Our trees are still up. Last year we had just the one, but this year was different. The one’s decked with red, green, and glittery Christmas stuff—also wedding photos, Supermans, and Federation starships. The other is Disney only. I “fought” to get my Marvel ornaments on that one since Disney buys up companies like some sugar-hopped cartoon kid tries to stuff Pokemon into his balls (I think that line is terribly funny, by the way). Fought’s in quotes because all I really said was, “Do we put the Marvel ornaments on this one?” and Lizz said, “I think it’ll be too cluttered if we add the Marvel ones,” or something like that. She was right. I turn both trees on first thing, before feeding Willow or Keuriging my coffee. Walking back to the house with a lavender-scented baggie full of dogshit, the trees glow through the front window and I think that’s nice. Before, I’d see trees glowing through windows in late January and think, “Don’t they know it’s late January already?” I’d sometimes see trees glowing through windows in June and think, “Weirdos live there, obvi.” Now I think everyone can say, “The COVID,” to explain away all the weird crap they’ve taken up. When asked, their answer’d just get a nod and a, “That’s understandable.” Maybe I’ll start playing the Ukulele in the backyard nude on Sunday afternoons. Maybe I’ll watch a YouTube video and learn how to replace the couple shingles that blew off in a storm a while back. Maybe I’ll fold the laundry that’s been piled on top of the brand new cooler I bought for some forgotten reason—but that sumbitch can keep ice cubed for two days! I’ve been wearing a steady rotation of seven t-shirts, seven pairs of undies, seven pairs of socks, four sweatshirts, two pairs of jeans, and one ratty pair of Chucks, so all that laundry can just sit there for all I care. The COVID. I figure if all anyone can see though our front window is two lit-up Christmas trees and not the tumbleweeds of dog hair, the divot in the couch that used to just be my regular old ass-print, the pile of empty boxes from months-back deliveries, or the 20-pack of toilet paper waiting in the basement for another shortage, that’s not half bad. I almost followed that sentence up with “Ain’t half good either,” but I’m not a putz. Anyway. Our trees are still up and we like them enough to keep them up until we don’t.

Album Review: Slayer – “Repentless”

The past few years haven’t been easy for Slayer. With the departure of original and longest tenured drummer, Dave “The Godfather of Double Bass” Lombardo, and the death of guitarist Jeff Hanneman, the band’s future was more than a little uncertain. Bassist and frontman, Tom Araya, had said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep going as it would feel like starting over. Guitarist Kerry King, on the other hand, was a bit more positive, certain that Slayer would continue. Well, King’s persuasion skills must match up with his talent for demonic wailing, because Slayer is back, and they’re the same as ever. And that’s pretty awesome.

When a new Slayer record is released, you know what you’re going to get. The music will be fast, the lyrics will be offensive and everyone in earshot of your stereo will be pissed. At this point in Slayer’s 30 year career as one of the thrash elite, they know what they do best. They’ve secured the ability make the same record over and over again—which is by and large what they’ve been doing for three decades—through their longevity and notoriety, and despite recent troubles it seems they have no plans of stopping anytime soon.

Repentless is classic Slayer. Slayer fans, you guys already know what I mean. For the rest of you, here’s a little breakdown of what you’re in for should you decide you need sate some rage. “Delusions of Saviour” starts off Repentless in much the same way dozens (hundreds?) of thrash records have begun: A slow, clean, grim riff played through an amp with the treble cranked to 10. It may be skippable, but this trash trope is an inexplicable tried and true method. It works because it’s always worked. And what the hell, why not?

“Repentless” and “Take Control” are the blistering sort of fast Slayer is known for. All tremolo picking and fury, Araya fires off a vocal barrage condemning everything from religion to war, and scene politics to humanity itself. Kerry King’s brand of nearly mindless shredding is featured heavily once again. His solos, devoid of all melody, are perfect in matching the tracks’ belligerent and fitful nature note for note. This is a nasty pair of tunes that could be included on any and all of Slayer’s previous records. It’s what they’re known for, it’s what they do best. If you’re looking for a progression of sonic aesthetic, turn the record off. If you’re looking for Slayer, you’ll get it, and you’ll love it.

Due to Repentless essentially acting as a rehash of everything that’s ever worked on a Slayer record before, the possibility of retreading on material that wasn’t their best is always the risk. Most of the middle of the record consists of mid-tempo stompers that are heavy enough to satisfy that head-banging impulse, but don’t have enough to hold much value on top of that. Again, Slayer has a method to their madness, and these songs still very much fit within their stylistic tendencies. They’re great to listen to with the stereo on full blast, but aren’t nearly as energizing as the opening tracks. “Cast the First Stone,” “Chasing Death” and “Piano Wire” are certainly up to snuff, but the band has written better versions of these songs for other albums.

The final three tracks of Repentless reenergize the record quite nicely. “Atrocity Vendor,” and “You Against You” would fit on Reign in Blood in both structure and execution. While the beats per minute are a bit more restrained, these barn burners have that old fury and speed that made Reign in Blood a classic. The main difference in these songs from that thrashterpiece is the production quality. That’s not to say Repentless is overproduced, though. Producers Greg Fidelman and Terry Date do just enough to make the notes understandable, the palm muting brutal heavy and the solos crisp. They stop where they should, though, in keeping the distortion fuzzy, the drums enormous, and the vocals set in the mix exactly where they should be: Right up front, screaming in your face.

