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Yesterday's cutting edge music... today!

Monday June 26, 2006

I went to Nearfest this weekend; it's an annual prog-rock festival held in Bethlehem, PA (the town that actually inspired the Billy Joel song, "Allentown"). I don't normally consider myself a great fan of prog-rock. I own a few Yes albums, a few old Genesis albums, an ELP album, etc. There's a reason why I don't own more. Anyway, I went mainly to hang out with my friends Jeff and Hunter, whom I rarely see, but as it happened, I unknowingly bought Hunter's ticket after he had to bail on the festival. So, I was there to see Jeff (and also Ken at Laser's Edge, although I see Ken somewhat regularly.) The problem with this plan is that Jeff was working at Ken's vendor table, which meant that all the people I was there to socialize with were on-duty most of the weekend. Which left me to wandering about amid a very old crowd of crusty prog-heads for most of whom music more or less peaked in 1975 or something like that. It's a funny scene, because they all sort of pride themselves on their open minds and sophisticated musical tastes, but I would bet most of them don't listen to anything which could remotely be called "progressive" today. But that's neither here nor there; far be it for me to (unduly) ridicule anyone's musical scene. I'll be the first to admit that the metal scene can be just a silly and naval-gazing as this scene, and when you consider prog-metal, a marginal splinter-genre that rarely manages to rise to the progressive level of the decades-old rock that inspired it, it's pretty clear that not many of the bands popularly heralded as "cutting edge" are any such thing.

That said, Nearfest was still astoundingly unprog. The first band on Saturday was a japanese four-piece named KBB. I got to the show late, but I caught the last half of their set from the lobby. Very boring violin rock, like an instrumental Kansas but with better musicians. Every song sounded exactly the same. Jeff insisted that it was awesome, and maybe I should have gone inside to see them actually play, but from a purely musical perspective, they were very dull. The next band was one of the few on the bill with whom I was actually familiar, the Polish quartet Riverside. Riverside were originally signed to one of Ken's labels, and at their heaviest, you might even call them metal. They sounded great, especially the singer, but one hour and fourty five minutes is too damned long! There are not many bands in the world that I want to watch for that long, and Riverside, who only have two albums under their belt, are not one of them. I was dying by the end! And to think, this was to be the musical highlight of the day! After Riverside, an acoustic guitarist named Richard Leo Johnson played a short solo set. I wanted to see him play, because I have one of his discs and I think he's an impressive player, if a boring composer. He's pretty much a Michael Hedges wannabe, if that means anything to you. Long story short, I missed him completely because Jeff and I spent too long getting food. Oh well. No big loss. The next band was FM, who could best be described as third-tier Rush clones, and we're talking about the synthpop Rush here - think "Tom Sawyer" but not good at all. This band was quite funny to me. The remaining original members were the drummer and the bassist/keyboardist/singer, and their new trio was rounded out by a strage-looking italian guy who played viola and electric mandolin, except that he appeared to have removed the doubled strings from the mandolin and ended up playing it like a tiny, bad sounding guitar. The singer was constantly talking about outer space and made a ridiculous comment that such-and-such song is what they imagined people listening to when they boarded the first ship to another planet. The whole affair had the whiff of Disney's "World of Tomorrow." They did play one song that I enjoyed, but mostly their music was just awful. I watched the whole set, though, because there was really nothing else to do. This festival takes the music very seriously, so when the bands are playing, the vendor rooms are closed entirely. I could have stood around in the lobby, but where would that have gotten me? After FM, there was a two hour break for dinner, but of course I couldn't get dinner, because all of the people I knew were working (the dinner break is also one of the occasions for shopping in the vendor rooms.) I can't even remember how I kept myself busy, except that I ended up buying more CDs than I had really planned on buying. The dinner break finally ended at 8:30, which is when the headlining band, Ozric Tentacles, was to take the stage. I'm not familiar with their work, and none of the people working for Ken seemed to care for them, so when the vendor rooms closed for the night, we bailed on the Ozrics and went to dinner. That, at least, was a lot of fun. We went to a brewpub in downtown Bethlehem and I got a pretty tasty Weinerschnitzel and a couple glasses of the brewery's tasty nut brown ale. Then I drove home, and was in bed by 1:00. Not bad, for a festival!

