Posts Tagged ‘michael aronovitz’

Lockets

Sweet Sounds

By Michael Aronovitz

lockets

I have always been a metal-rock guy, as I came to age in the 70’s and always made assessments based on guitar speed and drum tricks. It was a neighborhood hero sort of a deal, where the kid in his garage or basement could sound like the big boys if he got a flying V, plugged into a Marshall, and practiced his scales until he was slick as Skynyrd and his best friend’s kit made thunder like Bonham. From a listening standpoint, it wasn’t about the way the music made us “feel,” but more about making tile. You saw people go down in the forge and practice their asses off so they could play someone’s keg party and be a rocker for the night. It was a blast…a grass-roots spectacle based on manual labor and sweat.

But I also liked the sweet stuff, and I’m not just talking about Gary Wright and Leo Sayer. Queen started out seeming a bit girly and inconsequential, but wound up making the most diverse album in history with A Night at the Opera. Foreigner had pretty backing vocals, but rocked the living shit out of us with “Hot Blooded” and “Long Long Way From Home.” Boston would seem sugary by today’s standards, but no one can deny the crunch and sustain Tom Scholz manufactured with his axe, and even though Kiss helped start metal with Sabbath and the Coop, they did, after all, have a mega-hit with “Beth.”

A lot of popular music gets translated through street poets and rock gods, showboats and master technicians, but another crucial part of the equation is the soul of the listener. Some fans open their hearts by raising their fists and banging their heads, studying the scales and analyzing the breaks, but others want the music to simply consume them. To paint pictures. To make them feel.

I had the opportunity recently to get to know one of the founders of a synth-pop band from Philadelphia called Lockets. His name is Todd Mendelsohn, and he was a student of mine in a continuing education fiction class I teach at The University of the Arts. Todd is a big presence, outgoing, gregarious, and his fiction is bold, atmospheric fantasy horror. When he told me that he had a synth-pop band in which he played all the instruments and programmed the drums, partnering with a female singer (Dani Mari, who by 2015 was replaced by Melissa Ricca, yet to record) I was rather surprised. It didn’t seem to fit. Todd was the life of the party, the guy everyone wanted to sit next to at the bar, the one who told stories in a booming voice that held us spellbound, and the idea that he was the soft-spoken master-magician behind some kind of docile mood music seemed hysterical.

Still, I listened to the Camera Shy album and the Surrender EP, and was astounded, not only by the depth of the production and the breadth of the instrumentation, but also the way it affected me through emotional channels I wasn’t used to acknowledging. I tied to rebel. I tried to analyze the rhythm tracks, the guitar layering, the vocals, the breaks. And while the execution of all of the above would be appreciated on anybody’s stat sheet, the music finally didn’t filter in that way.

It painted pictures. Beautiful ones.

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When I listened to Camera Shy, I was initially reminded of The Cranberries, but that faded by the 3rd track titled “Violet.” The counterpoint of the building guitar and the immediate presence of the harmony vocal merged with the idea that I started seeing myself in my mind’s eye on a beach. There were waves and a sunset, warm breezes and memories. By the time I got to track #6, “Crush,” the beach had gone abstract to colors, and “Winter Light” made me smile.

“He changed the season,” I thought. “Clever.” I suppose a criticism of synth-pop in general might be the idea that the music has a linear construction as opposed to a climactic one, but what Lockets kept consistent in terms of instrumentation, they made sure to broaden with theme. The album has a “spreading” effect if you will, not only growing on you, but growing with you, supplying oils and brushes for your evolving inner mural.

The EP Surrender is brilliant. Concluded with two rather dark (and odd) remixes of the title track, the Lockets version is mesmerizing. It contains a phenomenal arrangement of keys and drums, and the harmonies are simply outstanding. The second track, Girl, is more upbeat, and demonstrates a subtle diversity, especially in the instrumentation and sound effects in the spaces.

Most of all, however, all of the music paints pictures. They don’t hang on walls, and they don’t prance around the stage.

The pictures are in your own head.

And they are aesthetic masterpieces.

 

Link for Vinyl version of Camera Shy / UK

https://beautifulstrange.bandcamp.com/album/camera-shy

Buy link for digital copies

https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/lockets/id548765294

Michael Aronovitz is a horror author who has published three novels, two collections, more than thirty short stories, and a number of horror and metal reviews. His first novel “Alice Walks” will come out in E-book form through Cemetery Dance Publications this summer. His latest novel “Phantom Effect” can be seen on Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/jcg59wo

Serious Commentary on new bands that matter

Chains Over Razors

Old Blood, New Ground

By Michael Aronovitz

Good things come in threes, and we gravitate toward them like old friends. As a thematic human design – man, woman, and child is as familiar to most of us as is Father, Son, and The Holy Spirit, and whether our particular circumstance varies in terms of siblings, single parents, or religious platforms, these patterns are embedded in our wiring and shared global persona. We all color the world with narratives of rich national folklore, but all of our stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. We drive cars reflecting different positions in the current financial hierarchy, but we collectively monitor our speed and rate of advance according to the vertical color charts hanging before us on wires and poles flashing red, yellow, and green. We measure our current ability to manipulate resources in terms of bills, coin, or credit, and gauge our behavior as passive, aggressive, or noncommittal.

Yeah…sing it with me. At the beginning of a race, you don’t say, “Ready…set…go…go,” and when your dad readied you for the bandage to be ripped off way back when, he didn’t just count to one unless he was playing that cruel little surprise card. Threes are critical. Birth, Life, Death. Stop, Drop, and Roll, and when you fuck up big enough to confess, it ain’t just two Hail Mary’s, now is it?

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Still, if the number three is some sort of signifier for universal symmetry, why is rock music, and especially metal, so apparently in love with the number four? Most songs are written in 4/4 time. To begin a tune, unlike the commencement of any other event in human culture, you count to four as opposed to three. The basic rock phrase is accomplished with four beats played on a bass drum, snare, high hat, and crash cymbal, and most rock ‘n roll songs traditionally have had four parts: verse, chorus, bridge, and lead. Still, the most significant oddity here in singling out rock as compared with the rest of the world throughout history, is the design-preference for four in the set-up of performers, as exemplified for us in the early 60’s both by the Beatles, (bass, drum, and two guitars with one player doubling on vocals) and The Who (the power trio with vocalist as vocalist for vocalist’s sake).

The Beatles blueprint spawned powerful star-children in super-quartets like Kiss, Cinderella, and Metallica as well as Volbeat, Godsmack, and Halestorm, just like the Who’s family tree is chock full of gargantuan stadium faves like Queen, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Ozzy, Firehouse, and Pantera. Of course, the list goes on almost infinitely, and we could spend valuable time listing all the wonderful rock acts in both camps as well as the various key exceptions who have added respective players to fill in every possible space with a second guitarist who doesn’t sing, a third guitar, keys, violin, flute, or multiple percussionists, (Aerosmith, Skynyrd, Styx, Yes, Kansas, Jethro Tull, and The Grateful Dead respectively, and more recently Avenged Sevenfold, Lamb of God, Slipknot, and In This Moment – adding backup dancers no less, but don’t knock it ‘til you’ve seen it), yet all of them are centered, at least in essence, off of the concept of the “holy four” as a base, making it damned clear that the formula is only enhanced by addition.

Conversely, of course, there are power trios like Rush, Triumph, The James Gang, and Motorhead, but were I to remove myself from personal bias and my deep seated allegiance to these projects, I could objectively argue that all of them, at least theoretically, might have sounded even better if they had had vocalists with a sole focus on his or her given expertise.

And in this lies our paradox. Hard rock has always been about rebellion, but its core equation hasn’t changed direction for more than half a century on account of the idea that if you strip it down to bare bones, the vocals get sacrificed (The best Racer X songs: Technical Difficulties and Scarified are perfect examples), or someone has to double up on something, therefore by default, lessening the importance of one or the other.

Not anymore.

Enter Chains Over Razors, a band from Chicago, Illinois, introducing a startling aesthetic that has already re-set the bar, reinventing hard music in a way that will be studied, admired, discussed, argued over, imitated, and never quite equaled. They got our attention from the get-go with their name alone, and to briefly digress from our argument of threes versus fours for a hot minute, a band name doesn’t usually mean anything, not really, not apart from the phonetics. I no more picture making out with a hot chick when I hear the name “Kiss” than I think of an airplane or “You as well” when I happen to cross paths with the music of “U2.” But “Chains Over Razors” is worthy of a horror movie title, and being that my review series “Goblet of Shock” was initially conceived to find links between horror and metal, I cannot deny the immediate and glorious images this band name sparks in my mind…of some maniac’s basement torture chamber, real smock ‘n goggle stuff, with car batteries, handcuffs, meat hooks, blood spattered sink arrangements, boning and breaking knives, cleavers, hot brands, battle hatchets, barbed fishing line, walk-in freezers, and various high revving power tools. And considering the wonderful horror-metal model initiated by Sabbath and Alice Cooper, and next reanimated by Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, and Cannibal Corpse, this puts Chains in good company.

