue with Skallagrim’s pursuit of his lost love.