Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Greatest Metal Frontman

I love lists and rankings, and I love metal. So naturally I love the idea of ranking the greatest metal frontmen of all time. Of course I've got my own opinions on this and I'll likely write an article with my own rankings, but I really just wanted to post this to direct you to the current Loudwire contest, which is still in round 1 so there's time to get in there and add your opinion to the polls.

Greatest Metal Frontman

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Yesterday I saw Slayer live for the first time. The opening act 4arm was solid, Gojira was next and they put on a good show too.

The real impression Slayer left on me was with their final two songs. I didn't take the picture you see here, but it was from the show. The band ended their set with South of Heaven and Angel of Death, performed in front of this tribute banner while large screens to the side of the stage played a video montage of Jeff Hanneman footage. It was a touching and very appropriate tribute to a fallen comrade.

R.I.P. Jeff Hanneman, Angel of Death.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

WoodWall - WoodEmpire

I've been terrible about reviewing new albums this year. Something like 50 or 60 bands and promoters have sent me new music to review, which admittedly is far less material than many metal bloggers receive, but it's still enough to make me feel bad about the fact that I've barely touched any of it. Well, I have decided to try a little harder for the rest of the year to cover at least some of the records piling up in my inbox, and I'm starting tonight with a group who contacted me a couple weeks ago.

WoodWall are an Italian band who released their debut album WoodEmpire  last month. They play, as you've probably guessed just by looking at that sweet album artwork, a brand of psychedelic stoner metal.

My initial assumption was that this would be something of an Electric Wizard-esque stoner doom record, but it's quite a bit lighter than that. While definitely psychedelic, and still metal, this record comes with more of a Pink-Floyd-playing-blues-rock flavor to it than I'd anticipated. That works well, and it makes this extremely easy to get into for more casual listeners who may not be ready for thunderously heavy music. The guitar solos sound great and are played with restraint and an emphasis on flowing organically from the songs. The bass maintains a good groove, as it should in this type of metal, and I found myself focusing on it quite frequently as I listened. The drums fit well, but as is often true of groove-oriented metal, they don't really take the spotlight. In my opinion the vocals are the weakest facet of the album, though it's not to the point of being distracting or anything. They just aren't delivered with much power, which is exacerbated by the fact that the only real problem with the mix is that the vocals are a little too low. At its heart, though, this is a guitar record more than anything else. Guitar and bass are the real keys to most psychedelic/stoner music, inside metal and out, so that's not really a surprise.

I do have one other gripe, which that while there are some strong songs here, there are also a couple filler tracks. Now "a couple" doesn't sound too bad, until you realize that there are only six songs on this record. Those tracks aren't really even bad per se, but this would have been a stronger showing if it had been released as an EP without them.

Overall, this is a good record. I doubt it will go down as one of the best releases of the year, but it's groovy and enjoyable. As a debut, I think it shows a lot of promise. Once these guys refine their songwriting a little and bring out a full album of their best material, I can see myself really getting on board.

Grade: B

(You can find the full album on bandcamp here.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to Behave Toward the Police

This is a subject typically tackled from a racial, comedic standpoint by the likes of Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle, but today I'd like to take a few minutes to share a very recent event and provide some honest advice. To make it clear, I'm talking specifically about how to behave toward the police in a traffic-related context, since I'm guessing drug dealers and SWAT teams have a rather different dynamic than most of us are likely to encounter.

Let's begin with story time. Tonight my internet was driving me crazy with its total lack of performance (and by this I mean it wouldn't even open web pages). I decided, since I hadn't eaten dinner anyway, to go grab a hamburger and just use the wifi at McDonald's or wherever I went. So I grabbed my keys and my laptop and headed out the door. A block down the road I realize I forgot my wallet so I go back to get it, which turned out to be pretty important.

Anyway, back on the road, just a few hundred yards off The Strip, I decide to change lanes because mine is at a dead stop. I glace in my mirror, all looks clear, so without turning my head to check my blind spot I whip to my left and hit a taxi. Broken shards of plastic scatter across the street as he hits his breaks. Great. I flip on my hazards and the cab driver and I do the whole get-out-and-survey-the-damage thing as he puts in a call to his supervisor. The next hour or so is spent waiting and answering questions in one form or another, as two police officers and his supervisor arrive and do their thing. In the end, the officer in charge elected not to write up a full report or give me a ticket, since there was minimal damage and there were no injuries, so I was sent on my way with nothing but a dented fender, a broken turn signal casing, and some contact information for the other party should I choose to file a claim.

This whole thing could have gone differently. I could have been given a ticket for several hundred dollars and potentially seen an increase in my insurance rate. That didn't happen, though, and I'm going to share with you some of the reasons why (I think).

