Short Story: “A Playlist For Suburbia” By C. A. Brown

The only way to make suburbia interesting is with the right kind of music. For Steve, this was usually American punk music. When the furious guitars kicked in and the singer started whining sarcastically or blurting out elaborate descriptions, it somehow made suburbia ok. It magically turned boring Daily Mail middle England into something out of the kind of rebellious Hollywood comedies that he was always wanted to watch when he was younger.

Even the dreariest of playing fields and most forgettably ordinary rows of houses could be transformed into something from an edgy late-1990s comedy horror movie when he listened to the beginning of Bad Religion’s “Suffer” on his MP3 player. But, only the beginning. Somehow, the crashing, stabbing waves of angry guitars and the singer’s first frantic question made even the most leisurely of strolls feel like a dramatic tracking shot from some film he’d always wanted to watch when he was a teenager. For the ten seconds that it lasted, the world seemed more interesting than ever before.

Then, of course, there was Green Day’s “Tight Wad Hill”. Steve had never bothered to learn the lyrics to it, but it didn’t matter. Whenever he saw the old houses from the ’80s that were covered with faded white plastic and looked like something from a low-budget horror movie, he listened to this song. It had something to do with the singer’s slightly sarcastic, slightly slurred voice. Something to do with the cynical bitterness that drips from every word of the song. It made him feel like he was living in the beautifully run-down world of some corner of rural America, some horror novel town where strange things happen on an alarmingly regular basis.

And, for the brightest of cold summer Saturdays, there was always The Offspring. On those hellish days where everyone wears pastel clothes, where the air is polluted with the noise of twenty garden parties filled with crackly radios, the indecipherable shouting of noisy kids and the buzzing of lawnmowers, Steve listened to The Offspring. Not their edgier early stuff or even their mature modern stuff, but the really commercial stuff they put out in the late 1990s when, for a little while, they were mainstream.

The instant the first lines of “Pretty Fly” bounced through his headphones, he remembered when that song was playing on the crackly radios, he remembered when he was an annoyingly noisy kid and he remembered when pretending that the noises of distant lawnmowers were actually horror movie chainsaws felt like a really cool and edgy thing to do.

But, for grey weekdays, there was no choice other than No Use For A Name’s “Making Friends” album. If you actually listen to the lyrics, you’ll realise that they’re considerably less cheerful than the accompanying music. But, for a Monday when Steve had to trudge through the same suburban streets again, it gave him the gift of schadenfreude. At least, he thought, I’m living somewhere different to the nightmare world in the lyrics.

And then, for Sunday mornings, there was NOFX. When he went to the corner shop for snacks – and the rustling of Daily Mails and faint grumbles of queuing shoppers got too much, he’d listen to NOFX songs from the early-mid 2000s. They were the only punk band who were mercilessly sarcastic enough to make him smile. To make him feel just the slightest thrill of rebellion even when the topical satire in each song had long since passed it’s sell-by-date.

Then there was Blink 182’s “All The Small Things”. This was one of those songs Steve put on whenever a nearby car started broadcasting pop music through their open windows at top volume. “All The Small Things” was a whiny song, a commercial song and a generic love song of the worst kind. But, compared to the stuff on the radio these days, it was practically a work of art. Steve smiled. This was, of course, the only way to appreciate this song.

But, when Steve got home, he turned his MP3 player off and opened his laptop. A second later, the soothing tones of “One Foul Step From The Abyss” by Cradle Of Filth sailed gracefully through the air. He sat back and smiled. Punk music might be useful for getting through suburbia. But, he thought, to really relax, you need something else.

Today’s Art (26th February 2018)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the fifth comic in “Damania Refracted”, a new mini series of several (probably six) self-contained comics. Links to many more comics featuring these characters can be found on this page (with the exception of the first two comics in the “2015” segment of the page). Previous comics in this mini series can be read here: Comic one, Comic two, Comic three, Comic four

And, yes, I learnt that fact about medieval forests after I made a webcomic mini series set in a (highly stylised and historically inaccurate) version of the middle ages. And, if anyone is puzzled about the final panel, Harvey was probably just performing a magic trick (then again, he time travels regularly and is friends with a robot)

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Refracted – Unrealistic” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Rock In Rio [DVD Version]” By Iron Maiden

Well, since I’m still in something of a musical mood at the moment, I thought that I’d take a break from talking about Nightwish and look at something by one of my other favourite bands – the one and only Iron Maiden. In particular, I’ll be taking a look at their “Rock In Rio” concert DVD boxset from 2002.

