Album Review: Joe Satriani - Strange Beautiful Music

Image source: Wikipedia.org

Strange Beautiful Music, released in the summer of 2002, is my favorite Joe Satriani album. It has a lot of good things going for it, so let me dive right in.

First and foremost, this album is an absolutely gorgeously produce record. No other album in Satriani's catalog features such an absolutely gorgeous overall sound. The guitars, drums, keyboards, and bass all have a delicious analog warmth to them. The low tom tom drums reverberate and decay deeply. Even when the band is playing full-on, you can hear the full sustain and decay of the floor toms. The guitar tones are particularly crunchy, but you can really hear the power tube saturation come through - a nuanced tonal attribute that typically takes a back seat to other production concerns. In fact, very few records are produced clearly enough to highlight the power tube compression of the guitar amplifiers.

There's something else that makes the production quality stand out on this record: Joe's expanded palette of sounds. At any point on the album, you might hear sitars, banjos, acoustic guitars, clean-toned guitars recorded direct, and so on. (Even an orchestral harp played by none other than Pia Vai on "Chords of Life.") That's in addition to the various keyboard patches that provide additional textures of their own. Naturally, using so many "additional instruments" in the context of an album will demand a great deal of the arrangements, and also of the production.

Being such a remarkably well-produced album - such a stand-out in Satriani's catalog - naturally makes one wonder what new personnel were brought that made for such rich sounds. Incredibly, though, there were no new faces here; the album was produced by Satriani and his longtime collaborators John Cuniberti and Eric Cadieux. So, it's the same roster, but they just happened to have out-done themselves on this record.

The songs themselves show Satriani in a more experimental mindset, but in this case the experimentation is more "organic." I mentioned the various non-guitar instruments brought in to add richness, but even the song titles themselves indicate where Satriani wanted to go with this record: "Oriental Melody," "Belly Dancer," "Seven String," etc. You can take this however you like, of course, but when I listen to this album, I hear Joe Satriani branching out in textures. It sounds as though he was trying to pull new sounds into his repertoire by any means necessary, including drawing instruments and melodic and rhythmic approaches from Eastern cultures.

In a way, it's sort of the opposite approach to that which he took on his legendary early-80s EP, for which he played all sounds on his guitar (striking the pickups for a bass drum sound, striking muted strings for a snare drum sound, detuning for bass, etc.). He began his career by trying to squeeze every sound imaginable out of his electric guitar. On Strange Beautiful Music, when he wanted a new sound or texture, he seems to have reached for a new instrument.

The result is a rather powerful statement from Joe Satriani. I like the fact that he spends so much time outside of his comfort zone on this record. This is perhaps most evident on the song "Sleep Walk," which is a genuinely authentic 1950s instrumental ballad. There really isn't anything "traditionally Satriani" about it, and in fact if a listener heard this song out of context, he or she would never even imagine that it was a Joe Satriani song. The guest appearance by Robert Fripp heightens the surrealness of the song all the more. There's Joe Satriani playing clean-toned jazz guitar while Robert Fripp plays an eerie and decidedly not-50s Frippertronics sound.

That's the kind of thing you get on this album, and it's why I love it so much. This is Joe Satriani reaching as far as his creative ability will reach, incorporating varied instruments and sounds in a bid to produce a record that stands apart from anything else in his catalog... and he nails it.

Earl And The Earlites

Suppose you know someone - call him Earl - who joined a cult some years back, then eventually transitioned back into ordinary society. Suppose one day you came to know that Earl was of the opinion that Barack Obama faked his birth certificate. Suppose you hadn't really followed the birth certificate issue very closely. Then: how would your opinion about the birth certificate change, knowing that Earl was a "birther?"

A rigid rationalist will point out that this isn't fair. Just because someone is wrong about one thing doesn't mean that someone is wrong about everything, or even about most things. That same rationalist will also point out that truth doesn't depend on who believes what. And, of course, that rationalist would be absolutely correct, so long as what we are talking about is a rational, empirical true/false question.

But now suppose that you already know that the cult to which Earl once belonged was, as I like to put it, cuckoo-crazy. Suppose also that you have all the facts on the "birther" issue, which has now been analyzed so closely as to have left room for no reasonable doubt: the "birthers" are wrong. Now you know something about Earl, and what you know is that Earl is drawn to false beliefs.

You also know something about the kind of false beliefs to which Earl is drawn. Earl has a penchant for cultish beliefs. In one case, Earl was a member of an actual cult, and then in another case, he subscribed to conspiratorial, fact-immune, paranoia.

Now, suppose you learn that Earl believes a new thing. and this is yet another thing that you honestly believe to be false. But Earl is always arguing about it, passionately defending his belief in this third thing. At this point, you're already far beyond the point where Earl can persuade you to believe anything. His opinion doesn't influence yours at all. You're also fair enough and rational enough to avoid falling into the trap that "anyone who believes the same third thing that Earl believes is a conspiracy theorist." You give the third thing a fair hearing, you just don't take your information from Earl, you get it from more reliable sources.

But suppose, while you're looking at more reliable sources, you discover that there are a lot of other people like Earl, who all believe this third thing, and who also happen to be predisposed to cultish beliefs. Let's call them Earlites. 

Suppose, say, 30% of the people who believe in something are demonstrable Earlites, prone to cultish beliefs. The other 70% are, as far as you can tell, reasonable people. Suppose that 30% is an over-representation, though. Suppose that only, say, 5% of the human population is a demonstrable Earlite. So this third thing definitely attracts a lot of Earlites, even though they don't comprise the majority of people who believe in that third thing.

