Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thoughts on Christianity

Recently, I have found that a central part of my life up until now has come into personal doubt, probably more than any other time in my life.  I had grown up identifying as a Christian, mostly because my father is a pastor and church-life and community have been central parts of my life, more than most.

On top of this unique upbringing, I also was privileged to grow up in diverse, upper middle-class neighborhoods with good schools.  I think I have always struggled with some of the fundamental beliefs that are associated with Christianity, and also with perceived hypocrisy of many of the belief systems and cross culture.

A glaring example of this was the countless number of Christian denominations.  As a kid I couldn't understand the necessity for so many different churches.  They all claimed to be Christian places of worship, after all, however not all "Christians" are welcome in all "churches".

The other day, I realized that I do not readily share the fact that I am Christian, even when in company of other people who do identify readily as such.  I had been hiding for quite some time and I realized it was for a few reasons.
  • As learned in high school debate, religion is seldom a good topic to bring up in conversation, someone is going to get angry
  • I am not always good at articulating my personal belief system without sounding crass.  
  • lately, the term Christian has become synonymous with the American religious right, pro-life, the Bible Belt, the subjugation of women, and Creationists; all of which I would rather not be confused with
I do realize that hiding as a Christian, or at the very least some sort of intellectual Christian hybrid, is antithetical to being a Christian. As is stated in the gospels, specifically in Matthew 4:13-16, one shouldn't hide their light, but put it on a stand for all to see. Or, if that is too difficult to understand, -- stop hiding who you are. This is considerably more difficult recently due to what I'd like to call a hijacking of the religion by politically motivated zealots, and intellectually stunted fundamentalists.

I looked up fundamentalism earlier. Usually I only trust the Oxford English Dictionary to give me the best unaltered definition for a term. Most other commercial dictionaries (mirriam/webster) like to change things to be trendy... this is a subject for another post. The OED gives the definition of fundamentalism as follows:
  1. a strict adherence to ancient or fundamental doctrines, with no concessions to modern developments in thought or customs. 

  2. (specifically for Christianity) A religious movement,
    active among Protestant bodies in the United States after the war of 1914-1918, based on strict adherence to certain tenets (e.g. the literal inerrancy of scripture) held to be fundamental to the Christian faith.  
Just to be clear, inerrancy means it is never in error, and is assumed to be truth.  The biggest issue with fundamentalism I have is the inability for flexibility.  Peter J Gomes, the late Harvard professor/theologian stated:

"One of the many things one can say about this country is that we dislike complexity, so we make simple solutions to everything that we possibly can, even when the complex answer is obviously the correct answer or the more intriguing answer. We want a simple yes or no or flat out this or absolute that. And the notion that God can have two thoughts simultaneously, and that people didn't or don't think and talk like us is hard for us to believe."

Gomes was talking specifically about American Christians, and I think this holds true for the most part.  However, to be fair, this has more to do with fundamentalists in general.

I found this on the interwebs today.  It basically outlines Christian Fundamentalists mainline belief system very neatly, and highlights the problems involved with this kind of thought.  I can sum it up here pretty quick, although, I urge people to read it themselves.
  1. Inerrancy is based on the King James Bible of 1611, and that is the only true text
  2. the idea of belief in faith alone as preached by Augustine, and borrowed by Luther and Calvin, see all humans as depraved, born of sin, and also creates an idea of elitism.  Special chosen people are placed above normal mainline believers, much like Nietzche and Hegel's Superman theory.  
  3. there is a conscience effort to react back to a time when Christianity was simple and basic.  Puritan American has become the ideal, even though it is somewhat of a myth.  
  4. Democracy and Equality can not coexist in a Christian environment.  
  5. the reaction to modernism has opened Fundamentalism up to occultist, racist, hate-filled and paranoid beliefs and practices.  
There are several things I have issue with concerning these doctrines.  The biggest one is that after reading it all, it does seem like rules were made specifically to keep anyone from having to face newly discovered facts and have to restructure their belief system.  No one has to be reactionary if you don't believe in progress to start with.  Let's go over these points, starting with...