“Pride in Prejudice” is the standout track of the record. With racial tensions in the United States at the highest point they’ve been in decades, Slayer crafted a song that highlights and condemns the social injustices that have plagued the country in recent years. Musically, the song is more of the same. Keep in mind that the lyrics are still very much Slayer lyrics, offering more rage than a call to action, but nevertheless, considering the times we live in, it’s an important entry into their catalog that is given teeth by the urgency in their music.

Look, Repentless is a Slayer album. It’s awesome in all the ways in should be. It’s nothing more than that. It can’t so much be judged according to modern musical standards because it’s more a throwback than anything else. What makes it good is that Slayer never claims to be anything more than what they are. They’re fast, angry and offensive, bent on pissing off anyone who doesn’t like them. That’s all. Considering they’ve been able to do the same thing for 30 years with only minor deviations from their baseline style it’s nothing short of impressive. If you buy Repentless you know exactly what you’re getting into. And what you’re getting into is pretty awesome.

(NOTE: This review was originally intended for publication by Spectrum Culture. Due to some scheduling and assignment confusion, it was not run on the site. The editors, however, were gracious enough to allow me to publish it on this here ode to egotism. Special thanks to them. And special thanks to YOU for reading!)

Rejected! -OR- Thoughts on Writing, Rejection, and Despair

Since January of this year I’ve received seventeen rejection notices from various literary journals. While this is in no way out of the ordinary for any writer, emotions can cloud the realities of the literary landscape if they are allowed to do anything more than aid future writing. I can certainly say rejection comes with the proverbial territory, but in doing so I’m holding back discussing the normal, visceral emotions that bubble to the surface. Disappointment, anger, doubt, and sadness (to name a few) take over my mind. No matter how quickly I get over those feelings they reemerge with every “This story doesn’t fit our needs at the moment.”

I’ve read dozens of blogs, heard thousands of words of advice on this subject. Frankly, everyone writing those posts, or stringing those sentences together tends to gloss over those emotions. They’re not wrong in doing so, but completely pushing away the very emotions that give writers the ability to write stories worth publishing can go against the very foundation of the craft.

Now, let me be clear, I am not condoning the infusion of sappy, boring emotionality into fiction. That breeds bad writing. My point is that rejection and despair are essential to finding a reason to continue writing.

Rejection is a harsh word. It’s downright brutal. Its very definition implies a casting out of sorts. It hurts.

There is an excellent aspect to rejection, however, that can be overlooked. If your fiction is objectively sound, if it’s technically pristine, if it’s revised to near perfection, the staff of a literary journal just might not like it. Subjectivity, as random and biased as it is, is essential to publishing. As such, no matter how good your work is, somebody somewhere isn’t going to like it, and there are plenty of those folks serving on mastheads of lit journals. Despite subjectivity occasionally being mistaken as a valid criticism, it does hold value to the Rejected in this case. If you’ve taken the necessary steps to make your work good, it’s not your talent getting the rejection, it’s a slanted decision based on personal taste that offers little insight into what you are capable of as a writer.

Not a bad rationale to adopt.

Regardless of rationality, however, when you’re rejected, your emotions take over for a moment—or longer if you’re expecting a constant influx of publications (By the way, if that is your expectation, 1.) Cease and desist wearing your ass as a hat and get real, or 2.) Stop writing.) These emotions are strong, intense, and destructive if not focused in a useful way. They are not to be ignored either. The intrinsic despair that accompanies rejection is raw human emotion. It’s the stuff of good writing. Fodder, fuel, however you’d like to brand it, the momentary rush of emotion can do several things: Strengthen your writerly need to write more, better; inform future work that has yet to boil up and froth out of your prefrontal cortex; or, at the very least, get you pissed off enough to submit your work to five journals per every one rejection.

The crushing reality every writer has to face is that no one cares if you’re a writer or not. It’s easy not to be a writer. A writer’s life is stuffed with disappointment and fraught with self-doubt. It’s time consuming, stressful, and terribly difficult. (By the way, if you think writing is easy, please choose one of the two abovementioned options.)

So why continue?

The act of writing is justifiable in and of itself. It’s the spontaneous creation of something that never existed before. Something that could never exist in exactly the same form if it hadn’t come directly from any one writer’s brain. There’s validity in that alone.

In a vacuum that sentiment works just fine.

But it has to be tempered with a dose of reality.

The truth is writers write so readers will read. It’s difficult to continue writing when it seems no one wants to read your work. Or when the process becomes burden. Or when the period between modest successes creates a sense of perceived failure. As such I suggest striking a balance between clichéd sentiment and ambition.  Write for the sake of writing, but submit your work as if publication credits are currency. Create because it’s an inherent human desire, but make certain to improve with every new piece. Stay silent and humble about your writing, but let your ego grip you tight and go goddamn write.

I’ve received seventeen rejections in six months.

I’ve got more coming to me.

My next publication credit may never happen.

Whatever. I’m a writer.

Power/Rangers: The Death-Rattle of the Dark & Gritty Experiment

Earlier this week a short film was released featuring an R-rated version of the Power Rangers.  The film is violent, twisted, sexy, and makes use of fairly impressive visual effects (let’s not forget the rather laughable dialogue.)  It even has a bit of star power in Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica fame, and James Van Der Beek from…well, you know who he is.

But dropping a rainbow-clad sextet of teens from a kid’s show into a gritty, played-out, post-apocalyptic future and pitting them against the most overused threat in science fiction, The Machines, does not make for a good film.  Adding bullets, cussin’, blood, gore, nudity, and sex doesn’t enhance the experience either.

