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Friday, November 30, 2012

The Kamelot Superpost, Part 1: Introduction and Early Years

Yes, it's that time again...SUPERPOST AHOY. This time around I aim to inquire into the mythical, literary, and courtly-romantic elements that inspire many power metal bands' lyrics, with specific emphasis on the power metal band I'm most familiar with: Kamelot. The post series will take the shape of this introductory post, a post for Roy Khan's first two ventures with the band (Siege Perilous and The Fourth Legacy), a classic Kamelot post (Karma, Epica, and The Black Halo), a Kamelot-branches-out post (Ghost Opera and Poetry for the Poisoned) and a speculative post concerned with Tommy Karevik, Silverthorn, and the band's future. As ever, if this is not your bag, apologies and ignore at will. I'll try to intersperse these with other things of interest.

Starting off, a few relevant details: Kamelot was founded in Tampa, Florida (HAAAAAY) in 1991. The lineup originally consisted of Mark Vanderbilt on vocals, Thomas Youngblood on guitar, Richard Warner on drums, and Sean Tibbets on bass; David Pavlicko played keyboards for a time as well. After releasing two albums, Eternity and Dominion, Vanderbilt and Warner left and were replaced by Roy Khan and Casey Grillo respectively, while Glenn Barry took over for bass on Dominion and remained with the band until Poetry for the Poisoned. These first two albums are often ignored by fans for being subpar to what would come during Khan's reign, but both are solid power metal records and deserve some consideration. Both featured lyrics by drummer Warner and music chiefly from Youngblood, with some involvement from Barry and Warner, and both albums illustrate the fantasy bent of many power metal songs. Lyrically, these records delve into mythology and history, often with a medieval setting--songs such as "Gleeman," "Song of Roland," and "Birth of a Hero" are good examples of these tendencies, which are found throughout power metal, beginning chiefly with the mighty Blind Guardian. Battles are fought, crusades embarked upon, demons encountered, and the only inklings of what would become Kamelot's chief lyrical themes are "Sin" and "Crossing Two Rivers." These songs, both from Dominion, emphasize fruitless love and loss as well as the relationship between bodily and spiritual desire, topics which would come up repeatedly on future albums.

     (both album covers from Prog Archives)

In terms of lyrical content, the fantasy and mythic-historical base of the band's songs was obvious even at the beginning of their career. Courtly love stories and poems range from sensual to highly spiritual and even platonic, often positioning the female object of desire as a noble, nigh-sacrosanct figure: the princess in the tower. To what extent Kamelot utilizes these concepts, along with popular myths such as those of King Arthur, and classic literature, specifically Goethe's Faust, will be examined in later posts. It wasn't until Khan arrived and merged his vast song-writing talents with those of Youngblood that what I consider Kamelot's classic sound and themes really began to emerge...but that's a song for another day. Arguably Kamelot is one of the best examples of seamless fusion between three of the major forefathers of European power metal; Blind Guardian, Helloween (as well as Gamma Ray), and Stratovarius each pioneered the genre in notable ways, with every band following acknowledging these groups in some fashion, whether to pay homage or to diverge. Though Kamelot is an American band and one of the early US power metal groups, their most iconic work is in the European vein--yet their later work has opened up into gothic and even doom metal territory. This hybridization makes them one of the most interesting power metal bands to analyze.

Necessary Tracks: "Call of the Sea" from Eternity and "We Are Not Separate" from Dominion. Unrelated to anything else but amusing to me, these album covers kicked off a trend of purple that wouldn't be broken until The Black Halo.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The place that cradled me is burning

Normally I am not much for Gawker, but one of my favorite Hairpin writer/commenters, Mallory Ortberg, has begun doing pieces for them, so occasionally I have to venture in (the Gawker commenters, may I say, do not deserve melis even a little bit). Last week she wrote an article entitled "Have You Heard the One About the Religious Woman Who Stops Being Religious In College?"