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The band also meets current metal expectations by globally arranging their songs with riff oriented growl verses and traditionally sung choruses, and while it might seem contradictory that I call this project revolutionary and in the same breath claim they conform to industry standards, I just wanted to make it clear that this is a competitive metal band in a competitive market through which fans expect certain bench marks to be achieved right out of the chute.

So as for standards and compulsories, Chains Over Razors is a metal band and they rock.

They also do it without a bass player.

Whoa! Wait a minute! This is blasphemy! No bass means no bottom, and whether the musician in question plays roots or a pattern that stands out as its own entity, a bass player is absolutely essential. John Entwistle, Flea, Stanley Clarke, and Geddy Lee are staples, archetypes, heroes, and it is difficult to imagine how this concept is possible, especially live. Suddenly, we are filled with doubts, questions, and crazy assumptions, like maybe there is some sort of contractual agenda through which these guys keep it lean in the writing phase in order to avoid compromise and complications, next bringing some session guy on the road to fill in the holes, standing to the left of the drum kit in black jeans, a black tee shirt, and his hair in his face.

But this isn’t the case, and if we look closer at the way metal has been going lately, it becomes clear that Chains Over Razors is made up of trend setters poised at the very state of the art.

Look at it from a songwriting standpoint. The idea of the “lead guitar” has been undergoing a strange metamorphosis, in the old days featured under a spotlight for a number of measures following the verses and chorus work. But nowadays, these platform solos have become more a thing of taste or effect. Guitar work has gone faster in general, yet has been allocated more to the verse-riff, that which has become more and more rich, driving, and complicated. Being that the percussion during the introductions and verses has also intensified in terms of speed and dexterity, metal has become more an art of rhythm and precision than ego and solo acrobatics.

And Chains Over Razors is the tightest band I have ever seen. No, this is not opinion. This is not subjective, nor emotional. This is fact, and you have to listen to them and watch them play live to understand that I do not speak from a place of favoritism or idealistic hyperbole. In fact, from a scientific standpoint, I will argue that they are the tightest band in musical history. And they do it without putting the vocal responsibility on one of the players. They have a specialist for this, and he is outstanding.

Plainly, Chains Over Razors is a power duo with a singer. They are Franco V Roc on vocals, Mike Vujasin on guitar, and his brother Andy Vujasin on drums, and they are tight. Razor tight. In a moment I will discuss how awesome and addictive their songs are, but for now I would ask that you please humor me just a bit more in my celebration of not only why this bold project has eliminated the idea of the bass player in general, but just how they accomplished it in terms of personnel, instrumentation, and song writing.

Not only are they razor tight, but they have redefined the concept of cohesion.

First of all, Mike and Andy are brothers, twins at that, and when I think of guitar players and drummers as siblings, I can’t help but feel that synchronicity is in their very blood. Or they practiced a lot together during various critical developmental periods over time, pick your position, nature or nurture, but either way one can’t deny the connection we hear and feel straight through to the backbone with the music of Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul, and Lzzy Hale and her brother Arejay.

Secondly, the band has revolutionized the concept of “moving air,” a term that has probably been used with scores of bands through the years, all who figured out in the end that the phenomenon has nothing necessarily to do with volume. In the case of Chains Over Razors, it is accomplished first by tonality and clever electrical maneuvering. Mike plays a custom Les Paul seven stringed guitar tuned down for bottom and built in a way that allows him to play multiple melodies and rhythms simultaneously. Conjunctively, Andy has tuned his drum kit to specific note values based on his brother’s pitch, making the tom fills sink into the guitar work with added warmth and support and the double bass round out the bottom with more balls than we usually get from the more typical hummingbird sixteenths played on a standard kit. On electro-technical grounds, Mike uses an octave pedal split between two amps (or stacks), custom-wired to cover a wider berth of the spectrum, and of equal importance to the above mentioned strategies, these two musicians also use speed, breaks, and dynamics in order to make “two” sound like halves completing a whole rather than some antiquated machine in need of a third wheel.

From this creative standpoint, the interchange between Mike and Andy adds even more thunder in the bass frequencies. When I asked them to describe to me this strange phenomenon, they were quite specific in illustrating that they are not so much two musicians “playing as one,” but more, a pair of artists moving patterns in and out of each other creating a super-sound impossible to accomplish with just a mirroring technique. To look at it dimensionally, in terms of the “internal,” Andy’s bottom-end patterns, especially with the double bass, “dance” around the rhythm with a groove, emphasizing the hook by jumping in and out of the guitar work, both players locking in and backing out, therefore using space and strategic interplay to create the illusion of the slap and pop of a bass guitar. In reference to the “external,” or the more general, holistic view, these two brothers construct an intricate, comprehensive portrait in no need of a bottom-border. It’s covered. And then some.

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And now, there’s the music, the songs, the singer Franco V Roc who is an absolute stud belting out spine severing growls and heartfelt choruses that complete us, patterning with our emotions like Mike and Andy do with rhythm and tone, and maybe this is the way rock was always meant to be in its purest form. Three performers, all specialists, connecting with our bio-rhythms so we as audience members are ghosted in as that beloved fourth factor.

I listened to three Chains Over Razors songs off their album Crown the Villain, and I was hooked immediately. From a listener’s standpoint, the tunes have a lot of sweet contradictions that work well together like the industrial heaviness clipped off by smart drum rolls closing each verse in Devil’s Eyes, and the deep groove followed by an atonal lead in Damnation, both surprisingly offset by a massive vocal hook in the choruses reminiscent of the work of the band Creed, but more passionate and fulfilling. Then in Only God Can Judge Me, there is an aura of pure metal funk with a progressive nuance, brought to a fever pitch with an incredibly catchy chorus and a bridge at the 2:30 mark that is spellbinding.

As mentioned, Franco V Roc is a boss, a star, and a vocalist that only needs to be heard once to be long remembered. And Mike and Andy Vujasin have literally rewritten the book on rhythm, melody, electric connectivity, and how these things interact with each other. They have shattered the concept of rock music and how it is formed, and scaled it down in a manner that is no less shocking or profound than the early work of Ernest Hemingway, and when he destroyed Victorian over-writing with his Aesthetic Theory of Omission.

And the songs are outstanding.

As a last point, I wish to add that there is no way something like this could be accomplished without embracing tradition. This is not a cerebral statement, but more a practical one. When all is said and done, new projects, no matter how sophisticated, must appeal to the end user, and as fans, we bring our rock history with us in the form of a beloved banner, a war-flag, ripped and frayed at the edges at times, but no less significant or proudly flown. And if there is any testament to the tradition we know and love, it is that Chains Over Razors is produced by none other than Carmine Appice, THE historic rhythmic cornerstone of the style of music we so revere. I don’t think I have to inform too many readers at this juncture that Mr. Appice recorded with Vanilla Fudge, Cactus, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, and countless others, but in case you need a convincer, let me just put it this way. Bring your kid to the local music store for drum lessons. The book he will buy the first night is The Ultimate Realistic Rock Drum Method, by Carmine Appice. Talk about influence…

Listen to Devil’s Eyes – Chains Over Razor 

In my brief discussion with Andy and Mike, I asked about Carmine Appice’s role in all this, and aside from his having to jokingly adjust to being “vaped out of the engineering room from their e-cigs,” he took the ideas from the band and gave feedback concerning what “took him for a ride” and “what slowed him down.” It was and is a relationship based on reinterpreting what the band already did and does best, and I can’t think of a better situation for both tutor and specialists. Andy told me that Carmine Appice helped him expand his bass drum creativity, like in live jam sessions and person to person tutorials. Seriously? Did you get any of it on a cell phone? My Lord, if I had Carmine Appice there showing me the ropes, I would never let him leave the rehearsal space, let alone watch him walk into the sunset without asking him if we could make a bid for a reality show that would blow everyone’s doors off!

Chains Over Razors. They have arrived. They have broken the paradox of three versus four, and have done so with an icon at their side, not casting shadows of the past, but using tradition and experience to harness the future.

Ladies and gentlemen, the future is now.

And Chains Over Razors ain’t fucking kidding.

Watch Part 1 of Center of a Lie

Watch Part 2 of Center of a Lie

Watch Part 3 of Center of a Lie

 

Michael Aronovitz fronted a heavy metal band that played Philadelphia and New Jersey clubs in the mid 80s. He is a Professor of English and currently co-hosts a radio talk show linking horror and new metal called “The Wikked Goblet of Horror” with DJ WikkedLiss on her station WCR247 WikkedChikRadio.

Aronovitz’s latest novel titled Phantom Effect was just released February 2nd, 2016 through Night Shade Books. http://tinyurl.com/jcg59wo

Past Publications:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection), 2009

The Voices in Our Heads (collection), 2014

Alice Walks (novel), 2013

The Witch of the Wood (novel), 2014

 

Serious Commentary on bands that matter.

Bill Leverty

Music First

by Michael Aronovitz

(Dedication and thanks to Liss Casler for R & D)

When I watch Firehouse videos that would be considered vintage (and historic) representations of pop metal in its finest form, I always get a feeling of “team” more than “gleam” even though it was more than clear that C.J. Snare was absolutely stellar on vocals and Bill Leverty could “shred” with the best of them. Of course, they had the costumes, the big hair, some signature choreography, flash, pomp, and circumstance, but the most notable issue with this particular project was always the way they never upstaged each other, nor tried to.