Finally, suppose you track a whole set of beliefs - a third thing, a fourth thing, a fifth thing, and so on - that all seemingly attract about 30% Earlites and 70% reasonable people, but that it's always the same set of Earlites

If nothing else, this would give you a great deal of insight into Earl's way of thinking. You might be no closer to knowing the truth about issues {3, 4, 5, 6, ..., x-1, x}, but you'd definitely know that the Earlite population is one that gravitates to a certain array of beliefs. You'd know that these beliefs are either cultish, or lend credence to a separate, uniquely Earlite, way of viewing the world. 

That would be good insight to have.

Album Review: Dream Theater - Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory

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Dream Theater's fifth studio album, released late in 1999, is widely regarded to be the best album the band has ever released. For me, though, it was a difficult album to learn to enjoy, and in my opinion represents the transition of the band from being great to just good.

As soon as it came out, a good friend of mine bought it. He brought it over to my apartment, and I remember that we listened to it together on the big stereo in the living room. We hated it.

It took me fifteen years to come to some kind of appreciation of the album. I still consider it a major step down from Awake and Falling Into Infinity, but as time passes I learn to appreciate the fact that musical artists don't stay in one place forever. They grow and develop, and sometimes that means growing into something much different than we listeners grow ourselves.

Let me discuss a few of the album's elements in an effort to highlight my complex relationship with this album.


First of all, there is a major originality problem on this record. 

The "story" told through the songs themselves - the lyrical subject matter - draws heavily from the 1991 Kenneth Branaugh / Emma Thompson film Dead Again. Dead Again tells the story of a woman with amnesia whose repressed memories are revealed by a psychologist, through hypnosis. When the repressed memories reveal themselves to be the memories of a past life, the film's peripheral characters become drawn deeper into the story, and their role in the woman's past life, as well as her present life, become known to the audience. It is a highly original story, a double-murder-mystery in the sense that there are two parallel stories happening in the movie - the mystery of her past life, and the mystery of her present life. 

The story has a series of highly unique and exciting plot twists that I have never seen told in any other story... except the story told in Scenes From A Memory. The fact that the core story and even the major plot twists in Scenes From A Memory are lifted directly from a somewhat obscure movie released eight years earlier makes it clear enough that Dream Theater took their story idea directly from that movie.

So what, you ask? Lots of bands, and even classical composers, have written material based on stories written by others. Besides, cinema and music are two different media. Well, if the album's unoriginality ended there, I might indeed overlook it.

Unfortunately, musical passages and themes contained throughout the album seem to have been lifted directly from famous music from prior artists in a way that goes beyond allusion or "influence," and feels more like... plagiarism. The reason I think Dream Theater got away with it is because, at the time, they were wearing their influences on their sleeves. In the interviews supporting the release of Falling Into Infinity, for example, Derek Sherinian was quoted as saying "We like to steal very creatively." Indeed, on that album, the "influences" are obvious to the point of discomfort, and slowly discovering these "citations" in their music marked the point at which I started to question the high esteem in which I had previously held them. 

And let's not forget that Dream Theater's release prior to Falling Into Infinity was an extended player featuring one long song written by Dream Theater and a string of covers written by famous progressive rock artists. That means that after releasing the genuinely great album Awake, Dream Theater went on to release a EP full of covers, an LP full of songs that smacked far too heavily of the source material that "influenced" it, a live album that included even more covers and "homages," and then Scenes From A Memory, whose plagiarism was so blatant that it genuinely shocked me. 

Then, there's the album cover itself, which was designed by the same artist who designed the cover of Fates Warning's Still Life album. Still Life was released in 1998, a year prior to Scenes From A Memory. Here's what the cover looks like:

Just a coincidence, though, right?

Fates Warning is known to be one of Dream Theater's major influences - in fact Dream Theater auditioned Fates Warning's original lead singer, John Arch, after Arch left Fates Warning.

And since Fates Warning is one of my very favorite bands of all time - the best of the best, in my opinion, of heavy progressive music and artistic vision - this sort of became the final straw for me and my relationship to Dream Theater. No band that takes so much from so many artists so constantly deserved very much of my attention. If I wanted to hear great music, I reasoned, I ought to just go straight to the source material, rather than hearing it secondhand through Dream Theater's reinterpretation. It didn't seem there was an original bone left in the band's collective body of post-Kevin-Moore work.

Learning To Love

That remained my opinion of the album and the band until sometime in 2012, when I became aware of Mike Portnoy's having left the band. The news was salacious enough for a prog-rock fan like myself, that I couldn't resist diving into the media reports, the band interviews, and, ultimately, the many years of material I hadn't been paying attention to since 1999.

When I dive into a band's history, I like to listen to their material in chronological sequence to sort of "get my head into" their artistic development. So when I was reading all these articles, that's exactly what I did for Dream Theater. What I discovered was that, in hindsight, I hated Dream Theater far less than I thought I did. In fact, while I continue to think that Awake is the band's masterpiece, I discovered that all of the band's albums are pretty decent.

And there's something else important to say about the band: Love them or hate them, we all have to admit that they have created a sort of "sonic world" we step into as listeners. Even when they're drawing heavily from outside influences, the fact of the matter is that with Dream Theater we know exactly what we're going to get. That's worth something.

All that is to say, when I started to restock my Dream Theater CD catalog, Scenes From A Memory was the first item on my shopping list.

