Album Review: Alien Ant Farm - ANThology

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

In the dry, dry, dry landscape of the early-00s rock scene, there were only a few stand-outs worth listening to. Of those, only a handful were actually heard on the radio. 

One of those bands was called Alien Ant Farm, whose 2001 album ANThology topped the charts thanks to their ubiquitous cover of the Michael Jackson classic "Smooth Criminal." Unfortunately, it was the band's only significant radio hit.

Because AAF's members were friends with the members of the comparatively more successful band Papa Roach, they were inevitably grouped-in with that band stylistically, along with other "nu metal" bands such as P.O.D., Linkin Park, and so forth. Alien Ant Farm, however, had virtually nothing in common with those bands. This might explain why they never achieved the same level of commercial success. I am utterly certain, however, that it is also why they never enjoyed the critical success that I think the band deserves.

I bought ANThology on a bit of a splurge. I was a fan of their minor radio hit "Movies," but not really a fan of the "Smooth Criminal" cover. I thought, What the heck? How bad could it be? What I expected was basically a Papa Roach album, with one good song on it in "Movies." What I got instead shocked me.

Even from their radio hits it's obvious that the band's rhythm section, consisting of drummer Mike Cosgrave and bassist/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Ty Zamora, was several notches above that of the typical nu metal band. When you actually take a deep dive into ANThology, what you discover is a funky, groovy, technically proficient band who lists Primus and Peter Gabriel among their biggest influences. Unbeknownst to the musically illiterate masses, Alien Ant Farm was the real deal.

The album's virtuosity is kept in check on the album, however, by a strict adherence to radio-ready song formats and the band's proclivity for subtlety over flash. 

Take, for example, their other minor hit, "Attitude." The song opens with a clever, weaving guitar line that drops off with an echo into a minimalist bass line, while Cosgrave carries the verses with delicious snare drum work. In the background, we hear congas as singer Dryden Mitchell's voice rises with an emotive quality that was largely absent from the airwaves at the time. As the chorus unfolds, rich vocal harmonies rise carefully behind those same emotionally charged vocals. Throughout the song, the guitar outlines the chords of the piece without stepping on the complex rhythmic underlay or vocals. It's a testament to the kind of attention to detail found throughout ANThology.

The album's unreleased songs deepen the groove, hit the guitars much harder, and highlight an important aspect of the band's music that was not evident on their radio releases: harmonic complexity. Alien Ant Farm has a knack for good song arrangements. Having only three instrument players in their live act, they'd have to be. On songs like "Stranded," the listener perceives a band playing, essentially, chords, but in truth what is often going on is that guitar, bass, and vocals are all playing single note lines, their roles within the implied chords changing as the harmonic movement demands. First the bass plays the root note, then slides up a step and suddenly we're hearing an inversion. Holding it all down, all the while, are Mitchell's complex but musically pleasant melodies.

Alien Ant Farm wasn't, by any means, the first band to write music like this, but in 2001, they stood alone, injecting intelligence into a musical landscape otherwise consisting of J.Lo singing duet "remixes" with Ja Rule. Hey, if that's your bag, more power to you, but for rock fans, the search for capable players at the time was quite daunting.

And, unfortunately, most people searching at that time overlooked one of the best albums of the time. ANThology is one album from the early-aughts worth revisiting.

Album Review: Steve Vai - Alien Love Secrets

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Despite taking some unconventional risks over the course of his career, there is an underlying continuity across all of Steve Vai's work (excepting his gig with Frank Zappa). Everything he writes has a certain stamp to it, and I don't just mean the raw guitar pyrotechnics. The compositional style is consistent across the David Lee Roth stuff, the solo stuff, the Whitesnake stuff. When it's Vai, you know it's Vai.

Still, some albums are "more Vai" than others, and as far as it goes, Alien Love Secrets, his 1995 EP, is among his "Vai-est." For me this is a bit of a Vai litmus test: If you can get through this EP, with its blue body paint, laser-equipped guitars, cringe-worthy VHS video companion piece, singing toddler, and uh... "The God-Eaters," then you're ready to pretty much swallow anything Vai serves to you. And I mean anything.

For me, this is a polarizing EP. I don't just mean that some will love it and others will hate it, although that is certainly true. I mean, more specifically, that I tend to love and hate this record at the same time.

There is no denying that it is a self-indulgent record. In the 90s, "self-indulgent" meant "featuring extended guitar solos," so there's that. But think about it: Vai wrote the song "Ya-Yo Gakk" around the nonsensical babbling of his young son. It's the kind of song only a father could love, more specifically, only the father of Julian Vai, i.e. Steve Vai. He didn't publish that song for his fans, he did it for himself.

But for all its self-indulgence, one simply cannot deny the passion on the album. "Tender Surrender" has always been a fan favorite and an aspiration for every guitar player to replicate. It's the kind of song that, at the time, was rivaled only by "For the Love of God" in terms of fan appeal, and is one of his very best. But it's not just that one song. "Juice," "Die to Live," "The Boy from Seattle" are great. I mean, they're really great. You'd be hard-pressed to find any songs that rival the unbridled passion contained on the mere handful of songs on this EP.

So that's just a case in point: Do I love it for its passion or hate it for its ultra licitum self-absorption? Do I hate it for the over-bearing noisiness of "Bad Horsie" and "Kill the Guy with the Ball," or do I love it for the almost shocking creativity present in "The God-Eaters" or "The Boy from Seattle?" Do I hate Vai for releasing the truly awful VHS video of this album, which contains nothing more than Vai pantomiming his own songs in a California TV studio in shirtless blazers and blue paint, or do I hate myself for having watched it so many times?

This is my relationship with Steve Vai. Some days, I hate his music but love listening to it anyway. Other days, I love listening to his music but hate how his phrasing starts to infect my own playing. Other days, I refuse to admit that I own so many of his albums, all while explaining to anyone who will listen about my in-depth analysis of his approach to playing. Other days, I'm a gushing fan who is somehow entitled to rant against this song or that album.

Here's the deal: Alien Love Secrets, like so much of Vai's music, a mixed bag. It's a complex web of visceral reactions, taste aversions, love affairs, triumphs, failures... It is, in a word, art. It makes me happy and angry at the same time, and only a very few albums have this impact on me.

Alien Love Secrets is one of those albums. I love Vai for releasing it and making me so angry. I love him for the long afternoons I've lost over the course of my life, learning "Juice" by ear. I love him for forcing me to have to understand jazz. I love him for being so over-bearing and over-the-top that any stupid face I make on stage in a dark and sparsely occupied club seems palatable.

But you don't need to know that. If you're reading this review, you bought the album already. You know exactly what I mean.

Album Review: Steely Dan - Aja

Image source: Wikipedia.org

Released in 1977, Steely Dan's sixth album, Aja, begins with what is perhaps my favorite of the band's songs.

"Black Cow" a bitter little number, lyrically speaking, but the way the music unfolds is remarkable. It opens up with sparse instrumentation grooving on that one, main riff. Then, as the minutes pass, the band layers additional tracks on top - clean rhythm guitars, doubled backing vocals, saxophones, additional keyboards, a horn section... The sonic impact creates a powerful, emotional, rising crescendo despite the fact that none of the instruments are really exploding like they would on a hard rock album. By the time the song reaches the outro, instruments are hitting you from all points in the stereo field and the album has its claws sunk into you. You'd better get comfortable, because you're not going anywhere until the LP is over.

But sonically, "Black Cow" sets the stage for the rest of the album. The harmonies, for example, are perfect in a way that's simply frightening for fellow musicians. Steely Dan had a knack for layering harmonies on top of each other, but not just for the sake of the harmony - they could somehow match each voice's and instrument's timbre perfectly to the harmony it played, creating tones that are far richer than anything else you'll hear.