This was the very first Iron Maiden DVD that I ever got (my first Iron Maiden CD was either a charity single taken from this album, or the CD bonus tracks on the “Carmageddon II” game disc) and, despite the fact that one of my favourite T-shirts is based on the cover art for this DVD, it was something that I’d forgotten about slightly. It had languished unwatched for years on the shelf above my computer until, during a slight moment of boredom shortly before writing this article, I decided to dig it out again….

Wow! I can’t believe that this DVD is over 15 years old! How time flies!

Rock In Rio” is a recording of Iron Maiden’s set at the Rock In Rio festival in Brazil in 2001.

This was about a year or two after Bruce Dickinson rejoined the band following several years apart from them, and the DVD is something of a celebration of both this and of the beginning of Maiden’s more “modern” phase. Gone is the more falsetto-heavy sound of Bruce’s original time with the band during the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, it is replaced by a slightly louder, deeper and more serious singing style that is synonymous with Maiden’s more current stuff.

Scream for me Brazil!!

Although it probably took place during the tour for Iron Maiden’s then-new “Brave New World” album, Rock In Rio’s two-hour setlist is crammed with classic songs, with only about five songs from “Brave New World” making their way onto the stage. But, since “Brave New World” is probably one of Maiden’s weaker albums (if such a thing even exists), the classics-filled setlist really helps to show the band at their best.

One interesting thing here is that Bruce also sings both old songs that were originally performed by Paul Di’Anno (“Wrathchild”, “Iron Maiden” and “Sanctuary”) and, more surprisingly, two songs from Blaze Bayley’s then-recent tenure with the band (“The Clansman” and “Sign Of The Cross”).

Needless to say, he brings his own unique interpretation and energy to these songs, turning Di’Anno’s more punkish renditions of these songs into something closer to modern Iron Maiden and turning Bayley’s broodingly dramatic performances into something even more epic and dramatic.

Seriously, I cannot praise Bruce’s rendition of “Sign Of The Cross” in this concert highly enough! It is, by far, the stand-out track on the DVD. Perhaps even the definitive interpretation of the song in question. He takes a solemn, ominous, emotional song and turns it into ten minutes of spine-tinglingly energetic passion and menacing quietness.

The Siiiiiigggnnnn Offff The Crrrrooosss!!!!!!

In terms of Iron Maiden’s performance, they are as energetic and enthusiastic as you would expect – with each song roaring loudly through the speakers as Bruce Dickinson runs and leaps around the stage in his usual fashion, whilst the other band members swagger around and have fun.

There isn’t a weak or lacklustre performance during any part of the concert. All of this passion and energy is emphasised through a lot of fast video editing, which rarely lingers on a single shot or camera angle for more than a few seconds.

Of course, all of the movement and quick editing makes getting screenshots for this review a bit of a challenge. But, oh well…

Seriously, if there’s one thing to be said for this concert, it is that the band are having fun. And it is a joy to watch! Bruce occasionally makes amusing comments to the audience, whilst the other members of the band do all sorts of hilariously silly and/or cool stuff, like throwing their guitars into the air. You really get the sense that these are six expert musicians who love nothing better than putting on a great show.

And what a show it is! The stage design, lighting design and filming still stands up to this day! Unlike the more limited concert halls from many of their earlier live videos (and the one time I actually saw them live – at a theatre in London in 2006), the band take full advantage of the extra real estate offered by the gargantuan outdoor stage. Multicoloured lights glow beautifully in the darkness, a helicopter hovers above the festival to provide a few dramatic aerial shots, and then there’s the stage design itself.

