This Godless Endeavor: The Coexistence of Atheism & Ethics

•May 7, 2010 • Comments Off on This Godless Endeavor: The Coexistence of Atheism & Ethics

Since the dawn of the concept of religion has there been those that would deny those dogmas and the existence of one or more deities in favor of more logically-rooted doctrines. From the execution of Socrates on the grounds that his philosophical inquiry aimed to “corrupt the youth” with godless rhetoric, to the paranoia of the puritan morality in the Salem witch trials, to the cries of communism aimed at liberal thinkers during the Red Scare, one need not long for examples in the annals of history to see the hostility toward those who would base their life philosophies around something other than theology. Even within the past several decades, we see the prevalent view of western society summed up by President George Bush senior with the bold claim: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

So where does this apprehension toward atheism come from? Presumably, it is assumed that being moral necessarily requires one to believe in a higher power. The rationale is, simplistically, that there is nothing to stop someone from committing all manner of atrocities if they have no god to answer to in the state after life.  Enlightenment philosopher John Locke seems to imply this in his, in this context, ironically-titled Letter Concerning Toleration:

“Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.”

It is interesting to note that in the same letter, Locke simultaneously condemns Catholicism, one of the most prevalent religions in current western culture, on grounds that it cannot be ethical because of its members’ pledge to a foreign authority in the form of the pope.

It is appropriate to begin with Locke, as the idea of the social contract he advocates plays an important part in highlighting why ethics are possible in the absence of a god.  Locke’s reasoning behind his social contract are rooted in natural law theory, which presupposes that men are endowed, from the very essence of their being an entity of nature, with natural rights, and that the state of nature pre-dating  the formation of a society is not inherently hostile as a result of their God-given reason. However, because the idea of natural law has the burden of proof of its validity being rooted in some kind of intelligent design, the idea cannot be argued on virtue of Rawls’ concept of public reason. That is, there is nothing to suggest that natural law is akin to an empirical law of physics that enforces our rights to the “life, liberty, and property” that Locke talks about.

Accepting this, we can begin to see that rights are man-made. At this juncture, the impetus for the contract as an atheist, then, takes a decidedly Hobbesian turn. The urge for self-preservation is the most primal in man.  Even when that fear is reasonably quelled, though, man is still self-serving and looking out for his best interests. It would be unreasonable to say that this self-centered determination is unethical, for if we did not act in ways that were advantageous to our best interests, then we essentially forfeit the right to live. We are both most aware of and most invested in our own needs, and, in the realistic situation of a non-completely symbiotic society, putting the other above the self would surely lead to at the least unhappiness, and at the worst death. This, then, preempts the question of why all men simply do not run around doing what we would consider to be unethical things: stealing, killing, raping, etc. The answer is a simple one: it’s not in our best interests to do so.

Although our base motivation is to make decisions that consistently serve us best, we are still rational beings. Furthermore, humans are naturally social creatures. Combining these facilities, it doesn’t take long for one to see the value in cooperating with his fellow man. Everything from hunting caribou to constructing a skyscraper becomes more feasible the more people are involved. Doing so, however, requires us to maintain a relationship with those around us in a way that suppresses our immediate self-serving interests in favor of greater long term benefits.

Thus, a society rooted in cooperation through reciprocity is realized. The social contract that binds the society, then, is arrived at by different means than the ones suggested by Locke. Presumably, the members who benefit from the cooperation afforded by this society intend to keep themselves removed from the difficult, chaotic state of nature, and thus impose their own system of justice rooted in the ethics that arise from maintaining this social contract.

The rationale behind real modern societies is not unlike this. For example, citizens of first-world nations do not, by and large, go around killing others for their desirable properties out of fear of the repercussions. The consequences are given legitimacy by the laws society has enacted to maintain its integrity out of an understanding that cooperation and peace at the cost of completely serving the individual outweighs the alternative.  What we now have is the case where Locke’s rights backed by natural law are transformed into those supported by positive law. The ethics that have been so traditionally associated with religious values are unbound from them and may be realized and accepted by those not associating themselves with any theological comprehensive doctrine.

The very fact that there are myriad theological doctrines, most of which are incompatible with, and condemning to damnation all others in the eyes of their god, already begs the question of theism as a necessary form of ethical legitimacy. If theism in and of itself is a sufficient basis for which to be morally sound, why have a plurality of religions at all? Is being morally pure not enough? Many religions share similar concepts of what it means to be ethical and good, so there must be something that exists outside the realm of the deity each worships.

The topic of agnostic moral value can be characterized by the dilemma presented by Plato in the Euthyphro dialog. If we were to consider the case where the morals handed down by a god were good on merit of them simply coming from said god, then the morals are arbitrary to his whim. In this instance, the concept of “good” is contingent on the god’s will, and is not really good at all. Conversely, if this god’s directives were good because of some inherent knowledge of goodness present in the universe, then the source of ethical considerations becomes independent of the god, and thus requires no religious affiliation.

So far, this logic only addresses the questions of “hard” ethics, or issues not related to Good Samaritan values. The problem then becomes one where individuals are not bound by the social contract-rooted system of justice they have erected because such values exist in an ethical gray area that do not directly threaten life, freedom, or property. The thought process becomes one of a utilitarian, rather than altruistic, nature. As social creatures who both see the necessity of maintaining a society of mutual benefit, while making the judgment of similar possibilities as talked about by Nussbaum, we must choose actions that generally support the well-being of others in the society to which we belong. We must seek to maximize the happiness of those around us in order to maximize the cooperation we in turn receive, and minimize actions that do not. Acting in such a way creates a beneficial sum effect that, in theory, promotes the reciprocity of an entire society.

This idea is certainly loosely, if at all, enforceable and relies on the rationality of the individual to see its cascading benefits. But again, this can be witnessed in the way current modern societies operate, with laws enacted that try to encourage such Good Samaritan acts by protecting those who would practice them from legal implications. It is, however, a slippery slope to legislate the inverse: about how often and in what capacity one need go out of their way to assist their neighbor.