These are four things I did that we should all do when dealing with the police in a traffic-related incident.

1. Be polite. This really should go without saying, but for some reason many people seem to ignore it. I'm not saying you have to turn into some fawning, obsequious toady, but you should behave in a calm, civil manner. Remember those basic rules for polite behavior that your parents (hopefully) taught you as a child? Well consider this a good opportunity to practice them. It's just common sense that a police officer is going to respond better to somebody who is polite to them.

2. Be honest. I was at fault, and I knew it. What's more, I admitted it. This is another of those things that needn't be overdone (you don't have to become a fountain of incriminating information) but when you're asked a clear, direct question you should give a clear, accurate answer. Don't adorn it with hyperbole, don't avoid the question, and don't feign innocence. When you're asked what happened you should just give a clear, accurate, and appropriately detailed account of the event. These are people who deal with traffic accidents on a daily basis, so a quick look at your situation has probably already given them a good idea of what occurred. Further, they constantly deal with people lying to get out of trouble, so if you're full of shit, the odds are pretty good that they know it. Nobody likes being lied to, so if a police officer senses that you're trying to pull one over on them they probably won't respond very well to you. In my case, I was specifically told that part of why I didn't get a ticket was because I fully and immediately admitted that I was at fault. That's something to keep in mind.

3. Be cooperative. This pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. These can be stressful situations, and the officer on the scene is trying to keep everything controlled and orderly, so do your part to make his (or her) job easier. Have your license, registration, and insurance card ready. Answer their questions, stay put when they tell you where they need you to be, and generally try to make the situation as convenient and manageable as possible. If you spend your time freaking out at the other driver, wandering into traffic, or trying to avoid providing your information, you make the officer's life harder. And when you make peoples' lives harder, they have no reason to refrain from making your life harder in return.

4. Be non-threatening. Maybe you just want a stick of gum, but don't dive into your pocket. Don't use aggressive body (or spoken) language, and always keep your hands clearly visible. The officer at the scene doesn't know whether or not you're a dangerous person, and for all they know you might have a concealed handgun. It's not unheard of for a police officer to get shot because somebody didn't want a ticket. Keep in mind that as stressful as this is for you, they have the additional stress of not knowing whether you're a threat to their safety. This is basically just another facet of being cooperative, but it warrants special attention because it is very important. An officer who is at ease, like anybody who is at ease in a given situation, is much more likely to treat you kindly than one who thinks you might try to harm them.

So in summary: be polite, honest, cooperative, and non-threatening. I feel like all of this should be common sense, but as is often said, I fear that "common sense is not very common" when it comes to dealing with the police. Traffic accidents can bring out the worst in people, but if you keep a level head and behave appropriately you can save yourself a lot of trouble. And money.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Proper Way to Serve a Stout

Many things in life can be done several ways, and in many cases there's nothing really wrong with taking one course over another. There are some things, though, that can be done the right way or the wrong way. Today, I'd like to address one such thing.

Stout beers should not be served cold. Within the European context beer in general is meant to be drunk at room temperature. This convention isn't always the best course, since many popular American beers taste atrocious when served warm, but when it comes to stouts it is absolutely correct.

You see, there are only two reasons to chill a beer. The first, which applies to those popular American lagers I just mentioned, is that it masks the taste. Flavor is harder to detect in a cold beer than a warm one, and since Coors Light tastes like piss, when it gets warm enough to really experience the flavor it's basically undrinkable. Served cold, though, it's tolerable because you can barely taste it.

The second reason to chill a beer is to make it a cooling, refreshing drink. After all, on a hot summer afternoon, nobody wants to take a break and sit down with a warm beverage. This is understandable, but it's also not really the time for a stout. These situations are why we have lagers, because their thinner, lighter, sharper nature makes them ideally suited to enjoying cold. A cold lager is crisp and refreshing. A cold stout is not.

Stouts are, at least in my (correct) opinion, cold weather beers. When I come in from sweating my ass off in the yard on a scorching July afternoon, I want a frosty Yuengling. When I come in from trudging through the snow on a bitterly cold December night, that's when I want a pint of Guinness. It's a thick, hearty beverage which serves as the beer drinker's equivalent to a nice hot chocolate or a steaming cup of coffee. That's not to say it should be served hot, but it's certainly not going to stick to my ribs and warm me up if it's served a few degrees above freezing. At that temperature I can't enjoy the taste, I can't enjoy the desired warming effects, and I can't imagine I'm sitting in front of a toasty fireplace in a little cottage in the woods.