Obviously that was going to be totally all up in my alleys, and it was--not just the memory of having religion and losing it, or the experience of being let down by authority figures and God, or the tendency to keep the church in the corner of my eye, whether incidentally or intentionally, or the lingering guilt over choosing to read the same SWEU novel for the eighteenth time instead of doing my scripture study. When I was young there was a disconnect between my home life and my church life; people said things from the pulpit and in Sunday school that my mother would never have said. When we were small she let us wear two-piece bathing suits, of all things, and didn't hover over my shoulder when I checked out books with swear words from the library. As I grew older and after my mother remarried a very stringently devout man, the gap closed, church authority and family authority presenting a united front (as I suppose it should have been all along, ideally). I have no idea if I still would have left had my mother continued to be relatively personally liberal, showing me that there was a way to be a good, faithful LDS woman as well as keeping one's own counsel.

This brings me to the crux of Ortberg's piece, what really hit home: the idea, totally foreign to me at age nineteen, that change can happen from within. It honestly never occurred to me to wonder if I, I, could be an instrument of change in the LDS church. That simply wasn't how the church worked. I only knew that I had become aware of the church as a place I could no longer belong. I didn't think about what it would need to be like for me to continue belonging there. Maybe it's no better than saying if my aunt was male she would be my uncle, but as a blogger who reads a good many LDS and ex/post/whatever-LDS blogs, I am seeing inklings of change. I see the women of fMh, I see Joanna Brooks. They're doing something I didn't think could be done. I'm still not sure it can be, or if it's worth it. But it's happening and I am watching, occasionally befuddled, more often proud.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

but yes, it's good

On Friday at work, I was reading Maggie Stiefvater's newest novel, The Raven Boys, during lunch. A coworker asked me if it was good. 

Dear coworker, whether this book is "good" or not has very little to do with my enjoyment of it. See, Stiefvater and I are roughly the same age, and--based on what I know of her reading habits from interviews and the like--we read many of the same books when we were teenagers. The Raven Boys is basically the book I would write if I had the skill. It is a book which seems to have arisen out of formative-years obsession with Welsh mythology, implanted by authors like Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander. Like Walton's Among Others, my reaction to The Raven Boys was about the memories and emotions it evoked in me. I was a child obsessed with Wales and stories about King Arthur and other murky rulers of Britain's past who grew up to be an adult interested in magic at large and most specifically how magic is utilized in my day, in people's everyday lives, in "modern" America. 

The Raven Boys has that. It has ley lines, the Old Ways found in the Dark Is Rising books, the magical tracks I read of in New Agey books about Stonehenge when I was fifteen; it has Owain Glyndwr, the fabled icon of Welsh resistance to English tyranny; it has, obviously, raven boys, some of whom are very Bran-like indeed. It has psychics and rituals and mirrors, sacred groves and visions (no, not that kind), theories of Welsh expeditions to the Americas predating Columbus. It has inklings of authors that came before, Monmouth and Malory. It has people for whom magic is the everyday, a trope I find endlessly appealing (and why I think the term "magical realism" is a good one and serves a purpose). It is in itself a mirror, reflecting a mass of my reading experience, the books that really shaped me, back to me.

Perhaps best of all, it serves as a bridge between those books, which some readers may not have read, and the shining new fairy tale Stiefvater has created. It is possible to enjoy The Raven Boys without knowing a thing about Welsh history and myths, and I suspect that this book will serve many readers as a tease to know more. Never a bad thing. It's good to know there will be more books in this new series--three more--especially after that damn ending.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield

I saw Skyfall last night. Sam Mendes managed to do something lovely and tricky with this movie: he made a Bond film that is both homage and deconstruction. Over the course of two and a half hours, Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Javier Bardem, and Judi Dench examine what it means to be James Bond in the 21st century--where "James Bond" is a metonym for Great Britain itself. This goal appears as a running theme of old Britain and new meeting, occasionally clashing, as when MI6 is forced to relocate to a WWII bunker, M quotes Tennyson to MPs, and Bond and Q meet up in front of The Fighting Temeraire (yes, I squealed). Bond's own past becomes the contingency plan as he and M travel to Skyfall, his ancestral home in Scotland, to outsmart Silva (Javier Bardem as one of the most effective Bond villains in some time), pulling a Home Alone-style series of boobytraps that somehow fit seamlessly with the helicopters and motorcycle chase scenes elsewhere in the film. There's a glimmer of self-awareness, of acknowledgment between Bond and M of how she has taken advantage of him for Queen and country, and how he will continue to allow himself to be weaponized. Skyfall also references the history of Bond movies--an ejection seat in the Aston Martin, Q's quip about exploding pens, the return of Moneypenny and the positioning of M as the film's chief Bond Girl--while settling the story and characters firmly in their own time with a cyberterrorist plot and high-tech guns.

The question posed by Skyfall is whether Bond (and by extension MI6 as it is run by M, and further the United Kingdom as a political entity) is still the go-to in terms of national security. Is he fit, active, flexible, deadly? Is he still capable of competing? Or is he the warship hauled in for breakdown? As far as this query goes, the film is a success, reassuring everyone that the British stiff upper lip will prevail when backed up by big guns; in other realms, it's a bit more opaque. The devastating and underutilized Berenice Marlohe, whose character is a former sex worker indentured to Silva, is killed off with possibly even less fanfare than Caterina Murino in Casino Royale, and M dies as well, to be replaced by...Ralph Fiennes, not Helen McCrory for reasons I cannot fathom. Because there must always be a Moneypenny at the desk, Naomie Harris quits the fieldwork and starts shuffling papers--truly  I am torn in this regard, because as Moneypenny, there's a good bet that Harris will show up in at least one more film, but her sparkle and wit and savvy could be used to such greater effect. Then there's Silva himself, a perhaps queer man with vast mommy issues as the film's villain; Bardem is good enough an actor to bring some of the hallowed Bond-villain camp, but it sometimes skates close to Evil Gay ground (though it isn't clear if Silva is actually gay or bisexual, or if he is just willing to use every tool at his disposal, and at any rate, Bond is unmoved by Silva's advances--which may be the entire point). As the inverse of Bond, Silva, his machinations, and his relationships are intriguing, to the point where it becomes difficult to discern if Mendes has given us a straightfaced Bond movie or is trying to tell us something about the way he views the genre (and it is a genre by now). Everything about Silva is taken to the limit: he uses women literally to the point of death, he plays with bottles of fine Scotch as props, he wields sex as a weapon. So what does that say about James Bond?

Friday, November 09, 2012

Two head-bangers and a head-tripper

Only a new book from an author I love is better than a new CD from a favorite band...and October saw three new releases from some of my faves! Though The Haunted Man and Apocryphon have been out since October 22, I've been sitting on thoughts about those two so I could put all my new music feels into one big post once Silverthorn arrived. And it finally did, and oh, was it worth the wait? Yes, it was. More on that in a moment; Bat for Lashes comes first. 

Now it had been three years since the release of Two Suns, and like most other fans I was on pins and needles for The Haunted Man. It doesn't disappoint--perhaps less mystical than its predecessors and more stripped down, Bat for Lashes' third record is as charming, strange, intimate, and charismatic as a devotee could hope. The first single, "Laura," is a heartfelt tale of doomed stardom, while "Lilies" is a track bursting with vitality (and one I can't wait to add to my springtime playlist) and "Marilyn"'s eerie background chatter harks back to "Bat's Mouth" from Fur and Gold. Like a Bat for Lashes album should be, The Haunted Man is a subtly demanding listening experience, not background music by any stretch, and a raw, rewarding album for old and new fans alike.

First Favorite: "Winter Fields." It's not overstating things to say that I am obsessed with this song, especially now as winter approaches the Cleve. According to iTunes, I have listened to the entire album four times and "Winter Fields" thirteen times since obtaining it on October 29th. Oops?