Yet such behaviors do occur. Whether this happens as a means of rational utility spoken of previously or not is unimportant. Possessing compassion and empathy does not require a theological comprehensive doctrine, even if it is sometimes misplaced and relegated to those in the society which we seek to derive our benefits from.  Such is the nature of the idea of an altruistic act which goes against our basic self-interested motivations, further supporting the emergence of “hard” ethics as a manifestation of a selfishly-motivated social contract.

The notion that self-motivated ethical values are a contradiction of terms is one of romanticism. If we accept the idea that what is moral and just is independent of a god, then one can see that ethics are a man-made construct; one that comes from the realization that certain conditions and actions would be undesirable to us, as well undesirable to others. Combined with the preference for a social state whose features still benefit the individual, even if by curtailing immediate gratification in favor of a more long-term one, ethics become a function of utility and farther-reaching self-centric motives rather than a priori natural laws. By breaking the social contract that is our ethics and justice system, we seek only to do harm to ourselves, either by punishment from our society, or annexation back into the far less desirable solitary state of nature.

Advertisements

Progressive technicalities

•March 31, 2012 • Comments Off on Progressive technicalities

When bands of any genre, but especially rock and its ilk, do different or unorthodox things with their musical approach, you tend to see all kinds of labels flying around to attempt to categorize them. The adjectives are numerous, with some of the most prominent including: “experimental”, “progressive”, “art”, and “avant-garde.” But these terms are nebulous. What exactly does having a progressive sound imply?

It’s hard to say what the exact roots of the progressive rock genre are. Broadly, the word “progressive” means to push the boundaries of a given subject, most typically associated with politics. In the case of rock music, this meant breaking out of the verse-chorus-based structures, blues roots, and four/four time signatures that were, and are, common. Certainly, the polyrhythms and freeform nature of jazz fusion and its bop predecessors could be said to parallel and espouse many of the fundamentals that differentiated pro grog from its more vanilla counterpart. However, many of the bands who would become pivotal in establishing the groundwork for the term were almost the antithesis of the spastic quality we now associate with modern progressive music.

Progressive rock came out of the psychedelia of the late ‘60s. It wasn’t the chops of the playing or the sophistication of the musical theory that garnered the progressive tag. Rather, it was the grandeur of the songwriting and arranging combined with the use of otherworldly effects, tones, and lyrics. Bands such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, and Jethro Tull were all put under this label, all of which were mid-to-slow in tempo and focused on innovation  in instrumentation and evoking imagery through their sound.

It wouldn’t be until early the next decade that progressive music would begin to assimilate the connotations that we usually associate with it. Initially, Canada’s Rush sounded like a tighter Led Zeppelin. By the middle of the ‘70s, however, they were writing epics like 2112 that were both grand in narrative and musical scope while utilizing a high level of musicianship. Rush championed the use of outlandish time signatures and wonky rhythmic feels in addition to having science fiction and fantasy themes. Not only were the being progressive with their music, they were pushing the envelope as instrumentalists as well.

Which brings me to, believe it or not, the main thrust of the article. In the world of metal, bands doing new things are getting categorized the same way their predecessors of the 1960s and ‘70s were. The two biggest terms that I see being bandied about are the traditional “progressive” label, and the newer “technical” modifier. What exactly is the difference between a progressive death metal band and a technical one?

Typically, I tend to associate progressive qualities with those of the late ‘60s progenitors. That is, innovation in arrangement, songwriting, instrumentation, lyrics, and tone. Progressive music has a grandiose scope and is sometimes weird just to be weird. Technical music, on the other hand, focuses more on musicianship. We’re talking about the aforementioned time changes that Rush pioneered, as well as esoteric scales and chord progressions. The focus is on musical theory and treating the playing as if it were math-like.

That’s not to say the two don’t often overlap. But for the sake of discussion, let us take three bands from various subgenres and categorize them. With melodic death metal, we might take At the Gates’ Slaugher of the Soul as an entry that is a “vanilla” entry. Early Opeth might be considered progressive, with a focus on dynamics, acoustic guitars, and unpredictable song structure, but not especially pushing the boundaries of playing for the genre. Arsis, on the other hand, would be a technical melodic death metal band, putting a premium on its band members playing ability and use of odd time signatures but not doing especially unique in the songwriting department. Other examples might include, in the metalcore genre: Killswitch Engage (standard), Between the Buried and Me (progressive), and Revocation (technical).

The key distinction between the progressive and technical modifiers can be summed up as: songwriting grandeur versus musical technique. Again, bands who fall into either of these categorize often have traits of the other, but most of the time, it is possible to recognize which are most predominant.

10 Thrash Albums You Need to Hear Before You Die

•July 21, 2011 • 1 Comment

With the proliferation thrash metal is currently enjoying due in part to its second wave occurring in America as well as the popularity of the Big Four shows happening all over the globe, there is no better time to reflect on some of the best albums the extreme sub-genre has to offer. Rather than a comprehensive “best of,” the goal of the list is to expose as many artists and styles as possible, including, at most, any given band once. While listing more obscure and/or non-American albums from bands like Flotsam and Jetsam, Sacred Reich, Sodom, and Stone might net some more scene points, the list reads more like some of my personal favorite thrash records that every self-respecting metalhead must hear. As always, your mileage may vary.


Master of Puppets

Master of Puppets
Metallica
1986

What can be said about Master of Puppets that hasn’t already been said before? It is, by many peoples’ esteems, the quintessential Metallica – nay – Bay Area thrash album. I was a bit incredulous toward all of the praise it has received from people who didn’t really know the genre or who had not plumbed the depths of Metallica’s back catalog and had for a long time considered the albums successor, …And Justice for All, to be the superior musical outing.

What Puppets might lack in complexity and sheer quantity of quality riffs per song compared to Justice, it makes up for in diversity and songwriting. It is certainly not Metallica’s most raw record, nor their most technical, and with the exception of maybe four songs or so, is far removed from the typical banalities associated with the movement it emerged from and helped to spur.

Master of Puppets covers a lot of bases in only eight songs. It contains what might arguably be considered the perfect heavy metal song in the form of its title track: one that is aggressive enough to maintain its street cred but is so instantly hooky that its interlude section is hummed by audiences the world over, and, despite its near nine minute duration, keeps your attention like any of the songs flanking it on mainstream radio.