The first and foremost thing that drew me to the album this time around was James LaBrie's vocals. After years of being panned even by devout Dream Theater fans, I think James LaBrie finally delivered a masterful vocal performance on Scenes From A Memory. This is particularly evident on "Through Her Eyes" [note: Fates Warning released a song called "Through Different Eyes" in 1989]. A slow, moody number, "Through Her Eyes" offers LaBrie enough space to really stretch his voice and show off all the techniques he can't display when he's reaching for high notes. His performance is tender, emotional, and, in my book, perfect. And that just epitomizes for me what he managed to accomplish on this album.

Second, there's simply no denying that John Petrucci is a ferocious guitar player. While I am not always a fan of his note choice, on this record he manages to flex his chops without really over-doing it. He solos melodically, for the most part, and saves his technical displays for the instrumental sections of the album that end up being unison lines played not only by him, but also by keyboardist Jordan Rudess and bassist John Myung.

It needs to be mentioned that Scenes From A Memory was Jordan Rudess' first album with Dream Theater, and his influence is evident. This, too, was jarring for me when I heard the album in 1999, because Rudess' playing is much less aggressive and heavy metal than Derek Sherinian's, and a lot less groovy than Kevin Moore's. Instead, it feels playful to me. When the album was released, this bothered me because it felt like the band had become something unpleasant. Through the years, though, I've really come to enjoy Jordan Rudess' playing, and so listening to Scenes From A Memory today gives me a good feeling about the keyboard work. I might not like it as much as the keyboard work on a Planet X album, for example, but I still quite like it.


So there you have it: over a decade's worth of history regarding my personal relationship to what others believe to be Dream Theater's masterpiece - why I hated it, why I went back to it, and why I appreciate it today. 

We all know, of course, that it doesn't ultimately matter what I say about this record. The real Dream Theater fans love it with a fervor that one man's opinion could never - and should never - influence. So if you like the band, and by some shocking stroke of chance, you've never heard this album before, please go ahead and buy it. You'll love it. If you hate the band, I think this album might consist of everything for which you already hate the band. So don't expect this one to change your mind about the band; it probably won't.

And if you liked the band's earlier material, but eventually lost interest or stopped keeping up with them, go ahead and give this album a try. You might find, as I did, that it's better today than it was when it came out.


Album Review: Alice In Chains - The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here

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There's something I really respect about Jerry Cantrell, and that is that years can pass, bandmates can over-dose, addictions can be overcome, and yet through it all, he's never stopped being heavy. Maybe this is because Alice in Chains got their "acoustic singer-songwriter" phase out of their systems nice and early, but I like to think it's mostly because Cantrell loves heavy, guitar-driven music, and so that's what he writes.

If he were any other musician, you'd expect the 2013 Alice in Chains album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here to be mellow. After all, it was the band's second post-Layne-Staley album, all the members are either dead or long in the tooth, and the music industry's appetite for heavy music is perhaps at an all-time low. But Jerry Cantrell is not any other musician, and instead he wrote an album as heavy and awesome as anything you might have heard in the 90s.

Well... anything except a 90s Alice in Chains album. This is inevitable. Alice in Chains was a special mix of energy, chaos, and drug use that was bound to be short-lived, but ferocious; and it was. The cost of their early, drug-fueled genius is that their later, still-awesome, sober records are bound to lack the same kind of energy that reckless twenty-somethings can put into their material. But this isn't fair. You can't compare an album like this to Dirt and then criticize it for not being Dirt. Dirt is over, and what we have now is the band as it is today.

So, rather than living up to Layne Staley nostalgia, The Devil Put Dinosours seems to offer a different thing entirely: You already know Jerry Cantrell to be one of the heaviest, coolest, best songwriters of the 1990s, so let's see what he's up to. What he's up to is everything you can expect from him: heavy riffs, catchy melodies, deft harmonies, guitar tones to die for. There's nothing here to dislike. Shy of Staley's indelible vocal fingerprint, The Devil Put Dinosaurs stands up as the best album that today's Alice in Chains can put out - and it's great!

One comparison that is worth exploring, though, is this: It's interesting to draw parallels between this record and Soundgarden's 2012 effort, King Animal. Both focus their energy on the heaviness of a slow groove, on the cascading layers of vocal tracks and guitars, on the haunting emotional characteristics that defined the music of 1991-1994. It's revelatory that I experience the same emotional response to both records, and no, it's not nostalgia. It's the same feeling I felt as a young man, when I heard these bands for the first time - it's the emotional response they've always been aiming for. It's that mix of melancholy, beauty, and artistic self-expression. Love or hate these old grunge bands, they do what they do remarkably well, even after all these years.

The truth is, I bought The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here on a lark. I expected to dislike the record, but I had a few bonus credits at Amazon burning a hole in my pocket, so I took a chance. Just like the old days, when I used to head over to the CD super-store and take a chance on a budding 90s artist. And much like the 90s, this album gave me a pleasant surprise. Alice in Chains is still a brilliant band, and the fact that their new music takes me back in time tells me that this is every bit the album they wanted to release. Well done.