I should mention at this point that a day at Nearfest is a long fucking day. The first band goes on at 11:00 am and the last one ends at around 11:00 pm. Twelve hours, but only five bands! It's a gruelling ordeal, let me tell you, especially when you aren't really a lover of prog-rock. It's fun for a while to stare at the fat, bold, old men in Gentle Giant t-shirts, but even that loses its charm after six or seven hours. On Sunday, I was in for the full experience, as I actually wanted to see the first band, Guapo, from London. They were described to me as "heavy, but not like metal." Take that for what it's worth. They were, in fact, pretty heavy, reminding me a little of The Mars Volta at their darkest, minus the latin vibe and the vocals. Their hour-long set was comprised of only two songs, both of which, I'm told, were abridged from the recorded versions. Sheesh! The drummer, in particular, was excellent, but as with pretty much all the bands, I can't say that I found their music to be particularly challenging or progressive. In fact, pretty much the only truly progressive set came next, and it was a solo bass set. Michael Manring is, without question, the greatest electric bassist to have ever lived. He is so good that I don't think that anyone alive today could possibly even catch him. A lot of virtuoso players, I think, arrive at their virtuosity after years of practice and declare their travelling done. They remain great players, but they don't really get better once they reach their particular plateau of mastery. But Manring never stops getting better. He was the best bassist in the world ten years ago, and now he's ten years better. It's almost pointless trying to describe how he plays or what makes him so great, because there are no points of reference in other players. I tried to prepare Jeff for the mindfuck that is Manring, and even fully armed with the expectation that he was about to see and hear something the likes of which he had never experienced before, he was still dumbstruck by Manring's performance. His half-hour set was at least an hour too short, but if nothing else, it left us wanting more. This yearning was keenly felt when the next band, Ange, started playing. Ange, like FM, are another washed-up band from the 70s that broke up and then reformed with a minimum of original members and a progressive vision that would have sounded stale 30 years ago. Ange are a French group, and the only original member was a fat bald guy with a skullet and a white robe. The remaining members looked like the products of his 70s daliences with prog-groupies. Their music sounded like a cross between Steely Dan and Human League, only worse, if you can imagine. They made some very silly attempts at theatricality, including a stunt with a rubber bone which had to be seen to be believed. Picture a grandpa dressed like Zeus and his gypsy granddaughter fighting over a rubber bone with their mouths, and you're only halfway to being as disturbed as I was. Jeff and I made it through three, maybe four songs, before we left. We had enough time to run into town for a couple slices of pizza and a beer before Jeff needed to be back for the vending period after Ange. The next band was Niacin, a supergroup trio featuring Billy Sheehan and Dennis Chambers. Their set was surprisingly fun, and both of them really cooked. The trio was rounded out by an organ player whose name I don't recall and whose playing was largely superfluous. I enjoyed their set, but this is the kind of music that is only fun in person, where you can really marvel at the dexterity and skill of the musicians. On disc, this would probably bore me to death. And speaking of death by boredom, after Niacin I had another two hour dinner break to kill, having just eaten a couple hours ago. I ended up driving around Bethlehem, which is a surprisingly pretty town. The downtown, in particular, is especially well preserved and charming. The weather was awful, but that just made navigating the very slopy topography of the city more entertaining. I had to be back to the venue by 8:30, but not for dinner this time. I was made to understand that seeing Keith Emerson, late of ELP, was essential. He went on very late, and after a ridiculous "behind the scenes at Nearfest" slide show, and then opened with the only song I expected to recognize in his set ("Karn-Evil 9," which I'm sure you've heard. "Come inside, the show's about to start / guaranteed to blow your head apart"). As it turns out, I recognized two more ELP songs: "Tarkus" (which I know from a tribute album I got as a promo years ago) and "Lucky Man," which I never knew was ELP. I only stayed for an hour of his set, but the rest of it was pretty fucking terrible. He played some shitty blues-boogie instrumental written by his guitarist (whose similarity to Nigel Tuffnel was frightening), a cover of the worst Bob Dylan song I have ever heard ("Country Pie," which is actually about pie, I think), and some other honky-tonk bullcrap. It was really bad. He had a cool giant Moog, but he barely used it in the hour I endured, and while I could see that he's a great keyboard player, so what? The whole affair was kind of sad. Here you had a room full of people who all claimed to like challenging music, but all they really wanted to hear was an exact recreation of songs that they've been listening to on vinyl since the early 70s. What would these people think of Behold the Arctopus, or even The Mars Volta? And those are just a couple of the most innovative bands I listen to, and I readily acknowledge that my tastes are fairly conventional. I guess I wouldn't mind the stagnation on display at Nearfest if not for all the back-patting and smugness. For every guy I met like Steve from Cuneiform Records (who is really a cool and open minded lover of music), there were three guys like the toupe-wearing asswipe who made a semi-serious argument for his own special brand of fascism, which would mandate that the people only listen to prog and none of that mindless pop shit that they listen to now. For fuck's sake! Anyway, back to Keith Emerson - after "Lucky Man," both Jeff and I bailed on the show. Jeff had to stick around to help Ken and crew load out, but I had no such obligation, and I left. Again, I was home and in bed by 1:00, even after an hour and a half of driving. I guess I'm getting as old as the other guys at Nearfest, because when it came down to it, I was pretty happy to be in bed at a reasonable hour. If I ever go to Nearfest again, I'm sure my trousers will be hiked that much higher.

