Friday, January 27, 2023

RUSH--Show Don't Tell (Live)

Today's Metal Friday is not really metal... but close enough, and IDGAF. It's Rush, and they get to call the shots.

This choice is drenched in nostalgia. I'm a big Rush fan, and my first concert experience with them was the Presto tour. I'm old enough to remember them looking and sounding like this. Still have the t-shirt too, although were I to put it on it would look like someone spray-painted it on my body.

How's this for old school--I bought Presto (the tape) from a Columbia House deal--buy 12 tapes for a penny, then cancel, and chuckle. Rinse and repeat until Columbia catches on. 

You know the deal. 

Still have the same tape, in fact. Still think Presto is an amazing album, an underappreciated gem from their catalog. So many good songs to choose from that album but I'm going with the opener here. I actually prefer Presto (the song) and The Pass, and possibly Superconductor, but this one is harder and at least brushes up to the edges of being metal.

Video is not cooperating so you can view it here on YouTube.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

The subjectivity of star ratings

What do you consider to be a five-star book (on a rating of 1-5 stars)? Or a one star book?

Is the former a book that you couldn’t put down? Or that covers its subject comprehensively and in impeccable detail? Or that is an acknowledged classic (but you didn’t necessarily enjoy)?

Is the latter a book that is badly written? Or maybe you could not finish? Or is it in a genre in which you have zero interest? Or, perhaps its even an acknowledged classic that you could not comprehend, and threw down in frustration.

It could be any one of these, which is why star ratings are so subjective as to be almost useless.

I used to rate books on a scale of 1-5 stars but eventually stopped the practice because I didn’t have a firm set of criteria that measured quality. For example, I once thought only a handful of the very best all-time books (The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down) etc. could earn a 5-star rating, which meant that other awesome books or stories could only earn a lesser rating. In short, I was grading on a curve. But this doesn’t really work; how can you possibly compare The Rise of the Fall of the Third Reich (a 5-star history if there ever was one) to The Lord of the Rings. If I found the latter more enjoyable to read, can the former only ever a achieve a 4 or 4.5 rating? Kind of nonsense.

So, I abandoned star ratings.

And yet, for some unexplainable reason I brought back a star rating for my recent review of Blood of the Serpent. But as I evaluate my 3.5 stars for that book, I realized my rating was not based on any objective measure of quality, but purely on whether the book met my expectations for a prose relaunch of Conan. It didn’t quite, hence the 3.5. But you might find it did for you, and give it a 5 (or didn’t at all, and rate it a 2).

If you look at Amazon or Goodreads reviews you will find that they do not correlate highly with quality, but what I do think they represent is the expectations the reader brings to the book.

For example, Moby Dick rates at a 4.4 while the Da Vinci Code is a 4.6. Does that make the latter better? Perhaps, but it probably means some bored high school students took out their frustration on the former (they wanted Jaws or The Meg, but their expectations were unmet). Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword rates a 4.2, below the sixth volume of 50 Shades of Gray (which rates a whopping 4.8/5). But most likely that’s because its readers got the S&M they wanted in 50 Shades of Gray, as opposed to readers who came to The Broken Sword expecting Brandon Sanderson length epic fantasy. And rated it lower. 

This is a roundabout way of saying that thoughtful individual reviews are superior than the aggregate of a thousand star ratings. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Blood of the Serpent: Is the New Conan Novel Really Conan?

This past weekend I finished the new Conan novel, S.M. Stirling's Blood of the Serpent. And wrote a brief review which you can find on the blog of DMR Books.

The TL;DR version should you not want to spare the click: 3.5/5 stars. I liked it, found it to be a well-written page turner, but not the terrific relaunch of authorized Conan prose fiction I wished it to be. I had high expectations, only partially met.

Have you read this? If so would be curious to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Top 5 Manowar Songs

Metal Friday is a day late this week but coming in hot, ready to smash your face in with the death tone of amplified guitars and massive hammers of war.

Most metal album cover ever?  Probably.

