Monthly Archives: March 2009

Irony!

It’s been one of those days where I find myself slumped in front of the monitor. This widescreen, twenty-two inch Samsung behemoth is supposed to make things like blogging easier – it gives me more room to lay out work and organize windows so I don’t have to click back and forth between tasks. Yes, it should be a marvel of technology, but somehow it isn’t. Instead, I’m staring at two mostly blank Word documents, full-sized and side by side, with barely an idea passing through my mind. What used to be a potential twenty-two inches of pure productivity now seems a poster sized monument to writer’s block.

Frustration; mind-numbing boredom; a lack of fresh ideas – these are a writer’s worst enemies, so I don’t think I can fully blame the monitor for my troubles. I’ve stared at it for long enough, though, and come to one very big realization. I hate staring at it!

Modern technology is pervasive. I spend an inordinately large amount of time glued to some kind of screen every day. When I wake up in the morning, my waking urge is to open Firefox and check Google News for the day’s headlines, then use my handy extension Brief to keep up with my favorite RSS feeds. Whenever I’m in transit – whether by walking, subway, bus or train, I have an iPod plugged into my ears and a fixed gaze on the two-inch screen trying to decide if I’m feeling progressive enough for Yes or mellow enough for Brian Eno. On those weekends away from my main computer, that gaze is simply shifted to my smaller laptop screen. All that’s missing from this strikingly Orwellian nightmare is someone staring back at me on the other end (although that may already be the case).

Is it that scary, though? Part of me enjoys being wired into the world through computer screens. Take, for example, my awesome (read: better-than-yours) Samsung SyncMaster. It’s pretty to look at, takes up very little desk space, and is basically perfect for viewing anything: documents, images, video, and games – it all gets displayed in immaculate color. It has enough real estate to display full-sized documents and web pages side by side, with room left over for my IM client- all that, plus it’s clean and energy efficient.  Any item on this screen comes across so vibrantly that it’s become difficult to peel myself away from it.

As lost as I can get in the verdant greens of my desktop wallpaper, I also know what a double edged sword the display is. It is useful for my projects and hobbies, but sometimes I can barely see past its high walls and into the physical world. It’s dominating, and leaves me wondering what might be happening on the other side.

How many of us are stuck behind it? What happened to face-to-face conversation? What has the ‘civilized’ world come to when half our conversations now happen through Facebook and instant messaging? Are we so busy that going for a walk in the park once a week no longer fits into our schedules? Do we shun old friends because they haven’t texted us in forever? Earth still exists, and physical conversations still happen, but the convenience of technology has lessened the burden on our bodies, the burden that used to force us to pick up the newspaper every day, or go out and buy a book or a magazine. More often than not, our fingers are situated on a mouse and keyboard when we could be walking outside, enjoying the sensation of the bitter cold or the smell of the approaching spring. Technology hasn’t completely done away with personal interaction, it’s just cheapened it.

The internet, cell phones, and even television are all supposed to enhance our lives, making the things we’ve always done better in some way. They shouldn’t replace communication and relationships. Just to be clear – I’m not renouncing technology (though after a healthy dose of Battlestar, I often wonder if I should). I recognize how the web and its many facets keep families and friends in touch, and help tie the world together in a very real way. My gripe (which I place both on myself and on others) is that by allowing technology to encroach so much on our lives, we allow the precious little time we have with the living, natural world to slip away.

Now, for you Twitter-fiends who want everything in a nutshell, I’ll make my advice simple. Quit staring at your screen for a while. Go ride a fucking bike.

-Alex

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For Artists

In most occupations the question of responsibility is easily answered. A doctor must ensure the safety and health of their patients to the best of their ability. A scientist must pursue the physical truths of the universe with the greatest accuracy possible. A teacher must support their students in their pursuit of knowledge and provide the structure necessary to do so. Even with this seeming occupational clarity, there is one question which haunts some of us daily: What is the responsibility of the artist in the modern world? That condition of “modern” is very important to this piece; the rise of the internet has so drastically increased the world’s access to art that it cannot be ignored as a passing factor. What is the modern artist to do?