Some people found it to be fantastic fun.  Others saw it as complete and utter rubbish.

Let it be known that I prepared a response to the film earlier in the week in which I insulted just about everyone involved.  I sat atop my proverbial high-horse to cast aspersions because I felt some nerdish need to defend my Mighty Morphin’ friends of yore.

But I deleted it.  Started from scratch.

I did this after discussing the film briefly with a friend who suggested that Power/Rangers (which is a ridiculous reimagining of the title regardless) may not have been intended to be straight meat-headed fan service, but a critique of a film trend that may be living out its final days.

Since Christopher Nolan’s masterful Batman Begins in 2005, there has been a bit of an outcry for more realistic and hard-edged portrayals of fantastical characters and their stories.  The argument being that there are some things you just can’t do in film if you want to appeal to the masses.  The Fantastic Four films and Superman Returns were accused, rightfully so, of having an old-fashioned perspective on the titular heroes.  And despite the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s wonderful balancing act between fun and peril, movie-goers continue to clamor for genre and superhero films to be grounded in a dark, nasty reality similar to Begins, its sequel The Dark Knight, and the threequel of the series, The Dark Knight Rises.

Why?  Because Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy worked.  The movies were Good.  They made serious money.  And if it worked with Batman, it was only a matter of time before that Dark & Gritty formula was applied to other properties.

Recently, Man of Steel—a film I will continue to defend despite the remainder of this paragraph—struggled under the weight of its own humorless and bleak point of view.  It separated Superman fans into two camps: those who want the film’s vision to continue on, and those who were aghast at how Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan treated the character—a seemingly uncaring, angry, god-like alien.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier was Marvel Studios’ darkest outing to date—which, by the way, was still able to balance the fun/peril equation.  Regardless, the film’s realism was intense, violent, and quite frightening at times.

Dark & Gritty sells.

But to what end?  Everything Good is eventually bastardized into irrelevancy, right?

In re-examining Power/Rangers, an extreme version of the Dark & Gritty experiment, it seems that there may be some actual intent involved in the making of the of this corny, over-the-top film.  It takes Dark & Gritty to its logical conclusion: morphing something intended to entertain and stoke the imaginations of children into a tasteless, bloody mess for the sake of wowing adults who have grown away from the source material.  It is the destruction of wonderment and the distortion of fun.  It doesn’t adapt a story for an adult audience, it drops familiar elements into a setting full of clichés and human nastiness.  It preys on nostalgia and stuffs the horrors of a corrupt world in its place.  And at the end of the day, it’s nothing but a mindless good time.

may very well be the film that shows people just how ridiculous Dark & Gritty genre and superhero movies will become if they continue on their current trajectory.  A series of films one-upping their predecessors with next-level-cheap thrills, offering paper-thin narratives with hyper-violence and nudity as the only selling points.

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe my original opinion of Power/Rangers was more accurate—that it was made straight-faced and without an ounce of self awareness with the intention of exploiting its target audience.

Maybe I’m right.  Maybe it was intended to be viewed with a critical lens in order to ask ourselves just how far we are willing to go to entertain ourselves.

Either way, Power/Rangers is effective in showing us that Dark & Gritty genre and superhero films may not have died just yet, but they are choking to death on their own gratuitous need to impress.

I’m no fool.  Hackneyed drivel works sometimes.  But Power/Rangers can only work if its intention is to show writers, directors, producers, whoever, how not to make a film.

Oh, Phillies…

Phillies’ pitchers and catchers began their spring training workouts yesterday in Clearwater, Florida.  Isn’t that exciting?

Unfortunately it’s not.

I’m excited to get back to the ball park.  I’m excited for spring.  I’m excited for baseball.  It’s a shame, however, that my team’s hope for any more than seventy wins (I’m being optimistic here) is really just that.  Hope.  What’s worse is that this season “hope” is only a word.

A lack of movement from the front office, a clubhouse devoid of excitement, and management’s definition of total transparency has already taken its toll.  Fans have little else but certain disappointment and an uncertain future to grapple with—and spring training’s only just begun.

If you’re like me, a person who’s been excited for the Phils’ return every year through more bad years than good, it may be time to slip back into the mindset that made us Phillies fans in the first place.  I’ve constructed a brief list of things to help remind you why we came to love this team all those years ago.

1.) They’re Underdogs Again

Everyone loves an underdog—okay, not everyone, but those who don’t are either soulless or in denial.

Perennial winners are boring and pretentious.  They win all the time and when they lose they still somehow win by acquiring the pieces that will make them champs again sooner rather than later.

The losers, however, the forgotten louts, the spoilers, they are the bootstrap-few who are driven by their limitations and a healthy dose of spite.  When they win it’s special.  It means something.  It makes each game worth watching.

2.) Their “P” is Special

I’m a punk rock fan.  I wear punk rock apparel.  I drape myself in Bad Religion, Descendents, and Kid Dynamite gear.

Do you know what the best part of being a punk rock fan is?  No one cares that I’m a punk rock fan.  Punk rock is all mine.  And other punk rock fans give a nod—or sometimes a courteous middle finger—when we pass each other on the street.

Granted, being a sports fan may tarnish my punk rock credibility…But I digress.

The Phillies “P” holds more stock for us now because it means nothing to others.  It’s all ours.  We don’t wear it because it represents success, we wear it because represents exactly who the hell we think we are.

