Sunday, April 26, 2009

In Defense of 80s Music

My lovely wife Audrey celebrated her 40th birthday this past week, and we had some friends over for an 80s themed party last night. The party itself merits a later post of its very own once I have collected some more photos, but at a couple of points, some people ventured an opinion that without nostalgia and personal associations, 80s music had pretty much nothing to offer.

While I will be the first to admit that the oversize glasses of the day do cast a definite rose-coloured hue to the proceedings of this maligned decade, (especially when looking back over your shoulder from two decades down the road), I think the 80s music scene had a lot to offer, whether we realized it at the time or not. To be certain, there was a lot to dislike: talentless hacks pushed to stardom by soulless record companies and their profit driven executives (not that this has changed significantly), the birth of celebrity culture, the glamourization of excess, the triumph of style over substance, and some remarkably poor choices in haircuts. That being said though, the music of this decade did have some good things going for it.

1) 80's Music Pre-Dates the Balkanization of Radio - This is just a fancy way of saying that during the 80s, a single popular, rock-centric radio station could play country (Charlie Daniels Band), jazz (Manhattan Transfer, pop music (Michael Jackson), adult contemporary (Harry Chapin)and even a show tune (Murray Head)in addition to the hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive rock that made up the bulk of the playlists. The increase in cultural bandwidth, starting with the increased number of ever-specializing radio stations and going straight on through to the Internet and YouTube, has meant that there is less and less cross-pollination between musical styles, and less chance of being challenged by material outside one's normal listening habits. Thank God Johnny Cash got to record those albums with Rick Rubin which gave a new generation a chance to hear him doing things like Trent Reznor's "Hurt", but that seems more like the exception that proves the rule.

2) Experimentation - In addition to the radio point made above, I maintain that the 80s were a period of bold experimentation and general playfulness not seen since the 1960s. The balancing act between acoustic instruments and synthesizers, the blurring of the line between music that should be danced to and that which should primarily be listened to, the first signs of world music on Top 40 radio (courtesy of musicians like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon) and a willingness to defy expectations made for a grand smorgasbord of music that, while largely populated with boring starches, also provided access to some tasty dishes we wouldn't normally order off the menu.

3) The Advent of 'Alternative' - A consistent silver-medalist in the "Most Misused Term" competition (following closely on the heels of the now endangered 'multimedia'), 'alternative' in the 80s meant a way to describe popular music that appealed to the same demographic that 'rock and roll' once did, but which had very little in common with the Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley sound that defined that genre. Alternative has mostly been replaced with 'modern rock' now, but incorporates a number of non-rock styles, including hip-hop and electronica. Busting out of the rock-definition ghetto without necessarily getting juvenilized as 'pop' music gave a lot of artists the freedom to experiment, and a lot of music fans a spot in the record shops (jeez, speaking of dated terms...) to find these new sounds. Without the toe-hold that this 'alternative' label provided to a number of acts, our current musical soundscape would have even less variety and progression than it does now.

4) The Golden Age of Music Videos - After an incredibly awkward start-up period featuring poor lip-synching on sterile soundstages with production values several cuts below lacklustre, videos quickly became an art form unto themselves. In addition to being a new and entertaining way to enjoy music we already liked, it also gave us exposure to music we might not have listened to, but were willing to tolerate if it meant getting a decent 3 - 5 minute mini-movie. It also gave budding film directors (David Fincher for one) a new way to express themselves and pay the bills besides making television commercials.

5) We Got the (Up)Beat - Despite living in the shadow of the Cold War, the threat of global nuclear conflict and/or nuclear winter, and a brutal recession for much of the decade, music was, on average, a lot more positive and upbeat than it seems to be now. This is a pretty subjective measure to be sure, but a cheery tempo that was pleasant without being insipid seems like a strange fit for today's radio, especially with the glut of what a former co-worker called 'complaint rock' that dominated the airwaves of the 90s. It's doesn't always have to be like that, and the dark stuff certainly has its place, but hey, balance in all things, right?

At the end of the day, a list like this isn't going to change anyone's mind about 80s music, and I can't picture it making someone like what they disliked before, but if we can appreciate variety and creativity for what they are instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and dismissing all the music from those three thousand six hundred and fifty two days as faddish nostalgia fodder, then maybe we can admit that a hint of respect is warranted as well.

It turns out there is plenty of room on the other side of the "Comments" link below if you want to let me know how far off or on the mark you think I am about this, and I have to admit, I'm awfully curious.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Workplace Expectations

So, this morning at my job, we had a brief workshop on pension transfers (specifically, Actuarial Liability Transfers within differing pension plans). Our manager thanked the teammate making the presentation and added, "Honestly, I expected this to be pretty boring," to which the presenter replied playfully, "Pensions, boring? Never!"

