Friday, May 31, 2024

Worms of the Earth, Eternal Champion

I found out last night that Eternal Champion bass player Brad Raub passed away, just 36 years old.

So on this Metal Friday I honor his memory with “Worms of the Earth,” off their wonderful album Ravening Iron. With its spectacular Ken Kelly album cover (now THAT would be an amazing original to hang on my man cave wall).

Beyond badass.

Still feeling my way out with this band but I’m really starting to dig Ravening Iron. "Worms of the Earth" should be a hit with any red-blooded sword-and-sorcery/Robert E. Howard/Bran Mak Morn fan. Here’s a sample of the lyrics, which are basically a faithful retelling of the tale:

Upon a Roman cross there hangs a man I cannot save

For this, Rome will have to pay

I must find the door to ebon depths where they degenerate

There's nothing I would spare to see Rome howl in pain

Eyes like golden stars shining in the dark

In Dagon's Barrow I will take the stone they must obey

The King of Picts has forced his claim

One of the all-time greats in visual adaptation. Fight me if you think otherwise.

The King of Picts has forced his claim... he certainly did. Love that.

I can’t express how glad I am to see a band like Eternal Champion lend their own artistic interpretation to REH. We’ve got pastiche novels, visual artists, comic adaptations, gaming supplements, and now heavy metal bands, all keeping Howard alive with their own inspiring visions of the greatest sword-and-sorcery author who ever lived. 

Raub added his own verse to that roll-call, no doubt.

Rest in peace brother.

Friday, May 24, 2024

The Light is Fantastic—stay positive

The fourth in a series about my personal values. Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here.

I write about some heavy shit on this blog. If you were a casual observer passing through you might think I was a grim, moralizing figure discontented with the world. An old man shouting at clouds.

That’s quite far from the truth. I’m a pretty cheery person. I laugh a lot. I appreciate what I have, and the world around me.

From time to time I find myself dwelling on darkness. But much/most of the time I’m happy. That’s because I work at it. A baseline state of optimism is so important to me that it’s become one of my values: Stay positive.

No one wants to hang out with bitter cynics. We all view the world through a glass darkly from time-to-time, but I’m talking about the types who complain about everything and can no longer see beauty, or realize how lucky they are to be alive.

Anger has a purpose, and a place. It’s a human emotion, and so needs expression. But I don’t think it’s a healthy default position. Anger also has proven ill effects on your health, not just mental but physical.

A much better way to live is a state of positivity, and general optimism.

I wasn’t always this way. And today from time to time I get angry and frustrated at the world, even flirting with despair. But I have discovered ways to break out of the malaise.

One is through engagement with my deep and abiding interests, including fantasy fiction and heavy metal. 

It might sound odd but something like a good Robert E. Howard story—even a really fucking grim tale like “Red Nails”—elevates my spirits, by stunning me with a reminder of the incredible human capacity to create beautiful art. Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin or a nasty Stephen King short story elevates me, by transporting my mind elsewhere. As does blasting Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.

I need fantasy, as an antidote to humdrum realities and worldly responsibilities. It hits the reset button.

Another way to break out is through human connection—spending time with my wife and family, and when I can find it, my friends. When I have my old friend Wayne over for a couple beers at the bar, and we talk about current times and the old times, and music, life is good. As is spending any time with my old man, still kicking at 80. Engaging with other people gets you out of your own head.

We need fantasy, AND we need human connection. I’m a big believer in balance. Which also keeps you positive. 

If you want to cultivate more positivity in your life, one practical tip is starting a gratitude journal. I’ve been keeping one every day since early 2017 (M-F religiously, sometimes on Saturday. I’ve got a basic template if you want it). Write down three things you are grateful for every morning. This also serves the purpose of recording the high points and best memories of my life, which I can then reflect back on at the end of the year (and blog about here).

Gratitude journaling was/is huge for me. I cannot recommend it enough. It pulled me out of some dark times in my life. You can quite literally retrain your brain, teaching it to focus on the positive over the negative aspects of life (which are inevitable, and real). The positive becomes more noticeable.