Interesting Diabetes Research

A recent South Korean study of over 4,000 patients found something interesting about type 2 diabetes mellitus:
During 10 years of follow-up, 1093 (27%) of 4106 participants developed prediabetes and 498 (12%) participants developed diabetes. Compared with participants who remained NGT, those who progressed to diabetes had a lower IGI60 (unadjusted data 5.1 μU/mmol (95% CI 0.5 – 56.1) vs 7.9 μU/mmol (0.5 – 113.8); p < 0.0001) and lower ISI (unadjusted data 8.2 (2.6 – 26.0) vs 10.0 (3.2 – 31.6); p < 0.0001) at baseline. Participants who had NGT at 10 years showed a decrease in ISI (adjusted data 10.1 (9.9 – 10.3) vs 7.4 (7.3 – 7.6); p < 0.0001) but a compensatory increase in IGI60 (adjusted data 6.9 μU/mmol (6.5 – 7.2) vs 11.7 μU/mmol (11.2 – 12.1); p < 0.0001) compared with baseline. By contrast, participants who developed diabetes showed a decrease in ISI (adjusted data 8.4 (8.0 – 8.7) vs 3.0 (2.8 – 3.2); p < 0.0001) but no significant compensatory increase (p = 0.95) in IGI60. A genetic variant near the glucokinase gene (rs4607517) was significantly associated with progression to prediabetes or diabetes (hazard ratio 1.27, 1.16 – 1.38; p = 1.70 x 10 − 7).
Okay, that's a lot of numbers and gibberish for the lay-person, so let me offer one interpretation of the findings.

The researchers studied over four thousand people for ten years, some of whom developed type 2 diabetes during that time period. So now there are two groups of patients in the study: those who developed type 2 diabetes, and those who did not.

As the patients aged, the natural insulin in their systems was less effective over time, and this was true for everyone. But for those patients who did not develop diabetes, their bodies just cranked out more insulin. For the diabetics, their pancreases just went haywire instead.

This is important because most health articles you might have read (including all that dumb paleo stuff - I'm talking to you, Mr. One-Reader-Per-Month-Who-Comes-By-Way-Of-Mark's-Daily-Apple) emphasize the importance of increasing a body's insulin sensitivity by eating fewer carbohydrates. But while that may help, this new research suggests that the more important problem is not insulin resistance, but rather pancreatic malfunction.

Everyone experiences insulin resistance to some degree. Only diabetics experience reduced beta-cell functionality.

At least, that's my reading of it.

Album Review: Joe Satriani - Crystal Planet

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Perhaps 1998's Crystal Planet is a more remarkable Joe Satriani album in hindsight than it was at the time. When it came out, I remember that what stood out most was the album's techno influences. In retrospect, however, that fact seems quite surprising to me. Listening to it now, almost twenty years later, I hardly notice anything "techno" about it; it sounds like a perfect continuation of the groundwork laid by, say, The Extremist.

But in 1998, the music world had not yet gone "full techno," so adding some digitally delayed keyboard patches here and there, shooting an album cover on a solid white background, etc., was enough to be called techno back then. Or at least, that's how I remember it.

Crystal Planet also represented a bit of a "return to form" for Joe Satriani, whose previous studio album (1995's Joe Satriani) was a deep dive into softer, bluesier territory. After having released that starkly contrasting album, and then embarking on a fabulously successful (and ultimately legendary) series of G3 tours with Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, Satch seemed to have been ready to get back to the business of putting out Joe Satriani solo albums more in line with his iconic early albums.

The influence of the G3 tours also made itself apparent on this album. If criticism can be made of one of the music industry's greatest gutiar players, it might be that some of his material - especially the 90s material - hasn't always seemed to push him very hard. That criticism seems to have been vanquished by Crystal Planet, which features a Joe Satriani at the absolute top of his game, in terms of pure chops.

While this album doesn't feature any of the most famous Joe Satriani songs, there are some real hidden gems worth going back to often.

First, "House Full of Bullets." From the name, we expect a fast-paced, hard-hitting rocker; instead, we get a groovy mid-tempo number perfect for a slow drive down the beach. The groove is deep, the rhythm is impossible not to bob along with. Satriani plays the verse's rhythm figure and its lead melody at the same time, somehow deepening the groove, and giving the song an explosive "power trio" feel. While the solo isn't the most physically ambitious, it features a number of surprising-and-delighting improvised jazzy lines that demonstrate Joe's prowess not only as a rock god, but also as improv musician.

Then there is "Raspberry Jam Delta-V," featuring an opening phrase played on Joe's Whammy pedal, heightening the impact of the "techno" feel of the album. We almost expect drum samples to come in, along with a pulsing keyboard bass. Instead, we get a nice, live-sounding drum groove played by Satriani's longtime skin-pounder Jeff Campitelli. With the word "jam" right there in the song title, we certainly have expectations of a less song-structured, more free-form Satriani piece, and to a large extent that is exactly what we get. Then, suddenly - a break in the action. The keyboards swell and there is a brief moment of thick harmonic interjection. Call me nuts, but I love stuff like this. Satriani so rarely takes time to dive deeply into weirder, more harmonically dense territory, and yet here he does it right in the middle of what is otherwise a full-on improv jam. The result is something totally unexpected from a guitar god: the free-form parts feel like a dance song, while the boldly composed segments of the piece sound like techno music... all that despite the song really being neither. This is a clear case of Satch-experimentation that just simply works.

For my money, though, the best song on the album is "With Jupiter In Mind." Here, Satriani displays the cogent thoughtfulness with which he structures melodies, the very attribute that has made him a mainstay of the guitar industry since the 80s. The rhythm tracks echo into deep space as the melodies twist and turn, as though through outer space. One really gets that classic Satch spacey vibe. While the chord cadences of the piece are not quite as complex as they seem, the structure of the melodies is so carefully thought out that they bring out absolutely everything the song has to offer. This is Joe Satriani at his absolute very best.

When it's all said and done, after all these years, Crystal Planet has made itself out to be a really great Satriani album, featuring some of the best melodies and guitar work of his career. While it doesn't seem to have made as wide an impact as some of his more iconic albums, I'd place this one on par with anything else he's released. Thus, Crystal Planet is a really great contribution to a storied career.