As with any piece such as this, I find it essential that I define our subject. In this case I would define an artist as a creator of entertainment or intellectual enrichment. This would include music, literature, graphic art, physical pieces and filmed pieces. Obviously quite a few specialties fall in between or are combinations of those qualifications, and they should be counted as well. What should not be counted is creativity in more practical professions. For example, there is a certain art to creating new medical equipment, a type of thought that innovates to serve directly. However, because its ultimate goal is to serve the health of the public and not to enrich intellectually, it is not part of this argument.

Amongst the few of us that have the mental disease that forces us to create instead of doing something more obviously useful to society, I have noticed a pattern. Artists are not only interested in their own area of work, but typically have very strong and educated opinions in other areas of art. This is evident throughout much of history as many great thinkers and artists have delved into other territory. Furthermore, most artists seem to have an attraction to philosophy and in turn, history and politics. This is completely logical as art uses all these things as a framework to deliver its message. While in earlier civilizations this was also linked to science and math, we have advanced far enough to separate the theoretical side of thought from that of direct scientific pursuit. Additionally, the modern artist has all of this information at their fingertips, making these varied artistic pursuits that much more complete.

For the purposes of this piece, I ask you to accept that artists in general are good at this type of theoretical thought. It is because we are good at it that we also enjoy it (ok, we enjoy it for other reasons too, but work with me). Though I am a writer and wish to do that for the rest of my life, I also invest quite a bit of time and thought in other forms of art without any promise or hope of turning that into an economic pursuit. That is a big factor in why Alex and I started this blog in the first place. This information is important and it must be preserved and spread. That is the first piece of the responsibility an artist holds.

Last Spring I attended a college radio conference and was treated to a lecture by Public Enemy front man Chuck D. While he told many stories and dispensed many opinions on the state of hip hop, he made two big points that have stuck with me. The first was that it is the responsibility of the artist to pursue information, you can’t expect to be handed anything and if you aren’t enthusiastic enough to put the effort in you should find something else to do with your life. The other was the responsibility of the artist to educate the public on that which they love. Specifically, he spoke on how the fall of the radio DJ has diminished the public’s knowledge of music. With no one to guide them to their next record, or perhaps the preceding record, most people simply do not put in the effort to find new music. In this case, artists are simply not being paid for their skills.

We all need to put food on the table, and one can certainly do so by creating art. Though even commercial art can be of great value to society, I believe the artist owes society something more than that. If we are equipped to think in a different way than most, it is our responsibility to provide these inquests to the general public. This responsibility should not only include our personal area of focus, but any other topics we are well versed in. Our skills may not seem to be needed on a daily basis, but they contribute in many important ways. Art often comments on the philosophical and political state of society. This adds another layer of responsibility; the artist must keep up on the overall state of the world, even beyond art. How could one effectively comment on a society that they don’t understand? Not that this would be a burden, as I stated prior this tends to be an area of interest for artists regardless.

This is not to say that those who are not artists have nothing to contribute, society would completely collapse without the more practically minded. A world populated by only artists would not be able to sustain itself for long. What I am saying is that the gift/curse an artist holds can be used to enrich the lives of the world. We are the stewards of free thought, it is our responsibility to preserve and enrich as many aspects of art as we can, because not everyone cares enough to do so.

Vinny’s unrelated video pick of the week!

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Lyrical Miracles

This is a companion piece to Alex’s last post and the first of many shorter, less prose based posts on here. I’ll save most of my words for this weeks big post. Without further ado,  here are my top 5 songs-lyrically speaking.

5. Jenny Lewis- Godspeed

I first started listening to Rilo Kiley because it was a band featuring the girl from “The Wizard” and Pinksy from “Salute Your Shorts”. I now  listen to Rilo Kiley (and Jenny Lewis in general) because I believe John Lennon whispers in Jenny’s ear as she sleeps. As with much of this list, Lewis’ strength is beauty in the simple but direct nature of her words.

4. David Bowie- Life on Mars?

In my opinion, this is Bowie at his best. Bowie combines his story telling ability with an otherworldly vocal, creating a masterpiece both musically and thematically. I am not sure how well this song would have worked if released by another artist, but it surely would pale in comparison to what we have.