Seriously, this is one of the coolest-looking stages that I’ve ever seen!

It is truly epic!

The stage is filled with scaffolding and corrugated metal panels, which help to lend the stage a slightly “dystopian sci-fi” kind of look, whilst also providing a handy climbing frame for Bruce during a few instrumental moments. The backdrop changes several times during the set, varying between art from the band’s albums and a plain black background.

And, yes, Derek Riggs’ awesome cover art for “Number Of The Beast” also makes a welcome appearance too 🙂

Needless to say- later in the set – the band’s mascot Eddie makes his appearance. This time, he’s a giant wicker man filled with pagan-style dancers.

Surprisingly though, Eddie doesn’t appear during “The Wicker Man” at the beginning of the concert, but during “Iron Maiden” (about two-thirds of the way through the show) instead.

Naturally, Eddie also has glowing red eyes too. Because, would you expect anything less?

My only real criticism of this DVD has to do with the packaging. For some reason, the discs are packaged inside a thin cardboard sleeve and held in place by two sticky pieces of sponge. To call this flimsy would be an understatement!

In fact, when I opened this DVD case after quite a few years, both discs almost fell onto the floor and the piece of sponge holding the special features disc in place seemed to be missing. Needless to say, this has caused scratching to both discs and, to my horror, I found that a few moments of the concert disc were unplayable as a result. Likewise, when I put the concert disc back into the case, I had a rather difficult time getting it to sit back on the spongy circle, which seemed to have expanded somewhat.

As for the special features disc, I didn’t really have time to rewatch it before writing this review but, from what I can remember of it, it contains documentary footage of the band during their time in Brazil, as well as interviews with the band etc….

I might be confusing it with another Iron Maiden DVD but, if I remember rightly, one of the cool things I remember from watching this disc when I was a teenager was the fact that it contained a few silly little easter eggs hidden throughout the various menus etc…

All in all, DVD packaging aside, “Rock In Rio” has stood the test of time surprisingly well. It is two hours of pure energy and passion, and it is an absolutely stellar introduction to the band if you’ve never heard them before. If you’re looking for an epic music video, you can’t go wrong with this one! Whether you watch it in one sitting or just skip from song to song, it’s something that can be enjoyed again and again.

Yes, it might lack some of the pyrotechnics and/or background animations that characterise more modern concert footage from metal bands, but it is still pretty much timeless.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least five.

Short Story: “Wave” By C. A. Brown

It had started at the car boot sale where Jack had spotted a box of old VHS tapes going cheap for a fiver. Rachel hadn’t planned to go along, but Roy and Sue were still on holiday and anything seemed better than sitting in her rented room, staring at a blank screen and wondering what the hell she was going to write her dissertation proposal about. There were two days left on the deadline and, so far, the only thing she’d been able to come up with was a recycle bin filled with stupid questions.

When they’d arrived, she’d turned to Jack and said: ‘I haven’t been to one of these in bloody ages.‘ Followed shortly by ‘Oh my god, is that a tube of POGs? No way!‘ Since the next student loan instalment didn’t arrive for three days, she knew that she’d have to ration herself. Even so, the translucent green tube of cardboard discs was only 25p. It even included a couple of gnarly-looking slammers too. As she handed over the coins, she told herself that the POGs would be worth hundreds in another decade’s time.

I knew we should have kept hold of that shopping trolley.‘ Jack grinned as he leaned against a tree and rolled a cigarette. Rachel put her bulging carrier bag down on the ground and leaned next to him. His lighter clicked. They stood in silence for a minute, until Rachel stared up at the grey sky and said: ‘Looks like it’s going to rain. We should probably head back.’

You’ve never been to one of these things before, have you?‘ Jack exhaled and flashed her another grin. She raised an eyebrow. He continued: ‘The rain is half the fun. Since everyone wants to get out of it, the prices usually go down quickly. It’s nature’s clearance sale.

For a second, Rachel had looked puzzled. Then the heavens opened. Under the shelter of the tree, she watched everyone begin to scatter. As she knotted the handles of her bag, Jack finished his roll-up and gestured towards the cars. ‘We’ve got maybe ten minutes until they leave. Let’s make it count.

