Sunday, August 27, 2023

Ace Frehley, Nashua Center for the Arts (Aug. 2023)--a review

We had good seats... up close and personal with Ace Frehley.
Wildly unexpected: Ace Frehley played a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald” at the Nashua Center for the Arts last night. But I’ve come to expect the unexpected out of Ace.

The former KISS lead guitarist has always been a loose cannon. That’s what led to his departure from the band; Ace quit in 1982 but his time was coming to an end regardless. He loved booze and drugs too much, lacked discipline and seriousness, and was unreliable. Which of course put him at direct odds with the businessmen and defenders of the KISS brand, Paul and Gene.

Ace went on to have a moderately successful solo career with Frehley’s Comet, famously reunited with the band for a reunion tour in 1996, and left again in another huff in 2002. In his wild biography No Regrets Ace sends most of his ire in the direction of the controlling, sex-addicted Gene Simmons; today he is openly quarreling with Paul Stanley, who himself stooped to Ace’s level by denigrating Ace’s playing and professionalism (despite the fact that Paul is openly using vocal tracks to cover up his shot voice).

It's rather pathetic, watching the infighting of 70-year-old men who hit the equivalent of the lottery in the 70s but can’t seem to get beyond their own egos and let the past remain there.

But to be honest, it’s also fucking fun, in a watching a train wreck from afar, guiltily, kind of way.

When you’re a deep fan of KISS--the kind who goes beyond the music and explores their crazy history, the rise and fall and glorious return, the nonsense of albums like Unmasked and The Elder and weird transient members like Vinnie Vincent, and all the merchandise spinoffs and now public beefs and shit-stirring—it’s like participating in a reality TV show spanning 50 years, with dozens of spinoffs and subplots. It’s endless and endlessly fascinating.

There aren’t really a lot of good guys.

KISS (the current incarnation) does not precisely even play concerts anymore, but put on a highly choreographed performance; everything is calculated and planned. Zero spontaneity. Yeah, Gene/Paul/Tommy/Eric put on a much bigger, brighter, and more colorful show than Ace, and KISS sounds much better, but it’s plastic. For almost 20 years now, perhaps since the “farewell” tour of 2001, it’s been essentially the same thing; the last unique show I remember KISS putting on was Psycho Circus and its ill-conceived 3D effects. 

Ace has slouched along with his own solo career since the mid-80s. He’s never had a good voice, never taken care of himself physically (though he says he’s been sober since 2006), BUT he does his brand of loose, boozy rock well, and has surrounded himself with a talented band including three dudes who can all sing, and share the vocal duties and take the load off what is clearly at this stage a very frail Frehley.

So KISS isn't great these days, and neither is Ace. But I still love them both.

Concerts have always for me been about good times with friends, and unique experiences, first, and the music, while important, is second. Last night was a fun experience, and the music was OK too. It checked the boxes for a good time. And it was.

Ace busted out a lot of old KISS tunes including “Parasite,” “Detroit Rock City,” “Cold Gin,” “Shock Me,” “Deuce” and “Love Gun.” He played many solo hits, including (of course) “New York Groove,” but also “Rip It Out,” “Rock Soldiers,” “Snowblind,” “Speedin’ Back to My Baby” and “Hard Times.”

I think I got them all, but I wasn’t taking notes, either.

Oh yeah, and “Emerald,” which was a pleasant surprise

Wayne and I. 
The usual weird Ace-ness accompanied all of this. Ace slagged Paul once; Ace admitted he can’t sing Love Gun, “but neither can Paul” before turning over the vocals to his drummer. He told a weirdly placed story about falling down his stairs in his own home in a sort of half apology for not being as spry on stage (he never has been). An odd fedora wearing promoter who resembled a faux pro wrestling manager lurked along the side of the stage taking pictures, and at the end of the show held open a bathrobe for Ace to step into. 

