Friday, March 22, 2019

Joe Bonamassa - Redemption Tour (2019)


It would have been hard for me to have topped the enthusiasm I had in anticipation of the last time I saw Joe Bonamassa live in concert - which sparked my desire to review his entire discography (an unfinished project; although time may give me the perspective I need to continue - I can't say "finish" so long as Joe is still releasing material). The truth is, having just seen Joe about a year and a half prior to the announcement of his next tour in the area, I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I questioned whether I wanted to go and see him again so soon. (Obvious spoiler: I ended up going). Part of that is due to the novelty wearing out of going to live concerts, after I've been to so many, and the logistics of scheduling a night in the city - when the truth is, Joe Bonamassa puts out so many concert DVDs, that if I have the hankering to watch him perform live, I can just pop one in and enjoy it from the comfort of my living room couch (and with a much better view of the stage, at that). Obviously, being there in person is a different experience, but as I grow older, I am also starting to grow concerned about pesky things like taking care of my hearing. But, in spite of my doubts and worries, it seems that fate conspired to send me to that concert anyway, as I was very thoughtfully gifted tickets over the holidays - and I am very grateful that things turned out this way.


This was the fifth time I've seen Joe Bonamassa live in concert, in a year that marks the fifteenth that I've been a fan. All the way back in 2004, three years after Joe began his solo recording career, I discovered the live companion to his first album A New Day Yesterday through the Grooveyard Records label (the patron saint of independent guitar rock). It was his cover of the Jethro Tull title track that blew me away and turned me into an instant fan. But his virtuosic talent, unwavering work ethic, and dedication to the same music that made me a music fan (blues-based rock from the '60s and '70s) is what fuels my undying loyalty to his career and musical output.

During the course of this concert, Joe mentioned (and not for the first time) how he started out playing (in this area) at a small bar named Moondogs. I've been there, but it wasn't until he played the Rex Theatre (a small, converted one-screen theater) that I first saw him live in 2006. He was at the tail end of the first leg of his career, on the verge of initiating what has become a very lucrative creative partnership with famed record producer Kevin Shirley. A yet relative unknown at the time, I remember Joe walking amongst the crowd before and after the show, as if he were one of us, and not the absolute guitar legend he's proven time and time again to be.

The second time I saw Joe live was at an open-air arts festival the following year, which was a lot of fun. It's hard to believe now, but that was the first time I'd ever heard the epic showstopper Sloe Gin (which I earmarked, even at the time, as being "maybe Joe's best song yet"). I also heard for the first time Joe's rendition of Just Got Paid, complete with the instrumental midsection from Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused interspersed into the middle. I remember thinking, "I hope there's an album released on this tour, so this song will be immortalized, in case it's just a one-off." Little did I know, there would be several live versions released over the years, starting with the one from 2008's Live From Nowhere in Particular.

The next time I saw Joe live in concert was in 2011, and he'd made his way to Carnegie Hall. He'd matured noticeably as a musician since the last time I saw him, at this point having also played his first show at the Royal Albert Hall in London (available on CD and DVD), which was a landmark for his career. It was the Dust Bowl tour, and I could tell that his music was evolving, with more musical experimentation. Following that was a gap of nearly six years, when I saw him again for the Blues of Desperation tour (two years ago), marking yet another new era for Joe - who has evolved considerably as a songwriter, and is still every bit the consummate performer, also engaged in myriad side projects paying homage to the greats of blues history, on both sides of the pond (between Muddy Wolf, The Three Kings - billed as Live At The Greek Theatre - and the British Blues Explosion). This latest show, touring for the following album, Redemption - which I call one of the best of his career - is in a similar vein.

The Show

[MW]Tiger In Your Tank
[R]King Bee Shakedown
[R]Evil Mama
[R]Just 'Cos You Can Don't Mean You Should
[R]Self-Inflicted Wounds (incl. vocal solo)
[BoD]Locomotive Breath Intro/This Train
[BoD]Blues of Desperation
[BoD]No Good Place For The Lonely
Sloe Gin
[3K]Breaking Up Somebody's Home (feat. David Grissom)
[BBE]Little Girl
[BBE]I Can't Quit You Baby
[BBE]How Many More Times
Woke Up Dreaming (acoustic)
Mountain Time

Legend: MW = Muddy Wolf, 3K = Three Kings (a.k.a. Greek Theatre), BBE = British Blues Explosion, BoD = Blues of Desperation, R = Redemption, and unmarked tracks are classics from albums predating 2015

Two years and thirteen days after the previous concert, we returned to the Benedum Center for a repeat performance. We arrived on time for a change (after a pleasant dinner with family), and had to line up around the corner of the building to get in (on a very cold and blustery Saturday evening on which most of the city was preemptively celebrating St. Patrick's Day). A staffer announced as we walked past that there would (once again) be no opening act, just two hours and fifteen minutes of Joe and nothing else - and that's precisely what we got. After briefly reviewing the merch table (I went back and bought a nice tour shirt on the way out after the concert), and failing to spot a group of my other relatives that I knew were attending the concert (it was a big crowd - sold out), we climbed the stairs all the way up to our seats in the balcony, three rows from the back wall. No complaints - the music is absolutely loud enough to enjoy equally throughout the auditorium, and ticket prices have risen since the days of the Rex Theatre, now that Joe Bonamassa is a chart-topping artist (the blues chart, at least).