3.) They’re Your Team

Remember the pet you loved but no one else could stand?  The pet that stunk, that made your house reek, that scraped its butt on the carpet, that scared neighbors, that growled at guests, that tracked mud all over the floors, that slept on your favorite spot on the couch.

That was your pet, man.

You loved that filthy thing because it was yours.  It made a bad day good by just sniffing around your house.  It made you laugh when you were sick by getting freaked out by its own reflection.  It sat next to you all quiet and cute…sometimes. That disgusting beast always made the carpet stains and the Febreze buzz worth it.

Despite the Phillies’ nationally reviled status, their abysmal lineup, and their almost assured failure, they’re yours.  They’re yours because you love them.  And that counts for something.  Even when they suck.  Terribly.

As such, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll see you this spring in the stands all dressed up in red.  And you’ll see me in the parking lot after the games all piss and vinegar like a real fan.

How Phonogram Taught Me to Listen

I tend to consider myself an open-minded music listener.  Some call me a harsh critic.  Others stoop to label me a hater.

Nevertheless, I am what I am.  But I owe quite a bit of what I am as a music fan to Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram.

For those who haven’t read Phonogram, the series’ conceit is that music is magic.  That metaphor manifests itself literally in the book as the main cast of characters are phonomancers—folks able to manipulate magic using music.

It’s really cool.  And really fun.  But it puts the impetus on readers to go about researching the music referenced therein for a better and more complete reading experience.

So, here’s me about the time I picked up the first volume of Phonogram when it came to my musical palette:  “Is it fast?  Is it aggressive?  Can I thrash about to it?  No?  Then [EXPLETIVE DELETED] it.”

There were exceptions to my tastes, of course.  But not many.

My appreciation for comics, however, wasn’t nearly as limited.  I read the book, loved it, became a bit obsessed by it, and needed more.  Much more.

So I read it again.  And again.  And then I scoured iTunes and Amazon for all of the songs and albums mentioned and actively used in the book.  It was Manic Street Preachers, and PULP, and ElasticaSuede and Blur.  Even Oasis—in my younger years I based my opinions of friends and family on their thoughts on Oasis.  Care to take a gander at what I thought about those who were digging on the band?

“Singles Club,” Phonogram’s second volume included the Pipettes, Robyn, and TV on the Radio.  I was reading the issues while listening to specified tracks on repeat.  I was drawing parallels between the media.  I even caught the Pipettes live in Philadelphia just to dance like Penny B in the first issue of the volume.

Mind: Blown.  Experience: Enhanced.  Eyes: Open.

No such eclectic smattering of work was ever presented to me in such a way.  It wasn’t a mundane list of recommendations any doofus with a blog could cook up.  It was a set of tools with which to dig into my brain and reevaluate my standards and tastes.

While Gillen and McKelvie may not have intended to teach with their work, Phonogram taught me a valuable lesson:  music is magic.  It’s a moment and a feeling, stamped into a physical object that can be released at any time so that someone, somewhere can experience that self-same emotion.  It’s a transference and transformation of energy.

I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of magic.

If it’s not it should be.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still blast Kid Dynamite records with the windows down on nice sun-shiney days.  I still stomp around in circle pits at punk shows.  I still prefer my old tastes.  But Phonogram has aided me in creating new ones.  It has carved new pathways into my brain that allowed me to approach listening to music from a new direction.

Really, all Phonogram set out to do was tell a great story with one assertion:  music is magic.  Once the third volume is finally released this summer readers can relearn that valuable lesson…and I can have several more reasons to buy imported seven-inches from bands I previously talked heaps of trash on.

Jeff Lemire’s Trillium: Stretching the Limits of Comics with Purpose and Precision

Discussing comics has a typical trajectory.

Plot, art, script, layout, and, ultimately, entertainment value.

That isn’t so much an indictment of the medium’s criticism as it is a reminder that occasionally a comic will come along and force us to break our usual structure of analysis.  Creators pull apart the tried and true comics format in order to build something wholly their own, and to realize their individual creative vision.  As such, we as readers not only have to adapt, but retool our standard modes of discussion.

Jeff Lemire’s Trillium, a monthly Vertigo limited series that ran from July 2013 to April 2014, and collected in trade August of that year, is one of these books.  It is a love story at its core.  A love story wrapped in a massive, high-concept science fiction blanket.

But that’s not what makes this book special.

Lemire goes to great lengths to match the reading experience with the content.  In the first issue alone the reader is asked to physically flip the book over half-way through to show a shift in both perspective and setting.  The act in and of itself forces a reorientation of sorts for the reader, but also shows the disparity between the year 3797, in which Nika, the first protagonist is introduced, and 1921, where readers meet William, the story’s second protagonist.

But we’ve all seen books like this before, haven’t we?  Books that are all gimmick and no substance?

Lemire refuses to let his work sink to that sorry state.

In fact, he uses in-story cues to justify the physicality of the reading experience.  In the second issue the reader is taught to read the page-by-page shifts in perspective by only being able to understand the featured character’s language—character-themed page borders cue in the reader further.

In issue five, Nika’s self-programed A.I. asks readers to read the top halves of the pages first so Nika’s side of the story is told in full.  It then requests that the book be flipped over in order to read the inverted, bottom-half of the pages that feature William’s story.

In the sixth issue, readers have to turn the book over and back again several times as a convergence of the protagonists’ lives occurs.

