Sunday, October 27, 2019

Trickster Treats - Justifying a Hallowe'en Music Video Playlist

Music videos were a huge part of my adolescence, occurring as it did during the advent of music television. MTV launched in 1981 when I was 14 years old, but was only available in Canada on satellite. Video jockeys or veejays would get spoofed on SCTV ("The Gerry Todd Video Show:) that same year, but I'd been seeing them somewhere or another for some time by that point, maybe on shows like the New Music or Good Rockin' Tonight. In 1983 NBC's Friday Night Videos gave me a whole show devoted to this resurging medium (after all, musical shorts like Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes had been a part of the filmgoing experience since the 1920s) and Canada finally got its own music video channel in MuchMusic (later just Much) a year later.

Now those programs are gone and the dedicated channels are now seemingly devoted to celebrity culture and reality television, but my love for music videos is undiminished. Instead of hoping for a glimpse of a favourite on television, I can request practically every one I can remember with a simple internet search. A decade ago it was a chore to collect 80s videos for Audrey's 40th birthday, and this year I simply created a playlist on YouTube, since every television in the house can currently access it.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a hobby, but video curation has definitely become an interest of mine. If I am puttering about in the basement or the lads are over and chilling prior to a gaming session, putting a shuffled assortment of videos on in the background is like having a radio on but with a visual component. Interesting enough to promote conversation but not typically so engaging as to prohibit it.

Just about every time I see a new video I am interested in seeing again it gets saved to a playlist: Metal Queens for heavy bands with female vocalists, Demo Reel for videos with good graphics or arresting visuals, Finnish Hymn for northern European metal bands and a general catch-all list for everything else (and some of the others as well) called M.T. Steve.

In order to have something playing while waiting for trick-or-treaters on Thursday night, I decided to put together a list of videos specifically for Hallowe'en called Trickster Treat -  Videos for Halloween.

Some cuts were included because of relevant imagery like masks or monsters, while others made the cut because the music itself felt appropriately atmospheric. I am by no means a Backstreet Boys fan, but the video for Everybody has the whole group kitted up as classic monsters while visiting a castle, so it had to go in. Rihanna's Disturbia, on the other hand, is completely spooky (and maybe a little hot), but didn't do anything for me musically, so it got left out.

Some of them are old favourites like Michael Jackson's Thriller, while others are newer discoveries I've just stumbled across by letting Autoplay do its thing or by following links in the sidebar. Here are a few of the ones I wanted to bring to your attention:

Floor Jansen and Henk Poort - Phantom of the Opera
My household's devotion to Floor Jansen, the amazing (and tall!) vocalist for symphonic power metal band Nightwish is already a matter of public record, but it is only through Fenya that I discovered she had been appearing on a Dutch television show called Beste Zangers (Best Singers). On this show, vocalists from across Holland and representing a broad cross-section of styles take turns covering each other's music. Most of her costars had not heard of Floor prior to this, but have come to respect her raw power and electrifying performances. In this clip she is paired with probably the most well-known mainstream singer in the Netherlands, opera performer Henk Poort, for a stunning rendition of the title track from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical. The performance is great, but it is the reactions of the other singers from the couch that I find most gratifying!

Postmodern Jukebox feat. Wayne Brady - Thriller (1930's Jazz Cover)
My buddy Jim switched me onto PMJ earlier this year and I am hooked; what started out as a make-work project for composer/musician Scott Bradlee and his friends has turned into a series of videos, albums and successful live tour. A rotating roster of musicians and special guests do period-style covers of modern pop and rock songs, from a New Orleans dirge rendition of Seven Nation Army to this Cotton-Club-inspired jazz version of a great track for Hallowe'en. Come for one of the funniest guys from Whose Line Is It Anyways?, stay for the tap-dancing zombie flappers.

Radiohead - Burn the Witch
Like a lot of folks, I run hot and cold on Radiohead, but there is no denying their ability to produce atmospheric music. This string-driven piece combines a tense, moving progression augmented by Thom Yorke's haunting vocals with sparse but evocative lyrics:
Red crosses on wooden doorsAnd if you float you burnLoose talk around tablesAbandon all reasonAvoid all eye contactDo not reactShoot the messengers
This is a low flying panic attackSing the song of sixpence that goes
Then to top it all off, they wrap it in a harmless-looking yet-still-creepy video that looks like it was filmed on location in Playmobil Township!