It's particularly instructive to listen to compare the sounds on this album to the sounds on basically any modern record. Today, we're in the age of infinite digital possibilities and maximum polyphony. Anything that could ever be done in any music studio in the history of the twentieth century, plus sonic combinations that never would have been possible during any other epoch, is available at our fingertips... Yet, for all our technical superiority, we still haven't matched the arrangements and production on classic albums like Aja. It just goes to show you: there are some things technology cannot accomplish. Having a brilliant musical mind - one equpped to match timbre to note to emotion - is one of them. We need Becker and Fagen for that kind of thing, and thankfully, we have them.

Nearly every song on this album is a classic. You've heard them even if you think you've never heard them. These tracks decorate the airwaves in every department store, elevator, classic rock radio station, and grocery store you can imagine. You can try to resist, but ultimately I don't know anyone who truly dislikes Steely Dan. Their sound is as much a part of the social fabric in America as that crinkly crepe paper folded into a new dress shirt at Macy's. There's a reason for that.

But what happens when you come to Steely Dan through the usual channels is that you can sometimes fail to appreciate the music on its own merits. Aja is the answer to this subconscious bias toward the music. For example, it's impossible to ignore the crushing drum solo at the tail end of the title track; it's impossible to keep your mind from exploring the intricacies of its xylophone notes. It's too easy to get lost in the story of "Home At Last," essentially a retelling of The Odyssey through the medium of "jazz rock." But the groove is so heavy, and yet the vibraphone notes panned far-right offer a soft relief from it. And speaking of heavy, Aja just happens to close with what is perhaps the band's all-time heaviest number: "Josie."

Aja is sonic perfection, it just is. If you've ever wondered why people go so nuts for Steely Dan, start here. 


The Cynic On My Shoulder

To say that hard work today pays off in the long run is to state the obvious. We all know this to be true, because most of us invested significant amount of time during our early years getting good at something. 

Those of us who went to college - especially those who went to graduate or professional school after getting a four-year degree (I did not) - know this especially well. To have achieved that, we/they had to invest long hours studying and memorizing, working on projects, rehearsing oral presentations, revising theses, and so forth. It was difficult and thankless work, and having come out the other side, we/they now have an access ticket to higher incomes, better lifestyles, and greater leisure.

But now, we/they spend our/their evenings passed out in front of a television, or a magazine, or the internet - or, at best, working on some menial-yet-necessary chores that keep the household running at an even kilter - before finally calling it quits at an early enough hour that we/they can still get up for work the next morning. Where we/they used to stay up late, focused on an investment in our/their future, we/they are now in a hurry to wrap it up.

Thinking about it just now, I can't help but think that it is somehow... lazy.

"You don't have to be working on some big project all the time!" objects the cynic on my shoulder who, if correct, merely provides me with additional reasons not to try to do anything interesting.

I understand where my cynic is coming from. Nobody wants to feel bad about just relaxing and enjoying themselves, least of all me. But if my cynic had proven to be amply persuasive to me at an earlier age, I probably wouldn't have graduated from college, or run that marathon, or learned how to play the guitar, et cetera.

Whatever you may have accomplished in your life (and we have all accomplished something), the point here is that your cynic's objection, your cynic's reasoning, was every bit applicable on that day, years ago, when you decided to push through your difficulty, as it is today. Yet, back then, you decided to grit your teeth and keep working; but, today, you just turn on Netflix and check to see if they've added a new sequel to The Human Centipede

Thus, it's not that our cynic is always wrong, it's that we at one point knew he was wrong, but now know him to be right. What happened? 

It's not as if we don't know that our hard work will pay off. Of course we do. We know that spending an extra ten minutes per day researching investment strategies will improve our lot during retirement. We know that learning a foreign language improves our mental sharpness and opens up new travel or career opportunities. We know that honing a new talent will be creatively satisfying in the long run, and we know that working out a little more will make our lives better. Our cynic can't argue with results.

In fact, the cynic on my shoulder doesn't argue with results. He argues against results by appealing to your self-esteem. His, upon further analysis, rather weird, argument is that you shouldn't feel bad for not accomplishing more because anything you do over and above the bare minimum is gravy. Since it's just gravy, you can't feel bad for not doing it, and you shouldn't have to, so don't. And furthermore, don't do it.

But, like I just said, that's weird. To understand just how weird it is, place yourself in the shoes you were in when you were studying for your college exams. Your cynic would have said, "You don't have to pass this course to be a good person!" Your cynic would also be correct about that. But, in hindsight, you weren't studying to avoid being a bad person, you were studying because you wanted to graduate from college. And you weren't trying to graduate from college to avoid being a bad person, you were doing it to have a better life. 

So your cynic - by which I mean my cynic - is really just an overweening narcissist. Nobody said anything about being a bad person, except that damn cynic. You were just trying to learn something new, or get something done, or improve your investment portfolio, or whatever. 

You were just trying to have a better life, and the cynic on your shoulder had to infect it all with some neurotic defensiveness about being a bad person - something you hadn't even considered.


Here's My Personal List Of People I Like And Don't Like

Bryan Caplan has a clever argument against people who oppose immigration on the basis of demographics (e.g. "I don't want too many brown Muslim people to come in and change my country."). His argument is, Okay, then we should allow an offsetting amount of the opposite demographic (in this case, white Christian people) so that the total demographic makeup is unchanged. After all, migration is as much a right for brown Muslims as it is for white Christians.

In response, famous blog commentator E. Harding (he is everywhere) writes:
Makes sense, but there really aren't that many White high IQ conservatives outside the U.S. willing to move here. And opening immigration from any category of men substantially leads to a slippery slope -your proposal is an unstable equilibrium. 
And I don't mind Christian Arab immigration from, say, Lebanon. Maybe also Iraq and Palestine. But by no means Syria.
The truly stunning thing about this comment is E. Harding's unstated supposition that readers happen to care who's on his "do import" and "don't import" list.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure if someone asked him, he'd elaborate on his reasons to great length. But, tellingly, he didn't find it necessary to outline his reasoning in his comment. 

Live, In Concert

My latest musical project, Kraw, will be performing live at The Grotto, in Fort Worth, Texas, tomorrow night at nine o'clock P.M. Further details are available at the event's Facebook page, and don't forget to visit Kraw's official website.

The band is booking now for 2016, so please reach out to me if you'd like more details.


It's Not A Perfect System, But It's The Only One You've Got

The old trick to gaming a roulette table is to place your bet on red or black, the odds of which are 50/50. Then, if you lose, double your bet in the same direction. If you lose that one, double that bet in the same direction. And so forth...

At 50/50 odds, you are bound to keep winning if this is your strategy, because your bet will turn out to be correct half the time. So, because you're doubling your bet every time, you'll always (eventually) win back what you lost, plus double if you just keep betting.

What this strategy requires is a bank account deep enough to carry the losses, no matter how big they are, and most gamblers don't have that kind of money. Also, casino owners aren't stupid; they're trained to spot this particular strategy, and when they catch you, they'll throw you out of the casino and bar you from playing ever again.

The casino always wins in the long run, and that's what I'm writing about today: house rules.

Know When To Hold 'Em

Politics in every country is like a casino: The only one with pockets deep enough to carry any loss and double down in the same direction is the house; the house always wins; and if you figure out a winning strategy, you can be security is on its way down and they're packing heat. In this Las Vegas analogy, there are two groups left unaccounted for: hookers and drug addicts. The hookers are the dancing girls the casino has tossed aside after getting what they wanted out of them for a few years; the drug addicts are what happens to us when we've been kicked out of every casino for playing a winning hand.