This was quite odd actually, considering the fact that the power-trio with vocalist always seemed to invite a brand of glorious narcissism by design, as demonstrated to us over the years by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and scores of others giving us four diverse performances going off in different directions and making us choose favorites as if from a given gang of super heroes. In terms of the former list, I always gravitated toward Keith Moon, Robert Plant, and Eddie VH, just like I chose to focus on Freddy Mercury, Randy Rhodes, Tommy Lee, and Serj Tankian.

When I enjoy the old Firehouse videos, however, I do not see sales presentations advertising various super powers. I see perfection. I see subtle discipline, musical cohesion, and a clear vision that would celebrate the song before the performance, though the latter was, and still is, highly engaging. In terms of the band members and their management during the writing phase and the particular moments in the 90’s when these songs erupted as mega-hits, this took intelligence, maturity, patience, and possibly one of the greatest (and rare) talents in the human condition: true vision and leadership.

Considering the timeline, it is no secret that Firehouse was a bit of an anomaly, taking a pure glam pop metal feel into a period where the Grunge influence seemed to drift into everyone’s artistic process if even in the corner-shadows, and one must take a moment here to acknowledge Bill Leverty, guitarist and founder of Firehouse, for the architecture. He built an elegant fortress based on a selfless vision of the whole that stood the test of time and trend, yet instead of constructing its walls of mortar and stone, he made archways and open doors. For us. Forever.

Bill Leverty

Currently, Leverty is rocking with Firehouse on their 25th Anniversary Tour, but since 2004 he has been working a solo project that has become a significant part of the landscape that would define American music both historically and aesthetically. Most solo records, especially by guitar players, offer a distinct brand of instrumental wizardry that surfaces again and again within similar scaffolding, in the end leaving us with modified brushstrokes inside a repeating mosaic. Moreover, solo albums usually remain solo in terms of the math. One and done. Bill Leverty, however, has created a continuous and vibrant portrait of Americana (four albums and counting) that not only celebrates rock and the blues, but provides us a way to redefine our own personal journeys.

Each of Leverty’s solo records offers a diverse musical narrative, but more specifically, the albums simply feel different from one another. Wanderlust (2004) is an absolute must for rock connoisseurs: an uplifting collection of kick-ass tunes featuring Leverty’s extraordinary guitar work in a funk and blues framework thematically designed to celebrate the American tradition of the road and the traveler, while Southern Exposure (2007) is an instrumental record written and performed with the kind of down-home hard-edged licks, riffs, and runs that would please everyone from old school southern rock die-hards to modern metal enthusiasts. Deep South (2009) is a different sort of cover album, giving heart-felt, modern renditions of classic folk songs from our deepest roots and bringing us back to the railway, the meadow, the sunset, and porch with songs like “Boll Weevil” and “Nine Hundred Miles,” and Leverty’s tribute album Drive (2013) is simply spectacular. Listen to it, and tell me that you don’t get chills, for example, when this exceptional guitarist unleashes his lead between the first two verses of “Fortunate Son.”

Of late, Bill Leverty has been working on a new record, building it one piece at a time and releasing songs individually. Moreover, he is the guitarist in another project called Flood the Engine, featuring Keith Horne on bass, Andre La Belle on drums, and Jimmy Kunes on vocals. La Belle delivers in a big way on some of the new Leverty material, as one can see in the striking video “Ace Bandage,” and it becomes clear at this juncture that the breadth of Bill Leverty’s ever-growing portfolio is so expansive that furthering the overview might be an exercise in sweet futility.

In response to this, I would argue that maybe the best way to celebrate the work of Bill Leverty is to focus on one current release, and through close analysis we might possibly determine more specifically what makes this artist so crucial a thread in the broadcloth of American music, both technically and thematically.

Of the awesome songs Bill Leverty has been compiling for the new record, a favorite of mine is titled “Strong,” that which illustrates by example the three staples Leverty has put in place with his solo work that would initiate his unique and intricate paradigm for success. First, he plays with outstanding percussionists, in this particular case Michael Foster, who was with him from the very beginning in Charlotte, North Carolina, making the demos soon to become the Firehouse sensation that would take the world by storm for decades. Pop metal drummers are often under rated, but Foster is a true thumper, playing not only with taste but with feel, translating the peaks and valleys and bringing the listener onto the pathway with him in an intimate way that remains exciting, rich, and dramatic.

Watch Video – Bill Leverty – Strong

The next staple in the Leverty module echoes the first in a couple of significant ways that make for a natural segue. The solo project is stripped down, brought back to its roots, like Leverty and Foster first collaborating, but they have added prior-mentioned bassist Keith Horne, who wears his instrument up high for the purpose of precision and unveils clever, intricate runs that don’t just mirror Foster’s snare and bass drum work, but provide texture and depth. In other words, these two don’t out-play, out-shine, or upstage one another. They fortify the project from the baseboards to the rafters, somehow keeping it both “cool” and “popping” in a manner that is fresh and unassuming.

And last, there is the music. I do realize that in naming the “first two lynch-pins” and personifying them as the primary members of a power trio, one would expect Bill Leverty to be recognized as the third and most important cornerstone. But we don’t quite go that way, and this is Leverty’s magic. He was the lead guitar player in the most powerful and famous pop metal band of the 90’s and did it unselfishly, always contributing to the whole before the self while at the same time providing guitar work worthy of mention alongside the masters of modern metal, like Paul Gilbert, Zakk Wylde, and Slash. In any solo project, one would expect the “solo artist” to be the feature, but Bill Leverty isn’t about featuring solos and leaving them there on the platform alone like a mascot. That is not to say that the sections featuring Bill Leverty’s leads are not exceptional, but I believe we all can agree that this particular artist is more about the music, the overall song, and the idea that the one listening to the music is the star of his show.

We see this quite clearly in “Strong.” It is filmed in a small space walled-up with pallet racking, in a clear testament to roots, to beginnings, to the basements and garages where dreams are made. The camera plays it daringly close, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to grasp the idea that the band wants you right in there with them, down in the trenches where you can see everything in razor-sharp detail and feel the vibe straight through to your backbone.

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Foster begins the song with a fill that is all power and burst, and as previously mentioned, it feels as if you walked straight into a session, stepping right between the musicians and taking your place directly in front of Foster’s ride cymbal. The guitar sound is full, rich, and bluesy, and while you are standing there with the band, alongside the band, and in the band, you can’t help but start moving your hips. Horne plays it cool off to the left, accenting Foster and establishing the ornate, tasteful floorplan, while Leverty is revealed to us during this introductory phase in and out of visual focus. Ironically, the band is playing under the glare of bare lightbulbs, so the combination of the camera work and the lighting seem to indicate that this is Bill Leverty’s moment of unveiling if you will, approaching the microphone as the front man from the gauze and the blur, but doing it under bright lights that hide nothing, keeping it real.

And Leverty’s vocals are superb: accessible, smooth, and heartfelt. The song itself is one of triumph, celebrating strength as indicated in the title, but as always, Leverty doesn’t over cook the product. He is wearing sunglasses, but he is smiling. He interprets the lyrics with physicality, but never in a manner that seems melodramatic or overly choreographed. Music first, always, even in a project where the singer / lead guitar player must manage most of the stage-time visually, audibly, and conceptually.

Moreover, Leverty does not play this so “quiet and cool” that the presentation comes off low keyed or soft-sold. On the contrary, the song is upbeat and surprisingly fun, filled with interesting chord changes and a driving chorus that fill the viewer with joy. But that’s the point, isn’t it? By the second verse we are not only nodding our heads in rhythm and humming along. We are smiling. Like Bill. After all, he invited us into the box with the bare bulb lights, his garage, his playing space, his world, and he is a confident, gracious host. Music first. For us. Always.

Of course, we are not naïve. This is a lead guitar player from an historic project in the 90’s when lead guitar playing reached new levels of virtuosity and complexity, currently presenting for us a key song in his solo project that is named for him. There is going to be some axe grinding here. And subtle or not, Leverty owes it to himself and his fans to show something in the section of the song where we expect him to shred. Something potent and profound.

Leverty does not disappoint. He takes that maroon guitar with the lucky “13” on it, and makes it tell stories. And while many of these lead-spots in most songs feature either fast acrobatics or lots of bends for feel, Leverty offers a three-section composition that is ultimately compelling, first and foremost, in terms of the writing. Of course. This is Bill Leverty, and it is always architecture first…ornamental ironwork, decorative trim, and dazzling flashing to come later in a tasteful blitz.

For set-up, Leverty begins his lead section with syncopated half-chords, both relevant to the running musical theme and strategically placed on auditory grounds as a technical transition, a clever shoehorn if you will, so there isn’t such a stark difference between the full chords and bared notes to come.

Leverty moves smoothly then into a melodic, bluesy lead that closes the phrase with an absolutely blistering four-finger run up the middle of the fretboard. At this point in the solo one would expect the “norm:” a series of mirror-runs up the neck, right to the point where the frets are so close together the guitar pitches and squeals. But that wouldn’t fit this particular context, so in place of gymnastics for the sake of gymnastics he gives us a subtle and seamless lead-in to the song’s climactic moment. A hint. A tease, dotting the hammer-ons with his pick hand and holding the notes for feel.