The show opened with a track from the Muddy Wolf album - Tiger In Your Tank. It's not my favorite opener (that would be the first one I heard - Takin' The Hit - from the Rex Theatre show), but I imagine it must be comforting to Joe to have a recording of Muddy Waters kicking off the action. Next we had a healthy set of four tracks from Joe's latest album - what I was most looking forward to, being that I hadn't heard any of them live yet. It started with King Bee Shakedown and Evil Mama making a rollicking pair, followed by Just 'Cos You Can Don't Mean You Should. This subset culminated with Self-Inflicted Wounds (probably my favorite song from the Redemption album), and one of the highlights of the night. It's a downhearted number, with some excellent guitar fretwork, and self-reflective lyrics. This live version concluded with an impressive and unexpected vocal solo (by Jade MacRae. if I'm not mistaken) reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Great Gig In The Sky.

After that, we had a few tunes from Joe's previous album, Blues of Desperation (which we'd heard the last time he came to town). The first one was This Train; although Joe teased us all by kicking it off with the opening section to Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath (another train-themed song). I'm not gonna lie, This Train isn't my favorite song about trains that Joe plays (I'm partial to So Many Roads, myself, and I'd rather have heard Joe play Mountain Climbing again, from the same album), and judging from the buzz rising through the audience, I think we all would have been more excited to hear the rest of Locomotive Breath instead. Sorry, Joe. The next song was the title track from the album, but neat as it sounds, I have to admit it feels a bit loose in a live context, and I really would have rather heard the title track to Redemption - him not playing that song at all was the only regret I had for the night. I was very excited, on the other hand, to hear No Good Place For The Lonely again - a song containing one of Joe's best and most off-the-hook guitar solos in recent years.

I didn't think I would be so quickly impressed while basking in the glow of satisfaction from hearing that last song, but then Joe followed it up with his old standby, Sloe Gin, which I count as the Stairway To Heaven of Joe's repertoire. It's an amazing song - a very soulful blues, with an incredible guitar part. No matter how many times I've heard it, I don't think I could get tired of it. Since he didn't play it at the last concert, I thought he'd kinda retired it after it had (admittedly) had its fair share of time in the limelight. So I was surprised to hear it again, but very happy that he hasn't given up on it. For a man capable of shredding licks at lightning speed, there's a lot of soul in Joe's playing (moreso than some guitarists who merely regurgitate scales without knowing which notes to hang on), but what I like about the guitar part in Sloe Gin is that it's slower and more meditated and, well, more lucid than a lot of the other solos Joe plays. It's always a treat to hear.

At this point, Joe took a break to introduce his band - the same one, I believe, as on the last tour. Anton Fig on drums, Michael Rhodes on bass. Reese Wynans on keyboards. Paulie Cerra and Lee Thornburg on horns. Jade MacRae and Juanita Tippins on backup vocals. Truly a world-class band - as the level of Joe's talent demands (let alone earns) the best in musical support. At this time, Joe also made a little small talk, about turning the stage into a triage center - apparently he'd cut his finger, and was joking about the day he would become such a diva that he'd have to cancel a show over such a thing ("hashtag goals"); but we all know that would never happen. He also referenced having a cold the last time he played this town, but as then, if the cut on his finger detracted from his performance at all, I couldn't tell, and if he hadn't have mentioned it, I wouldn't have even noticed.

The introductions concluded with a surprise, when Joe drew the audience's attention to an extra amp set up on stage. On walked guitarist David Grissom (who has played for John Mellencamp among others), who joined Joe on a song from the Three Kings tour, Breaking Up Somebody's Home. Playing with one of his idols (like Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall, or B.B. King on the Black Rock album) is one thing, but I was skeptical as to how well anyone could hold their own against a guitarist the caliber of Joe Bonamassa, who could play circles around most anyone on the planet. But David Grissom added some real fire to the song in an exciting duel in which the two guitarists traded licks, building up to a crashing crescendo. It was positively thrilling!

The regular portion of the show concluded with a set from the British Blues Explosion tour, two out of three songs of which I'd heard two years ago. The "Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton" song Little Girl started it off, followed by a double shot from Led Zeppelin's debut album. I think I enjoyed I Can't Quit You Baby more than when I first heard Joe's rendition of it on the live album. It starts with the opening section from a different Led Zeppelin blues, Tea For One (which Joe has previously covered). I felt that it was a little disjointed on the album, trying to combine two songs and losing the conviction of either one, but it was more thrilling to hear it live and in person, being one of my favorite (and not quite as popular, at least inasmuch as a Zeppelin song can be "underrated") bluesy Zeppelin songs.