One recent example: I run a monthly Happy Hour for my company. We’re a small company, 100% remote, with 43-odd internal staff. Sometimes I get 28-30 on a given call, other times its only 16-17. Years ago I would have thrown up my hands at the low turnout, and called into question, “why am I bothering with this?” Now my default position is, “everyone here is having a great time—and so am I! Cool. Can’t wait for the next one.” 

I also recommend regular exercise. Lift some weight man, and get out for walk. Endorphins work wonders.

The best antidote to negativity is fostering mindfulness. Our greatest source of misery is our own thoughts. The mere act of noticing your thoughts and shifting your attention elsewhere, to the present, rather than ruminating on crap from the past you cannot change or an uncertain future, will shift your mind from negative to the positive.

In summary:

There is too much negativity in the world. Twitter has forgotten that life is beautiful. Adopt a positive mindset. Rather than attacking others, assume the best in other people and treat them well. It’s a better operating system; it also makes you a more likeable person.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Humans are meant to do hard things

In my professional life I serve a profession called medical coding. No need to look it up; it’s quite niche and rather impenetrable to the outsider, though very important to the quality and financial health of hospitals.

I hear complaints all the time from medical coders about the difficulty of the work, and proposed fixes that would make everything better.

“If only the doctors would document acute systolic heart failure!” “If only the official coding guidelines were clearer about which diagnosis to report as principal!” “If only the insurance companies and hospitals could all agree on the definition of sepsis… 

… then all our problems would go away!”

I don’t blame them for lodging these complaints, or for wanting fixes.

But what they don’t realize is they’d be replacing their day-to-day problems with a much bigger problem. Removing all the hard things would cost them their jobs. Because medical coding could be safely automated away.

And it would also cost them part of their life’s purpose, and stunt their development toward becoming an actualized human being.

I agree that their work is complex and often quite frustrating. Byzantine and possibly overly and needlessly complex in some aspects. 

In need of some fixes.

But in general I see things with a different lens.

These “problems” are a good thing. Hard is a good thing.

Coding is not only a well-paying career, but for many actually meaningful too. Granted not for all; many consider medical coding, clinical documentation integrity and other like/adjacent professions (trauma/oncology registry, for example) mere work. They’d rather be doing something else, they work for the money and for the weekend.

But others have launched meaningful careers, made lifelong personal and professional relationships, in this line of work. Grew as people, became better versions of themselves, through the struggle of mastering their profession. 

As have I.

What happens if it all goes away? And the machines take the work?

You might say, this is just how the world is, and how professions evolve. One line of work is replaced by another, displaced by technology. Some “optimists” argue: We can now spend our time doing more meaningful work instead of these lower-order tasks.

There is some truth to this, but this line of reasoning falls apart when entire human skillsets are outsourced to machines.

Let’s use the example of something more meaningful to readers of this blog: Writing and the visual arts.

If I just enter a series of prompts, and then prompt the AI for additional clarity, and publish a book in a weekend, this is not a meaningful achievement. If I can summon Dall-e to create an image, I did not create the art, the machine did.

You put in no sweat equity worthy of celebration. Had no stumbles, and failures, and doubts, and anxieties that, when you finally overcame them and published the work, made it your crowning achievement. Regardless of whether you ever sold a copy you did something amazing.

You created something and did something hard. You.

We need to do hard stuff.

Doing hard work will disproportionately reward people with greater ability. This leads to inequity … but that’s the way it has to be.

We don’t need to spend all our waking hours doing hard things (I would not be opposed to a four day workweek, for example). Nor am I calling for an end to technological development. Some jobs will inevitably be eliminated by labor saving technology. We don’t need to return to the good old days of horse-drawn wagons and polio.

If we could replace meaninglessly hard work, I’d be in favor of any such labor-saving device. I’m sure the suffering laborer would too.

But no one seems to have a plan for a world post work. Or far more frighteningly, life without difficulty. No one has addressed the fundamental underlying truth that doing hard things is good for us.

There is no intellectual I’m aware of who has painted a compelling--let alone non-dystopic and sane—picture of what a post-scarcity society would look like, and what it would mean for human flourishing. Could we still create believable, heartfelt art without any relationship to struggle? If we didn’t even know what struggle was, because everything was easy, available with the push of a button?