The band’s level of craftsmanship is at an unprecedented high for its 54-minute playing time. The album moves seamlessly between Hetfield’s often imitated, but never matched muscular riffing to introspective, melodic passages, due in no small part to the innate understanding of musical interplay from prodigious bassist Cliff Burton. One of its shining moments, Master of Puppets contains a lengthy instrumental penned by Burton, the tranquil demeanor of which rises above the status quo of its contemporaries.
Despite its fair share of razor sharp guitars, Master of Puppets is much more than one of the poster child albums of 1980s thrash. Not content to follow the lowest common denominator, Metallica’s third album finds itself as one of the finest heavy metal releases ever, setting the template for heavy music to this day. To lump it in a merely a “thrash metal” album is a disservice to the suite of songs contained within and Metallica in their prime.

Prime cuts: “Disposable Heroes”, “Damage Inc.”

Rust in Peace

Rust in Peace
Megadeth
1990

Coming out during the waning years of thrash’s commercial viability during which it was beginning to die a swift death to alternative rock and grunge, Rust in Peace is in some ways Megadeth’s farewell to those halcyon days. Though many consider 1986’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? to be the band’s seminal work, Rust in Peace finds the band putting out their most cohesive, unrelenting record up to that point; one who’s level of musicianship and chops have not been matched since.

Megadeth’s three previous releases all had some truly great thrashers like “Wake Up Dead,” “Hook in Mouth,” and “Set the World Afire,” to name a few, but were ultimately brought down by awkwardly chosen cover songs and a lack of rhythmic muscularity in favor of a more spindly, jazz-inspired approach to metal. With the exception of perhaps the bass-centric segue track “Dawn Patrol,” Rust in Peace literally has no weak songs and relentlessly assaults the listener with snarling vocals, angular riffs, and pyrotechnic lead guitar.

Megadeth’s fourth record, is easily their most technically accomplished and a veritable tour-de-force of guitar playing. This should come as little surprise, as the album also features the debut of virtuoso shredder Marty Friedman of Cacophony fame. Friedman’s use of exotic scales and general technicality gave Megadeth a “two lead guitarist” approach, undoubtedly bringing up Dave Mustaine’s own chops and ambition to craft a high caliber record.

Prime cuts: “Tornado of Souls”, “Holy Wars… the Punishment Due”

South of Heaven

South of Heaven
Slayer
1988

While 1986 seems to be considered something of a hallowed year in the San Francisco Bay Area thrash scene, I find it to have gotten that reputation mostly through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia and the synchronous release of the breakout, but not necessarily best, albums of each of the Big Four’s respective careers. Indeed, most of my favorite albums of the scene— and many on this list— came out during the tail end of the era. While there were certainly many fine releases during that year, including Slayer’s own revered Reign in Blood, its follow up is that much more well put together.

This of course comes from the mindset that brutality and speed do not a better album make. Feeling that they could not top the success of Reign, Slayer consciously decided to change up their style by slowing down the tempo, with bassist Tom Araya adopting a less shrieked, more on-key vocal approach. Though the band has been openly critical of the album for several reasons, the breathing room afforded by the slowed pace opens up the potential as a listener to sink one’s teeth into the riffs, providing some great headbanging opportunities. These qualities are all enhanced by a crisp and powerful production courtesy of long-time Slayer producer Rick Rubin, bringing out Dave Lombardo’s kit and the crunching of Hanneman and King.

The album sees Slayer trying new things, such as clean guitar sections, and genuine increase in songwriting sensibilities that infused groove into the band in a way that did not bring them down into the down-tuned monotony of some of their later releases. Despite being the underrated black sheep of the Slayer back catalog, South of Haven is an imposing album whose stylistic flexing has not been revisited since.

Prime cuts: “Mandatory Suicide”, “Behind the Crooked Cross”

Practice What You Preach

Practice What You Preach
Testament
1989

If there ever were to be an addendum to the “big four” of American thrash, Testament would be most deserving of the fifth spot. Starting late in the game with 1987’s The Legacy, they were often compared to Metallica, but were never quite able to capture the same success as their peers. Still, the band’s early work can be mentioned in the same breath as their more well-known comrades in arms, the level of quality of which not being more evident than on their third album, Practice What You Preach.

The comparison of Testament to Metallica, at least on Practice, is certainly apt. Musically, the album finds itself being more moderately paced and rhythm-focused than its predecessors, while Chuck Billy adopts a midrange, shouted vocal style, both of which were trademarks of classic Metallica. The album also moves away from occult topics to dealing with a number of political issues such as deforestation and the plight of Native Americans. Whether these things were done consciously to attempt to achieve success on Metallica’s coattails is certainly up to conjecture, however.

Prime cuts: “Sins of Omission”, “Time is Coming”

Twisted Into Form

Twisted Into Form
Forbidden
1990

Forbidden began as Forbidden Evil, which was started in part by Rob Flynn of Machinehead fame. Flynn would contribute four songs to the band’s debut album, but left to join fellow thrashers Vio-lence in 1987. Though one of the more successful second-tier Bay Area bands, Forbidden would mostly be forgotten as a footnote after releasing what I consider to be their finest offering: Twisted Into Form.

The band’s sophomore effort proves to be a more progressive and melodic affair that is musically more in line with bands like Annihilator and Testament than Exodus or Kreator. This combined with Russ Anderson’s vocal delivery akin to a more harsh-sounding Joey Belladonna gives the record an appeal of overall superior sonic execution and melodic flair that doesn’t sacrifice heaviness to achieve the result. Twisted Into Form also features the second album appearance of veteran thrash skinsman Paul Bostaph, who would go on to play with Slayer, Testament and Exodus.

Prime cuts: “Infinite”, “Out of Body (Out of Mind)”

Never, Neverland

Never, Neverland
Annihilator
1990

Created in 1984 during thrash’s infancy and having recorded several demos during its heyday, Canadian band Annihilator would not land a commercial record deal until the end of the decade. Though their first album, Alice in Hell, was a pyrotechnic heap of thrash that would gain a cult following in subsequent years, Annihilator’s follow up would prove to be one of their most technically impressive and well-written records before or since.

