Saturday, May 30, 2009

Invisible Face-Melting Rock Frenzy

Last night I witnessed the majesty of the spectacle that is the US Air Guitar Championship. My compatriots and I braved rush hour traffic and torrential downpours in our arduous trek from Frederick to Baltimore and finally to the 930 Club in DC. The heavens erupted with a terrible fury but we were not to be deterred.

If you are unfamiliar with the US Air Guitar Championship, or are simply skeptical that something so outrageous could actually exist, I direct you to their website: The US Air Guitar Championships

It is rock that you cannot see. But it's also so much more. It's a whole lifestyle. Honestly, it would not work at all if people didn't get into it as much as they did. It is the commitment and enthusiasm of the crowd, the promoters, the judges, and of course, the contestants that transforms air guitar from a bunch of clowns running around a stage flailing their arms into a legitimate performance. Everyone is so campy and so self-aware of how goofy the entire concept is that you can't help but love it. It's the spirit of the American people.

The proceedings are administered by long-time veteran of air guitar, Bjorn Toroque, or as I have dubbed him, MC Frodo. I don't feel the need to explain that nickname. Anyway, he is brazen, obnoxious, generally drunk the whole time, and highly entertaining. Actually, that basically describes the judges as well. One was a staff writer from the New York Times, so out of place yet somehow fitting. The second, a woman who is also a Captain, was kind of a slut - or at least that was her schtick. The third was Hot Lixx Hulahan, last year's World Air Guitar Champion. Yeah, I forgot to mention that - the winner of the US Finals gets to compete at the World Championship in Finland. Finns are really into air guitar, apparently.

Performers are judged on three things: Technical Proficiency, Stage Presence, and the elusive third factor known as "Airness." So, basically, you are graded on an Olympic figure scating scale (4.0 - 6.0) based on how closely what you're doing resembles guitar playing, how well you own the stage and the crowd, and how cool/rediculous you look doing it.

In the first round, all performers get 1 minute to perform a routine to a song of their choosing. My good friend Colin was among these performers, and I thought he actually did a really solid job performing to The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." The first round is where the most rediculous performances are seen. One guy was carried on stage in a giant cardboard amp which he thusly burst out of. One guy rode out on a tricycle. The costumes were flamboyant and outrageous. The performers are alternately lauded and rediculed. The comments were witty, scathing, and sometimes downright obscene. MC Frodo and the judges were in top form.

In the second round, the top 5 performers (based on score) perform a routine to a mandatory song that none of them have heard beforehand. The mandatory song this time was an oddly-done edit of "Carry on My Wayward Son." The performers who made it to the second round were: Johnny Dangerously, Shreddy Boop (the only female performer), Mitt Umlaut, Tommy Fretless, and crowd favorites Sanjar the Destroyer (STD) and veteran The Shred (easily the oldest performer in his 40s). STD and The Shred put on such a dazzling display of airness that they were tied for first and an air-off was called for. This time, the two of them performed to an edit of Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time" and kicked even more ass than before. It amazes me that even in their third performance of the night both contestants were still able to keep things fresh and exciting for the crowd.

The unbelievable happened. The judges could not agree who was the winner. They implored the crowd to decide, but it was impossible to determine who the crowd was cheering for louder. Between the chanting of "STD! STD!" and what seemed to be The Shred's entire immediate and extended family in the audience, the judges could not decide. They convened privately. The tension was thick and palpable. Sweat was flowing as freely as the beer. The judges announced their decision. In an unprecedented move in air guitar history, both STD and The Shred were announced the winners, and both will return to DC for the US Finals. Then the crowd bum rushed the stage and nearly broke the damn thing as "Freebird" blasted away.

I'm considering competing in DC next year. You have to be at least 21 to compete since it's sort of an unspoken rule that everyone who competes is fairly plastered. Hell, the US Air Guitar Championship is almost always sponsored by some sort of alcohol producer. By his own admission, MC Frodo is usually drunk throughout the entire evening.

I advise anyone who can manage to go to the US Finals being held back at the 930 club in DC. It will be the epic of the epic. Good luck and God speed to Colin, Sean, and Rocky who are performing at the regional championship in Philly tonight.

"US Air Guitar Championships: 25 Cities. 1 Winner. 0 Guitars."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Playing Music For Money

I've been a member of a Jimmy Buffett cover band (Mark and da Sharks) for about a year now, and it has definitely shaped how I view music. We play half Buffett, 30% classic rock, 20% country. It's not the most musically satisfying endeavour of my career, but usually we only play with Yo Yo Ma once. Being a fairly decent steelpan player (at least in my mind), I have a pretty secure spot in the band, as my trade is not widespread yet. Such is not the case for bassists and guitarists. I've seen 3 of these types get thrown out in a year. Three. Three grown men, thrown out of a band that averages 500 bucks a night. Why?


Fuck money.

We picked up an old Jimmy Buffett song this year, called "Playing Music for Money" and it sort of outlines how I look at music. Maybe I'm just young and naive to the whole industry, but like he states, if he's out to turn the people on, who's turning on him? Good point, Jimmy. I play what I like to play. I write music that I like. Early on Saturday, when we played at the Wild Duck Cafe in Essex, MD, some guy yelled out: "Could you guys play some real music?" My response was simple. I kept playing real music. I kept playing the set lst with the rest of the guys, and we played it well. I mean, Buffett's not quite what I'd call the most smashing musical genius ever, but it's fun and people can get into it. I like to play it, it's easy and when I'm soloing, I can really shape things to fit a more chaotic and bluesy style that Buffett, Chesney, Denver, and the Beatles don't usually have. One guy doesn't like it? Too bad, 5 guys do (That would be us on stage) and I can guarantee that the crowd who is cheering likes it, too.