With all of the story’s odd requests, and all the seemingly random goings-on, Lemire could have stopped there and sold plenty of books.  But he didn’t.  A black hole has been looming over the piece the entire time allowing for all of the space-time jumps and timeline melds.  This not only creates a purpose for the twisting up and flip-flopping of reality in the story, but it allows the reader the opportunity to experience those sensations by following the book’s rules.

Trillium’s reading experience is directly linked to the in-story logic.  Its emotional elements are fortified through a literal melding of the protagonists’ lives.  Lemire never once relies on his built-in reading enhancements, however.  Cut up and read in a more traditional manner, Trillium would still be the mind-bending, emotional romp through space-time it already is.  And that point speaks volumes for the work as a whole.  Lemire created a comic that utilizes all of the art form’s available possibilities without compromising the integrity of the story or its characters.

Comics can create unique opportunities for us as readers.  We’re invited to think a bit differently.  Feel a bit differently.  Delve more deeply into a story’s potential.  And as Lemire’s creative vision is fully realized in Trillium, we’re given the privilege of unpacking a work in all of its many complex and expertly conceived layers.

We’ll return to our usual discussions soon enough.

But Trillium is a unique and stunning diversion.

We’ve Got Us a Spider-Man

Yes.  It’s true.  Spider-Man will finally be making his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This is wonderful news for any fan.  In fact, for a while now, it’s been the general consensus that the wall-crawler’s presence is one of the few things missing from the MCU.  I myself said on several occasions, “Marvel’s owned by Disney, Disney owns this quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy, yeah, they’ve got enough money to buy back our web-slinging friend from Sony Pictures.”

While that’s not exactly how the deal went down—Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige will now have his hands in the upcoming Spidey flicks, as well as the power to plant the web-slinger and his rogues gallery in the MCU proper and vice-versa.  But they still don’t own the character.  Sony is licensing Spider-Man for Marvel’s use.

They’re sharing.  Isn’t that nice?

Regardless, this is a huge win.  And I’m very excited.

The sad truth is, however, that over Spidey’s five picture stint he’s gone through one spectacularly bad film, one full reboot, and a second poorly executed movie that collapsed under the weight of its bloated third act.  All at the hands of Sony and its motion picture holdings.

The new deal, as I understand it, gives Marvel the use of the character, but the creative force behind his solo films will be controlled by Sony.  Despite Kevin Feige and his team’s best efforts, Sony could again misuse and abuse Spider-Man as they still have the final say on the goings-on and happenstance in his solo adventures.

Granted, Feige’s track record as producer and overseer of the MCU is very, very good.  His vision should be trusted at this point.  But every deal, as we know, is made through a series of benefits and compromises for both parties.  Yes, the MCU can include Spider-Man, which is wonderful, but his inclusion therein is major marketing for Sony.  Having Marvel Studios’ brand, and Feige’s acumen attached to their own films is a huge boost as well.  But will they cast away their current vision?  Will they trust in Feige?

My guess is no, they won’t.

They have creative control and the right to do as they please so long as it fits with the events of the MCU.  That fact alone is fodder for concern.

This has been written about extensively since this news broke late last night.  I figured, however, I needed to chime in as a life-long superhero fan living in a veritable golden age of cinematic comic book ventures.  I worry deeply that the ever expanding bubble of influence over the hearts and minds of hardcore and casual fans alike could pop at any moment.

And it will pop.  Someday.  Hopefully not soon, but eventually.

Yes, I’m thrilled.  I think there could be great things on the horizon.  But I’m forced to take this news with a sprinkling of salt rather than a grain.  Because, when it ends, I’d prefer a slow deflation of that bubble.  Not an explosion that could leave us all covered in primary-colored goop, embarrassed to admit how much time and money we devoted to something so tenuous.

So, my question is, will seeing Spider-Man suited up with the Avengers be worth the cost?

We will see, indeed.


Good V. Awesome (Concerning Sharks Being Eaten by Dinosaurs)

A common misconception in discussing any form of art or entertainment is: if it garners a pleasurable experience it can then be considered Good.  This is a flawed way to approach such a discussion.

I tend to break the things I like down into two categories: Awesome or Good.

If something is Awesome, it is heavy on the entertainment and often light on well-done content.

If something is Good, it has managed to balance entertainment and content in a masterful way.

Can something Awesome also be Good?  Certainly.

Can something Good also be Awesome?  Absolutely.

I simply take a bit of umbrage when spectacle and panache become synonymous with quality.

I bring this up after a Twitter debate I had with a friend over the upcoming film, Jurassic World, in which I raised a question based on the trailer.  In one scene we see a great white shark dangling over a body of water as bait for a massive underwater dinosaur—the display akin to a SeaWorld attraction in which a dolphin is coaxed into flinging itself from the water to nab a fish.

It’s a breathtaking scene.  It’ll get people’s butts in the seats.

But my fear is that story-logic will not be applied to the scene.  If the park is feeding a previously extinct creature with a nearly endangered present-day beast of the sea, the rest of the film could merely be a series of exploitative spectacles for an audience to Ooh and Ahh over.

The film is being marketed through the evocation of the original, Jurassic ParkWe’re back on Isla Nublar—the island on which the Dino-theme-park-experiment failed most egregiously twenty years ago.  But we’re told the park is now open as the massive iconic gates invite us inside.  We become immersed in wonders nearly identical to those seen in the original.  Then there’s a montage of the shit we expect to go down in a film such as this.  And, to top it off?  Whispers of John Williams’ fantastic score sneak in.