The song and video are from 2016 but we only came across it a couple of weeks ago. I'm hearing it played more and more often in the kitchen as All Hallows Eve approaches, but also wish I could download the version done by the London Cello Quarter and Ruth Corey.

HIM - Wicked Game
Formerly known as His Infernal Majesty, this Finnish goth-rock outfit was one of that country's most successful bands. They covered Chris Isaak's melancholy love song in 2011, adding crunchy guitars and a faster tempo, but lost none of the mournful tone. It manages to stand out even amongst the nearly infinite number of covers of this excellent track, which Dazed Digital makes a strong case for being the most influential modern love song. I leave it to the viewer to decide who is prettier in this production: the assortment of models repping the Morticia Addams collection or lead singer Ville Valo.

If you are at loose ends this spooky season (or just in a mood for upbeat angst), please check out Trickster Treats (preferably on shuffle). I've probably overlooked some very worthy inclusions here, so please let me know what you think needs to be added!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Watching the Watchmen? Yes, Actually

When it was first announced that writer Damon Lindelof  (Lost, J.J. Abrams Star Trek films) was adapting the legendary comic series The Watchmen for HBO, I was apprehensive, bordering on dismissive. After all, Zack Snyder's 2009 movie version was a faithful, if superficial, envisioning of the wide-ranging story of a world with an alternate history containing both costumed adventurers and an actually superpowered character.

If you've never read the original collection, I highly recommend it. It's a great examination of how the existence of colourful characters might affect the world around them, and what sort of people might take to such a risky but exciting lifestyle (not terribly healthy, it turns out). I read all 12 issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's as they came out between 1986-1987, lending them to my friends who weren't collecting it so we could all agonize during the wait for the long-delayed final issue together.

Since then, the collected issues have never been out of print, published in a variety of formats (two of which I own: a thumbworn paperback for travel reading or lending, and the oversized hardcover Absolute Edition). Its text and subtext are studied in academia, and Time Magazine listed The Watchmen as one of the 100 greatest novels published since 1923. Not the 100 greatest graphic novels, mind; they put it right up there with The Great Gatsby and Slaughterhouse Five.

With all those accolades, it would be reasonable to think that another adaptation is both inevitable and unneeded, which was my position initially. When it was revealed that Lindelof's Watchmen was actually not a straightforward re-telling but what he described as a "re-mix," I was relieved, but just as skeptical, however, I have to admit I was perhaps a little bit intrigued as well. Imagining some type of ersatz sequel, perhaps with a senior citizen version of Nite-Owl, or the children of the Silk Spectre.

Then I read the open letter he published on Instagram, in the face of growing online resentment to his project.
“We have no desire to ‘adapt’ the twelve issues Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons created thirty years ago,” Lindelof said. “Those issues are sacred ground and they will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted.
He continued, “They will, however, be remixed. Because the bass lines in those familiar tracks are just too good and we’d be fools not to sample them. Those original twelve issues are our Old Testament. When the New Testament came along it did not erase what came before it. Creation. The Garden of Eden. Abraham and Isaac. The Flood. It all happened. And so it will be with ‘Watchmen.’ The Comedian died. Dan and Laurie fell in love. Ozymandias saved the world and Dr. Manhattan left it just after blowing Rorschach to pieces in the bitter cold of Antarctica.”
Reading this testimonial removed some, but not all of my apprehension. Reports came out about how Lindelof would be referencing real-world but lesser-known events like the Tulsa riots of 1921, which saw white rioters burn down an affluent neighbourhood of African-American business owners known as "the Black Wall Street." How he would be telling an original story set thirty years after the original tale.

By the time we settled in to watch it tonight, I was keenly curious, and even optimistic. The trailers had been intriguing, and the initial reviews were very favourable for the most part.

