Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Concept Corner: Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards

Have you ever encountered something that, on first blush, looks to be sincere, but upon examination is clearly satire, but once you delve into it more, might actually be sincere? Okay, you may have, given that the term "irony poisoning" exists. But that term is primarily subject-based, as in it's something that happens to a person when something starts ironically but becomes sincere, like Bronies, or 4chan racism. I'd like to talk about a work which both satirizes a subject while at the same time coming from a place of genuine love. An irony so deep, it encompasses sincerity. In one word: Gloryhammer.

Concept Corner: Gloryhammer - Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards

Gloryhammer began from the ideas of Christopher Bowes, keyboardist and frontman of Pirate Metal band Alestorm. Being a big fan of Rhapsody (of Fire), Bowes wanted a departure from Alestorm, and had the idea to set an epic fantasy story in the nowhere places of Scotland (where he was from.) Thus, the first song came into being, "The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee." After recruiting lead singer Thomas Winkler from a youtube audition for DragonForce, of all bands, Gloryhammer created their first album, Tales From the Kingdom of Fife in 2013. As of this writing, Gloryhammer has three albums out, with the latest being Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex.

It might seem odd to write a review only about the second album of a current trilogy, but I think you'll understand why soon enough.

The Story

The story begins in the previous album, Tales From the Kingdom of Fife, in the Tenth Century, the evil wizard Zargothrax attacks Dundee with cursed zombie unicorns to kidnap Princess Iona McDougall. The young prince Angus McFife embarks on a quest to gather three sacred artifacts and free Princess McDougall from the evil wizard's clutches. He makes allies along the way, the mysterious hermit Ralathor, the knights of Crail, and the barbarian of Unst, and with their help defeats Zargothrax by plunging him into a pool of liquid ice, sealing him away forever...

Or not. One thousand years later, in the far off future year of 1992, war was beginning. The evil Wizard Zargothrax, in his icy prison, has been moved to Triton, the moon of Neptune, guarded by the Space Knights of Crail. But a cadre of Chaos Wizards has plans to free Zargothrax, and send the universe reeling. [1. Infernus Ad Astra] The Chaos Wizards are successful, defeating the Knights of Crail and unleashing Zargothrax from his frozen slumber. [2. Rise of the Chaos Wizards] We meet Angus McFife XIII, the Crown Prince of Dundee, knee deep in a battle with goblins on the dark side of the moon. Prophesy states he must do as his ancestor did, and collect the three mighty artifacts and warriors from across the land to stop the plans of Zargothrax once again. [3. Legend of the Astral Hammer] While Angus begins his quest, Zargothrax proceeds with his own evil deeds, traveling to the realm of Dreadlord Myrkanos Barbak, Goblin King, to obtain a magical crystal key that will open a portal to hell underneath Dundee. [4. Goblin King of the Darkstorm Galaxy] We are then reintroduced to the very barbarian from Unst that aided the first Angus McFife in his quest to defeat Zargothrax. In the thousand years since, he traveled across the sea to the land of California, becoming its king through victory in battle and in film, and became known as The Hollywood Hootsman. He joins his former battle companion's descendant to once again rid the universe of evil. [5. The Hollywood Hootsman] On the devastated moon of Triton, only one survivor remains from the Chaos Wizards' assault, Ser Regulon, the last Spaceknight of Crail. He surmises the only way to defeat Zargothrax would be to rebuild the Knights of Crail of legend. Luckily, a hero cannot be defeated simply by making them die. The Technomages of Triton weave a spell over robots, bringing Ser Proletius, the Knight of Crail from legend, back to life as a hologram. His resurrection inspires knights from across the galaxy, who join Ser Proletius to recreate the Spaceknights to fight Zargothrax's forces. [6. Victorious Eagle Warfare] The Questlords of Inverness, led by Ulysses "Snakehands" McDougall mobilize to Mars, where Zargothrax's forces are assembling, unaware that Zargothrax himself is closer than they realize. [7. Questlords of Inverness, Ride to the Galactic Fortress] Angus McFife, having acquired his laserdragon steed, races to Mars, where his destiny awaits. [8. Universe on Fire]

Now that the forces of the Intergalactic Space Empire of Fife have arrived on Mars, Angus McFife XIII addresses the assembled host, the Spaceknights of Crail, the Questlords of Inverness, and the Astral Dwarves of Aberdeen. [9. Heroes of Dundee] While Angus and his forces prepare for battle in the skies above Mars, Zargothrax remains hidden on Earth. In the dwarven caverns beneath Dundee, the evil wizard activates the altar of the Chaosportal to the Galactic Nexus with the mystical crystal key, beginning the process to open a portal to the 18th Hell Dimension, to summon the Elder God Kor-Virliath which would annihilate the entire universe. Back on Mars, the battle turns against the united forces of Fife. The Dwarven King of Aberdeen was slain by a robotic space goblin, the Spaceknights of Crail defeated by the same Chaos Wizard who first decimated their ranks on Triton, and the Questlords of Inverness were obliterated by an infinity bomb which erased them from all of time. Before Zargothrax finishes the ritual to open the hellportal, the mysterious hermit Ralathor discovers his plan, and makes haste to space to warn Angus McFife and The Hootsman of the impending universal destruction. Fly as fast as they might, the heroes are too late to stop the dread summoning. Ralathor surmises only an explosion of tremendous power, one that would eradicate the Earth as well, would be enough to prevent Kor-Virliath's arrival in their galaxy. Luckily, The Hootsman happens to be a cyborg, powered by a neutron star. Despite the protestations by Angus, The Hootsman sacrifices himself, detonating his robot heart in a Neutronic Transnova Bomb explosion, destroying the summoning ritual and the crystal key. However, the ultragravitational terrorflux ripped apart the fabric of spacetime, creating a dimensional rift where the Earth once stood. Zargothrax, having survived the blast, curses Angus McFife and uses the last of his power to fling himself into the rift, quickly pursued by McFife, who swears at any cost to defeat Zargothrax, wherever he might end up...[10. Apocalypse 1992]


Hoo! What a rush! Compared to the previous album, this is a noticeable step up in cheesy sci-fantasy technobabble which, if you're not me, may be difficult to take seriously. But that's what I love so much about Gloryhammer; if you're willing to suspend your impulse to ridicule, there's a fun story that can be enjoyed on its own hammy merits. If there's deep themes at play here, I can't notice them beyond this self-consciously epic legend.