The end of the original thrash movement certainly seemed to be a time when acts were trying to challenge themselves in terms of musical proficiency, with albums from Metallica, Megadeth, and Forbidden blending involved guitar techniques and complex arrangements with varied time signatures. Though relatively obscure, the work showcased on Annihilator’s first two records, but especially on Never, Neverland, set the benchmark extremely high for thrash metal releases of the progressive persuasion.

That’s not to say that Annihilator’s second album is some kind of contrived math metal piece. Rather, the guitar style of band main man Jeff Waters marries the dexterity of James Hetfield’s right hand with a penchant for melodic licks reminiscent of the Scorpion’s Rudolph Schenker. Certainly a far cry from the contrived wankery of ‘80s guitar gods Steve Vai or Joe Satriani, the album errs closer to the shredding of prodigious axemen Jason Becker and Marty Friedman from speed metal act Cacophony.

While the album leaves something to be desired lyrically with cheeky songs like “Kraf Dinner,” it more than makes up for it in sheer musicality. The riffs are varied, with lead runs providing delicious embellishments that make the listener perk up and take notice. Despite such a strong release, Never, Neverland would not bring to Annihilator the success that was expected to come with the tagline “the Canadian Metallica,” and would prove to be the band’s last truly great record, forever leaving Jeff Waters as one of the most underappreciated players in metal.

Prime cuts: “The Fun Palace”, “Never, Neverland”

Among the Living

Among the Living
Among the Living
1987

Though recorded in 1986, Anthrax’s third album would miss the mark by several months for being released in the same year as the rest of the breakout records from their contemporaries in the Big Four of American Thrash. Despite this, 1987’s Among the Living is considered by many to be the New York thrash band’s finest work.

Anthrax’s first two records followed a decidedly more straightforward approach to heavy metal, inspired apparently by bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. With the influence of former bassist Dan Lilker fully purged, Among the Living saw Anthrax embracing a more tongue-in-cheek approach to their music and appearance, with inside joke song titles and references, lyrical themes about movies and comics, and stage attire to match.

Still, Among the Living is a prime example of the east coast brand of thrash. Compared to groups in the west, the playing is more percussively focused, with drummer Charlie Bennante backing the jagged riffs with snappy, punk-inspired patterns that eschewed more traditional double bass drum antics. The style also audibly utilizes bass as its own independent instrument rather than simply mimicking the rhythms of guitarist Scott Ian. Interestingly, the soaring vocal style of Joey Belladonna belies the punk raucousness of the songs, producing a sonic aesthetic different from even others in the upstate area. The end result is one that blisters rather than bludgeons, always maintaining a high-energy pace.

Prime cuts: “Skeletons in the Closet”, “I Am the Law”

Breathing the Fire

Breathing the Fire
Skeletonwitch
2010

Although not part of the original generation of thrash bands from the 1980s, Athens, Ohio’s Skeletonwitch sure play like they were. One of the premiere bands of the second wave of thrash currently going on predominantly in America, Skeletonwitch play a unique blend of Slayer-esque riffs with a black metal rasp and a penchant for melody that sounds straight out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The end result is a band that is distinctly vintage-sounding without retreading the same familiar formula of their peers and forefathers.

Only the second proper album by the young quintet, Breathing the Fire improves on its already impeccable predecessor with an injection of more powerful Bay Area hallmarks. The songs contained within blend the minor tonalities of bands like Kreator and Venom, with a modern stylistic facelift of motifs from genres that would succeed Bay Area thrash, such as black and melodic death metal. Skeletonwitch aims for a blitzkrieg delivery that ensures anyone listening won’t get bored, taking a page from punk and hardcore with song lengths hovering around two- and three-minute lengths for a total album playing time as short as some extended plays. Even with such an abrasive edge, the band is still able to have extremely hooky leads and solos that even followers of less extreme forms of metal would appreciate.

Prime cuts: “Submit to the Suffering”, “Where the Light Has Failed”

The Art of Partying

The Art of Partying
Municipal Waste
2007

Like Skeletonwitch, Muncipal Waste is one of the top bands of the American thrash revival. If Skeletonwitch represent everything that is unique about a band playing within the Bay Area mold, Municipal Waste is the antithesis to this. The band plays in a style of crossover thrash that elicits comparison to Stormtroopers of Death or Anthrax, with a sense of humor evident in their lyrics, imagery, and song titles. One need not look any farther than titles “Lunch Hall Food Brawl” or “ADD (Attention Deficit Destroyer)” to see what I mean.

Municipal Waste play mostly by-the-numbers punk-inspired thrash metal, but that’s the point. The band doesn’t take themselves too seriously, often making a parody of their metal roots and ‘80s culture, with an eye on always having a good time, which certainly comes through in the music. One shouldn’t mistake their good-humored approach for a poor quality band, however. On the contrary—Municipal Waste are extremely talented at what they do and one of the tightest acts currently on the scene. For someone looking for thrash without any bells and whistles that also appeals to the energetic nature of punk, look no further than The Art of Partying.

Prime cuts: “Sadistic Magician”, “Beer Pressure”

Release From Agony

Release From Agony
Destruction
1988

The single non-American entry on the list, Destruction were part of the Teutonic thrash movement in Germany happening parallel to the Bay Area scene of California. One of the “Big Three” of that region’s scene along with Sodom and Kreator, the brand of thrash practiced by these bands was more evidently influenced by Mercyful Fate and Venom, with a style more in-line with early Slayer, laying the groundwork for death metal.

Like other thrash releases of the later portion of the ‘80s, Release From Agony may be Destruction’s most technically accomplished record. The record is chock full of stop-start, angular riffing, technical leads, and the occasional clean guitar section to add a sense of “maturity.” This is further reinforced by the album’s sterile production, giving an air of clinical precision not inappropriate for the title of the album. Still, despite the proficiency displayed here, the album is as vicious and evil-sounding as any thrash of the era, with spastic riffing and sneering vocals, making it one of Destruction’s classics.

