Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Be Mused

I heard Muse's track "Knights of Cydonia" on the radio back in 2006, and because there are no vocals until two minutes into this almost seven minute track, I first thought I was listening to a twangy instrumental. Now, I love instrumentals, and often lament the dearth of musicianship in modern music, so this was all right with me. The twangy, spacy sound reminded me a little bit of "Telstar", an instrumental by British band The Tornados that I heard courtesy of my mom's 45. (Note to the kids: a 45 rpm record is how they used to sell single tracks of music before the internet. (Addendum: a record is a disc of pressed vinyl or wax that plays music or sound through a needle which traces grooves on it while it rotates.)) "Knights of Cydionia" was surfy, trippy and had a nice change up that made listening to it feel like you were getting three songs in one. The video is an even trippier piece which not only makes you feel like you are watching a terrible post-apocalyptic space western, but one that was filmed in Eastern Europe in 1981.

I picked up the album "Black Holes and Revelations" and fell for the band like a blind roofer. Three guys playing inventive rock with a progressive feel, solid musicianship and songwriting, occasional Queen-like harmonies mixed with Radiohead-like vocals and containing multiple science fiction themes and references? It's like a rock and roll wish list, as far as I'm concerned!

Muse is not a band for every taste, obviously. What group is? But I have pitched the band to a number of people as Radiohead on anti-depressants with overtones of Brian May and Freddie Mercury, and possibly the spiritual inheritors to Rush, another power trio with epic scope. (This is not meant to be a diss on Radiohead as I have mad respect for Thom Yorke and company, but they can get to be a bit much sometimes, can't they?)

The new album, "The Resistance", seems to be doing well; the lead single "Uprising" was number one on the local modern rock station for four weeks, and initial listenings place it very close to the previous album in enjoyability, which is great since "Black Holes" is one of my favourites. Their "Exogenesis: Symphony" in three parts still leaves me a little cold, but who knows, I may yet warm to it, and there are at least three more solid singles on this album or I miss my guess, and that is without counting the version of "I Belong to You" they recorded for the soundtrack to the "Twilight" sequel, "New Moon" .

The real revelation for me, though, came when I got Muse's concert album and DVD, "HAARP" from the library. I can recommend viewing this concert for just about anyone who likes rock and/or roll. I had heard from a number of sources that Muse's live shows were really something; in fact a British magazine listed them as one of the 15 bands one must see prior to dying, and that is probably a very reasonable position to take.

First of all, they have some serious presentation chops: good entrance (walking to the stage while flanked by stagehands in yellow rad suits and gas masks while accompanied by Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliet", followed by front man Mat Bellamy ringing out the five notes of the theme from "Close Encounters" as a lead in to "Knights of Cydonia." Glee!), big satellite dishes on stage, an aerialist performing while suspended from a balloon directly over the crowd, excellent jumbotron usage, et cetera.

The energy ouput by this band is palpable even through as deadening a medium as television, for pity's sake. Watching the concert with someone who is not really a Muse fan, they noted the difference between the studio recordings and what was seen on stage as to be so significant they are practically different bands. Even as a fan, I find this hard to dispute.

Lastly, the musicianship, in particular, vocalist, pianist and lead guitarist Matt Bellamy. I've been listening to Muse for three years now, and while I have always regarded the band as being musically proficient, I never thought of Bellamy as a particularly gifted guitarist. A lot of this probably has to do with my ignorance when it comes to the actual mechanics of playing a guitar ("Oh, is that hard? He makes it look easy."), and also the fact that I usually hear music as a gestalt first and as components later, if at all.

I had no idea, for instance, that "Knights of Cydonia" is a featured track on Guitar Hero Smash Hits, or that Bellamy is an unlockable character in Guitar Hero V. Or that the song from that game, "Plug In Baby" features a guitar riff voted by readers of Total Guitar magazine as the 8th best of all time in 2007 (just to put it into perspective, "Smoke on the Water" was #17). It's a darned catchy riff, and I get sympathetic arthritis just imagining trying to play it in Guitar Hero. So Bellamy brings some serious guitar credibility to the table.

And that's just playing them, not playing around with them. Before kicking into "Plug in Baby" he exhorts a very convincing air raid siren out of one, and at other points in the concert he gets murmurs, rings, wails, rhythm and even a theremin effect out of them. Fancy pickin' doesn't usually generate a huge response from Audrey, but even she was mesmerized by some of Bellamy's antics. "That is one outside-the-box-playin' so-and so," she was heard to say. And the drummer and bassist aren't slouches, either.