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In the third section of his lead, Bill Leverty more than delivers. For another measure or two he gives us an anticipatory thrill by doubling the speed of the hammer-ons and then holding them out in the breeze if you will: “one-and-a-two-and-a-one-and-a-two,” and he next unleashes what I would call the climax of “Strong” in the form of his signature, insanely rapid and dexterous version of “Tapping,” introduced on ukulele in 1932 by Roy Smeck and popularized in modern rock by Eddie Van Halen in 1978 with “Eruption.” Leverty’s version, however, contains some fascinating and unique work with the pick-hand, utilizing the two middle fingers alternately as opposed to solely the middle or the index. And while we saw this particular move, or versions of it, in Firehouse, I do not think I have ever seen it pulled off this fast, in this particular manner, and with this level of precision. From any guitarist. In any genre or timeline.

In closing, I feel it is necessary to mention that this review series titled “Goblet of Shock” usually highlights the link between metal and horror fiction, yet when I review a project with no overt or emblematic ties to terror, I expand the thematic definition of my column by putting the given players in more comprehensive literary and historical perspective. Clearly, Bill Leverty does not translate to the horrific, yet I might suggest here that in reference to his work I see a connection with modernist Ernest Hemingway, and most notably, his last published piece before his death in 1961, titled The Old Man and the Sea.

In brief summary, the above-mentioned classic shows us an old man who catches a huge marlin that drags the tiny rowboat out to sea for three days and three nights, and while the fisherman is successful in harpooning his catch and roping it to the gunwale, by the time he reaches shore his prize has been eaten by sharks. The irony is that no one on land besides a couple of other fisherman understand that the bones belonged to the biggest fish any of them would ever see. The question is whether we need the confirmation of others to validate success, and the theme is that tragically, we reach levels of expertise in our professional lives that few can relate to on a deep level, leaving us unable to communicate our triumphs and left to a position of isolation.

I see a lot of metal guitar players trying to communicate their expertise note for note, ripping ultra-long solos and multiple arpeggios and tricky pentatonic scales so fast, so hard, and so long it would all make our heads spin. Bill Leverty never needed this kind of affirmation. To him, it was always about the journey, about the sun coming out from behind the clouds, the gentle sound of an oar sliding through the surf, and the sun making shimmers and sparkles on the waves. It was never about the marlin, though Leverty never came home empty handed. It was never about the glory and the recognition, though Leverty has certainly earned both. It was always about the music, and the way this brilliant musician could take you on a journey, not as a passenger, but right up next to him, there at the wheel.

 

Michael Aronovitz has always loved hard rock music, and fronted a heavy metal band that played Philadelphia and New Jersey clubs in the mid 80’s. He is a Professor of English and currently co-hosts a radio talk show linking horror and new metal called “The Wikked Goblet of Horror” with DJ WikkedLiss on her station WCR247 WikkedChikRadio.

Aronovitz’s latest novel titled Phantom Effect was just released February 2nd, 2016 through Night Shade Books.http://tinyurl.com/jcg59wo

Past Publications:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection), 2009

The Voices in Our Heads (collection), 2014

Alice Walks (novel), 2013

Serious commentary on horror and how it relates to new bands that matter.

Mindshift

Horizons and Dreams Versus Merchants of Fallacy

Heavy Metal music is rebellious, highly technical, and gratuitously loud. It has survived all the pop-genres otherwise altering the mainstream through the years, almost like a steady electrical current on a different wavelength. Still, it remains the foundational element that provides definition and proportion to those shifting and fleeting trends that would light up the sky for a hot minute, then blow off like tumbleweeds, weightless, skeletal, and forgettable.

Undoubtedly, metal has always been there for the long haul, in the concrete, the substrate, the floorboards, and the I-Beams. It might not make many appearances on the Billboard Top 100, and it could very well be treated as a cheap ghost at the Grammys until the end of time, but one thing is for sure…you can’t stop it, you can’t kill it, and fans will keep coming to those outdoor festivals, all mud and combat boots, hippies and Harley’s, that shit is supposed to happen, just ask WikkedLiss of WikkedChikRadio247, spinning new and classic metal all day and all night like that die hard townie who refuses to let the bandstand in the park deteriorate or the dancehall in the town square get torn down for condos.

Mindshift 1600x800Metal is our constant, our rock (pardon the pun) and common denominator, but this in no way means that it has been stagnant or predictable since Black Sabbath came out with their debut album in 1970 and shocked the world. In fact, anyone who believes “all metal looks and sounds the same” just ain’t looking or listening very hard, and for the sake of brevity I won’t commit here to a comprehensive description or detailed history of the evolution of metal in all its genres, sub-genres, and off-shoots, even though I have my many personal favorites in each and every one of them. More generally, however, it is rather enjoyable to consider the face paint, leather, studs, pyro-technics, quadruple humbuckers, Marshall stacks, masks, chains, tattoos, power chords, long hair, mo-hawked hair, no hair, spandex jump suits, pouty poses, sweet vocals, hard-ass vocals, double drums, multiple toms, boots, belts, skulls, medieval candles, shining Flying V’s, mic stands with silk rags, mic stands with spikes, mosh pits, motorcycles, makeup, and madness.

It’s a show, a celebration that reminds us of the very best of times, when we were young and headstrong and reckless and wired. That being said, there is an awesome and paradoxical dichotomy that often exists within the construct of Metal, in that it draws a certain potency from the reserves of our formative years (whether we are currently experiencing them or looking back), while simultaneously addressing complex world issues we face as adults. On scholarly grounds then, metal lives in strange contradiction and could be therefore seen as enigmatic or even nonsensical. Poetically however, it dares to dance hard and heavy with the thickest of darkness, and this is as universal, ageless, and relevant as you can get. If there is something youthful, impractical, and wild about that, so be it. If you’d rather use music as background to relax to, or space to, or paint lovely background mosaics so things look quaint and posh and pretty and tamed, go right on ahead. The Metal-Heads surely won’t mind. They are too busy feeling the vibe in the concrete, the substrate, the floorboards, and the I-Beams, dancing, shouting, head-banging, and living large, raw, and hard.

Like we all used to do.

These issues considered, the melodic deathcore metal band Mindshift has tapped into youth, naiveté, and a daring world-view with their album “Horizon,” that which brings us to a place of literal and emblematic introspection both beautiful and frightening. Mindshift, one of the newer bands on the Eclipse record label, is made up of Johan Lund on guitars, Marcus “Mao” Uggla on vocals, and Fabien “Fabz” Perreau on drums, and before entertaining more cerebral commentary, it should be said up front that this project is musically outstanding right down where it counts in the trenches, featuring a rhythm section (as is an Eclipse trademark) of guitar, bass, and drums that is air-tight and ultimately satisfying. And the old school metal fans will especially enjoy this particular project’s seeming preference not only for those wicked hummingbird 16ths on the double bass drums, but a thick dose of back beat grooves cut to halves, loaded with “wow,” and bolstered by massive power-chords and power-notes heavy with balls and bottom.

Instrumentally, Mindshift also explores terrain of surprise and variety, inserting clever dramatic pauses (as evident in My Revenge), glorious and complicated fills and breaks (Absolution), and a taste of absolute metal-funk (A Thousand Scars), making listeners feel it “in the heart and the hips,” as label-mate Tito Quinones of Saint Diablo would say. Vocally, there are often background harmonies so ethereal one would swear the audible tapestry reaches a level of spirituality, and Marcus “Mao” Uggla does a phenomenal job meeting what seems the current standard for vocalists in new hard music, executing an enormous, throaty death growl in the verses (mostly) and a heart-felt, traditional vocal in the chorus. It is Mao’s visual presence, auditory stylistics, and lyrics however, that not only set this band apart from other metal projects, but add fresh colors and banners to one of the tragic themes introduced to us by Ernest Hemingway back in the early part of the twentieth century.

To be blunt, Mao looks young and startlingly innocent despite the rough and tumble wife-beater he wears in the “Horizon” official music video and the multiple tattoos he’s pattered his arms with. He is by all means “for real,” but he has a baby-face, complimented by a traditional vocal so pure and adolescent, we might expect at first that we would more commonly hear it fronting projects like The Jonas Brothers or One Direction.

All part of the plan.

To think Mao, the band, and the label unaware of this would be naïve on our parts indeed. Not only have they all created a brand most original and rather unprecedented, but those involved with this bold project are clearly all in, musically, visually, and thematically. The album, as said, is called “Horizon,” used as a signpost for youth and the power and heartbreak of developing world vision, as Mao asks himself in the title track, “What will it take for this horizon to stay?”

Clearly, this is the idealistic voice of the child, not realizing the fluidity (and transience) of this kind of beauty, thinking it dependable and stationary, like an old portrait or favored plaything always returned to one specific place. He will soon realize that the horizon is a mirage, changing with time itself and additionally spawning multitudes of interpretations, literally as the observer himself grows taller, and metaphorically as he gains psychological and societal perspective.