I would not call such a society a utopia, but a terrible dystopia. 

The most beautiful human art is about struggle, and loss, and sometimes overcoming it. Even if the victory is only temporary.

Without anything hard to do, we’ll all be eating soma.

Friday, May 17, 2024

As heavy as I’ll go

Slayer and Sepultura… really no heavier than that. There’s no need, from my perspective.

I can’t do cookie monster vocals. That means that Death Metal and Black Metal bands are out. 

To be honest, I haven’t made a concerted effort to break into these genres. The barrier to entry is so high that I just can’t bring myself to do it, even though I can appreciate some of the riffs and melodies. 

I need to be able to understand what the vocalist is saying, and I can do that with Max Cavalera and Tom Araya. 

Sabbath is heavy enough for most mortals, and will raise an eyebrow in mixed company. Slayer and Sepultura will get you flat-out kicked out of parties … but I still greatly enjoy them. As with here, on Refuse/Resist, and South of Heaven.

Both awesome, and really fucking heavy. But I don’t feel the need to go any heavier.

What’s your “max heavy?”

Monday, May 13, 2024

Why we need fantasy: Some thoughts from a Blind Guardian concert, May 11, 2024 at the Worcester Palladium

I'm in there! Somewhere back left...

No one ever dares to speak
It's nothing else but fantasy
It's make believe,
Make believe
No one ever dares to speak
It's nothing else but fantasy
But One day it will all come to life

--Blind Guardian, Fly

How did you spend your Saturday night? I was in a hall you might know, called … VALHALLA!

Or maybe it was the Worcester Palladium. 

Either way, I was somewhere else. And that’s a good thing. 

We need fantasy in our lives.

Blind Guardian lead singer Hansi Kuersch screams at the end of “Valhalla,” No, we can’t live without gods! He and his bandmates put to powerful music what many of us who breathe deeply of this type of thing have come to know: 

We can’t live without fantasy. It is indispensable as air or water:

Songs I will sing of tribes and kings
The carrion bird and the hall of the slain
Nothing seems real
You soon will feel
The world we live in is another Skald’s
Dream in the shadows

--Skalds and Shadows

We’re all just telling stories. Reality is what we make of it. 

Blind Guardian knows this, and takes us to other places, fair and perilous lands where magic is real. Lands we once knew, but have forgotten. As we age our fantasies wither. We prioritize work and money, and embrace conformity and dull routine. 

Stranded in the real world
Left in the world
No place for daydreams
Serious life
I fall into
I fall into a dark hole
And I can't come out
Do you know if Merlin did exist
Or Frodo wore the ring
Did Corum kill the gods
Or where's the wonderland
Which young Alice had seen
Or was it just a dream
I knew the answers
Now they're lost for me

But fantasy calls, from the other side.

We might be lost, but Blind Guardian knows there is another world. Which can break down the walls around your heart. For a short time on Saturday at least.

Blind Guardian delivered on this stop on The God Machine tour. They were great. The setlist is below.

As always it’s a privilege to see a band of their magnitude in a place like The Palladium, which has a listed capacity of 2660. Blind Guardian plays to much larger crowds overseas.

Take a bow, dudes. 
Maybe you don’t need German power metal bands in your life. That’s OK, with a good book or a well-done movie you can get (some) of what Blind Guardian offers. Enchantment, to restore a disenchanted world.

What you don’t get in a book or a movie however is the power of being in a big group of like-minded people, all experiencing the same powerful call. Chanting, “Valhalla, Deliverance!” like Viking warriors of old.

Where was I Saturday night? The lands of Faerie, or Worcester? 

Both my friends.


Imaginations from the Other Side
Blood of the Elves
The Script for My Requiem
Violent Shadows
Skalds and Shadows
Deliver us from Evil
Secrets of the American Gods
The Bard’s Song
Traveler in Time
Sacred Worlds
Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)
Mirror Mirror

Here's a bit of "Nightfall" from my cell phone:

Friday, May 10, 2024

Curse My Name, Blind Guardian

They plead for their king 
And they pity their lord 
Put him to death, that's what I say

It's been a while since I did one of these. Too long. And I've got Blind Guardian on the calendar tomorrow. So, time for another Metal Friday.

