Monday, August 24, 2015

Wacken pt. III: in which the author prefers thorns to roses.



The spectacle of Matt Sinner’s Rock meets Classical project seems a natural segue into the next chapter of our memoir, the incredibly bittersweet spectacle of Savatage.
      
      Possibly no band on the planet have had a stranger career trajectory than Savatage. These days, the name is not much more than a foot-note or prelude in the history of the great Trans Siberian Orchestra (TSO, not to be confused with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra).

            The TSO is in many respects a truly successful Rock/Classical hybrid: both elements are indispensable to the whole, and after a while the barriers between the two melt away and leave a kind of mish-mash of old and new. It’s admirable in many ways, and hugely commercially successful; the TSO sell out stadiums on both sides of the Atlantic. My take on them? It’s pretty. It’s nice. It gives one a nice warm, tingly feeling at Christmas time. But I don’t think it achieves true greatness of either realm, of either a great opera or a great Rock album. Such as the original Savatage records. Which brings me back to them. . .

            A large proportion of TSO fans don’t know who Savatage were. Others may vaguely be aware, having read somewhere, the brains behind the TSO first met in a band called Savatage. Others still may remember Savatage as the skeletal blue-print of what would become the TSO, a kind of musical Petri-dish. And then, there’s the tiny-tiny number of us who really miss the Savatage of old.

            When Savatage burst on the scene in ’83, they were about as heavy a Metal band as you could find in those days. They had a razor sharp guitar sound, courtesy of Chris Oliva, Demonic vocals from brother John, and a cold, echoey production that just sent chills down our headbanging spines. In that regard, the first three Savatage records are masterpieces: Sirens, Dungeons are Calling, and Power of Night. They’re hard, heavy and fast, cold as ice, hard as iron, tough as nails, whatever simile you like; Savatage were the last band you’d expect to one day evolve into a pseudo-classical collective. Tell anyone back in ’84 that the band that just released Dungeons are Calling would one day best be known for their piano balladry, and popular among upper-middle class retirees, they’d think you insane. And yet. . . there it is.

            Fight for the Rock was a misguided attempt at commercial breakthrough: old and new fans agree it doesn’t count (though hang onto that thought). Hall of the Mountain King was a triumphant return to form, and then. . .things got weird.      

            Gutter Ballet had bits of the old Savatage on it – but also traces of a new, mellower, gentler Savatage, more in line with Andrew Lloyd Webber than Ronnie James Dio. As a huge fan of musical theatre myself, I personally could not condemn the attempt, but could not bring myself to love these records either. My trouble with almost everything Savatage have done since Gutter Ballet is that it all pretty much sounds like “Gutter Ballet”. Long, meandering, piano-ey ballady preludes that always seem to be building up to something and not really amounting to anything. Too often I find myself wondering where it’s all going, what’s it all in aid of, where’s the meat-and-potatoes pay-off. I’m not a punk: I don’t believe that songs need to confine themselves to three chords in three minutes. But I do believe that build-up needs to justify itself in payoff, that disparate elements need to amount to something, and journeys have to go somewhere. Rush, Wintersun, Luca Turilli and Ritchie Blackmore have, to my mind, all pulled it off; I just don’t feel it with Savatage, though it be their raison d’etre as a band. And while I’ve marvelled time and again at the vocal acrobatics of “Wake of the Magellan”, I can hardly bring myself to sit through the album as a whole.

            This all came to mind as both projects took the stage at Wacken: a short set by the band Savatage heavily heavily favouring its latter period, morphing into what most folk consider the real point of the story: the Trans Siberian Orchestra. And there’s me in the crowd, admiring the undeniable artistry and talent of all involved, but not enough to erase the longing for the Sirens of old. 

            The Dungeons still call.

The Baton and the Pick: in which Rock supposedly meets Classical (Road to Wacken II)



Possibly the oddest spectacle I beheld at last weekend’s “Wack-a-thon”(even more so than one which I shall detail later) was “Rock-meets-Classical”. More of an adjective rather than a name, it was a cover band apparently organized by Matt Sinner, the bass player from Primal Fear among other things, centred around him, a string session, and assorted guest musicians. They covered Rainbow, Purple, Helloween, and a lot of Symphonic-Power stuff I didn’t recognize. It was not disagreeable (despite the appearance of two of the least impressive front-men I’ve seen in a long time), but I had to wonder what the point of it was.

