May 13, 2013

Bloggus Interuptus: Matrimonial Edition

Friends, you may remember that last year the lovely lady K agreed to marry me. The time for us to make good on that promise is upon us! And we just bought a house! So, I’ll be stepping away from FtS for the rest of the month.

See y’all in June!

May 10, 2013

Friday Review: ROSFest 2013

Last weekend, for the third year running, I trooped up to the rolling countryside of central Pennsylvania for the Rites of Spring Festival, aka ROSFest. Held at the lovely Majestic Theater in Gettysburg, the festival showcases the more melodic side of progressive rock. This was kind of an odd year for me, as there wasn’t anybody on the bill that I was completely ecstatic about having a chance to see – no IQ or Phideaux from prior years. In fact, going in I didn’t know a lot about many of the bands, but I was sort of intrigued by them. Would I find an unknown gem like Sanguine Hum or Tinyfish. Let’s find out!

First, a graphical note – your humble narrator screwed the pooch this year and left his camera at home, so none of the usual pictures of the Majestic marquee setting out each day’s schedule. I already feel your scorn and am remorseful about it.

Friday kicked off with Bolus, a four-piece (on stage, at any rate) from Canada. Aside from a couple of YouTube clips I didn’t know anything about them going in, but I liked their brand of energetic, tuneful, neo-prog. As with so many newer bands these days they occasionally lapsed into a metal riffage territory, but not so much as to ruin it. On their 2013 release Triangulate the band’s only a three-piece, but the live show had a fourth guy featuring mainly on keyboards (a Korg M50, to be precise – represent!), with some occasional guitar. The keys were so prevalent that I was surprised at their near total absence on the album. I also liked the bass player’s MacGeyver’d bass pedal setup (MIDI pedals into a MicroKorg?) – it literally made my hair move when he put a foot down!

Headliners for Friday night were the famous Flower Kings from Sweden. I’ve got a kind of an odd history with the Kings. I really love the Roine Stolt solo album that gave birth to them, but I don’t find their output all that interesting most of the time. I’ve called it “chicken soup for the prog lover’s soul” before, because it sort of hits all the right notes (so to speak) of classic symphonic prog, but doesn’t really thrill me. Having said that, they’re a stalwart of the “third wave” of prog that emerged in the 1990s, are a damned fine group of musicians, and I was glad to be able to see them live.

The first full day of music began with Jolly, a four-piece from New York City. There is a good story to this band. Their studio (and the drummer’s apartment) was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, which would have been bad enough anyway, but (a) the band had just finished a new album and (b) were getting ready to hit the road supporting Riverside. Luckily said drummer saved his computer (with the album on it – this is the 21st century) and their fans rose up to support them so that the tour went on (is going on, actually) without a hitch. Very cool. Musically, Jolly pumps out a tuneful near-prog in somewhat the same vein as Bolus, but with a much heavier, more metallic edge. Not really my thing, but they do it well – the road work they’ve done shows. Another nice touch – if you buy their current album The Audio Guide To Happiness - Part 2, you get a free download of the last one, The Audio Guide To Happiness - Part 1, so you can get the whole concept in one sitting.

Prog metal is not my favorite of the prog neighborhoods. I’ve got nothing against heaviness itself, but the “balls and chunk” metal riffing has never been my thing. So I was apprehensive about Sweden’s Pain of Salvation, given their stellar prog metal pedigree. I was more than pleasantly surprised by their set, which was one of the most diverse of the weekend. Yes, there was the prog metal riffing, but it was interwove with lots of effective dynamic shifts. The band carelessly skipped through a whole host of experiments with different styles, which I always admire. Some didn’t work (the disco tune and the quasi-rap one left me cold), but how can you not love a band that trots out a lounge/jazz/reggae version of Dio’s “Holy Diver”?

Believe, from Poland, turned out to be a good palate cleanser for Saturday evening. Amidst a day of fairly heavy music, their brand of solid, melodic neo-prog played well. They reminded me a lot of IQ and Camel, not to mention fellow countrymen Quidam. Guitarist Mirek Gil took lots of opportunities to stretch out and solo, getting fierier and more intense as the set progressed. The band had a violinist, but she was buried in most tunes, but it was a nice touch when she was more prevalent. Good, nice tunes, but nothing spectacular.

Fairly early in their headlining set Saturday night, Riverside bassist/vocalist Mariousz Duda joked how at first they were the “Polish Porcupine Tree,” then they became the “Polish Dream Theater.” As for now, maybe they’d become the “Polish . . .” – he let the answer hang until the keyboard player ripped off the first couple of riffs from Deep Purple’s “Perfect Strangers.” The Porcupine Tree comparisons were once valid (the Dream Theater ones not so much), but Riverside has forged their own path over the past decade. They’re heavy, yes, but not really in a metal way, but more in a thick, wall of sound kind of way. If anything, these days they sometimes seem like Spock’s Beard’s heavier Polish cousins. Regardless, they were excellent, easily surpassing my expectations. I had three of their five albums going into ROSFest and figured I wouldn’t need any more. I completed my collection on Sunday morning.