I mentioned earlier that Christopher Bowes was a fan of Rhapsody, and if you look at songs like "Power of the Dragonflame" or "Unholy Warcry" I think you can see where the influence is. What makes Gloryhammer special is its ability to be both parody and homage, taking the ridiculous parts of Power Metal to their highest possible point, but still taking them entirely seriously. Now, this is no Ayreon, they aren't trying to make a point with their crazy sci-fi concepts here. It's on the same level as one of those fun fantasy paperbacks you can find for 10 bucks at any bookstore. They're having fun, and they're not ashamed of what they're doing. It's so refreshing to have an album with a crazy concept like this, and it goes full throttle, 100% the whole way. It doesn't have to tell a joke to make me laugh, it just names someone Topazulon McGonagall VII, Herald of Dundee and the fact that this is perfectly normal makes me smile.

I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the particular inspiration for The Hootsman; a Barbarian lauded in Hollywood who obtains the highest seat of power in California and also turns about to be a secret robot in human flesh. Yeah, he's Arnold Schwarzenegger. They just made one of their characters The Arnold. I just think it's neat. In fact, each member of the band plays a character in the story. Thomas Winkler, lead singer, plays Angus McFife XII; Paul Templing, guitarist, plays Ser Proletius; James Cartwright, bassist, is The Hootsman; Ben Turk, drummer, is Ralathor, and most surprising of all, Christopher Bowes, keyboardist, is Zargothrax. The big evil wizard. They have him in the band. On stage they have little fight scenes. I have never been to a show of theirs but it's on my bucket list.

I have but one complaint for this story, and that's the state of our heroes during the narrative. It's essentially just introducing the various forces that Angus already has at his disposal because he is king of an intergalactic empire. You know, the thing that's usually evil in these. Zargothrax presents as a viable threat with that name alone, but the way it goes, Angus has the same warriors with him as his ancestor did to beat Zargothrax the first time. Luckily, Kor-Virliath is an effective counter to The Kingdom of Fife's dominance, even if what his arrival will do to the universe is introduced in the very last song. As a stand-alone, it's odd, but works as part of a larger narrative, despite not following your typical three-act structure. I like the first album, but it's a little too boilerplate fantasy for me to be really interested, and you know how I love Space Fantasy. And this album was just reintroducing the unnamed companions from that album.

The Music

If anything I've said so far has resonated, you can probably predict what I'm going to say about these tracks. Much of what I've said about the story can just as easily be applied to the music, and in the best way possible. They go full force with these tracks, in classic power metal style, complete with an actual orchestra and poorly translated Latin.

Special mention must be made to drummer Ben Turk, who was also responsible for scoring and conducting the orchestral sections, along with the pure orchestrated versions of each track. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that, in the deluxe edition each song has an entirely symphonic counterpart, perfect as background music or if you can arrange it, played simultaneously with the original for a real epic experience.

"Rise of the Chaos Wizards" is a great opening track, complete with chanting that may or may not make sense. It bursts out of the gate with your classic double-bass pound followed by a galloping beat by Turk. Trumpets peek out in the background occasionally, along with a harp during the spoken monologue that I love so much. If you don't know what Gloryhammer is about, listening to this song gives you a pretty good idea.

"Universe on Fire" is one of my favorite tracks, a song that starts with assorted strings and a harp to accompany Winkler, which are joined by drums and bass (played by James Cartwright), before a guitar lick rips in and kicks the whole thing into high gear. It's a very high-energy track, the driving drums and propelling bass provide constant force on the low end, while ascending scales on keyboard and harp provide complexity on the high end. My favorite thing about this song are the little pauses it has, one beat of silence before each chorus. There's one section where every instrument rests save for the harp and keyboard, building back up with bass, again, followed by a key-changed chorus to close out the song. And check out these lyrics!

Gliding across the sun to soak up all its might
Charging my solar gun and prepare for epic fight
Questing through nebulas in search of crystal stone
That gives me the overdose of force to claim space throne

And I would be remiss if I didn't highlight the closer of the album, "Apocalypse 1992". A nine minute thirty-nine second conclusion that cashes in on the preceding album's promises. It starts with keyboard (played by Zargothrax, remember) and a voiceover describing Zargothrax's plan under Dundee set in motion. A scare chord builds on mention of Kor-Virliath, leading to an explosion of guitar and drums. This song has a lot of variety, killing off each of the forces we've been introduced to throughout the album, not to mention two whole monologue segments. It's impressive that this song has such varied verses while returning to the same chorus seamlessly. Let's have a look at that chorus, shall we?

Fly high through apocalypse skies
Fight for the world we must save
Like tears of a unicorn lost in the rain
Chaos will triumph this day
Apocalypse! 1992!

One last thing to note is that the song ends with the same chords as "Rise of the Chaos Wizards" under the final spoken section, wrapping up the album in a beautiful bow covered in atomic flames.