Back to my point. Money. It ruins music. Our past two long-term bass players, Tim Roberts and Jaime Sanchez, were great men. Absolutely the coolest dudes. They were both somewhere around 50 and met me when I had just turned 19 and accepted me for what I was... another musician. They were both supportive of my playing and I loved being in a band with them. The bond I felt with Tim still hasn't been matched since he left back in July of 2008. Jaime just left the band today. Thrown out by the lead man, Mark... because of money.

The two guitarists who I've been with, Mark Magee and Frank Winterling are also cool dudes. Mark's a great band marketer, and Frank has an amazing friendly quality to him. He, Tim and Jaime have all felt like uncles to me. I can have some beers and talk to them about our lives, and the fact that 26 years stand between myself and them doesn't matter. That's cool. But when money comes to the table, things get nasty. People start bickering and arguing over who should get what cut of the money for this and that and blah blah blah. I don't care about the damn money, I still work, so 120 dollars isn't going to make or break me.

It amazes me how much grown men argue. I'm 20 years old, and I have some friends who get whiney over silly stuff, but these guys go at it and they're 45-55 years old. The leader of the band, Mark, likes things his way, which is not always well-received. I myself disagree with his decisions sometimes, but mostly regarding which songs to do. I don't say much about it though. It's his band, he just pays me to play. It's my band, too, I guess, deep down, but it's his project. That's a good way to say it. His project, our band.

My main concern is what music we play. I want to play well. If I get payed, sweet. I have fun though, whether we're playing as a favor, for 200, or for our 1000 dolar gig we had. It doesn't change the fact that we are a BAND not a BUSINESS. We play MUSIC, not make MONEY. That's the whole fricken problem with things in music. People get caught up in cash and it just sucks. At the gig at WDC on Saturday, things were getting turbulent and tensions were mounting, so I was a little down about the attitudes getting thrown around. This is the part where I go ahead and take my place as "just a kid" and don't get involved. After much bickering, Frank walks over to me and shakes his head. I ask what's the issue, and he responds, "Money. We're a real band, now... Bickering and arguing with each other."

That's the problem. In my youthful naivety, I thought a band was a group of friends who played music, when in reality it's a group of associates who like to play cutthroat to get the most cash possible. Drastic as that accusation sounds, that's how it feels.

When the smoke clears and the Sharks continue our Summer '09 tour around MD, I hope that we all realize somewhere that money isn't everything.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Album Review: The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists

I'd like to try my hand at music reviewing, so I think I'll start with an album I acquired recently: the newest release from one of my favorite not-quite-so-indie-anymore bands The Decemberists. The Hazards of Love may be their most ambitious album yet. Similar to their last album, The Crane Wife, The Decemberists have a story to tell on this one - albeit one far more convoluted. To quote the Rolling Stones review, it's "a tale of a maiden knocked up by a shape–shifting beast who may be her future husband. There's also a psychotic queen and three revenge–seeking ghost kids." The Hazards of Love is actually the name of an EP from 1966 by English folk-singer Anniee Briggs. Frontman Colin Meloy wanted to use the title as the name of a song, which developed into a 17-song suite about shapeshifters, cunning rakes, and treacherous fairies. All the songs flow together, starting with the gradual buildup of "Prelude" which seques directly into "The Hazards of Love 1", which sets up the rest of the album with a lush, somewhat melodramatic ballad typical of The Decemberists.

The intensity continues to build as this song moves into "A Bower Scene", which features a motif that reminds me of the guitar riff in the song "Transatlanticism" by Death Cab for Cutie, which gets swallowed up by an oppressive wall of distortion several times in the song.

The next track, "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)" opens with a nice bluesy riff before introducing the first of several guest vocalists who contribute to this album. Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond provides the voice of Margaret with her lilting, ethereal vocals. She performs a duet with Meloy on "Isn't It a Lovely Night?"

To me, the stand-out song on this album is "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid". After a few minutes of Colin Meloy accompanied on mandolin, the gloves come off and a simplistic yet badass guitar riff introduces the Queen. The Queen is voiced by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Worden might be my new favorite female singer. She has a commanding, powerful voice which she utilises as the spiteful Queen to full effect. I checked out some of her songs with her band and they are quite good. Check out her cover of the song "Feeling Good" as well.

This album is overall more bombastic and dynamic than their previous efforts. The Decemberists seem to have adopted a greater desire to rock the fuck out. More guitars, more distortion, more everything. "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing" is practically coated in sludge, the screeching, frantic wah-wah solo is blistering and fierce, and Shara Worden is downright intimidating. There's even an organ solo.

After this, the album begins to draw towards its conclusion, but not before a reprise of the theme from "The Wanting Comes in Waves" and a choir of ghostly children, something that might be out of place elsewhere but not on a Decemberists album. After the riffage that gets unleashed in the middle of the album, the end descends back to earth with a more pensive, melancholy closer featuring some nice pedal steel guitar. In general, the flow of the album is similar to that of "The Tain", just vastly expanded.

In summary, The Hazards of Love is not likely to bring any new fans into the fold. Those who already wrote The Decemberists off as pretentious or just plain nerdy are not about to be proved wrong here. However, if you're already a fan, you'll find this album highly rewarding. It's everything you already expect from the band - highly literate lyrics, colorful instrumentation, and a general affection for all things theatrical - plus more metal sensibilities and some great guest vocalists. Don't worry about following the plot, I didn't even try.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

More Poetry, part 2

And here's the rest of them:

The Last Words I Shall Ever Write
Flickering faintly,
The cursor seems insistent, impatient;
Urging me to finish what I started
Some weeks ago when I was drunk.
But I fear I cannot indulge it,
For whatever it was that seized me
Now spurns me.
It was ephemeral, I fear, passing and never to return.
I don't know what else to add after
"These are the last words I shall ever write."