Posted by Matt at 08:49 AM | Comments (30)

Hickee Appreciation

Monday June 12, 2006

I don't read a lot of comics these days, mainly because I'm not willing to carve time out of my "find new metal bands that no one has heard of" schedule in order to suppliment my "find new comic books that will validate my self-image as an intelligent consumer of sequential art" schedule. That said, there are a few artists whose work I check on fairly regularly. It helps that these guys are, for the most part, not very prolific. My favorite artist today, hands down, is Graham Annable, whom I've mentioned on this this blog before. I snoop his site Grickle.com at least once a week, but it has somehow escaped my attention, until today, that he posts a lot more at the Hickee blog. Hickee is an anthology comic that provides an outlet for the doodlings of Annable and his other animator buddies (who are generally too busy slaving over, I don't know, Stormtrooper animations for some X-Box game to dedicate much time to cartooning), and at least theoretically, any of them could post on the Hickee blog, but most of the posts are Annable's, and pretty much all of them are funny. Check it out, and if you find yourself in a comic store, pick up a copy of the new Hickee!

Posted by Matt at 01:26 PM | Comments (2)

Lizard People of West Chester

Thursday June 8, 2006

My friend Rob hosts a party every year called Camp Naked Terror; the 2006 party was the fifth iteration of the annual event, but I have never actually made it to one. I've been invited all five years, I believe, but there's always been something else going on that weekend, and I've never been able to go. This year, however, when the invitation came in and I checked the calendar, there was nothing to stop me from going, and I was giddy with the excitement of it all. CNT (as the mildly dirty acronym goes) is a themed costume party. It started out, as the name would imply, as a masquerade of 70s and 80s slasher pics, but over the years, the horror-movie aspect has been coupled with secondary themes such as music or video games. This year, the event was called Camp Naked Terror 5: The Final Frontier, and the theme was space or science fiction.

I didn't come up with a costume idea for a few weeks after hearing about the party. Nancy had some initial vision that, as I recall, involved impalement and space helmets and other feats of costumery that I think would probably have been beyond our abilities and resources as propmasters and tailors. It wasn't until some night when our friend Roman (who was also invited to the party but ended up not going) was over and asking about our costumes that I formulated a plan, and that was only owing to a quick review of our DVD collection. For Nancy and I, one of the early bonding agents in our relationship was a science fiction miniseries from the 80s that I would later learn is not as universally beloved as we both assumed. Yes, we were both bananas for V, the anti-fascist allegory of lizard-like space aliens who come to Earth in order to feed themselves. Nancy bought her first DVD player (a really shitty Aiwa unit that never worked very well) expressly for the two of us to watch the first miniseries together. In retrospect, V is one of those fond childhood memories that we probably should have left to nostalgia, because the show, unsurprisingly, is a lot crappier than we remembered. Nevertheless, the it still holds some charm, and when I noticed the DVDs on the shelf, it was pretty obvious to me that Nancy and I needed to dress as the V aliens (apparently known as Sirians) for CNT 5.

