Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Silk Road Centurion by Scott Forbes Crawford, a review

I am not a historian of ancient Chinese history nor the legendary Silk Road that served as crucial trade route, but author Scott Forbes Crawford seems (at least to this layman) to be, and to have done his research. His debut novel Silk Road Centurion feels historic while maintaining a page turning sense of adventure. And so is a successful book I enjoyed reading.

Overall it’s a fine read for fans of historical fiction, of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, or a gripping story well-told.

In 53 B.C. Roman soldier Manius Titinius is taken captive by a nomadic group of bow-wielding horsemen called the Xiongnu. Manius is led on a forced march across a thousand miles or more with a handful of other survivors and placed in a slave camp, exposed to the elements. Hobbled physically though never broken mentally, he swears an oath of vengeance. Ultimately his goal is to return to Rome, but over time he learns the language and culture of the locals, enters platonic and romantic relationships with some of them, and ultimately recommits to helping others from a culture very removed from his own.

This is a story of big stakes for the characters but small stakes when compared against the broader panorama of history. There are no big pivotal historical battles like you’ll find in Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt for example; Silk Road Centurion is small scale and personal and so in this respect will likely appeal to fans of sword-and-sorcery.

What I appreciated most were not the battles (of which there are several, violent and well depicted) but the quiet moments. Meditations on healing and what it means to be healthy in body in mind; of differing belief systems and how they help us navigate the world; of family and legacy and how they give life meaning; and of the importance of codes of honor as an operating system for how we should behave. Manius is a man of his word and when he makes a promise he keeps it. He also comes to appreciate the people of the far east and their quiet endurance as farmers loyal to the earth and to each other.

I liked this book for the same reasons I enjoy some historical fiction more than other; when an author gets too bogged down in place and time details and loses the thread of a rousing story, I’m out. Silk Road Centurion did not suffer from this flaw, and keeps you turning the pages. Crawford focuses more on plot and action than place or setting, which I appreciated. 

While I would not say this book is much like Gladiator save for the period, Manius’ fixation on a figurine of the goddess Fortuna, or fortune, is an echo. The way he holds it and reflects on the nature of fortune in critical life and death situations or when hope is at its lowest ebb reminded me of the way Russell Crowe's Maximus Decimus Meridius would rub sand into his palms and let it fall through his hands, or feeling the wheat fields of his distant home—a ritual, pregnant with meaning, grounding him to something larger. There is much going on in these pages of the interplay of fortune and fate, and the one we make through our actions.

Silk Road Centurion is not without some first novel issues. In places the pacing sags; in other places it feels like there is too much going on; a scene near the end of Manius and his friend (endearingly named Ox) crossing an ice-cold river and suffering yet another near-death mishap feels like a bridge too far. How much suffering can a man endure before it stretches him to break, or breaks the reader? Finally, I think some of the revelatory character payoff, while powerful on the page, perhaps did not quite feel earned to me. 

So what. 

This is an impressive start for a new author. Anyone who not only writes but pushes a work of this length and scope and ambition through to completion deserves our praise. It gets mine (and the likes of Howard Andrew Jones, who is blurbed on the interior). Silk Road Centurion is a good book. Read it.

Monday, April 22, 2024

A review of Judas Priest, April 19 Newark NJ

Scott (of Scott's Thoughts) and
I waiting for the metal madness.
I love heavy metal culture, unapologetically.

These days it’s not quite the same as heavy metal parking lot. Fans are generally older (though they hail from all age ranges). There is less innocence, perhaps more conformity to codes. 

But, the enthusiasm and joy remains.

If you watched a mosh pit as an outsider without any knowledge you’d think you were witnessing some wild fight, and expect cops in riot gear to come and break it up. Moshing looks like a fight—arms flailing, bodies contacting one another, often hard, sometimes resulting in falls on cement, bruises and a little blood. 

A closer look reveals no intent to injure. Just people “dancing” in an odd, flailing sort of way, out of sheer love of heavy music and all the emotions it draws forth.

It’s a weird, quirky, and lovely phenomenon.