You don't find something like Gloryhammer every day. That's not to say there aren't metal bands that successfully pull off that over-the-top style, but there's few that do so with a wink and a nod you can't really be sure happened. My interest began with the whimsical world and outlandish concepts until I recognized the aspect of parody. But there was a third, even deeper layer exactly the same as the first one. Like with pie. Gloryhammer is still ongoing, though they won't be touring til 2021, at least. Since Space 1992 they've put out one more album, Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex in 2019. And considering that album features a magical mystical jetpack, rest assured I'll be taking a look at that before too long.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Books From The Bin: Splinter of the Mind's Eye

Remember back in the before-times, when the world was young, hope was in the air, and we had a Star Wars Expanded Universe? Ah, those were the days, when we didn't have to wait for Disney Plus to trickle out exactly one piece of ancillary content every year or so, because tons of writers and artists were working on their own takes of the outer limits and future of Star Wars. But that time is over now, ever since our ol' Expanded U got flushed down the gutter after its' acquisition by the Big Mouse. I'm sure we all have something we look back on fondly if we were interested in the imprint, like Young Jedi Knights, or maybe The Old Republic series. But have you ever heard of the first Expanded Universe book? I thought not. It's not a story the Jedi would tell you.

Books From the Bin: Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster

Imagine, if you will, living in a world in which there is only one Star Wars movie, and it's just called Star Wars. Weird, right? Imagine further, that you were just as desperate for more tales of the spaceship farmboy and his cinnamon bun bonny fighting the black toaster guy. I'll tell you what, if you were alive back in 1979, this would be the book for you!


Luke Skywalker expected trouble when he volunteered to follow Princess Leia on her mission to Circarpous to enlist their Rebel underground in the battle against the Empire. But the farm boy from Tatooine hadn't counted on an unscheduled landing in the swamplands of Mimban...hadn't counted on any of the things they would find on that strange planet.

Hidden on this planet was the Kaiburr crystal, a mysterious gem that would give the one who possessed it such powers over the Force that he would be alll but invincible. In the wrong hands, the crystal could be deadly. So Luke had to find this treasure and find it fast.

Accomopanied by Artoo Deetoo and See Threepio—his two faithful droids—Luke and the Princess set out for the Temple of Pomojema...and a confrontation deep beneath the surface of an alien world with the most fearsome villain in the galaxy!

Okay, now it's probably the most inconsequential thing in that blurb, but I feel like I need to mention how the author spelled the names of the droids. It's not just in the blurb, every time these characters are mentioned in the narrative, they're spelled all phonetically like that. Which is odd, because they're both clearly just designation numbers and not names because they are robots. If you wanna have Luke call out, "Artoo!" when talking to R2-D2, that's fine, it's dialogue, it makes sense to have little idiosyncrasies like that, but it's every time, and it's weird.

Now that last segment may have felt like it was completely superfluous in regard to the overall quality of this book, but the thing is, most of the book has details that feel like that. Because Star Wars wasn't as reiterated and codified as extensively as today, Alan Dean Foster had to just make up a bunch of this. Like, yeah, sure, Leia, who grew up on a lush fertile blue planet full of lakes and rivers, is afraid of water, while Luke, who spent his whole life on a desert planet and has likely never seen a large body of water, is not.

I don't know if I even need to go over the plot; that blurb went into so much detail a recap seems redundant. Let's be honest, we all know who "the most fearsome villain in the galaxy" is. It ain't Boba Fett, because he didn't exist yet. It's Vader, though his dialogue gives me the same vibes as "Artoo Deetoo." He's a lot more of a mustache-twirler, and Lucas hadn't decided Vader was Luke's dad yet, so with the knowledge of the sequels in mind, his character makes even less sense. Oh, and he calls Obi-Wan "Ben Kenobi."

For the most part,this book's only interesting as a curiosity. I can imagine being in a world where there is but one Star Wars movie and you need MORE. But nowadays, where we're inundated with every War that could happen in Stars, it's at most your standard sci-fi novel with details that seem at odds with Star Wars Canon. Though not to say everything in the book was thrown out, the crystal mentioned in the blurb turns out to be a Kaiburr Crystal, and while it doesn't seem to match up exactly with our current conception of a lightsaber crystal, it at least seems to have passed down the name, if not the concept of a force crystal.

In an odd twist of fate, this seems to have suffered the same fate as the Expanded Universe works that would follow, only much quicker. The things that happen in this book make exactly zero impact on the movies. It was made irrelevant as soon as a bigger piece of media followed. I mean, hell, I like to think I know a bit about the Star Wars, but I never heard of it. Alan Dean Foster, as it turns out, first wrote the novelization for Star Wars (which I also found in a bin) and between his more numerous original works, wrote quite a few movie novelizations, including more recently The Force Awakens.

With things being the way they are and corporate conglomerates owning all popular media IPs with strict control of everything released within them, Splinter of the Mind's Eye hits a little different. It contradicts canon, it's got weird spelling conventions, it takes place entirely on a swamp planet with a weird kinda force-user lady, and it doesn't even have Han Solo. But it's this, "eh, fuck it" attitude that gives the book its charm; it was written before anyone could possibly have conceived of a "Wookieepedia" and the only person who had real financial stakes in these characters was George Lucas. It was the Wild West, and sometimes, even though it's a but off-putting, it's nice to go back to before everything became a parking lot.

Update: The day after publishing this, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America posted an open letter by Alan Dean Foster to Disney. Disney has not been honoring the contracts it bought from Lucasfilm with its' acquisition of Star Wars. Splinter of the Mind's Eye is just one of the books that Foster has not been getting royalties from. I don't normally have a Call to Action here, but Disney's being a real asshole here, and if there's one thing I know, it's that it's fun to pester multinational corporations on twitter. So, if you wanna tilt at a shitty windmill, there's the hashtag #DisneyMustPay and maybe Foster can get the money he should be for his books.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

And Then You Keep Living

Life is just one of those things, y'know? When I'm not watching Barbie movies or finding the most depressing interpretation of kid's media, I like to watch things that are just regular sad, but bill themselves as comedies because, shit, man, nobody wants to sign up to get sad.

Okay, well, I do.