As on Zep's original album, I Can't Quit You Baby segued into the album (and now show) closer, How Many More Times. This is an epic track (and such a delight to hear live, as if rock history were coming to life right before you) - surely the replacement for Just Got Paid (with its own ode to Zep's first album) in earlier concerts. As you listen to it, you slowly begin to realize that this must be the last song, because you can't imagine anything more bombastic, and anything played after it would be an anticlimax. Excepting the encore of course, for which Joe drug out his acoustic guitar, and played Woke Up Dreaming - the song he uses to stun the audience by playing faster and faster, until it no longer seems humanly possible.

After that, the rest of the band returned to the stage to play the true final song, Mountain Time - another epic number that has matured considerably from its humble days as a sub-four minute track from Joe's oft-overlooked (albeit not without some justification) sophomore studio album. I hadn't heard either of these final two songs at the concert two years ago, so I was a little bit surprised to hear them again, but looking back at the setlists from all the other times I've seen Joe live, they've been played at four out of five concerts, so they can definitely be considered staples of Joe's live setlist, at least as much as Sloe Gin is (if not even more so). It's fascinating to find out what songs stand the test of time, both from the standpoint of fan appreciation, and also what the artist continues to enjoy playing year after year after year.

I know Joe Bonamassa has been hinting at retirement lately, and my opinion as a longtime fan is that he deserves a rest. I don't call him the hardest working musician alive for no reason - he's been incredibly prolific - and "always on the road" is barely an exaggeration. I don't want to see him quit music entirely (I don't know how he could, it's so enmeshed in his DNA); I hope he continues to write and record throughout his life. But I would consider him fully justified in slowing down, quitting touring for a while, not pushing himself but waiting until the inspiration strikes to get back in the studio. Surely he's carved a name for himself (at least within the right circles), though I wish his songs would get more play - whether on the radio, or in movies, or what have you. Not out of any popularity/competition thing, but just because the music is so good. Beyond being a guitar virtuoso - which he's been from day one - his craft has matured and his songs have been very smooth and polished of late, yet without diminishing the raw force of his talent. Anything he puts out between now and retirement I will continue to gobble up hungrily; and if he does come back for another show in a year or two or three (or ten or twenty!), I'll still be game for it. It's always exciting to see what Joe Bonamassa will do next!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

I added this new series on Netflix to my queue last month, but I made the mistake of not making it a priority. I guess I thought maybe it was some kind of remake or spin-off of House on Haunted Hill. But it's not. I watched it after Halloween, and it's one of the best shows I've seen in a long time. With high production values - particularly the writing and acting talent - it's one of those titles that rises above the din of the horror genre, and makes me proud to be a fan. I recommend it to fans of great TV, even outside the realm of horror fandom.

Although the show has its fair share of scares, much of its dramatic weight comes from its themes and its characters - five siblings and their parents, each a broken person, living as adults but still haunted by the traumatic events they experienced in childhood, during a brief but unforgettable stay in a haunted house. The show intersperses scenes from the past, constructing an intriguing mystery about what happened in those last days before they moved out in the middle of the night. The child actors that have been cast all do a phenomenal job (also, Annabeth Gish - who was Agent Reyes in late seasons of The X-Files - appears as one of the house's caretakers). But the real story is how these kids are navigating their lives in the present, and to what extent the house's supernatural draw still pulls at them - as an author, a mortician, a psychologist, a drug addict.

I particularly liked the way the series provides natural explanations for a lot of the supernatural phenomena (the kids' dad explains, "dreams can spill out sometimes") - one character, in particular, presses the mental illness angle. Another seeks therapy for recurring sleep paralysis. And while the series presents the supernatural elements in a very matter-of-fact way (and the narrative relies on them), at no point does it ever feel like you couldn't interpret them as "dramatizations" of an otherwise non-supernatural reality. (Somebody seeing something, for example, doesn't mean it's really there).

It's a well-crafted show, that relies heavily on suspense and drama, while also delighting in occasionally shocking viewers (but never in a way that feels "cheap" or undeserved). There's even an episode midway through that's shot in a series of long takes without cuts - which must have been a challenge for the actors, but it gives a very raw and spontaneous feeling to the expression of their emotions, in what is indeed a very dark day of their lives.

This show ruminates on fear and death, existential dread, but also maternal love (and how it can be corrupted), the human need for closeness and comfort, to listen to one another, and not take for granted the connections you have with loved ones, because they could be gone in the blink of an eye. Except that they never really are gone, so long as you hold them in your heart. It takes you on a dark journey, but the trip is a blast, and there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I give this series my highest recommendation.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

13/14 Cameras (2015/2018)

I noticed a movie titled 14 Cameras on Netflix, and I thought the voyeuristic premise sounded interesting. Luckily, I did my research first, and found out that it's actually a sequel to an earlier movie titled 13 Cameras, also available on Netflix. So I watched them both, in order, on two separate nights.

Preying on the fear cultivated by a growing spy cam industry, both of these movies focus on a particular slumlord who likes to outfit the properties he rents with lots of hidden cameras - for purposes that start out perverted, and quickly escalate to much worse. As someone who spends time defending voyeurism as a sexual fetish, I was at first very frustrated with these films. Not because they depict voyeurism as the appetizer to kidnapping and even murder (although perhaps that should frustrate me more), because I guess I'm used to that.