I'm not trying to be cynical, but at the same time, one has to recognize the nature of the world we live in. Each one of us is a tiny gnat in the annuls of the universe - a microscopic blob of ectoplasm with a lifespan so short that the gods don't even take time to laugh at us. Each one of our lives is utterly inconsequential, and yet so significant to us. That explains a lot of what happens in politics.

On some level, we must know how insignificant our lives are, because if we didn't, none of us would fight very hard to achieve anything. That sounds backwards, but it's not. Knowing that we are insignificant, we fight to have one small bit of legacy, something to live beyond our own tiny lifespans, and most of us never really achieve it. So, when one of us happens to come into a pretty decent situation, like an elected office or a directorship in some bureaucracy somewhere, most of us are willing to fight for it, on the off-chance that, somehow, we'll have some plaque hung on the wall somewhere - something that will out-live us a little while, at least until they refurbish the building.

So now we have means: the political system. And, we have motive: legacy. Now all we need is opportunity.

Know When To Fold 'Em

The opportunities usually come in small and petty ways. 

We've all seen the people working the counter at the DMV. Their souls have been ground down to the nub, they have no control over their own lives. All they have is a computer screen, a little web cam, and the authority to withhold your license for anything their direct supervisors can verify with a form in triplicate. If they don't fancy anything other than the keeping of their jobs then a slight delay in your paperwork is the only way these sad sacks have to tell the universe, "I mattered!" If they're ambitious, though, they'll search the minutiae in your file for something that requires a more obscure form. A few dozen of these per week, and they'll be fast-tracked to supervisor. So if you have to keep going back to the DMV every day for a week or two just because one of these rock stars is trying to make manager, that's a small price for them to pay for their legacy. Get it? They care about you, but they also want existential significance, and one can hardly blame them.

Don't get smug here. You're not any different than they are, and neither am I. The only difference is that we don't work at the DMV, and they do. And there are lots of DMVs all over this nation of ours, plus the ones in every other country out there. That's a lot of legacy to be dealt with, and it's just the tip of the iceberg. Every little counter where you have to show your government-issued ID or work your way through a canned series of statements before you can proceed on to the next counter in your life is another inflection point for mankind's competing legacies. 

And, ultimately, we all work at a counter.

There are two ways you can proceed here: You can keep stabbing back at your own insignificance, setting your fellow humans back fifteen minutes to fifteen years (depending on the counter), silently screaming at the universe, "I mattered!" and silently knowing it isn't true... Or, you can step away from the counter and let people continue on in pursuit of their tiny scrap of potential legacy. You can fight for your right to matter, or you can just get out of the way and let other people explore theirs.

Know When To Walk Away

No, you can't really walk away, because first of all you have to eat and earning money is how you accomplish that; but second of all, the entirety of human society is organized in such a way that you will be punished and ostracized if you openly admit that you're not really into shouting your existential vanity into the ears of anyone who will listen. (NB: I am writing this on a public blog.)

So most of us have to play the game, to some extent or another. That doesn't mean, though, that you can't walk away in a manner of speaking. If other people use their position "at the counter" to achieve some kind of legacy, you can use your position for nobler purposes. We can make the world a better place by being better people. So if you make life a little easier for the people who come to your counter, you can do your small part to enable them to achieve their legacies. You might be an insignificant piece of the universe, damn it, but you did what you could to prevent other people from being worse off having known you!

This is how we walk away. This is how we look at the human system into which we have been born and decide that it's a bad machine, but we can make it better. This is how we stop playing the petty and futile existential game played by others and we simply... walk away, leaving the world slightly better for it.

Know When To Run

I know what you're thinking: "What about my legacy?" Well, that's the tricky part, the final step in the process of giving yourself real happiness and real freedom.

The answer to your question is: You don't get a legacy. You get to be a better person, you get to make other people happy, you get to live life by a worthwhile creed, you get to look at yourself in the mirror every morning. But you don't get a legacy. 

We are mosquitoes, fruit flies, bacteria... we are tiny little piles of animated flesh. We live, we love, we produce offspring, we fight from the moment we're born, and then we die. If the world remembers you for longer than one or two news cycles after you die, god bless you, you lucked out. Beyond that, no one will care. It's not because they're bad or apathetic people, it's just that they have their own lives to live and there have been many billions of us who have lived throughout the ages. I'm sorry - you don't count much.

But this is a beautiful thing. You don't have to count. You don't have to be remembered. You don't have to have a legacy. If you live a good life, if you love your loved ones truly and madly, if you leave others' lives no worse than when you found them, then you will have pushed this tiny, insignificant species a few inches toward a better future. And that's the best you can do.

That's the best we can all do. So, let's do it.

Album Review: Eric Johnson - Ah Via Musicom

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Eric Johnson's pivotal 1988 album, Ah Via Musicom, begins with some ethereal special effects before launching into what might very well be the most-learned rock guitar instrumental since "Misirlou." "Cliffs of Dover" has been published in guitar magazines for as long as I can remember, and every guitarist work anything has either learned it or attempted to learn it.

What makes "Cliffs of Dover" tricky is not the fast bits. In fact, it's not a particularly fast song, so the "shreddy" licks in it aren't too bad for most guitar players to learn. But it's an iconic work for Johnson because it captures something important about the way he expresses himself musically: his unique sense of rhythm. There's something odd about it; at times it feels straight, and at times it swings. It has an unmistakably c-jazz quality to it, and yet when you strip of it its elaborate production value, it feels Hendrixy. It's bluesy, but not too much so. It's complex, but not overtly so.

Put it all together, and it's a feel for music possessed by no other musician that I know of, and it's what makes Eric Johnson such a pleasure to listen to. Sure, plenty of people talk about his tones, but the fact of the matter is that anyone can get those tones if they're using $50,000 worth of vintage gear. Johnson's sense of "tone" really traces back to his feel, so that no matter how he happens to have dialed his amps and his pedals, he always knows which notes to play when, and at which fret, and with how much vibrato. It's the feel, man, the feel.

And that feel is everywhere on Ah Via Musicom. From the beginning to the end, you'll never play a note of this album correctly on your own guitar, if you don't have that feel. You could argue that the album is too diverse to have one, unique feel. After all: there's a chicken-pickin' two-step in "Steve's Boogie," an acoustic solo in "Song for George," genuine contemporary smooth jazz in "East Wes," and even a few radio-ready (well, by late-80s standards) vocal tunes. This album certain runs the gamut of popular styles. But if you don't have Johnson's feel, you're sunk, and all you can do is watch him do it for you.

In contrast to the other shredders of the age, though, Eric Johnson has always had a really nice voice. On later albums, you could argue that his voice was pitch-corrected - some later albums certainly sound like it - but on Ah Via Musicom it's obvious: No, Eric Johnson just sings like that. His pitch is absolutely spot-on, a testament to his famously sensitive ear. But if some listeners start to feel that the performances are too planned, too deliberate, I'd suggest they turn the music up a little bit. For example, there's a part near the end of "Desert Rose" in which Johnson's voice cries the lyrics out with grit and resolve, a suddenly passionate and masculine wail not always expected from such a soft-spoken shredder who has been known to record duets with Christopher Cross.

All these years after its release, that's what grabs me about Ah Via Musicom: The fact of the matter is that there is a rawness to it, a loudness to it, an energy behind the plate reverb. Not as much energy as his earlier work with the Electromagnets, but certainly more than his performances in the G3 Live video would let on a few years later.