Manowar is everything I love about sword-and-sorcery and heavy metal, in one glorious Ken Kelly infused package. Badass. Ridiculous. In your face. Muscular. Offensive. Fun. So over the top you’re not sure if it’s all tongue-in-cheek… then realizing it’s not, and then going “holy shit, OK” and leaning into it. Embracing the fact that life need not be cynical, or subtle. That it’s OK to like loud and obnoxious and even dumb things. 

Yes Manowar has a few ridiculous songs … and I love those too.

Here are five guaranteed to raise my testosterone levels to the level of the occupants of a Viking longship circa 9th century AD, and get me ready to fight the world. Whilst eating beef and drinking ale.

Warriors of the World. The first comment on Youtube is I just played this song for my 4 week old son. He’s now 40 and a navy seal. Manowar has this effect, I've seen it. Probably their ultimate anthem.

Hail and Kill. By Divine Right, this one rips.

Fighting the World. I’ve been fighting the world every fucking day for nigh 50 years and will keep doing so… stripes on a tiger don’t wash away.

Master of the Wind. Manowar can do wistful ballads too … infused with mighty power. Manly tears. Might be played at my funeral.  

The Sons of Odin. Love the groove in this one, hits you in the face from the opening beat and never lets up. Sword and axe sound effects. Valhalla I am coming, open the door.  

Honorable mentions: "Mountains," "Carry On" 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

New Edge Magazine kickstarter--get in on it

The sword-and-sorcery renaissance/modest revival continues. There is a lot going on in S&S circles these days, and I admit I'm behind in keeping up with many of the developments. I'll be doing my best to correct that this year.

One of the new projects I AM up on is New Edge sword-and-sorcery magazine. New Edge launched issue #0 last September to test the waters for a periodical that both embraces old S&S and expands its boundaries, and now has launched a kickstarter to fund issues #1 and #2. 

Signing up to be notified has extra value, including a first day physical backer exclusive: a bookmark featuring original art by Sapro (see above, this dude has some game. Love this piece).

I had an essay in issue #0, "The Outsider in Sword-and-Sorcery." I still owe a full read and review of the complete contents of this issue, but was impressed with Cora Buhlert's essay "C.L. Moore and Jirel of Joiry: The First Lady of Sword & Sorcery."

The kickstarter launches Feb. 2 and will cover production costs of issues 1 and 2. As well as paying the artists and authors... of which I'm one! I'm going to have an essay in issue #1, and as I understand it there will be a couple of much bigger names than my own contributing fiction.

I can't tip hand any more than that. Some cool stuff going on here.

Sign up for the updates and decide for yourself if this is something you want to back. I hope it smashes its goals. We need more good S&S.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The big Excalibur post

Up on the blog of DMR Books is the big Excalibur post I've been meaning to write for years. 2K words about not just one of my favorite fantasy films of all time, but top 10 favorite films of any genre. It's also my attempt to analyze what director John Boorman's vision and objective was with this film, why the King Arthur myth endures, and what it can still teach us today. Why we need the old stories, and our inherited mythologies, which we abandon at our peril.

I think many viewers get hung up on Excalibur's sometimes stilted and declarative dialogue, the historical anachronisms, etc., and are too quick to dismiss what I believe is a masterpiece (YMMV). I've watched many subsequent King Arthur films that embrace more traditional filmmaking techniques, but none have managed to do what Excalibur did, which is render myth on screen for a modern audience.

Check it out here

Fellow DMR blogger Deuce Richardson has pointed me in the direction of a "making of" documentary on Excalibur, "Behind the Sword in the Stone," which I shall view next:

Finally, I'm glad Excalibur has resisted remakes some 42 years after its debut. I welcome new King Arthur films, but not a remake.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Bible Black, Heaven and Hell

The late Ronnie James Dio pulled off something of a miracle with the release of The Devil You Know in 2009. Dio was 66 years old, had only 13 months to live, but somehow and he and the aged members of Heaven and Hell (aka, Black Sabbath) put together one final terrific Sabbath album. Much better than 13 IMO.

I love this entire album, but my favorite song is "Bible Black." I dig the atmospheric spoken word intro .. but strap on your jockstrap for 1:30 when it kicks in with a dark, heavy, murky, stoner groove that is everything I love about the Black Sabbath sound. It is the Black Sabbath sound, because a lineup that includes Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Dio is Sabbath.