Rather, I thought the portrayal of the slumlord was so ridiculously over-the-top, that it didn't even have a hint of verisimilitude. Compared to, for example, a documentary I recently watched on Netflix (simply titled Voyeur) about a guy who built a motel specifically designed to enable spying on its inhabitants (whose first name curiously matches the villain in 13/14 Cameras). Sure, this guy's enterprise was morally dubious, but I consider him to be a sympathetic person (and, true to the voyeur's code, he never physically assaulted anyone, let alone anything worse than that).

The slumlord in these two movies, however, is a different story altogether. Played to devastating effect by a man named Neville Archambault (comparisons to the slimy worm at the center of The Human Centipede II are apt, in the sense that you can't fathom how the casting department managed to dredge up such a revolting example of humanity), his look and (apparently) smell inspire one renter in the first movie to apply such colorful phrases as "dirty diapers" and "spoiled mayonnaise" to describe him. Meanwhile, he can barely string a full sentence together, leaving you to wonder how somebody so disgusting, and so socially inept, could possibly run a successful business, renting properties out to more or less normal people.

And then when he sits in front of his 13 or 14 monitors unblinking (wearing his glasses perpetually the way a state trooper wears his hat), with his mouth hanging open, you have to ask yourself, does this guy not know about the treasure trove that is internet pornography, that he has to go to such trouble, putting himself at great personal risk for relatively limited gains? By the end of the second movie, though, I began to realize that the creators aren't taking him completely seriously, and there is a little bit of [dark] humor to his character. So as a creation of pure fiction, designed precisely to be so outrageous, I have to concede that it is kind of interesting to watch him in action.

Now, I'm not going to say these two movies are anything other than the cheap horror smut the premise makes them out to be, but if that's the kind of bad movie you like to watch, you could do a lot worse. Considering the subject matter, these movies actually don't go too far with the explicit violence, and there's actually very little sexuality (mostly implied - to wit, I can't even say for certain that this guy rapes his victims; he's so developmentally stunted, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he doesn't actually know what to do with his...erm, equipment) - especially compared to the waste-of-celluloid that was The Human Centipede.

As for the other characters in these movies - a dysfunctional young married couple in the first one, and a vacationing family with three [twenty-something] teenagers in the second one - nobody's going to be winning any awards for acting (or likability, for that matter), but they do an adequate job of creating some unfolding drama to distract from the central theme of voyeurism, even if it's nearly always present in the form of a multi-view hidden camera perspective (kind of like Paranormal Activity without the paranormal activity), accented by heavy breathing.

There's a point in the second movie where the subject of the dark web comes up - when the slumlord starts live streaming his feed, and a group of bottom feeders spontaneously start bidding on one of the girls (the slumlord's unconvincing response: "not for sale"). This isn't the movie to explore the ramifications of that kind of behavior (and how likely it really is), but I appreciate a movie that's willing to go there without getting super preachy about it. This is horror, after all, and a total work of fiction. And as long as you're viewing it as such, you just might be able to get some twisted entertainment out of it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween 2018

The Ritual (2017)

Saw this on Netflix. A good cross between The Descent and The Blair Witch Project (though not shot in the found footage format). Four Englishmen take a hiking trip in the remote hills of Sweden to honor the tragic killing of a friend. When they elect to take a "shortcut" through the woods (as one of the characters warns, "if a shortcut was a shortcut, it wouldn't be called a shortcut, it would be called a route"), they stumble across a pagan cult worshiping some ancient beast as a God. For a while, it seems mostly like all the baggage is just what the friends bring with them into the forest, but there really is something out there, and you do eventually get a good look at it in the end (in a climax that had me quoting Princess Mononoke: "I'm going to show you how to kill a god"). The cinematography is breathtaking - the beautiful setting goes a long way in establishing an atmosphere that is genuinely instilled with fear. I recommend it.

Temple (2017)

Three Japan-o-philes visit the land of the rising sun. The girlfriend is doing her thesis on religious studies. The boyfriend (who is kind of a prick) is mostly along for the ride. The third wheel is actually the most interesting character, and the only one who can speak Japanese. They quickly and conveniently stumble upon clues leading them to what must be the most haunted temple in Japan. There's a potentially interesting story in there about six kids who went missing, and the monk who was found living in the temple, but that's not what this movie is about - that's just background fodder for a gimmicky ghost story. Unfortunately, the acting is a bit wooden, and the writing leaves something to be desired. The creature(s?) are creepy, but the nighttime chase is just too dark (and there are too many shots pointed down the barrel of a flashlight, as opposed to the other way around). There's a novelty (for me, at least) to occult symbolism being associated with oriental spiritualism (as opposed to Christianity or paganism), but the various story threads don't really line up into a logical framework beyond "ghosts are creepy, right?" in the end (which came sooner than I expected). I'd like to see this story told with more substance and less fluff.

