July 22, 2011

Friday Review Double Feature: The Wicker Man

Here's the sum total of what I knew about The Wicker Man prior to this week. I knew that the original British film, from the 1970s, has become a cult classic. That it stars Edward Woodward, who was the lead in one of my favorite flicks, Breaker Morant. That it involved some sort of weird religious rites and a twist ending. That it was remade a few years ago, with Nicholas Cage taking over for the Breaker and that the remake was universally panned.

I had put the original version in the Netflix queue because of Woodward and general curiosity. After I finally got around to watching it this week, I had to follow up with the Cage version. It's an interesting case study in how Hollywood can take something that earned goodwill the hard way and piss it all away in under two hours.

First, the basics. The Wicker Man is about a cop dispatched to a remote island to investigate the disappearance, or maybe the murder, of a child. The island's inhabitants have, to put it mildly, some non-traditional religious beliefs. The cop tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, only to find himself . . . well, I won't ruin the big twist for you. I'm not generally big on avoiding spoilers, particularly for flicks that are as old as I am, but this one went somewhere I wasn't suspecting, so I'll give it some credit.

The release of the original film was bungled by the studio, which forced some cuts and didn't give it any publicity upon release. In spite of that, it's gone on to achieve such cult status that it's been dubbed the Citizen Kane of horror films. I wouldn't go nearly that far - it's sluggish, silly, and not really all that horrific. But it's also unique and fun, in it's own peculiar way. It's cult status is no doubt helped by the difficulty of its release and how that lent it an air of mystery. I can certaily see why some people really love it.

And I can see precisely why any big budget Hollywood remake was doomed to failure. Everything that makes the original fun to watch disappears. Yes, the plot is basically the same, but the ambiance of the whole movie is quite different, not to mention the execution. So to speak.

Take, for instance, the odd religious society into which our hero cop is thrust. In the original, it's old European pagans (Druish, for most part), who, for all their weird ways, are at least fun to hang around with. They drink. They sing (the film has several musical numbers). They wander around nekkid. Watching that libertine lifestyle bump up against Woodward's rigid (but sincere) Christianity is actually interesting.

For the remake, however, the fun drunken pagans are gone. Replaced, inexplicitly, but a dour colony of joyless matriarchal scolds (the only men on the island are used for manual labor and breeding). They're like something out of Rush Limbaugh's nightmares. Cage, meanwhile, has none of the religious background of his predecessor, so it really doesn't do anything for the film.

I can understand why merely transporting the pagans to Puget Sound (where, inexplicitly, Cage's California cop tries to wield the same legal authority as Woodward, who was actually in his jurisdiction, did) wouldn't work, but is a bunch of murderous shrews the best Labute could come up with?  Maybe. After his excellent debut, In the Company of Men, and pretty good follow up, Your Friends and Neighbors, his film career has cratered. Certainly, his rebooted version of The Wicker Man did not right the ship. It does give Cage an excuse to beat up several women, though. If you've ever really wanted to see that kind of thing, this movie is for you.

In the end, the remake of The Wicker Man is a series of poor choices, summarized neatly by Brett Cullum from DVD Verdict:
LaBute's final insult to injury? He dedicates the film to the memory of Joey Ramone. Joey would have at least had the good sense to make this remake fast, loud, and two minutes long.
No doubt. I wanna' be sedated . . .

The Details
The Wicker Man
Released 1973
Directed by Robin Hardy
Written by Anthony Shaffer
From the novel Ritual, by David Pinner
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, et. al.

The Wicker Man
Released 2006
Written & Directed by Neil LaBute
Starring Nicholas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Leelee Sobieski, et. al.

July 21, 2011

Who Dictates Meaning?

The other day I stumbled across this article at Cracked, which deals with a bunch of books “everyone (including your English teacher) got wrong.” Considering the source, I’m not all that certain of the conclusions (the one about Alice in Wonderland seems particularly out there), but I do know of one that is on the money.  Kind of.

Contrary to everything you’ve ever thought after reading Fahrenheit 451 (or seeing Truffaut’s film version), Ray Bradbury insists that it’s not really about censorship. Rather, it’s about how television would destroy the will and/or ability of the populace at large to read and what that meant for society. At least that’s what Bradbury says now, as he slides into grumpy old man ludditehood. In earlier years, however, he’s played up the censorship angle.