Blind Guardian is great for so many reasons, but starting a song with a lute and either a flute (or perhaps a fife?) is one. Another is songs like "Curse My Name," which could be a number in an alternative metal universe performance of Les Miserables. 

This is a great song, atmospheric, melodic, epic... and underneath it all some hard critique of monarchy. We are the nation, we are the law, and we won't take it anymore. How do we depose the monarch? Put him to death, that's what I say. 

I wasn't even sure there was an electric guitar in this song... but yeah there it is at 4:38. Yet despite the lack of typical heavy metal trappings it's heavy AF, heavier than many guitar forward tunes. 

Very dark. 

And awesome.

Hard to believe this came out 14 years ago, on At the Edge of Time (2010). I feel like this album just came out yesterday. But time is subjective. The passage of years is different now than it once was.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Some blogging odds and ends

Some stuff that might be interesting to you, but at minimum is important to me.

I’m not going to Howard Days this year. I was never planning to do so, but enough people have asked me that I figure I’d make it official here. I LOVED my first Howard Days experience and would gladly go again, but time and budget won’t permit me to go every year. I’ll just have to enjoy it vicariously and remember my experience of a year ago, which Deuce Richardson recently recapped on the blog of DMR Books in fine fashion here and here.

No book review requests, please. A public message that I’m not accepting any further books for review at this time. Recently I’ve received several requests to review new S&S and S&S adjacent titles, from authors and publishers, even a work in progress. I just don’t have time, due to personal and professional obligations. For more reasons why I made this decision please read this prior post. This is not to say I won’t be reviewing books here on the Silver Key, but they will be books I voluntarily seek out.

A terrific Mad Max conversation. I listen to a fair number of podcasts on topics that range from political to self-improvement to all things fantastic. Weird Studies with hosts Phil Ford and J.F. Martel has remained in my rotation when others have fallen out because the hosts are so damned good—even though I probably skip 50% or more of the episodes. I’m just not interested in the occult or tarot or TV shows I haven’t watched (i.e., most of them), but when these guys turn to a topic I love—i.e., the Mad Max film franchise—I’m in. This episode does not disappoint, even though it’s (as always) lit-crit heavy and intellectual AF.

A one-star review and 5-star feedback. I got my first one-star review of Flame and Crimson on Goodreads, from an individual whose review reads, “Meh, DNF.” This bothered me to some degree; I would never one-star a book I didn’t finish. But whatever, the book is definitely not for everyone and evidently was not for this dude. On the other hand, this recent email from a reader warmed my cold heart all the way through:

Hi Brian, I just wanted to tell you I'm on my second read through of "Flame  

and Crimson" and I'm enjoying it equally as much. I first read CONAN in the  

late 1960's as a teenager and found a world and a hero to identify with on  

an internal level. Here were stories that led me to realms of the fantastic  

and a cast of characters to cheer or boo, they even convinced me buy some  

weightlifting gear. (I never achieved the frame of the fabled warrior.) So  

many thanks for the research, the writing and the publishing of this  

wonderful book. It makes a 70 year old feel young and vital again.

That makes it all worth it, including the one-star reviews.

Blind Guardian powers into Worcester MA on Saturday. My personal heavy metal tour makes its next stop at The Palladium in Worcester this weekend, where I’ll be taking in legendary German power metal band Blind Guardian. With my old friend Dana, who introduced me to these guys a couple decades ago to my delight. Thanks Dana. Any band who writes concept albums based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion gets my attention, and these guys are always amazing.

I’ve got a college graduate. My oldest daughter Hannah, 22, just graduated from Colby-Sawyer college with a degree in professional and creative writing, and already has a job offer which she’s accepted teaching at a local boarding school. I couldn’t be prouder. She’s both like her Dad and very much her own person and I’m looking forward to watching her continue to grow into young adulthood. I’m a lucky man.