But what made Jurassic Park so effective was the pseudo-use of scientific facts.  The portrayal of the possible pratfalls of wielding such technologies.  The wonders that become the stuff of nightmares.  Quality and thorough storytelling tethered to a wildly entertaining romp through the jungle with dinosaurs nipping at the characters’ heels.  It was smart, fun, elegant, and impressive.

The next two films, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, can roughly be described as, “Holy shit we’re being chased by dinosaurs!”  The magic that made Jurassic Park Good was skipped in order to make its sequels Awesome—unfortunately they even fell short of that label.

And therein lies my concern.  If the marketing of Jurassic World relies on both spectacle and the nostalgia of the original, it had better damn well produce.

While the shark scene more than likely has very little to do with the plot, if anything at all, if that is to be included in the film (among other Awesome looking scenes), it best have some logic applied to it.

Maybe, since they’re so good at cloning stuff, a throw-away line mentioning that they grow all their own food could be included?  If that’s the case, done, I’m in.

But if the assumption is that great whites are as naturally bountiful as the ill-fated goats in the original—which would be horrifying, by the way—then that simply sucks.  I would have to then assume that the filmmakers were more concerned with Awesome spectacles more so than Good content.

My friend told me I should just try to enjoy the film when I see it.  It’s likely I will.  I’m an easy sell.  Fun is fun, right?  Awesome and Good both have their merits.

But reinvigorating a franchise and restoring its good name after it was destroyed by two worthless sequels will take more than Jaws being eaten whole by Dino-Jaws.  Or a hybrid-dinosaur bent on blood and death.  Or a pack of trained raptors (yeah, I know.)

The original film deserves better.  The novel it was based on deserves better.  And we do too, don’t we?

Nick’s Top 10 Favorite Records of 2014 (Among Other Things)

You should keep in mind that I’m not presumptuous enough to suggest these picks are the best records of 2014.  They simply happen to be my favorites of the 114 LPs, EPs, and singles I listened to last year.  I don’t claim to be a music critic, nor do I pretend to know how to analyze music properly.

Fact is, I like what I like.  So what?

Okay, here we go:

Nick’s Top Ten Favorite LPs of 2014

10. Cayetana – “Nervous Like Me”
Despite the fact they’re from Philadelphia, this band—in all their lo-fi glory—put out a wonderful record. The best of punk and indie blended into cohesive, focused, and self-conscious (literally and figuratively) tunes fit for fans of either genre.
Favorite Tune: “Busy Brain” 

9. Manchester Orchestra – “Cope”
There seems to be a bit of a 90s alt-rock resurgence. I won’t lie.  I’m not mad.  Manchester Orchestra got crunchier, turned their amps all the way up, and didn’t look back until this thing was finished.  Heavy, melodic, sad.  This is quite a throwback, but it’s brand new to me.
Favorite Tune: “Every Stone”

8. Restorations – “LP3”
Philly band. Again.  Sorry.  Anyway, this is how punks can age and do so gracefully.  Restorations’ guts are punk, and that shows in the heart of their music.  They achieve a sort of complex simplicity that sounds rock n’ roll, but demands an aging punk’s attention.  Actually, it demands everyone’s attention.  See that?  That’s punk.
Favorite Tune: “Separate Songs”

7. Chris Letchford – “Lightbox”
Experimental, challenging as hell, but well worth the work it takes to understand it. It’s part easy listening, part mind-bending jazz.  And I’m not a jazz guy.  I was a fan of Letchford’s work in progressive metal act, Scale the Summit, and was intrigued when I heard of his solo work.  Well worth the time and patience.  If, of course, you have time and patience.
Favorite Tune: “The Star Boys”

6. The Menzingers – “Rented World”
They’re not technically from Philly, you guys. They began in Scranton and moved to Philly.  Sue me.  What’s great about this record is the Menzingers could have produced a less effective rehash of their outrageous-good “On the Impossible Past,” but they stepped away and made something worthy to follow it up.  This thing rips.  Sad, sarcastic, a little shitty-drunk, it screams 90s, and punk.  Okay, and Philly.
Favorite Tune: “In Remission”

5. Dinosaur Pile-Up – ‘Nature Nurture”
Taking their name from Peter Jackson’s King Kong (if you’ve seen it, you know), this UK outfit uses grunge as a protein, metal as a spice, and wraps it all up in a pop-rock casing.  Sometimes pretty, sometimes catchy, sometimes brutally heavy, this record was a surprise to me as I trolled the front page of iTunes’ recent releases.  My lordy am I happy their name is as fantastic as their music is delicious.
Favorite Tune: “Peninsula”

4. Comeback Kid – “Die Knowing”
This may be my most questionable pick. Comeback Kid breeds polarization.  Which is a shame, I’ve always been a fan.  Truthfully enough, however, their previous two releases left me wanting.  This, though?  It borrows from just about every variation of hardcore to make something new.  And wild.  And violent.  And really, really great.  Sure, it’s a tick overproduced.  But CBK’s finesse in navigating the genre speaks for itself.  And Scott Wade does guest vocals!
Favorite Tune: “Full Swing”

3. The Bamboos – “Fever in the Road”
This Melbourne-based, nine-piece beast needs a new term to describe their tunes: Nu-Funking-Soul.  This record blows me away every time I listen to it.  It’s modern soul without being a niche joke.  Funk without the gimmicks.  It’s real, guys.  Sincerity goes a long way when reimagining a classic sound.  And the Bamboos do it with style and class.
Favorite Tune: “Helpless Blues”