But what Bradbury says the “true” meaning of Fahrenheit 451 isn’t really what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is who gets to make that decision in the first place: us as readers/viewers, or Bradbury (and Truffaut, for that matter) as the creator?

Take a less literary example, “Uninvited Guest,” from Marillion’s first post-Fish album, Seasons End:

Some fans dealing with the song latched onto this bit of the bridge:
I'm the evil in your bloodstream
I'm the rash upon your skin
And you made a big mistake all right
The day you let me in
And you can fly to the other side of the world
You know you'll only find
I've reserved the seat behind you
We can talk about old times
They concluded that the song was about AIDS, it being a nasty infectious disease with moral overtones (particularly back then). That came as a surprise to Steve Hogarth and John Helmer, who wrote the lyrics. The song’s not about AIDS, it’s about your conscience. But, as I recall, when discussing it, neither H said to the AIDS group "you're wrong" when it came to their interpretation. They seemed to recognize that, once a creator lets a work out into the wild, his interpretation is no more "correct" than any others.

As a reader/viewer/listener, I appreciate that approach. Art is so subjective it's nearly impossible to define the correct reaction to a piece of it. It's one thing to say that my take on, say, Slaughterhouse-5, is in the minority of opinion on the novel (I have no idea if that's true - I just pulled that example out of my ass). It's quite another to say it's "wrong." After all, perceptions of art change through time. Context matters, and all that. It would be odd if we in the 21st Century got the same thing out of the Illiad and the Odyssey as the audiences to whom Homer first told them.

As a writer, it doesn't seem as if I have much choice. Writer of fiction, at any rate. It's not as if I'm trying to persuade readers about a certain topic. I'm just trying to persuade them to keep reading. If someone comes up to me one day, love my work, and thinks "Fine Print" is a parable of man's relationship with nature in the 21st Century (it's not, but that's not important right now), it would be rude beyond belief to say, "thanks, but you're full of shit." Readers are entitled to their opinions, after all.

Which is not to say I'd go so far as to gut this kind of classic call out:

If you're writing nonfiction and a large hunk of your audience don't get what you're trying to say, that's a whole different problem. If I had a judge tell me that the brief I'm filing tomorrow is a parable of man's relationship to nature in the 21st Century, I still can't say "thanks, but you're full of shit." It's up to me to make sure she gets the point I'm trying to make. if she doesn't, what's the point of making it in the first place?

The bottom line, then, is that when it comes to what art is "about," everybody gets to have their own idea and line up however they want. What the creator thinks is an interesting data point, but it's not the last word on the subject.

July 20, 2011

The Big 5 and the 5-Album Test

Any measure of "greatness" when it comes to music comes with risks and, ultimately, devolves into personal opinions about what's good and bad. Nevertheless, trying to find a way to measure that kind of thing makes for some interesting arguments, if nothing else. Thrown into the mix now, from Steven Hyden at the Onion AV Club, is what he calls the 5-album test.

Emerging from a heavy rotation of Queen's 5-album run (Queen, Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack, A Night At The Opera, and A Day At The Races), it's a measure of sustained excellence. As Hyden puts it:
Lots of artists have five or more classic albums (not including EPs or live records), but the ability to string them together back-to-back means being in the kind of zone that’s normally associated with dominant college women’s basketball dynasties.
As he admits, some heavy hitters, and some of his personal favorites (Dylan, the Stones) can't make the grade. So, I thought I'd apply that test to the Big 5 of the Prog world - King Crimson, Genesis, ELP, Yes, and Pink Floyd - and see if they can make the grade.

First off, Hyden includes Floyd in his list of 5-album wonders for the run of Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. I'll take that one as a given, since I'm only partly familiar with Meddle and Animals and can't really argue with him. I will point out, however, that after Meddle actually came the soundtrack album Obscured by Clouds. Whether that needs to be dealt with, I can't say.

While I've always found Emerson, Lake, & Palmer to be the most frustratingly inconsistent of the Big 5, there's no denying that for classic albums, they hit their stride right out of the gate with their self-titled debut, Tarkus, Trilogy (my favorite whole album), and Brain Salad Surgery. After that, however, things went downhill. I don't think anybody, when pressed, would call Works, Volume 1 a classic, although it has its charms. And nothing afterwords would come anywhere close to classic. So, sorry, ELP, but you fail.