Prime cuts: “Sign of Fear”, “Unconscious Ruins”


Honorable mentions: Exodus – Bonded By Blood; Flotsam & Jetsam – Doomsday for the Deceiver; Sanctuary – Refuge Denied; Sepultura – Beneath the Remains

Sylosis – Edge of the Earth

•March 28, 2011 • Comments Off on Sylosis – Edge of the Earth

For those not in-the-know, Sylosis is a young, up-and-coming modern metal four-piece from Britain. I use the term “modern metal” because Sylosis’ sound is, for better or worse, somewhat amorphous to describe in a way that lends itself to clean categorization. Though main man Josh Middleton has been quoted as describing the band’s sound as having its roots in Bay Area thrash, it would be inaccurate to call Sylosis’ sonic approach purely thrash. There are certainly angular riffs flanked by vintage-inspired speed metal solos, but there is also a use of predominantly shouted/screamed vocals, down-tuned guitars, progressive feels and time signatures, the occasional clean chorus, and an emphasis on melody not far removed from the Gothenburg scene.

If this sounds great to you on paper, it sounded just as good in practice on the band’s solid 2008 EP, and downright outstanding on their phenomenal first full-length album from the same year in the form of Conclusion of an Age. So much so was I impressed by the well-crafted and interesting mélange of extreme metal styles  mixed with modern metal sensibilities that I had no doubt in my mind that the band could only get better for their sophomore release. Unfortunately, upon spinning up Edge of the Earth for the first time, I was left with the decidedly acrid taste of mediocrity in my mouth.

The most prominent change between albums is the switch from dedicated shouter Jamie Graham handling vocals to founding member and lead guitarist Josh Middleton pulling double-duty. While I’m all for converting to a quartet for reasons of live performance tightness and an added bonus of onstage image that recalls other great metal acts, as well as for the more practical reason of having less hands in the songwriting pot, it is only appropriate if it is not to a group’s detriment. Unfortunately, despite his impressive six-string chops, Middleton’s vocal approach is a one-dimensional, half-hardcore, pseudo-death metal shout that elicits other equally mediocre modern faux aggressive acts like Soilwork and The Haunted.

In a premeditated, though misguided attempt to sound less sterile and more like their live performances, the production on the record ends up only reducing the enjoyableness of the proceedings. Though more organic, the sound of the mix is one that is simultaneously inarticulate and lacking any dynamic range. The overall effect is one of a flat, bludgeoning experience that leaves the listener uninterested and aurally fatigued in spite of its less mechanical delivery. Tight, technical acts sound best when their instruments sound razor sharp and easily distinguishable in the stereo image.

As if to add insult to injury, the album clocks in, complete with two instrumentals, at just over seventy minutes. Though certainly technically competent, with brief hints of the greatness displayed on their previous album, the songwriting by Sylosis is lacking any kind of cleverness or memorable parts. The boxes are all checked for the style expectations set from their prior releases, but the creativity in execution ends up lacking.

I really wanted to like Edge of the Earth after Sylosis set the bar so high on their debut album, and could not have anticipated that a band with such potential would falter so early; typically that is reserved for at least the third or fourth album these days. The record does admittedly have some cool riffs and even some great melodic fret runs that are sure to sate those with less critical ears. Hell, I probably would have allowed myself to enjoy the record more had I not set up such lofty mental expectations, but no number of listens will proverbially cleanse me of the bitterness this album has left.

Xenogears in Retrospect

•January 26, 2011 • Comments Off on Xenogears in Retrospect

Xenogears NA coverXenogears is a Japanese-style roleplaying game released by Squaresoft (now Square Enix) in 1998 for the original PlayStation video game console. It has been hailed by fans of the genre as an underrated masterpiece of the form, eclipsed by others such as its company brethren, the Final Fantasy series. Despite purchasing the game used at a Funco Land during my initial exposure period to console RPGs in about 2000, it wasn’t until over a decade later that I would actually sit down and play the game in its entirety.

Conceived by Tetsuya Takahashi, penned by Masato Kato, and composed for by Yasunori Mitsuda, all of Chrono Trigger fame, (with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy, executive producing to boot), the game had an impressive list of talent on its development team. Additionally, Koichi Mashimo, whose resume included Ghost in the Shell, animated the anime cut scenes interspersed throughout. Indeed,  this combined with its mecha designs makes Xenogears something of a weeaboo’s wet dream.

Xenogears was an ambitious concept to begin with. As detailed in the game’s Perfect Works book, it was to be part five of a six-part series of games. Unfortunately, this never came to fruition, though the story told in the game is self-contained. Xenogears, did, however, receive a spiritual successor/reboot in the form of the Xenosaga for the PS2, developed by Monolith Soft, who had about twenty members of the original team working on it. I say “spiritual successor,” because Xenosaga was not allowed to overtly reference its legacy since the rights to those names and likenesses were still owned by Square. Xenosaga, too, was to be a six-parter, but only got to three. After playing a portion of the first, I can frankly see why…

In terms of gameplay, Xenogears does not diverge greatly from the typical JRPG formula of its era. There is a world map to be openly explored, random battles, leveling up to learn abilities, multi-faceted equipment screens, and of course, turn-based battles. Combat in Xenogears utilizes the Active Time Battle system (ATB) seen in nearly every turn-based Final Fantasy after and including IV, as well as  Chrono Trigger, allowing for discrepancies in character to speed  to play a part in the turn order.

The similarities to traditional battle systems stop there, however. Instead of selecting commands from layers of menus and clicking a confirm button, Xenogears utilizes a combo system consisting of weak, moderate, and strong attacks (mapped to triangle, square, and X buttons, respectively) that can be strung together to perform powerful finishing moves called “deathblows.” Spell-like options, referred to as “Ether abilities” are also available as per normal conventions. Additionally, the battle HUD diverged from the standard bottom/top docked menus, and offered a d-pad interface something like that seen in Super Mario RPG.