And when you go back to the performances of that period - most notably his legendary appearance on Austin City Limits - you see the energy there, too. He hadn't yet come into his own, so he was still reaching for the stars, but he'd already identified who he was and what he did differently, and was starting to get comfortable showing it.


Album Review: Tool - Aenima

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

According to Wikipedia, Tool's masterpiece, Aenima, was released on vinyl on September 17, 1996, and released on CD on October 1, 1996. I find the October 1st release date hard to believe, because I vividly remember driving to the local music store on my birthday, September 20th, and picking up my copy of the album as a present to myself. Memories, like so many other aspects of the human mind, are unreliable sources of information.

Fortunately for us, though, psychology is a fertile source of artistic inspiration, one from which Tool drew heavily when they wrote and recorded this stunning record.

It will be difficult for readers younger than myself to fully appreciate what Aenima accomplished. At the time, there was nothing else that sounded like it. In the rock world, there was grunge (think Pearl Jam's Vitalogy), there was metal (which, in 1996, meant Pantera), and there were a few bands out there doing something kind of... funky (think Faith No More or the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Somewhere at the intersection of those three very different worlds sat Tool. They were drum-heavy and bass-heavy, like the funky bands. They were loud and detuned, like the metal bands. But they toured with the grunge bands. By necessity, they were labeled "grunge" by the A&R people, and that was that.

Then Aenima came out, and it seemed to change the landscape. This was, of course, the album that put Tool on the map as a big headliner, but it was more than that. It was the album that finally put metal bands and alternative bands on the same page. 

As much as it pains me to say it, it was the album that gave birth to "nu metal." Korn, Linkin Park, Staind, none of those bands would have existed were it not for Tool's Aenima album. 

To be sure, Aenima is not a nu metal album. There are shades of progressive metal and elements of alternative rock, but it is nothing like the ten years of rap-rocking, spiky-haired garbage that surfaced in its wake. But the album put together an important series of musical elements that hadn't really found their way together in a format that stuck before. On a superficial level, it was the soft, almost crooning, vocals paired against unbelievably massive distorted guitar riffage. But on a deeper level, the album managed to capture the best elements of what so many other heavy bands were aiming for and finally channel them into a single stream. 

Today, for example, we call Tool a "progressive metal" band because of their deft use of complex rhythms. Complex rhythms weren't anything new in 1996, but Tool had found a way to deliver polyrhythms for mass appeal. The guitar and bass played in unison while the drums kept a steady reference ostinato, enabling fans to bob their heads to beats in 5/4, 9/8... even 11/8. A good example of this is the breakdown in the song "46 & 2." For the entire song up to that point, the band plays a simple, familiar, and repetitive 6/8 beat. In the breakdown, they suddenly switch to 7/8, but they do it in such a way that casual listeners never even notice. Underneath the riff, drummer Danny Carey unleashes a fury of quintuplets over the seven-count beat, creating a rather remarkable musical effect. But because the riffs are so well-arranged, most listeners don't even perceive that the beat has changed. They can feel a difference, and that difference is the polyrhythm, but for the most part they just bob their heads.

For years, every hard rock band in the business tried to recreate that effect, but the best they could do is use and abuse the three-over-4 polyrhythm that occurs when you mix 4/4 and 6/8 time signatures. That 6/8 component, though, is very telling; it tells me that these bands were inspired by "46 & 2."

Vocalist Maynard James Keenan's impact on metal music is undeniable. Before the release of Aenima, metal singers basically had two choices: growl like Phil Anselmo or shriek like King Diamond. Nobody was singing like a normal person if they were in a metal band. Then Maynard came along and showed that a pleasant-sounding, possibly even under-stated, voice could effectively carry a heavy song. Before long, it was Hoobastank by the barrel-full, but that never could have happened without Aenima. Nor was Keenan's impact restricted to radio music - even the metal bands got in on the action. Opeth likely would never have had a career had there not been an Aenima album. The influence is palpable.

It's quite possible that no other CD in my collection has been played as many times as this one. I've memorized every beat, every note. It is not my favorite album, but it was a landmark. It was the best and most important thing to have happened to heavy music for years. Today, it sounds as fresh and timely as it did when it was released. Few bands have ever been able to record something with as much staying power - even Sargent Pepper sounds like an emblem of its era. But when you listen to Aenima, you're almost unaware of the fact that it was released before Soundgarden had broken up, before Queens of the Stone Age, before Marilyn Manson. 

Aenima set heavy music down a path from which it has never branched. It is as much a part of modern rock as the blue note. We're all Keenansians now.


That's Interesting...

Here's something odd I noticed today. I use Chrome as my primary web browser. When you "sign-in" to the browser, then whenever you're on a Google site (Gmail, Google News, Blogger, etc.), the browser has provided a matrix-type icon which, if clicked, provides access to all of your Google apps. So, from your Gmail screen, you can go directly to Google Finance or Blogger or News or Play, directly through the link. No URL required.

That still appears to be true for my Gmail window. I checked all my other Google apps, too, and they all have the app icon. All of them, that is, except Blogger.

Is this the beginning of the end of Alphabet's support for the Blogger platform? Do they intend to replace it with anything?

The "Horror" Of Ben Carson's Health Care Plan

The news headlines today made me aware that Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has released the "details" of his health care plan. I wanted to know what sort of proposal an actual health care practitioner would put on the table, but I didn't want to get too slanted a view on that plan. So, I made the following decision:

I decided to choose what I thought would be the most hostile (to Ben Carson) source of analysis and, if I could find something positive from that hostile source, I could feel better about the integrity of those positives.

I chose an op-ed in the Huffington Post, and here's what it had to say (in part):
So in place of Obamacare, which includes all sorts of rules about who health insurance companies have to sell policies to (everyone) and what kinds of benefits they have to cover (lots 0f [sic] them), Carson's plan would allow people to open tax-free savings accounts (which they already can) to put away money (which they probably don't have) to pay for medical care until their insurance deductible is met (which it probably won't be).
Set aside the question of repealing Obamacare. I think repealing it would be a good idea, but that's just my opinion.

Aside from repealing Obamacare, is there anything objectionable about letting people set aside tax-free money to spend on future health care expenses? I can think of a few downsides related to demand distortion, but other than that, it seems like a pretty harmless policy.

Why would anyone of any political persuasion object?

Contra Jones, Henderson, Adamson, and Caplan On "High-IQ"

David Henderson is a fan of "Scott Adamson's" critique of Garrett Jones' new book, and he [Henderson] cites Bryan Caplan to buttress the case.

Here's The General Idea

Jones argues that high-IQ societies are more cooperative because high-IQ people, whoever they are, are smart enough to realize that cooperation produces better outcomes than noncooperation. In short, Jones suggests that people don't cooperate because they're nice, but rather because they're smart enough to cooperate - and if they're not smart enough, they don't cooperate (hence IQ).

"Adamson," et al. rejoin that if Jones were correct, then we'd see U.S. presidents "pillage the country," since they have at most eight years to extract as much personal gain as possible. The idea here is that, while it may be generally true that cooperation produces the best results, in certain specific cases, it's more rational to "pillage the country." High-IQ people would certainly understand this, and thus we would see them do this to a greater degree than low-IQ people do.

But Dispositional Analysis Can Only Take Us So Far

I haven't read Hive Mind and thus I only skimmed "Adamson's" review of it. I also hate to sound like a broken record, but here are my thoughts anyway:

All of these analyses are steeped in dispositional psychology - individuals behave a certain way because that's how those individuals behave. Caplan's analysis is a little better because he acknowledges the differences among for-profit, a not-for-profit, and public service environments, i.e. the situation matters.