There is also the idea that chasing a horizon is no more than a doomed venture, since every step initiates a new horizon equally distant and unique. And if Mao merely sang about the idea that chasing dreams is a fool’s game, we could certainly appreciate the surface representation. Dreams are wonderful ideas, even essential at times, but one of life’s hardest and most necessary lessons might very well be that one has to tailor aspirations at some point to those that are actually attainable. Again, this rather primary issue in the model Mindshift proposes does indeed make a good deal of sense, causing us to question the real-life possibilities of dreams, and the fact that the way they are promoted often instigates damaging fallacies.

Personally, I have never been a fan of the misleading adage, “You can do anything if you try hard enough,” even though I would instinctively celebrate the idea for its spirit of intent as a sort of general motivation. Still, it is the mathematical absolute presented here and the impossibility of its translating to any sort of logical or consistent fruition that bothers me, especially the way parents and educators seem to use these hyperbolic and unrealistic maxims more to keep kids focused, quiet, and sitting still than projecting the real potential of their actual abilities. Harmless hyperbole? Maybe. But kids take things at first glance and face value, don’t they?

Ok, fine. We all basically knew this anyway, deep down at least, admittedly adding under our breath with every exaggerated encouragement that the NBA might not be a realistic ambition, stardom is not a practical idea, and you might as well stop thinking about Harvard, at least with those SAT scores. We’re not stupid. We provide a blend of advice, some of it story-book fluff and at times nothing other than the hard bottom line, and if Mindshift wanted us to stop feeding kids false motivation altogether, it would be rather easy to shrug our shoulders, say, Yeah, what the fuck,” and toss out the old sayings, start telling the truth about Santa, and break the habit of succumbing to the trendy social pressure that we give out participation trophies and tell kids they are talented when all they really have is a bit of flamboyance.

But that’s not all Mindshift illustrates here.

Lyrics in the title track also claim the representative child here is “Being tied to one special thing like ropes around [his] life.” This is not speaking to caregivers tossing around false encouragement and random compliments. This is a finger in the face. This is about tyrannical parents imposing difficult ideals and their own broken dreams on impressionable offspring, usually in the form of one of those improbable castles in the air reflecting spotlights and stardust: the mother who forces her daughter to take ballet classes even though they make her back ache and her feet hurt, or the father who gets his ten year old batting lessons based on micro-mechanics, then films him hitting three hundred balls off the tee each night in the basement and lectures him for having an elbow a quarter-inch off or letting his shoulder fly open, then signing him up for little league, tournament travel, and two AAU teams that play year round, watching each of the kid’s at-bats with wide eyes and fingers curled tight in the fencing, ready to give it to him hard in the car on the way home and punish him if he strikes out on the same pitch twice or rolls one over to the shortstop because he transferred his weight and committed too soon.

“On these broken legs I stand fighting,” Mao says.

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If we take this to the extreme, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to connect the idea with the horror movie Misery (1990), where we have the mad (and mothering) ex-nurse literally break her prisoner’s feet with a sledge hammer because he alters the “horizon” she envisions for him (she discovers he had killed off a character in a romance series he was writing, because he felt his heroine had gone stale. It is the nurse’s favorite protagonist, and she forces him to rewrite it).  Of course, on a rather crude and rudimentary level, this works as a figurative parallel. The parent forces the child to stay focused on one horizon, stunting his or her growth and mobility, and therefore erasing variety and choice in terms of hobbies and extra-curricular activities. I would argue however, that there is another aspect to this, a haunting one.

In this module, the idea of breaking the legs and roping one in place links effortlessly with being made to stare straight into the blaze of a horizon (or adulthood) that parents would force their children to embrace before their time, and I am not just referring to ballet, baseball, and romances with or without fairytale endings. I am talking about rites of passage that surpass games and safe works of fiction. Not to pun or play this as coy, I would argue here that Ernest Hemingway’s revolutionary debut work In Our Time (1925) speaks directly to this idea, in that children are not “little adults,” but impressionable beings crying out to their demanding parents that they will only be ready for adult horizons in their own time.

To be textually specific about this collection of short stories and the way it ties in with Mindshift’s paradigm, I would present to you the idea that Hemingway’s lead character Nick Adams struggles to manage his youth while constantly being thrust into adult situations he isn’t quite ready for. As a young boy, he is forced to watch his father perform a C-Section on a Native American woman, and then witness her husband’s suicide (Indian Camp). He is given access to liquor and guns when he is too immature to even look in a mirror and understand the image looking back at him (The Three Day Blow), he is thrown off a train and threatened at knifepoint in the woods when he is too green to be out wandering the countryside on his own in the first place (The Battler), and he is made to go to war when barely out of his teens (Italicized Pre-Chapter 6). The result, which directly connects to Mindshift’s lyrics, is that his legs are made useless, “Nick sat against the wall of the church where they had dragged him to be clear of machine-gun fire in the street. Both legs stuck out awkwardly. He had been hit in the spine” (Hemingway 63).

Of course, a sniper could have gotten him, but the more likely scenario would be that Nick was too inexperienced to be there in the first place, and he was running away, forced into cowardice. The “parent” in this scenario is his country, and while Nick has reached the horizon in that “The sun shone on his face” (63), he was been tragically discarded by this uncaring national patriarch, only to be acknowledged for his efforts by another disillusioned (and wounded) metaphorical child, “Rinaldi was a disappointing audience” (63).

The horizon Mindshift sings about is not uni-dimensional. It is all around us in a terrifying 360, just as the video has the band performing within a ring of ever-changing neon lines, like futuristic prison bars, flickering on and off. We are forced into these arenas of harsh masculinity and overly experienced femininity long before we are seasoned to the task, and we are held to impossible standards by those who have long lost the ability to see the beauty and wonder of youth. And when we finally realize that the horizon is no more than a mirage and a lie we get Mao’s pain and anger, his massive death growl, and like the heartbreaking character of Nick Adams, the boyish voice struggling to be heard in a landscape already luring him into the blur, the status-quo, and the death of idealism.  

Michael Aronovitz has always loved hard rock music, and fronted a heavy metal band that played Philadelphia and New Jersey clubs in the mid 80’s. He is a Professor of English and currently co-hosts a radio talk show linking horror and new metal called “The Wikked Goblet of Horror” with DJ WikkedLiss on her station WCR247 WikkedChikRadio.

Aronovitz’s latest novel titled Phantom Effect was just released February 2nd, 2016 through Night Shade Books. http://tinyurl.com/jcg59wo

Past Publications:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection), 2009

The Voices in Our Heads (collection), 2014

Alice Walks (novel), 2013

The Witch of the Wood (novel), 2014

Serious commentary on horror, and how it relates to new bands that matter

The Feel of the Apocalypse

“Our Last Enemy”

Review by Michael Aronovitz

I am often asked if I write horror with the express purpose of scaring people. Others suggest that I might be attempting to construct some dark aesthetic that would propose an alternative to the common world-view, but before analyzing my own odyssey of self-exploration, I would argue that it is better to look at this primarily from the outside-in if you will, focusing on what readers and critics commonly say about horror in what appears to be a knee-jerk reflex of disdain. Commonly, one passing judgment on a work of art wearing the genre label of “horror” or “weird” or “dark” will immediately affix to it the idea of “frightening the reader,” and it’s usually offered through a strange sort of personal, defensive reversal. To be clear, if a “non-horror” person reads a “horror” story, the stiff comment out of the box usually looks something like, “It isn’t good, because it didn’t scare me.”

I wish I could convey to you just how frustrated this makes me, and in this, I suppose I have my answer by default. I must write dark stuff because I see the cloud differently, not because I wish to instill fear in my readers. On the other hand, I could accomplish the dystopian viewpoint that would shun all the current trends and convenient euphemisms through other means, namely fantasy, mystery, or even gritty presentations of “realistic fiction,” so I have to turn the microscope back in on myself and question why I have such a fascination with ghosts, witches, devils, demons, zombies, mummies, monsters, ghouls, maniacs, serial killers, and blood harvesting doppelgangers. Maybe I do want to scare the living shit out of my readers after all, and maybe if I don’t manage to do this I am a sore loser, wanting my cake and eating it too and all that.

Still, that’s not quite right either. I have read plenty of horror books and seen a hoard of horror movies that funnel the entire artistic process into the scare moments, and these presentations usually leave me unsatisfied. Often, there is simply a lack of character building and realistic plotting, and the void makes for nothing but a bunch of unaligned jumps and starts, like getting jolts of endorphins in the dark with your ear plugs in. Then again, I have been exposed to many projects addressing the more complicated literary concerns while drawing darkness and peril on a canvas of subtlety and suggestion, and frankly, when the fright-spots are weak, the comprehensive dramatic experience comes off rather pathetic and forgettable.

Cake.

Clearly, I want it, and then I have a desire to devour the whole thing at once.

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In the end, I write horror because the macabre turns me on and I want it to turn on the reader too, bringing him or her through a dark passage of the self that had been previously untraveled. I want readers to love me and despise me, scared shitless and at the same time appreciative of the artistic makeup of the sinister corridor I have thrust them into, that which turns out to be the pitted underbelly of the soul. Perhaps this is too bold a desire, and that is why the non-horror critics get so defensive, turning up their noses, and saying dismissively, “That didn’t scare me.”

