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Sep. 2nd, 2017 12:45 pm
wshaffer: (incapacitated)
Reader, I must confess - I made it to the age of 43 without ever having done karaoke. Primarily because the idea terrified me. I have genuine anxiety about singing in front of other people. Seriously, I've been at parties where we were playing Rock Band, and I've gotten shaky hands and sweaty palms at just the thought that someone might hand me the microphone. Also, given my music listening habits, my knowledge of contemporary pop music is best described as spotty. (I'm trying to work in a pun about how most of it comes from Spotify, but no dice.) I've always envisioned the experience as trying to croak awkwardly through a selection of barely familiar top-10 hits, which sounded about as much fun as poking oneself in the face with a spork.

But last night, a friend was celebrating her birthday, and had reserved a private karaoke room at a place up in San Francisco. Which meant, at least, that I would only have to croak awkwardly in the presence of half-a-dozen good friends. I figured that if I tried out karaoke in the most stress-free environment possible and it sucked, I could just write it off as a thing I don't do and carry on.

And, lo, it did not suck. I was, in fact, a sweaty-palmed, heart-racing anxiety bunny when I picked up the microphone to do my first song, but I played into it by choosing a song by the Smiths, the musical patron saints of the socially anxious everywhere. I think it's probably impossible to sing the chorus of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out without laughing. ("If a double-decker bus smashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.") And it's very difficult to be anxious while laughing.

We sang a lot of the songs together. (The only songs I really had to sing solo were the ones that I picked that were obscure enough that no one else knew them well enough.) I was also pleasantly surprised by the range of music on offer - it was not just top 10 pop hits. And it turns out that Black Sabbath works pretty well for karaoke.

Not only did the experience not suck, I'm actually looking forward to doing it again. Once I get my voice back.
There's a meme going around on where people list the ten most influential albums of their teenage years. What are the odds of my being able to resist that? I am going to try to resist the temptation to make myself look cooler than I was. And I'm going to try to link to a track from each album on Youtube.

1. First and Last and Always by The Sisters of Mercy.
If you were my friend when I was between 14 and 18, I undoubtedly forced you to listen to this album. If you're my friend now, the only reason I haven't forced you to listen to this album is because I'm somewhat more socially ept about that sort of thing. (Somewhat.)

I'm linking the track, "Nine While Nine", which is one of my favorites on the album not just for musical reasons, but because the title is a rather lovely Northern English expression for "from nine in the morning until nine in the evening" and my fondness for unusual idioms goes back at least as far as my affection for gothic rock:

2. Children by The Mission U.K.
Maybe this one ought to be at number one, because this was the album through which I discovered the entire genre of gothic rock. I bought this album on the strength of a single paragraph review in Rolling Stone or maybe Spin, which compared one of the tracks to something by Led Zeppelin.

This track, "Beyond the Pale", is the first thing I heard when I popped that brand-new cassette into my Walkman:

3. Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin.
I arguably ought to include the entire Led Zeppelin discography, because I was saturated in it through my teenage years. My local rock radio stations (in both Orlando and San Diego), regularly did a "get the Led out" feature at 9pm where they played 3 Zeppelin songs, and I regularly tuned in. But I don't think I actually owned every single Led Zeppelin album, and Led Zeppelin IV was almost certainly the first one I purchased. And when I moved to California at age 16, Led Zeppelin IV was the album I chose to listen to on the plane flight, largely for the song "Going to California." (I can be horribly literal in soundtracking my life, sometimes.)

I'll link to "Going to California," because you've probably all heard, "Black Dog," "Battle of Evermore," or "Stairway to Heaven" waaaay too many times:

4. Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police.
I could probably also include The Police's Synchronicity or Sting's The Dream of the Blue Turtles, but I remember a period of time where I listened to Zenyatta Mondatta a lot.