2. Lagwagon – “Hang”
Lagwagon hadn’t put out an LP since 2005. Admittedly, I was worried.  I was worried that I’d grown out of their SoCal sound.  I was worried they were clinging to something they no longer embodied.  I had concerns.  However, Joey Cape and company reinvented themselves.  No by changing what they are, but by changing their approach to the material.  The music is familiar, but wildly different.  The lyrics are thematically focused, but lack the pretention of a concept album.  This thing is heavy, riffy, fast, and 100% Lagwagon.  But it comes from a band that knows what they were, and what they want to be, and they did it without dissolving that which makes them, them.  Their unflinching loyalty to punk rock.  I had concerns.  Now I don’t.
Favorite Tune: “Obsolete Absolute”

1. The Lawrence Arms – “Metropole”
Sadness, aging, personal demons, and crushing regret.  All present in the Lawrence Arms’ newest effort.  Sounds pretty rough, does it?  Because it is.  But it the most wonderful ways!  Brendan, Chris, and Neil never seem satisfied with writing a bunch of songs, slapping them onto a disc and calling the end product an album.  While these hard-drinking Chicago-based sad-sack punks are in the process of writing an album, they seem to pore over what exactly turns a collection of songs into a full body of work.  They revisit lyrical content, chord progressions, riffs.  Each song is magnificent on its own, but as a whole?  They all writhe and twist and slop together to show us sadness, and regret, and woulda-coulda-shouldas, while sprinkling in an odd sense of hope.
This is a wonderful record.
And we’re all a bit sadder for having listened to it.
Just kidding.
Not really…
Favorite Tune: “Paradise Shitty”

Nick’s Top Five Favorite EPs or Singles of 2014

5. Saves the Day – “Tide of Our Times/Everlasting Everything”
Saves the Day’s 2013 self-titled album was fantastic.  This is merely one of those tunes along with an extra from those recording sessions.  And I’m not mad.  Knowing how frequently Saves the Day alters their style, who knows when they’ll sound like this again?  Cling to it!  A great addition to the 7” collection, and a nice treat for fans of their work.

4. Bad Cop/Bad Cop – “Boss Lady”
All-lady pop punk with fast beats and three-part harmonies.  I know there’s a lot of punk rock on this list, but Bad Cop/Bad Cop is a no-brainer for anyone hankering for some fast tunes that offer perspectives that differ significantly from the mostly male dominated genre.

3. Diamond Youth – “Shake”
It’s heavy.  It’s moody.  It’s surf-rocky.  And it’s an EP that was a bit overlooked because of how early in the year it was released.  Say, you like the first Foo Fighters record?  Diamond Youth’s got them breakdowns.  Hey, you dig the falsetto vocal stylings of Muse?  Diamond Youth’s all over it.  Bro, you like surfing?  I’m pretty sure Diamond Youth is down with that, too.  Pure radness here.

2. Cayetana – “Hot Dads Calendar”
What?  A repeat?  Yes.  Indeed.  My introduction to Cayetana was due to this release.  Only two songs and I was smitten.  They hooked me with two damn songs, you guys!  Want a Cayetana primer?  Boom.  Here you go.

1. The Weaks – “The World is a Terrible Place, and I Hate Myself and Want to Die”
What makes a good EP?  A consistent flow, a showcase of what a band is capable of, and some damn fine songs to boot.  The Weaks accomplish all of that and more.  Snarky and 90s-heavy, these tunes lure you in, shake you about, then spit you out wishing to be shaken about again.
It’s another coincidence, I guess.  They’re from Philly, too.
How about that?

Nick’s Honorable Mentions of 2014

Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
It didn’t make the Top Ten.  But this record is great.  Yes, it rocks and rolls, and does all the things a great rock album should do.  That’s true.  What Against Me! offers here is perspective.  And an important one at that.  I’d rather let Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) speak for herself than write some meager words that won’t pale in comparison.  Pick this up.  Immediately.

Manchester Orchestra – “Hope”
Their album “Cope” is in the Top Ten.  But what of this?  “Hope” is the stripped-down reimagining of “Cope” in its entirety.  Full of acoustic guitars and string arrangements, it’s the softer side of a crushingly good album.  A real treat.

Various Artists – “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix, Vol. 1”
Writer/director James Gunn wrote these songs into the very first draft of the Guardians of the Galaxy script.  Without these jams it’s tough to say if the reception of the film would have been the same.
I’m going for it here:  This is truly an awesome mix.
See what I did there?

Nick’s 2014 “This Year in Nostalgia” Award

Finch – “Back to Oblivion”
I was obsessed with Finch in the early 2000’s.  Their lyrics were corny, their music was derivative, but they spoke to the 15 year-old me.  When they shifted to a more challenging sound, I was right there with them.  Their lyrics went from corny to unintelligible, their music took on a life of its own.
Then their fans wigged out and the band broke up.
Now, nine years after their last LP, Finch came back to give it another go.  And it’s pretty good, too!  Probably a bit irrelevant, sure.  But I for one am glad they’re back.
Makes me feel fifteen again.

Nick’s 2014 “Unbridled Enthusiasm” Award

DragonForce – “Maximum Overload”
The album’s ridiculous.  It’s musically over the top.  It’s lyrically absurd…
But let’s face it, DragonForce is awesome.  They’re every video game you’ve ever played.  Every Lord of the Rings battle scene you’ve wanted to remix.  They shred.
They put the same record out every three years, sure.
Good.  Let ‘em.