Crank this son of a bitch and enjoy your Friday.

Let me go
I've seen religion but the light has left me blind
Take me back
I must have the Bible Black

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Railing against AI art

I hate computer generated art* and worry very deeply about what a future dominated by artificial intelligence will look like. Both for artists, consumers, observers, fans, and anyone who cares about human creativity in general.

One of the regular YouTubers I enjoy watching is Rick Beato. Rick serves up long form, in depth interviews with artists whose work I admire (recently Sting, and Billy Corgan for example). He attracts great guests because he’s not a quack, or a conspiracy theorist. His large following (3.3M) appreciates his candor, personality, passion, and sharp insights into what makes certain songs, albums, or artists great. Moreover through his talent he replicates many of those sounds in the studio with a guitar or keyboard.

But in his most recent video he touches on something that has occupied my mind more and more these days. “How Auto-Tune Destroyed Popular Music” includes a discussion of generative artificial intelligence music companies set to unleash music wholly made by AI. “The selling point of generative AI is that no musical knowledge or training is necessary. Anyone can potentially create a hit song with the help of computers that evolve with each artificially produced guitar lick or drum beat,” Beato says.

Yuck. Sounds fucking awful.

A quick recap of where we’re at:

  • Humans can prompt AI programs (i.e., Midjourney, etc.) to generate pictures, for example sword-and-sorcery images that look a lot like something Frank Frazetta or Ken Kelly might have created, while also being something new. Many of these are pretty good.
  • ChatGPT is authoring stories with just a few prompts. Not as good, often poor, but in some cases passable… and this technology will get better.

I fail to see how any of this is good for art.

The argument about “democratizing music” is horseshit. Yeah, let’s bypass the cost of having to pay for a studio drummer and democratize the cost of a recording studio for the struggling musician… but now let’s cut out the song writer and the singer as well, and proceed straight to entering prompts in a computer.

My best friend’s son is just starting to learn the guitar. Even though he’s just 13 he’s gotten pretty good… because he’s put in hours of practice. It’s awesome to watch him grow, but also fair to ask: Why bother, kid?

Are human beings supposed to consume computer developed art, and embrace it with our soul (if you believe we have one, and are not just flesh and blood robots)?

What about guys like Beato? Are they supposed to analyze computer generated art? Who are they going to talk to… some nerd who input the prompts, or the software engineer who designed the program? Or maybe some version of HAL 9000?

At that point, why have humans at all? Should we just accept our robot overlords?

Where is the place for high, noble art in all of this?

The real crime is that all of these algorithms are based off mass data that is taken from original work by human beings who will never be acknowledged or compensated for their efforts. Google has floated a repeated claim that all information should be “free,” and all of the world’s library digitized. But they and a handful of other large corporations are the ones getting rich from this process. Beato asks the same: “Really the only question is, who gets paid for it? Who are the songwriters? Are they the programmers that program it?”

And this is just art. No one is really talking about deep fakes, and the destruction of what is truthful through the production of fake news, and the subsequent loss of our grasp on reality.

I think AI has amazing potential for improving the quality of human lives, and in many ways already has. If an AI can detect cancers unseen by a radiologist’s eye, that’s a technology I want deployed STAT. I’m in favor of self-driving cars that reduce the human error that leads to most roadway fatalities. Let’s get cheap self-driving cars out there, even if they cost drivers’ jobs.

But art? Art is not a tool; art is created by humans and enjoyed by humans. Creating art, and putting in the hours to do so, is a meaningful act, i.e., meaning-generative. It’s one of the few refuges of meaning we have left. What’s the point of art without a human mind behind it, guiding its creation?

Call me an old fart but a world where we consume AI generated art is not one I want to live in. I’m glad I have my old CDs and will just sit in my corner and listen to them. And go see cover bands that cover the old shit I like while refusing to auto-tune their voices.

I have tried to embrace new tech, and have (laptop, cell phone, reasonably modern car) but general AI seems to me a bridge too far, and one we should not cross--at least without some serious thinking about the economics and societal impact.

Yup, first post of 2023 and I’m officially an Old Man Who Shouts at Cloud.

*I make an exception for CGI, etc. that adds detail to sets and supplements the work of human actors.