If you peruse a plethora of pessimistic media like I do, you're likely to see one of two outcomes for them: Either the protagonist dies and the audience is left with the poignancy of tragedy, or a happy ending comes out of the blue, contradicting themes that may have been prevalent throughout the work. Each of them can work, depending on what you're watching. If the show is something like Breaking Bad, the viewer gets catharsis in seeing the main character reap what he sows, or a nice resolution can keep the whole day from being a real bummer, dude. For me, those two endings can feel stale after a while. The Death Ending just closes off any further questions, with the sort of finality it's a little too easy to write, and the Happy Ending can seem just as cheap, sidestepping content I was probably really interested in.

That leaves the somewhat less oft-chosen path, commonly known as The Bittersweet Ending. That qualification is the most vague, essentially a mix of the other two endings in varying amounts. I tend to like these more, and I'd like to go into it by discussing two oddly similar shows; Welcome to the NHK and BoJack Horseman. Needless to say I'll be spoiling the entire plots, so watch them beforehand if you care about that sort of thing.

Welcome to the NHK is a 2002 anime about the life of Tatsuhiro Sato, a 22 year old man who dropped out of college and in the four years since has become what's known in Japan as a "hikikomori." He rarely, if ever, leaves his apartment, has no friends, and lives off money sent by his parents. This changes when he meets Misaki, an 18 year old girl who claims she has a program which can cure Sato of his hikikomori tendencies and bring him back into society. What follows is a series of mishaps as Sato tries to con his way out of being a shut-in, through things like creating a visual novel, selling MMO items for real life money, and joining a pyramid scheme. Most of the time he's pulled from the brink by friends he makes as the series goes on, like Yamazaki, his otaku neighbor, and Hitomi, his old classmate. It's often comedic, with Sato's foibles exaggerated to the point of parody, but can hit hard when you see how Sato truly feels about himself and isolation from the world.

BoJack Horseman, also known as Sad Horse Show, is about an actor who was in a successful TV show back in the 90's, but is now all washed up, living off residuals in a sea of alcohol, drugs, and codependency. Things change when BoJack meets Diane, a ghostwriter hired by a publishing house to write the memoirs BoJack promised but did not do at all. Misadventures ensure, Diane publishes what turns out to be her account of spending time with BoJack, which, though brutally honest, gets him back in the limelight, leading to a shot to play his dream role. Successes and failures come in spades, with BoJack trying to become a better person, but always falling short. Oh and almost everyone is a talking animal-person.

The series of events in both of these shows is essentially a series of opportunities and failures by the main characters in their quest to try to get better without really putting in the effort needed to do so. BoJack, for most of the series, pursues professional success while neglecting the alcoholism and emotional issues that sabotage his accomplishments, and Sato finds himself unable to reenter society despite his efforts. Each show comes dangerously close to a bleak, nihilistic worldview. It fringes upon the idea that only failure is possible.

This would all be too much if we didn't widen our focus once in a while, to the secondary characters. In each of these shows, there's a cast of people who have different problems, that similarly lead to comedy or drama. These characters develop alongside our leads, allowing them to affect one another in different ways. Yamazaki goes from a lonely otaku to a somewhat abrasive friend that even starts dating a girl. Misaki turns out to be an orphan with an abusive childhood, cared for by her aunt and uncle, and struggles with feelings of worthlessness. She takes on Sato's case to prove to herself that someone could be so pathetic that even her life could have value.

Princess Carolyn, BoJack's agent, founds her own agency and becomes a mother. Todd grows out of being an aimless slacker into running a daycare and paying for his own apartment. BoJack and Diane's friendship is the cornerstone of the show, their differences heightened by their sometimes disturbing similarities.

See, as each series goes on, the potential for a happy ending gets further out of reach. In NHK, Yamazaki moves away, removing Sato's one friend, and he rebuffs Misaki's feelings out of shame and anxiety, leaving him worse off than when the series began. In BoJack, the sheer magnitude of his mistakes piles up, and it's hard to see a path forward. In the final episodes, both shows have the main characters attempt suicide. Sato flings himself off a cliff (that Misaki's mother once used to end her life,) in a misguided attempt to absolve Misaki from her guilt, and BoJack becomes dangerously drunk and passes out face-down in a swimming pool after confronting just how far he's fallen. I've seen arguments that these shows could have ended this way, with these people dying, wrapping everything in a nice depressing bow. I heartily contend that this would have been a wrong move.

With the focus these shows put on their side characters, it shows that a person's actions affect more than just themselves. Each step they take is felt by the people around them, for good or for ill. To have them die would shunt that desolation onto everyone else in their lives. Even BoJack, who by the end of season 6 we know let Sarah Lynn die, would have affected those around him with his death.

It would just be too tidy to end a story that way, as far as I see it. You kill a character who seems to be beyond redemption and say, "That's over," seems like a cop out. Because for most of us, when life is at its worst, we don't just die. And even if we do, life keeps going for everyone else. Death is not really the end for us, because there will always be people who have to deal with the things you've done or haven't done. In real life, there's always more show.

Luckily for me, then, that neither of these characters die in these attempts. Sato is saved by some netting set up to stop suicide attempts, and climbs back up into the arms of Misaki. She tearfully reprimands him for his jump, and after a flash forward, we see that Misaki is trying to get into college, with Sato teaching her on nights after coming back from the construction job he hates. They have a new contract, called the NHK1, where neither is allowed to kill themselves or else the other would do the same. They each see themselves as worthless, but couldn't stand the idea of the other dying. As Sato says, "In the end, even after all we went through, none of our problems were solved. And even though things look better now, it wouldn't surprise me if we went back to saying things like, 'I'm useless,' or 'I can't do it.' Still, for now at least, I'm hanging in there. I don't know how long it will last, but dammit, I'll give it the best I've got."

In BoJack Horseman, he is saved at the last minute from the family whose house he broke into, but since what he did was illegal, he is sentenced to jailtime. He is let out for one day to attend Princess Carolyn's wedding, where he briefly meets with each of his friends. The last he sees is Diane, where they have a long talk on the roof. Diane tells hm she got a phone call from him before his attempted suicide, making it very clear what he was about to do. She had built a life far from BoJack and Hollywoo, but this phone call threw that all into disarray. She almost gave up on her new life, but went through with it and is finally happy. She says, "I think there are people that help you become the person you end up being, and you can be grateful for them even if they were never meant to be in your life forever." It's likely BoJack and Diane will never see each other again.