But to take Situationism seriously, we have to let go of dispositional theories for a minute. We already know that merely telling a child that she is high-IQ produces behavior consistent with a high-IQ child (including improved intellectual achievement) even when the child isn't really high-IQ. The mechanism in this case was - you guessed it - situational factors. We also know that motivation matters more to every criterion in a person's life that matters when determining success than IQ does.

These and other results have been studied and replicated many times by many people. I don't see how the empirical data could be more conclusive. It's not the child, it's the situation. It's not the inherent, inert, genetic personal disposition that counts, it's the circumstantial, dynamic, environmental social situation.

Taken seriously, this means that it's not the "high-IQ" societies that are producing good institutions, it's the good institutions producing high-IQ societies.

This Has Important Implications

It means that removing emigrants from bad political situations will not just improve their wage rates, it will improve their actual economic productivity. Don't take that up with me, take it up with the economic evidence - here's some to chew on: increasing employment in a US state has been found to increase productivity by 0.5% for every 1% employment increase attributable to immigrants.

It means that scientists who believe the developing world can't develop because of their lower IQs have lost the plot: Change the situation in a country, and you change the people.

But it's so difficult to get people to seriously question the concept of IQ in this day and age that true, serious social psychology looks incompatible with economics, even though social psychology has it right on this one.


"Racialists" (think Steve Sailer) often criticize others for not being willing to consider race-based explanations for variations in outcome. When Charles Murray says IQ matters, the "racialists" take that idea and run with it. Then, when others criticize them for being racist, they ask why they shouldn't explore politically incorrect or potentially ideas if they happen to be true.

One criticism I have of the "rationalist community" (of which "Scott Adamson" considers himself a member) is that they, too, take the idea of IQ too seriously.

It's easy to understand why both groups would. The racialists are attracted to the idea that the fearsome outsiders will destroy good society because they are dispositionally inclined to do so. The "rationalist community" is attracted to the idea because that community fancies itself a collection of high-IQ individuals who must surely know how irrational their lessers can be.

Both groups are making the same mistake by refusing to consider the extensive, empirical, replicable, clinical countervailing evidence found in social psychology. There is a mountain of evidence out there attesting to the fact that situations matter. When will all these smart people be intellectually honest enough to take a look?


Neo-Reactionary (Fascist)

Here's something I read today:
[D]on't trust any country where women are regularly more powerful than men; where individuals are more important than a collective; and where personal beliefs and freedoms trump historical identity. Because that means that its men are weak, its individuals are selfish, and they cannot be trusted to act in the long term interests of their own people.
As I read it, I couldn't help but notice how perfectly it encapsulates the beliefs of the so-called "Dark Enlightenment," "neo-reactionary" movement in America. (I'd call it fascism, but hey - what's in a name?)

The only problem is that the author of that passage wasn't writing about the "Dark Enlightenment" or fasicsm. He was writing about jihadis.


Album Review: Bumblefoot - 9.11

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

I don't do many "cool" things, and I am rarely ahead of the curve. But one of the cool, ahead-of-the-curve things I did in the late nineties was acquaint myself with a then-obscure artist named Ron Thal. To be honest, I don't really know how I became aware of him. I likely came across his name on an internet message board. So I searched for some of his music and discovered one of the most technically proficient guitarists I've ever heard.

Since those early days, of course, Thal has gone on to serve as the touring guitarist for Guns and Roses, and through that platform his work has reached the ears of millions. Selfishly speaking, it was a lot of fun to watch someone whose music I loved, but whose music was highly obscure, become one of the most famous and lauded players in modern music.

Shortly before his career took off, Thal released the album 9.11. The title of this album was originally intended to be Guitars Suck - a bit of a self-effacing joke on Thal's part - but in the wake of the September 11th tragedy, Thal decided to make the album a charity benefit CD. Thal is a New Yorker, and has always done a lot of charitable work, so this made a lot of sense. However, in hindsight, I think the album would feel less anachronistic today if he had kept its original title.

As for the music itself, listening to Ron Thal's work is a unique treat. 9.11 offers us the full array of Thal guitar innovations: fretless techniques, thimble techniques, percussive tapping, and so forth. He even plays a beautiful classical guitar piece entitled "Hall of Souls."

But fans of Ron Thal know that, however impressive his guitar technique is - and here I emphasize that Thal bests any player on a "best players" list with technique that is undeniably better than the best in the business (get the picture?) - what's truly amazing about Bumblefoot albums is that they're extremely song oriented. This is no less true on 9.11, where we get all the rap-rocking, vocal tromboning (must be heard to be believed), and soaring vocals longtime fans have come to expect.

Prior to releasing 9.11, Thal released an album called Uncool, which was even more song-oriented. Before that, there was the Hands album, which heavily understated his guitar playing ability. So in the context of Thal's body of work, it was time to release another instrumentally oriented album. Hence the "guitars suck" joke. On that level 9.11 does a good job of exploring Thal's instrumental side more heavily than his previous two albums.

The only real criticism I can make of this album is that, at less than forty-two minutes' running time, it is a very short album. Even at that, one song on the album, the utterly brilliant Latin-jazz-flavored "R2" was a re-release of a song that originally appeared on Uncool. I own EPs that are longer than 9.11, and this was the only aspect of the album that really disappointed me.

Still, it's a great album and features cameo appearances by guitar greats Dweezil Zappa, Mattias Eklundh, and the now-obscure (but at the time, rising star) Joboj. I nearly wore this CD out in my player when it came out, and I still frequently go back to it today. 

Album Review: Prince - 1999

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Prince's 1999 is such landmark, legendary, famous record that any review I could write for Stationary Waves is totally extraneous. Suppose I love the album; then, that makes me no different than millions of other music lovers across multiple generations. Suppose, on the other hand, that I hate the album; what does it matter? The album has already proven itself to the annuls of history.

Considering that fact, the best I can do for an album like this is discuss some of the elements of this album that have meant something to me over the years.

The title track is one of the most famous songs of all time. But when it came out, I was very young, and as a result I didn't come to a full appreciation of this song until much later in life. As familiar as everyone is with this song, there are elements that I think some people miss. One of those things is the construction of the melody in the verse. There are four lines in the verse; the first three are slight variations on each other, and the fourth consists of all of the previous three sung in unison, in harmony. Prince didn't invent this sort of thing, but it was the first time I had ever heard that concept applied and been aware of it.

What this tells me about Prince's approach to composition - and your mind may certainly vary - is that it is a lot more conceptual and deliberate than the average musician. Prince often gets full accolades for being a passionate songwriter, but he is seldom praised for the deliberateness with which he approaches the construction of a melody. On "1999," he proves that he deserves to be.

A lot of Prince's records from the 80s feature his characteristic drum machine/synthesizer sound, and that sound is certainly everywhere on 1999. Less obvious, and consequently less appreciated, are the guitar and bass tones on the album. One reason for this is that they tend to be drowned out by the comparatively higher volumes of the drum machines and synthesizers. Still, both the guitar and bass tones are crunchy and punchy, with a warm overdrive on both that lends a more organic edge to what would otherwise be, well, synth-pop.

One element to Prince's early sound - including 1999 - was almost certainly obvious at the time of its release, but has likely been lost to newer fans in the wake of how music has evolved. Take the song "Delirious," for example: Here we have a classic Prince synth-pop song that sounds extremely 80s. Yet, compositionally speaking, this is a classic 1950s-style rock 'n roll song. Replace the drum machine with a real drummer, replace the vintage 80s synthesizer with 16th notes on a piano, and it could just as easily have been released on a Little Richard record. I think when people my age hear or read comparisons of Prince to Little Richard, most assume that the comparison pertains to the artists' respective flamboyance on stage. Perhaps some apply the comparison to the artists' trademark falsetto screams. Few really understand that the comparison goes right to the heart of their songwriting. In the 80s, though, Little Richard was still touring extensively, his fans were still buying new pop records, and people would have understood this a lot better than they do now.