Linking to "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da":

5. ...And Justice for All by Metallica.
The first heavy metal show I went to was Metallica touring for ...And Justice for All. I purchased my first band t-shirt at that show. And I learned to never, ever go see a metal band without ear plugs. Metallica was probably the band that changed me from "a person who liked some heavy metal" to a metalhead. For many years, I firmly believed that ...And Justice for All was the last good album Metallica made. I've since come around to the opinion that The Black Album is pretty solid, but it took me 24 years, because The Black Album is not ...And Justice for All.

I'm linking to "One." I remember tuning into MTV to catch the world premiere of this:

6. The Best of New Order by New Order.
One summer all the boys I had a crush on were into New Order, so I got a The Best of New Order CD. I never got anywhere with any of the boys, but New Order went everywhere with me after that. I remember going on a road trip to visit East Coast colleges with a bunch of other teenage girls. We listened to a lot of New Order because it was the only musical artist we all liked. They made me sit through a lot of Andrew Lloyd Weber. I am now amazed that they all sat through an entire play through of Kings X's Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, but at the time I was put out that rather than being won over by its musical genius, they just decided I was a weirdo.

Linking to "Blue Monday-88":

7. Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden.
When grunge got big, I listened to Nirvana and Pearl Jam along with everyone else, but the Seattle band that I really fell in love with was Soundgarden. That's not surprising - Soundgarden were always much more upfront about their heavy metal influences than anyone else in that scene. They were just unapologetically loud, sweaty, and heavy and I love them for it. Daniel got me tickets to see them live for my 18th birthday. I had already decided he was a keeper long before then, but if there'd been any doubt...

Linking to "Outshined". This song (with several others by Soundgarden) is on my gym workout playlist:

8. Tommy by The Who.
When CDs were first a thing, and they were hugely expensive compared to cassette tapes, one of the first CDs I got was Tommy by The Who. I actually can't quite remember if I bought it or my dad did. I remember that I got my dad into Tommy, but I can't remember if I that happened when I owned it on tape or only after I got the CD. For a brief period when CDs were new, my dad and I pretty much shared our tiny collection. He got me into Janis Joplin and I got him into The Who.

Linking "Pinball Wizard":

9. The Joshua Tree by U2.
U2 have just announced a tour in honor of the 30th anniversary of this album. Wow. When this album was released, my local rock radio station decided to play the track, "Bullet the Blue Sky" in heavy rotation even though it wasn't one of the album's official singles. The first time I heard it, it made my hair stand on end. It's not very representative of the sound of the rest of the album, but I loved the rest of the album as well. And I loved all of U2's previous albums, which I quickly bought. I utterly bounced off their followup album Achtung Baby, and while I have respect for some of the music they've produced since, I can't really call myself a fan anymore. But I might just see if I can get a ticket to see them play The Joshua Tree.

Linking to "Bullet the Blue Sky":

10. Appetite for Destruction by Guns-N-Roses.
Before the original line-up fell apart, before all curbs on Axl Rose's ego evaporated, before the band took a decade to record an album that nobody gave a damn about by the time it was released, there was a magical summer spent glued to MTV wondering how Axl's hips did that. And like every other guitarist on the planet, I learned the opening riff from "Sweet Child O'Mine".

Linking to "Sweet Child O'Mine":
Lacuna Coil recorded a Christmas song. Hah.

Here's a grab bag of stuff I've been finding interesting today:

Nicholas Whyte put together a very nice guide to election night:

Regarding "making presentations more visual", my sister-in-law tipped me off to this excellent resource of diagrams for presentations: Very useful for those moments when you need a blob with four other blobs radiating out from it, and you don't want it to look like it was created by a five-year-old.

Don't watch this if you are afraid of snakes, but this snippet from Planet Earth II is the most tense action-drama I've seen all year: That un-named little baby iguana is my hero.

Fascinating interview with the lawyer who handles U.S. visas for many heavy metal bands on tour: Hardly a month goes by without an overseas heavy metal band canceling or delaying a U.S. tour because a visa issues. After reading this interview, I'm more amazed that anyone ever manages to tour the U.S. at all.