It's a wild ride, which asks for a fair amount of patience and faith from its viewers, but is loaded with rewarding references for those of us familiar with the source material. After a horrifying depiction of the Tulsa riots, we are whisked forward to Tulsa in the "present day," but one wholly unfamiliar to us. After all, we readers know that the U.S. not only won the Viet Nam war thanks to the practically omnipotent Dr. Manhattan, but that country is now the 51st state. Even in 1986, the skies of this world were filled with airships, and there were far more Indian take-out restaurants than hamburger joints or pizza parlors.

Even knowing it is a different world, it is still unsettling to see a masked police officer during a traffic stop, and stranger still to see him asking for permission to have the sidearm under his dash unlocked remotely from HQ after spotting something suspicious. At the end of the comics, Robert Redford is considering a run for the presidency, so to hear a child in a classroom reference "Redfordations" and to hear news reports suggesting he is still in office raises far more questions than it supplies answers (such as: were reparations actually made to the descendants of slaves in this universe?).

Watching Tulsa police Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) buddy up with masked vigilantes like Sister Night (Regina King) and Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), whose existence in-universe has been illegal since the Keene Act of 1976 in the original comic causes further consternation, while speculation as to how the threat of transdimensional invasion, so critical to peace in the '80s, might be maintained three decades later, is answered with a mysterious and grotesque form of precipitation.

One episode in, the whole mystery to come isn't even perceivable as of yet, and I am still compelled to follow the story. The characters are flawed and complex, which is completely in keeping with the comics, and a number of contradictions need to be explored. For instance, we are told (and can see even in this first episode) that racism is going to be a key focus of HBO's Watchmen, which seems both timely and wholly appropriate. In my mind, the universe of the comics felt more tolerant, with gay couples shown holding hands in fancy restaurants, something that jumped off the background of the page thirty years back. On the other hand, there are also references to Silhouette, a lesbian hero belonging to the 1940s Minutemen, being driven from the group after being outed, and murdered shortly afterward. Perhaps things in this universe aren't as rosy as I remember them - the first episode seems to underscore that.

The action is well-directed, evocative and imaginative, but there isn't as much of it as you might expect in a comic book story (I'm looking at you, Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola) and it is by no means the focus of the story. Likewise, I only felt compelled to pause our viewing tonight twice in order to explain the significance of something onscreen that caused me to audibly react.

Regardless, Lindelof has established his bona fides, both as a storyteller and fellow fan of Watchmen. Using an old comic book's alternate universe as a lens to look at real, undertold American history as well as to examine societal racism that more and more of us are beginning to understand is persistent because it is tragically systemic is a bold approach.

It's too early to tell if such an approach will actually work, and or whether or not it can be used to weave a satisfying story for both long-term fans like myself and a wider tv audience which has probably never read the comics. But for now, that boldness, a slick visual style worthy of Dave Gibbons' nine-panel layouts and a willingness to let viewers flail around a little before finding their footing (assuming we ever will!) will have my family and I tuning in to Watchmen for the duration.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Cold Hands, Warm Hearts

The day after Fenya and I were at the Starlite Room, she, Glory and I took the Bride of Frankentrailer out to Jasper for one last weekend of camping and a highly anticipated visit to Miette Hot Springs. Audrey had work commitments and a church fundraising dinner she wanted to attend, but I think she was grateful for the opportunity to pass up this excursion.

Which is funny, because just before se moved to Ontario in 1995, the two of us had camped out at Pocahontas in a tent on the exact same weekend. Mind you, it was even colder and the zipper actually froze shut on our tent, so I certainly can't blame her for being apprehensive about a return visit. The girls on the other hand, were excited at the opportunity.

Glory has a spare at the end of the day, so I was able to pick her up mid-afternoon. By the time Fenya arrived from work, we'd gassed up the Flex, loaded all our gear, hooked up the trailer and had it waiting out front. We hit the road at 5:30, grabbing burgers at the McDonald's in Edson for dinner. As it grew dark, we listened to two Lonely Island albums I had downloaded and which we wouldn't have bothered with if Audrey had made the trip.

We arrived at our site a little before 10:00, met by our friends Shari and Dave from Red Deer. I am still hopeless at backing up with the trailer, and Dave said, "Not to mow another man's lawn or anything, but I could do that if you liked..." I leapt at his offer, and within an hour we had the Bride all set up, and a small space heater deployed to take the chill off.