The end of a life is never as simple as the end of a television program. There are always people left behind. You can't wrap a nice little bow on chapters of your life, either. Whether or not you solve your problems, the scars remain, and regret will rear its ugly head. But you keep going. Sato isn't cured. BoJack is still depressed. The difference is we can see a path forward for them now. It's probably going to be shitty for quite a while, but it will continue and there's always a chance for them to make it better. Sometimes, life's a bitch, and then you keep living.

1. Nihon Hitojitsu Koukankai, translates to Japanese Hostage Exchange Association.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Divesting Inspiration From Intent

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fishman

Death of the Author is a tricky concept for a lot of people. Can you really look at a work without considering the author's personal views and convictions? Do those factors influence the work even if the reader isn't aware of them? If one discovers an author holds despicable views, does that change a previously enjoyed work? How do you divorce the two? Is it a good idea to do so? This is, surprisingly, no less complex if the author is, in fact, dead.

In my review of Lovecraft Country, I mentioned how the novel reckons with the views of H.P. Lovecraft in its setting and story. Though set in a world where Lovecraft is real and his worlds are fiction, it contains the feel of a Lovecraftian tale while acknowledging that Lovecraft himself would likely feel a racist animosity towards the main characters. Most Modern Mythos stories, this is, stories inspired by and referencing Lovecraft and associates, prefer to leave this topic unaddressed for the most part. On the contrary, what many of them do is set themselves in the world created by Lovecraft, and make him a prominent figure who lives in that world.

I don't think that is a good idea.

If we're speaking strictly in structure and story reasons, including Lovecraft is an easy way to pull the reader out of the story. It's likely the reader already knows that this is Mythos, and name-dropping an author only serves as a reminder that this is all fiction. If I'm interested in the direction a story is taking, I lose that interest the minute someone encounters Weird Tales magazine. There's no need to remind the reader that Lovecraft exists and wrote the inspirations for many of these Modern Mythos stories. A much better move in this case would be a mangled interpretation of Lovecraft's name, a la Klarkash-Ton, a name Lovecraft created as a reference to his friend, Clark Ashton Smith, or to use a recurring Lovecraft protagonist like Randolph Carter.

Another minor unintended side-effect of a Lovecraft cameo in a story is to denigrate his writing skill and imagination. If you feature the author of a series of stories as living in the world of their stories, then by extension they become less writer than reporter. In this scenario, very little came from the head of the writer, rather these are transcribed accounts of real life events. Not that I'm putting down non-fiction books or serious reporting, but for something like cosmic horror, it's a bit of an insult to the person who dreamed it all up to imply they didn't.

But that's not what I'm really here to talk about. What I mean to discuss is how this vindicates the author's worldview. Normally, this may not be a big deal; most authors, especially nowadays, aren't bigots. (With a few increasingly egregious exceptions.) But with Lovecraft, he was especially racist even for his time and having just cursory knowledge of this sheds a disturbing light on his stories. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is about the dilution of good, New England bloodlines with invaders from across the sea, making the offspring slow witted and grotesque, with bugged out eyes and enlarged lips. I hope I don't have to tell you what the subtext is. In other stories, Lovecraft is only less subtle, as in "The Call of Cthulhu" where the only real worshipers of Cthulhu are poor black people in the Louisiana bayou. And when you position Lovecraft as truthfully relating the state of the world in your story, you bring all of his racism with you.

Featuring Lovecraft as a character is the most obvious way to make this mistake, but unfortunately it's not the only way. Really, all you have to do is continue where he left off without examining the implications of the original work. To wit: There's a short story featured in The Book of Cthulhu II called "Once More From the Top" written by A. Scott Glancy. It's a detailed account of the military raid briefly mentioned in the opening of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." I know the effect the author was going for, a mix of horror with military thriller, marines gunning down fishmen and their weird monsters. But with my current context, it came off as an act of barbarism by a militarized state against a genetic minority. The missing persons caused by the Deep One rituals are more or less forgotten over the fact that the crossbreeding is seen as abomination. Perhaps the townspeoples' violence against the narrator of "Shadow" is justified, in that his actions the moment he escaped lead to a wholesale massacre of the town.

In a more skewed but garish example, we have the graphic novel Neonomicon written by Alan Moore. You may recognize this name as the impetus for my Open Letter to Alan Moore way back when. I still believe everything I wrote then, but with a bit more nuance about it. There's no doubt about it, I heartily dislike Neonomicon. Alan Moore took what he perceived to be Lovecraft's phobia of sex and decided the best way to interpret Lovecraft was to add rape. I could honestly criticize it all day. What's important for this topic is that somehow he both invoked Lovecraft as someone in the comic's universe but also got all the details wrong.

See, they reference Lovecraft as an author fairly frequently in Neonomicon. They allude to the fact that he must have seen all this cosmic horror shit and interpreted it into his own books. But then there's also a deranged sex cult which brings out a Deep One to rape the protagonist. Moore, in writing, assumed the Fish People were primarily propagated by rape, because that is what he thinks about all the time. But really, the first Human/Deep One mating was done with Obed Marsh and what we can assume was a willing female Deep One. The horror from Lovecraft's end was never about the act of sexual congress, so much as the resultant progeny. And Neonomicon gets that wrong too, as the protagonist ends up pregnant from the Deep One, but with Cthulhu for some reason. It has the effect of glossing over Lovecraft's racist implications and replacing them with the much more banal horror of rape. I just don't really understand what message Moore was trying to get across; the most I can tell is that it's criticising Lovecraft for obliquely referring to something that might be sex, but not showing it in lurid detail, as if that was Lovecraft's real problem. And not, you know, the racism. Which, oddly enough, is mentioned, but not dealt with as a serious topic. It's treated as just a bit of trivia instead of something that informed with works.