Music that is scientifically proven to reduce stress:

Odd Crew

Jul. 25th, 2016 12:41 pm
wshaffer: (Default)
I arrived in my office this morning to find a CD entitled "Mark These Words" by Odd Crew sitting on my desk. It had a note with it from the director of my department, who just returned from a trip to Bulgaria, saying that one of my colleagues in Sofia had asked her to bring it to me.

Odd Crew appear to be one of Sofia, Bulgaria's more successful heavy metal bands. They hadn't crossed my radar before, but I've listened to a few songs on the album and found it quite enjoyable.

(no subject)

Jun. 16th, 2016 11:47 am
wshaffer: (Default)
Some days you* just need a fresh dose of Swedish symphonic metal. Spotify found this one for me. I'm rather taken with it - it pretty much adheres to the standard formula (mournful soprano + growly baritone + chuggy guitars + synthesized strings + noodly keyboard solo), but there's a reason it's a standard formula. It works.

* For values of "you" equalling "me". Your mileage may vary.
Every time I hear this song, I can't help but be weirded out by the presence of an (inadvertent?) Audre Lorde reference in old school epic doom metal.

They've always said,
You can't destroy the Master's house with the Master's hammer
I laugh and say,
"I will use any tool I find to tear down his manor"

I love me some October Tide. They released the first song from their upcoming album today.


(no subject)

Jan. 29th, 2016 02:58 pm
wshaffer: (doom)
So, I wish I could say I was surprised when video surfaced of Phil Anselmo (of Down and Pantera fame) doing a Nazi salute and shouting, "White Power" at a recent concert. It's all too common these days for footage to surface of some well-respected musician behaving badly.

What I find rather more surprising is that Anselmo has apparently been doing crap like this for years, and nobody's really said much about it. I've probably read a million pages of forum and blog posts dissecting the political and racial beliefs of various metal artists, and I don't recall reading a word about Anselmo. That could be because I don't really follow his work all that closely, but I also suspect that he's benefited from the almost uniquely venerated status of Pantera in the American metal scene.

Anyway, the video below is kind of embarrassingly 101-level anti-racism, but apparently that is what the metal community needs to hear right now, so I applaud Robb Flynn for being willing to say it. 

In a fit of idle curiosity, I just had a look at my listening statistics from for the past year, to see what I've been listening to.

In the past year, my account recorded 15,139 "scrobbles" ('s term for a play through of a track), or an average of 41 per day. Those scrobbles were spread across 5,013 unique tracks on 1,397 albums by 894 artists.

My top 10 artists of 2015 were:
1. Paradise Lost
2. Katatonia
3. Vallenfyre
4. The 69 Eyes
5. Moonspell
6. Rotting Christ
7. Amorphis
8. Bloodbath
9. BBC Radio 4 (Er, one of these things is not like the others)
10. Lacuna Coil
(If you drop the non-musical "BBC Radio 4" off the list, then the next artist on the list is My Dying Bride.)
That makes 3 artists from the U.K., 2 from Sweden, 2 from Finland, and one each from Portugal, Greece, and Italy.

My top 10 albums of the year map pretty closely to the most recent releases by my top artists. My top songs of the year, on the other hand, are all ones that feature on the "soundtrack" playlists I put together for the role-playing game I'm playing in.

Here are the top 10 songs:
1. The 69 Eyes, "I'm Ready"
2. ムック (MUCC), "Fukuro No Yurikago"
3. Paradise Lost, "So Much Is Lost"
4. Woods of Ypres, "Wet Leather"
5. Moonspell, "The Last of Us"
6. The 69 Eyes, "Love Runs Away"
7. Vallenfyre, "Splinters"
8. Tiamat, "Whatever That Hurts"
9. Twilight of the Gods, "Destiny Forged in Blood"
10. Katatonia, "My Twin"