Given their leading role in the prog world since the beginning, you'd think Crimson would easily pass the 5-album test, but I don't think so. Granted, I'm not that familiar with the work between their debut and Islands, but I think at least that one would keep the first five from passing the test. What about what came after? Lark's Tongues in Aspic? Absolutely classic. Starless and Bible Black? Arguable, but let's say yes. Red? A classic, no doubt. Next up would be Discipline, which, while completely different from what came before, is a classic in its own right. Unfortunately, they fall at the fifth post with Beat, arguably the least impressive of the early 80s trilogy. So, I'd say "fail" to Fripp and company, but I could be convinced otherwise.

Yes suffers the same fate, although whether you agree depends wholly on your perception of 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans. There’s a consensus that the three albums before that one – The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge – are classics. Most would agree that Relayer, which followed it, is, too (I certainly would). But opinions are split on Tales, a sprawling 4-sided opus inspired by Jon Anderson and Steve Howe’s fascination with some Hindu holy book or another. It’s either a pretentious, bloated, confused work that's the epitome of all that prog's detractors said of the genre, or it’s a pretentious, bloated, confused work that's the epitome of all that prog's fans love about the genre. I fall into the group that things it falls short of what came before and after, though it has lots of strong bits. Regardless, I wouldn’t call it a classic, which means Yes fails the 5-album test.

That just leaves Genesis, of the Big 5, to potentially join Floyd in passing that test. Do they? With room to spare, as they band went on a run of classics from 1970 to 1986: Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Trick of the Tail, and Wind and Wuthering. That’s actually seven albums, so you could lop one off from each end and still make it. I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that. I love Trespass, but it’s still very proto-Genesis in parts, and while Wind and Wuthering has some great bits, it also has “Your own Special Way,” which sort of hinted where the band could end up in the next decade.  Regardless, it's a hell of a run, particularly considering Gabriel's departure along the way.

So, there we go. Two out of the Big 5 make the grade, although they all come close. Not that it matters, of course. Still fun to kick around, though.

July 19, 2011

New Tunes in a New Place

Last month when I put up a song I'd done for the Genetic Music Project, I threatened that there would be more to come as I shifted from ACID Planet (which has been very good to me) over to Soundcloud.  One of the reasons I wanted to do that was because Soundcloud is designed to more easily interact with blogs and Facebook and the like.  So, here's some new tracks.  Let it never be said that I don't follow through on my threats . . .

Another nice aspect of Soundcloud is that you can arrange songs into "sets" and ensure a correct running order. These three songs don't really work as an integrated whole - it's not really an epic - but they do run on one into the other. Pretty well, I think. So here is my first set, "Nonsense Suite." The nonsense is pretty easy to find - the individual song titles. Two came from Spam email subject headers, the other from some commenter's handle on a blog I read regularly:

Nonsense Suite by Infinity Ranch

When I go to Richmond to do an oral argument, I've got 20 minutes to argue with the judges. Normally, I use up all that time. But one trip, the law had changed so massively (in my client's favor, for once!) since the briefs were filed that the result was pretty much a given. I was at the lectern for less than a minute. Thus, "50 Seconds Over Richmond":

50 Seconds Over Richmond by Infinity Ranch

For some reason, I woke up one morning with the pounding rhythm of Adrian Belew's "Young Lions" in my head. I tweaked that a little bit and came up with this, which I could only call "Gish Gallop." It's less synthy that normal - dig that dirty organ, man!

Gish Gallop by Infinity Ranch

And, just to round things out, an easy-to-play version of "Errors of Avoidance," the GMP track:

Errors of Avoidance by Infinity Ranch


July 15, 2011

Friday Review: If

It’s hard out there for a Yes fan. Jon Anderson, whose voice is for many a de facto requirement for Yes, is out, having been replaced by Canadian soundalike Benoit David (from the band Mystery, who aren’t all that bad on their own terms). They’re touring with those musical giants Styx – on equal terms. There’s new album, Fly From Here, but it’s based around a decades old leftover from the Drama days and is not being all that well received. To top it off, Geoff Downes, who’s back for another stint on keyboards (as the Wheel O' Keyboard Players spins), has decided that the proper media strategy is to confront the critics and call for their mass murder.*

Fun times. Fun times.

But what if you’re in the mood for something very Yes-ish in the classic sense (and want to avoid forking over you cash to douchebag Downes)? You’re in luck my friends – Glass Hammer has you covered.