Because maybe it did. And maybe they liked it a little too much.

The problem is that not only is it difficult to do horror well (believe me, I have spent years trying), but there is a stigma that goes along with the brand besides the idea that it might be fright for fright’s sake. Historically, horror has been subject to more personal and vindictive criticism, mainly manufactured by those who would prefer their “truths” delivered in smooth political snippets harking back to “better times” that never really existed and a media base that would subliminally offer class segregation through the repeated exposure of the actions of the few. As a result of this, horror has been watered down and relegated to a position where the perception has become that it is just for kids, something not to be taken quite seriously, something we would grow out of, like heavy metal.

But I never grew out of my love for ghosts, witches, devils, demons, zombies, mummies, monsters, ghouls, maniacs, serial killers, and blood harvesting doppelgangers, and I never lost my passion for good, hard heavy metal either, watching someone plug into a Marshall stack, crank up a Flying V, and ride the thunder and lightning to the breaking point. In many ways horror and metal are similar, and while my series of reviews more generally touches on this subject, it is in this particular analysis that the alliance comes to the very forefront.

The more general criticism aside, the central and practical issue here is that these two art forms share a baseboard sort of motivation with similar costuming, yet both must exist in a world where the consumer comes to the table with an agenda, and in a realistic (and monetary) sense, this has created genres and sub-genres and off-shoots and adaptations that might blur the pure combination of terror and aesthetic discovery.

Plainly, some horror fiction, certain films, and many hard rock bands use “heavy depth” as no more than a splash, a spice, or a condiment. An example of this in terms of literature would be the Goosebumps series, similar to films on this side of the paradigm like Ginger Snaps, The Craft, and Teen Wolf. In terms of classic rock, we might mention Poison, Ratt, and Bon Jovi flying this particular banner, playing it “metal-ish” yet offering overtones of super-glam and pouting and fun.

On the other end of the spectrum of course, almost in a slingshot effect, there is the idea of utilizing terror and darkness as the entire full course meal, chapter and verse, soaked and saturated, like the “splatter-punk” horror books initiated by Michael Shea’s short story The Autopsy (1980) alongside films like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Evil Dead. Of course, it isn’t too difficult to historically tie in the thousands of shock-metal bands that popped up all over the grid in the 1980’s, banking entirely on volume and warning labels, and while respective audiences have proven their unbending loyalty to all of the above, (I am one of them, guilty as charged) for the purposes of this particular argument, they seem to represent a “Goldilocks” syndrome.

I suppose the dream in the paradigm I offer you here, is to create a dark aesthetic so potent that it restructures common psychology, while offering a product so poetically innovative that it surpasses what is currently seen as artistic convention. Shakespeare accomplished this with Macbeth, basically inventing the horror genre with witches and murder, yet thrilling the nobles in the audience with a complicated symbolic template filled with social commentary concerning the poison of words and the fallacy of trying to rule through a platform of nurturing. Jonathan Demme did it with his brilliant film-adaptation of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, by delivering the histories of his antagonists through a clever gaming procedure that unveiled terrors and motivations we would not normally choose to acknowledge, and the Industrial Metal Band “Our Last Enemy” has reached this sort of pinnacle with their single 10,000 Headless Horses.

The band is made up of Jeff Ritchie on drums, Craig Byrnes on keyboards and samples, Matt Heywood on bass (vocals), Oliver Fogwell on vocals, and Bryce “Bizz” Bernius on guitar, (note: the line-up has changed since filming this video, currently featuring Ritchie on keys and Zot Cillia on drums) and the beginning of the aforementioned video does not waste time with those second and a half “cutsie personal moment” shots that would “humanize” the band members, nor does it feature through inter-spliced story-footage the trivial sort of media-feed we have grown such a glazed-over acceptance for.

There is a dark sky with black clouds moving across it, and in and out of this inverted (and perverted) shot of “heaven” we successively cut to a mid-shot of Ritchie going in and out of focus, Heywood in close-up covered in weeping black-eye and filth, Byrnes lurking behind his keyboards like a patient lost in the asylum, Fogwell slowly raising his menacing glance, and “Bizz” Bernius shown from the camera at ground level aimed upward making him into a dark tower of vertigo, all of these techniques used by the best of the horror film directors in order to create a premonition of dread.

We are not disappointed. When the music kicks in with Ritchie on the snare drum, making it erupt in a rapid-fire tempo like gun-shots with the rest of the players in perfect syncopation, we cut to visions of nuclear holocaust: buildings imploding, a school bus disintegrating, the famous shot with the row of trees bending like they were made of rubber, all backgrounded by Fogwell’s massive death growl and flickering images of a symbolic burn victim who wanders in and out of the ruins the band uses for this bleak and beautiful portrait of human disaster.

Plainly, the video is frightening. It is not suggestive, trendy, coy, or ironic. It is as close to the vest as it can get, and the message is not just a mirror of the idea that man has a thirst for destruction. A mirror by design is a metaphor once removed, an image, possibly refracting as much as it would reflect and therefore offering the opportunity for the viewer to gain distance and idealistic perspective. This is a direct look, straight into the heart of the emblem. It is blackened and corroded, factory-like with dirty flames rising from the ground and industrial wreckage scattered between the pillars of rusted steel erected along the edges of cracked and oil-stained concrete. “Our Last Enemy” would have us look straight and unshielded into the most terrifying portion of the self, and the nave of that desecrated church is far more revealing than the rubble left at ground zero like aftermath.

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            At the same time there is the music to consider, and it is doubtful that anyone could refute the technical mastery “Our Last Enemy” exhibits through clever instrumentation. As is a trademark of sorts with projects on the Eclipse record label, the rhythm section of this band is outstanding, starting first of course with Ritchie on drums, not only kicking double bass sixteenths that are so rapid and precise they instill a feeling of amazement and joy for the listener throughout, but his aforementioned work on the snare and his accents with cymbals make for a progressive feel separating the project from more linear presentations Industrial Metal bands might fall into.

Heywood and “Bizz” Bernius base their musical presentation on power and precision, tied in so tightly with Ritchie that it seems the three exist as one being, or more artistically, they could be represented as parallel grains in some exotic wooden sculpture where the textures pattern each other in perfect line, form, and symmetry. Offsetting, and therefore accenting all this, is the odd and rather eerie presence of the keys, giving the “speed-metal” feel an overtone of brilliant disequilibrium, and Fogwell’s vocals act less as a “featured element,” than they do a foundational necessity. He does not stand on a pedestal, start low, and climax high. He does not dwell at “stage center,” and he does not own the spotlight. In a twist on the stereotype (where this band seems to live), Fogwell does not even “front” this band. His power-saw vocals are the binding tie, joining with the rhythm section and the keys as a connective agent, wrapping like razor-twine all the parts and parcels.

“Our Last Enemy” does not come forward with a video like 10,000 Headless Horses so they can beat around the bush. They do not undercook the product, nor do they present themselves as all thrash and burn. This talented group of musicians has come up with a concept that is potent and pure, and they have managed to deliver it in a way that would celebrate their musical expertise without getting the viewer lost in the pomp and the circumstance.

They try to scare us and they do it, they unleash the power of a dark aesthetic and we feel it, they offer us cake and an invitation to devour. Just be careful looking at the plate when you’re done. The reflection might not be so refracted, and the vision of terror might be all too familiar.

Click to watch 10,000 Headless Horses by Our Last Enemy

Michael Aronovitz is a published author of horror fiction:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection) Hippocampus Press, 2009

Alice Walks (novel) Hard Cover – Centipede Press, 2013, Paperback / Dark Renaissance Press, 2014

The Voices in Our Heads (collection) Horrified Press, 2014

The Witch of the Wood (novel) Hippocampus Press, 2015

Aronovitz has always loved hard rock music, and fronted a heavy metal band that played Philadelphia and New Jersey clubs in the mid 80’s. Currently he is a Professor of English and lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. His latest novel titled Phantom Effect was just released February 2nd, 2016 through Night Shade Books.

 

 

Serious commentary on horror and how it relates to new bands that matter.

A Mirror’s View Through the Glass Eyes of Dolls

Shinobi Ninja

Review by Michael Aronovitz

 

There are elements of terror in everything artistically worthwhile, for this is the essence of dramatic tension. Comedy is based on darkness in order to inspire the most effective moments of irony, just as good romance is always laced with an underlying fear of judgment, failure, and rejection. Mystery is hinged on the trepidation of not knowing, and even the most banal of biographies that would dryly illustrate one’s goals and accomplishments is usually rooted in obstacle and circumstantial restrictions one must confront and finally overcome.

No conflict, no story. Period. We no more want to read that the day was like any other day than we wish to hear music that doesn’t raise in us some sort of reaction, and I would argue that even the most joyous musical celebrations only succeed because they can be compared to an opaque sort of coexisting undercurrent. I head-bang because I am constantly told to behave. I shout, because I am trained to listen. I sing, because my expression is most commonly rewarded when I robotically formulate five paragraph essays in school, and I dance because I am trained for most of my life to sit still.