When The Revolution Has Been Televised

Once upon a time I wrote a little blog post about how freedom is free, but we still pay for it anyway. Over the years, it turned out to be one of my most popular posts. Here's a slice:
Lucky for us, there is the valiant libertarian movement. They also offer us ways to pay for our freedom. For example, the Ludwig von Mises Institute offers us swag. The LvMI offshoot, Laissez-Faire Books, offers us... books, as well as some subscription services. Peter Schiff offers us financial services. Freedomain Radio offers us a lot of free stuff as a means by which to sell additional speaking engagements and the like. The Cato Institute sells all kinds of stuff, but if you're not in the market for any of it, they are more than happy to accept your generous donation.
Liberty for sale. I had hoped it ended there, that the "cottage industry" of libertarian products and services would keep itself mainly in the territory of swag.

Unfortunately, things have worsened.


Remember when Tom Morello got upset because one of his biggest fans was a Republican presidential candidate who also really dug Ayn Rand? I wrote about it at the time, but in hindsight, I don't appear to have had anything better to say than, "Look at that - rich guy criticizes other rich guy for being rich." I had good enough instincts to notice something amiss about all of this, but I didn't quite have my finger on the pulse.

By contrast, here's what The Last Psychiatrist wrote (emphasis added):
I don't begrudge anyone making a fortune from their art, but if you allow the system to make you rich from your art, well, there's a trade off. 
Tom Morello may want to do a bit of soul searching: did his art really bring awareness to the public, or did it serve the system's function of keeping everyone in line, i.e. a safe way to let off steam so that the kind of changes he was earnestly demanding were negated? This is the exact same question one must ask about the now safely defuncted OccupyWallSt, and even Obama himself. You know why you don't hear about Ron Paul anymore? Because you heard about him back when it was safe. Now that you have two candidates who couldn't possibly be more similar-- not in "ideology", but in action-- you are given no third option. Strike that, no second option.
And then:
And why, when Tom Morello wants to rage against Paul Ryan, he does it through the subversive, iconoclastic, angry medium of.... Rolling Stone? That'll get him. Let me be clear: I don't blame Morello for writing in Rolling Stone, I blame him for not asking himself what kind of a man is he that attracts Rolling Stone.
The hypocrisy, as identified by TLP is not that they're both rich guys, but that they've both become tools of the same system they both purport to upheave in their own way. The fact that we become aware of the Morello-Ryan spat by way of The New York Times and Rolling Stone Magazine simply highlights that fact. There was never any hope of these guys changing the system so long as they were playing by its rules.

The grift, TLP says, is not that these wannabe revolutionaries aren't genuine, but that they are presented to us in a way that neutralizes their efficacy while simultaneously offering us the illusion of revolution. Sorry, that was wordy. He says it better:
[I]f there is something legitimately dangerous to the system-- and Morello and Ryan both fit this description-- rather than send in the secret police, it absorbs them by hyperpopularity [sic], edits them into TV soundbites, buries them in plain sight. Problem solved.
So safe, so costless. We post our opinions on Facebook. We vigorously write memes. We blog. And yet, the years pass, and nothing substantive ever happens. You can't change the system from the pages of the Rolling Stone, because by the time you've hit those pages, you've already been neutralized. At that point, whether or not you want it to be so, you're a product for sale; you're not a revolution anymore.

But Why Do It Willingly?

My point in writing this post was not to re-hash a bunch of stuff The Last Psychiatrist already wrote. I mention it only to reiterate that the act of commodifying your belief system and offering it up to the system as a branded product ensures that whatever change you think you want will never come to fruition.

On some level, libertarians seem to know this. They blog endlessly about "corporatism" and "consumerism" and "producerism" and the various other commercialized threats to real freedom. Sure, they believe in free markets, but like hipsters of every other kind of ideology, the deal is that the free markets also have to be cool. If they're not cool, they have to be uncool in a cool way; sort of like how it's now totally uncool-but-cool to grow a giant neck beard and watch Star Wars all day. The only requirement to live that lifestyle is that you have to click on the ads at NerdFitness.com (link deliberately suppressed) because hey you're into fitness, too, right, and that you have to buy your ironic t-shirts from Woot. 

See, the genius of those websites is that they seem to offer you the ability to embrace your inner nerd and be cool at the same time. Look, the models are pretty. Even pretty girls can laugh at the logo on the t-shirt. Pretty girls can click on the adjacent tab and buy yoga pants at a discount price. With all those pretty girls involved, how can it be uncool. But of course you know it's still uncool, that's not the point. The point is that you get to pretend otherwise.

What really gives me the creeps, though, is Liberty.me. In theory it sounds great - a social network for fellow like-minded libertarians, who want a place to discuss the nuances of their revolutionary ideas without having to engage the trolls that are seemingly everywhere, on every other social network.

So libertarians pay a fee - a pretty substantial one, actually - to segregate themselves away from the very society they seek to change, never having to engage in that society at all. Not in the slightest. They can sell each other books and swag, they can try to make a living as an icon of the "liberty community." All that is great, as far as it goes. There's just one problem...

...The threat they pose to the system has been fully neutralized, and they did it to themselves. They paid a fee to sell each other liberty in a gated virtual community the goal of which is to put them asunder from the very people whose minds would have to change in order to make the world a more libertarian place.

Freedom is free, so long as you're willing to pay for it.

"Eat It"

No, the revolution will not be televised. That also means that if you happen to see it on TV, or in a click-ad, or on YouTube, or at Liberty.me, then what you're seeing isn't really a revolution. It's a product you've been sold.