Just like being a Judas Priest fan. Loving a 50 year old metal band with a 72-year-old lead singer is not going to get you into the same social circles as Taylor Swift. But I doubt Swifties have any more fun.

Judas Priest on April 19, 2024 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ had the feel of a spontaneous celebration, from a post-concert mosh pit (see below) to the concert itself.

I had an absolute blast.

The band sounded phenomenal. I knew they would, musically. It’s hard not to when you’ve got a killer rhythm section (Ian Hill and Scott Travis) and one of metal’s brightest guitarists in Richie Faulkner. What was surprising was Rob. 

Halford killed it, vocally. 

Today he uses some sort of voice extender that carries his notes and provides an echo effect, strengthening what he’s got. But it’s still obviously him singing. And damn, he can still do it. Rob moves around slowly, has to bend nearly in half to hit the high notes in the likes of Painkiller. But he can still do it. 


Panic Attack
You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’
Rapid Fire
Breaking the Law
Lightning Strike
Love Bites
Devil’s Child
Saints in Hell
Crown of Horns
Turbo Lover
Invincible Shield
Victim of Changes
The Green Manalishi
Electric Eye
Hell Bent for Leather
Living After Midnight

So many highlights, too many to mention, but here’s a few.

“Crown of Horns.” I enjoyed this new song off Invincible Shield from the first I heard it, but it was killer in concert. It’s a raw and soulful, weighty but ultimately hopeful song, rife with religious imagery (haven’t really talked about that aspect of Invincible Shield), defending the metal faith, and gratitude for life. Someone recorded it here; while I ordinarily hate cell phone recordings (the sound qualify is almost universally tinny and flat, and even a good recording fails to capture the loudness and atmosphere) this one is pretty good. 

Halford coming out on his motorbike for Hell Bent for Leather. You might think you're cool, but you’ll never be Rob Halford revving a Harley Davidson on stage at a heavy metal concert level of cool.

Love Bites and Devil’s Child back-to-back. Love both of these songs, and they were done well. The Nosferatu footage for the former added to the atmosphere.

The Green Manalishi (With the two Pronged Crown). I’ve always loved Priest’s rendition of this Fleetwood Mac song. No one remembers it’s a cover because Priest owns it, so hard. They did again this night. I was singing along very lustily.

The unexpected song disorder. I thought I was mishearing something when Priest launched into “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” as the followup to set opener “Panic Attack” (which I did expect, and was awesome). Typically “Another Thing” is the closer or at least encore material. “The Hellion/Electric Eye” is the best metal opener of all time and Priest didn’t waste that impact, saving it to open the encore.

Opening act Sabaton. These guys were very good—I entered knowing almost nothing about them, and left willing to give them a concerted listen. What stood out most was their harmonic vocals, like old Viking chants set to heavy metal guitars. The drummer sat on top of a giant tank armed with a pair of gatling guns. Despite singing about war and death exclusively they were having fun and didn’t take themselves too seriously, which I appreciated. At one point the singer slipped while running across stage and fell flat on his back, but sung a couple lines from the prone position. A little Spinal Tap.

Way more people in attendance than I anticipated. Sure, a couple of the topmost sections were curtained off, but the place was probably 85-90% full. 16,755 is the listed capacity of the Prudential Center, so there had to have been 13-14,000K in attendance. Amazing for JP, I thought those days were behind them. Among the crowd was an all-time record number of metal gear wearers—denim vests with quilts of backpatches, studded leather vests and wristbands. Chicks in black leather miniskirts and tall boots and black eyeshadow. It was glorious.

Damn this was good...
but probably not $18.25 good. 
A cold 25 oz Stella.
Giant beers rock, though at $18.25(!) one was enough for my wallet.