I had picked up a larger, warmer sleeping bag over the summer, as I normally use our existing one like a blanket during warmer weather. Now, I wouldn't call my apprehension at having my arms immobilized claustrophobia per se, but even writing this now, I feel obliged to roll my shoulders and inhale deeply. My sleep that night was troubled and fitful, but I did manage to nod off, and even with the bag zipped all the way up on a couple of occasions.

We all enjoyed a lie-in that morning and decided to forego the oatmeal breakfast we had planned in favour of getting out to the hot springs as soon as possible. Most of the vehicles we had seen the night before had vacated the Wapiti campground that morning which left things very quiet and peaceful. Having arrived in the dark, seeing the mountains that surrounded us in the light of day was very much a joyous discovery, even though the weather was still quite brisk.

It was probably only 8 or 9 degrees C when we entered the hot springs at Miette, but it was sunny and bright. The pools were fairly busy despite the brisk breezes that swept over us periodically, and we marvelled at the number of different languages we could hear around us - French, Chinese, Korean Romanian, Italian and more I'm sure. What a privilege to have such a place in such a setting within a three-hour drive!

Glory remarked at how puzzled she was as a child when she first visited the springs: it's like a pool, but there is no jumping, diving, splashing or even swimming, really. At 17 though, she is grateful for an opportunity to soak and relax, to give her more petite sister the opportunity to hold her in a way most impractical on dry land.

For my part, I reminded Fenya about how I used to swim about with her on my back, which prompted a reenactment that was a little awkward but still endearing.

Boy, that sun was sure bright though...

It was hard to leave the warmth of the pools but after a couple of hours, we did and then made our way to Maligne Canyon. I hadn't been back since we brought Dad's ashes here in 2012, which was right around the same time of year.

It's a beautiful place no matter when you visit it, which is a big part of why it impacted Dad as much as it did. It's a simple downhill hike down to the fourth bridge (but a grueling ordeal on the return leg for someone who dresses out at over an eighth of a ton and should take more stairs), and before long we stood on the structure where we had bid farewell to my father's mortal components.

Seven years on, and while I don't miss him any less, I can at least recall him without pain most of the time. The bridge is significant, not as a resting place but more as the starting point of a journey that I hope never ends, and that one day I can join him on. Leaning across the edge of the bridge I was struck by what an amazing vista we had selected, but which I had failed to document at the time.

The small waterfall caused by a creek entering the Maligne River made it look as though the water was being generated by the roots of a tree tenaciously clinging onto the rocky ledge overhanging it.

We stood there for quite a while, not saying much, reassured by hand squeezes and arms across shoulders, not feeling that Dad was there, precisely, but definitely feeling he had been, and that was enough.

By the time we exited Maligne Canyon, the sun had begun to set, and it began to cool very quickly. We headed back to the campsite where Fenya and I used the propane firepit and our pie irons to try to put together a dinner of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches while Glory worked on her Biology project in the Bride. The first batch had a high carbon component, but the second batch was far more edible.

After supper, we joined Shari and Dave at their campfire where we shared s'mores, stories and a little whiskey. That night I slept far more soundly than I had the night before, even with more time spent zipped up. Whether this was due to some sense of contentment that had eluded me the night before or simply due to being exhausted, I cannot say.

We broke camp the next day without incident, each successive takedown of the Bride getting a bit smoother and more familiar. Shari and Dave graciously provided us with a big breakfast of Mexican eggs, and all too soon we found ourselves back at home.

Remembering Dave's observation about thinking of the trailer as a big wheelbarrow, I tried backing the trailer onto our lawn in preparation for its winter internment on the patio. In the past, we've had to lift and push it all the way from the alleyway, an exhausting and potentially dangerous maneuver that my brilliant daughters have never shied away from. This time though, I was able to get it all the way to the edge of the garage, leaving only a 90-degree turn and about 12 feet of pushing to do.

Some things stay the same while others grow and change, often in unexpected ways - this seems to be the enduring message of this late-season expedition to the mountains. I hope we can do it again next year.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Delain, Live with Anneke van Giersbergen and Amorphis

I'd seen Delain on two previous occasions as openers for Sonata Arctica and Nightwish, but missed them ont heir first headlining tour as they hit Edmonton during G&G last year. When I heard they were coming to the Starlite Room in October of this year, I was pretty excited, and the two new singles, "Masters of Destiny" and "Burning Bridges" (released just last week) did nothing to abate this.