What further set the game apart from its peers, and was the most enjoyable aspect of the gameplay for me, was a second mode of combat in giant humanoid war machines called Gears. Gears had their own set of equipment, and rather than level up, could have their frame, engine, and armor upgraded at shops. Combat was similar to its on-foot counterpart, but lacked the combo-chaining in favor of tiered attack levels and two-button deathblows.

Despite having overall interesting combat, there were a few options that seemed ill-conceived. For example, on foot, characters could save up excess ability points from turns where they did not expend their full capacity. This AP could later be spent to cue up consecutive deathblows contingent on the amount of AP said character had accrued (up to 28) in previous turns, resulting in the potential to perform more than one deathblow in a turn. In theory, it was nice to know unused AP was not going to waste, but in practice, you either ended up consistently using your strongest (read: most AP-consuming) d’blows or the battle only went on long enough to have enough AP saved for one worthwhile deathblow, which was as much as you could do through normal means. Similarly, while in gears, there was a state characters could go in called “hyper mode,” which allowed for cheap, powerful attacks and increased fuel recharging for three turns. The idea was somewhat analogous to a Final Fantasy limit break:  as HP got lower, the chance to enter hyper mode increased. Unfortunately, hyper mode could only be engaged after getting to power level three, which was immediately reset when a deathblow was executed. Forcing the player to either charge fuel or do non-d’blow attacks, combined with the extremely low chance to enter the mode at acceptable HP levels, made the ability practically useless except for the main character’s gear which always had a 99% chance to enter the mode.

Xenogear’s biggest accolade is its mature and sophisticated subject matter. Much of the dialog and plot revolves around philosophical, psychological, and religious concepts. The ideas of Freud, Carl Jung, and Friedrich Nietzsche are referenced many times, with overt homages such as characters named after said people (Sigmund) and concepts (Id).

Unfortunately, the storytelling and the points which attempted to be conveyed are marred by a number of factors. Though the translation is sufficient in the sense that it is not overtly “Engrish,” it is often rather verbose and wordy. Moreover, it feels as if something was lost in translation, often with surprise or vag
ue references to people, ideas, and places that leave the player scratching their head until they are expounded upon later. When the game hits its stride, it really hits on some philosophically deep and interesting ideas, but more often than not, its heavy-handed verbiage makes the narrative come off as pretentious and pseudo-intellectual.

 

The plot itself is often contrived and vague in the grandiose ideas it attempts to convey. As an example, the main character Fei was somewhere in the neighborhood of three different physical characters who existed in various timelines, with his current personality being fractured into a total of three or four disassociative identities. Further, the main thrust of the game wanders off in to some abstract direction rivaling the claims of even scientology, with talk of the physical manifestation of god, whose presence arrived on a spacecraft millennia ago, being born again out of the nanomachine-mutated planet dwellers.

Furthermore, despite Square’s reputation (even then) and a star-studded team, the game’s production values seemed lacking. Aesthetically, though it has worked for games such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Breath of Fire III, the sprite-based characters in a three-dimensional environment leaves something to be desired. Low-resolution sprites give off noticeable, aliased boundary lines (“jaggies”), and lack more than superficial detail, the likes of which could have probably been achieved by the previous 16-bit era technology. At the other end, the 3D gear models, while passable, were extremely low polygon count and often clipped in and out of themselves. Even the touted anime cut scenes were blatantly not edited to be completely synched with the English dialog ala some kind of Godzilla parody.

The lack of polish also extends to the user experience of the game. The minimalistic dialogs retained unnecessary limitations recalling the 8-bit era in the form of constrained text in some GUI panels, making you wonder what exactly certain cryptically-described items were supposed to do.  Labeling in general for some menu options was confusing at best. Why would the option to upgrade a gear would be listed under “tune up” rather than with the rest of the part buying options? Small refinements such as sorting in item menus, full health after major battles/plot points, the automatic unequipping of characters that get excised from the party temporarily or otherwise, and others suggest a lack of attention to detail.

The most prominent example of these issues was the game’s entire second disc. Roughly 80% of the game’s time is spent on disc one in traditional RPG fashion of some open-world exploring and plot-directed happenings. Then, the game abruptly changes to the paradigm of textual storytelling, with intermittent scenes of a “novel” being acted out by the player, usually in the form of a boss battle or short dungeon crawl. This occurs right up until the end game when play reverts back to normal for side quests and preparations. I don’t know if the reason for this was because of the media limitations of the compact disc and the lengthy ending cutscene or if development time and/or funds were simply running dry.

Speaking of side quests, the game has almost none to speak of. Aside from the two mini-games (a card game and stripped down arcade fighter), each disc has but a few trivial distractions, only one of which supplying further character depth or requiring much time investment. Despite this, I invested a substantial amount of time into Xenogears, clocking in around 75 hours; the bulk of the game’s consisting of the aforementioned belabored dialog.

Despite Xenogears’ superficial shortcomings, I found it to be an enjoyable game, if not the classic it is often heralded as. The diverse gameplay, particularly the gear battles, keeps the player interested and serves as a foil to the thick narrative. Despite its awkward execution, Xenogears addresses some intellectually deep and thought-provoking topics, the likes of which have not been replicated in any RPG since. As one of the last great RPGs to come out of Squaresoft before their untimely spiral into mediocrity, occurring sometime after their merging with Enix, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

IE6 PNG Transparency

•January 13, 2011 • Comments Off on IE6 PNG Transparency

In the world of interface design, the ability to have transparency in your graphical elements is extremely useful from a reusability standpoint. Rather than having to have one logo for every color scheme it might show up on, we simply make the background color of that logo transparent. In the old days, this was often achieved through GIFs which used binary transparency to designate a “dummy” color of the image as being transparent. In this way, transparency was either “on” or “off,” with no levels of opacity in between. This worked great for logos, sprites, line art, and the like, but for images that wanted to have a soft shadow or similar aesthetic, this left jagged and apparent boundaries where transparency stopped and began.

Enter the PNG file format. Instead of have transparency that was in one state or the other, it has one entire channel added to the traditional three (RGB) called an alpha channel. Just like the color channels, it supports 256 steps of transparency. PNG has all but replaced the GIF as the preeminent image format for graphics that have a small color palette.