Nick’s 2014 “Challenge Accepted” Award

Animals As Leaders – “Joy of Motion”
If you like to have your brain wrung out while listening to music, this is for you.  Experimental Metal/Jazz fusion.  If you can make it through, you’re better off for it.  If you can’t, no one will blame you.  Outstanding stuff.

Nick’s Year in Music – 2014

(The following is a list of all the LPs, EPs, and singles I listened to in 2014.  Lots of great stuff.  Some shit, too.  Choose wisely.)

The Lawrence Arms – “Metropole”
Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
Mogwai – “Rave Tapes”
Periphery – “Clear”
The Lawrence Arms – “News from Yalta”
Diamond Youth – “Shake”
Cayetana – “Hot Dad Calendar”
The Weaks – “The World is a Terrible Place, and I Hate Myself and Want to Die”
The Moms – “Blow Me”
The Shell Corporation – “Mandrake”
Rust Belt Lights – “Religion & My Ex”
St. Vincent – S/T
Twin Forks – S/T
Beck – “Morning Phase”
Kid Cudi – “Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon”
The Mighty Fine – “Brothers & Smugglers”
Comeback Kid – “Die Knowing”
Nothing – “Guilty of Everything”
Banner Pilot – “Souvenir”
Bad Cop/Bad Cop – “Boss Lady”
Dinosaur Pile-Up – “Nature Nurture”
Marc7 – “Food, Clothing, and Shelter”
Barely Alive – “Lost in the Internet”
Lung Season – “2014”
Tycho – “Awake”
Iron Savior – “Rise of the Hero”
Persuader – “The Fiction Maze”
Somos – “Temple of Plenty”
Dugout – “Where There Used to Be Meaning”
Oh Honey – “With Love”
Augustines – S/T
Blood Red Shoes – S/T
311 – “Stereolithic
Future Islands – “Singles”
Tides of Man – “Young and Courageous”
London Grammar – “If You Wait”
Grieves – “Winter & the Wolf”
Gamma Ray – “Empire of the Dead”
Taking Back Sunday – “Happiness Is”
Animals As Leaders – “Joy of Motion”
Finch – “What It is to Burn X”
Karmin – “Pulses”
The Bamboos – “Fever in the Road”
Jason Cruz and Howl – “Good Man’s Ruin”
Antarctigo Vespucci – “Soulmate Stuff”
Galantis – “EP”
Johnny Cash – “Out Among the Stars”
Betty Who – “Slow Dancing”
Scavenger Hunt – S/T
Manchester Orchestra – “Cope”
Modern Baseball – “You’re Gonna Miss it All”
SinBreed – “Shadows”
For the Fallen Dreams – “Heavy Hearts”
Ingrid Michaelson – “Lights Out”
Brendan Kelly/Sam Russo – “Split the Tip”
Fucked Up – “Year of the Dragon”
Sonata Arctica – “Pariah’s Child”
Xandria – “Sacrificium”
Fireworks – “Oh, Common Life”
Mad Caddies – “Dirty Rice”
Conor Oberst – “Upside Down Mountain”
Atmosphere – “Southsiders”
Chuck Ragan – “’Til Midnight”
Eels – “The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett”
Diamond Youth – “UK OK”
Cayetana – “Nervous Like Me”
Matisyahu – “AKEDA”
Tigers Jaw – “Charmer”
Coldplay – “Ghost Stories”
Bob Mould – “Beauty & Ruin”
Bury Tomorrow – “Runes”
Chris Letchford – “Light Box”
Arch Enemy – “War Eternal”
White Lung – “Deep Fantasy”
Mastodon – “Once More ‘Round the Sun”
Fucked Up – “Glass Boys”
Every Time I Die – “From Parts Unknown”
Judas Priest – “Redeemer of Souls”
Manic Street Preachers – “Futurology”
Broods – S/T
Four Year Strong – “Go Down in History”
Rx Bandits – “Gemini, Her Majesty”
La Sera – “Hour of the Dawn”
Joyce Manor – “Never Hungover Again”
Porter Robinson – “Worlds”
Zomboy – “The Outbreak”
Various Artists – “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix, Vol. 1”
Within the Ruins – “Phenomena”
DragonForce – “Maximum Overload”
The Gaslight Anthem – “Get Hurt”
Leisure Cruise – S/T
The Moms – “Buy American”
Whirr – “Sway”
Finch – “Back to Oblivion”
The Preatures – “Blue Planet Eyes”
New Found Glory – “Resurrection”
Foo Fighters – “Sonic Highways”
Gerard Way – “Hesitant Alien”
Lights – “Little Machines”
Saves the Day – “The Tide of Our Times/Everlasting Everything”
Broods – “Evergreen”
Lagwagon – “Hang”
Manchester Orchestra – “Hope”
Restorations – “LP3”
The Drums – “Encyclopedia”
Capsize – “The Angst in My Veins”
Unearth – “Watchers of Rule”
Antarctigo Vespucci – “I’m So Tethered”
Cloud Nothings – “Here and Nowhere Else”
Knife Party – “Abandon Ship”
Angels & Airwaves – “The Dream Walker”
Death from Above 1979 – “The Physical World”
TV on the Radio – “Seeds”
Common – “Nobody Smiling”