            For one thing, such “cross-overs” are nothing new. Not only are they nothing new, but they’re damn near cliche these days. Classical/Rock crossover has been going on since at least 1969 with Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra. Metal bands have been channelling classical since at least the early eighties, when Manowar played Rossini and Accept Tchaikovsky. Every guitarist from Malmsteen onwards has considered himself the ghost of Paganini, and every Power Metal band from at least the late-nineties onwards have included extensive symphonic arrangements and orchestral elements. Everyone from Metallica to Satyricon has played with an orchestra. Fact is, from its earliest days, Metal has owed more to Classical, structurally, aesthetically and thematically, than to any other form. This sort of collaboration should surprise no one.    

            Considering all this, it’s really strange how little collaboration went on in this project.

            A truly great crossover project would bring out the best of both worlds. Here, we only really see the one. The other is only just hinted at, and at times forgotten altogether. The so-called “classical” segment – not much more than a sexily attired string section – were given almost nothing to do. Their role was largely to provide ambient back-ground noise for the “Rock” section – the guitar, bass and drums – who did most of the work.  They didn’t really add anything to the songs – only “Stargazer” seemed to benefit from their contribution, and the Twisted Sister selection sounded downright ridiculous (despite the ever-entertaining Dee Snider). More importantly, there was no attempt to “to bring the Rock world into the Classical one – no full-length classical pieces were played, the guitar was never subsumed by the needs of the orchestra. The exchange was strictly one way.

            I would have been far more impressed had the strings been brought out for Rhapsody or someone of that ilk: for whom the orchestral bits are integral to the song, and not just garnish. As is, this was not a “Rock Meets Classical” show at all, but a Rock show with strings attached. That alone does not a cross-over make.  
 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Road to Wacken pt I: In which the Author reminisces. . .



So. . .

            Nothing is quite so certain to inspire introspection in a headbanger as the Wacken Open Air Festival.  Every year in August, the sleepy little hamlet of Wacken, north Germany, enjoys a ten-fold population boom , blossoming into a small metropolis populated entirely by long-haired, spike-laden, chain-bearing, denim-clad skids[i]. Rockers. Metelheads. My kinda people.



           The fanciful notion of Heavy Metal fandom as some trans-national tribe is probably nowhere better exemplified than in Wacken. Because during that three-day period, that’s exactly what we are. Thousands of like-minded people not just worshiping (ie: Rockin’ out) together, but actually living together. It has its own postal code and police department.          

            For Germans, Wacken is a kind of annual party getaway, I suppose not dissimilar to invading Wasaga beach every May Two-For. But for us in North America, it has always represented something much much deeper. During those dark years of the mid to late nineties, when their labels and their media puppets were trying to tell us with a straight face that Limp Bizkit were the natural inheritors of the Sabbath/Purple legacy, Wacken held an almost mystical allure. Somewhere, far across the sea was an enchanted place where Metal never died. Where guitarists could still play, where singers could still sing, and Rolling Stone critics didn’t exist. It only materialized for three days, before fading back into the mists until next year. Getting there wasn’t just a bucket-list project: it was a pilgrimage.

            I made my pilgrimage in 2003. It’s difficult to describe what a magical experience it was. I mean, how is a nerdy loner supposed to describe arriving in a city populated entirely by people like himself? To be suddenly surrounded by people who shared his passions? 

            When you’re accustomed to indulging your passions alone, and are commonly denigrated for having them – being told how unhip, uncool, unfashionable, undesirable, unattractive, unwise and out-of date they make you – arriving in such an environment is an affirmation our lonely nerd never dared hope for. It brings one close to tears. 

            I spent the better part of the year slinging recycled cardboard and sheet metal to pay for the trip. I arrived with my backpack and nothing else. No tent, no sleeping bag, no blankets nothin’. Just a little maple-leaf flag I attached to a sapling which I decided would be my totem. I had not considered how cold it got that close to the North Sea; not considered anything except that I was there. I was befriended by a party of Germans – Karl, Manuel, and their girlfriends – who invited me to their camp, shared their food, and let me sleep in their tent. They even gave me a lift back to Hamburg when the festivities were done. This kind of camaraderie existed everywhere I looked, on a massive scale. 

            Those songs about the “Brotherhood of Metal” aren’t just singing through their ass.

            (And I’m well aware of the irony of all those songs about violence and anger inspiring such hippy-like friendliness). 


            These days, the miracle of live-streaming allows us to catch a glimpse of that world again, this time from the comfort of our living rooms. Everything at the festival is recorded, and professional-quality videos are readily available on Youtube (officially or not is anybody’s guess; as far as I know neither promoter nor label have made any great effort to take them down). The footage is great, but now as then, my main interest is in the experience – watching the people, and gauging the state of the scene. Back then, I must have seen dozens of bands, but there are only a handful I remember in any detail (seven off-the top of my head, and five more when I stop to think about it). The atmosphere and environment are what stand out for me today. I can catch glimpses of it in the crowd shots – naturally, you can’t relive the moment through a screen, but you can sort of imagine it.