When they stopped in front of a grimy grey Astra with an old guy in an even older trenchcoat standing next to it, Jack had pointed at a cardboard box. Rachel leaned over and stared at it. It was full of old video tapes. They were only a fiver. How could she refuse?

After they’d got back to the flat and changed into dry clothes, they sat around drinking coffee in the lounge for a few minutes until Rachel spotted the old video player below the TV. It had come with the flat. Jack smiled at her: ‘I’d always wondered if it actually works. Guess it’s time to find out.

So that’s why you spotted the videos.‘ Rachel could have been angry at him. After all, she was the one who had paid a fiver. She’d thought about taking the tapes home at the end of term and using them for quirky Christmas presents. She didn’t realise that Jack had an ulterior motive. Still, she was too curious to really feel angry.

Kneeling next to the damp cardboard box, she found the newest-looking tape. It was Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”. And, to both of their surprise, the chunky tape not only worked – but the machine didn’t even think about chewing it up.

About halfway through the film, there was a scene where the stoned journalist sat at a typewriter in a dingy 1970s hotel room and gave this melancholy speech about the sixties. About how everything had seemed to be going well back then. How it seemed like the world could only get better. Of course, he lamented, it hadn’t lasted. The ’70s had shown up and hippies had gone out of fashion.

Oh my god, it’s just like the 1990s‘ Rachel muttered. Jack raised an eyebrow. She continued: ‘Think about it, everything was… brighter… in the ’90s. Everything was so cheerful back then. Surely you remember how… optimistic… it was. And then it all went to hell. Just like in the movie. It’s ahead of it’s time.

Jack had just looked puzzled. Rachel shrugged and walked into the kitchen to get a packet of crisps. They crunched through them in silence. When the credits rolled, Rachel pressed the rewind button. As the VCR rumbled and chuntered like a freight train, she said: ‘Another tape?

Nothing better to do.‘ Jack shrugged as he searched the kitchen for a can of cider. Rachel’s eyes settled on a blank tape. Holding it up, she laughed and said: ‘Mystery tape?

You know, more than one horror movie has started with something like that.‘ Jack cracked open a can and proffered one to Rachel. Sitting back, he said: ‘If a ghost pops out of the screen to snatch our souls, I’m telling her that it was your fault.

Deal.‘ Rachel laughed as she put the tape into the machine. After a few seconds of static, an old BBC logo had appeared on the TV before a mid-1990s episode of “Lois & Clark” began. There were two episodes on the tape. By the end, Rachel just gawped at the screen. Jack finished his second can of cider and began rolling another cigarette.

Beside him, Rachel said: ‘Oh my god! Not only did this predict the ridiculous modern obsession with the superhero genre, but it predicted so much more too! That episode where the re-animated Nazis march through the streets of Metropolis and no-one sees it coming until it’s too late. It’s just like that scary thing in America last year.

Barely pausing for breath, she continued: ‘Then there was that other episode where that supervillain runs for president and he parrots Trump’s slogan about making America great. And, Lois and Clark make sarcastic comments about it. It’s a really topical joke…. that was made over twenty years ago.

Jack just looked at her blankly: ‘It’s a stupid superhero rom-com. Ninety minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Please tell me we’re picking a horror movie next.

Smiling, Rachel got to her feet. ‘There are a couple in there. You’ll have to start without me though. I’ve finally thought of an idea for my dissertation proposal!

Today’s Art (25th February 2018)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the fourth comic in “Damania Refracted”, a new mini series of several (probably six) self-contained comics. Links to many more comics featuring these characters can be found on this page (with the exception of the first two comics in the “2015” segment of the page). Previous comics in this mini series can be read here: Comic one, Comic two, Comic three

Well, I first heard of Movile Cave (yes, it’s a real place) a few days before I started making this mini series and I’m surprised it took me this long to include it in a comic – even if I used a lot of artistic licence. But, yes, Harvey is somewhat behind on popular culture (it might have something to do with spending a lot of time visiting Victorian London).