If you're drinking it at home, obviously you can handle this however you like. To all you bars out there, though, take a look at a good Irish pub. If there's anybody in the world who knows how to brew and serve a good stout, it's the Irish, and you'll notice they set down a pint glass that's just as warm and cozy as their establishment's oak-paneled interior.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fairweather Fans

Now that the NLDS is over and the Pirates have been eliminated, I'd like to address the "fans".

Dear Pittsburgh sports fans,

You disgust me. I'm just going to open with that so there's no question about where I'm going with this article. For years now the Pirates have languished in mediocrity, stringing together losing seasons and building toward the future. During that time, their beautiful stadium (frequently recognized as one of the best places to watch an MLB game) sat half-empty game after game despite having the lowest ticket prices of any National League franchise. The supposedly healthy and loyal fan-base in the city around them treated the Pirates like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, alternately attacking or ignoring them. Now that they have put together a winning season and competed in the playoffs, though, suddenly everybody in Pittsburgh is a Pirates fan. That's their team, don't you know?

Well let me tell you something. Do you know how I know that PNC Park was half-empty game after game? Because I was actually going to Pirates games. Despite having to spend 2 hours in the car each way to get there, I attended multiple games each season. That's because, unlike the throngs of "fans" who cropped up this year and acted like they'd always supported the team, I actually am a Pirates fan. Does that sound bitter and judgmental? Good. You see, I'm not delusional enough to think that everybody out there should latch onto a professional sports team and support them through thick and thin, but when somebody claims to be a fan of a team it means that they're a part of something bigger than themselves. They're part of a community that shares failures, and through that shared experience they take communal joy in the triumphs. But hopping in as a fair weather fan is wanting all the good without paying for it. It's being an atheist your whole life, dying and meeting Saint Peter at the pearly gates, then suddenly shouting "Yeah! God is awesome!" and expecting to get into Heaven.*

To highlight the way Pittsburgh sports fans have treated the Pirates over the years, I'd like to briefly recount something that happened to me about four years ago. I was in Pittsburgh to pick up a friend from the airport. I happened to be wearing a Pirates shirt that I had received during one of the promotional free t-shirt days at the ballpark. As I'm walking into the terminal, a little old lady stopped me. She said "You shouldn't be wearing that. You should wear a Steelers shirt instead." Yes, that was only one person, but never before or since in my life have I had a member of the public admonish me for wearing an article of clothing that supported a team in their own city. That's who the Pirates were to the city of Pittsburgh just a few short years ago. They were the team you "shouldn't" root for, for no discernible reason other than the fact that they weren't winning. Now, though, with the Steelers off to a terrible start and the Pirates finally demonstrating that their GM's long-term planning was well-advised, suddenly the entire city of Pittsburgh are Pirates fans and want to pretend like they've been cheering them on all this time. Well excuse me, but as an actual Pirates fans I'd just like to say: screw you Pittsburgh.

*This is not an endorsement or condemnation of any belief system or lack thereof. It is purely an illustrative example.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Top 10 Norwegian Black Metal Album Covers

Norway's infamous second wave of black metal is one of the most infamous scenes in music history. It produced some of the most iconic bands, albums, and images in the extreme metal world. The movement's aesthetic was unmistakable, and it has long since become the face of black metal to the rest of the world.

Amidst the church burnings and corpse paint, though, the movement also gave us some of the most stunning and starkly beautiful artwork ever to grace an album cover. Below, I list my personal choices for the 10 greatest album covers ever to emerge from Norwegian black metal. You'll doubtless notice a stylistic trend as you near the top of the list.

[Note: Honorable mentions go to Darkthrone's Panzerfaust, both versions of Dimmu Borgir's Stormblåst, and to Windir's Arntor which I wanted to fudge for, but which I decided I couldn't honestly count as black metal.]


#10. Enslaved - Eld (1997)
It's pretty uncommon to see good full-color portraits on black metal albums. Those that we do see are usually so heavily filtered that they may as well be black-and-white. With this cover, Enslaved went against the grain in a really compelling way. I wouldn't want to see a ton of album covers in this style, but I think Eld comes across with a really effective look.

#9. Arcturus - Aspera Hiems Symphona (1996)
Admittedly there isn't very much to this one. It's fairly minimal, but it's minimal in the right way. The image captures the feeling of northern cold, solitude, light in the darkness, and the hauntingly magical mysteries of nature that all come with the Northern Lights. You may not see a lot when you look at this, but I for one feel a lot when I see it.