A colleague sitting next to me chimed in with, "Remember, the life of a Pensions Clerk is always intense!"

I was gobsmacked.

I turned to him and said, "Of all the places I could have encountered a Repo Man reference today, I certainly wasn't expecting one here. You've really made my day!"

Now I can't get the Iggy Pop theme song out of my head. Ah well, there's worse fates.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Thousand Days Later...WAR

I love games, which should go without saying since I spent 11 years working for a fantastic toy soldier company called Games Workshop. Video games, word games, card games, board games; I like games. I am a big fan of function over form, and fun over detail, but I am also a sucker for innovative visual design and good production values.

So it was that I found myself purchasing Fantasy Flight Games' "War of the Ring" over three years ago. I had seen previews for the game at and, and was immediately drawn to the artwork done by John Howe, my favourite Tolkien artist. Imagine my joy when I discovered he not only painted the box cover,but all the artwork on the cards, character portraits, and did the character/ creature designs for the huge assortment of plastic pieces that made up the various fighting forces of Middle-Earth.

I've set the game up on a few different occasions now, but only played it for the first time last night with my friend Mike Totman. As it is a game best suited to two players (although it is possible to play with three or four), there usually aren't that many opportunities to bring it out, as it takes the better part of an hour just to get it unpacked and set up, then 3+ hours to play. Usually these sort of gaming outings are the province of the various miniature games I play, most notably Warhammer 40,000. But when Mike turned out to be the only taker of an impromptu invitation to Saturday night gaming, I suggested it as an option, and he went for it. Mike has fond memories of the old SPI Wargames 'War of the Ring' from the 1970s, another game more commonly examined than actually played.

An intricate set-up process followed by the digestion of a 21 page rulebook meant it was getting late by the time the Fellowship crept out of Rivendell. (Actually, Gimli left a little early to go rouse the Dwarves to war, in sharp contrast to his stalwart hobbit defense in the book; the Nine (er, I mean, Eight) Walkers ended up cooling their heels until turn 2 due to a 'whoops' on my part.) We wrapped it up about half past two in the morning with the Boromir-led Fellowship (!) trying vainly to elude the Lidless Eye outside of Lorien, Strider dead at the hands of the denizens of Dol Guldur and two Nazgul, and forces of the Shadow in both Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith. Although I submitted to Mike as having the superior position when we wrapped up, his victory was by no means a foregone conclusion. An elegant game design meant that as long as I could keep a modicum of pressure on his foul armies, there was always a chance for The Ringbearers to slip into Mordor and destroy the One Ring. I would have to characterize that chance as 'slim' (like, Kate Moss slim), but hey, never count yourself out as long as there are still dice involved, right?

Another friend of mine is, without a doubt, the biggest fan of Lord of the Rings I know personally, and he has asked me about this game on many occasions. I know it bothered him as much if not more than me that this great looking game, which, as it happens, also has a tremendously innovative and well balanced set of mechanics, was languishing on my bookshelf. It was with him in mind that we snapped the following picture around 1:00 in the morning, with battle now fully joined and the two of us enjoying a glass of Jamesons while we plotted our strategies and marshaled our forces. In the tradition of grognards and beardy git wargamers of days past, we did our level best to look as though we were not really enjoying ourselves; after all, these sorts of games are serious business and not intended for children! But truth be told, between the good time we were having, my delight in all the toys in the box, and the thought of Mike P. seeing this picture, I just couldn't pull it off.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Irony Card

So, in preparation for Audrey's upcoming 80s-themed 40th Birthday party, she has been hanging around Value Village a fair bit. While I was there with her one time, I saw a bunch of vintage Trivial Pursuit sets, and seeing as it was a game from the 80s, I suggested she pick one up on a return visit.

She chose the Baby Boomer edition, unfortunately, which kind of throws off the period groove we were looking for. In going through the cards though, I came across this gem in the "RPM" (music) category:

Who split as Glenn Frey noted: "I don't want to be 39 years old with a beerbelly singing Take It Easy because I need the money"?

Wow, knowing what we do now, how the heck do you follow that up?

a) Well, it couldn't possibly be The Eagles because that would make him a frickin' hypocrite!
b) I guess singing it at 55 is okay unless you're Sammy Hagar, huh?
c) Nobody else wanted it either, Glenn.