The Devil's Candy (2015)

Now this movie has style - and I do love a movie with style. Its taste in music is so good (a heavy metal cross-section of Pantera, Slayer, Metallica, even Sunn O))) - not music I typically listen to, but great for setting the mood of a horror movie), even the "trailer" music on Netflix had me hopping over to Youtube for more. The setup is recurrent of The Amityville Horror - a nice family moves into a house with a dark past, and their lives subsequently take a dark turn - but with a strong serial killer flavor - starring an older-than-I-remember Pruitt Taylor Vince. The cold open is so captivating - a Lizzie Borden/Jim Morrison singing The End-type situation, where a man gets up in the middle of the night and plays power chords on his electric guitar to drown out the Satanic voice in his head - I was instantly sold.

The protagonist family - a metalhead slash painter, his wife, and their teenage (also metalhead) daughter - are attractive and likable, and the movie is largely free of dumb clich├ęs. When the Satanic element begins to manifest itself through art - the father's painting, provided by the real-life artist who's worked on some of Sunn O)))'s album covers - it's glorious. Did I mention this movie has style? It's terrifying - albeit, in less of a supernatural way than one might hope (on that note, it's telling that the killer watches a lot of fire-and-brimstone televangelist preachers; it's not hard to imagine it fueling the delusions of an impaired mind - though the preacher thinks he's helping people, by preying on their fears, he's only magnifying the horrors in the world; it is the height of irony that he, himself, is among the worldly devils he warns about) - culminating in a harrowing climax, but damn, it's not often that I have this much fun watching a horror movie! It just goes to show how powerful a movie can be when it's not just trying to tell a story, but aspiring to be a work of art in its own right. It's no wonder the music and painting plays such a critical role. This is the kind of movie I'd be proud to display on my shelf. (Even Black Phillip makes a cameo!)

Apostle (2018)

At over two hours long, this movie is an epic journey, with a plot that strongly resembles The Wicker Man. Around the turn of the century (last century), a man is sent undercover in his ailing father's stead to infiltrate a goddess-worshiping island cult and rescue his kidnapped sister. The first half plays a bit like Colonia in a colonial village with a medieval sense of justice. But at the halfway point (and I suppose this is a bit of a spoiler), it takes a very dark turn, with some supernatural elements, as the cult begins to implode from within. Most of the horror is human-generated, however, and it gets pretty gruesome. It's a sleek production, with good writing, solid leads, and ace cinematography. It's undoubtedly a tense viewing experience, but if that doesn't bother you, it's very well done.

"The promise of the divine is but an illusion."
"God is pain... is suffering... is betrayal."

P (2005)

The granddaughter of a witch leaves the Thai countryside to seek a living in Bangkok, where she uses her supernatural talents to navigate the sex trade - and get herself into trouble, when she loses control of her powers and a bloodthirsty monster is let loose on the city. It's fascinating to see different cultures take on particular subjects - like witchcraft - to see the similarities and differences in how they're interpreted across cultures. True to Bangkok's reputation, this is as much an erotic film as it is a horror film (and I have no complaints about that). In fact, it feels like three movies in one - a gritty, country-girl-meets-city-life coming-of-age drama gives way to a flesh-eating night stalker thriller, that eventually evolves into a Thai version of The Exorcist! Plus, it deserves an award for most captivating ending credits sequence - this film really knows how to keep the audience engaged through the credits. ;-)

Haunted (2018)

This is a short series available on Netflix - I view it as a sort of modern analog to Sightings. Six stories told in bite-size, 20-30 minute episodes, with dramatic re-enactments. Obviously, you can take "the following is a true story" with a grain of salt, but since none of these stories is designed to prove or disprove the existence of paranormal phenomena (this isn't science, this is entertainment), you might as well suspend your disbelief and take them at face value - they're certainly presented that way, told by the victims and eyewitnesses themselves in first person. Most of the tales lack a satisfying conclusion, but I think that contributes to the scariness, by leaving things hanging out there. Fair warning: you might want to watch this one with the lights on.

Here's what you can expect: in the first episode, a man is h(a)unted by a vengeful ghost, in a setup reminiscent of It Follows. The second episode is the story of the kids who grew up with a devil-worshipping serial killer father. Episode three takes a few pages from the Poltergeist playbook. Episode four is the most positive episode (relatively speaking), about a medium who awakens his gift after being contacted by three kids who died in a well. The fifth episode is your requisite alien abduction episode. And in episode six, a teenage girl's deadbeat boyfriend gifts her a stolen gravestone, so she dumps him and shacks up with the demon that's attached to it. (That description's not a fair reflection of the tone of the episode, but it's not inaccurate, and I couldn't resist describing it that way).