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Refracted – Movile Cave” By C. A. Brown

The Test Of A Good Collaborative Project – A Ramble

Although I’m someone who takes a resolutely solitary attitude towards my own creative works, I ended up thinking about creativity and collaboration recently since I still seem to be going through a phase of listening to more Nightwish than usual at the moment. So, I’ll be using this band as an example for most of the article.

If you know anything about Nightwish, you’ll know that they’ve had three different lead singers (Tarja Turunen, Anette Olzon and, currently, Floor Jansen). Needless to say, there has been a lot of fierce online debate about which singer is “best”. This is further compounded by the fact that each singer has a different singing style. Tarja’s style is bold, serious and operatic. Anette’s style is a bit “lighter”, more cheerful and more energetic. And Floor’s style is somewhere between these two.

In this article, I’ll mostly be focusing on Tarja and Anette’s time with the band. This is mostly because, from what I’ve heard of Floor Jansen’s stuff, she seems to be something of a rare exception to some of the general rules that I’ll be talking about in this article. And since this is meant to be an illustrative article about collaborative projects, rather than a piece of music journalism, I thought it best to focus on the band’s history.

Anyway, during a moment of nostalgia for the two versions of Nightwish that I grew up with, I decided to take a look on Youtube for some of Tarja and Anette’s solo stuff. The thing that really surprised me was that neither singer’s “new” songs really had the same impact on me that Nightwish’s music does. It was then that I realised that I wasn’t specifically a fan of any one lead singer, I was a fan of Nightwish.

Because, regardless of the singer, the whole band is what makes their music so good. Whether it’s lyrics by Tuomas Holopainen and/or Marco Hietala or the rest of the band’s distinctive instrumental style, the band only really seems to “work” as a whole. This holistic thing can be seen by how the musical style of the band changed whenever the lead singer changed. For example, earlier Nightwish albums like “Once” or “Century Child” had a bold, ethereal, fantastical sound to them that went really well with Tarja’s singing style.

Yet, once Anette’s tenure with the band had really hit it’s stride (after the ok, but not brilliant, “Dark Passion Play” album), the band’s style became somewhat different. Many songs on their “Imaginaerium” album have a slightly faster, darker and more cinematic sound to them which jumps around in an impishly fascinating way and really complements Anette’s vocals.

Likewise, the “slow” songs on both “Dark Passion Play” and “Imaginaerium” sound very different to the kind of slow songs that worked well when Tarja was lead singer. Yet, all of these songs are still very recognisably “Nightwish” songs.

They’re still recognisably “Nightwish” songs for the simple reason that the band adapted to the change in lead singer. They didn’t try to be exactly the same band as they were before, but they took all of the elements that made their music so distinctive and adjusted them to be a better fit with their new lead singer. Likewise, the change in lead singer also spurred the band to look for a few new musical inspirations too.

So, why have I spent several paragraphs talking about one band? Well, it’s because good collaborative projects can’t easily be separated into their individual parts. Often, they end up being greater than the sum of their parts. They’re a merging of several different imaginations and sets of talents during one particular moment in time.

To use another Nightwish-related example, when Anette was new to the band, there were relatively few songs written for her (eg: just the songs on “Dark Passion Play” and a couple of other songs), so she ended up singing a fair number of older songs that were originally written with Tarja’s voice in mind. Since Anette’s voice is extremely different, this led to a lot of criticism of both her and the band at the time. Yet, when she sang songs that were written specifically for her, it was nearly impossible to imagine Tarja ever singing the same songs.

Leaving aside Floor Jansen’s uncanny ability to sing both Tarja and Anette’s songs fairly well, a good collaborative project isn’t like a machine. You can’t just switch out one part of it with another and expect it to work in exactly the same way. No, every part of a good collaborative project has to be a good fit with the rest of it. Each element of a good collaborative project should be difficult or impossible to replace with something else, without other major changes.

So, yes, the test of a good collaborative project is often whether it works as a whole. Or, more accurately, whether it becomes less good if one part of it is changed without the rest of it also changing too.