The Watcher
Suspended in time
By an infinitely thin thread of fate
In deepest darkness
Where unearthly denizens wait
Exists one man
Shrouded in somber haze
The knowledge of the universe
Reflected in his gaze.

The lights of a billion stars
Are but dust motes in his eyes.
Where this lonely stranger looks
A planet shrivels and dies.
His voice is naught but discord,
And his touch is atrophy;
His thoughts are swirling chaos
And his words catastrophe.

In the dark beyond the world
One man there holds sway.
He looks boldly into the abyss
And the abyss...looks away.

The House of Temptation
All across this lively nation
People are flocking to the House of Temptation,
Where the beer runs in rivers and the music is loud.
There are dancers on the ceiling and the band is on a cloud.
We promise you can always get your fix from dusk to dawn.
No matter the hour, the party's always on.

Welcome to the House of Temptation!
Welcome to the place where anything can happen, and it always does.
Step on in, hang up your coat, because
Whatever your price,
We've got the vice,
And everything is on the House.

Tell me, tell me, what's your poison?
I promise that we've got it here.
We've no debutantes in ballroom dresses
Faces icy and so austere.
We've got people dressed like pirates,
Silver robot suits,
Wild things in shimmering silk
With neon purple roots.
Glass reveals the mermaids swimming underneath the floor.
Go ahead and take your fill there's always room for more.

The drum machine's thumping, it is shaking the roof.
And even the water tastes at least eighty proof.
And the laser light show is pulsing in your eyes,
And you've only started dancing before you realize
You've lost your shirt, and your pants will soon follow.
The floor's disappeared and your head feels hollow.
Golden statues are crying diamond tears
And you're laughing, swinging from the chandelier.

The prince of parties greets his guests here each and every night.
We're a little slice of heaven and the price is always right.
Costumes and camaraderie, it's such a lovely sight.
We're a place where fantasies spread their wings in flight.
We're purveyors of every sinful sensation.
Have a good time, you need no invitation.
Just get your ticket at the door and you'll get your elation
At the wildest place around, at the House of Temptation.

More Poetry

Here's a bunch more poems I wrote, I actually posted them on my Facebook page a while ago but I thought I'd share them here as well.

The Taste of Winters Past

Always on your lips, the taste of winters past
And a girl who threw a snowball, tossed her hair, and laughed.
Where a cruel wind's fingers were stabbing at your skin
And the cracks were slowly spreading where the ice was getting thin
It was cold and white, but you were warm and flushed.
The time grew short, the day seemed rushed.
She left with a smile, without leaving her name,
And you were content to do the same.

And now that taste you can't define,
But you let it linger like expensive wine.
But what's a name worth anyway?
You'll always remember how you felt that day.
And all things considered, it stands to reason
That winter is your favorite season.

A Conversation With an Elderly Gentleman

Listening to him speak
Is like dredging a river
Filled with silt and debris
For a single nugget of gold.
I pick it up, polish it off,
To reveal a single point
Or some meaning
That would have otherwise escaped me.
As he talks,
The river meanders
On a lazy course
Off into the distance.
The river knows not where it flows,
Only that it has a long way to go.
If you're careful, you can wade across to safety.

Not a Hero

Well I hope that I
Don't get sent away to die
In some distant land
Whose name I can't

I won't be part of the crusade.
Don't need no homecoming parade.
I won't lead the charge.
I won't leap into the fray.
I'm a coward,
I'm a bastard,
But I'll live another day.

I'll drink to those young men who've died.
I won't swallow lies, but I'll swallow pride.
I'll be home and safe and sound,
Not buried six feet underground.

I'd rather hide my eyes in shame
From patriots who curse my name
Then bear the scars of another's fight
And dream of slaughter every night.

Don't pin that medal to my chest.
Don't drape my coffin with that flag.
Don't salute me, don't pollute me,
Don't carve my name on a metal tag.

If I won't die for my own country,
How can you expect me to die for someone else's?

Read My Shit!

For the second weekend in a row, AEPi completely failed at life. Formal went about as well as can be expected considering I completely fucked up and caused us to almost not have one at all. The family bbq today was just embarrassing, though. There was a grand total of five people in attendance...we immediately said screw it and just went home with about $60 worth of unused bbq supplies.

I don't really care that much though. We're so close to being done that nothing really seems to matter other than finishing the semester with decent grades. I basically gave up on actually doing my last assembly project and simply typed what I thought would be enough code to at least get my a 70. Most likely I'll get something even lower. I think I'll be fine though as long as I get at least an 80 on the final.

The only thing I really wanted to talk about in this post was my new "job" writing for the Baltimore Examiner. So far I've made $0.69 as you get paid by the number of page views. I am the UMBC Examiner, a topic that I'm not entirely sure I still want to write about. I applied to be an Examiner two months ago and noticed that under "Education & Schools" there were Examiners for UMD, Johns Hopkins, and Loyala but not one for UMBC even though the school is only 15 minutes from downtown Baltimore. I saw you could "Suggest a Topic" and so I submitted a convincing argument for why there should be a UMBC Examiner and that Examiner should be me.

Finally, after I'd forgotten about it, the people at the Examiner sent me an email two weeks ago saying they wanted me to write for them about UMBC. I went ahead and accepted the offer and have written two articles so far. I'll probably write another one today. I'm not sure exactly what my role as an Examiner is going to be. I mean, I don't exactly love the school so I'm not going to write a bunch of articles trying to convince people that UMBC is the best college ever. I do still feel that UMBC is an interesting enough environment to warrant being Examined. I plan on writing articles giving advice to current students on how to make the best of being a student here.

My first article was a list of 10 important lessons I've learned at UMBC. My second was about the trials and tribulations of planning a big event. My third will probably be about Library Media. After that, I'm open to suggestions. It figures that I would start writing about school just as the semester is ending, which means I'm just going to get shitcanned anyway since I'm not going to have anything to write about over the summer.