Glass Hammer is sort of like a Steely Dan of prog, as it’s the brainchild of two guys, Steve Babb and Fred Schendel, who bring in a revolving roster of folks to fill out the band from album to album. After a brave, but not too well received attempt at a more mainstream approach, they roared back to their very Yes-influenced roots with If in 2010. To do so, they recruited an entire new slate of collaborators, including a vocalist, named Jon, who sounds an awful lot like that other vocalist named Jon (who guested on 2007’s Culture of Ascent).

Seriously. If you didn’t know Anderson was on the outs with Yes these days and somebody played you "Beyond, Within" and told you it was off the new Yes album, it would be hard to argue with them. Which isn’t to say Glass Hammer is just ripping off the classics. They have that muscular edge to them that many American prog bands seemed to have absorbed from their arena-rock neighbors (look at Kansas or Spock's Beard, for example).

Glass Hammer doesn't really break any new ground, but they do what they do very well. If you cut your teeth on the symphonic prog of the 1970s and want to hear more of it, with a little modern sheen, check out If. You won’t be disappointed.


If, by Glass Hammer
Released 2010

1. Beyond, Within (11:44)
2. Behold The Ziddle (9:11)
3. Grace The Sky (4:29)
4. At Last We Are (6:46)
5. If The Stars (10:25)
6. If The Sun (24:02)

Fred Schendel (keyboards and steel guitar)
Steve Babb (bass and keyboards)
Jon Davison (vocals)
Alan Shikoh (guitars)
Randall Williams (drums)

* I've got nothing against Downes as a player and I quite like Drama. But it's bad form to launch into your critics with such vitriol. He deploys the Ann Coulter defense (it's all in jest, I'm just kidding), but it won't work for him, either.

July 13, 2011

Truth or Justice or the American Way?

Marge: I don't mind you boys doing this in the living room, but in court, doesn't Bart have to tell the truth?

Lionel Hutz, Esq*: Yeah, but what is truth, if you follow me.
- "Bart Gets Hit By a Car," The Simpsons (1991)

In the wake of last week's verdict in the Casey Anthony case, several notable legal voices, including Jeralyn at TalkLeft and Alan Dershowitz at *choke* HuffPo, made the point that in the United States, trials aren't really about finding out what's "true." In criminal cases, the only issue is whether the defendant did whatever the state is charging her with beyond a reasonable doubt. Whatever the ultimate "truth" is really doesn't matter.

It's the nature of the system. Rather than a free ranging pursuit of the facts, to be followed whereever they lead, it's a contest between two opposing theories. There will be a winner. There will be a loser. Juries aren't free to pick some other choice. Civil trials, where the burden of proof is more lax, may actually get closer to actual truth, in the end.

Beyond that, rules of evidence and other procedural issues often keep juries from hearing all of the facts that might be relevant to the truth. Doesn't matter if the defendant had a gun in his car if the cops searched it in violatio of the Fourth Amendment, because the jury will never hear about it. Hearsay? Deemed unreliable enough that we can't trust jurors to parse what's true from what's false (judges, on the other hand, get to do it all the time).

Which is to say that anybody who looks to trials, criminal trials in particular, to define truth for them is on a fool's errand. Unless you're in Florida, ironically enough:
A Miami-Dade judge on Tuesday denied a lawyer’s request to remove a courtroom sign that reads, “We who labor here seek only the truth.”

Defense lawyer Louis Jepeway Jr., representing a man accused in a 2006 triple murder in Miami, had sought to remove the sign. He said it was improper because jurors aren’t always allowed to see the whole truth — meaning some evidence collected by police. He said the sign may spur jurors to wonder what evidence was being omitted from the trial.

The signs, which hang above the benches of most Miami-Dade judges, were introduced in the 1940s.[/quote]
Admittedly, I don't find the defense argument al that compelling. Not because he isn't right about what that phrase might cause a juror to think, but because I doubt any of them ever notice it's there. A slogan over the bench is precisely the kind of thing that blends into the background of the courtroom.

Besides, since courtrooms aren't a place to pursue the truth, what the harm in telling a little white lie about that?

* Esquire, for those not in the biz, means "law talking guy."

July 12, 2011

On Trilogies (and Beyond!)