At first blush, it looked like a pretty easy costume to assemble. We'd need red jumpsuits, black hats, and a little makeup to convey our fundamental reptilianity. And really, even after the final analysis was made, this was still all we really needed, but putting all the pieces together proved to be, if nothing else, a costly and time consuming endeavor. The most important element of the costume was the jumpsuit, which I figured would be pretty easy to find. People wear these things in garages and whatnot, right? Shouldn't I just be able to call up some uniform supply company and order a couple? Well, the short answer is that yes, jumpsuits are not all that hard to come by. But red ones are a little trickier. Most of the industrial types who require such outfitting apparently prefer navy blue in a jumpsuit. Go figure. We did, ultimately, find a distributor that stocked the sort of suit we needed, but by that point, it was the week of the party (tuesday, to be exact). We ordered a medium for Nancy and a large for me, we upgraded the shipping to 2nd Day Air, and we started to put the rest of the outfit together.

For other reasons altogether, we found ourselves on South St. in Philadelphia the wednesday before the party, and thank god for hipsters and their silly fashion, because it was an easy task to find exactly the sort of black, military-style caps we needed for our outfits at the first clothing shop we visited on South. They were cheap, too! Our spirits were high. That night, we went to the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixville to find the glasses we'd need (the Sirians, we're told, have very sensitive eyes, so they wore heavy smoked glasses.) The closest match, in our minds, to what the aliens wore in the show were those plastic goggles that old people wear after they've had cataract surgery. We found exactly what we were looking for at the pharmacy, and once again, things were looking good for our costumes.

Our suits arrived thursday. They looked great. But... mine was too small. It might have fit (albeit snugly) but I have these ungainly gorilla arms that are just too fucking long for the rest of my body, and they stuck out of my sleeves by at least three inches too much. Curses! I normally wear shirts and whatnot in XL, but I figured these suits were meant to be worn over clothes by burly blue collar types. They were sure to run large, I foolishly assumed! I suppose I could consider this a well-deserved lesson against socioeconomic stereotyping, but the moral was lost on me as I considered the possibility that I would have to wear this clearly ill-fitting jumpsuit to the party. In a panic, we called Aramark (the company from which we ordered the suits) to order an XL. When I say "we," I mean Nancy, and thank god, too, because I would have gone insane having to deal with these people! It took a great deal of wrangling, and an extraordinarily large shipping charge, to arrange for a replacement to be shipped by overnight delivery to arrive on a saturday, and we were left with no guarantee that the item would actually go out on friday. We simply crossed our fingers and counted on the gods of nerdiness to see us through.

One of the key items in the costume was a representation of the lizard skin under the fake human skin worn by the Sirians in an effort to fool the humans. There are some key scenes in the show where this fake skin is ripped away, revealing scales beneath. I decided to create this effect with liquid latex, and after a little calling around, I found a plce that could set us up. We ended up at a store called The Jokes Are Wild, a year-round costume and party supply shop. This place is really cool - it was like the best stocked Halloween Adventure shop you ever saw, plus dildos (or should that be "dildoes"? Or "dildi"?) We got the latex, we got spirit gum and remover, and we got a couple pairs of novelty sunglasses, just for fun. When we got home, I poured out the latex, having been warned that it can take a while to dry (which it surely did.) We probably should have done a little more work on the costumes at that point, but Nancy and I are famed procrastinators, so I think we just ate some Twinkies and watched TV for the rest of the evening.

At lunch on friday, I ran across the street to the Kennett Square Wal Mart to look their crafts section over for additional supplies. We needed a way to get the Symbol of the Supreme Leader (aka the "Visitor Logo") on our jumpsuits and hats. We needed ribbon for decorating the sleeves. We needed black belts. We probably needed some other shit that I can't recall now. This shopping excursion, like the others, went off mainly without a hitch, and I felt pretty good about the overall state of our costumical provisions. We set to work on assembling the final product when we got home from work on Friday. It was all going pretty well, in fact. I fashioned the red logos for our hats out of sticky-back felt, and when those went on, the hats looked fantastic. Nancy applied ribbon to the sleeves of her jumpsuit. The original idea was to put three or four bands on each arm, but it was such a pain in the ass to iron these things on, that Nancy decided one would be enough for her, although she pledged to do two for mine when it came in (hopefully) on saturday. I'm pretty sure that the stripes represent rank, so it pleased me to outrank my alien girlfriend.