At any rate, I urge you all to visit my Examiner page and read my articles. Also, please leave comments and refresh the page about a 1000 times. And click my links as well. Anything to get more nickels and dimes.

Link to my page:

UMBC Examiner

The Mercurial Champion

I looked back and read my last post, and already it just seems whiny and depressing. So I thought I'd compensate for that lame entry by sharing a poem I just wrote. I think it's pretty good.

"The Mercurial Champion"

There's a place in my pocket where the money's gone thin
But sometimes even a born loser's gotta win.
And I've only one chance to scratch the sky
So let the slings and arrows of my enemies fly.

Can't forgive ya, sweet Virginia,
Never would have thought that you had it in ya.
You spoke your mind and you stole my heart
But you flew of the handle when I fell apart.

Heaven sent on a speeding train
Sitting here stuck trying to write the refrain.
Got nothing but a pen and a pad of scratch
And the flickering flame on the end of a match.

Do you think when I make it anyone will care
About the wind and the rain and the dust in my hair?
I made more selling rocks on the South Street docks.
These fools only listen when it's the money that talks.

Sage-like advice, it comes at a price
Sins of the city, how they love to entice.
Pages and pages of words for the ages
Written by men who make minimum wages.

I used to be one of those unfortunate souls
Entrapped by pretty eyes staring back from black holes.
I let the women in my life just run me aground.
They talk and they talk but they don't make a sound.

Now I'm a writer and a new-age fighter
In one hand a pen and in the other a lighter.
Inscribed on the walls left unscathed by the fire:
A mission statement for my fledgling empire.

Lived like a bandit and died like a king
Mourned by the masses, in the streets they will sing.
Composed my own anthem and waged my own war
Collected the debts and I settled the score.

There's a place in my pocket where the money's gone thin
But sometimes even a born loser's gotta win.
And I've only one chance to scratch the sky
So let the slings and arrows of my enemies fly.

Guitar Talk

Here are three ideas for band names I came up with:

1. The Quick and the Dead
2. In Vesuvius' Shadow
3. Myth

I have every intention of forming a band. I'm at the point now where I really want to play with people. I've been playing guitar for about a year and a half now and can at least play well enough to be a competent rhythm guitarist. I also have a lot of lyrics I've written saved on my computer as well as the first 30 to 40 measures or so of various songs I've written using Guitar Pro of all things. It's not exactly a great tool for songwriting, but it's quite useful for a guitar player and it does provide the minimum of features necessary to write music with a variety of instrumentation.

In addition to more talent, I also need more equipment if I ever want to be at the point where I could perform with a band. The only guitar I own is my Ephipone Les Paul Studio, which I purchased for $100 less than the sticker price because it was chipped in a few places.

Mine's the one on the bottom.

And the amp.

I play through a Roland Cube 20x amp, which is fantastic as a practice amp but obviously limited in its use outside my bedroom. That's the extent of my equipment. Currently I'm debating whether I should purchase a nice acoustic guitar or buy some pedals and such for my electric; most likely I'd get an acoustic. I tested out the Epiphone Masterbilt AJ-500RE at Bill's Music in Catonsville and it was easily my favorite of the the acoustics that I tried. It's also $700, so it'll be a while until I can afford it. Still I'd much rather save up more money to get a guitar I really like than to settle for a cheaper one.

It's not that fancy looking, but it sounds fantastic.

I wish I had started playing guitar when I was much younger and taken actual lessons, rather than started teaching myself at the age of 19. I've gotten much more enjoyment out of playing guitar for a year and a half than I did from playing trumpet for six years. I guess I always sort of dismissed the idea of playing guitar because so many people do, but I suppose there is a reason it's so popular. I've found that it's starting to replace video games as my destressor activity. Honestly, even if I'm just sitting at my desk waiting for my computer to boot up, I'll pick up my guitar and start playing.

If anyone has any suggestions for acoustic guitars I should look at, or what my next step should be to augment my electric guitar playing, please share them. At first I felt like a bit of a poser for waiting so long to start playing, but any time's a good time to start, and I've really gotten into it. Not only is it fun and relaxing, but it's helped rekindle my excitement for music after being in high school band for four years pretty much crushed it. And that right there is a powerful thing.

Top Fives

Thought I'd share my top 5 favorites in various categories. Here we go:

Top 5 Bands:
1. Yes - they made "Close to the Edge"
2. Genesis - Peter Gabriel-era only
3. King Crimson - listen to "Epitaph" or "Starless" and you'll see why
4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer - listen to "Tarkus"
5. Rush - they just kick a lot of ass

Top 5 Guitar Players:
1. Steve Vai - He made "For the Love of God"
2. Joe Satriani - He looks badass when he plays and he taught Steve Vai how to play
3. Al Di Meola - probably one of if not the most technically proficient guitar players ever
4. Buckethead - he may be really weird, but god damn can he play
5. Steve Hackett - for his solo on "Firth of Fifth"

Top 5 Bass Players
1. Stanley Clarke - I saw him perform with Return to Forever and he was fucking awesome
2. Victor Wooten - just check out his videos on Youtube
3. Les Claypool - also slaps bass like a mofo
4. Jaco Pastorius - really great jazz player
5. Geddy Lee - I know people tend to pay attention to his screechy voice more, but he really is a great bass player

Top 5 Singers
1. Greg Lake - I would make love to his voice if I could
2. Peter Hamill - of Van der Graaf Generator, his wildly theatrical singing style is captivating
3. Peter Gabriel - one of those singers that is widely emulated
4. Roine Stolt - of The Flower Kings, sings with two different styles that are equally great
5. Mikael Akerfeldt - of Opeth, you wouldn't know it from the death growling, but his "clean" vocals are just beautiful

Top 5 Drummers:
1. Neal Peart - of Rush, just look at the size of his stage setup
2. Bill Bruford - played with Yes, King Crimson, and many others
3. Billy Cobham - his drumming with Mahavishnu Orchestra sounds like a machine gun
4. Carl Palmer - of Emerson Lake and Palmer
5. John Bonham - of Led Zeppelin, listen to the solo on "Moby Dick"

Okay, that's enough music related ones.