In hindsight, people may not remember just how long a lot of the songs on 1999 are. There are eleven songs on the record, and most of them are well over five minutes long. Note that the album was released at a time when radio songs were still on the order of three minutes long. Because I grew up during the heyday of compact discs, even I was unaware of the fact that 1999 was a double-LP when it originally came out. Long songs on a double-LP? Gosh, that almost sounds like...

It almost sounds like Prince is a bit of a prog-rocker. I say it all the time. The song lengths are a big part of this, not just because "the songs are long," but because in order to pull of a long synth-pop song, an artist has to be capable of injecting enough musical variety into the material t hat the listener (a stereotypical pop listener) doesn't get board. Prince accomplishes this with that deliberate and conceptually oriented approach to melody construction that I mentioned above. Take the song "D.M.S.R." for example: the piece begins with very sparse instrumentation, driven forward by a powerful drum-machine beat. But as the song unfolds, Prince adds additional layers, and these layers interact with each other. In some cases, a blend of layers A, B, and C add up to significantly different harmonic content than a blend of layers X, Y, and Z... but also different harmonic content from a blend of, say, A, Z, and C. In an era in which one couldn't simply sample a piece of music digitally and then move it around a user interface to see what happens, what this means is that Prince's hefty compositional prowess was the driving force behind this kind of layering - and that's remarkable.

There are people my age and younger who know 1999 only as the album that produced "1999" and "Little Red Corvette." Most of us have heard those songs, and most of us like them, and that is as deep as most younger people have bothered to dive. If you've heard these songs, though, and still ended up wondering why people call Prince a "genius," I urge you to explore the deep tracks on this album, paying close attention to the way they were composed. It's worth it. 1999 is a great record.


Album Review: Tool - 10,000 Days

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Tool has been a favorite band of mine since 1993, the year they released their first full-length album, Undertow. This makes me one of Tool's original fans, unlike the bulk of their fanbase, which came to them some years later, and which ended up supplying most of the album sales for the "nu metal" and "rap/rock" bands of the '00s.

At some point, I will have to write a post exploring the development of Tool from being an anti-metal, indie-grunge band, famous only for having a weird frontman and playing well at Lollapalooza to being perhaps the foremost progressive metal band of their time. But not today.

I still remember the first time I heard the first single from Tool's 2006 album, 10,000 Days. The single was the album's first track, "Vicarious." It was a remarkable occasion. I was sitting in a small bar in Edmonton, Alberta, called The Kingsknight Pub. (It appears that this somewhat remote, small pub still exists, so check it out if you get the opportunity.)

The reason I was at Kingsknight Pub that night was because they had managed to book King's X in concert, and to this day that concert remains one of the best I'd ever seen. I got to meet Ty and Doug, Jerry played an incredible drum solo,  I spent the whole concert front-and-center... It was just an amazing time that I will never forget.

But before the concert, we were sitting in a booth - myself and a couple of friends and fellow band-mates. Since Tool is a favorite of mine, I already knew that 10,000 Days would soon be released, but I hadn't expected to hear a new Tool song that night - their first in about five years. From the opening notes, I new that "Vicarious" was destined to be another classic Tool song.

As soon as I could, I found my way to a record store (most likely the now-defunct A&B Sound, on the south side of town) and purchased my copy of the new Tool album. I hurried home, put the disc into my player, and hit play... there was "Vicarious..." Next came "Jambi," and I was excited to hear the rest of the record. But as "Wings For Marie, Part 1" opened and then the rest of the album subsequently played itself out, I found myself disappointed by a Tool album for the first time ever.

Why disappointed? The album seemed so modal, so stream-of-consciousness, so unstructured. What I had always loved about Tool was their songwriting. What makes a song like "Bottom" so good isn't the quiet grooving over spoken-word in the middle, but the tight song structure book-ending it. What always set Tool aside from some of the other bands like them was that they were able to find melodies and changes in their music that gave the listener more harmonic content than one might otherwise expect.

Note, for example, that a great many Tool songs never change chords at all. The band might alternate between two or three different riffs that outline the same chord, but the underlying chord tends not to change. One really great aspect of Maynard James Keenan's vocal melodies is that, in the past, he's been able to vary his melodies enough that other chords are implied by what he's singing. That's great, that's important, especially when the instruments aren't doing that work themselves.

But on 10,000 Days, a lot of that seemed to have been traded for primarily modal music. During the song "10,000 Days (Wings Pt. 2)," for example, the band doesn't effectively change chords until nine minutes into the song. For a guy like me, who has a real thirst for harmonic diversity, this felt like a bridge too far.

Then there are Keenan's vocals. I always felt that the vocals on Lateralus could have been stronger. His vocal range seemed to have shrunk, his screams seemed weaker - and more sparse. He seemed less plugged-into the songs. And, yes, the melodies suffered for it, too. But Lateralus was still an excellent record, and the vocals on 10,000 Days seemed to have only worsened on all of these levels.

The band, meanwhile, was still strong. 10,000 Days features some of the nicest, crunchiest guitar tones Adam Jones has ever given us. Justin Chancellor's bass tones, which have always been aggressive and brilliant, are no less so on the record. If anything, the band's two stringsmen really stepped up their game on the record... If only the vocals had kept up.

Of course, the centerpiece of Tool's music has always been the drumming, and that drumming has always been progressive and experimental. Initially Danny Carey's experimentation was with beats, but as he developed as a drummer, he began to incorporate new sounds, new ways of playing drums, new concepts. He famously wrote beats based on mathematical formulas, he tried to free himself from the confines of playing in time, he pushed and pushed until he was a man who stood more or less alone in the landscape of drummer. On 10,000 Days, though, he seemed to have not pushed quite as hard.

Since 1996's Aenima, Tool had been experimenting with intra-song segues. I recall reading a review of an advanced copy of Aenima in which the reviewer compared the segues to the famous "track #69" on the Undertow album and concluded that it was about the same amount of album space dedicated to something other than music, only instead of providing it lump-sum, as on track #69, the band spread the material across the entire album. As the albums progressed, the segues and non-songs became more elaborate, and on 10,000 Days I found them almost over-bearing.

In a sense, this last criticism is not fair. Just because I want to hear an 80-minute block of music in one sitting when I listen to CDs doesn't mean that's what the the band wants to record and provide as an artistic statement. Still, it seemed at the time that the band's artistic vision was going further and further afield of what originally drew me to the band in the first place.

And that's fair enough. One is under no obligation to love everything a band releases, even if it happens to be a favorite band.

Maybe it was just me.

Having said all that, I've now had nine years to digest this album, and I must admit that it has improved with age. All my original criticism still applies - the segues are too long, there is too much wasted space between the "good parts," the songs are too modal, too unstructured, too few chords and riffs - but rather than feeling disappointment about that, I just see 10,000 Days as being another CD in my record collection. I'll listen to it and enjoy it occasionally, but I won't leave it in my car and listen to it repeatedly for weeks, as I do with my favorite records.

And, truth be told, there are two or three incredible songs on this record. As silly as the lyrics are, "Roseta Stoned" is a brilliantly creative song, featuring some brilliant riffs, excellent drumming, and a highly creative and well-delivered vocal concept. More than any other song on the album, "Roseta Stoned" reflects the Tool of the early nineties, the hungry, ambitious, and progressive band that still maintained an unflinching sense of humor. "Vicarious" gets me excited every time I hear it - and always had. Surely an album with great songs like this can't be all bad.