Please don't mistake me for a conspiracy theorist. Here's what I'm not saying: I'm not saying that the faceless Fingermen of the system have hatched a brilliant theory to monetize liberty, therefore keeping its threat at bay. I don't believe in Fingermen. I don't believe the system is smart enough to put forth that kind of coordinated effort against ideologies.

What I am saying is that libertarians - the people on the ground: you, me, everybody - are not really interested in a revolution. Like TLP might say, we've fetishized it: We've traded genuine revolution for the trappings of a revolution. We've glorified the object at its own expense. We want to be The Guy With The Podcast or The Girl With Blonde Hair Who Makes Liberty Sexy. We want to show up at cocktail events and trade Hayek quotations and discuss chapters of The Machinery of Freedom.

Hey, there's nothing wrong with this as a hobby, but to pretend that you're doing the work of liberty is the real problem here. The American Revolution began when the uneducated plebes started engaging in illegal acts of civil disobedience and fighting against their oppressors with deadly force. That's a revolution. Downloading epub files from the Mises Institute might be a great time (I've been doing for years - it is a good time!), but it's not a revolution.

And meanwhile, the threat liberty itself poses to the system has been neutralized. Our most outspoken spokespeople are on the same television programs, magazines, newspapers, etc. where we find the Kardashians and Justin Bieber. That's not a coincidence. It means that those libertarian spokespeople are every bit as relevant for changing the system as Kendall Jenner.

You get what you pay for.

Album Review: Steely Dan - Countdown To Ecstasy

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Steely Dan's sophomore effort, Countdown to Ecstasy, was released in 1973, back in the days when recording artists used to release one album per year.

It was also released back in the days when lead vocalist Donald Fagen was taking his lead vocal responsibilities a little more seriously. Over the years, as the band's live presence diminished and their musical complexity increased, one attribute of their music slowly waned: Fagen simply seemed less interested in the lead singer's role.

So, for me, when I listen to the older Steely Dan albums, Fagen's voice always stands out to me. He was never going to be Stevie Wonder, but as a 1970s singer-songwriter icon, Fagen was capable of tender vocals, at least as tender as vocals can be when they're singing lines like "Well I've been around the world / And I've been to Washington Zoo..."

Don't misunderstand me. I am aware of the depth of Fagen's lyrics, just as I am aware of the depth of Frank Zappa's lyrics. But Fagen, like Zappa, has always had a knack for using comical language to make serious points. That is, part of the charm, but it presents a challenge to the lead singer, who has to do both things, convey the whimsy and the grit. Well, on Countdown to Ecstasy, Fagen manages to do it.

Another great element of this record is how great the arrangements are - certainly not surprising, coming from a Steely Dan album. Arrangements have always been their strong suit. One of the reasons they sound so good on this particular record, however, is because the production is so raw and dry. I recently made a similar point about a Richie Kotzen album. It's so important, because it's just so obvious on the great albums of the late 60s and early 70s. The magic has to do with two things: great performances, and great arrangements. The technology used to record these albums was primitive compared to what exists today, so they stuck to the basics: quality instruments played by quality players, with arrangements that left just enough room for each and every instrument to shine.

On that level, it's the small subtleties that clinch it: the vibraphone on "Razor Boy," the sparse acoustic guitars on "Boston Rag," the oh-so-light phaser applied to the electric piano during the solo in "Your Gold Teeth."

Hilariously, the high point of the album is one of Steely Dan's most commercial song of all time, "My Old School." The way it's written, it could almost be a Billy Joel song, or even - I admit with a shudder - an Elton John song. The syncopated piano chords, the cowbell, the female backup singers... this is how Steely Dan either seeks to participate in the singer-songwriter fad, or parodies it. Either way, I defy anyone not to bob along with its infectiousness.

If you're listening to the full Steely Dan discography, enjoy it while it lasts. As the years unfolded, they took their music into ever-more experimental territory, demanding ever more from their session players, a who's-who of great 70s players.

But on Countdown to Ecstasy, the band stayed centered neatly in the world of early 70s pop, merely alluding to the genius that lay in store with nice arrangements and a jazz chord here and there. The result is something special in its own right.


Spot The "Real" Americans

I won't draw this blog post out too far. The claim was recently made that Muslim immigrants to the United States are culturally incompatible with American Christian culture. That claim was put to the test over the weekend, when a small group of armed American Christians made a show of force (yes, they literally said that this is what they were doing) outside a Dallas-area mosque to protest the "Islamization [sic]" of America.

How would you guess that this largely immigrant population of Muslims responded to people carrying loaded weapons outside their holy place of worship?

Here's how (emphasis added):
[The mosque leaders] in turn urged their worshipers to steer clear of the group, which calls itself the Bureau of American Islamic Relations and had recycled some of the signs it took to a Richardson mosque last month, on a national day of protest against Islam. 
The worshipers largely took that advice, ignoring the protest until it broke up after a couple hours. The Muslims in the tiny audience declined to share their opinion — instead offering praise for freedom of speech and variations on “no comment.”
So an armed group of Christians showed up to spook the hell out of a group of Muslim American immigrants, and the Muslims responded by praising the protesters' freedom of speech.

Good for them!

Album Review: Living Colour - The Chair In The Doorway

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.org

2009's The Chair in the Doorway was an interesting discovery for me.