So okay, those are some examples of how you inadvertantly propagate Lovecraft's racist ideas. How, you may ask, does one create a work inspired by Lovecraft but not necessarily influenced by his bigotry? I have one answer for you. The Shape of Water.

The Shape of Water is a 2017 film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Everything about this film astounds me. From the plot, to the effects, to the popular and critical reception. This film won an Oscar! The movie about the lady fucking a fish man! What I love is that it's the Anti-Lovecraft movie. It takes elements of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and inverts them entirely, making the good guys into the bad guys and vice versa.

The Fishman, also known as The Asset, is found and captured from a South American river by a secret branch of the US Military, and held in a clandestine facility where Elisa Esposito, a mute woman, works as a maid. Eventually she finds the Fishman and communicates with him through music and a bit of sign language. They begin to bond, with Elisa seeing some humanity in the creature. Then she rescues him from the lab and they fuck. In a bathroom she filled with water. And despite how weird this sounds at first blush, the film frames this as a positive thing. Elisa finds fulfillment with the Fishman, she cares for him and he cares for her. The film wraps up when the military man recaptures Fishy, and Elisa with her friend have to go save him. Elisa ends up shot, but after being puled into a canal she's healed by the Fishman and the scars on her neck turn into gills.

It's essentially a film based on the prompt, "What if we made Innsmouth sympathetic and romantic?" It's sort of like a reverse The Little Mermaid, where the lady still can't talk but it's the dude who comes from the sea and they both end up underwater. The Fishman, instead of being a source of corruption from outside, is a revitalizing force, symbolically as well as literally. The film is about the transformative nature of relationships to the participants themselves, instead of being really concerned about what kind of kid could pop out at the end. The man with Lovecraft's viewpoint is the villain, needlessly violent to contain this creature which, if anything, is too close to humanity.

Although Del Toro has said in interviews his primary inspiration for the film was The Creature From the Black Lagoon, I don't think it's a stretch to say there's definitely some Lovecraft in there as well. He's been known as a fan, having been featured in documentaries about the author, and has been trying for quite a few years now to make an adaptation of At The Mountains of Madness. Not to mention Elisa's odd circumstances and eventual amphibiousness lend themselves to the interpretation that she was always going to end up underwater, like the narrator of "Innsmouth."

It's difficult when stories you've enjoyed become tainted by the light of further knowledge or a more critical eye. Once you know something, you can't un-know it, and it's as if the story you once read has ceased to exist. In my younger years I finished "Innsmouth" without a second thought, not yet quite able to connect the dots. And as childish as I may have been then to overlook the unsettling overtones, it would only be more childish now to pretend I had never noticed them. Lovecraft's case is certainly simpler than some, with most of his stories in the public domain and the fact that he won't be seeing any of the money from collected editions. Things get thorny, however, with those continuing in the Mythos tradition, and you can't be sure if they're blindly or purposely repeating the same themes that make Lovecraft so divisive. The most you can do is keep your eyes open, be willing to learn, and take the time to reexamine yourself and the media you consume.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Concept Corner: Fist Me 'til Your Hand comes Out My Mouth

There's a band I've been listening to pretty frequently for the last few years. It's not one I talk about very often, because it's not like a lot of the other bands I listen to. As you're likely aware of, I like to talk about Power Metal, the bombastic, over-the-top genre that tends, more often than not, to be really fun. But with much of the other music I listen to, it's more difficult to talk about, because it's much more personal. That, and even describing the genre can be a chore. I'm talking about my Sad Music. That stuff I'm sure we all listen to when we're feeling low, the music that speaks to us in our dark times.

For some, it's The Mountain Goats, others, it's Brand New, for me, it's been a little band called Crywank. Crywank is a band formed in 2009 in Manchester, UK. Their genre is nebulous, but best put as "anti-folk" or punk-folk. That pretty much means they take the folk aesthetic with a punk mindset. Usually little more than an acoustic guitar and drum kit, but mostly about the things in life you hate, including yourself.

If you could take a look at my drafts (please don't ever do that) you would see quite a few prospective articles I've began about Crywank. It's not easy to put into words just what I like about this band without embarrassing myself. Hell, the name alone makes everyone I tell it to do a double-take. And to be honest, what they've been doing, and what their appeal is to me, has been changing with each subsequent release.

In their first few albums, it's about what you might expect from a self-pity band you might listen to after a couple too many drinks alone on a Saturday night. That's not to say they didn't do that exceedingly well. Songs like Hikikomori and You Couldn't Teach Me Integrity still resonate with me, and even in these albums there was something a little more than the sadcore fare I was used to. The themes are less "The World is Bad and I am Sad" and more "I am sad because of my internal problems which I can only identify." It's a more introspective sort of pity party.

As the albums go on, the introspection becomes the point. With Don't Piss On Me, I'm Already Dead the focus shifted from how sad one is, to the flaws one has that cause them to be sad. It's overthinking their overthinking. Being sad about being sad. It's a rabbit hole I've traveled down more than once, and it's one of the only albums I've seen that contained a song like I Am In Great Pain, Please Help Me. And I haven't seen a song about writing quite as potent as Me Me Me (Boo Hoo), a personal favorite.

Egg on face. Foot in mouth. Wriggling Wriggling Wriggling. goes in a more metaphorical direction, with much more upbeat tempos, making some of the songs a bit difficult to parse. It's got quite a few more songs than previous albums, and covers a bit more ground. These songs combine criticism of others with the blowback of self-hate you get when you realize you're hardly in a position to judge anyone, or if it's even worth it to bother. An Academics Lament On Barbie is one that hits personally, for reasons I'm sure you're aware of.