And it's not. It just wasn't the Tool album I expected after a five-year wait. Neither will Tool's next album - but there will always be something to love about them.


Even If These Are Better Days, You Might Still Learn From Your Elders

Because music is omnipresent today, it's hard for people in this day and age to imagine what a music lover's life might have been like in, say, the 19th century. Back then, if people wanted to hear music, they had to make music. They wouldn't hear it otherwise.

The downside of that was that it was difficult to hear the music one loved the most back then. The upside was that those who loved music knew how to play it, often learning it from sheet music or by ear, and thus loved it on a much deeper level - as a musician - than the lower-key appreciation of casual "music fans" today.

Given the choice, no one would choose to turn back the clock and make music so hard to come by as it was two hundred years ago; but there's also no denying that the scarcity of music facilitated a more profound relationship with that music. 

Maybe we don't want to go back in time, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from the past.

*        *        *

At Slate Star Codex, Scott Whoever has written a post about what appears to be an actual married couple he's counselling. It seems one of them wants to be poly-amorous and the other doesn't want to be poly-amored-upon. Ordinarily, this would be great fodder for a scathing Stationary Waves indictment of moral reasoning. But I really am trying to be a better person, so instead of going there, I wanted to explore something else.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that monogamy was a bit like music prevalence: whatever might have been the case in 1850, times have changed. We have internet radio, electric guitars, and the freedom to pursue as many casual sexual partners as we please. Hold your disagreements for a moment, just hear me out.

In that case, there may be an important parallel between music appreciation and marriage. Maybe the people who want to be poly-amorous don't want to turn the clock back and live the socially conservative version of marriage that existed in the 1800s - but maybe they also won't ever get to experience the kind of emotional connectivity, the level of cooperation and conflict resolution, and the benefits of lifelong commitment, that the average 19th Century spouses (in healthy marriages) got to enjoy.

Here the poly-amorous people will object. They'll say that their relationships are every bit as deep and meaningful and emotionally connected as a good marriage in the 1800s would have been. But how would they know? I know a lot of people who claim that they love music as much as I do, despite the fact that they can't read a note of music and have no idea what's going on conceptually in Beethoven's 9th Symphony, even if they like it. Of course I can't compare my level of enjoyment to theirs, but I can compare my level of music appreciation before I studied music to my level of music appreciation after I studied music. (Spoiler alert: I appreciate it more since having learned about it.)

I also don't know anyone who has learned about music who now appreciates music less than they did before. It stands to reason, and is as self-evident as anything can be, that learning to play music means you will love music all the more. So I actually can say with confidence that the same piece of music means more to me than it does to someone who loves the same piece, but who doesn't play music.

And while I can't say much about the alleged benefits of poly-amory, I can say with complete and utter confidence that no one who has been in the kind of committed marriage that a true, life-long, monogamous bond produces understands the depth of emotional connection involved here. Even those poly-amorers who claim to have experience with that kind of monogamy don't actually have the experience they're claiming - their poly-amory proves it. They can't have it both ways.

Anyway, maybe they don't want to be monogamous, and maybe society will never turn back the clock and go back to a one-spouse, lifetime commitment social norm. And maybe - I say, for the sake of argument - life is better that way in exactly the same sense that life is better now that music is everywhere. But if so, modern lovers have much to learn about the vast and profound emotional potential of a committed, monogamous marriage the likes of which used to be the norm a long time ago.

Album Review: Tony MacAlpine - Concrete Gardens

Image courtesy TonyMacAlpine.com

There are a few musicians out there whose abilities and proficiencies are so multiplicitous that, to the rest of us, it just seems... well... unfair. Tony MacAlpine is one such artist.

First, and most famously, he's a guitar player who can shred the heck out of a guitar. An early icon of the Shrapnel Records ensemble cast, MacAlpine has consistently evolved with the times, staying at the forefront of the instrumental guitar world whether the current fad is neoclassical shredding, jazz/fusion, straight-up metal, or modern 8-string djent.

Second, he's a remarkable pianist. To that end, I recently heard Eddie Trunk interview Steve Vai on Trunk's Trunk Nation radio show on SirusXM. Vai recounted the story of hearing Tony MacAlpine playing a beautiful piano piece backstage before a concert. Vai asked what he was playing, and MacAlpine said it was Chopin. (To those of you unfamiliar with piano music, Chopin's work is some of the most beautiful and challenging in the history of piano.) Vai asked MacAlpine if he could play another one, and MacAlpine reportedly answer, "Sure, which one would you like to hear? I know them all." That's literally hundreds of compositions that he reportedly knows from memory. Think about that.

Then there's MacAlpine the music instructor. And composer. And sideman. Get the picture? This guy is the real deal. He's a virtuoso on so many levels that it makes mere mortals like the rest of us feel a little bit like we might have wasted some of our time over the years...

Concrete Gardens, MacAlpine's latest offering, is seemingly all about diversity. Like many Shrapnel Records alumni, it can be tempting to pigeonhole MacAlpine as "one of those neoclassical shredders," but on Concrete Gardens, MacAlpine simply won't have any of it.

From the crushing album opener, "Exhibitionist Blvd," MacAlpine presents himself as a thoroughly modern musician - and in the case of his metal side, that means 8-string guitars and syncopated, odd-metered beats that rival anything Animals As Leaders is putting out. Unlike Animals As Leaders, though, MacAlpine's take on modern metal is heavily steeped in consonance, rather than dissonance. The result is something really special: the chaos of the detuned riffs presents an almost minimalist harmonic structure whose details are presented in the melodies of the songs. The highly progressive and aptly named "Epic" is a case in point, and on that one we hear shades of the Tony that proved to be such an integral part of the Planet X prog-metal super-group.

On "Napoleon's Puppet," MacAlpine chooses to take this concept in a different direction. The chunky, detuned riffs become the backbone of a more traditionally "shred" guitar piece, on which we hear plenty of allusions to the neoclassical stylings that defined his early career. But these are only allusions, as the piece is wrapped neatly in a burtal, modern package.

It is a heavy album, but as I said, Concrete Gardens is about diversity. Whether it's a short breakdown in a heavier song, or a composition in its entirety (as with "Poison Cookies"), MacAlpine sets aside plenty of space for his jazz/fusion side. This isn't the sleepy, pearly white, Mike Stern version of jazz/fusion, though, this is the good stuff. It's rich, it's dark, it's progressive, and it's loud. One of the standout elements of these fusion pieces is MacAlpine's ability to double even his most challenging guitar runs on keyboards, giving certain passages a level of emphasis that is usually unattainable in guitar music.

Another important attribute of the keyboard parts on Concrete Gardens is that they enable MacAlpine to avoid what has become one of the most contrite aspects of instrumental guitar music: harmonized guitar. Don't get me wrong, when done properly it can be great, but too often - and this is especially true of shredders like MacAlpine - the harmonies sound dated and dull. But since TMac isn't stuck to playing everything on a guitar, this allows him to apply harmony the way it should be, where harmony takes up not only a different tonal space, but also a different timbre. This creates sonic space in the compositions, which is absolutely crucial in heavy music.

Concrete Gardens features another brilliant musician, Aquiles Priester, on drums throughout the record. What a wonderful choice of drummers for this record. Preister manages to give each track the heaviness it requires, without devolving into the usual "all-double-bass, all-the-time" blast beat thing. Priester's drumming tightens up during the intricate guitar melodies, opens up lots of space during the breakdowns, and keeps the listener engaged and surprised throughout. I'd go so far as to suggest that it is Priester's drumming more than anything else that gives Concrete Gardens the sonic continuity it needs to enable MacAlpine to explore the full diversity of his playing ability.