Ace shared interesting short anecdotes about old KISS songs (conceiving the riff for Cold Gin on the subway, Gene admitting not knowing what lyrics of Deuce meant, etc.). And of course he played a smoke show solo.

Nashua is a little rough around the edges but the main drag was loaded with breweries, restaurants, and pubs. We watched one overserved dude make an ass of himself before moving on.

Fun stuff, quirky, unique. Another one for the record books. 

My friend Wayne and I both remarked that this may be the last time Ace comes this way, based on his condition, but one never knows. He is after all, a wild card, and may yet have an Ace in his deck. OK, that's enough card metaphors for one day.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Watership Down and the importance of stories

We tell stories to give life meaning. Stories show us how to behave, and teach us what matters, through the power of narrative.

Stories convey Truth. Lacking a shared set of stories we can believe in, life is cacophonous noise.

Some stories are hard to hear, or don’t end well. But the same can be said for some aspects of life. I am drawn time and again to stories of heroism, of hard struggle in dark places against long odds. 

I think these are the best stories, and the ones that matter most.

This is one reason why I keep coming back to Watership Down. I recently completed either a third or fourth re-reading of this 1972 classic by Richard Adams. As with all the great books I’ve read, I learned something new, again, in its familiar pages.

Great books meet you where you are in life. This time Watership Down met me in a new place, at age 50, with my children now full grown and headed off to college in the fall, leaving my wife and I empty-nesters for the first time. My girls are on their way to building lives, and their story has a lot to unfold. My life is still building, but I’ve shifted, subtly, from chasing a career and building a family, to passing on the wisdom I’ve accumulated. To telling them about my story, in the hopes I can convey a little wisdom and improve their chances of making better choices and building better lives. 

So yes, this re-reading of Watership Down taught me about the power of stories.

The Rabbits tell each other stories of El-ahrairah, a great hero out of legend. He is the ideal, but because he is a rabbit, not a man, he is the ultimate rabbit ideal. A master thief, because rabbits steal from gardens. A prey item for a thousand hunters, because rabbits are relatively weak. But these deficiencies are offset with his great gifts of cunning, and great speed, driven by the power of his back legs.

El-ahrariah is a hero. Not without flaw; he sometimes makes poor choices, and suffers the consequences. He often falls victim to his own pride, and overconfidence. But he never gives up, and against every fiber of his being confronts the Black Rabbit of Inle’, and offers up his own life to secure the safety of his people. It’s a lesson in sacrifice for the next generation, which in the end is what being a good parent is all about. 

The Rabbits tell the stories of El-ahrairah again and again, because they give their brief and often terrifying lives meaning. And something to hope for. His stories inspire Hazel, the hero of Watership Down (one among many), to lead his warren on a long journey through many dangers to safety, beyond the reach of the careless destroyer man.

Eventually El-ahrairah passes on, just as Hazel and Bigwig pass away. But their stories remain, and inspire, if we continue to pass them on. 

Even if El-ahrairah is just a myth, his is a story worth believing in.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Lord of a Shattered Land: A review

Hanuvar has lost it all—his land, his people, and his family—following a disastrous military defeat. Narrowly escaping his own death and presumed dead by his enemies, the exiled former General vows to find the scattered remnants of his surviving people and set them free. 

And kick some ass along the way.

This is the premise of Howard Andrew Jones’ new sword-and-sorcery novel Lord of a Shattered Land (2023, Baen Books). A novel which is almost a short story collection. In it we follow Hanuvar on a sprawling series of episodic adventures that can be read and enjoyed as standalone tales (several were published as short stories appearing in Tales from the Magician’s Skull and elsewhere), or as a cohesive novel, the disparate adventures following sequentially in service of an overarching plot.

As with any collection I enjoyed some entries better than others. There are 3-4 terrific “stories” in here that easily stand among the best of the recent explosion of S&S fiction. My favorites included “The Warrior’s Way,” “The Second Death of Hanuvar,” “The Crypt of Stars,” and “An Accident of Blood.” 