———–

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Short Story: “Alarm” By C. A. Brown

The alarm was silent. The space station’s mood lighting gently changed from green to red. On the upper deck, Captain Morgensen sighed and reached for a computer console. Ever since the latest updates to the station’s software, the alarm lights had gone red more often. She even found herself missing the old air raid howler. At least, she thought, it knew when to make a fuss.

On the desk next to her, Corporal Dra’aen let out a reptilian hiss and muttered: ‘Why don’t they have an amber one? A blocked sink is hardly worth going to full military alert over.

Is that what it is?‘ Morgensen said, trying to sound formal. Protocol dictated it. There had, she remembered, been studies into the most efficient ways to relay information in emergency situations. Fortunately though, her friends in the admiralty hadn’t seen fit to bless her with a scientific observation team. Yet.

Probably, cap’n.‘ Dra’aen’s beady eyes darted across a couple of screens, before settling on a tiny text box. Focusing it to full magnification, he sent it to Morgensen’s screen. She tried to glance at it nonchalantly, but even five years of rigourous training couldn’t disguise the look of utter fury that flashed in her eyes.

Another… update… is available?‘ She stuttered. ‘That’s what this alarm is all about? I dread to think what the software does when a battle-cruiser shows up.

I can look it up in the manual, cap’n.‘ Dra’aen hissed. He’d expected Morgensen to shake her head dismissively, but she just stared at him expectantly. Exhaling, he pulled up another text box and scanned it.

Finally, he croaked: ‘Saturn’s moons! I don’t believe it! There’s nothing but legalese here. All I can really tell you right now cap’n is that the Intergalactic Software Consolidation will probably win the inevitable compensation case after we’re blasted to smithereens by a pulse torpedo.

Suddenly, the soothing sound of wind chimes echoed through the air. A recorded voice said: ‘You have one new video message.

I’m not interested in buying anything right now!‘ Morgensen spat.

The recorded voice just repeated itself. Morgensen let it do this four times before finally saying: ‘Fine. Play message. But, if this is another adver…

The scowling, jowly face of Admiral Salter appeared on the monitor. Without even pausing, he bellowed. ‘Morgensen! What is the meaning of this?

Sir?

Not only did it take you thirty seconds to reply to a critical command message, but your station has been awaiting crucial software updates for the past seven point five minutes! I trust you have a good expanation for recklessly endangering your civilian crew in such a manner.

I set updates to manual, sir.‘ Morgensen said, feeling icy fear spread through her chest. ‘If.. If I may speak freely, sir, I can explain.

Admiral Salter frowned and nodded. Morgensen said: ‘Sir, the station actually used to… work. When there was an urgent message on the comms, it was actually an urgent message. When the alarms went off, it actually meant something. When my crew needed to use the computers, they could run finished programs that took up only three or four exabytes and didn’t crash every two hours. When…

Enough!‘ Salter’s fist slammed into his desk. Taking a second to compose himself, he said: ‘Count yourself lucky, captain. If I had my way, you’d be drummed out of the fleet for that treasonous outburst. But..‘ His voice oozed reluctance ‘… the Intergalactic Software Consolidation has been monitoring all station-to-ship communications for research purposes today.

They’ve been… spying… on us, sir?‘ Morgenson stuttered.

Market research, captain!‘ Salter barked. ‘They’ve assured us that no-one but a few student technicians will be listening in. They were even kind enough to keep in touch whilst doing it. And that is why…‘ He made an expression like he’d just swallowed some bad nutrition pills ‘… I have to promote you.

Promote me? Did I hear you correctly, sir?

Don’t make me repeat myself, captain! For the high-depth user data you have just submitted, you are hereby promoted to Battle Captain. The Fearless will be docking shortly to hand over command. Looks like you’ll be seeing some action again. Don’t screw it up this time. Salter out.‘ The screen went blank.

Morgensen just stared into space, a concerned frown on her face. Finally, Dra’aen whispered: ‘Aren’t you… happy… cap’n?

She let out a sigh: ‘No, I’m terrified. I’ve just remembered that our docking systems were fully automated after the… last… software update.