Discussion: it's almost more fascinating trying to think up a psychological explanation for these experiences*. I mean, assuming they're not fabricated whole cloth - obviously, I don't believe in ghosts and aliens (anymore), but I believe that these people (or, if they're actors, then others like them) have had experiences that defy conventional explanation. (To quote Scully from The X-Files, I believe that they believe - doubting their explanations isn't the same thing as denying their emotional experiences). I think it will be fascinating somewhere down the line, when we have a better grasp of how the human brain functions, to explore the physiological (and/or environmental) factors** that lead to things like hearing sounds and voices, seeing apparitions, etc. Just having had an episode of sleep paralysis once in my life, I've experienced the unbelievably realistic delusions the human mind can conjure when it's not functioning correctly, and the intense feelings (especially sheer terror) that can go along with that. Take mere suggestibility as a start. I don't believe in these things - these entities - yet thinking about them is enough to cause a palpable reaction of fear (accompanied by such physiological symptoms as goosebumps) in my mind and body. To quote The X-Files again, we have yet to discover how neural networks create self-consciousness, let alone how the human brain processes two-dimensional retinal images into the three-dimensional phenomenon known as perception, yet we somehow brazenly declare that "seeing is believing".

*When some of the people in this show say things like "houses aren't haunted, people are haunted", or that spirits are "attached" to them, or when one person in a household experiences a lot of paranormal activity but others don't... this all could be interpreted as one person being "psychically open" or "empathically gifted" or some such, but it suggests to me the possibility that these could be the manifestations of an impaired mind (or an enhanced one, depending on your perspective).

**In both genetics and conditioning - as reinforced by The Devil's Candy, it always seems to be those with direct exposure to religious mythology (not always in the form of devotion - sometimes it's "inflicted" upon them by others) that interpret these experiences in such archetypal ways. To provide an example of this phenomenon, a schizophrenic who hears voices or feels presences will be more likely to interpret them as ghosts or demons if he's been taught to believe in things like pure evil and the immortal soul.

Tales of Halloween (2015)

It's fun to watch scary shows and horror movies during October, but I always like it when I get a chance to watch something that captures the true essence of Halloween - costume parties and jack o' lanterns and trick 'r treaters - on the holiday itself. Especially when I don't get a chance to get out there myself (and not being a kid anymore, that kind of depends on the whims of other families). That's one of the things I like about the early Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons. That's also part of what makes the slasher classic Halloween such a perennial favorite. So I saved Tales of Halloween for October 31st - an anthology of ten (very) loosely connected stories that occur on the night of All Hallow's Eve, very much in the vein of that other, more recent, Halloween classic, Trick 'r Treat.

I'll tell you straight up that it's not as good as Trick 'r Treat, but it wasn't a bad way to spend a Halloween night, cuddled up on the couch with a bag full of candy, after all the excitement of the day has wound down. The stories are more sequential and less interwoven than they were in Trick 'r Treat - occasionally a reference to one short will be made in another, and the trick 'r treaters who feature predominantly in one story are recycled in the others. To give you an idea of what to expect, here's a...well, short description of each of the shorts:

Sweet Tooth - An urban legend about a kid who will eat all your candy (even the pieces you've already eaten) comes to life.

The Night Billy Raised Hell - An unfortunate kid learns why it's a bad idea to egg the guy's house who never gives out candy. (spoiler: it's not because he doesn't know how to enjoy the holiday).

Trick - A group of kids decide they'd rather draw blood than receive candy from a group of adults spending the holiday under the influence (spoiler: that decision is entirely justified).

The Weak and the Wicked - A bullied kid attempts to summon a Halloween demon to exact vengeance on his (rather sadistic) bullies.

Grim Grinning Ghost - A fairly straightforward exercise in suspense, expectation, redirection, and jump scares, when a woman's car breaks down and she has to walk home after listening to ghost stories at a friend's house.

Ding Dong - A rather quirky segment, featuring some kind of demon lady who really wants children, and her soft-spoken mate, as they navigate the temptation of having children delivered right to their doorstep on Halloween.

This Means War - A short that seemed more interesting in its setup than its ultimate conclusion. Basically, a tale of one-upsmanship in the realm of decorating your house for the holiday.

Friday the 31st - An over-the-top, humorous parody of Friday the 13th, involving a costumed victim, a Jason rip-off, and, believe it or not, a UFO.

The Ransom of Rusty Rex - Two desperate would-be kidnappers get a whole lot more than they bargained for when they try to take a millionaire's trick 'r treating son hostage.

Bad Seed - a killer goes on a rampage during Halloween, but it takes the novel form of a sentient (and bloodthirsty) jack o' lantern. Kind of reminded me of Halloween III (the one without Michael Myers).

And there you have it - take it or leave it. I hope you've had a haunted holiday, and if I don't see you sooner, I imagine I'll meet you back here next Halloween!

Monday, May 14, 2018

ZML^2 - Yardbirds Covers

Preface: The last edition of Zharth's Music Log was posted almost six years ago, if you can believe that. But though this might not seem like a sufficiently awesome theme to resurrect the mlog over, the truth is, this is a theme I've been sitting on for a long, long time. And the Yardbirds - the quintessential guitar supergroup of the '60s, featuring no less than Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page on guitar (at various times) - interestingly, the focus of Joe Bonamassa's triple tribute to the British Blues Explosion, which is finally being released this month - is one of my favorite bands of all time. And they're not like Bob Dylan - official covers by high profile bands are few and far between. But every once in awhile I stumble upon one, and it's always a treat. And that's what we're celebrating this week.