#1.  First of all the King James Bible was published in 1611.  That's 1578 years (nearly) since the death of Jesus.  Pretty sure we can find an earlier more reliable text, preferably one translated unbiased from Aramaic and Greek.  It was also translated by 6 groups of 10 people...  Christians are pretty trusting of nearly 60 Anglicans to not mess up the Word of God.  I suppose Christians ought to find one universal text to use, but why pick the one known to have the most errors?

#2 This pessimistic, self loathing idea of humanity leaves a sense of hopelessness to life in general.  Hope is a central theme in Christianity.  Not only does this destroy hope, but it also points fingers.  Also, the idea of Faith Alone allows people to ignore common sense, like snake handlers, and faith healers.  No matter how much one prays, broken bones and snake bites wont heal themselves.

On top of that, elevating some people to positions of impunity could lead to those positions taking advantage of others...  much like Catholic Priests take advantage of children.  That's right, I went there.

#3 Puritans were not really Americans anyway.  by 1776 the Puritan Ideal was mostly extinct.  Opposition to oppression of non-Puritans, the Salem witch trials, and Unitarianism led to a Puritan decline in the 1690s. The United States was founded in 1776... 80 years in the future, most of these Puritans would be dead.

#4 The United States is a democracy of sorts, and equality does pretty well here for the most part. There are a few Christian denominations that govern themselves democratically. This basically means statement 4 is false.
#5 The Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, the Orange Volunteers, the MNCA, the Iron Guard, Army of God, Lambs of Christ, Westboro Baptist, and several Christian militia groups (think Timothy McVeigh) are all examples of groups that identify with Christian beliefs, just to give a few examples or extremist groups that promote occult, hateful, paranoid delusion.

One might question how groups like this can exist and call themselves Christian. As the very nature of hate seems impossible to exist in the same teachings as Christ. This is a valid question. But, remember, fundamentalists promote elitism. Most Christians, instead of talk about this issue, push it aside and refuse to acknowledge these groups as Christian, or that they even truly exist at all, or even worse, secretly sympathize. But no matter how much one denies them, these groups still think of themselves as Christian and self identify that way, doing the things they do in the name of God and Christ.

For me, being a Christian means a few basic things that ought to be foremost in the thinking and ideology of all Christians. These are things that I find essential to all Christians. These are as follows:
  • Golden Rule. I shouldn't have to explain this, since it is pretty universal. According to the Mahabharata 5, 1517 it is expressed as "do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you". In the Udana Varga it appears as "hurt not others in ways you yourself would find hurtful". The Talmud puts it best I believe when it states "What is hateful to you do not do unto your fellow man. This is the entire Law, the rest is just commentary" (Talmud, Shabat, 3id). This, as good Christians ought to know is the basis for Jesus's teaching of the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:1. Not only that, but it has its own parable as expressed by the Good Samaritan, which basically explains that no matter who the person is, they should be respected as a human being. This rule also pops up in Islam, Confucianism, the Tao, and even Zoroastrianism. Knowing this really gives no one an excuse to use any religion as a tool to do evil.  
  • Jesus Christ is the spiritual guide for the entire religion. He is the reason for the faith. Therefore I would think whatever Jesus is credited with saying in the gospels would be the ultimate fundamental building blocks. Not Paul and his letters, not Augustine, not Luther, just Jesus. Pretty sure this would clear up some theology that seems to be based on hate and oppression. What would Jesus do indeed?  
  • We know, from reading both the Old and New testaments, that Jesus (see above bullet) took old scripture and adapted it for his time and place and people. Therefore (I am going out on a limb here) Christianity must have been meant to be able to change. And since Jesus stated the two most important commandments of all are to A: love god above all else, and B: Golden Rule (see first bullet) one can assume that anything else that subjugates, oppresses, bullies, or murders human beings especially in the name of Christ would be antithetical.
This brings me to the real reason I'm writing about religion on my otherwise spiritual-less blog.  Christian-Americans. It is impossible to watch, or read the news without running into religiously motivated political rhetoric. I would like to clear things up, perhaps someone ought to comment to set me straight with good supporting evidence if I am wrong. I am pretty sure this country is a secular nation.