            It’s amazing how broad the umbrella has grown, how many styles it encompasses, how many aesthetic philosophies it accommodates. There’s now a sub-genre to suit just about every taste or temperament, and some barely have a thing in common. It is entirely possible for two people with polar opposite preferences to attend the festival and leave perfectly satisfied, having seen none of the same acts. It is entirely possible to go the entire time without seeing a single British or American band, or hear a word of English spoken on stage. (Though this probably has as much to do with licensing for German television as anything else – Anglo-American bands are certainly not under-represented in the festival line-up). It’s amazing to see how many young people and how many women are in the crowd.

            The scene has evolved – and oneself has evolved. While nostalgia cannot help but romanticise the place, time cannot help but demystify it. The Metalhead is no longer quite so-embattled in North America. Most of the great bands have made it over here after all[ii]. The scene is small, but healthy, attracting a good number of youth[iii]. Iron Maiden sell out stadiums, Rush are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame[iv], and so-called Nu Metal is nowhere to be seen. Call yourself a Metalhead, and no one laughs. Perhaps most importantly, things that bothered you a great deal in your mid-twenties matter so much less in your late-thirties.

            Ah, but here’s the rub: a big reason they don't matter, is that Wacken exists.   
            
   


[i] These days, sheep-skin jerkins are just as likely.
[ii] In 2003, part of the Wacken allure were all those bands playing over there we thought would never make it over here. Since then, many of them have.
[iii] Indeed, at the pagan shows, I feel like a bloody grandpa (with back-pain to boot). At least it won’t die out with me.
[iv] This does not mean Rush have finally “made it”: it means the hall of Lame has finally caught-up with reality.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Biblio-insurance: in which the Author goes Off-Topic. . .



Let’s talk a little about insurance.

Home insurance to be exact, and most specifically, that sort with which you hopefully replace some of your lost personal possessions. While not entirely an expert in the matter, I myself did recently have reason to familiarize myself with some of its more arcane points.
First off, let’s dispense with some of the misconceptions Possibly, like me, you once believed that upon approval of your claim they, Great Companies, would, in their benevolence, cut you a cheque and you’d be off to the races. Not exactly. Rather they make you a deal. They can pay you the Replacement value of your lost items, or you can take their Market value. Market value is indeed just a cheque. They calculate approximately how much your old Barry Manilo records were worth and cut you the cheque. If they just happen to be worthless, woe to you. Whereas if you take the Replacement value, they will pay to replace each and every thing – up to current standard! Think on it – your old musty couch for a brand new one. That old tube television for a brand new flatscreen. Your old desktop for a new laptop.
            So, why would anyone opt for the Market value?
            Ah, therein lies the catch!
            See, if you opt for Replacement value, you damn well have to replace what was lost. You need to buy that couch, you need to buy that television. If you claim to have lost five hundred books, you bloody well need to go out and buy five hundred books! They will demand receipts.
            Who the fuck is going to buy five hundred books???
            Now I know many of you bibliomaniacs out there will grin and say “watch me!”, but come on: you know as well as I that that’s not how bibliophilia works. Bibliophilia is not like binge drinking; it’s about nursing. The pleasure of a good library is the time it takes to build one, title by title. Think wandering into the bookshop (when you were really on your way someplace else). Tracing your fingertips across the spines. Taking down the one irresistible volume and studying the cover. Flipping the pages with your thumbnail. Take in the fragrance of the paper and tell me: is it hot off the press, with the ink still wet and almost running off the blinding white pages? Or is it an old tome suffused with the dusty wisdom of ages? Whichever: the butterflies in your stomach can only mean one thing.  I must have this!!!

            Now tell me about the shop: a chain shop in the mall? A massive department store that stuffs books in between candle holders and place mats, serving burnt coffee at the counter? An antiquarian shop in the old part of town, in whose catacombs you’ll find buried ancient tomes? A yard sale? A cardboard box abandoned by the side of the road?


(If by chance, your answer is “Amazon.com”, this article is not for you, any more than an article on the joys of vinyl would appeal to some barbarian who thinks MP3’s have made all such things redundant.) 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

August 5th: In which the clouds parted, having already shat everything they had in them.

            In the immediate aftermath of a disaster in which no one is hurt (and no one was), the sheer novelty of the situation fills one with an adrenaline that’s almost exciting. It’s only later, when one does not wake up in the comfort of one’s own bed, and is confronted with the permanence of the situation, that it really sinks in.