The James Gang - Lost Woman (Live) [Live In Concert, 1971]
Comments: I think this is one of the first Yardbirds covers I stumbled across, and it's certainly the longest, being stretched out to a near 18 minute long mostly-instrumental jam by the early band that featured Joe Walsh of later Eagles fame - The James Gang, better known for their radio hit Funk #49 (you may not know it by name, but you'd probably recognize it if you heard it).

Rainbow - Still I'm Sad [Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, 1975]
Comments: Fresh from Deep Purple, guitar virtuoso Ritchie Blackmore paired up with one of heavy metal's first and foremost poster children - Ronnie James Dio - to form Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. Opening with the radio hit Man On The Silver Mountain, their debut album closed with an interesting choice of a Yardbirds cover, the melancholy Still I'm Sad, ably interpreted as an instrumental with a very lyrical lead guitar part.

Fleetwood Mac - For Your Love [Mystery To Me, 1973]
Comments: Sandwiched between the trailblazing Peter Green era and the chart-topping Buckingham-Nicks era, comes this Bob Welch-era cover of what was itself a transitional song for The Yardbirds - For Your Love. It's rumored that Eric Clapton quit the band after the release of this song, their first hit single (on which he refused to play), because the band was going in a more experimental direction, away from their blues roots. He transferred to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers for a short stint before setting off on his own progressive experiment with the Cream. His replacement in The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, had and never has had a problem with musical experimentation.

Jeff Beck - Shapes of Things [Truth, 1968]
Comments: Recorded by a former Yardbird himself, not long off of his tenure with the band, on the debut album that paralleled Jimmy Page's own reinvention with Led Zeppelin's first album (a band that was originally billed as The New Yardbirds for contractual reasons), this is undoubtedly the least distilled cover we'll listen to this week, and yet, underneath Rod Stewart's distinctive vocals, Jeff Beck still manages to make it sound unique.

Rush - Heart Full Of Soul [Feedback, 2004]
Comments: One of two Yardbirds covers (the other being the band's most popular and most frequently covered song, Shapes of Things) featured on Rush's 21st century EP of covers, appropriately titled Feedback, also including the likes of Buffalo Springfield and The Who. Though never having been a diehard fan of Rush (but Working Man was one of the hardest rocking songs of the '70s), when this EP came out, I sat up and took notice. A band is only as good as its influences, after all.

Aerosmith - Think About It [Night In The Ruts, 1979]
Comments: Speaking of influences, Aerosmith is another band with great influences - and one of the few I know of who has covered both The Yardbirds and the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac. If you've ever listened to their song Livin' On The Edge, it contains a not-so-subtle homage to The Yardbirds' Mr. You're A Better Man Than I (I'd've liked to've heard them cover that one!). Although Aerosmith is somewhat known for doing The Yardbirds' signature cover of The Train Kept A Rollin', and I also have a live version of them doing I Ain't Got You, for this theme I picked the somewhat more obscure Think About It, which is interesting in that it features the guitar solo that Jimmy Page recycled for the middle section of Led Zeppelin's epic Dazed and Confused.

David Bowie - I Wish You Would [Pinups, 1973]
Comments: Perhaps the most unexpected artist to show up this week, from David Bowie's own album of covers (preceding Rush's Feedback by three decades, however) - also including the likes of The Who (as well as Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd), and yet another version of Shapes of Things - comes Bowie's tripped-out version of the harp-heavy blues I Wish You Would.

Honorable Mention: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Tom Petty's cover of I'm A Man, which can be heard on his Live Anthology box set, released in 2009. Truth be told, I'd been holding off this theme for the sake of this very song, until I'd reached a point where I realized I had at least seven other Yardbirds covers accounted for! I'm not including it here because its heritage as a Bo Diddley tune is possibly even stronger than The Yardbirds' claim to it (although Muddy Waters might have something to say about that), and because it gives me an excuse to rule out another version of the song covered by The Who on their debut album from 1965, which I just don't have room for - there are only seven days in a week! It is absolutely still worth mentioning, however, as, like Aerosmith, Tom Petty was also an artist with strong influences, including both The Yardbirds and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. His unexpected passing last year has left a devastating hole in the music world.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Halloween 2017

I'm a little out of practice, but here's what I watched for Halloween this year:

The Void (2016) - a Lovecraftian horror with shades of Silent Hill, Hellraiser, and creature effects that would do justice to John Carpenter's The Thing. You never know what you're going to get when going into a horror film - a stylistic tour de force or a cheap 'b' flick. While seeming like the latter, this fortunately leans more toward the former. A group of small town nobodies is besieged in a local hospital by hooded cult-like figures. But rather than a routine run-around hack-and-slash, themes of occult medical experimentation, dark gods, and dimensions to alternate realities are the rule of the day. Recommended.