The Constitution in this country was in fact written by a bunch of dudes who lived their lives by Christian values, I suppose. But those values in 1776 did not match Puritan ethics from 1620. Most of the founding fathers one may want to name drop were truly Deists. A deist, according to the OED, is someone who believes that reason and observation of nature can prove that the universe has a creator and that this creator does not intervene in human affairs or change the natural laws of the universe. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, Hugh Williamson, Thomas Paine, and possibly Alexander Hamilton and Ethan Allen were all Deist thinkers.
On top of that, the first Amendment to the Constitution, made law on December 15, 1791, makes it very clear in the Establishment Clause that Federal, State, or Municipal (means local government), establishment of a preferred religion is prohibited. This was originally written specifically for laws enacted by Congress, but Giltow vs New York in 1925 ruled that it (and the rest of the First Amendment) applies to all states as well.

Some would argue that this doesn't state separation of Church and State and that the Founding Fathers still meant to have a place for God in matters of state. However, Thomas Jefferson (writer of the Declaration, signer of the Constitution, Third president) confided in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (Connecticut) that separation of church and state is important for the safety of liberties both public and private. This would lead one to believe that the founding fathers did indeed intend for church and state to remain separate. On top of all of that, churches are exempt from taxes. It is my belief that if one doesn't contribute to the government, one should have no part of the governing affairs.

I have no problem with individuals using their faith to make good decisions, however. Moral and ethical codes are often linked to religious teachings (see golden rule stuff above). Even having officials in office use religious background to make policy, interpret rulings, and govern their actions is definitely acceptable to me.

However, religion is not the beginning and ending of decision making. Everyone should make informed opinions based on multiple sources for fact and truth, not just personal interpretations of the Bible alone. The idea of inerrant biblical truth as a tool to govern is silly and dangerous, especially in a nation where all of the constituents represented are not Christian from the same theological school. This is sloppy, irresponsible, and immature representation and should not be tolerated by any patriotic American.

An example of leading a nation using only inerrant biblical theology would be people who call themselves Christian referring to the Torah (first part of the Tenakh, first five books of the Old Testament) as a basis for arguments supporting anti-homosexual rhetoric. The idea behind this, is that combining ancient Jewish law with selections from Paul's letters (not Jesus's teachings) proves God condemns homosexuality, and therefore United States law should follow suit. I already established the need for separation of church and state earlier, but one cannot control another's bias. Also, the Torah is Jewish Law...  not necessarily Christian.  Plus, it leaves no flexibility for modernity. The Torah also bans pork, ham, bacon, pigskin, shellfish, blended fabrics, working on the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday, take your pick), as well as a host of other rules concerning farming, marriage, food, etc.  Enacting law based purely on the Torah in America would not only drastically change the economy, but also change sports, and notions of family. Also public stoning for a variety of misdemeanors would be entirely acceptable. If you truly want to go by Talmudic Law, then become a Hasidic Jew. If you just want to pick which rules to follow, like some sort of religious buffet, then be open about it. Take pride in the fact that you are searching for biblical reasons to support your hate. Otherwise, let this one go.

In short, in this country, there is no us and them. Everyone is an American regardless of religion. The laws that govern the country, and the building blocks of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, are for everyone, not just Christians. Christians should be the first in line to defend and protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, free assemblage, and free worship. I am sick of hateful comments directed at other minority religions in this country by "Christians" which are based and fed by fear and misunderstanding.

Lastly, and possibly the thing that angers me the most is this desire to "save" people. Fundamentalist Christians have this arrogant view that if another person doesn't confess their undying devotion to Christ they must be sinners by default and have to "come to Christ". A good Christian is one who can share his faith with others. Remember the scripture from Matthew, don't hide yourself.  This of course leads eager Christians to proselytize to others, proclaiming Christ, elevating stories of people who have turned their life around, and shaming the ones that are more reluctant. Sounds a little misguided.

I do not mind the sharing of belief systems with others. Do not misconstrue. Methods used, such as inviting neighbors and friends to come with you to church, doing mission work in the name of Christ, etc, are all fantastic. The agendas behind some missions, though, bother me, especially when homosexuality is involved.