On a side note – this was the tenth edition of ROSFest and Riverside was the 100th band to take the stage at the festival. Congrats to George and everybody who puts on the fest for reaching that kind of milestone.

Sunday morning at ROSFest is dubbed the “church of prog,” since, well, it’s Sunday and all. Typically, the band chosen to kick off Sunday gives an energetic performance to help most people shake off the cobwebs of the partying done the night before. Dream the Electric Sleep – a great name and, since they hail from nearby Lexington, Kentucky, almost a local band for me – took the opposite approach. The slid into their set, opening with a pair of longish, spacey sounding tracks. More of a slow warming than a brilliant sunrise. To their credit, the first track had a similarly spacey quote from “Amazing Grace” to start off. I like DTES’s mix of space rock, jammy stuff, and even post-rock (if you squint a bit), but was disappointed by their presentation. Simply put – they need a fourth guy in the band. The power trio setup was augmented by a Macbook that handled not only the occasional intro or atmospheric sample, but also acoustic guitar, synths, and backing vocals. Seriously, I hope the Macbook had a union card, at least.

The key word to describing the set by Moetar (from prog hotspot Oakland, California) is “short.” As in the fact that many of their songs were conspicuously short. I’m not talking about a lack of stereotypical prog epics, I’m talking about a bunch of 2-3 minute tracks that barely get going before they’re over. Still and all, they pack an awful lot into those short bursts, probably too much. The music is really busy, with lots of lightning guitar and piano riffs, augmented by matching vocal lines (think Zappa or Keneally unison vocals, but performed by a powerful female vocalist). Fantastic musicians, but the end product left me a bit cold. The newer tracks seemed a little bit more well developed, so maybe in a few years they’ll really be hitting it out of the park.

Japan’s Asturias is the brain child of multi-instrumentalist Yoh Ohyama – it exists in the form of an acoustic chamber ensemble, an electric rock/fusion band, and the label for Ohyama’s more individual efforts (he’s the “Mike Oldfield of Japan”). It was the electric version that brought the house down at ROSFest. They ripped through a set of smoking instrumental prog, laced with streaks of fusion. As with Believe they had a female violinist (the violinist from Believe is even of Japanese extraction, I think), but she was much more front and center in the sound, providing a nice counterpoint to the guitar and keyboard leads. On top of all that, each band member addressed the audience as some sort of English as a Second Language assignment (guitar player’s response to a random shouted comment – “I don’t speak English”), each of which underlined their enthusiasm for playing half a world away from their home. Simply put, they were great.

Sunday’s headliner was Shadow Gallery, truly a local band, a prog-metal outfit who only played out live for the first time a few years ago. I understand how happy fans were to get to see them, but they’re not my cup of tea (it’s not just prog-metal, it’s cheesy prog-metal), they were running late, and, by that time, I was beat, so I just packed it in. No idea how they’re performance came off.

Going into ROSFest this year I didn’t really expect any “wow!” moments. It’s to the fest’s credit that I still got a couple and, even outside of those, the rest of the lineup was uniformly solid. Barring something untoward happening, I’ll be back in 2014 for the fourth time running. Hopefully, next year, my seat won’t disappear into the ether after I bought it!

May 3, 2013

Friday Review: Under the Dome

The situation in which regular people find themselves basically stripped of civilization and the comforts of our modern world is a classic fictional trope, from the English school kids of Lord of the Flies to the few survivors of some planetary disaster in The Road or A Canticle for Liebowitz. Generally, those stories take people who may or may not have any prior relationship to one another and throw them into a world of anarchy and chaos.

Stephen King’s Under the Dome turns that trope on its side in two crucial ways. First, the characters in the book are all from the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill, population 2000 (in the off season, as it is in the book) and thus not only know each other but have a complicated web of alliances, bitterness, and business interests (legit and otherwise) connecting them. Second, although the titular dome throws life in Chester’s Mill into utter higgledy-piggledy, there’s no anarchy or absence of leadership. In fact, what’s so terrifying about what happens in Chester’s Mill is that the political machine that’s run the town for years functions perfectly once crisis hits, which leads to apocalyptic disaster.

Overseeing this mess is “Big” Jim Rennie – used car salesman, obnoxiously loud Christian, and gargantuan meth dealer. If Under the Dome is supposed to be King’s meditation on the United States after 9/11, Rennie is the stand in for Dick Cheney as the power behind the throne. Although Rennie is the second of three selectman (one is actually a selectwoman) who govern the town, he wields all the actual power. The analogy doesn’t quite fit – nobody ever voted for Cheney directly, while Rennie had won numerous elections to maintain his seat. If anything, Rennie seems to be King’s warning that, while we focus most of our attention on national politics, the office holders with the most power to really fuck things up are locals and we ignore the low-level political offices at our own peril.