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            The band Shinobi Ninja with their song “Bang Bang” instills in their viewer/listeners a desire to absolutely erupt: head bang, shout, sing, and dance, “HSSD” if you will, and the reaction does not come from the brief footage they inter-splice with the man-sized puppets fake-fighting almost in comic relief. I suppose we should start with this thread, since it initially seems so contradictory to the skillful musical performance footage and the intimate portraits we get of lead singer Baby G in front of a mirror studying the haunt of her own self-reflection in a dark and mysterious way that is almost Noir. Plainly, the man-sized puppets, including the “mascot-like” Cyclo Ninja, are not there to be considered literally. They are a springboard to a much more complicated statement, ironic because the music immediately detonates our need for HSSD, while simultaneously bringing us on a more cerebral journey into the splintered reflection we have of the self.

To be clear, puppets and dolls (though overtly playful) are automatic subconscious fear-triggers as was evidenced through our cinematic fascination with Karen Black and her Zuni doll in Trilogy of Terror (1975), the puppet-fiend in Magic (1978), the clown under the bed in Poltergeist (1982), and our favorite evil piece of factory-plastic, Chucky in Child’s Play (1988). Of course, this particular toy chest of horror is crammed to the gills, ritualistically brought down from the attic again and again to our sadistic and continual delight, featuring those like the various players in Puppet Master (1989), Demonic Toys (1992), and Blood Dolls (2005), not to mention boyfriend in the wheelchair in Saw (2004), and the latest appearance of Annabelle (2014).

Still, as I mentioned previously, the Cyclo Ninja and his egg-headed adversary in the “Bang-Bang” video are parodies, and while they come off a bit cartoonish if viewed in isolation, the broader context makes it clear that they are a far cry from slapstick. They are, in fact, the comic detonator for a musical explosion that leaves images in its wake of the dark, shattered psyche.

First and foremost, however, this song pops. It is exciting, with a hard edge and a dance vibe, all delivered through performance – shots of the players in action: Baby G on vocals, Alien Lex on bass, Terminator Dave on drums, DJ Axis Powers on turntables, Kid Shreddi aka Maniak Mike on guitar, and DA Doobie aka Duke Sims on vocals and guitar. The tune is a mega-hit from the very first chords, and watching the players execute this through to fruition is a pure pleasure. HSSD – automatic. Booya.

Still, through an intricate sort of underscoring process, there are the deeper and darker emblematic levels the band reaches when one considers the clips of Baby G sitting in front of a mirror, analyzing herself, and slowly painting her face into a disguise, using her mascara no less, the instrument that would normally “bring out her eyes,” those which in any other scenario would be mirrors to the soul.

At the 45 second mark in the video, we see Baby G approach the aforementioned make-up mirror and then we get her eye in close-up, a reflection of her inside it, brought sideways in a moment of personal disequilibrium. At the 102 second mark, we see she is in front of the same mirror, applying her mascara, but the result winds up being the beginnings of a mask, eyes overdone and curved up toward her temples like Cat-Woman, and the mouth drawn up at the sides, giving that odd effect like scary clown-makeup, revealing the smile that’s not a smile, making the kids at the carnival cry and the mothers nervously look into their rear views backing out of the mulch-covered parking lots. At the 243 second mark, near the video’s conclusion, Baby G looks at herself blandly, and the reflection staring back at her is one of a stranger, a stone-like replica of a woman’s face ritualistically covered in X’s and other strange markings reminiscent of the symbols hanging from trees in The Blair Witch Project.

Baby G has evolved. The question is…into whom…or what.

Let’s do the odd math. This character approaches a makeup mirror, about to play the role of a singer, yet she sees in the reflection – her own eye which refracts her image and pitches it sideways, meaning the internal “person” is not standing on solid ground in her own interpretation of self. She applies makeup that makes her performer’s face into a mask of its prior self, that which was an effigy formed by public and commercial demands. Finally, she makes a mask over the mask over the image reflected in the eye of a fractured self, that which looks like witch-insignia, or even more, like the broken pieces of a mirror realigned on the fragile personas reconstructed beneath in jagged tiers.

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The haunting key to this reflective spiral that seems to ping-pong back and forth between perception, self-reception and what really lies underneath it all, can be found in the lyrics.

First, there is a clear indicator that the ecstatic bounce and feel of the song itself, hitting on all cylinders of HSSD at its very core-best, is shadowed by a dark portrait of the psyche, taking form and foundational contour from the lexicon proposed by the inventor of American horror, Edgar Allan Poe. “Bang Bang” is an example of onomatopoeia, a literary device Poe made so popular that one can see his name in the spelling. The idea of “knocking on the door” which surfaces multiple times in the song, also harkens back to the more specific work of this iconic author, as his lead character, the old man, is confronted by a knocking door and the knocking under the floorboards in The Tell Tale Heart (1843). A knock upon the door is frightening in the right (or wrong) context, as we have gone back to that particular well many times, the most recent coming to mind being the actions of the masked predators in The Strangers (2008), but in Shinobi Ninja’s demonstration of the phenomenon, we are given these extra reflective (and deliciously) terrifying layers.

Critics call the technique Shinobi Ninja has executed here, “The Chinese Box Effect,” most notably evident in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603), when the Prince of Denmark watches his mother watch Ophelia watch her father watch Horatio watch his uncle watching a play. In the lyrics of “Bang Bang,” we reach the outskirts of this reflective funnel-shaped maze with what seems the intentional grammatical misuse of “they’ll” instead of “there’ll” in the repeated line: “Knocking on the door no more / Cuz you know they’ll be a cover up.” Note that Baby G is not referring to the intruders in the sense that there will be a cover up, but more that the intruders themselves are a cover up, embroiled in their manufactured reflection of self as deeply and with as much shattered complexity as their target, almost making it seem that this hall of mirrors has become an endless infinity of copy upon copy of copies until all that is left in the end is the blank, staring mask, empty for all but the insignias and societal brands that have long become antiquated and meaningless.

And the terror isn’t that someone’s knocking on the door. Look closely at the lyrics. It’s the fact that they are “knocking on the door no more,” in a clear suggestion that in today’s world, with all the noise on social media, we can’t even get negative attention that lasts long enough to stick. We are ignored, left to our masks and our endless cyclones of refraction, leaving the soul no more than a haunt of a distant replica.

All while we head bang. All while we shout, and we sing, and we dance.

Shinobi Ninja is a celebration of the spirit and the self, pure HSSD, and it feels oh-so-good to see Baby G getting ready for the fight with the opening chords, cocking her head one way, then the other. It is exhilarating when the verse kicks in, when the turntables scratch, and the drummer hits the cymbal so hard in slow motion it seems like he’s knocked the thing clear out of tension.

There are intricate levels here.

The song rocks. It coaxes you in with tasteful, meaty musical hooks, and visual stimulation coming from multiple angles. In the end, however, it is the offset that catches us. It is the way baby G leans forward and swings her hair in a 360 like a metal-head, then stares into the looking glass with her blank eyes and her war paint, it is the parody of the puppets juxtaposed against the complexity of our symbolic masks, the musical hooks and the lyrical depth put up against the eyes that are mirrors into no more than existential caverns leading to nothing but memories of once having memories.

This song is a hit and a poetic statement. It gets you from multiple perspectives of attack and makes you think. And scream. HSSD. I coined the term, because Shinobi Ninja defines it. And their song “Bang Bang” makes you get up and fucking DO it.

Watch Bang Bang by Shinobi Ninja

Michael Aronovitz is a published author of horror fiction:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection) Hippocampus Press, 2009

Alice Walks (novel) Hard Cover – Centipede Press, 2013, Paperback / Dark Renaissance Press, 2014

The Voices in Our Heads (collection) Horrified Press, 2014

The Witch of the Wood (novel) Hippocampus Press, 2015

Aronovitz has always loved hard rock music, and fronted a heavy metal band that played Philadelphia and New Jersey clubs in the mid 80’s. Currently he is a Professor of English and lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. His latest novel titled Phantom Effect was just released February 2nd, 2016 through Night Shade Books.

Serious commentary on horror and how it relates to new bands that matter

Saint Diablo

Deconstructing the Blur

“Devil Horns and Halos”

By Michael Aronovitz

            When Tito Quinones, of the hard rock band Saint Diablo, sings of “Devil Horns and Halos,” he is not making a statement about good and evil. That would be too easy, and this talented group of musicians defy simplistic, all-encompassing one word definitions, especially in the banal spirit of “easy,” or “basic,” or “mediocre” or “definitive.” On the contrary, their music is incredibly rich, well crafted, and ornate, and their message is one of complexity, making us look at the way we compartmentalize our own natural tendencies, therefore blurring realities that play out right before us. In this, I am in no way claiming that Saint Diablo attempts to personify “Superman,” spreading truth and justice, but I would argue they are more the iconic dark messenger who would suggest that there is no such thing as “the truth” in the first place. There are only “truths,” depending on one’s point of view. And as for justice, it seems Saint Diablo intends to prove this is an issue of self-mastery, finally freeing us from the old habit of buying into the propaganda forced upon us by those in the super-structure who are, in reality, just feeding us pecking orders to fit ourselves into.