This is a touchy subject for Christians. There are passages from scripture that may be interpreted as expressing homosexuality as a sin. These are often lifted up by fundamentalists to denounce homosexuals and justify hateful protests, condemnation, and omittance. Most of the time when I broach this subject with Christian conservatives, they first of course deny that they hate anyone, but affirm that they believe homosexuality is a sin. They also deny that homosexuals are not encouraged to come to church, a practice pretty well documented. However, although they welcome homosexuals to come to church with them, the true reason behind it is the hope that the homosexual guest will begin to renounce "the lifestyle" and be "saved" (read no longer gay). It is this hidden agenda that angers and disappoints me the most.

I hope this "welcome under one condition" policy, and misguided, backhanded Christian sentiment changes. According to Tony Campolo, professor at Eastern University at St David's, this has already begun. "Jesus", he states, "never mentioned homosexuality. It just wasn't on his Top Ten list of sins. Number one on that list, however, are judgmental religious people who look for sins in the lives of others without dealing with the sin in their own lives".

Campolo goes on to talk about Lewis Smedes, a professor at Fuller Seminary. Smedes decided that although he did not believe that homosexuality was something that God has originally intended, it was something that does exist now, and as such, it is something we must handle. Lifelong committed relationships, Smede said, between homosexuals are indeed the "circumstantial will of God" and should be honored and protected by the Church. This is a HUGE step for Christians, as both of these men were upstanding evangelical preachers with much influence with the religious right in this country.

One can only hope things move along in a direction that can eventually see all people treated as human beings.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Punching the Emo Right out of You

Screeching Weasel
1999, Panic Button Records
produced by Brendan Burke

Ben Weasel - guitar, vocals
Jughead - guitar
Mass Giorgini - bass
Dan Lumley - drums

Speaking of punk bands with odd sounds, Screeching Weasle's sound is simple (as punk ought to be) but Ben Weasel's lazy scratchy voice makes this band a little special. This band is worth a listen if for nothing else than a variety of better groups have cited them as an influence. These groups include Chicago's own Alkaline Trio, Blink 182, the All American Rejects, Rise Against, and Less Than Jake. That's a pretty impressive list.  

In addition, the title of the album is meant to make fun of a blossoming emo scene (I used the word blossom on purpose). Any excuse to make fun of sobbing dudes with too much eyeliner is worth it. Although much of the lyrical quality of these songs leans on the emotional and personal side of things.  Also, they cover Linger by the Cranberries. This may make the album an even bigger insult to the emo scene, as Ben Weasel does emo better than actual emo bands.  

Plus, in his liner notes for this album, Weasel states that this may be his favorite album. The band also wrote and recorded it during a blizzard in 1999, which dumped over 21 inches of snow on Chicago. Weather can't stop punk rock!  In true Punk fashion, I didn't pay for this album either. Take that, Establishment!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Everyone has Room for Jello

Dead Kennedys
Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
1980, Cherry Red Records
produced by Norm

Jello Biafra - vocals
East Bay Ray - guitar
Klaus Flouride - bass
Ted - drums
6025 - guitar on ill in the head
Paul Roessler - keyboards

  • California Uber Alles/The Man with the Dogs
  • Holiday in Cambodia/Police Truck
  • Kill the Poor/In-sight
  • Too Drunk to Fuck/the Prey
Punk as a genre can sometimes be hard to pin down.  Which is okay, this is how Punk likes it.  Keeps you guessing.  Imagine my surprise, after listening to many oi, street punk, american hardcore, and ska bands, when I stumbled onto the Dead Kennedys.  So different in comparison, and yet they do fit into the genre.  This is not Black Flag, not Less than Jake, not the Sex Pistols, and not the Ramones, they could actually play.  The music was melodic, but played fast and aggressive...  like surfers on speed.  Jello actually wrote songs that weren't about teen angst, getting drunk, or breaking things.  Politically motivated, the lyrics are satyrical and shocking.  The music is upbeat enough to get you to sing along words about starvation, chemical warfare, and communism.  