Top 5 Movies:
1. Pulp Fiction - Samuel L. Motherfuckin' Jackson, need I say more?
2. Dark City - crazy sci-fi movie strikingly similar in theme to the Matrix...but it came out a year earlier
3. Fight Club - first rule of Fight Club...
4. Clerks - "37? In a row?"
5. Beerfest - yeah , it's not exactly high brow entertainment, but it is hilarious

Top 5 TV Shows:
1. Lost - I've already said enough about this one
2. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - so stupid, it's genius
3. 30 Rock - Tracy Morgan mainly, but everyone on this show is fantastic
4. Venture Bros. - I want to be Brock Samson
5. Entourage - scratch that, I want to be these guys

Top 5 Books:
1. The Dark Tower (series) - these books almost make want to get a guns and roses tattoo
2. A Song of Ice and Fire (series) - probably the most well-written fantasy books I've read, it's high fantasy for people who don't really care about magic and monsters
3. American Gods - a fantastic blend of folklore, mythology, and Neil Gaiman's genius, I really want to see this turned into a movie
4. The Stand - Stephen King is on here twice because he's that good - the Stand may be long, but this post-apocalyptic tale is definitely worth it
5. The Diamond Age - Neal Stephenson is currently my favorite author because of his ability to make technical things interesting and his witty, amusing writing style

Top 5 Webcomics:
1. Achewood - I've never seen anyone write dialogue quite the way Chris Onstad - he's either brilliant or just crazy
2. Dr. McNinja - it's about a doctor who's also a ninja
3. XKCD - the quintessential nerd comic
4. Questionable Content - the closest I'll ever get to watching a soap opera, plus Jeph Jacques has helped me discover quite a few great bands
5. Penny Arcade - often imitated, but never surpassed, the ultimate video game webcomic

Top 5 Video Games:
1. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - it's almost like a single player MMORPG, I've never put so much time into a game as I have into this one
2. Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan) - is and will always be superior to Final Fantasy VII; Sephiroth can go suck a preposterously long dick
3. Chrono Trigger - unique for its cast of characters, time traveling theme, and rediculous number of endings
4. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - tons of replay value, I was disappointed when GTA IV took out all the wacky shit like the jetpack, jet, RC cars, etc.
5. God of War - easily the most fun action game I've ever played, it put quick time button pressing on the map

Alright, that's enough for now. Maybe I'll do a follow-up post some time with some more of my favorite things. I encourage people to respond with their own Top 5's.

Obligatory Post about Music

It turns out the library is open on Easter. As you might expect, the place is even more empty than it normally is on a Sunday afternoon. Empty except for me, that is. And so, as promised in my last post, I shall explain why I have excellent taste in music.

Somewhere between the beginning and the end of high school I became very passionate about music. My collection expanded and so did my preferences. I formed a great many opinions on the subject and have become something of a snob when it comes to analyzing the musical interests of others. In particular, I am fascinated by the trends of so-called "popular music." I use that term somewhat disdainfully not because I inherently resent pop music, but because in today's society there really isn't a genre that has a dominant stranglehold on the industry - the same holds true for other aspects of popular culture like tv, movies, and books. I will proceed on that note.

Actually, before I make any more detailed analysis, let me start by saying that there is one group of people that annoy me more than those with bad taste in music, and that is people with no taste in music whatsoever. These might be people who say they don't really listen to music, but that's kind of a rare thing to find. What I am referring to here are the people who say they like "everything." If what I am about to say here offends anyone, well...I don't really care. There are a lot of people who say this, and it really bugs me. For one thing, you don't really listen to "everything" - you listen to what is popular or trendy. Do you listen to acid jazz? Do you listen to experimental alternative polka? Do you listen to the folk dances of the indigenous Maori tribes? No? Then you don't listen to everything. And neither do I. It would be virtually impossible to digest every single form of music there is in the world. But more importantly, when you form an opinion on something, you evolve from just being a consumer to being a participant. You have an influence simply by saying "this is good and this is bad and here's why." When you complacently listen to music without forming any sort of reaction to it, you contribute absolutely nothing. Criticism is what drives art and keeps it from stagnating.

So, with that out of the way, on to my personal opinions about music.

In general, I would identify three major categories into which music can be placed: Good music, Bad music, and Acceptable music. You should note that none of these categories imply a specific genre. Every genre of music has its share of good and bad. Some just have a lot more bad than good. For example, Country music. I'm sure there are good country songs, I just haven't heard any. To be honest, country music down right offends me. I'd be hard-pressed to think of another genre of music so seemingly devoid of innovation, variety, or creativity. Country singers just scream "corporate lackey" to me - their very image is a brand. It's marketed directly to people who just want to be told what to listen to without having to think about it. It embraces the lowest common denominator by churning out song after song about the same themes, with the same sound, sung by the same voice. Every other genre attemps to change and evolve, but country music goes absolutely nowhere.

Since I'm already ranting here, I might as well explain what constitutes Bad music. Obviously, I think country music is Bad. Bad music does nothing to innovate. Bad music makes no attempt to challenge the listener. Bad music makes no effort to write lyrics that are decent or even interesting. Bad music promotes the image of the artists more than the actual music itself. It saddens me image has become so tied up with pop music. I don't care if an artist is ugly as sin and can barely dress himself, if he makes great music than he deserves fame and money far more than someone who distracts his audiences from how terrible his music is by decking himself out in gold chains and pouring Cristal on a half-naked woman.