#8. Old Man's Child - Ill-Natured Spiritual Invasion (1998)
This cover kind of looks more like a death metal album cover to me. That doesn't really matter, though, because it also looks pretty damn cool. The background, easily ignored when staring at that striking central figure, has a haunting, supernatural glow and those tattered banners that reminds me of the Black Gate of Mordor. Given the departure here from the usual black metal aesthetic, I think this stands as a good example of effective alternative styles black metal bands can adopt.

#7. Burzum - Filosofem (1996)
This one is a classic. Admittedly my perceptions may be colored by the fact that I really love the album, but nonetheless I think this cover really captures the old-world mystique of the music really well. It always makes me think of the silent vampire classic "Nosferatu" and that's a great image to have in your head when listening to black metal.

#6. Dimmu Borgir - For All Tid (1994)
It's easy to forget, given their lack of street cred these days, that once upon a time Dimmu Borgir were a pretty serious black metal band. They've had several good album covers, but their first full-length in particular sported a gloomy, evil-looking cover that just looks spectacular. The black, deathlike figure is as ominous as can be, the towering white fortress is suitably ancient and fantastic, and the whole thing ties together perfectly.

#5. Burzum - Burzum (1992)
Speaking of grim, ominous figures, Burzum's self-titled debut features one of the darkest, gloomiest images I've ever seen. I can just imagine myself, freezing cold as I wander lost across a frozen moor, icy breeze swirling the thick fog, and seeing this black-robed ghoul loom out of the darkness ahead. It's chilling, and that's exactly how a black metal cover should be.

#4. Immortal - At the Heart of Winter (1999)
Immortal peaked a little later in their careers than most of their contemporaries, as far as I'm concerned. The high-water mark for the illustrious black metallers came in 1999, both in terms of music and artwork. The frozen fantasy land that Immortal craft in their music is beautifully illustrated here, with a black metal cover that has just enough darkness to keep its edge.

#3. Antestor - The Forsaken (2005)
Kristian Wåhlin is unquestionably my favorite metal cover artist, and one of his best works belongs on an album that comes out of left field. Antestor are a rare breed: a Christian Norwegian black metal band. In their early career they reportedly received death threats from several of the more aggressive members of the scene, and after disappearing from the music world for years they re-emerged in 2005 with an album so fantastic that even the actively anti-Christian black metal reviewers of Metal Archives give it a 97% score. Wåhlin contributed the artwork, which I absolutely love.

#2. Dark Funeral - The Secrets of the Black Arts (1996)
I didn't even know this one was by Wåhlin until I just now, but that fact that it is just illustrates how much his style appeals to me. This cover combines the dark, gloomy figures on numbers 5 and 6 with the blue tones and fantasy landscape of numbers 3 and 4. Even the band's logo looks cool and evil on there. This cover really has it all, and it would be an easy pick for the top spot if it weren't for. . . .

#1. Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse (1994)
Wåhlin's masterpiece. This cover is perfect. On top of that, it couldn't belong to a better album. This isn't just my favorite black metal cover, it's my favorite album cover of any kind. I won't go into details about this record, since it should be very familiar to anybody with even a passing interest in black metal, but the harsh, delicate beauty of the cover art speaks for itself.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Appearance of Age

As I move closer to 30, and as my little sister starts planning for the start of her college career next year, I find myself thinking about aging. I'm not one of those overly dramatic "I'm almost 30, my life is practically over!" types, but I do think that when you realize that high-school ended a decade ago, it's natural to reflect on the fact that you are getting older. While there is always room to learn and change, at this point you've largely stopped growing and started aging. This post isn't really about the internal psychological or spiritual aspects of aging, though. Rather, it's a reflection on how the world around us watches us age.

I was often puzzled, as I grew out a full beard for the first time, at how often I was told that it made me look old (or at least much older). How is it possible, I would ask myself, that a little hair can  change the appearance of my age by that much? I know beards are often seen as a symbol of maturity, but it struck me as peculiar that 10 years could be magically added to my face just like that.

Similarly, I always looked at the little old ladies wandering the grocery store with jet black hair and wondered who they thought they were fooling. The fact that the puff of hair on your head is a uniform coal color rather than a swirl of grey and white with a hint of light brown doesn't make you look younger, it just makes you look insecure. Again, white or grey hair is a sign of age, but in this day and age of easy access to hair dyes, do people really put that much stock in hair color when gauging age?

On closely a related note, receding hairlines are often a signal of age. I've seen men in their 60s with more hair than some men in their 20s, though, so this is yet another of those factors that seems like a largely superficial one that most people would overlook. Yet for whatever reason, most of us don't overlook it.

It's odd, but people see and apply all those aging factors to their perceptions, without really thinking about it and without even going beyond hair.