This album is their debut, and has since been rereleased through Alternative Tentacles, and Faulty Products.  The tracks on the album change depending on which record company releases the album and in what year.  Sometimes other tracks are squeezed in or put at the end.  Also, the photo on the back cover changes from version to version.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Punk Rock Secret Agents

Operation Ivy
Operation Ivy
1991, Lookout! 
produced by Larry Livermore

Jesse Michaels - vocals
Lint (Tim Armstrong) - guitar/vocals
Matt McCall (Freeman) - bass
Dave Mello - drums

I discovered punk rock in middle school. Usually the first few bands a middle school kid finds are radio friendly starter bands... fuck that noise!

The bands I started listening to within this genre included Bad Religion (because Sublime covered We're all Gonna Die on 40oz to Freedom), Rancid, and NoFX. Not exactly Green Day/ Blink 182 territory here, although I did listen to the latter. I bought most of my music on the cheap... the school I went to was down the street from a discount used record store, and this one was one of those 8 dollar purchases.

This is actually a reissue comp combining the previously released album Energy, and the Hectic and Turn it Around 7" EPs. Operation Ivy, to me, set the stage for what a ska/street punk band ought to sound like. This album had the oi feel mixed well with melodic riffs and a ska rhythm section. I always thought Operation Ivy was a cool name for a band too, and when I figured out that half of Rancid used to be in this band, I had to hear it... and it pretty much met my expectations. They sound exactly like a proto-Rancid band ought to sound like. This band is definitely a must listen for those interested in good punk bands that burned brightest and quickest. Operation Ivy lasted 2 years, yet were a forerunner for a distinct brand of punk.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Vodka not Included

regina spektor
Begin to Hope
2006, Sire
produced by David Kahne


  • On the Radio/ Ain't No Cover
  • On the Radio/ Dusseldorf
  • Fidelity/ Music Box
  • Better
  • Summer in the City

She's Russian, pretty, and her voice is amazing.  Anti-folk is how she explains her music, and I guess that means using creative rhythms and silly sounds to punctuate her folksy melodies.  If Jewel were tougher and Russian, and better looking...

I really can't say how much I enjoy this album...  it's a lot.  The first four tracks are the strongest, and if you don't want to buy or listen to an entire album, those four should be on your To Do list.  I have the special edition release, which has an additional 5 track EP attached.  These extra tracks are pretty forgettable, and one can see why they were left off the original release.  An interesting side note: Dashboard Confessional covered Better... of course he did, that pansy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Exactly Like a Funeral

MTV Unplugged in New York
1994, DGC
produced by Alex Coletti, Scott Litt

Kurt Cobain - acoustic/electric guitar, vocals
Kris Novoselic - acoustic bass, accordion, acoustic guitar
Dave Grohl - drums, acoustic bass
Pat Smear - acoustic guitar
Lori Goldston - cello
The Meat Puppets - acoustic guitars and basses

  • About a Girl
This is the first album I bought all on my own. I'm pretty proud of it actually. Recorded for Mtv's unplugged series, the album was released posthumously and debuted at #1 on the billboard. The album is mostly acoustic, although Kurt did run his guitar through an amplifier and effects pedals for Man who Sold the World. It doesn't take away from the acoustic sound however.

Not every rock band can pull off the acoustic album, most cheat and incorporate an electric bass. Nirvana's unplugged album is a perfect example of what an unplugged album ought to be. The band departs from what was expected of them, and the tracks chosen are not necessarily the hits. Not relying on Smells Like Teen Spirit, or Lithium makes this album even stronger in its own way.

DGC released the album following Kurt Cobain's tragic suicide. Even though it was recorded a year before the tragedy, listeners cant help but connect the album to the tragedy. In fact, the stage decorations (black candles and lillies) were requested by Cobain because they were "exactly like a funeral". There is a poignant moment at the end of the Leadbelly cover when Cobain loudly sighs, sounding so small and weary.

The album sold very well, I'm sure the news of the tragedy helped propel sales, but I would like to think it would have done well if Kurt had lived. It is a strong live performance. It also reveals a little window into where the band could have been going creatively in a future that never happened.