The mosh pit after the concert, outside on the sidewalk of the Prudential Center. It started when an enterprising street performer set up shop with a small drumkit and a couple speakers. Exiting the arena we heard “Aces High,” and as we drew closer saw a ring of concert-goers watching this guy pound out a very credible Nicko McBrain, with all the Maiden music minus the drum track emanating from the speaker. And then people started moshing, most notably an incredibly drunk dude wearing full Rob Halford getup circa 1979’s “Unleashed in the East,” complete with jaunty cap and studded leather vest. He was knocked to the ground a few times but kept getting up. I’m quite sure he and some other middle-aged dudes felt it the next day.  But on this night, no pain.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Metal spring (and summer) kicking off, plus metal memoir update

This spring and summer I’ve got four bands/five shows on the docket. We get started this Friday with the legendary Judas Priest, touring in support of their killer new album Invincible Shield. Time to break out the denim.

Friday April 19: Judas Priest (with opening act Sabaton), Prudential Center, Newark NJ

Saturday May 11: Blind Guardian, Palladium, Worcester MA

Friday August 2: Metallica, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough MA

Wednesday, Nov. 6: Iron Maiden, DCU Center, Worcester MA

Saturday Nov. 9: Iron Maiden, Prudential Center, Newark NJ

Coupled with a pair of shows I’ve already seen (tribute bands Foreigner’s Journey and Lotus Land) that’s seven concerts this year. And who knows, I may add one or two yet. Not bad for an old fart.

Are you going to see any of these shows or bands? Which excite you the most? I’m sure I’ll have some after reports here on the blog.


The heavy metal memoir continues. This is easily the most difficult work I’ve attempted … which is not necessarily what I expected when I began. The challenge is trying to tell a well-paced, compelling story, with the right amount of detail and audience applicability. All while avoiding needless details and navel-gazing. I’ve been writing my whole life, but I’ve come to realize that journalism, academic work, and non-fiction are different disciplines altogether than memoir. 

Plus, many of the details of the book are obscured by time and the haze of alcohol.

Not easy, at all.

But I’m pushing, a few times a week, and making progress. I’m working on a second draft now. My goal remains to have it finished by the end of the year.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Scott's Thoughts II: On sincerity

(Editor’s note: Scott’s Thoughts are occasional guest posts penned by my friend Scott. And by occasional, I mean, once every sixteen years or so. You might recall the prior entry in this series, a list of his top 3 Arnold movies, Stallone movies, and heavy metal albums. Today is a more reflective post. I hope you enjoy it. Please stay tuned for part 3 expected sometime in 2040).

Back by popular demand..... Scott's Thoughts! Something you don't need or want, but here we go!

Today's thought concerns sincerity. 

When you're down in the dumps, you need Scott's Thoughts
to Cool You Off! --Paul Stanley
In the old cartoon "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown", Linus explains that the Great Pumpkin searches the Earth looking for the pumpkin patch that is the most sincere. I always thought that was funny because it was so over the heads of the 5-year-olds watching the cartoon. Many times in sports or music people will comment on when someone should call it quits. For me, it comes down to sincerity. Obviously it's not easy to watch Ali get pummeled by Larry Holmes or see Michael Jordan as a Wizard, but if it is perceived as sincere and not a money grab, I'm good with it. 

To me the difference between Kiss and AC/DC is sincerity. 

Murph and I have discussed before how Kiss was going through the motions the last 15 years of their touring career. It reeks of a money grab. AC/DC continues to put out albums and tour, yet it seems like they truly enjoy it. Actor Michael Caine at least had the guts to admit that the only reason he did Jaws the Revenge was because his mother needed a new house! You can't fake sincerity, or at least you shouldn't.

Over the next eight months Murph and I are going to see three concerts: Judas Priest, Metallica, and Iron Maiden. Three bands who would never be mistaken for young, yet all three are still producing new material. As Murph recently reviewed, the new Priest album is incredible! If you don't enjoy the newer Maiden progressive trend, that's fine, but I haven't heard of them being accused of going through the motions. Some bands like to experiment and try new things over the course of their career (Maiden, Rush) while others stay the same yet still kick ass (AC/DC). I'm OK with all of it (even though I prefer early Rush). 

Once I perceive a band to lose sincerity, I'm out. Stay Sincere! 

That’s all for now, time to watch Jaws the Revenge.