Today's a big day in the sci-fi/fantasy world.  After years of waiting and several false alarms, volume five of George R.R. Martin’s dark epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, arrives in stores today (I’m downloading my copy from Audible right now).  A Dance With Dragons drops nearly six years after volume four, A Feast for Crows, even though in an afterward Martin promised that the next volume was practically already written. 

Obviously, it wasn't that easy.  The ensuing delay left a lot of fans pissed, both due to the teasing nature of updates about the next volume, but also out of a fear that Martin might go the way of Robert Jordan and never actually finish the series in his lifetime.  A Song of Ice and Fire is only scheduled to be seven books (compared to the sprawl of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series - 14 books and still carrying on posthumously), but still, with so many years in between, who can be sure?  The level of disgruntledness got so high that Neil Gaiman stepped in to inform everyone that "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch."
That’s part of the problems with books that are part of a series, particularly these days.  Although I'm enthralled by Martin's work, my one gripe is that the first four books in the series aren’t really self-contained units.  It’s more like the story progresses along until it reaches book length, find a stopping point, and that's it.  Sort of like a TV series that just keeps going without any rigid idea of where it’s going from season to season.

I got the same feeling during the book I just finished, Robert J. Sawyer's Wake.  First of a trilogy (naturally), it’s a pretty disappointing execution of a really neat idea (once blind girl becomes a mentor to a nascent consciousness that’s developed on the Web).  But more than that, part of the frustration was that Wake is really only interested in setting up the pieces to play around in the next two volumes.

As a reader, I find that very frustrating, particularly for something like Wake.  It's easier to overlook in something you really enjoyed and know you’ll continue on to the next volume.  But if the first book doesn't hook you but doesn't tell a complete story in its own right, it feels like a colossal waste of time.

As a writer, I hope I can do a little bit better.  The Water Road, my 2009 NaNoWriMo project (revision of which will be my big job for 2012), is designed as the first part of a trilogy.  But I hope it tells a story in its own right, while pointing the direction in which the second book will go.  If nothing else, when the movie rights get picked up but only the first version gets made because the box office sucks (a fantasy world with no humans in which one of the heroines beats her mentor’s skull in – it’s box office gold, Jerry!) I’d like to think it was "complete."  At least to a point.

But, anyway, I'm hardly one to talk from a position to authority.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I've got some dragons dancing over here . . ..

July 10, 2011

Justice! Sweet Juicy Justice!

Two hours into the US quarterfinal against Brazil this morning, staring down the barrel of a 2-1 loss, I was contemplating a post about how we were beaten by an Australian, even though we were playing Brazil.

And then, this happened:

The irony being that we only got that much added time at the end due to Brazil's appalling play acting and time wasting.  We sought it out through PKs.  We go on, Brazil goes home.

Bring on the cheese-eating surrender monkeys!

July 8, 2011

Friday Review: The Man in the High Castle

I tend to run hot and cold when it comes to alternate history stories. Some are brilliant and really make you think about "what might have been." ("The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind). Others seem to turn the alternate version of our world into just another fantasy world. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, it just seems kind of pointless to me.

Having said all that, leave it to Philip K. Dick to take the entire concept and turn it on its head. The "twist" in the world of The Man in the High Castle is that the Axis won the Second World War. The United States has been split into pieces, with puppet governments on the coasts run by Japan and Germany and a quasi-independent buffer zone in the middle.

Which is a neat enough idea, but what Dick does is tell several stories tied together by a common factor - another alternate history novel. In that world, a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a best seller, banned in Nazi controlled areas, naturally (the Japanese take a more hands off approach). It tells a story of a wild alternate history in which the Allies win the war. It's a brilliant device, allowing Dick's characters to talk about their world and (sort of) ours without turning into huge info dumps.

There are a couple of other things I think Dick was getting at with this novel-within-a-novel. Or at least a couple of things I got out of it.

One was that, while The Grasshopper Lies Heavy gets the big question right (the Allies win rather than the Axis), the details, compared to the real history, are pretty far off. To me, that's Dick's way of saying that alternate history stories - or any speculative fiction, really - shouldn't be seen as predictive. There's simply no way to get it right enough to make the exercise worth it. It's also a cool way to insulate Dick from the inevitable second guessers who would argue that the world he portrays wouldn't have been how the world would really look if the Axis won the war. He essentially concedes the point.