Muse are currently touring as an opening act for U2, so the recent news that U2 is coming to Edmonton in June has me hoping that Muse might be coming with them, or perhaps showing up nearby on their 2010 North American tour, whoever it might be with. It's been a long time since I was excited about a popular modern band, which makes the idea of going to a full-on arena rock concert feel a little strange, to be honest. Not strange enough to stop me, but still.

Oh, and it turns out that my "Telstar" association was probably not accidental: Matt Bellamy's father was the rhythm guitarist for The Tornados.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Auto Motives

Alas! Once again I have seen the lamb of style sacrificed upon the altar of practicality.

For all my love of the retro-muscle design we are seeing in modern domestics, two facts remain: the first being that I just don't have as much confidence in Motor City as I once did, and the second being that it is just irresponsible to get something that isn't at least somewhat miserly with the fossil fuels when you are commuting 80 kilometres per day. Dammit.

For another thing, when the $3500 "Cash for Clunkers" program failed to materialize in Canada the way it did in the U.S., it took most new cars off the table, even the eminently practical yet stylistically polarizing Nissan Cube I was looking at. That said, it is not as though I have faith in the 1.5 decade old Plymouth getting me around for a year or so while I sock away enough shekels to make a play at something fun, so when I spied an ad for lease-back 2009 Corollas, I did some research, and we ended up getting one last Monday.

It's been quite an adjustment, but almost all positive. The Corolla appears to be near the zenith of 'good, reliable transportation', and, whining notwithstanding, that is exactly what we need right now. It is a fairly comfortable ride for a compact, but I am glad I didn't get a Yaris. I mean, as it is, getting out of the car looks more like some perverse bio-mechanical birthing than an elegant disembarkation; if I wore a red sweatshirt and climbed out of a red sub-compact like the Yaris, people would be apt to think they had just seen an automobile undergo mitosis. "Holy crap, that car just calved off a whole person! Those Japanese engineers can do anything!" Still, I keep hearing the Mexican farmer talking to Steve McQueen in "The Magnificent Seven", who is turning down their job offer because it doesn't pay enough. The farmer says, "I understand; you can make much more money as a grocery clerk. It's good, steady work." The look on McQueen's face is priceless, and I saw it as clear as day when I wrote "good reliable transportation" above.

It is not particularly exciting to drive, but has enough guts to pass slowboats on the Henday, which is about all the chutzpah I am going to require. The clock offers a number of alternate displays, though, one of which shows your current fuel economy in L/100km, and I have seen it go from 5.2 to 16.1 in the course of ten seconds of passing speed, so leaving that display on as a default could save me some money in not only gas but also speeding tickets.

Still, it is very nice to have a proper sound system again. Nothing fancy, but very decent sound quality. Even though there are so sub-woofers, the bass is beefy enough that I was honestly fearing that the new Muse album I was enjoying was going to deploy my airbags, and the bass was only set to 3 out of 5. I kept thinking back to that description of "The Quivering Palm" from my high school D&D handbook, and how the monks could achieve all manner of horrifying effects through their attunement to certain vibrations; I turned the bass down to 1 just to be safe. Still, if you could get video of it, it might make a good prank: "Bass fo' yo' face! KaBLAM!"

Yeah, maybe next time I can get something a bit more distinct, or more fun to drive, but like I wrote previously, I don't have a lot of ego tied up in my vehicular choices. I mean, it's more than none, and sometimes I wish it was less, but belly-button car or not, it's nice to have some confidence in the item most responsible for getting me to work in an orderly fashion and keeping my family safe while they ride in it. Oh, and I even got $300 for the old beater from the Fed's "Retire Your Ride" program. Sure, maybe I could have held out for $500 from some high school boy thinking the red interior and tinted windows on a '94 Plymouth Acclaim could overcome peeling paint that made the car look like it was sunburned, a wrecked driver's side door lock (thanks to the skells who stole it from in front of my house IN BROAD DAYLIGHT a year ago; that was a Batman moment I am happy didn't pan out...) and the fact that any dipstick with one thumb and a chopstick can now make off with the car at will if The Club isn't attached to the wheel. But the moment I pictured who I might be dickering with, I signed up for the $300 and never looked back. Part of me is thinking I should re-attach the plate and do something liberatingly stupid with the car before it gets towed, but then I remember that they don't call it Murphy's Theory now, do they?