Bad music is also any music that attemps to capitalize on a particular trend or time period. Music that imitates what is popular at the moment does not age well. As a rule of thumb, if a song goes from being popular to practically unlistenable in the span of only a few years, it's probably not that good a song. By this logic, I would say that most of the music of the 80s is Bad. The bands of the 80s were all about image, they all copied each other, and they have not aged well at all. Also, I tend to look down on artists who emulate icons to the point where it's impossible to identify them by anything unique. For a very specific example, look at the influence of Peter Gabriel. Peter Gabriel has such a distinctive voice and persona that he has been widely imitated in the progressive rock world. The bands Arena, IQ, and Marillion all have lead singers who attempt to sing exactly like him. Marillion is the biggest offender - their singer, the inexplicably named Fish, is so similar it's scary. Here are two videos for comparison:

Genesis - The Musical Box

Marillion - Garden Party

You'll notice that not only does Fish sound like Gabriel, but he also performs like him - notice the stage makeup, the theatricality, and even the little hand motions he makes when he sings. This fact is even more noticeable considering that Fish talks with an incredibly thick Scottish accent. To be fair, "Garden Party" is a pretty good song in its own right, but "The Musical Box" is easily the better of the two. I guess it's a bit ironic that I showed videos of songs that I like in the section about Bad music, but whatever. Alright, so here's an example of what I consider to be a bad song.

Kid Rock - All Summer Long

Here's another:

Steve Miller Band - Take the Money and Run

(That one might earn me some hate. I don't care; I fucking hate Steve Miller Band. Especially "The Joker." His lyrics and his singing are just so obnoxious.)

In the middle, we have Acceptable music. Acceptable music is nice to listen to, but there's nothing terribly exciting about it. A lot of popular music falls into this category as well. There's nothing wrong with Acceptable music. It's basically music that anyone can enjoy. For example, the Beatles would be the epitome of this. I don't know anyone who outright hates The Beatles, but I also can't think of anyone I know who says The Beatles are their favorite band. Beatles songs are pleasing to listen to, but I don't get enthusiastic about them. It's more like, "Nice, The Beatles" rather than "FUCK YES! The Beatles!!!" There really isn't a whole lot I can say about this category. It's pretty good, but not extraordinary. I don't need to share any examples for this one.

So at this point, I've pretty much clarified what makes Good music by detailing what it's not, but I'll go ahead and spell it out. Normally, the thing that differentiates Good music from Bad music is talent. Talented musicians generally make better music than ones without talent. This isn't always the case however: Yngwie Malmsteen is an incredibly skilled guitar player, but his music sucks. It's overblown and self-indulgent, a problem that sometimes afflicts musicians who just might be too talented for their own good.

Good music, truly good music, is music that challenges the listener. What do I mean by "challenges?" A really challenging and interesting song may take several listens before you notice everything that it has to offer. It may be music that you don't initially like at first but then grow to appreciate how amazing it is. Genesis was like that for me. Basically, progressive rock represents Good music to me. I'll save the explanation of what progressive rock is for another post, but basically Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson...those are the core bands. Rush to some extent as well. Those are probably my favorite bands right there. The things that separate these bands from less awesome ones are: talent, complexity of the music, and lyrics. While I definitely thing music is far more important than lyrics, truly great lyrics bring an already good song to the next level, while terrible lyrics are distracting even in a song that would otherwise be good. King Crimson's early songs have some of the most beautiful and poetic lyrics I can think of. Here is a perfect example of the power of lyricist Pete Sinfield's writing (and one of my favorite songs ever):

King Crimson - Epitaph

I talk a lot about progressive rock, but I want to dispel the illusion that I only listen to obscure bands from the 70s. I also love indie rock, funk, jazz fusion, and just hard rock in general. Metal is decent every once in a while and sometimes I want to hear the song "Superstar" by Lupe Fiasco or some Notorious B.I.G. Indie rock is my second favorite genre. Here are two of my favorite songs by indie (well arguably less so now) artists:

The Arcade Fire - Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

The Decemberists - Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect

Unfortunately, I can't post my absolute favorite song ever, "Close to the Edge" by Yes because it's 20 minutes long. At least, I'm not going to be able to find it on Youtube easily. This song represents all that I hold dear about music: crazy talented musicians, interesting lyrics, extended compositions that explore all sorts of musical ideas, and a general refusal to compromise to the standards of radio and popular music in general. This song also has sentimental and nostalgiac value to me as I can remember being a little kid and hearing my dad play it in his office right next to my room. I would lay on my bed and think "What is this strange and beautiful sound?" It wasn't until years later that I could truly appreciate Yes and many of the other bands my dad introduced me to. So I'll close by posting another really great Yes song and urge all of you to try and obtain a copy of "Close to the Edge" somewhere. And finally, start listening to Good music and criticizing Bad music.

Yes - South Side of the Sky

A 'Lost' Cause

Before I move to the topic which has inspired me to form such a terrible pun, I'd like to take a brief moment to give an update on the status of my Decisions-related situation. Put simply, Decisions have been made. I am now a double major in Media and Communication Studies and American Studies. I will be remaining at UMBC for another year in the hopes that this radical shift in my academic goals will also instigate improvement in the other areas of my life. Also, the monster success we achieved with our party last night is particularly inspiring. In general, I would describe my current state as "cautiously optimistic."

Anyway, on to a topic I consider far more important: the serial television drama Lost. In the course of the past two years, I have become a dedicated Lost fan. Well, maybe not "dedicated," but at least "committed." Which, incidentally, is what I should probably be for professing my loyalty to a show that even die-hards would agree is "bat-shit insane." Lost is an incredibly polarizing show. It is discussed with an equal mixture of intense devotion and intense disdain. I happen to be firmly in the camp of the supporters, and thus I am going to subject you all to my own personal take on the Lost universe.