That leads to the other thing I got out of the novel-within-a-novel device. Near the end of The Man in the High Castle, one of the characters gets to have a meeting with the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Along the way, she realizes that the novel isn't really about the "other" world, but about there own. That seems like a meta commentary on speculative fiction which, at the end of the day, works best when it says something about how we live in the real world.

Having said that, the revelation the character has is probably not the one I read into it. I won't ruin the ending, but suffice to say it does call into question a lot of what came before. I'm not really sure it works, but I'm open to being convinced. Hell, even Dick blames the I Ching (a major recurring theme in the book) for the ending. Who am I to argue with thousands of years of Chinese woo?

The Details
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
First published in 1962
Winner - Hugo Award, Best Novel (1963)

July 6, 2011

Number 9 . . . Number 9 . . .

Five years ago, 2006, was the high point of my autocross career. At the time, I was driving a car that, while not prepped to the limits of the rules, was as close as I’m likely to come for a while. I was committed enough to schlep a set of “sticky” R-compound tires to every event, swapping them on the car in the morning, off in the evening. The effort paid off. I swept my region’s trophies – class, PAX index, and both “driver of the year” style cups – which I’m unlikely to do again. I also went to my first SCCA National Tour event in Peru, Indiana.

I. Got. My. Ass. Kicked. Seriously. I wasn’t DFL overall, but I came dead last in my class by quite a margin. It was a humbling experience. So why would I do it again?

Good question! For whatever reason, I decided that five years had been enough time between exposure to the real hard core autocross experience. So, this past weekend, I loaded up the WRX and headed to suburban Toledo, Ohio, for another Tour event, which doubles as the Northern States Championship. How did I do?

I. Got. My. Ass. Kicked. Again. But that’s OK. I expected it this time and knew I was, literally, bringing a dull knife to a gun fight. See, when I got the WRX last year I decided I wanted to tune it a little bit. But it’s my daily driver and needs to handle a half-hour commute twice a day, plus 3.5-hour trips to K’s every other weekend. Given that my car is driven on the street every day of the year, but only autocrossed a dozen or so times during the same span, real race-prep was out of the question.

So, I’ve stiffened the WRX up a little bit with a set of springs and matched Bilstein dampers from GTWorx. I went with this setup based on a review from a fellow WRXer who noted its livability on the street while making the car a more enjoyable autocross platform. That’s certainly true. It looks damn good, too:

Photo by K.

Photo by Martin Valent.

That mod alone kicked me into STU ("Street Touring Ultra," for those not familiar with the SCCA's alphabet soup of autocross classification). However, aside from the springs/dampers, the only other mods I had heading to Toledo were fresh brake pads and tires. My competition, for the most part, took full advantage of the STU rules, which allow for more serious, if less streetable, modifications. As an example, one co-driven STi in the class needed to repeatedly slam on the brakes on the way to the starting line, presumably because the pads it had were of the type that only work well once heated. Such pads aren't really workable on the street, unless you live in an area where it’s summer all year ‘round.

If you want to get a feel for what a "real" STU car looks and sounds like, check out this video of one of the Sunday runs of the class winner at Toledo:

UPDATE: Per the driver in the comments, that car is actually his daily driver - he even has snow tires for it!  Makes me feel even slower.

Given all that, I’m happy with how the event turned out. I beat the other guy in STU who was in the non-top-of-the-line car (another 2.5 liter WRX – we’re really stuck between classes right now), which is about all I could hope for. I was ninth out of ten – not DFL! A step up from 2006, a least. I had fun, in spite of the oppressive heat over two days. Met some good people, saw some killer cars, and took part in some awesome competition, if only from a distance -the top 5 in my class were covered by less than 1/2 a second after two days of competition.  The guy above won out by 0.007 of a second.  That's close, no matter what you're doing.

Along the way I got a reminder of how different and intense national-level competition is. To be honest, I simply don't have the stomach for it. Autocross will always be a fun diversion for me, not the kind of thing I can get seriously worked up about.  I lack the drive (so to speak) that the drivers around me had to push themselves and their equipment to the limit. That means I won’t cover myself in glory very often. But I’ll have fun. I’m OK with that.

July 5, 2011

On Celebrity Defendants

So, Casey Anthony has been acquitted of murder and other more serious offenses. She still faces sentencing on four counts of lying to police, but that’s a far cry from the trip to the death chamber the state of Florida was gunning for.  I know very little about the case (and care about it even less), aside from what I saw about it on 48 Hours months and months ago.  But I do know one thing for certain – a large group of people in this country, who have been tied up in this case for months, are going to flip their shit once they learn of the verdict.