3. Oasis- Don’t Look Back in Anger

I have a problem with songs I don’t really believe in, that may be what turns me away from metal and other genres which seem to exaggerate emotion without a pre-existing acknowledgment of the songs unreasonable nature. For me to love a song, I need to believe that the artist is trying to express something real in their music. While I have no idea what this song is about, I believe it’s about something.

2. John Lennon-Real Love

My absolute favorite love song. The fact that this went unreleased in Lennon’s life time is a sad reminder of what we lost.

1.  Bob Dylan-Positively 4th Street

The superior musical cousin of “Like A Rolling Stone”, “4th Street” is for anyone who has found themselves separating from people who once seemed like their friends. Though many vapid pop songs lay claim to the theme of moving on, this piece actually speaks to that emotion.

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Medicinal Music

If it wasn’t evident already, I’m not a huge fan of mainstream music. In a couple of my earlier posts, such as “If It’s Not On The Radio” and “The Mass Market Music Blues”, I discussed my general negativity towards cookie-cutter pop music, and why the artists the mass media doesn’t promote are probably better than the ones it does. All very interesting, right?

In any case, it didn’t allow much room for me to gush about what I like. And though I could talk about Zakk Wylde prancing around stage until I’m blue in the face, I think a little variety in post-types could add another dimension to the Chaos Collage. With that, I give you my first list!

Five instrumentals to un-funk your day!

Note: Links to all songs included – plus some extras!

5. Pink Floyd – Any Colour You Like

Believe it or not, I got into Pink Floyd by listening to Dream Theater. After ‘discovering’ progressive rock, I got my hands on all kinds of albums, some of them including bootlegs of Dream Theater concerts. One of those albums was a cover of “Dark Side of The Moon” in its entirety. They really managed to stay true to the original, even with the added embellishments on the synthesizer and guitar. Both versions have their charm, but what remains the same is the spacey, floating first half that transitions into a lilted guitar solo. By the end I always feel like my head has popped out from underwater and I’m taking in a fresh breath. Not too many songs can claim that.

Dream Theater’s Cover

4. Bela Fleck & The Flecktones – The Sinister Minister

There is little chance I’d know of or appreciate this tune if it weren’t for my beardless bass-playing ex-roommate. He just wouldn’t shut up about bassists like Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten, and eventually I found myself bobbing my head along to their smooth lines without even realizing it. “The Sinister Minister” is an odd, but endearing blend of instruments that sets an equally odd scene in my mind. The beginning of this reminds me of boredom – kicking around a can on a perfectly sunny afternoon. As the song picks up, that can is kicked into the wrong person’s yard – a person with no love of idle passers-by, and an affinity for shotguns. It gets my mind (and my legs) moving.

3. Bear McCreary – Black Market

Have I mentioned that I love the new Battlestar Galactica? Well, now that I have, I’ll also say that the show’s original score is probably the best I’ve ever heard on television. Composer Bear McCreary takes elements from various forms of ethnic music – Asian, Middle Eastern, Celtic, and so on, blending them into extremely exciting, dynamic pieces that add more to the show than I thought possible. “Black Market” is his take on what a rock song might sound like in the Battlestar universe. It certainly fits that bill, but the use of ethnic instruments allows the song to feel much farther away than it is. The haunting melody builds up into a distorted explosion of guitars, taking you for a journey before leaving you right back where it began. All this has happened before, and all this will happen again, indeed.

Black Market, Live Version

2. Paco De Lucia – Rio Ancho

If a type of music was capable of physically moving a person from a humdrum life to an idyllic spot somewhere along the ocean, flamenco would be it. This tune has a way of making me forget the cold weather and the endless concrete canyons outside my window. I think the music calls attention to itself, if only because it places complexity and accessibility side by side. Playing flamenco requires a lot of practice and even more natural talent, but I don’t think anyone needs a musical ear or an understanding of the culture around flamenco music to enjoy it. Also, where the first three songs all shift lower moods to higher ones, Rio Ancho stays consistent, reflecting its intent as a dance piece. Besides, what better way to escape a lousy mood than by going somewhere foreign?