Monday, July 11, 2011

I Got Your Voodoo Right Here

Screaming Jay Hawkins
I Shake My Stick at You
1991, Aim Records
produced by Peter Noble

I like the blues.  A lot.  So much that I like to go back and find old school stuff to experience it first hand.  Much of my time in college was spent prowling old record stores for cheap music from old genres, and this album is one of those purchases.  

Screaming Jay Hawkins is best known for his one true hit I Put a Spell on You.  This dude is straight up bayou voodoo badassery.  Much more of a lowdown crass dirty sound than Dr. John's more well known brand of creole blues.  Critics have remarked that the Screaming Jay Hawkins style was borrowed heavily by other artists who became more popular as a result.  

However, Screaming Jay Hawkins did have a hugely successful live career.  He is given credit as being the godfather of shock rock, his over-the-top voodoo themed live shows helped influence other bands and stage acts like Alice Cooper, Kiss, Gwar, and Marilyn Manson.  

This is a later release for Hawkins and isn't very memorable.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Merge on the Networks, Slagging Nerve Gas

Alright, back to the music project, after a much needed break.  I liked the way the Blues Traveler Suite worked out, so this is another set of albums from one band.  Based on the title, and the pictures below, I'm sure you've figured out Rage Against the Machine is the topic band.  Im not that subtle.

Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine
1992, Epic
produced by Garth Richardson

Zach de la Rocha - vocals
Tom Morello - guitar
Tim Cummerford - bass
Brad Wilk - drums

  • Killing in the Name/ Darkness/ Clear the Lane
  • Bullet in the Head/ Settle for Nothing
  • Bombtrack
  • Freedom/ Take the Power Back
There has been so much said of this album, including "one of the best metal albums of all time" and "I wish they had stopped at this album".  Not only is the sound unique to its time (1992: hair metal was gearing down, grunge was gearing up), but it is the first successful and truest blending of rock and hip hop.  This album debuts a sound that is never shy, never apologizes, and is powerful in its simplicity.

There are only 4 members, and only 4 instruments used: a guitar from the Eddie Van Halen/ Jimi Hendrix schools of experimentation, a funky yet heavy drum, a hard rocking rhythmic bass, and a hip hop voice.  This fact not only makes what is heard incredible, but also lends an amount of honesty and integrity to a music scene full of overdubs, extra musicians, synthesizers, turntables and auto-tune.

The subject matter of Rage Against the Machine is not for everyone, and for as many people sucked into the music due to the revolutionary, humanist, and leftist themes, there are many turned off by the lyrics that make one think and challenge public perception, status quo, and conservative values.  These songs are not easy party music tracks, love songs, or Dio-esque epics about rainbow dragons and vikings.

De La Rocha raps and rants about police brutality and racism in America, big media, manifest destiny, urban slums, apartheid, and empowerment.

Thought provoking? Yes.  Fueled by anger?  Absolutely.  I think the best thing about these songs are the ability to inspire one to think outside of the proverbial box, challenge conviction, and formulate opinions based on experience, asking questions, and taking ones education in ones own hands.

Rage Against the Machine
Evil Empire
1996, Epic
produced by Brendan OBrien

  • Bombtrack/ Fuck the Police
  • Bulls On Parade/ Hadda be Playing on the Jukebox
  • People of the Sun/ Zapatas Blood/ Without a Face
  • Vietnow/ Clear the Lane/ Black Steel --> Zapatas Blood
The sophmore effort from Rage Against the Machine came four years later.  The sound doesn't change much on this album from track to track, and borrows heavily from it predecessor.  The subject matter of the individual tracks are far more interesting than the actual songs, where on the debut album the opposite feels true.

There are good moments.  Vietnow pulls a classic hip hop move and samples the riff from The Wanton Song by Led Zeppelin. Without a Face and Year of the Boomerang are able to change up an otherwise train of similar sounding metal tunes. Still, much on this album bears a listen.  Subject matter expands to cover the Zapatistas, the Zoot Suit Riots, The Black Panthers, the LA Riots, domestic violence, AIM and Leonard Peltier, the Christian Right and conservative radio pundits, class war, sexism, and colonialism.

For me, personally, I heard this album first and it has had a lasting impression.  Although I agree the other albums are better, this one still has moments that can not be outdone by earlier or later work.