Okay, so enough history lessons. It’s well-known that IE6 and 5.5  (God forbid you need to support the latter) do not support PNG transparency out-of-the-box. The solution lay in the form of an IE proprietary Active X filter.  Essentially, any image element with this filter gets another image specified in the style rule overlaid on top of it. Here’s the filter to be used in a stylesheet or inline:

img {
	filter: progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.AlphaImageLoader(src='image.png');
        width: 100px; /*width must be specified*/
        height: 100px; /*height must be specified*/
}

There are a number of issues, however. It isn’t enough just to apply the CSS to all PNG images on your page with the rule, because part of the rule requires that you specify what picture is to be overlaid on top of the image that is already there. So all of your images actually have to start out as 1×1 (or some other arbitrary dimensioned) transparent GIFs. Furthermore, the style is only recognized by IE and will be ignored by other browsers, and thus does not validate.

So we’re going to want to eliminate the solution’s application in all browsers except for IE6 and 5.5.  This can be done a number of ways. If you are limited to the client-side, you can use JavaScript to detect then browser, and if it is one of the offenders, go through your document and replace all images of a particular class (or other appropriate criteria) with the aforementioned transparent GIF placeholder and then apply the filter inline with the image’s original src attribute. You must also temporarily record the height and the width of the image you wish to be displayed before it is replaced with the placeholder and explicitly declare them in the style after the swap has been done, since the browser will now measure its width and height as 1×1 (or whatever your placeholder is).

A similar process can be done with server-side technology like PHP or ASP/.net. This is the preferred method, as it allows users who have JavaScript disabled to get the same experience as those who do not since the decision for what markup to generate is done before the page even reaches the browser. The methodology is almost identical conceptually to the client-side approach. In your script where you are generating the markup for your images in question, do a browser check, and then change the markup so the path to the image now appears in the filter style and the path to the placeholder appears in the src attribute. Again, you will need to be able to ascertain the width and height of the image and declare it explicitly.

Package up either approach into a tidy method to be called on images at will, and you are good to go. What’s that you say, you want a pure CSS solution? Unfortunately, there isn’t really an elegant one. It is possible to use IE conditionals to load a specific style sheet that has the fix, but every image that needs it will have to be specified by an ID and have its dimensions manually recorded in each style rule — not exactly robust or easy to maintain. Furthermore, in every browser but IE all that will be present is just the placeholder GIF since only IE understands the filter property.

In summary, on the client-side with JavaScript or on the server with your scripting language of choice:

  • Determine if the browser is IE 6.0 or 5.5
  • Replace all problematic PNGs with a 1×1 transparent placeholder GIF
  • Apply the ActiveX  filter with the original PNG graphic’s path as a style
  • Explicitly compute/ascertain and declare the width and height of the PNG graphic in a style

That’s it. Though the tutorial doesn’t address concerns like PNG transparency in background images, hopefully the concise nature of it will provide those looking for the typical-case solution to one of the most common compatibility issues a quick  and painless fix.

Riff Lords

•January 7, 2011 • Comments Off on Riff Lords

James HetfieldHeavy metal has a lot of amorphous qualities that people attribute to what defines its signature sound. However, there is a single feature that is consistent across all groups,regardless of the sub-genre, and that is an emphasis on chunky rhythms. If there is one thing that is able to separate music with an edge from decidedly more lighthearted affairs, it is the presence of the mighty, palm-muted riff. Simply put, if your music lacks this distinguishing quality, then the adjective “heavy” or “hard” cannot, in good conscience, be associated with your band.

In the world of heavy music, rhythm guitar playing is the one of the least appreciated and least glamorous aspects of the genre, beaten, perhaps, only by the bass guitar. Despite this, it is the core component of any such band, anchoring the drums and indeed the entire song with its hefty presence. That said, this list is an ode to the most underrated and overlooked heroes of the music that gets our heads banging.

  1. James Hetfield
    (Metallica) 

    James Hetfield is best known for his singing and songwriting in Metallica, but amongst those in musical circles, the man is equally, if not more revered for his god-like right hand. James Hetfield is the conclusion of the evolution of metal riffing whose lineage started with Tony Iommi. The man is almost single-handedly responsible for the sound of modern metal, both extreme and radio friendly; his preeminent “chugging” often emulated but never matched. Accept no substitute.

    Hetfield’s style cannot really be described in any way other than “muscular.” Through palm-muting and almost an exclusive use of down-picking when feasibly possible, he is able to create a consistent, angular rhythm assault that acts in a percussive role more than it does one of melody. Though that is essentially the formula for thrash metal playing in general, Hetfield added variety and complexity to his riffing, often comparing some of his parts to a “rhythm guitar solo.”

    James Hetfield’s influence as a rhythm player cannot be understated. If you listen to heavy metal from roughly 1985 until now, the core pillar of articulate riffing pioneered by Hetfield has changed very little. Death metal has sped it up and thrown in some tremolo picking for diversity, but the sound heard on the early Metallica records continues to be the template for bands seeking to elicit a sense of heaviness, influencing aggressive bands in the most concrete, opposite of “The Beatles influenced all of rock” kind of way.

    Rifftracks: “Disposable Heroes” (Master of Puppets); “The Thing That Should Not Be” (Master of Puppets); “Blackened” (…And Justice for All); “Creeping Death” (Ride the Lightning)

  2. Hank Shermann
    (Mercyful Fate, Force of Evil)

    When people think of Mercyful Fate, guitar playing is not usually the first thing that comes to mind, much less ryhthm guitar. Hank Shermann was the next logical step in the evolution of metal rhythm playing, from the dirge of Black Sabbath to the taut riffage of heavy metal proper in Judas Priest, to Mercyful Fate. Shermann’s playing combines the raw, groove of Iommi with the sense of melody and hooks of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing of Priest.

    It’s no secret that Mercyful Fate was a huge influence on Metallica. Although only forming Metallica a few years after, it’s easy to see where a young James Hetfield picked up much of his chops and playing style from. Though not as fast as his contemporaries in the Bay Area, Shermann makes up for it with sheer amount of quality riffs. In a time when thrash was in its infancy, the predominant use of  machine gun, palm-muted guitar playing was largely unheard of, with this man laying the groundwork for a decade’s worth of aggressive music.