Then there's fitness. Obviously being in good physical shape makes you healthier and extends your lifespan, so I'm not going to criticize anybody for taking care of their body. But again, I'll hear people remark that so and so looks like a 20-year-old, and all I think is that no, they look like a 60-year-old who takes very good care of themselves. Good for them, but you can have abs and still look old.

Of course on the flip side of a fit body with an aged face, some people just have those "baby face" qualities that make them look younger than they are, even when the wrinkles start to form and their body starts to degenerate. These people seem to, by simple virtue of their facial structure, resist the appearance of aging in some strange way.

On top of all these things, there is the notorious Hollywood treatment, where a magical blend of makeup, lighting, and cosmetic procedures melts the years right off . . . or at least it's supposed to. Obviously this works to an extent for some people, but for every Jennifer Aniston there's a Steven Seagal. This particular factor doesn't seem relevant to most of us, since it doesn't come into play in our own appearances. It matters, though, because we see actors and models all the time, and despite the knowledge that they don't really look like that in their daily lives, the way they look on camera alters the way many people think we should all look as we age.

Combine all these factors in the right way, and it's astounding how big of a difference a person can make in the appearance of their age. None of this really matters to me personally, but I wrote this article just to provide a little context for the following visual demonstration, which I think is rather stunning.

Pictured here we have Tom Cruise on the left, and Aarne Bielefeldt on the right. As you've probably guessed from the nature of this article, they're about the same age. As nobody would guess without said context, Tom Cruise is actually the older of the two by about three years.

Now does this mean that somehow Cruise has aged the "right way" and Bielefeldt has aged the "wrong way"? Well, no. Aging, like any other part of our lives, is a reflection of who we are. How you handle the process, and how your body reacts to it, are pretty vital elements of you as an individual. It is, after all, one of those few things that we are always doing. I'm a big advocate of the idea that people ought to age gracefully, but that just reveals my own personality. I'm not judging those who hang on to youth in one way or another. Rather than placing either of these men alone on a pedestal, or targeting either of them with criticism, I'd say they each embody a particular ideal of masculine aging. (Of course, feminine aging has a whole other set of ideals and issues surrounding it, but I'm not a woman so I'd be speaking without much experience or context if I dove into that subject.) Our culture is pretty divided on how men "should" age, and I think these two effectively represent the ideal state of the man of about 50 as seen by either side. Which of the two camps you lean more toward (or where you fall elsewhere on the matter) says a good deal about your personality and values, in my opinion. It's not one of those things that is distinctly right or wrong, though. It just illustrates our differences.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Government Shutdown

I am not a very political person, and I promise I won't make a habit out of posting on political topics. That being said, the current semi-shutdown-trainwreck-bitchfight that is the US Government has brought out the political side in everybody recently, so I've found myself drawn into more debates than I'd typically participate in, with people from every corner of my social circles. (Yes, I realize I just talked about the corners of a circle.) These discussions tend to go the exact same way, regardless of the other participant.

Step 1: They make some loud, blanket assertion like "This is all the Democrats'/Republicans'/President's/Christians'/corporations' fault!"

Step 2: I say "Pointing fingers and laying blame isn't going to solve a problem that arose from pointing fingers and laying blame. We should take this opportunity to talk about the structural issues underlying our failing government rather than sitting around calling the opposition idiots."

Step 3: They say "My side is the only logical one, we can't take the middle ground. Those guys are idiots."

Step 4: Repeat Step 2

Step 5: Repeat Step 3

And so on and so forth.

I know it sounds like I'm creating a straw-man here, but I'm really not. This is essentially the level of political discourse that our nation of pseudo-intellectual "informed" citizens seems to be capable of producing at this point.

Now, in terms of my own stance, I'm not really taking a side. Sure, I have my opinions, but I largely stay away from party politics and there are very few issues about which my view is particularly strong or polar. What I do believe, though, is that the political system in this country is severely defective, in a deep and systemic way that goes far beyond issues of being "too liberal" or "too conservative". My thoughts on the matter are perhaps best summed up by a portion of one of my recent online arguments, which I will include here as my closing statement on the matter:

This shutdown has created a prime opportunity for people to see how broken the current political system is and to engage in meaningful discourse about how to solve the structural problems that have allowed a situation like this to happen in the first place. Instead, all I see are a bunch of self-righteous soap-boxers on both sides pointing and shouting and saying that the other party is to blame. It's sad to watch a bunch of presumably intelligent people insist on furthering the problem rather than taking a step back, getting off their high-horses, and looking at the bigger issues at hand.

And I'm not talking about taking the middle ground. You're hung up on which side of the boat to sit in. I'm saying that the whole damn boat is sinking, so maybe before we worry about seating arrangements we should fix the boat.