            I only had my Dark Side of the Moon boxer shorts; hell, even my wallet was still down there! So, first thing I suppose was to go get that replaced. I borrowed Dad’s jogging pants (about thrice my size) and trotted off to the bank to explain my situation.


            Every lawn in the neighbourhood had turned brown. The sidewalks, driveways and roads were coated with a layer of muck and clay about an inch thick, and a big musty cloud of gunk hung in the air. And I wasn’t the only one wandering about in a dazed state of “wtf?”.  Most of the block were out and about, looking for all the world like they'd been hit in the head with a brick. The clean-up hadn't started in earnest yet, but before the end of the week, every lawn and driveway would be filled with garbage and debris.  


            The next thing was to secure a pump and get that basement drained. It wasn’t just the creek water or the rain that got in; at some point the sewers backed up* and the house stank!**
My library. "Northern Frights 4" and
"100 Maths Homework Lessons"
remain discernable.
    
         I can’t remember how long it took to get all that water out (hey, it’s been a year!). I remember finally working up the courage to go down there and finding it, literally, a shitload worse than I imagined. In my incredible pre-flood naiveté, I had half believed that I’d find everything more or less as I had left it – soggy and muddy and shitty and useless, but more or less recognizable. No sirree!

            It was a dung pile. The bed had been picked up and thrown over there. The television had been picked up and thrown over there. The shelves had been shredded, my desk had been shattered. My library a mountain of goop.

            So. . .I had managed to save my manuscripts, my guitars, my laptop, my stuffed toys, a third of my records and most books with authors whose names started with the letter Z. What’d I lose?

        
    Well, pretty much whatever else I owned.  The other two thirds of my records. All of my cds, all of my cassettes (of which I still had and used hundreds). The Marantz amplifier. My credit cards. My lesson plans. Most of my clothes.  The library I’d spent my entire life building up. . .

            Put like that, it didn’t mean much. Statistics! It was only when one’s mind wandered to specifics did the heart begin to sink.

The yellow boom-box was property of the cleanup crew. 
            The autographed Essential Ellison? That was gone. My Ryerson ring? That was gone. My pirate boots? Gone. Godzilla 1985 on VHS? My Marx Brothers tie? My Jon Pertwee coffee mugs, my Ian Gillan records – from England???
           
            Gone. Gone. Gone. Vamoose. Washed away, dissolved. I no longer owned a proper suit, a winter coat, or a single pair of jeans. I didn’t have a bed to rest my head. All those books on my reading list, all those songs I thought I could hear any time, those movies I thought could watch forever, several hundred lesson plans I never thought I’d have to write again, all my band shirts. . .

           I hated to think of it then, and hate to think of it now. But go over that list and all you’ll see is missing is stuff. Things. And the wonderful thing about things are that they are replaceable. Granted, I’m not sure where I’ll secure another copy of Sir John, Eh? or The Heavens are Showing the Glory of Tchort , but, fact is, there was nothing down there I absolutely truly utterly needed. I hated to lose it, but most important thing was still here.
But the Jolly Roger still flew!

            I thought of that while wading through the muck in rubber gloves and Wellingtons. had I been stubborn, and stayed down there while the water was pouring in, or waded back in to gather more stuff,  I might very well have been caught under some of that debris - the flying desks, the floating shelves, the billion little bits swirling around in a current strong enough to toss a television – and been trapped down there. I may very well have lost my most irreplaceable self.
"The Who's Last" was, appropriately enough, the last record to be played on this turn-table. 


            Then I’d have a real reason to invoke Zola.

            To say nothing, that had any of that water gotten into the foundations of the house, it could have compromised the structural integrity of the building: the whole damn thing could have come down! As it was, the upper floors remained habitable, and a year later it's as good as new - rebuilt, almost, from the ground up.

            (Though my place is gone for good. . .)

            So, bad as it was, it could have been a whole lot worse. 

            No, the thing I missed most was privacy. The loss of personal space proved a hundred times worse than any of that crap down there. Until I could secure an apartment***, I had to sleep just off the kitchen, in full view of everyone including the workmen traipsing through in their safety boots.  Not having any place to go or any place to hide, any little enclosed area I could really call my own: that sucked.
 
Some things are unsinkable. . .
            My main memory of those days is sitting by rubbish heaps in the yard, jet-setting between couches and hotel rooms, and the smell of mud. I got to know some of the neighbours.  I will probably always associate Dostoevsky’s The Gambler with mud. I got another turn-table. I made the best of it.