After Spotify's Year in Music thing last year made it painfully obvious that I listen to metal, and metal, and also metal, I did actually make an effort to broaden my listening this year. I do feel that I succeeded, although clearly not in any way that made a dent in my top 10. (And besides, there are 3,353 Finnish metal bands listed on metal-archives, and I haven't yet heard them all.)
The Grammy nominations for 2016 are out. So of course I had to hop straight over to the metal nominees, so I could start predicting the kind of outraged think pieces that will be popping up on metal blogs. And really, I'm kind of stumped. Here are the nominees:
"Identity" by August Burns Red
"Cirice" by Ghost
"512" by Lamb of God
"Thank You" by Sevendust
"Custer" by Slipknot

I mean, everything on this list is fairly straightforwardly an actual metal song* and not a comedy track, or a rock song, or something else ridiculously inappropriate. It's a list that has zero overlap with what I found most exciting in metal this past year, is clearly strongly shaped by what did well on the Billboard charts, and is disappointingly American-centric for a genre where much of the best work is not happening in America, but all that is par for the course for the Grammies as a whole.

Fortunately, we still have the various year's best lists coming up to spark some genre drama. Some relatively high-profile blog or magazine is sure to name Myrkur's M as one of their top metal albums of the year, and then we can have yet another round of earnest blog posts about gender, authenticity, and black metal. (For those not following along: Myrkur is a one-woman Danish black metal project whose debut EP in 2014 got a lot of people excited. The excitement got complicated when it was revealed that Myrkur was actually Amalie Bruun, who had previously recorded pop music and spent a lot of time living in New York. People flipped their shit and a lot of virtual ink was spilled dissecting the question of whether black metal musicians, especially women black metal musicians, are allowed to like other kinds of music or have lifestyles that don't involve living in remote snow-bound cabins that they built using their bare hands and their grandfather's axe.)

* "But August Burns Red are actually metalcore!" Hush. "And Ghost are really just a rock-" Hush. No one cares. It's metal enough.

Winter music

Nov. 30th, 2015 08:45 am
wshaffer: (Default)
Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, Starbucks breaks out the Christmas songs, and I break out the Agalloch. Not that I don't listen to Agalloch at other times of the year. But something about Agalloch always makes me feel like I'm walking through the woods in the snow, and since I don't get to walk through actual snowy woods much these days...

Try it out: Start this song. Close your eyes. Breathe in the cold air, lightly scented with pine. Feel the snow crunch under your feet.

Maybe it's just me?

I have just been introduced to the delightfulness that is Saffire - The Uppity Blues Women, and I've gotta share with y'all.

First up is a song that we all need sometimes: "Bitch With a Bad Attitude"

Second is a song that is the best reclaiming of the term "Thunder Thighs" since this: "There's Lightning in These Thunder Thighs"


Oct. 28th, 2015 12:49 pm
wshaffer: (Default)
Did you know that Finland has a dinosaur-themed heavy metal band aimed at children? Of course, they do, because Finland. Is it possible that Finland is the most awesome place to be a child ever? It must be in the running.

The band is called Heavisaurus, and they're actually pretty good.

So, I've had an ambition for a while to attend a proper European music festival. My first attempt to make this ambition a reality started when I backed a Kickstarter for the ill-fated Alt-Fest. To recap a long story, the festival filed for bankruptcy a week and half before the event, and I had a swell trip to England and Wales that included a nice consolation prize show at Slimelight.

In an effort not to repeat the Alt-Fest experience, I've had my eye on a few smaller, better established festivals - ones that have been running for a few years, and whose organizers seem to have a solid grip on what the audience wants. One of these was Roadburn. It's been running for about a decade, it takes place in an indoor venue (better sound and no standing in line for porta-potties!), and it's focused on doom metal, which is is one of my favorite subgenres. And it takes place in April, which makes it unlikely to land on top of a critical work or FOGcon-related deadline.

What really clinched my decision to go this coming year, though, was when they announced that Paradise Lost would be playing their Gothic album in its entirety.