I should mention now the one great failing of this entire enterprise. In the show, the aliens have a funny pitch-shifting effect on their voice. I felt it was pretty crucial to capture this, and to that end, we bought a couple voice-changing Darth Vader helmets from Target. I dismantled them to such an extent that the entire setup was reduced to a microphone, a speaker, a small circuit board, and a battery box (which I had to hacksaw out of a larger plastic enclosure.) Ultimately, the pieces were too big to fit in one breast pocket, so I decided to rewire the battery box with longer wires, so that it could be stashed in our pants pockets. Accordingly, I bought a soldering pencil, some solder, and some wire at Radio Shack. Now, I've soldered before, but it's been a long time, and I never had to do any really precise work. Suffice it to say, I fucked it up on the first board. I don't know if I shorted it out by getting solder in the wrong place, or of I ruined it by scraping the hot pencil across some place on the board that couldn't endure the heat, but that $15 bit of electronics was fried. It was pretty depressing. The other unit seemed to be fine, but I didn't want to do it if we couldn't both have funny voices, so I abandonned the project. This ultimately worked out alright because 1) the party was too loud for anyone to have heard it, and 2) it saved us the time it would have taken to fashion the elastic bands that would hold the microphones to our voice boxes.

Having failed at soldering, I turned my attention to the fake skin. I used to spend a lot of time painting pewter miniatures for a wargame called Warhammer 40,000, so I have a lot of acrylic paint and a not insignificant ability to paint small things, so I went to work on the skin, and if I do say so, it turned out pretty great. I should scan the skin so you can see the fine detail in my work, but in the meantime, know that I did an excellent job in painting the pattern of 3 dimension lizard skin on a flat piece of green latex. It was clear by this point that these costumes were going to rule. We were both very excited.

We got up and showered on Saturday, excited about the party but fearful that my new jumpsuit wouldn't arrive. Aramark assured us that the package went out on Friday, but we were leery of their claims. It happened that we had nothing to worry about, as the package was waiting on the doorstep by the time we made it downstairs. All that was left was the final work of ribonning my suit and applying the iron-on decals to the breast. Here was the second of my mistakes - I really should have practiced a little with those inkjet decals. I have never used them before, and it would have been wise to test them on some scrap fabric, because I made a bit of a mess of Nancy's suit. The decal came out alright, but not nearly as clean as I would have liked. She was very supportive, though, which got me through that difficult time. I did a slightly better job on my suit, but not by much. In the end, of course, it didn't matter. They looked fine. But up 'til then, I was feeling that we had otherwise perfectly accomplished the task of creating these costumes.

We actually had two parties to attend that Saturday. The first was a graduation party for my cousin Nick, who just finished a masters program at Juilliard. This was in Marlton, NJ at 6:00, while Camp Naked Terror was slated to begin at 8:00 in South Philly. We had no choice but to take our costumes with us and change in my aunt and uncle's bedroom. There were a few fuddy-duddy adults who did not properly appreciate our work, but most of the other partygoers were immensely amused by our outfits, and one of my cousin's friends happened to be a huge fan of V, and he gushed over us like we were Jane Badler and Richard Herd themselves. My uncle snapped a few photos, and we were off.

Then we went to Rob's party, won second runners-up for our costumes and went home. Of course, there was more to CNT than that, but after our epic preparations, the party itself felt like a bit of an anticlimax. The winner of the prize for best costume definitely deserved to beat us- his Mad Max getup was great, although I feel like the Judy Jetson costume that edged us out for second place was not as good as ours. But who cares? It was fun, our costumes were a hit, and I finally met Kevin Cornell. Sure, we spent the better part of a week and nearly $100 per person for costumes that we wore for about three hours, but I have finally experienced Camp Naked Terror, and all is good.

And if you think we're not going to wear these costumes again for Halloween, you're sadly mistaken.

Aliens posing in a NJ foyer

Posted by Matt at 10:41 AM | Comments (3)

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