The Sword's latest release, Apocryphon, is a similarly powerful effort, one which combines the flavors of Age of Winters, Gods of the Earth, and Warp Riders to great effect. Mythology, references to science fiction, and riffs on fantasy tropes are all present, making for a melting pot of speculative, introspective storytelling via crunchy guitars and thrumming bass. The record features no instrumental tracks, a first for The Sword, and is perhaps less "finished" sounding than Warp Riders--but for a group like this, who are most fundamentally a live act, that isn't a bad thing. A few new elements appear on Apocryphon, most notably some trippy synth on "Dying Earth," and "Eyes of the Stormwitch" and "The Hidden Masters" have a pleasantly Western-twangy tinge...fitting, as the band hails from Texas. The Sword's original drummer, Trivett Wingo, left during the Warp Riders tour due to exhaustion and anxiety issues, and new rhythm fanatic Jimmy Vela III is shutting it down--I especially enjoy the feisty drum work on "Hawks and Serpents." I'm really looking forward to hearing this new material performed when The Sword come to rock Cleveland this evening!

First Favorite: I loved "Eyes of the Stormwitch" before I even heard it (who can resist that title?) and even more now that I've had it on repeat. PS: if you'd like to know more about the album artwork, check out my related post on Between the Panels.

Kamelot, as mentioned here previously, has recently gone through a lineup change, and Silverthorn is new singer Tommy Karevik's album debut with the band. This record had been teased as a "return to form," and indeed, compared to the proggy, doomy Poetry for the Poisoned, Silverthorn has more in common with earlier albums such as Epica. Karevik's vocals are part of this; as Khan's voice aged a bit, it took on a grittier edge than had been present during his fresh-out-of-opera-school days--which was appealing and added new layers to the music (for my money)--and the choirboy cleanness of Karevik's voice fits well with the symphonic musicianship and goth undertones of the new album. Silverthorn is nothing if not a production, in every sense: impeccable sound-mixing, extravagant instrumental pieces, guest vocals galore (including my favorite death metal queen Alissa White-Gluz, Elize Ryd, and Sascha Paeth), and a concept that extends to a full-color story booklet that came with the limited edition CD. As with any new album, particularly one showcasing a new vocal talent, it'll take a few listens before Silverthorn sinks into my brain, but it's certainly living up to the hype.

First Favorite: Like everyone else with ears, "Veritas" is my most-listened track off Silverthorn so far...especially after seeing this.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


Like most of America, I imagine, last night I sat up glued to my computer screen, downing far more local porter than advisable and scarfing pizza to stave off the anxiety that Mitt Romney might become the leader of my country. Fortunately, thanks to stubborn voters standing in lines for five hours or whatever gods might be smiling on us, Barack Obama retained his office with 303 electoral votes--including those of my new state, Ohio (yes, I cried tears of pride when those results rolled in--now if only Florida will match it!).

Beyond this happy news, the 2012 election also yielded a Senate majority for Democrats (let's hope they use it), and better yet, ousted or denied several members of the rightwing rape-enabling brigade: Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Claire McCaskill won against Todd Akin in Missouri. That the winners were female senators is just icing on the cake. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin took Tommy Thompson's seat, to become the first openly lesbian senator in US history, and Tammy Duckworth will replace Joe Walsh (another rape-enabler) and become the first US senator with a disability. Anti-marriage amendments were struck down in four states and Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana, while Colorado and Washington legalized it for recreational use, with limits.

All in all, it was a pretty good night. President Obama isn't perfect--he certainly isn't as wildly progressive as some reactionary types like to imagine--but waking up this morning to four more years was a good feeling. It is good to think that there are voices in this country that outlast the lunatic fringes and that voting shenanigans can't always keep democracy down. Now we have four more years to get the things done that matter, four more years to work for education initiatives, healthcare, and true civil rights for all our citizens, four more years to work on ending our various fruitless wars. We elected many great people yesterday: now we have to hold them accountable.
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