Lord of a Shattered Land serves as a promising template for how sword-and-sorcery can work in a longer form. Although its sweet spot is the short story and novella, S&S can and has proven adaptable to longer treatments—see the likes of Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar, or Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone. Can it be done in a form familiar to fans of epic fantasy—3 or 5 thick volumes? We’ll see. But Lord of a Shattered Land is a promising start.

Jones wears some obvious influences on his sleeve. The setting is sword and sandal, as Hanuvar was inspired by the historical general Hannibal and the cultural and technological milieu shares many similarities with ancient Rome. The style evokes Harold Lamb: Briskly paced storytelling, and emphasis on plot over character. The final chapter is an interesting/ambitious look into Hanuvar’s mind, as told through a fever-dream sequence.

Other influences may be less apparent. Hanuvar’s wistful remembrances of Volanus and its fallen cities of white towers reminded me of Tolkien and the lost cities of the First Age of Middle-Earth.

Hanuvar is a truly heroic hero, and in this sense strays outside some of the stricter sword and sorcery definitions. He's a patriot, quite willing to sacrifice his own life to rescue the lives of his people. Jones has billed Hanuvar as some combination of Captain America and James Bond. I find him much more Bond; extremely competent but quite ruthless, a thinking man's fighter, aging but still deadly in hand-to-hand combat and very willing to take lives. Not a “hero” in the mold of an unhinged Mad Max, but very much in control, not after bloodthirsty vengeance but liberation. Not fueled by wine, women, and coin, but the hope he may one day find his daughter alive.

Does this somehow exclude Lord of a Shattered Land from the ranks of sword-and-sorcery? Of course not, unless you’re a pedant. Merely because many historical S&S protagonists were mercenary or self-serving does not mean all were, or that current authors should feel obligated to cleave to someone else’s definition of S&S. Embrace your influences and work unburdened by the past, as Jones does here.

Back to the review.

Some will find Lord of a Shattered Land not to their tastes, depending on the flavor of S&S they enjoy reading. For example, it lacks the primal barbaric spirit of Conan, or the otherworldly weirdness of CAS’ slice of S&S. Hanuvar is very much a civilized man and the world of Lord of a Shattered Land feels civilized, albeit with weird incursions and some cool monsters. But always the baseline is familiar, inspired as it is by history. So if you’re after the red-handed barbarism of Conan or Kull, or the weirdness of "The Isle of the Torturers" or the dreamlike underworld of C.L. Moore’s "Black God’s Kiss," you won’t get these here, precisely.

And in that regard Lord of a Shattered Land did not check all my S&S boxes. Some of the stories don’t match the heightened urgency of others, leading to some unevenness, as you’d expect in any collection. 

But I nevertheless greatly enjoyed it, overall. And what you do get is a well-realized, quasi historical world that feels real, and lived in. Lord of a Shattered Land is very well written, moving in places, even elevated. I have not read widely of HAJ, though I have read some, including The Desert of Souls, and in this volume it feels like he’s come into his own as a writer. I was impressed by Jones’ authorial range. One chapter is outright humor, brushing up to slapstick (“The Autumn Horse”), while others are dark and violent. Still others are contemplative, and sad. 

This is a journey we’re on, after all, and the figure we’re following has seen a lot, and lost much. But remains unbroken.

Minor spoiler: Lord of a Shattered Land offers no resolution; Jones has already announced the series will to run to (five!) books, so we can’t and shouldn’t expect Hanuvar to find his people and set them free in his volume. At the end the land is still very much shattered, and the people of Volanus still scattered. It will be interesting to see if Jones can pull off something this ambitious. But he’s well on his way with his most ambitious and successful work to date.

If you’re a fan of sword-and-sorcery, pick this up. For the sake of supporting the subgenre, but also for supporting tales well-told.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Assessing the sword-and-sorcery "glut"

Jason Ray Carney recently weighed in on an issue that’s been on my mind, too: The glut of new sword-and-sorcery fiction. Asks Jason:

Because of the glut of new sword and sorcery, I find myself buying new books with a wistful sense of "One day I'll find time to read this." Am I alone?