As much respect as I have for the man, sometimes I think Mojo Nixon was right to sing Don Henley Must Die...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Blood: It's (theoretically) in you to give

I have given blood on three or four previous occasions; none of them smooth enough to help me establish a regular pattern of giving, but none of them so daunting as to prevent me from trying again.

After Canadian Blood Services got in touch with me to update my address, they asked if I wanted to attend a neighbourhood Blood Clinic the following month. Feeling guilty, I aquiesced, wrote it on the calendar, and then promptly forgot about it. The cryptic "CBS 7:00 StCh" meant nothing to me the next time I saw it, and I don't mean I thought someone else had written it; I looked at it in baffled amazement, asking Audrey if she knew what it meant, which provoked a significant laugh on her part, which I still thought was a better response than pretending she did know and then refusing to tell me. I even checked the tv listings for the date in question, which is ludicrous on the face of it; what network show am I going to watch at 7:00 pm under any circumstances, let alone schedule a month in advance? I mean, if we were talking about the Galactica finale or the season premiere of Lost, maybe, but still, it is not as if we are talking about primetime here.

At any rate, thank goodness that the people at Canadian Blood Services (CBS? D'oh!) called the day before to confirm my attendance. I told them I would be there, and decided to take my daughter Fenya along for the experience. And also because I figured I was probably less likely to cry or scream in front of her.

We rolled into the parking lot about 5 minutes before my scheduled appointment, which meant very little in the way of a line-up. In no time at all they had me typed up and filling out the questionnaire about things that could compromise the integrity of the blood I was about to give.

Completing the questionnnaire, I felt extraordinarily snug about the life-choices I had made along the way, but looking at the long string of "No"s regarding international travel, operations and really sketchy behaviour, I couldn't help but feel a little, I don't know, pedestrian. Thankfully, it only took my consciousness about two seconds to fire up a powerpoint slideshow full of horrible photos and insightful pie charts showing in no small degree of detail a comprehensive risk/benefit analysis between adventurous expectations and life expectancy behind my eyelids. ("No, Mr. Fitzpatrick; while there may be degrees of seriousness, there really is no 'cool' variety of hepatitis.")

My reverie was interrupted by Fenya pointing out that a nurse was waiting for me to come to the privacy area. Here I completed and signed the questionnaire, neither smug nor envious at this point, had my blood pressure checked, and was given a moment alone to put a bar-code sticker on my form telling them that as far as I was concerned, using my blood for someone else was groovy and unlikely to unleash the Andromeda Strain or whatever created all those pseudo-vampires that chased Will Smith last winter.

A nurse led Fenya and I over to a high-rise lawn chair with a tray for holding my arm up whilst they tapped me for a pint. I explained to my daughter that, while I am not truly afraid of needles, I am fearful enough of flinching while they poke me that I have learned to look away while they get things started. The nurse got the line in, which only pinched a little, I began to squeeze the little rubber heart they provided, and the bloodletting began. Fenya had some great questions about how long we would be, how much blood they were going to take, about how much that would leave, why the box that held the collector bag rocked back and forth, et cetera.

When my daughter had finished her interrogation, the nurse took a look at my progress, and frowned. "what's up?" I asked, "Where are we at?"

"We're only at about 140 mL," she replied. "At this rate, we will be a long time getting to 480. I am going to re-adjust the line, it may be resting along the wall of your vein." She undid the gauze and tape around where the needle entered my arm, and gently moved it around. I stress the word 'gently' here, because she seemed a kindly sort who took deliberate care with all of her actions, but it was still incredibly discomforting. I stiffened up a fair bit, thinking it was just an adjustment, but when it started to actually become painful, I had to speak.

Clenching my teeth so as to not upset my ten-year-old companion, I said, "That's a bit pinchy." The nurse nodded, and made an adjustment. "Yep, still pinchy," I smiled, wondering what the tensile strength of the metal tubing I was clutching with my left hand was.

"I have a bad feeling you may be clotting in the line," the nurse said. "Is it possible you're dehydrated?"

I started to shake my head. I sit nice and close to the water cooler at work, and usually fill up my 500 mL bottle 2-3 times a day. Today however had been different, as we had gone off-site for a recognition luncheon at the Matrix Hotel downtown. It was a great lunch, and afterwards I had drank, what, 2 cups of coffee? Huh. And then a diet cola at dinner. Uh oh. Congratulations, dumbass, I thought to myself, you've loaded yourself up with diuretics on a day when you are going to be down a pint!

"Er, yeah, I suppose it is possible..." I admitted. The nurse slowly removed the needle from my arm and nodded insightfully.