Even the most cursory summary of the plot will quickly necessitate a lengthy explanation of the motivations and relationships of a frankly rediculous number of characters. As anyone who has read Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time can testify to, filling your story with a fucking phone book's worth of characters is a massive pain in the ass for your average reader. It is some small consolation that at least the creators of Lost are willing to some extent to kill characters off. I've always been a proponent of killing off crucial characters; it makes for some wacky plot twists (and by extension, entertaining television) and really fucks with the viewers' heads. George R. R. Martin, writer of the Song of Ice and Fire series (which is purportedly being adapted for TV by HBO), is an expert at this game of bait and switch. Although it makes it kind of difficult to get attached to any of the characters, the fact that Martin is fully willing to kill off anyone regardless of how indispensable to the plot they may seem is one of the things that makes A Song of Ice and Fire my favorite fantasy book series hands-down.

Right, so...Lost. Lost is primarily focused on a group of passengers aboard Oceanic Flight 815 who crash on a mysterious island. This island is henceforth referred to as The Island because it is really a character in its own right. The Island is a powerful and mysterious entity, the product of supernatural forces that defy explanation or control. These forces exhibit unusual effects on the people who encounter it, including but not limited to accelerated miraculous healing, visions of dead people, and an overinflated sense of purpose or destiny. This power has drawn people both intentionally and unintentionally throughout history to The Island. Among these include a secretive and not entirely benign research organization called the Dharma Initiative, a powerful and wealthy Brit by the name of Charles Widmore, and a vaguely cult-like group living on the Island referred to as The Natives, the Others, or the Hostiles depending on who is referring to them. The survivors find themselves entangled with these and other factions as well as the Island itself.

To further complicate matters, the survivors all have their own colorful backgrounds filled with scandal and intrigue which tie them to each other, the Island, and many of the other factions. Nothing in the Lost universe can be taken for granted or accepted at face value. Every episode raises more questions than it answers. It is probably this fact that makes Lost such an easy show to either love or hate. There's no denying it - Lost is confusing. If you miss one episode you're effectively screwed. Watching Lost for any extended period of time cultivates a compulsive need to watch more Lost. Medical professionals are currently researching the prolonged effects of and potential treatment of 'The Lost Effect.'

As a sufferrer of the Lost Effect, it may be difficult for me to fully articulate what it is that makes the show so compelling. Never have I seen another television show that offers its viewers so much to sink their teeth into. There are innumerable mysteries to speculate and theorize over. No matter how much is ever revealed, you always know the writers have only scratched the tip of the iceberg. It makes one wonder if the writers even have answers to the questions they create. Are they making this shit up as they go along or are they really following an over-arching plot with a definitive beginning, middle, and most importantly, end? At this point either option seems entirely possible. I mean, they actually made the current season about time travel. Time travel is probably one of the quickest ways to send a plot into the crapper, but I have to say that this season is one of the most entertaining I've seen since the beginning. It makes my head hurt something fierce to even contemplate for a moment how any of this is supposed to get resolved, but I have faith in the Lost writers. Personally, the only way I can really see to tie off all the loose ends is to drop a nuke on the Island or in some other way completely wreck its shit. Also, they would need to kill off every single character and call the Ghostbusters to get rid of their lingering spirits. I have absolutely zero expectancy, for example, that John Locke will actually stay dead. Everyone knows you have to stake the heart, cut off the head and stuff the mouth with garlic, then put the head and body in separate boxes and throw both boxes into a fast moving river. Wait, maybe that's vampires I'm thinking of...ah well, it never hurts to be safe.
As you can tell, I don't exactly take the Lost mythos very seriously. It's rediculously overblown and hopelessly overcomplicated. There are plenty of laughable aspects of the show, namely the terrible actors who fill out the ranks of The Others and the Dharma Initiative, the cheezy effects, and the seemingly unlimited supply of nameless extras among the survivors despite the fact that there was only a finite number of passengers on the plane to begin with and a good third of those died in the very first episode. Yet week after week I keep watching, hoping to get answers to those questions that plague me: what's with the four-toed statue? Why was there a polar bear? And why the fuck did they have to bring time travel into it? Also, do they ever plan on bringing on more former hobbits as cast members?

If you've never seen Lost, I urge you to at least check it out. It's one of the few reasons I still watch TV. Support A Lost Cause. And bow down to the genius of Damon Lindelof and J. J. Abrams while you're at it.

On Writing, Career Choices, and the Future of the IT Industry

here was a time, I think, when I had a vision of my life that was clear and immutable...the elegance of its simplicity speaks to a certain way of thinking that we lose as we get older. The mind of my childhood self saw only one path for the future. I think I always wanted to be a writer.

To fill pages with my ideas, and for others to be filled by these ideas, and make them their own, seemed to me the most rewarding a career there could be. I've written poems, short stories, screenplays, essays, and countless fragments of novels that now clutter the hard drive of my computer. But it seems the better my writing style becomes, the more difficult it is for me to actually come up with ideas. The only thing I've written lately (besides this blog of course) has been poetry...I can no longer summon the commitment to create anything more substantial. But now that I'm writing on this blog, to which I owe Colin a great deal for convincing me to contribute to, I can sense that old feeling creeping up in me again. It is that feeling that would compel me to spend great amounts of time staring at a screen, letting something that formerly existed only as freeform thought take shape with structure and purpose.

Now I find myself in a far different place. I never would have predicted that I would choose to major in computer science. At what point did I ever really express an interest in this stuff? I don't know, yet here I am. The conflict I seem to be embroiled in - that is, to resolve other people's image of me as the analytical, rational, mathematical type with my internal image of myself as an artist and a creative thinker - from whence does it stem? Do I seek other people's approval too much? I don't think so...honestly I think it just comes down to the fact I like money too much to ever make writing a full-time occupation. I wish I was joking, but honestly the whole starving artist thing is incongruent with my plan for myself. I want a career, not just a hobby.