            I might have been all washed up, but I was nobody’s wet blanket.        

If I could have chosen just one book to survive. . .



*(Turns out it was a rather good thing that it did: had it just been through the window, the insurance company would not have covered it. To my mind, the house would have been just as wrecked, but what do I know?)

**For which reason the insurers never doubted our claim.        


***Which also flooded. That’s another story. 

August 4th. . .in which when it rained, did it pour.

What a difference a year makes. . .

            Emile Zola once wrote a miserable little story called “The Flood” in which a man’s entire extended family drown in a flood. Personally, I thought some of the family members seemed awfully anxious to throw themselves into the flood waters – before (so it seemed to me) it was strictly necessary to do so - but what do I know?

            As it turns out, rather more than the average person. It was on this day one year ago when a raging flood largely destroyed my childhood home, and much of the rest of the neighbourhood. I did not lose any family members – mine, being rather more patient than Zola’s – but lost a great deal else.

           It was a very warm Sunday I remember. I had spent a larger part of the afternoon vacuuming the floors of my abode, having grown weary of the thick layers of dust that had settled there. I had rewarded completion of this onerous task with a leisurely game of Tripple A. I am aware there were a great many more sensible things I could have done with my time, but there you have it.

            It started to rain. Heavily. I took no notice.  But then a puddle started gathering in the back yard, and the rain kept falling and the puddle kept growing and some of us began to go “hmmm”.

            The memory gets a little hazy here. I think it was my brother who came in and said “you gotta see this.” I took off my shirt, not wanting it to get wet (and being perhaps more than a little vain), and followed him out into the pouring rain, to the creek about two doors down from the house, where some neighbours had gathered at the bridge. I dropped my jaw on my toes at this point and pinched myself for good measure. The waters had risen up the very edge of the bridge and were threatening to wash over it. This was a good ten feet above their normal level. I had never in my life seen them rise that high.

            I started taking things upstairs, expecting some leakage, but not much more than a damaged carpet. Electronics, like my laptop. My bass amp. Books off the bottom shelf. Precautionary measures, but no real panic. Then, the puddle in the back yard turned into a pool, and then the back yard itself turned into a pool. And the water kept coming.
           
            Again, memory grows hazy. The street was now a river, the water now rising up over people’s lawns and up to their front doors. At some point I stripped down to my underwear and swam out to check on the elderly neighbours. They were fine, if a little disconcerted by a half-naked neighbour appearing on their doorstep. Then it was back downstairs to save what I could before the water got in.
           
            
 
Footage courtesy of Brother Mike

Quick: all your worldly possessions are collected in one room, you have ten minutes to take what you can out of the room, after which every thing else gets trashed, starting . . . now!
           
            What do you take?

            I snatched up all my writings, my short stories and drafts. My journals, my tax-documents, my Doctor Who autographs and passports. My clippings from Ryerson. My stuffed toys, whom I’ve had from infancy, picture books I knew I couldn’t replace. . . All the while, my brother was applying duct tape to the windows to try and buy us time. We struggled to unplug Dad’s Marantz amplifier from the wall, a ten-ton behemoth he bought forty years ago, his pride and joy and our (we hoped) our inheritance. I couldn’t reach the friggin’ plugs. Then the windows above burst, and the water rushed in like a veritable Niagara, swallowing up the Marantz, and just about everything else in the room. Dave looked at me and I looked at him, and the realization hung telepathically in the air:    

            Give it up guys; you’ve lost.

            Even then I was able to snatch up some of my vinyl from beneath the cascade. I was walking around ankle deep (and rising!) in water, painfully aware off all the power bars and electrical outlets My bed started floating like from Winnie-the-Pooh, and I knew it was time to get the hell out of there.

            During this time they’d somehow managed to clear out the garage and get his car in away from the tides. Dad managed to shut off the power with a broom-stick. And just when I’m ready to stop and take a breath, Dave calls me over to the kitchen door. “Look at this,” he says.

            The water had risen past the ceiling, and all the way up to the head of the stairs. I could see bits of my books floating in a dark pool of stinky now-sewage tinged muck. The little basement study where I’d probably spent most of my life was now submerged under a cess-pool.

            “Close the door.” I said. What else could I say? When all else fails. . .

            I had just shut the door on my past. 

            I sat down on the couch and realized I was still in my underwear; in my haste, I hadn’t brought up any clothes. I didn’t even have the clothes on my back anymore. Just my Dark Side of the Moon Boxer shorts.

            I don’t much remember the rest of the evening. I think we cracked open a beer. What else could we do?