Their penultimate album, Wearing Beige On A Grey Day shifts back towards less, but longer songs, and takes on a more structural theme than previous albums. What about society causes us pain, and what do you even call the pain you feel? Doubt comes up with a non-answer that resonates, and Unassimilated Normie looks at how societal standards make us into cowards.

That's all to say, Crywank is a band that's been evolving since Day 1. And their newest and final album is no exception. Fist Me 'til Your Hand comes Out My Mouth is only part concept album, with numbered parts to the story like The Near Future, but the whole album adheres to the themes presented in the first half.

Concept Corner: Crywank - Fist Me 'til Your Hand comes Out My Mouth

The first thing I can say about this album is that it's Crywank trying a bunch of things they've never done before, but at the same time it's so fundamentally Crywank. Fist Me is an album about what it is to be in Crywank. I don't mean what it's like, as if it were something you had to interpret. It's just about Crywank. The previous albums were all about James Clayton, the usual songwriter and guitarist, but to make the album about the band itself is just more Crywank than Crywank has ever been. Songs were either written by Clayton, Daniel Watson, or a collaboration between the two, and more often than not are openly antagonistic against one or the other.

Imagine traveling the world with someone whose issues are increasingly caustic to your relationship, while singing songs about your most shameful moments over and over again. What began as catharsis turns into a needle in your side, you've made all your songs about yourself and now you can't escape who you were. It's like the dark inverse of when a comedian becomes successful and all their jokes become about flying and travel. Crywank, itself, is the issue. The subtitle of the first section is, "I Love You But I've Chosen Me" which could be from either of the bandmates referring to the other, or both of them to the fans.

It's the first Crywank album that really takes you on a trip. There are a few songs that are just instrumental, and some with only spoken lyrics. They were writing and recording these songs while on the road, so they end up having variable sound qualities, even though almost all the song lead into one another. But the overall effect of these is to impart the feeling of being on tour. And that tour being not great.

Musically, this is definitely a step forward, boasting the most similarities to Egg on Face though retaining the Trombone added in Wearing Beige On A Grey Day. There's some club-music bass pounding, there's harmonica, there's even some theremin in there, as far as I can tell. It's experimental, it's fresh, and it's certainly not something I would have expected from Crywank a few years ago. I should've expected it, but I didn't.

Fist Me 'til Your Hand comes Out My Mouth is Crywank's breakup album. This is their last, and would've come at the end of their farewell tour, if a pandemic hadn't fucked it up for them. You never get this close a look at a band splitting, even if there ends up being coverage through music publications later. They made art about making their art, an idea so self-consciously up its own ass I can't help but love it. If you listen to Crywank's records from the beginning (which I suggest you do) you can see the evolution and dismay of someone who started writing sad songs after a breakup, but made it so much more. I'd be lying if I didn't claim to be a bit disconsolate at Crywank ending, but nothing lasts forever. If there's anyone who could have created something in the midst of and about a disintegration, it's Crywank. The album is out now, so you can buy it for yourself on bandcamp.

And if you relate does that make you bad?
And for making you relate does that make me bad?
And do I glorify what it is to be sad?
Should you just turn off?

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Books From The Bin: Warpath

I always hear about people who bought books based solely on the cover. I don't think I've ever done that, because books usually cost money. What I do, is get free books based on how bad the cover and the back blurb are. And I want you to trust me here, today we have a doozy.

Books From the Bin: Warpath by Tony Daniel


In the far future the bulk of humanity has spread across the galaxy--only to discover that the American Indians got there first!

Long before Columbus, a tribe of Mississippi Indians discovered the metaphysical Effect that makes space travel possible and paddled their birchbark canoes to distant worlds light-years from Earth. Now an interstellar Indian nation, armed with spears and guided missiles, comes into conflict with colonists from a technological civilization so advanced that even their homes and newspapers possess artificial intelligences. History seems poised to repeat itself, but on a galactic scale.

And on the icy planet Candle, only one lonely man stands between the universe and an endless... WARPATH.

Normally at this point I would sardonically remark, "Where do we begin?" But no. This time, there is nowhere to begin. This guy, the author, had a whole bunch of ideas and threw each and every one of them into this book with nary a whim of how they would look fitted together. The narrator is a man reconstituted from a radio signal copy of himself sent off from Earth in the distant past (but our near future). His wife's signal got fucked up so they made her brain control the weather. Some of the (ahem) Indians have holographic animals from another dimension that live in space clay. There's a character who needs to take future-barbiturates or else she makes the people around her melt, and the reason for this power is that her mom got knocked up by one of the multidimensional Pokemon.

Those Digimon are like, the crux of the book too, for some reason. Once a Native has got the clay and has melded minds with their Tamagotchi, then they can actually, literally paddle a canoe into space. The first scene is a character doing just that. After finishing that scene, I quit the book for four years. Upon picking it up again, I found no solace. At one point, the radiowave narrator meets a distant descendant of his original self, and instead of being curious about how maybe his family line is holding up or anything of that nature, he gets really horny because she looks just like his dead wife. And then they fuck.

No, really. And every single sex scene is like if poison could be administered straight to my brain through words. But not to worry, the descendant he fucks turns out to be an evil cyborg with a robot brain, and then Radiohead and his friends fuck up the robot part so she ends up braindead. And just so everything is wrapped in a nice bow at the end, Radiohead puts the child-like mind of his dead wife into the descendant that he'd already been fucking for a month!

Oh god, I haven't even gotten to the Indians. This was not written by someone who cared much about researching Native peoples. I think he thought to himself, "Woah dude, what if spirit animals were REAL?" and then he combined it with every other idea he had written down and figured he knew enough about Native Americans from westerns. Because it really doesn't get any more complex than that. Throughout the whole book, all the Native peoples are called "Mississippi Indians" despite never having interacted with anything they had called "mississippi." They had never even seen Europeans before meeting them in space, and yet there was no effort to figure out what a Native culture would look like had colonization not happened and also space travel. They're just like, slightly mystical and kinda warmongery. Like in a western. The extent of the groundwork this guy did was to watch Dances With Wolves.