To be clear, the song “Devil Horns and Halos” is in no way direct attack on goodness or God or religion at all, but more an assault on the idea of looking at things in simplistic models of binary opposition. By definition, something that is named a binary-opposite must be the direct antithesis of something else, each dependent on the other for existence. The problem with the western idea of binary opposites in the first place, is that “opposite” is a mathematical term, most often easy to infer, yet difficult to prove. There’s man and woman, granted, yet light and dark come in levels and shades, and good versus evil is relative to thousands of factors, all of them based upon any number of personal experiences, familial circumstances, socio-economic limitations, and learned biases.

Plainly, Devil Horns are not a symbol of evil in Saint Diablo’s clever paradigm. They are presented in the first place to be put up against the symbol of the halo, that which is not a pure religious emblem of good in itself, in fact, it has no mention in the bible at all, either testament. Halos are more a creation of secular art, put on coins, for example, to adorn the images of rulers in the Kushan Empire, as well as battle heroes and saints as far back as the classic Romans and Greeks. Of course, I am not insinuating that Jesus was not depicted with a halo through the artwork emerging in various time periods. I am insisting that the halo has put a glow behind the heads of many different figures, angels included, those who don’t just sing ethereal hymns and flutter around granting wishes. According to scripture they also threw people in furnaces, like Satan, and while it might make an interesting adjunctive parallel, it is not an opposite by any means.

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Consequently, were Saint Diablo, in fact, giving us some sort of demonic endorsement, this review would be quite different. There are a number of films that celebrate our fascination with the one relatively universal figure representing the ultimate evil, starting with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and continuing with The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Prince of Darkness (1987), and more currently, Constantine (2005) among many others in a list too long to make mention of here.

But “Devil Horns and Halos” is not about pure good and evil to begin with. If it was, the title would be “Devil Horns and God’s Robes” or something to that effect. The purpose of this song is to illuminate the fact that as a global village, aside from one’s given faith, we search out things like binary opposites so we can try to identify and therefore make manageable measures of societal chaos.

We like being lied to, and we entitle those who continue to perform the function. I do not believe Saint Diablo is making a political statement here, not entirely, though that would be an interesting subject for another review in itself. I believe this fascinating band is speaking more to our everyday euphemisms and rationalizations, those that create a blur around us that is more manageable than painful realization. In the song, Tito claims, “The heart betrays the intellect. The facts get lost in retrospect.” Since the video does in fact feature a lovely female model, we might primarily interpret this line as a signifier for those relationships we go back to even though we know they are bad for us, since it is human nature to block out the negative over time and reform the memory more idealistically. Still, the aforementioned female model is bathed in too much other symbolism, both religious (she wears a monk’s hood that is ripped back) and horrific (she smears blood across the shoulders of her lover) to conclude this is purely a “relationship” video.

I would argue that the above-mentioned line is more about the way we are able to desensitize human atrocities like war and slavery as soon as all those alive during the respective time period have passed on. And while we might not necessarily lose all the “facts” in retrospect through our history books, a “fact” in itself divorced from its impact on those experiencing it in real time or living memory is no longer a fact. It is a dusty statistic. Ink on paper, not blood on the stones if you will. This also brings up the question of who is writing the history books and for what agenda, but as promised, this review would do better not to focus solely on political issues. Instead, we should further investigate Saint Diablo’s idea that we “hang [our] hopes on a lasso” (a striking line in itself poetically) and the notion that we keep falling off the fences dividing the worlds (note plural) that we live in.

Were this one “world” there might very well be these binary oppositions to cling to, yet there are many “worlds” depending on any number of factors and viewpoints. The reason the metaphor of the fence is so powerful is that on its surface it represents stability between two areas most probably volatile, but in Saint Diablo’s model it is the dividing line itself that keeps shifting, a mechanism of the blur, seductively advertised.

This song is not about God and the Devil. It is not about good and evil. It is about the way we keep trying to put things in neat little boxes, therefore imprisoning ourselves in the confines of these antiquated ideals. And we keep buying into the same sort of charade. Saint Diablo is singing about being hypnotized into believing the societal hype, simply because it keeps getting presented relentlessly. We watch the news faithfully, while it follows a destructive “If it bleeds it reads” philosophy, representing vast and diverse communities by the tragedy and violence acted out by only the few. Reporters say things like, “A community is in shock…” or “the public perception is…” when they never actually polled the neighborhood, and they suggest automatic credibility with claims based on “studies,” most conducted by graduate students and doctoral candidates who had recently scrambled desperately to gather “data” that would make something appear valid and reliable by the thesis chapter’s due date, rather than actually proving in the end that it was valid and reliable. We accept the “fact” that an electric toothbrush is good, because some advertising person invents a term making its performance sound “scientific” and carefully engineered (Brocksonic technology), the same way we blandly let ads for film after film claim “It is the best movie of the year.”

When these issues are exposed individually, they seem trivial, but Saint Diablo is not referring to one specific lie twisting an ugly shape into one small patch of the blur. They are talking about a more cumulative sin, the way new diet programs are viewed with such reverence, when eating less would simply make one lose weight. They are talking about school districts taking government money (required spending they have to show to get more funding) and allocating it to staff developments featuring the latest, trendy “behavioral models,” clearly invented by marketing executives depending on our addiction to psycho-babble and bogus hierarchies (When a student begins the process of behavioral deterioration, he or she enters the “Locus of Dysfunction” at the “Pre-stress” level, indicated by fidgeting and complaining. Here, intervention is suggested…). Are you fucking kidding me? Let the kid go to the bathroom. Excuse him from the class work. Send him to the counselor.

We root for a sports team based on a model of geo-politics, when most of the players don’t come from our area. When we make mistakes, we invent enemies. When we do wrong, we find loopholes, and then we convince ourselves that we didn’t actually do it in the first place because we never got caught.

“Devil Horns and Halos” is a scary, brilliant song, and it has little to do with the religious overtones and horrific images the band draws us in with, (though they are admittedly fascinating): the black-eye effect making the singer and members of the band look demonic, the scratches down the singer’s face as if he’s been gored by a wolf, the dark chandelier, the metallic skull mask, the papers from the new testament torn into pieces and floating like ash…and all the blood…smeared across a lover’s back, running down a sword and spotting on a bible, dripping from the eyes, hardening on the fur surrounding the maw of a goat. All this is visually stunning (and darkly pleasing), but note that the lyrics have nothing to do with gore and satanic ritualism. They focus on the manner by which we have dampened the human spirit, (to paraphrase) complicated it, victimized it, suffocated it, and minimized it through a lens of apathy instead of fortifying and treasuring it through awareness and invigoration.

This is specifically why the video is so striking from a musical / performance perspective. While the lyrics describe this complicated labyrinth of lies we are dulled by, the song is anything but apathetic.

Tito Quinones is the epitome of talent and energy, creating an awesome vocal performance as well as a spectacle that is visually impressive. The lyrics are primarily delivered with a death growl, but through an interesting dynamic in the song’s center he goes to a sweet, melodic vocal, not only illustrating the more song-specific message that would deconstruct the concept of binary opposites (a death growl is not an opposite of melodic singing, they are both simply forms of singing), but showing his fans his artistic diversity.

Saint Diablo 2          Justin Adams (guitar) and Tyler Huffman (bass) should be mentioned together, because they create a combined sound that is absolutely mesmerizing. Not only do they play fast, as would be compulsory in this kind of heavy music, but they create a portrait that evolves over the course of the song, almost like a character in fiction developing depth and texture throughout the rise and climax of an engaging story.

And the drumming is spectacular. Though the song is played in a 4/4 time signature, Brian Bush makes the overall presentation deliciously complex not only through rapid-fire double bass riffs and intricate cymbal-work, but also in terms of his interplay with Adams and Huffman. The song begins with 16ths on the bass drums and the guitar and bass playing halves for a triplet feel, leading to double time in the second verse that is not only incredibly satisfying, but uplifting in the sense that the viewer can’t help but want to stand up and start head-banging, to join as one with the addictive, driving pulse. At a latter point in the song, Adams and Huffman daringly weave power chords in and out of tempo for a progressive feel within Bush’s thundering 4/4 foundation. Still, they never alter the breakneck pace the song requires for potency, nor the dramatic line already established melodically, therefore proving this is not only a song of message and power, but one of aesthetics, unselfishly complicated, and rich without arrogance.

“Devils Horns and Halos” is one of those songs that as a result of its raw tension, both audibly and visually, comes off at first like shock theater. The thing that gives us more substance is the multi-layered symbolic message they give us concerning our own codes of ethics and the smooth ways we continue to keep redrawing the boundaries. The best way I can describe Saint Diablo, is that they are a startling awakening, one of power and vision in that they offer us a glimpse of the real through strong, emblematic poetry. Then they make us want to stand up and shout, raising our fists and jumping to the beat, celebrating a new kind of liberation and joy.

Michael Aronovitz is the author of “Phantom Effect,” release date February 2nd, 2016, Night Shade Books.