1. Paul Gilbert – Radiator

Ah, Mr. Gilbert. For anyone that knows me, it’s probably no surprise that he found his way to the number one slot. “Radiator” is off of Paul’s first instrumental album Get Out Of My Yard, which catapulted him onto the stage with other great guitarists of our time, like Steve Vai and John Petrucci. I suppose I’m biased since I saw him play this in the flesh, but I’ve always loved the song for having true rock n’ roll attitude with an underscoring of hopeful sadness. There is a constant struggle between hoping and doing that sets this song apart from the others I’ve listed – the playing is raw and conflicted. Where the first four were escapist, this is more personal. Paul’s playing shifts these emotions around, not letting either one gain the upper hand until the solo section when the attitude takes over for good. The urge one gets at the end is simple – Wake up. Go. Do.

There you have it. Readers, feel free to list and/or suggest your own rainy day music!

-Alex

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Plan-amania 25

Professional wrestling does not need to be saved. This is evident in the aisles filled with WWE action figures and the dollars drawn by promotions both small and large across the United States. However, Pro-Wrestling does have its fair share of problems. WWE television is not pulling nearly the ratings it once did and its pop culture relevance is starting to fall. The days of Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock are done. This is not to say that there is a lack of talent in pro-wrestling, the WWE maintains a roster of some the most talented wrestlers in the world. If it’s not a lack of interest or talent, what is pro wrestling missing that it once had?

I don’t believe that there is necessarily one key to improving the state of the WWE, but there are a few points that seem to be logical moves to enhance the future of the promotion and in turn the entire industry.

My first suggestion is unification of the major titles. By this I mean unifying the WWE title with the World Heavy Weight and the ECW Title, the World Tag Titles with the WWE Tag Titles and the Divas Title with the Women’s Title. I would assume the reasoning behind this split was to provide separate main-eventers for each brand, but it has become clear over the years that the brands are almost meaningless in their current state. Instead, this split essentially creates the impression that there are no “real” champions. Sure, Triple H may be a top competitor and may hold the WWE Title but where does that leave Edge with the World Heavyweight Title? If the WWE/World Champion is supposed to be the best in the world, even a worked industry can’t have two #1s.

Next, keep the brand split. What the WWE has the opportunity to do is capture updated versions of its two biggest eras. Raw should be a tribute to the Attitude Era. A show where even the faces aren’t the shiny superheroes of the past and that is (now this is important) constantly focused on violence, sex and comedy. This show would deserve the parental warning it would surely garner. Smackdown! should become a tribute to the Hogan Era. Feed the public’s desire for working man superheroes fighting over the top villains. Bright colors, masks and face paint should streak across the screen every Friday night. ECW and the upcoming Superstars would serve another role. Here you could watch some of your favorite superstars from both brands take on new and exciting talent. This is also a great opportunity to once again give televised try outs to prospective talent. Let the fans have a say in who their future superstars should be.

What I’ve said is all fine in theory, but I am compelled to explain a bit more of the story-telling functionality of this proposed arrangement. First ECW/Superstars serves, to connect the WWE to the rest of the wrestling world. That’s right, connection is a good thing. The WWE is the top promotion in the world. They have no competition so acknowledging the bigger world of independent wrestling not only allows newly signed talent to bring their characters and past with them, but enhances the perception that the WWE is the only company with valid World Titles and that the wrestlers who make it in the WWE truly are the greatest wrestlers that the world has to offer.

On Raw and Smackdown, the absence of a show specific World belt would allow the shows to put the US and IC titles in the spotlight. Other plotlines could deal with battles for Undisputed title shots, creating not only opportunities for main event quality matches without belts, but also a sort of championship class; a larger group of popular competitors who could all be viable World champions. This type of system would also provide the sorely missing Tag Team circuit. With competition focused on who is worthy of a shot at the champions, you could have multiple tag matches per night, all of which would be relevant in the “rankings”. In addition, a wrestler’s “home” show should be determined by the direction of the character at the time. Heel/Face turns could be perfect opportunities to change not only a characters storyline, but the environment in which they would compete. When the World champions would interact with the talent on the show, you could adjust their personas to where they were. That should be taken care of by whatever storyline they are involved with anyway.