Friends of ours have a Corolla they have driven for years; in fact, the body has become so rusted that they jokingly refer to it as the Toyota 'Corrode-a', but it still runs, and runs well. Given how little I enjoy purchasing cars, I hope to get the same sort of longevity out of this one.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fools Rush In

So, it was Glorianna and I on our own tonight, as Audrey and Fenya are at the Cantilon Choir dessert auction. It's a strange event for me, emotionally speaking, because while I love the music and an elegant night at the Winspear with excellent company, I dropped, like, $80 on a tiramisu from the Italian Centre one year, and neither my wallet nor my scale need that kind of challenge at this point in time. Which is not to say it wasn't worth it; it totally was. It's just way too easy to justify that kind of behaviour when you can hang your guilt on the 'it's for a good cause' peg, so missing out this year was all right by me.

Regardless, I asked Glo-bug what she wanted to do after supper as we drove home, and she mused a bit before saying, "What about Rockband? We haven't done that in a while..."

"Capital idea!" I replied, and after I explained what that meant, we hit Wendy's and proceeded in a homeward direction, and got to the Rockbanding shortly thereafter.

I am finally at a point where I can play a brand new song in medium and not get booed off the stage every time, which may not seem like much, but it's huge to me. Glory's the drummer in our band, The Roofgoats, and we played for about an hour together tonight. Her favourite songs are Paramore's "That's What You Get" for singing and Beck's "E-Pro" for drumming (which I concur with wholeheartedly). I only recently made the transition from easy to medium on the guitar, so I couldn't pay her as much attention tonight as I would have liked, but she consistently gets 90% or so on most songs, and watching her freestyle stuff is hilarious. She did try medium, but the simultaneous hand and foot action is a little too much for her at this point, and at all of 7 years of age, I thought it was way cool of her to attempt it at all.

A major part of the game's appeal for both girls is the ability to customize your Rockband 'character', from the haircut to the shoes and everything in between, so we ended up having to play a few tour gigs in order to feed Glory's shopping monkey. A new hairstyle and dress devastated her evening's earnings, but I hardly think Rockband 2 is the tool for teaching your kids about fiscal responsibility and thoughtful purchases, and besides, wardrobe is really more of an investment for a musician, right?

Afterwards, we checked our gig options to see what had opened up and I spied one in Montreal spotlighting Canadian artists. Pulling up the details, I noted with glee that the closing number was Rush's "The Trees". Glory had no clue why I was so excited, so I found the song on YouTube and played it for her.

She enjoyed it greatly, as all right-thinking people do, even though she was initially concerned about the complete and total lack of drumming in the song until 44 seconds in. Once it started, she was suitably impressed, which pleased me greatly. I went on to explain that in addition to being a brilliant lyricist, Neil Peart is widely considered one of rock's best living* drummers. I didn't go too much into his increasingly bizarre and outlandish time signatures and the like, because, well, I don't really understand them, to be quite honest. But I did tell her about how I got to see him perform his signature drum solo "The Rhythm Method" live in concert back in 1990, on the "Presto" tour. My friend Jim Opp invited me to the show and we drove up from Augustana to Edmonton and got our socks knocked off. (Thanks again, Jim! I still have the pin from that show!)

I found "The Rhythm Method" on YouTube and played it for her, and needless to say, she was dazzled from pillar to post.

First of all there is the skill, which I feel speaks for itself and is considerable. Secondly, there is the stamina, because an 8 minute drum solo separates the sheep from the goats pretty swiftly, in my opinion. "How does he keep going?" Glory marvelled, "His arms must be really strong." Thirdly, there is the creativity: when I hear "8 minute drum solo", I am drawn against my will to Iron Butterfly's legendary "In a Gadda Da Vida", which, let's be honest, gets a little stale by about minute 5 of the drum solo. The piece is not without its merits, especially the way it is used in Michael Mann's film "Manhunter", but even its defenders have a hard time denying it is an indulgent work. There is not much room for boredom in "The Rhythm Method" (bow-chicka-wow-wow)(stop that!) as Peart works between what I believe are four different drum kits and a cornucopia of percussives. He even wraps up with a big band sound, which is simply fantastic. There are a lot of great drummers out there, but a real shortage of drum instrumentalists, I wager.

Lastly, there are the drums themselves, which my youngest daughter looked at longingly and sighed, "I wish I had a drum set like that." I laughed and explained that since Peart's setup used at least three full drum kits, a couple of synthesizers and enough cymbals for half-time at the Rose Bowl, there were several thousand dollars worth of skins at play there.

Now, when you are 7, 20 bucks is a lot of money, and you know a thousand is more, but you don't really know how much more, so I wasn't expecting her to be too impressed, which is good, because she wasn't, but it did get me to thinking about how she saw a set of drums in a flyer the other day, and suggested maybe she could learn the drums for real.