Also, they've booked so many bands from Finland that they are describing it as the "Finnish takeover" of Roadburn. You all have some idea how I feel about Finnish metal.

Tickets went on sale today. A couple of years ago, the tickets sold out in 7 minutes, so I preconfigured my account, set an alarm on my phone, and hit the website at noon sharp. And I got a ticket.

So, I'm going to the Netherlands in April.
British doom metal stalwarts My Dying Bride just released an album titled Feel the Misery. I'd pre-ordered the CD, which arrived last week, and have been enjoying it quite a bit. (I know it sounds quite daft to use the word "enjoy" about something entitled Feel the Misery, but it is absolutely glee-inducing in its commitment to angst and despair.)

Well, it turns out that I wasn't actually enjoying the finished version of the album. Somehow, Peaceville Records pressed some early CDs from an early master version that was sent to journalists for review: I've just been comparing my CD version to the one on Spotify, and while the differences aren't huge, there are some little extra bits of instrumentation layered in on some songs in the Spotify version.

I'm kind of tickled. Peaceville are offering to exchange the disc for one pressed from the final master, but I don't think I'll bother. I can pick up a second CD or a download at not much greater expense and less bother than postage to the U.K.
According to my new Fitbit, at the concert I attended last night, I took about 14,000 steps and climbed 7 flights of stairs. (I didn't actually climb any flights of stairs, but I guess if you jump up and down enough and/or wave your hands over your head, the device interprets that as an elevation change.)

Mind you, last night's headliner was Eluveitie, and they played a set consisting of 45 minutes of folk metal, 30 minutes of acoustic Irish folk music, and 45 more minutes of metal. I doubt the number of steps would have been that high if it had been an evening of funeral doom metal.

I am also amused that on the heart rate monitor data, I can pinpoint the time when the band asked everyone to dance and then played the following song. Got my heart rate right up into the Cardio Zone there.

Let It Go

Aug. 26th, 2015 02:09 pm
wshaffer: (ace)
Yesterday, I stumbled across this cover of "Let It Go" by the French deathcore band Betraying the Martyrs.

I'm not even generally that fond of deathcore, but this is well worth a listen. (If the growling vocals put you off, try to at least listen through the first chorus - from that point on, the song does a better job of balancing the harsh and melodic vocal elements.) I like the fact that, unlike many metal covers of pop songs, this isn't just a tongue-in-cheek exercise in seeing how silly you can make a pop tune sound with death growls and palm-muted guitar riffs stuck on it - it feels to me like the band genuinely put a lot of work into making the song work in a different genre. I actually think that if you somehow hadn't seen Frozen or heard the original song ever before, it might never occur to you that this song was not originally conceived as deathcore. Lyrically, it even fits pretty well into a long lineage of deathcore songs about alienation and power fantasy - although on average deathcore lyricists tend to use more swear words and more explicitly violent/destructive imagery.

I'm really liking Spotify's new "Discover Weekly" playlist. Every Monday, I get a new playlist of about 2 hours of songs that Spotify thinks I'll like, based on my previous listening history. It's much more varied and interesting than what I usually get out of Spotify radio, and requires less effort than manually clicking through a list of recommended artists and albums. It's kind of a stupidly simple idea, but it works.

One of my favorite discoveries to come out of this so far is a band called Unleash the Archers. Like all my favorite power metal, they go straight for that part of your brain that wanted to be your D&D character when you were twelve. Plus, lead their singer is pretty impressive.

Plus, they are totally rocking a Mad Max thing in this video:
I'm posting a Finnish heavy metal video every day in June in support of the Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid. Longer explanation here.

Whew. Here we are at the end of this series. I hope you have discovered some music that you enjoyed, or at least been amused by the quantity and diversity of Finnish heavy metal. And that you'll consider voting for Helsinki as the site of the 2017 Worldcon!

I won't say I saved the best for last, but I saved a good one for last. Swallow the Sun are titans of the melodic death doom scene. This is "Descending Winters":