"See that?" she gestured. There was a dark blob stretching a full centimetre from the needle to the exit wound in my arm, looking more like mucus than blood. Isn't that supposed to be a liquid? I thought. "We are never going to get a full pint at this rate, but we will still test it for you."

I apologized and moved sheepishly to the counter for my cookie and juice. A little late for that now, isn't it? said the new powerpoint presentation, but I ignored it, more because of a lack of a decent internal rejoinder than any kind of moral high ground.

Fenya finished her Fudgee-Os and the better part of a can of Sprite while I explained why I would not be able to give blood that day, and promised her and myself that I would be a bit more prepared the next time.

As a souvenir, I have (even still), a nice toonie-sized bruise on the inside of my right elbow, mostly brown but with enough purple to keep it interesting. When some of my co-workers pointed at it and demanded to know what I had done to myself, I laughed self-deprecatingly and said, "Man, it has been so long since I've done heroin, I don't have the slightest idea what to do any more!"

The immediate reactions of eyebrows and jaws (up and shut, respectively) prompted me to clarify in short order that I was only joking and had instead caffeinated my way to a wasted evening at the donor clinic. But I am already signed up for another attempt in June, and this time I drew a little doodle of a blood drop on the calendar, so as long as I don't think I've predicted rain at precisely 7:00 that evening, I should do a lot better.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Metal-Aged Guy

Today's post will be familiar to some, as I sent it around via e-mail in December of last year. It was the response I got from this, however, that prompted me to start the blog in the first place, so I had always intended to include it. Besides, with half the household up all last night being sick (on Glory's birthday no less), it was either this or a posting called "Happy Birthday to (hugh)". What follows is an exhortation to my friend Mike who lives on Vancouver Island to cross the Strait with his 14 year-old son to see the "Ultimate Beatdown Tour" that was playing in Vancouver the following evening.

Warning: the following post does contain traces of pottymouth. Forewarned is half an octopus.
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Why should you see the show? First of all, you have a serious obstacle to overcome in the form of a major waterway just to get to the show, and I respect that, but remember that you will not have to deal with waiting for 45 GORRAM MINUTES in MINUS 25 DEGREE COLD. Damn, that was awful, I could barely remember the sensation of even having a big toe by the time we got in to the Edmonton Event Centre (formerly Reds at WEM). And as soon as we are in the doors, it is the mandatory coat check, which slows the line up AND keeps us close to the soul-chilling temperatures of the great outdoors. And then we find out that the only food in the place is the Funky Pickle pizza stand, AND because it is an all ages show, you can't take your beer out of the cordoned area in front of the stage, so if we want to beer it up (and, not surprisingly, we do), we are going to have to go and stand by the bar where Pete has at least recce'd us a sweet spot and made friends with the bartender. So, in short, at least your venue will not suck nearly as badly and you probably won't freeze to death waiting for the doors.

Secondly, the opening acts. I had not heard of either opening act, so I was prepared to listen to two sets of badly produced amateur speed metal with no sense of either grandeur or irony in order to get to Dragonforce, who are pretty cool and clearly have a decent understanding of that "take your work seriously, don't take yourself seriously" thing. so when the first band comes up on stage wearing the oversized Frank Frazetta shoulder pads with spikes and all, I'm rolling my eyes and thinking, "oh brother, 'ere we go...", when they rip into a big instrumental that not only sounds well played, but strangely familiar. Is it classical? No, more like folk music...Russian maybe?

Then it all clicks together: I am listening to a speed metal interpretation of "Kalinka", a Russian tune most famous for being the music from Tetris, and the band is called Powerglove (like the old Nintendo accessory), and they are the premier purveyors of "video game metal". Possibly the sole purveyors, but it matters not. And they are a riot: they introduce themselves and state plainly that they are here to "fuck up your childhoods"; no vocals to speak of, except the finale, and they play bits of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario and Final Fantasy VII. After asking if there are any warriors in the crowd (to an enthusiastic response), the frontman says "good, because we need about 15 skeleton warriors to wield these INFLATABLE SWORDS!" and the crowd goes apeshit, "And this MIGHTY CLUB!" which is an oversized neon pink inflatable baseball bat. About midway through the set, Pete notices that frontman's shoulder pads are actually the turtle shell thingies from the Mario games, a nice detail. For the finale, Powerglove rocks up the crowd with a stirring rendition of the "Power Rangers" theme. A great time, and I bought their disc.