So having shown her Neil Peart directly on the heels of Rockband's ersatz drum participation, I wonder if maybe I have flipped open the lid on Pandora's box here a little bit. And now I may actually have to weigh the clutter and noise of a proper drum kit in the house against the incredible coolness factor of elementary-school-girl-rock-drummer. It's quite the conundrum.

One of my favourite musician jokes is "what do you call a drummer with no girlfriend?" The answer, of course, is "homeless", but maybe it could also be "my kid, Glory!" I can always get headphones for when she practices, I suppose.

* Hardly an exhaustive list, when you think about it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Defense for the Hondo Rush

Back in early September, we purchased a Wii. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which being that I really needed to find some form of physical activity that I would actually be motivated to do. Since my workplace has a Personal Wellness and Development Account that would cover the cost, we went to Costco and took the plunge.

We ended up leaving with the Wii itself, an extra controller, the Wii Fit balance board, and a game called Active Life Extreme Challenge, which sounds like a Japanese game show, but isn't. Well, probably isn't, anyways. Two weeks later Nintendo announced a 20% price drop on the Wii hardware itself, which in many ways is the story of my life, but I digress.

Using mostly Wii Fit (which doubles as a scale), I managed to drop 11 pounds in the first month of using it, and the whole family enjoys the thing, so it has certainly been a worthy addition to the household. In a mad fit of bedbug-related retail therapy, I also purchased Rockband 2, and the girls have been mad for it; score another victory for the family the plays together. Despite the whole 'rockstar' oeuvre that the game is shooting for, however (it is produced by MTV Games, after all), I do have to confess to getting a weird Partridge Family vibe when the four of us play together; thank goodness there isn't a keyboard peripheral.

Since the Rockband 2 'incident', I have been (ahem) actively discouraged from any further Wii purchases until after Christmas, which hardly seems unfair given the circumstances. But as mentioned in an earlier post, the Edmonton Public Library now has a selection of Wii games, which has been a great help not only recreationally, but also as an evaluation tool against future (and by future, I guess I mean 2010) purchases. For instance, despite that fact that you can check games out for a generous 7 day period, Pirates Vs. Ninja Dodgeball was like the little yellow cat of song and went back the very next day. Ghostbusters was quite a bit of fun and a natural for the Wii's motion controls, plus it features the original cast members, which is a treat.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from EPL informing me that Punch Out was on hold for me at my branch, so I wasted very little time in getting over there after work to pick it up.

As a child of the 80s, I have fond memories of the original Punch Out arcade game, although I wasn't very good at it. The frantic computer play-by-play ("Uppercut! Uppercut! Left hook! Jab!"), coupled with the satisfaction of knocking out even the easiest opponent, Glass Joe, meant the loss of a lot of quarters back in the day.

I know Punch Out went on to be a popular title on the old NES and Super Nintendo system, and as a Mike Tyson license no less, but I never played it on those platforms. In all honesty, the idea of a boxing game that would tire out more than my thumbs really appealed to me, the game reviewed really well on Metacritic, and when I read that it supported the balance board, I knew I had to give it a try.

Long story short, despite the fact that dodging and ducking with the balance board is a very sketchy proposition, I played my way through the first 4 boxers last night ending up with the Minor Circuit belt. By the end I was a sweaty mass and today had a noticeable tremor in my legs from all the actual ducking I had done.

It has that great video-game compulsion factor that bled my pockets dry of caribou coin back in the day, that notion that this time, THIS time, I would be victorious. Never mind that the whole proposition probably more resembled Daffy Duck loading a musket ("First the powder, THEN the wadding...BLAM") than anything else, hope springs eternal. Coupling that 'one more time' geas with a physically engaging activity is just what the doctor ordered for this sofa spud.

Graphically speaking, the Wii doesn't have a lot of horsepower, which is good, because it puts a lot more focus on the gameplay where it belongs, but Punch Out is a pretty good looking game. It uses cel shading and cartoonish caricatures to give it a real Saturday morning feel. The opponents are brutally steretypical but inoffensive and fun. Piston Hondo, of the titular Hondo Rush, hocks sushi between rounds. My most recent opponent, Bear Hugger, hails from Salmon Arm, BC, which shocked me, since all other Canadian game characters seem to hail from Toronto or Montreal, if they come from a city at all, and as cliched as a bearded lumberjack who drinks maple syrup might be, there is an undeniable appeal to a character who has a punch called the 'Salmon Arm' and is prone to yelling 'Sockeye!' before punching you in the face.