No, you’re not alone Jason.

I’m feeling a little bloated myself. 

I’ve recently read A Book of Blades, New Edge #0, Worlds Beyond Worlds, a handful of issues of Tales from the Magician’s Skull, and Sometime Lofty Towers. Not all brand new, but new enough.

But I haven’t made a dent, and the titles just keep coming. 

Sitting unread in my office are:

Die by the Sword

Multiple additional copies of Tales from the Magician’s Skull

Lord of a Shattered Land

War on Rome

More are on the way. I participated in the recent kickstarter for Swords from the Shadows, so I expect that anthology in the mail soon. I also backed New Edge and issue no. 1 is well under way. I know I’ll be backing Neither Beg Nor Yield next. Baen is ramping up its act, as is Titan.

I feel guilty that I haven’t bought A Book of Blades vol. 2 (yet). I’d like to get more volumes of Swords and Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy, as I greatly enjoyed vol. 1, but I have to pump the brakes somehow. I’ve got two daughters in college.

And on top of everything else I’m way behind on Whetstone. 

It does feel rather like a glut.

Is this a bad thing? Again I agree with Jason; while “glut” is not a particularly positive descriptor, it does also mean we have a plethora of choices. 

Just a few short years ago it was hard to find any new sword-and-sorcery, save for the likes of online stories from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Swords and Sorcery magazine, and the occasional title from DMR Books. It was a dark time, with glints of light in the stygian gloom. Parched S&S fans were starved for a cool drink.

But now the drink feels if not like a firehose, then a 40 oz. big gulp. It seems like new kickstarters are popping up every fortnight, announcing new anthologies and projects.

In comparison with trad fantasy, or YA, the number of new titles we’re seeing in S&S would probably not qualify as a blip. But those markets are not S&S. They’re far, far larger, and can bear the output. When you’re playing in a small pool this flood of titles is a lot.

Again, I stress that this is so far from a crisis that it’s ridiculous to even think that way. It might not even be a problem. If you have plenty of 1) expendable cash and 2) time, and love to read, it’s great. If you lack either cash, or sufficient time, less so.

If you’re a publisher trying to make a living the glut is a problem, unless the market keeps expanding. Because right now we’re short on readers. And that is the real issue.

Unless you grow the pool of readers by 20x (or preferably, 200x) no writer or publisher is going to be able to make enough to sustain a full-time living writing S&S. Here is an interesting article from 2016 on self-publishing and the kinds of numbers you need to make a middle-class income. I doubt any new anthology is moving these kinds of numbers. 

The issue is definitely not the passionate community of creators, including writers but also artists and editors. Everyone who wants to write or create, should. But they also should know they are publishing in a very small community.

Perhaps I’m using the wrong barometer for health, and that readership and revenue aren’t the real indicators, but quantity and quality of output, and passion of the community. But again quantity is a problem: when there are this many new titles in such a small community some will go unread. Assessing quality is also difficult: Conversations will be shorter, and shallower, as we quickly switch focus to the next new title. And I’m not sure that’s great for discussion and thoughtful reviews. There isn’t much talk over what makes for good writing in this space.

Back to optimism and possibility: One way I can see this evolving is editors raising the bar for the stories they’ll accept, and getting more specific about what types of stories they want, thematically or stylistically. New Edge is doing this with its lean into diversity and inclusiveness; Neither Beg Nor Yield with a never surrender attitude.

Maybe one day we’ll see a “Year’s Best” anthology that we can hand to a new reader and say, “start here.”

All this is coming at a time where I’m feeling a bit burned out on sword-and-sorcery, and reading horror and memoir at the moment. Make no mistake, I’m a lifelong reader and nothing will extinguish that flame. I’ll be back. But I need a pause to get caught up.

Long story short, I’ll eventually get to Lord of a Shattered Land. Soon, I promise.