So then the second act comes on, and Mike, Pete and I have reconciled ourselves to the fact that the other opening act could not POSSIBLY be as cool as Powerglove. So the lights go down, the stage is black and a Finnish accent booms out "Edmonton.. are you ready for BATTLE METAL?" and from the response, apparently a number of the crowd really are. So this band, Turisas, hit the stage, rocking the Battle Metal with what I would call a significant hardness, with a six piece band, all decked out in furs and red and black striped warpaint reminiscent of the hedonism scene from Conan the Barbarian's. They've got a vocalist, bass, lead guitar and drums, as well as a crazy ass guy with a cut down violin and.. a female accordionist. I know, I know, you've seen one Finnish folk-metal band with a female accordionist (or as Mike says,'accordionatrix'), you've seen them all; and yes, she was cute; Pete compared her favourably to Sandahl Bergman in the aforementioned Conan, but I think that sells her a little short), but I am new enough to the world of international metal that it was still a novelty for me.

And this band really does rock. Yes, I bought their CD, "The Varangian Way" too, and not just because it references the Varangians mentioned in those John Ringo 'Kildar' novels. They remind me of a less orchestrated, rougher version of Rhapsody/ Rhapsody of Fire. The folk influences are deffo there (violin and accordion, hello?), but the vocals are growlier, and there are a lot of sing along choruses that would not have been out of place in a Viking mead hall. Early in the set, I turn to Pete and say, "You know, these guys would do a positively kick ass rendition of Rasputin, eh?" and he agrees emphatically, so when, not three songs later, a familiar beat is followed by "There lived a certain man, in Russia long ago..." Pete is convinced I am psychic.

Their lead singer and warlord, according to the liner notes, ran a very thin line between getting the crowd warmed up for the headliners and formally inciting a riot. "these guys up front look bored, I'm sorry to say. They are security, and it is their job to keep the stage secure. You aren't giving them very much to do, ARE YOU MOTHERFUCKERS? they are getting paid to do nothing, and it probably pisses them off. I KNOW IT PISSES ME OFF!! START SOMETHING!!!" But thankfully, order was maintained, even though Turisas have enough of a presence in the metal community that a number of young fans were kitted out in warpaint and furs as well.

And Dragonforce? Just an excellent show with absolutely breathtaking guitar work by the two leads. Great crowd participation, band interaction, the works. There are enough videos and the like on YouTube that you can certainly get the idea (esp. "Operation Ground and Pound") of what to expect, but I maintain that watching highly trained and skilled professionals who clearly love their work are a joy to watch in just about any field, doubly so in music, and even more so in heavy metal.

One of the guitarists is named Sam Totman, and Mike has informed us that it is a rare enough name in England that who knows? they may be related. Watching Sam onstage and seeing a multitude of Mikely mannerisms manifest themselves was just about enough to convince me, and there is certainly a passing similarity, even if Mike is about a foot taller. After the show, we ended up talking to both Sam and the accordionatrix while we waited 40 minutes for the coat check tide to subside, so Mike and I got our Turisas discs signed, and Mike got his picture taken with Sam after telling him the relativity theory. Sam wished his Dad was there "because 'e'd be all 'oo,er, family tree" et cetera, but yeah, nice guy, funny, sarcastic, and enough like Mike that I would not bet against them being related to some degree. Oh, and Pete and I read on Wikipedia that the accordionista is a step-in player filling in for the original bloke who "disappeared under mysterious circumstances while in Amsterdam." No shit.

Had I taken Fenya, she would not have been close to the youngest person there at age 10. I saw a lad of probably five riding on his dad's shoulders, wearing a Dragonforce t-shirt. And aside from a gratuitous amount of f-bombs and the occasional lewd gesture, there was nothing in the show I would have called age-inappropriate, unlike the previous show I saw at Reds, which was Gwar(!). Fenya had asked to come, as she likes the non-growly metal in general and Dragonforce in particular, and having experienced the show, I wish now I had taken her along. You have an opportunity to go and experience with your boy the spiritual inheritors of the music of your youth. they are no Iron Maiden, but very decent musicians with great showmanship and tremendous humour. It could be a year or two before another show like this comes to your neck of the woods, making your son 16 by then, and either insanely busy in the family tradition, or just unwilling or uncomfortable doing such things with his dad. I just don't want to see you down the road, listening to Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" holding a picture of better days while a single tear tracks down your unshaven cheek, et cetera... but I think you get my point.
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Unfortunately, with the limited amount of lead time they were given, Mike and his son were not able to attend the show, but he let me know that he appreciated the heads up, and that my experience had given us both a lesson in terms of seizing opportunities. On the other hand though, I am helping some friends arrange the music for their wedding reception this summer, and since playing "Rasputin" is practically an obligation in such circumstances, it is nice to know I can spice things up a little bit, courtesy of Turisas, and my mates who brought me along to the show.