    Rifftracks: “Crossroads” (Dead Again); “A Dangerous Meeting” (Don’t Break the Oath); “The Night” (Dead Again)

  3. Tony Iommi
    (Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell)

    What can be said about Tony Iommi that hasn’t already been covered before?  The man is almost ubiquitously considered the father of the metal riff, and is credited largely as the primary influence for everyone on this list – nay – nearly every guitar player in heavy metal and hard rock worth mentioning. To paraphrase Rob Zombie: “You can speed it up, slow it down, and play it backwards, but every good riff has already been written by Black Sabbath.”

    Ironically, the guitar player of Black Sabbath developed his style out of utility rather than purpose when he famously lost the tips of his fretting hand fingers in an industrial accident shortly before starting with Sabbath. The injury forced him to tune his guitar lower both to reduce the tension on the strings and facilitate playing certain chord patterns easier. The result was an imposing, methodical riffing that shirked the flamboyant guitar playing of other ’70s guitar players.

    Needless to say, Tony Iommi’s playing has never been about shredding solos or especially melodic leads, which was no doubt influenced by the nature of his damaged hand. With Black Sabbath, he was a champion of the groove, opting for dirty, fuzzed out jams that utilized blues and acid rock stylings as much as it did the emerging proto-metal aesthetics. The man was ahead of his time, having written rhythm parts in whose timeless is still felt today, including arguably the first thrash metal riff ever in the form of “Symptom of the Universe,” in the mid-seventies, no less.

    Rifftracks:“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath); “Hole in the Sky” (Sabotage); “Symptom of the Universe” (Sabotage); “Into the Void” (Master of Reality)

  4. Jon Schaffer
    (Iced Earth, Demons and Wizards)

    If Metallica had a baby with Iron Maiden instead of making alternative rock records in the mid-nineties, Iced Earth would have been the result. Jon Schaffer continues the aggressive approach of Hetfield in his prime and marries it to the triplet patterns of Steve Harris’s bass playing, resulting in some of the most dexterous rhythm parts known to man. The man’s playing set Iced Earth apart from European power metal by providing a thrashy edge and attitude lacking in their more melody-focused contemporaries.

    What Schaffer might lack in songwriting or subtlety compared to the company kept on this list, he more than compensates for with the sheer angularity of his playing. To put it plainly, the man’s right hand is a machine. It is nearly impossible to find a non-ballad/instrumental on the first four or five Iced Earth records that does not get your headbanging. Up until his uninspired output after the turn of the century, Jon Schaffer was one of the last of a near extinct breed of proud rhythm guitar players with enough skill to craft heavy riffs that were not unnecessarily brutal or predictably banal in their execution.

    Rifftracks:“Damien” (Horror Show); “Brainwashed” (Burnt Offerings); “The Hunter” (Dark Saga); “Stormrider” (Night of the Stormrider)

  5. Jerry Cantrell
    (Alice in Chains, solo)

    Jerry Cantrell is possibly one of the most underrated guitarists of the modern day, and short of that, definitely one of the most underrated songwriters. It may seem strange to have a grunge alumn like Cantrell on a list full of heavy metal guys, but he worships at the altar of Tony Iommi just like everyone else. And let’s be honest; Alice in Chains was really a metal group masquerading as a grunge act at the right place and the right time, anyway.

    Alice’s music lends itself particularly well to crafting infectious grooves. Jerry’s never been an overly flashy guitarist, but the downtempo dirges that AiC is known for offer a lot of breathing room for opening up with some riffs that you can really sink your teeth into. Though they sometimes sound like they could have been taken right out of a more traditional metal tune, Cantrell’s parts mostly eschews the typical staccato, palm-muted nature of more typical rhythmic riffs.

    Ironically, it is the drum parts that really anchor and accentuate Cantrell’s greatest headbanging moments. Not confined to the lack of bass in more typical heavy bands, the rhythm section takes what might be a basic progression and makes it something more than the sum of its parts. Luckily, the man has had some quality skinsmen (Sean Kinney, Mike Bordin) behind the kit to make his minimalistic ingenuity shine.

    Rifftracks: “We Die Young” (Facelift); “Pro False Idol” (Degradation Trip); “Spiderbite” (Degradation Trip)

Honorable mentions:Jeff Waters (Annihilator), Mark Morton/Willie Adler (Lamb of God), Chuck Schuldiner (Death), “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott (Pantera), Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Rudolf Schenker (The Scorpions)

Forbidden – Omega Wave

•November 14, 2010 • Comments Off on Forbidden – Omega Wave

Forbidden, a late-comer to the Bay Area thrash scene, was originally the baby of current Machine Head guitarist Rob Flynn. Flynn would go on to join Vio-lence shortly after and would not play on the band’s debut, though three of his songs ended up on it. After two strong albums, Forbidden began to go the way of fellow later-era thrashers, and disintegrated with two unsuccessful ‘90s releases.

History lessons aside, Omega Wave has been touted as something of a “comeback” record for the semi-obscure thrash act. Their first album in thirteen years, the album purposefully makes a point to recall its roots, complete with an album cover that homages the band’s first record, Forbidden Evil.  To be candid, I have only listened to the band’s two original highly-regarded records and thus find it difficult to judge if the band succeeds in actually “recalling” anything or if they have just continued on the same stylistic path.

That being said, the album is certainly done in the Bay Area vein, with musical elements that are characteristic of the first two aforementioned albums, albeit with more melodic sensibilities. Russ Anderson’s voice seems to have lost some if its ability to hit the high register notes with age, and finds itself in something of a generic midrange that isn’t quite aggressive enough to support the riffs nor melodic enough to accentuate the reprieves.

Generic seems to be the word du jour for this album in general. As with so many older thrash acts attempting to get in touch with their roots – a sentiment that I certainly appreciate – the execution leaves something to be desired in practice.  All of the elements are there, but the lack of youthful fire and a flat, digital production, combined with over an hour of staying time really drains the life out of this one.