So I threw Fenya on the game tonight and watched her tie a whuppin' on Glass Joe, Von Kaiser AND The Disco Kid without a single loss. It took me half an hour just to beat Von Kaiser the night before. Then we tried playing head to head, and, surprise surprise, she kicked my ass, much to the delight of those in attendance. And this despite my gaining some sort of power-up in the second round that turned me into an Incredible Hulk sized abomination. So now I can go to work tomorrow and when someone asks me why I am making so much noise getting out my chair, I can tell them I am sore from the savage beating my 10 year old administered on me the night before.

Well, whatever. I still have the belt.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


(Despite the title and timing, this post has nothing to do with Roman Polanski.)

If you take a look at Hollywood's offerings over the last, say, three years, and take away all the remakes and sequels, you thin out the herd pretty substantially. If you also remove adaptations, which began fairly earnestly with novels and short stories but which now include television shows, comic books and even video games, you aren't left with a whole lot.

As much as I lament the dearth of original ideas making it to the silver screen, I'm clearly part of the problem; I loved last year's Iron Man and Dark Knight films, and I have to admit to also getting guardedly excited about the upcoming Predators movie from producer Robert Rodriguez.

As a director, Robert Rodriguez is one of my favourites, and not because of his visual style or skill, but rather because of his attitude. After making El Mariachi on a shoestring budget, he was given Tinseltown money and equipment to shoot the sequel, Desperado. I had a wonderful photo of him on my desk at work at the time, courtesy of Premiere magazine, with him wearing baggy shorts and a cameraman's vest, the pockets bulging with lenses and light meters. He is carrying (or rather, wearing) the steadicam he taught himself to use, and he has a bandana on his head to protect him the sun. There is a bandage across his nose, making look like a boxer due to an eyepiece crashing into his face while shooting a scene, and a flaming car provides the backdrop.

In the accompanying article, he talks about the gap between his studio watchdogs and his guerilla filmmaking crew. At one point, he spies a better shot and discusses setting it up. The studio reps are bemoaning how long it is going to take to pull up the dolly track, and how they are losing light, and how the shooting schedule will be impacted if they have to do it tomorrow, when Rodriguez cuts them off and says, "Look, just get me a shopping cart and a steadicam, and I'll do it myself."

So it is with mixed feelings that I am mostly looking forward to his upcoming Predators movie, which will revisit the alien hunters first seen in the Schwarzenegger classic directed by John McTiernan. The mixed feelings are entirely appropriate, since I also had them going into the original film. It was always a crap shoot with Arnie: were you heading into Terminator 2 or Commando? Kindergarten Cop or True Lies? At any rate, I loved the first film but have been underwhelmed with the sequels, starting with Danny Glover in Predator 2 and right through to Aliens Vs. Predator, which cartoonist Scott Kurtz summarized succinctly as '30 minutes of awesome wrapped in 90 minutes of suck'.

I think one of the strengths of the original film is the ensemble of great characters and character actors, many of whom went on to do some impressive things. Obviously, there aren't too many action flicks that can boast that not one but two of their cast members went on to become state governors (what, you forgot about Jesse 'The Body' Ventura already?), but you have also got Bill Duke who became a respected director, and Shane Black (as the comms officer, Hawkins) who wrote a number of successful screenplays including the first Lethal Weapon.

Not a whole lot is known about the new film, but some rumours are suggesting they could be heading towards ensemble country again. According to sci-fi blog io9,a number of tough guy tropes are brought to the Predator homeworld for some Most Dangerous Game style action, including:

* Cuchillo A Mexican enforcer from the drug cartel, who is Danny Trejo's character.

* A Russian named Nikolai with a four barrel gas powered rotary machine gun....close to The Body's weapon.

* The token female role goes to Isabelle, a "tough as nails" lady who can speak French and carries a sniper rifle.

* A possible skin head convict, who is armed only with a prison made knife, is also in the group.

* Plus a Japanese enforcer who appears to be carrying a samurai sword,

* a member of the Sierra Leone death squad,

* and a small "unassuming" man named Edwin who was on the FBI's most wanted list.

I love ensembles, so if Predators heads in that direction, I will be happy. The news that Rodriguez regular and general hombre machismo Danny Trejo has been cast, is also very encouraging. Many people are listing their dream cast for the other roles, and it does seem like a good opportunity for some under appreciated actors to gain some exposure and possibly make a breakout. Still, you have to think the bar has been set pretty high as far as the cast from the first movie goes, don't you? Maybe guessing which cast member will hold public office in the future can be part of the marketing...

No, probably not.

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UPDATE: has an article about Adrien Brody joining the cast, and apparently Topher Grace from "That 70s Show" is in negotiations as well... come on ensemble!