For years, fans had held out hopes for a Living Colour reunion after the long hiatus that followed the release of 1995's Stain. Each member of Living Colour kept busy on other musical projects, of course, but the fans unsurprisingly wanted that fix that only LC can give them. Eventually, it happened, for a series of concerts that - at least, according to the message boards I read back then - received mixed reviews. Most critical reviews focused on the band's new-found techno influences, the likes of which had been guiding guitarist Vernon Reid's other projects for quite some time. Still, these concerts must have been successful because they set the stage for 2003's Collideoscope, an aggressive album that solidified the band's electronica influences. I bought that album as soon as it came out, then I never heard anything from Living Colour for a long time.

Eventually, I was browsing a CD store and came across what appeared to be a new Living Colour album. This was the internet age, and yet somehow the release of this album had escaped me. I flipped the CD around to view its back cover, only to be shocked by the discovery that the album had been released years earlier, in 2009. As a loyal fan, I felt a pang of guilt for not having followed the band well enough to even stay on top of their latest releases.

Musically, The Chair in the Doorway is much more accessible than its predecessor. While all of the band's trademarks are on full display - including their electronica and hip-hop influences - the songs display a much more "radio-friendly" songwriting approach. (I use that phrase hesitantly, since Living Colour is not what anyone would call a radio-friendly band.) The production on the album is rather dry, and the mixes are "in your face." This, too, is a slight contrast from Collideoscope, but much more in line with Stain or Time's Up.

What's really interesting about The Chair in the Doorway, though, is the "aural focus" of the material. By far, the two most famous members of the band are guitar-god Vernon Reid and absolutely legendary bass player Doug Wimbish. And yet, on this record, their (still excellent) instruments seem to take a back seat to William Calhoun's drumming and Corey Glover's vocals. This is, of course, no detriment to the music, as both are virtuosos of their respective instruments.

And, in particular, Glover's voice is absolutely brilliant on this album. True Living Colour fans have always been in love with his voice, but The Chair in the Doorway is a cut above in that regard. Glover may never have displayed the strength of his upper register to the extent that he does on this record. I mean, the range is astounding! It's not all high notes, of course, and Glover is able to emote even when singing relaxed and emotionally complex pieces like "Method."

Despite ready-made Living Colour classics like "Behind the Sun," which sounds like it could have come from the Time's Up sessions, and "Young Man," which could reasonably appear on any of the band's prior releases, this album really feels like The Corey Glover Show to me, and I mean that in only a good way. This album is an answer to anyone who ever felt lukewarm toward the singer of this, one of my most very-favorite bands.

Long story short, this is an album that cannot disappoint even the most discriminating of Living Colour fans, and represents a strong and indelible contribution to the band's oeuvre.

Henderson, Harvard, And Thinking Like A...

David Henderson at EconLog points to an article in the National Review by Heather MacDonald. In it, MacDonald expresses her skepticism that someone as ambitious and driven as a Harvard law student would risk everything to commit a "juvenile prank."

MacDonald writes:

There are few student species more nakedly ambitious, focused, and future-oriented than the average Harvard law student. Having likely spent his undergraduate years planning admissions maximization strategies, he now has the Holy Grail almost within his grasp. Let him but graduate with a Harvard J.D. and he will face a wealth of job offers from prestigious law firms, government agencies, judicial clerkships, and businesses.
And then:

Perhaps there exists a Harvard law student so unable to control his impulses, or so clueless about today’s political environment, that he is willing to risk being expelled and banished from every high-powered job that would otherwise be available to him, simply in order to engage in a juvenile prank. But I am not betting on it. 

Henderson lauds her for "thinking like an economist," pointing out that the incentives are weighted heavily against the commission of the prank.
Ms. MacDonald is thinking like an economist--using reasoning about incentives to make a judgement call. Of course, it's possible that a student with a huge stream of income in front of him/her could make such a bad decision. But it seems unlikely.
Ordinarily, I agree with Henderson on matters such as these. To be sure, his and MacDonald's conclusions are consistent with a typical economic treatment of the issue. Unfortunately, there is a robust literature of social psychology that is at odds with the economic treatment.

MacDonald's analysis is steeped in dispositional reasoning - that "juvenile pranks" are committed by people with a particular disposition, and that Harvard law students are unlikely to possess that particular disposition.

But in 1971, who could have predicted that Stanford law students - who must surely be of an equally ambitious character - would have descended into sexual assault, physical hazing, and verbal abuse in just five days of exposure to the situational pressures of the Prison Experiment?

I can't say that this is what happened at Harvard, but I like Zimbardo's rule: exhaust all situational explanations first before falling back on dispositional theories. It could be that good students caught up in bad situations end up surprising even themselves. It's happened before.


Album Review: Megadeth - Rust In Peace (2004 Remaster)

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.org

Although this is a pretty old album, and the expectation is that I will compare the remastered mixes to the integrity of the original release, I think that is a low-value album review, and something that would only appeal to a very small number of hard-core Megadeth fans. I wouldn't be qualified to write such a review, anyway, since I never owned the original version of the album.

Fortunately or unfortunately, you'll have to make do with a more straight-forward review of this album. The reader must keep in mind, however, that although I am a long-time Megadeth fan, I can't be considered a true, hardcore fan. Nor am I as attuned to the metal genre as others might be. You're getting a Stationary Waves review of the album here, not a metal-insider's review.

Rust In Peace begins with a hard-hitting classic of the oeuvre, "Holy Wars... The Punishment Due." This is a classic for many reasons, but what makes it a classic to me is its position as an archetypal Megadeth song. The opening riffage is absolutely brutal, then suddenly breaks long enough for Marty Friedman to blast his way through a surprisingly tender nylon-string guitar solo. When he finishes, the song unfolds in the way of a true Megadeth masterpiece: with a complex barrage of ever-changing metal riffs and melodies that are at once unified and diverse.