There is nothing that I have outlined here that is out of the WWE’s grasp, most of these changes would only take weeks to implement after the writing staff outlined the directions of the top competitors. This plan also ignores the politics that Pro-Wrestling is notorious for, but it does not necessarily conflict with it either. I only hope the best for the future of this art form.

-Vinny

Vinny’s Unrelated Video Pick of the Week!

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Keep An Eye On Your Music

Stage presence and its effect on you!

Old habits die hard, isn’t that right? Well, it applies to this week’s post pretty well, for two reasons. The first, I’m falling back into comfortable territory by writing something music-related. Sorry readers, but I tried with “Learn By Fragging” and though it was fun to write, I’m going to wait a while longer before writing about gaming again.

The other old habit I’m talking about is my propensity towards listening to heavy metal. My musical tastes have matured way beyond my expectations and now my iTunes is filled with varying genres of rock and roll, jazz and jazz fusion, classical, folk; anything you can think of. I come by it honestly, too – I’ve never felt the need to ‘like’ something just to culture myself. But I somehow always find my way back to the shredders I worshiped in high school, though not because my tastes have devolved. After listening to some of those tracks again, I found something new.

My fixation of late came after stumbling upon a live performance of Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon” on YouTube. It was the type of song I used to load up when I felt the need to head-bang or tune out my thoughts. I’m sure it would still have that effect if I were in the right state of mind, but after actually watching this performance I noticed something wholly different than aggression and torment (Ozzy’s transparent lyrics aside, of course) – I found energy, and positive energy at that.

I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. “Bark at the Moon” is a fast song with rhythm that never really lets up; the drums and bass are constantly driving the song forward. The guitar is also ever-present with its staccato chord progressions and dizzying solo passages. But just listening isn’t enough, and I have definitive proof:

Mr. Your-Body-Is-A-Wonderland John Mayer once experimented (see linked video) with musical “kinetics” by playing Van Halen’s “Panama” whilst standing in place, just to see how much it would rock. It didn’t. Aside from proving that he’s a moron, he demonstrated that motion and the quality of a live performance are directly related; one cannot go without the other, at least where bands are concerned.

Therein lies the gooey, happy center of this Ozzy song, and it isn’t that creepy bat-eating skeleton hovering in the middle of the stage. I like Ozzy, but he’s not the world’s greatest front man, and the onslaught of arthritis seems to have put an end to his on-stage antics. It’s the musicians he surrounds himself with that make up for it by throwing body and soul into their performances. These guys steal the show.

In the back we see Mike Bordin pounding out the beat on his drums like the song is never going to be played again. When the camera actually cuts to his face the intensity is really visible. Some might call that his metal face, but all I see is passion and focus. The same goes for Rob Trujillo (now of Metallica fame) – his body constantly swaying in time, his feet stomping on the stage when the heavy notes of the bridge hit; he is the perfect image of a musician connected to the circular experience of playing for a crowd. It might look metal, but the intention is to transfer his energy and passion to the crowd in a palpable way.

And how could I forget Zakk Wylde? Firstly, I have to say that his down-tuned version of the song really adds some crunchy weight that the original recording just didn’t have. The guitar here sounds bigger – but that’s technical stuff.  As far as performance goes, he adds an otherworldly touch to the scene on stage. He’s the image of a Norse warrior, leaning back with his guitar (in place of an axe, of course), made complete by his long blond hair and beard. He tosses his head back at those moments where the music hits a crescendo or changes suddenly, acting as a visual and quite visceral representation of the music for the audience.

Put these three together, and they completely counteract the effects of the black hole that is Ozzy Osbourne and his immobility. And if the shots of the audience are any evidence, they’ve done their jobs admirably.

Music is meant to be heard and felt no matter the setting, but the feeling needs to be multiplied for live performances. Technique and playing ability are all well and good, but if a musician can’t convey the passion in their music to an audience, then they’ve failed. Metal is a good example because of how visible that passion is, though even then it’s often easy to miss.

If you’re looking to give an old song new meaning, though – find a live performance on YouTube. Then listen with your eyes.

-Alex

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