Which is, of course, their right.  It’s a free country and everyone’s entitled to an opinion, even an uninformed one.  An uninformed opinion is the only kind that the public in general can have about a case like this.  I don't care how much TV coverage it gets or how apoplectic it makes Nancy Grace, the general public simply can't make an informed decision about whether the jury got it right in this case.

Or any other celebrity case.  It’s impossible for regular folks to keep up with all the minutiae of a trial.  Did you sit through all the testimony from every witness?  Did you listen to all of the instructions given by the judge?  Did you pay attention to all of the closing arguments (occurring on a Sunday, of all bizarre things)?  Outside of the jurors who heard the case, who would?  Sooner or later, no matter how interested you are, you’ve got to go take a shower or shuttle the kids to soccer practice or go to work.  The actual jurors aren't saddled with such distractions.

None of that means the jury in this case got it right, or got it wrong, for that matter.  But whether it's Casey Anthony or OJ Simpson or Lizzie Borden (pick your "Trial of the Century"), the only ones who have all the relevant facts and the tool and time to analyze them are the jurors who hear the case and render the verdict.

In a much less high-profile case (a smaller story, but I know you’ve been following it), I won a pretty big case before the Fourth Circuit today.  The court refused to go along with other courts on the issue, creating a circuit split which could mean a full en banc rehearing or even an appointment with the Supreme Court.  We'll see.

July 1, 2011

Friday Review: Hybris

Although the argument about what the first real progressive rock album was is a long and ongoing one, most people will agree that the first real definitive work of prog – it’s mission statement, if you will – was King Crimson’s debut, In the Court of Crimson King. Likewise, I’m sure there are multiple candidates for albums that kicked off prog’s third wave in the 1990s, but Hybris is probably as good a benchmark as any.

In the 80s prog, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, wasn’t dead, it just smelled funny. The genre leaders from the 70s were either defunct or morphing into slickly competent posters or mega sellouts (your millage may vary, of course). The briefly cresting neo-prog wave produced music that was more direct and friendly to pop conventions. Which is not to say it sucked (some of my favorite bands are neo), but to a certain segment of the fanbase it’s not really "prog." Sure, there were a few still pushing the genres of music into the unknown (the aforementioned Crimson for one). But all in all, the heady days of majestic epic music filled with odd meters and weird sounds appeared to be a fond memory.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to graveyard – modern technology stepped in and allowed a revival of the 70s style. On the one hand, recording and distribution technology (CDs, in particular) allowed more bands to produce more albums without the backing of major labels or any label whatsoever. On the other hand, the emergence of the Internet allowed a small but passionate group of prog fans spread all over the globe to find each other, share their enthusiasm, and, most importantly, turn each other on to new bands.

Into that world came Änglagård, the first of many bands from Sweden that have been at the forefront of the modern prog movement. Which is odd, because there’s nothing at all modern about their sound. Honestly, Hybris could have fallen through a time warp from 1973, with the exception that it sounds crisp and clear. Aside from that, the fusillade of Hammond, Mellotron, and Frippish Les Paul definitely evokes a bygone era.

Which is not to say Hyrbis, or the band’s follow up Epilog, isn’t an excellent record. Nor is it to say they sound like copycats of any particular 70s group. Instead, the band sounds like it came of age during that era and let all those influence seep in. Änglagård does what they do better than anyone else. To complain about it sounding dated is to miss the point.

Hybris is one of the definitive symphonic prog albums of the modern era. Thankfully, after several years out of print, it’s available now in revamped form from the band (with a bonus track that first appeared on the After the Storm benefit album). More thankfully, they’ve working together again and promise new music in the near future.

Hybris, by Änglagård
Released 1992

1. Jordrök (11:10)
2. Vandringar i Vilsenhet (11:53)
3. Ifrån Klarhet Till Klarhet (8:04)
4. Kung Bore (12:57)

Thomas Johnson (keyboards and synths)
Jonas Engdegård (guitars)
Tord Lindman (vocals, guitars)
Johan Högberg (bass, bass pedals and Mellotron effects)
Anna Holmgren (flute)
Mattias Olsson (drums and percussion)