The question that I have to ask myself then is this: can I really hope to be successful in such a demanding industry when I know it's not 100% what I want to do? Unfortunately, because of my desire to actually have some semblance of a social life, I can't compete with the super-nerds. You know the ones I mean. These are the guys who live and breathe this stuff, the wannabe hackers, the ones who know computers inside and out. They know the subject matter better than I probably ever will, and that's simple truth. I apologize to anyone who may take offense at these statements, but I have to be honest and say that a great deal of the people in my computer science classes match the stereotype spot-on.

So why am I seemingly wasting my time with a major that I'm not sure is for me? The answer is that I believe that the industry is changing, or at least going to change. Computers are becoming advanced enough, or will at least reach the point eventually, that a new type of professional will become necessary. The days of row after row of cubicles filled with mindless code monkeys will vanish, if it hasn't already. The industry will need people with creative minds, who can relate to other people and are not intimidated by human contact, because the focus will no longer be on how to make computers do what we want but rather on what exactly we should be doing with them. I feel that although technology continually improves, innovation has plateaued somewhat. The Internet has created a whole generation of moronic, meme-driven pop culture addicts whose communication skills (especially written) are swiftly going down the toilet.

I wish to stand out from this generation. I wish to change the way we use computers, that the next generation won't be even more cynical and detached than my own. I'd like to at this point recommend that everyone listen to the song "Fear of a Blank Planet" by Porcupine Tree as it pretty much follows my point exactly. We need to cultivate the Internet into a place that favors intelligent people...someone once described television as a "vast wasteland" but I think this description is far more applicable to the Intarwebs. Also, can we please get rid of LOLCats once and for all?

I think I sound really pretentious and condescending right now, but I also think this was something that I needed to tell myself. Ever since I dropped my CMSC 341 class I've been plagued with frustration and self-doubt as to whether I'm in the right major. I literally had the revelation above as I was typing it, and now that I read it I am filled with a renewed confidence. I have criticized myself before for lacking ambition and motivation, and for thinking too small. So I'm going to adjust my career aims somewhat; after all, it's better to aim too high, right? I'm no longer going to focus solely on becoming a game designer (an idea that I've been having second thoughts about recently). Instead, my overall goal now is to someday revitalize the IT industry for the betterment of all society. That sounds a lot more respectable than saying I just want to make video games, doesn't it?

Is it likely that I'll ever rise to such a monumental challenge? Probably not. But at least now I feel like I have a reason to stick with computer science other than the meager promise of a boring but high-paying job sitting in a cubicle that I'll never escape from.

I'll probably keep writing as well.

What's Wrong with TV?

You may be thinking based on the title that I'm going to rant about how TV today is a barren wasteland devoid of anything remotely worth watching. Well, that's true, but guess what - you're wrong...asshole.

No, my rant is going to be almost the complete opposite of that. You see, there's a trend I've noticed among certain people, many with whom I hang out with or otherwise associate with, people who would likely profess to being "intellectual" - a category I would normally include myself in but for the sake of observation will separate myself from for the purpose of this post. I've noticed that such people, in the event that someone begins to discuss a particular television show they happen to have enjoyed recently, will immediately proclaim quite loudly and condescendingly that they "don't watch TV." It is then implied that they are "above" watching TV because it is a pastime reserved solely for the stupid, unwashed masses, not refined individuals like themselves who have much better things to do, like watch clips of people hurting themselves on the Internet.

These may be the same people who insist on making sure everyone knows that they refuse to watch the Superbowl come time of the big game, or even worse, watch it "ironically" and constantly mock it while lamenting the time they are (willingly) wasting. Either way, the mentality is the same. Now, I don't inherently have a problem with the fact that some people just don't watch TV. But, at the same time, I have a personal theory: I think that it is these people who refuse to watch TV because there is nothing on but garbage who at least partially contribute to this assumption being true.

As anyone who does watch enough TV has observed, all the good shows - the ones that actually are witty, original, and have decent writing - invariably get canceled. We're still feeling the fallout from angry fans (such as myself) of Arrested Development. Now the amazing Pushing Daisies is suffering the same fate. There are countless other examples of brilliant shows getting shitcanned. There was a show, I can't even remember how many years ago, called The Knights of Prosperity about a janitor who, along with a team of other weirdos working out of a Jewish supply warehouse, concocts a harebrained scheme to rob Mick Jagger. I thought it was fantastic, and I don't recall if it even made it one season. I'm sure anyone reading this can think of their own personal examples.

The reason that these shows get canceled, even when they are actually award-winning shows like Arrested Development and Pushing Daisies is simply low ratings. There just aren't enough people watching. And here's where my theory comes into play. The reason the ratings are low is that the majority of people watching just don't understand these shows. There are no obnoxious laugh tracks to tell them that what they are watching is indeed humorous. These shows are better appreciated by more intelligent people, or people with a more unusual or unorthodox sense of humor. The people I was complaining about before tend to fall into both of these categories. Unfortunately, they'll never watch these shows because they simply assume that there is nothing good on TV to watch. If they were to instead discard their preconceived notions and actually give television a chance, the shows I love might actually stand a chance. And they would discover that even some shows that are popular are quite good, such as 30 Rock, The Office, and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

So even though there are a myriad of other factors affecting whether a show lives or dies, I'm going to personally heap all the blame for my favorite shows getting the axe on the people who refuse to watch TV and in fact, take pride in that fact. Thus, I'm going to close with a suggestion that basically goes against everything we've been told in school: put down the damn book for once and turn on the television.