See, the great thing about Megadeth has always been the intelligence of the songs. They don't mind getting complex, they don't mind straying far off the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus song format. What they have to say, they'll say in whatever way required to get the message across.

So Rust In Peace, like its deadly opening track is a thrash-metal classic, a Megadeth classic, and - as we would come to discover over the years - features the classic Megadeth lineup of Dave Mustaine, David Ellefson, Marty Friedman, and Nick Menza. As great as prior and subsequent incarnations of the band may have been, this is the lineup that gave us all the classic songs: "Holy Wars...," "Hangar 18," "Lucretia," "Tornado Of Souls," "Symphony of Destruction," "Train of Consequences..."

Nor is it any coincidence that so many of these classic Megadeth songs appear on Rust In Peace. For me, this is almost a debut album, an album when Megadeth "finally became a band." It is less-refined than the follow-up, Countdown to Extinction, but has so much more clarity of vision than preceding albums.

As far as it goes, it's everything you can expect from that sort of a "debut." The songs are heavy, ambitious, technical, passionate. Still, they're youthful and a little hasty. The production quality is raw, even in the remasters. The classic Megadeth "weaknesses," are also on full display, such as Mustaine's often-juvenile lyrics ("Five Magics" is a case in point here).

Still, not much negative can be said for this, one of heavy metal's most iconic and enduring albums. This is one that even casual metal fans must own.

Album Review: Richie Kotzen - 24 Hours

Photo courtesy CDBaby.com

Released in 2011, 24 Hours was an album on which Richie Kotzen seemed to have hit his stride, and was channeling all of his many characteristics into a single, unified musical vision.

What do I mean? Well, Kotzen is a remarkably diverse artist. He's got the guitar god thing going for him, the jazz/fusion thing going for him, the soul singer thing going for him, the singer/songwriter thing, the multi-instrumentalist thing, the singer/frontman thing... and so on. Any one of these things is enough for most artists to build a career on. Richie Kotzen, though, is not "most artists," he's thoroughly unique in the sheer breadth of his virtuosity.

With that in mind, if any criticism can be made of Richie Kotzen as a musician (and I'm not sure any valid criticism can be made), it's that perhaps on an album or two he rested too heavily on one of his particular laurels, to the detriment of the many others.

Take, for example, his early years on Shrapnel Records, when he was making "guitar god music," if you will. During those years, we never got any exposure to the side of Richie Kotzen that was capable of writing a song like "Twist Of Fate," the stunning album closer on 24 Hours. On an album like Break It All Down, by contrast, we got plenty of that kind of great, moody songwriting to the detriment of the Prince-inflected funk jams like "OMG (What's Your Name?)."

24 Hours, by contrast, gives equal billing to absolutely everything Kotzen does. We get the virtuosity, the soul, the passion, the writing... we get the whole package.

A few important things stand out for me on this album.

First, the sheer funkiness of it. There's always a little funk going on in a Richie Kotzen album, but on this one, the funk takes the foreground. The result is possibly one of most danceable albums of Kotzen's career.

Second, "dat bass." Kotzen plays bass himself on this record, and it is always awesome. Kotzen proves he's as good a bassist as anyone in the business on this record. His approach is aggressive, taking control of the song, while still holding down a solid rhythmic and harmonic center. And the bass leads are just to die for.

Third, while the album is quite well-produced, the album has a sort of stripped-down, back-to-basics sound to it. The guitars, bass, and keys all sound 100% dry. The drums have a nice "in the room" sound to them, with perhaps some slapback on the snare drum for thickness, but other than that, they sound pretty much like they must have sounded when they were recorded. Most of the "special effects," if you will, seem devoted to backing vocals. Even the lead vocals sound pretty straight. Now, ordinarily a very dry production can sound "thin" or "weak," but on 24 Hours, everything seems to come together exactly how you'd want it to. The result is a set of clear and spacious tones that sound, above all, honest.

Well, an artist like Richie Kotzen can afford to put out a completely honest record, because he's among the best in the business. 24 Hours is no exception.


"Open Your Home, Leave Mine Alone"

I don't have a lot of time to write this blog post, so forgive me if there end up being a hole or two.

On Facebook, a friend used a status update to initiate a conversation about the immigration of Syrian refugees. Naturally, I participated.

During the course of this conversation, a woman interjected and told me to "Open my arms and my home to them [the Syrian refugees], leave mine alone!"

Leave aside that I have no interest in her arms or her home. What could this woman think she means by this? It is a complete and utter contradiction. If I open my arms and my home to Syrian refugees, that implies that they have immigrated to the United States. That is what I want, but not what she wants. I'm okay with this - is she? No, of course not. The mere fact that I argue in favor of immigration is what she considers to be "failing to leave her [arms and home?] alone." So, can I open my home to immigrants, or can't I?

This is a frequent logical error made by immigration restrictionists. As per that recent Lew Rockwell article that's been making the rounds on social media, the restrictionists only ever consider the opinions of their fellow restrictionists, never the immigration advocates. So when they argue that immigration "is an assault on private property," what they really mean is that it is an assault on how they want to dictate the use of public property, despite the fact that many Americans feel otherwise. In short, they just want what they say to go, even though there is a broad range of opinion out there on immigration. Why would one opinion trump all the others? "Because it's the majority!" 

Okay, so then the majority can take away your ability to make a contract with another person? I hope you're prepared to live with the consequences of that policy.