While the production value of the record can be a little in-your-face at times, I doubt MacAlpine's metal fans will mind so much. For my part, I would prefer a bit more dynamic range in the mastering so that I could more fully appreciate the album's undeniably brilliant performances. Nevertheless, this is a small critique based on personal preference, not on a poor production or mastering job.

If you haven't been keeping up with Tony MacAlpine, you should have been, and lucky for you, Concrete Gardens strikes me as an ideal place to pick back up with one of California's most exciting instrumentalists. 


On Grudges

I really do want to be a better person, and I really do think that if we all make an effort in that direction, the world will be a better place.

Something came to me quite suddenly yesterday, inspired by nothing. I was walking through the parking lot, and my mind just happened to wander back to all these things I've been trying to process lately about self-improvement.

First, there was the idea of Situationist psychological analysis, and Zimbardo's recommendation that we exhaust all situational explanations for human behavior before resorting to dispositional analysis. This should be done at the level of social psychology, i.e. the level of a social group, in the Zimbardo tradition; how do we explain why groups of people do things that groups of people do? But in my mind, there is a more individual, more morally oriented way of applying this same lesson: If I can imagine a situation in which I myself would do the same thing that another person did, how can I remain angry at them?

Try it for yourself the next time you're in heavy traffic. It's inevitable that someone will do something that bothers you. They might cut you off, they might fail to signal a turn, they might merge incorrectly, they might tailgate you, they might speed past you dangerously... or any of dozens of other things that might bother you. Before you get upset (or quickly thereafter if, like me, you're still honing your ability to default to the proper moral reactions), try to imagine a situation in which you might plausibly make the same mistake. Hey, I don't know, maybe you're a perfect driver and you'd never make any driving mistakes ever. Chances are, though, you'll be able to imagine just such a plausible scenario. My assertion is that what you'll discover is that doing this will make you much less upset about the other motorist.

I've been surprised and impressed by just how profoundly this practice has diffused my temper in frustrating situations. It's common knowledge that "before you judge someone else, put yourself in their shoes," which is of course excellent moral advice that your mother always taught you. But the key point here is that it is also therapeutic for you.

Maybe I'm slow on the uptake here, but this has been a real revelation for me.

So there was that, and then second, there was my coming to a fuller comprehension of what The Last Psychiatrist was writing about for all those years. He wrote a lot about defense mechanisms and narcissism, about the influence of media on the human psyche and about the tendency we all have to be self-absorbed these days. He wrote so many good, important, and useful things, lessons that will change your life for the better if you fully absorb them.

So, as I was saying, suddenly it hit me: To hold a grudge is a thoroughly selfish act, almost a narcissistic one.

It goes something like this: If you're holding a grudge against Jane, a lot of your anger comes from the significance to your life that you attach to the offense committed by Jane. But there is no guarantee that Jane ever gave that much significance to her offense. For her, it might have been a throw-away. That you attach so much significance to the act suggests an unhealthy preoccupation with the significance of your own thoughts, and your belief that others ought to share your esteem for those thoughts.

Now, forgiveness doesn't mean you allow anyone to do anything to you at any time. It just means that you let go of your anger, reduce the level of self-absorption involved in your thought process, and quietly move on with your life. It might be productive, in some cases, to tell Jane that you forgive her for her offense and give her a chance to forgive you, too. But it might not be productive to bring it up at all, in which case you might come to realize that you don't need Jane's acknowledgement to forgive her. You might just need to articulate that forgiveness to yourself.

We can make the world a better place by being better people, and one way to be a better person is to stop holding grudges.

Album Review: Ian Fletcher Thornley - Secrets

Image courtesy IanFletcherThornley.com

On October 30th of this year, Ian Fletcher Thornley released the new Secrets album. He had been teasing the fans on his Facebook page for months leading up to the release of the album, posting photos of the recording process and emphasizing the fact that he was playing lots of acoustic guitar. That's significant because he had spent most of the year prior promoting Big Wreck in all its hard-rocking, progressive-infused, shredding brilliance.

But the release of a Thornley acoustic album was a logical next move, one that I didn't find surprising in the least.

All of Ian Thornley's albums, from the first Big Wreck album all the way to last year's Ghosts record feature a lot of acoustic guitar work, but this album represents Thornley's first foray into music that is primarily played on acoustic instruments. The result is marvelous, but certainly something that will divide fans.

On one side of the divide sit the fans who love Thornley's work for all its hard-rocking, screaming, awesomeness - and who have found his post-90s work to have been missing something. I find these folks to have similar tastes to those Soundgarden fans who only ever like hearing Chris Cornell at his heaviest. Like Cornell, Ian Thornley is bound to attract a sizable number of fans like this because he has one of the best heavy metal voices in the business. He can scream with a piercing grit that can keep up with the best of them. Why would someone with such a powerful metal voice sit in a meadow, strumming an acoustic guitar and crooning about love?

Then there are the rest of us, those of us who have been attentive enough to Thornley's music over the years to have spotted all the blues, bluegrass, folk, and country infused in even his hardest material. Thornley himself has been quite vocal about his love for artists like Bruce Cockburn and Tom Robinson. That softer side has always been there, from "Blown Wide Open" to "This Is Where My Heart Is" to "Ghosts." Always lurking just beneath the surface, but never given its own dedicated place to play, Ian Thornley's folk side has finally been given its spotlight on Secrets.

Thus, it is probably no surprise that the album is being promoted through a new website, a new set of social media profiles, and even a new name, Ian Fletcher Thornley.

Since the division in Thornley's fan base is so clear, let me cut right to the chase: Those who only ever like him when he's rocking out will find little to love about Secrets. This album is clearly for the rest of us. And what the rest of us will find on this album is simply wonderful.

First, there is the guitar playing. Slide guitars and finger picking have always been staples on prior Thornley records, but here they finally take front and center, and this makes it clear just how good a folk guitarist he is. Typically when a guitarist branches out into other genres, we can hear the struggle, the hard work it took to just get the music recorded properly. Only a very few artists can cross effortlessly into various styles of guitar playing - hard rock, metal, blues, slide guitar, folk guitar, dobro, mandolin... Ian Thornley handles it all with ease. Close your eyes, and you might think you're hearing the guitar work of Bruce Cockburn or Richard Thompson. But you're not; you're hearing the same Ian Thornley who shredded his way through the outro of "I Digress."

Next is the voice, that wonderful, creaky voice that stands somewhere at the intersection of Chris Cornell, Jim Heath, and... maybe Howard Jones? If you've never really noticed how deft a vocalist Thornley is, Secrets is an excellent album to listen to. With a gentle push, his voice can go from smooth and crooning to bluesy grit, sometimes over the course of a single note. And in Thornley's case, this isn't done willy-nilly or as a display of technique, it's done to highlight the emotion of the lyrics.

That emotion is laid bare throughout the album he sings of love, its pitfalls and rewards, as someone who has experience. This is true folk music, not written to climb the pop charts or to win a fresh crop of teenage fans. This is music written for the mature, the adult, those of us who have been younger, and who have been older, and who can appreciate time from both perspectives.

Rare are the artists who can be so many things. On Secrets, Ian Fletcher Thornley proves that he can be pretty much anything he wants to be, play anything he wants to play, sing anything he chooses to sing, and it will always come through as genuine. Secrets delivers quiet but powerful folk music with all the expertise we might expect from a veteran.

Hard to believe it's his first formal venture into the genre. Let's hope it's not his last.