So Fenya and I headed out to see these Dutch headbangers, along with two openers we'd never listened to. Her boyfriend Bobby joined us, dutifully taking notes for the same world music class Fenya had taken two years ago. Each student is required to visit a type of performance they'd bever seen before and then report back, and you could do worse for a power metal show than a band whose lead vocalist also has her masters in women's studies and has done papers on black woman s-f author Octavia Butler.

But first we got to encounter Anneke van Giersbergen. Anneke has been around metal and metal-adjacent acts for years(like Ayreon and The Gathering), and has recorded solo albums under her own name (and also as Agua de Annique) that rock fairly hard, but on this tour she is performing a stripped-down acoustic set.

She covers both her own material, her numerous collaborations and a few favourite covers, but what you need to know about Anneke is a) she has a tremendous voice and b) is completely adorable.

"I wrote this song 19 yeara ago," she said at one point, "which means I'm ... 30?" Pausing for the chuckles from the crowd, she said, "I was very young ... " (She certainly doesn't look the 46 Wikipedia claims she is.)

At one point, she said she wanted to play something a bit more uptempo, knowing a metal outfit was taking the stage immediately after her. Anneke confessed she only had two fast songs in her repertoire: one by Kiss and the other by Dolly Parton. She put the choice to the crowd as was delighted to hear a pronounced preference for The Smoky Mountain Songbird, and was grinning as the crowd of headbangers (and the three of us) joined in for a throaty chorus of "Jolene."

When Finland's Amorphis took the stage, I was pleased to hear a keyboard-heavy intro that bordered on the psychedelic prog rock my friend Dave and his brother exposed me to in my high school years. The crunchy guitars that followed were intricate and non-dissonant, but then lead singer Tomi Joutsen unleashed a deep, resonant and sustained death growl which you felt at least as much as you heard. Now, I like vocals and melody too much to be a fan of this vocal styling, but there is no mistaking its power and energy, especially live, where it had a literally visceral impact.

Astonishingly though, he switched effortlessly to clear baritone singing for the chorus, and Fenya and I shot each other a surprised look. Joutsen is no Andrea Boccelli, but his singing voice is quite solid, connects emotionally to his material and lets him provide his own counterpoint to the growls in his toolkit.

Best of all, they called Anneke back on stage to sing on "Amongst Stars," as she does on their latest album, Queen of Time. It's a brilliant duet in the classic power metal tradition, and van Giersbergen provides the very model of a soaring chorus.
The light will lure youTo lands forged by demiseTo the shores of deathThe blooming meadowsSeduce and intoxicateWith a deceiving scent
Follow the thread of goldDrift on its tideIt's a path of starsRide on the golden streamAnd break the wavesIn a trail of stars

I downloaded the album via Google Play because of this and am enjoying it way more than I anticipated.

At last Delain took the stage, but not without their own challenges. Rhythm guitarist Merel Bechtold left the band amicably in June to do her own thing, and drummer Joey de Boer had visa issues that prevented him coming to North America, so Amorphis drummer Jan Rechberger has been playing for both bands throughout this tour, a stunning display of endurance.

Lead singer Charlotte Wessels is one of Fenya's favourite vocalists, period, which surprises some people, what with Fenya being a self-described vocals snob, but she is the whole package: resonance, projection, energy, range and enough power to push a train.

The Thursday night crowd felt a little small to me, and in truth, I think more people might have come for Amorphis, but that didn't stop Wessels from engaging the crowd and keeping them on their toes, bouncing through high-energy numbers like "Fire with Fire" and "Suckerpunch." Best of all I finally got to hear "Stardust" live for the very first time before Delain wrapped up with the brilliant anti-bullying song "We Are the Others."

There were no encores, but it was a school night so that wasn't a tremendous disappointment for my young companions. For my part, I can't tell you what I enjoyed more: hearing one of my favourite bands live for the third time or discovering two new performers with rich discographies I am keen to explore. All in all, an excellent evening of musical boundary-widening!