Another extra ingredient to this dangerously overloaded plot element sandwich is the AI's that run people's homes and stuff. These are just copies of people's brains, but slightly hobbled so they won't feel bad that they're glorified answering machines. They're actually called "half-sents" as in, half-sentient and nobody has a problem with that existential nightmare. Radio Ga Ga's wife is stuck as the weather and he doesn't think to get her out of there until like, the end of the book. And it turns out it's not even a problem, they just copied a low rez version of the mayor's brain and stuck it in there. Radio Goo Goo doesn't even think of that until right before that, where they go to the ancient Earth most of humanity has left behind and the villain has an evil Neopet that eats AI's. Also it's a giant snake. And then he has a JoJo Stand fight with the main character Indian and his magical bear. And then the good guys win, which is good because otherwise the bad guy would've gotten the, uh. The dirt. The magic animal dirt. God damn it.

Listen, I didn't want this feature to turn into A Woke Look At Problematic Books, but sometimes you read a book about Space Indians and a whole bunch of other shit and then you're trapped inside because of a pandemic but also you're still working a night shift and everyone is curfewed at eight PM so you literally never leave the house except for work and now this book is just sitting there waiting for you and you can't stop thinking about being an AI stuck in a house all day with no way out there's no way out there's no way out

So anyway I'ma give this book like a five out of ten.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Concept Corner: Avantasia The Metal Opera

I've been playing coy long enough. I covered Operation: mindcrime and called it one of the greatest metal concept albums ever. I even covered one of Ayreon's albums, with just a mention of its long supposed rival metal project. That's right, today we cover the other biggest power metal collaboration project, Avantasia.

Concept Corner: Avantasia - The Metal Opera

Avantasia is a project created by Tobias Sammet, the lead singer and songwriter of Edguy, a German power metal band. Avantasia released its first album, The Metal Opera in 2001. This and the next album, The Metal Opera Part II share an explicit story, while subsequent releases either had a much more subtle story or none at all. Like Ayreon, this project collects singers and musicians from across the metal genre, though Avantasia has a few distinctions from Ayreon in that department. Lucassen's project, at least in the beginning, tended to feature less well-known musicians, which is commendable for finding more obscure talent. Avantasia took a different route, finding the all-stars of the metal community right out of the gate, even bringing Michael Kiske, legendary singer for the band Helloween, back into his first metal project since leaving Helloween. For a Helloween fan, this was the Holy Grail.

The story is communicated almost entirely through liner notes in the lyric book, and let me tell you, it's a doozy! There are a couple instrumentals with light speaking parts and there's plenty to gather from the music, but I wasn't aware of the whole story until I recently knuckled down and read all of it. You'll understand why in a bit.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Sonic The Hedgehog (2020)







Man, this sure had a long leadup, am I right? Like Ghostbusters 2016, most of the buzz about the movie didn't really have all that much to do with the movie and occurred way before it premiered. But that's all "hype." It's all "marketing." So what's the deal with this thing? Did a more photogenic Sonic save it?

Eh. It was okay.

It really disappoints me to say that, but I can't claim I didn't see it coming. The studio did what lazy studios do when trying to reintroduce a franchise character to an audience they underestimate: They done plopped Sonic in the real world, with very little connecting to anything a Sonic fan would remember. Sure, there's rings, robots, he says, "Gotta go fast!" once, but they didn't bother trying to adapt anything.

Say what you will about the more current releases, but Sonic stories weren't always hamfisted trash. The first two games communicated themes of nature vs. technology very well just through level progression. Sonic 3 & Knuckles had a pretty good story, with Robotnik remaking the Death Egg on the fallen Angel Island, Knuckles thinking Sonic was part of it, and eventually Robotnik steals the Master Emerald and Sonic has to go Super to stop him. Now it's certainly no Final Fantasy 7, but with textless cutscenes they did a good job,

So what I'm saying is, this movie subtracted more than it added. Sonic's world, sometimes known as Mobius, gets a single scene early in the film before he's fled to Earth and the rest of our film takes place. But not before an opening so cliche, I think in the last 10 years there's been more parodies than straight uses: In the middle of the end-movie action scene, the screen pauses and Sonic narrates to the audience, "So, I bet you're wondering how we got here." I'm shocked the filmmakers had the restraint to not use a record scratch. He also has an Owl Mom for some reason, and echidnas are trying to capture him. But that don't get resolved. This is really just an origin story for Robotnik, and even then we're only catching the tail-end of it. He's already a pretty evil machinist in the beginning, it's just by the end he has a wacky mustache and hates Sonic.

Jim Carrey was pretty good, as I'm sure most people thought he would be. He doesn't quite bring the Grinch-level energy I've come to hope for, but it's certainly not bad. James Marsden was Mr. Bland the Human Actor, really not much to say there. Sonic. Sonic Sonic Sonic. I mean, he was more tolerable than he was in Lost World. Ben Schwartz did fine, I thought it would be really distracting, but by the end I felt the voice fit just fine. Sonic as a character is like a hyperactive kid, which I guess is fitting enough. He doesn't so much learn a lesson as get everything he wanted, but I wasn't really expected some hard-hitting emotional truth from this.

It's funny that nothing but the video games ever has any consistent idea of what rings are for. In the one cartoon called SatAM, they gave him some kinda power boost, they never show up at all in the whimsical cartoon or the OVA, and in this movie they make portals. It's not something really important, just a little thing I wanted to mention.

But yeah, there was nothing especially terrible about Sonic (LIKE THERE COULD HAVE BEEN) but nothing make it stand out. They took all the safe routes, which means it couldn't have attained any real highs or lows. I wonder what we could've gotten if they'd taken a chance on a full CGI movie in the Sonic universe. I guess we'll never know. Maybe if there's a sequel it could expand on that, but honestly I don't think we'll be going anywhere fantastical.