Having said that, to the extent that King is trying to do something more than tell a compelling, terrifying story, he misses some opportunities to explore some interesting grey areas. For example, once the dome comes down, new cops are quickly recruited to brace against chaos and lawlessness. It would have been interesting to see one or two good people in these positions, honestly dealing with the competing concerns of security and liberty. Alas, since Rennie is the one doing the choosing, the new cops are all his henchmen (including his murderous son) and proceed to do precisely what you’d expect henchmen to do given that kind of power.

Another missed opportunity is the lack of any exploration of the Chester’s Mill body politic. The novel’s cast of characters is impressively large and King does a good job of working them all together, even if the individual characterizations are pretty shallow. However, they divide neatly into the obviously evil – Rennie and his flunkies – and obviously good – the couple dozen citizens who oppose him. King isn’t really interested in the rest of the unwashed masses, which is a shame because they’re largely the ones who voted for Rennie again and again. Why had they? Why were they so willing to believe any bullshit story he told them? After all, Rennie’s claim to power is that “the town” is behind him, but “the town” remains nebulous and unexplored.

As for the dome itself, it’s a wonderful literary invention. Although the word “dome” and some of the initial interaction with it would bring to mind the giant glass bowl dumped on Springfield in The Simpsons Movie (with which Under the Dome shares a passing similarity), it’s not a solid barrier. Instead, it’s a somewhat permeable force field of some kind, through which plot devices like speech, heat, and (in a very limited way) air can move but people, vehicles, and explosives can’t. It effectively seals the town off, but allows for some contact with the outside world.

To his credit, King doesn’t just plop the dome down and let it go all McGuffin on him. He provides an explanation for it, one that drives the final hunk of the book. Unfortunately, that explanation is neither all that interesting logically or dramatically. It leads the end of the book to be a real let down.

We tend to think the best of ourselves, that when faced with crisis we’ll rise to the occasion and do the right thing. Truth is, some folks will do that, while others will use the anarchy to enrich themselves (in different ways) and still others will simply be passive observers, numb from the shock of their world going to shit. King grasps that. So long as Under the Dome focuses on life under the dome, it’s a pretty compelling read. Bigger explanations, not so much.

The Details
Under the Dome
By Stephen King
Published 2009

May 2, 2013

A Formula for False Confessions

The new Sundance Channel series Rectify revolves around man released from death row after 18 years, following a conviction for a crime he (most likely) didn’t commit. The scientific evidence, at least, says that. But one barrier to his return to the community is the talk, not all behind his back, that he must be guilty because he confessed to the crime. Whether that turns out to be true in that particular case is anybody’s guess (although I think we’ve already been tipped to the fact that he’s innocent), but we know now that such a “common sense” conclusion is often wrong.

Which is not to say it’s common. According to this report from the National Registry of Exonerations, 15% of false convictions include confessions. For homicides, the number rises to 25%. While that’s nowhere near the percentage of cases that involve false eyewitness testimony (43% of all cases), official misconduct (42%), or good ol’ fashioned perjury (51%), it’s still a significant number. At the very least, “but he confessed” should never be enough, standing alone, to convict someone of a crime, much less execute them.

But why does it happen? Not every person who falsely confesses is tortured or what have you. David Harris, a law professor at Pitt and writer on “why law enforcement resists science,” provides one potential answer, in an interview over at Psychology Today. It focuses on the “Reid technique,” the leading method for police conducting interrogations. It was developed in the 1950s and it science deficient, as Harris explains. But more than that is the goal of the technique:
The Reid technique for interrogation is not a process designed for the discovery of facts and evidence. Rather, it is a multiphase process, to be used when the interrogator has already concluded that the subject is guilty, and therefore simply needs the confession out of the person to confirm the guilt and prove it.

The interrogator determines guilt through a phase of interaction before interrogation, in which the officer ascertains guilt or innocence through asking basic questions and observing behavior.
However, as Harris explains, the bases for that determination of guilt are also built on sand. The result is a system that, while not designed to generate false confessions, isn’t designed to generate accurate confessions, either. The confession itself, regardless of its veracity, is the desired end product.

There’s something to be said for training police officers to be able to get suspects to talk who otherwise wouldn’t, to get them to hang themselves using their own words. If nothing else, it makes for gripping cop shows on TV (see Homicide: Life on the Street and it’s frequent scenes in “the box”). But the broad focus should be on ensuring the truth and accuracy of the resulting confession. False confessions don’t do anybody any good and can, in too many cases, put innocent people in a world of hurt.