The Babysitter (2017) - A geeky adolescent finds his courage as he struggles to survive when a night with the babysitter turns unexpectedly homicidal in this campy horror-comedy that was (to my disappointment) more suburban slasher than Satanic ritual. Nevertheless, it's got the style and the humor to be a throwback cult teen movie. Samara Weaving nails the hot-to-trot babysitter with a heart of gold (and also a dark secret), even if she doesn't make as convincing a baddie. For people who prefer fun over scary movies for their Halloween viewing.

Cabin Fever (2002) - Eli Roth (of Hostel fame)'s cult classic tongue-in-cheek horror about the outbreak of a flesh-eating virus in a backwoods setting, starring Rider Strong (Boy/Girl Meets World's own Shawn Hunter). Irreverently self-aware, this movie pokes fun at many horror tropes, while competently bringing the gross-out (no surprise there, given Eli Roth's reputation). I've never been prejudiced against "gorror" movies, but I do have to admit that I'm losing my stomach for them, and I have to say I was easily distracted while watching this one, and lost a lot of interest as lunch time loomed near.

American Fable (2016) - Good, in spite of its flaws. Tries to be a surreal, "modern day fairy tale" (think Pan's Labyrinth), but is too rooted in reality to get its feet off the ground (it wasn't really the movie I thought it was going to be from reading the description). The plot, however, is as compelling as it is a damning portrait of the lows to which its farmers stoop to save their lifestyle from urbanization (or something). The acting is a little wooden, and some of the characters are unrealistic caricatures (perhaps this was intentional), but young Peyton Kennedy is a vision of radiance and worth the price of admission alone.

Mindhunter (2017) - Not a movie, but a series, and a Netflix original, at that. Was introduced to it from a blurb in Time magazine of all places. It sounded interesting, so I gave the first episode a watch, and was instantly hooked. It's fantastically written, acted, and directed, based on the experiences of the guy who literally wrote the book on criminal behavioral science and (I'm guessing) invented the term "serial killer". The series depicts upstart FBI agent Holden Ford's crusade to redirect the bureau's efforts from trying to hunt inscrutable evil (and always staying one step behind), to learning to predict deviant behavior by studying the criminal mind first hand - by interviewing convicted killers, some of whom are disturbingly captivating. Also costars Anna Torv, formerly of Fringe. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Spoiler Note: If you're like me, and would prefer to go into this movie without too many elaborate preconceptions, then you're probably not even reading this to begin with. Nonetheless, I will keep this review very light on spoilers, focusing more on overarching themes and my personal reactions than intricate plot details (because if you need to know who does what when, then you can just watch the movie, am I right?).

Alien: Covenant isn't the Alien movie I was hoping to see (although, to be fair, I think what I want is to be an impressionable kid discovering Alien for the first time all over again, and that's just impossible), but it's a thrilling and satisfying followup to 2012's Prometheus. Covenant is less the devastatingly raw horror of Alien (although it has some very tense moments), and more the high-concept science fiction of Prometheus, tackling such existential themes as creation and destruction, the purpose of life, and what happens when a life form meets its maker (and - like its immediate predecessor - for a movie with Biblical themes, it's not overbearingly preachy). However, the classic xenomorph does make its unambiguous debut this time around, and the movie answers many (if not all) of the frustrating questions that Prometheus raised, especially regarding the nature of the creature and how it relates to what we've seen in the past.

That having been said, I don't think I like the "broad daylight" CGI (the white-skinned "neomorphs" were a little too stereotypical del Toro-esque digital movie monsters; and the much talked about flute scene seemed to be trying too hard to impress the audience in a "look at me!" sort of way) as much as the bump-in-the-night practical effects that 1979's Alien was forced to employ. The xenomorph ought to be stalking its prey from the shadows, not being drawn out into the open. Furthermore, while learning about the genesis of the creature is a truly fascinating study - here's a clickbait title for the movie: who engineered the "perfect organism"? The answer may surprise you! - I think this is a case where mystery prevails over curiosity satisfied. Although it makes a lot of sense for the xenomorphs to be a kind of biological weapon, I find it scarier to imagine that they are a natural phenomenon, a dark force of nature existing in remote corners of the universe, to terrorize and haunt anyone who dares probe too far into the deepest reaches of space. Call it a Lovecraftian interpretation.

Regardless, for anyone who enjoyed Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is an exciting continuation of that story thread, even if I don't consider it the equal of the original series, which started with Alien, was expanded upon in Aliens, and concluded in Alien 3. There have been some more and less crappy titles in the interim (yes, I actually watched Alien: Resurrection again, and I still think it's a piece of crap not worth your time - nobody could say I didn't give it a fair chance), but one may be reassured that Ridley Scott's return investment in Prometheus/Covenant has restored some grace to the franchise. It is not clear yet precisely how these movies dovetail with the original encounter on LV-426 in Alien (there was a moment that was close in Prometheus, but then it was snatched away), leading me to wonder if these movies are not intended to be a fresh start - recycling some of the elements of the earlier movies, without being burdened by the limitations of connecting up with what's come before. But the timeline of these movies is marching towards the opening of Alien, and it appears that there is room for another potential title to follow Covenant. Only time, I guess (and box office figures?), will tell.