Rage Against the Machine
Battle of Los Angeles
1999, Epic
produced by Brendan OBrien

singles -
  • Guerrilla Radio/ Without a Face
  • Sleep Now in the Fire/ Guerrilla Radio/ Bulls on Parade/ Freedom
  • Testify/ Guerrilla Radio/ Freedom
  • Calm Like a Bomb
The last album of original content, Battle of Los Angeles came out to critical acclaim when I was in high school.  I remember being surprised to hear sounds that I hadn't previously heard from Rage Against the Machine, specifically Tom Morello.

This album showed a more mature band and a deeper more polished writing style.  Instead of relying on incessant chanting of revolutionary and angry propaganda phrases, there is a focus on story telling, versus, even a hint of singing, which of course makes the chanting of phrases even more powerful.  In the end, I guess, reliance on old habits dies hard.

Unlike Evil Empire, where there are forgettable tracks indistinguishable sometimes from others, this album can be listened to from beginning to end, no skipping required.  Each track could have been a single, the deeper into the album one gets, the deeper and more adventurous the music gets.

Subject matter expands again to include Mumia Abu Jamal, 1984, privatization and outsourcing, the war on illegal immigration, and Christian missionaries.

While looking up some things for these posts I ran across online postings in music forums.  Everytime I read anything from online forums there a few things I always see.

1: Someone has to make it very clear how much he dislikes whatever is being discussed, usually in a way that makes him seem uneducated, closeminded, and unaware of being uneducated and closeminded.

2: No one is able to properly defend and debate said hater in a coherent, educated manner which ends in both parties arguing about each others' homosexuality.

3: the anti-rage sentiment stems from a very few similar statements.  I base this on reading such things more than once, in more than one place.

The first is that the band whines about leftist ideologies and needs to grow up, shut up and just play music.  This seems to be a knee-jerk reaction that anyone would make after their culture has been questioned, and the comfort of their world has been threatened.  Frankly, that particular phrase irks me more than anything else.

There has always been dissent and struggle in music, especially rock and roll.  If Elvis, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana had all shut up and played the music that was expected, there would never be any innovation, or change, ever, and we'd all be still listening to good ole country tunes, turn of the century folk music, and classical baroque.

Many bands and musicians that are most revered by our society have a foot (sometimes two) in dissent, revolution, protest, and humanism.  And this spans every genre of popular music, from country (Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings), to folk (Woody Guthrie, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Pete Seeger), rock (Jefferson Airplane, MC5, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, U2), metal (Metallica, Guns and Roses, System of a Down) hip hop (the NWA, the Fugees, KRS1, Immortal Technique, Atmosphere, the Coup), punk (Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Anti-Flag, Rise Against).  and truly, any artist ever influenced by any of those already mentioned also carry with them the culture of dissent.  Personally, if they all just shut up and played music, it would be pretty uninspired, banal, and boring.

Shut up and play music?  Aye Aye, Captain!
The other complaint I read a lot is that the music sounds the same on every track and the guitar "screeching" is an unimaginative, old, and worn out gimmick.  First of all... if you want an album that is completely different from track to track with no similarity, or stylized fingerprint, buy a comp record like NOW 20, or Hot Hits of the 90s.  Second... one would have to be pretty dense to not appreciate the Tom Morello sound.  Not only has he adapted his play to incorporate sounds never before heard through an amplifier, but is able to seamlessly blend conventional playing with his more inventive style.  This makes me wonder if online boards had been around in the 60s and 80s, if similar statements would have been made of Hendrix, Tony Iommi, and Eddie Van Halen.

Friday, July 1, 2011

More than Meets the Eye

I found this interesting table earlier today.  Its a depiction of famous trilogies, most are actually more than trilogies.  The chart shows how the three (or more) films matched up to one another as far as how fans view them.  As far as I can tell, concerning general nerdom sentiment, its pretty accurate.  There are a few trilogies I would like to see added, including Toy Story, the other Star Wars trilogy, Silence of the Lambs, Mission Impossible, The mighty Ducks, The Mariachi trilogy (Once upon a Time in Mexico...), and Austin Powers.

Another trilogy that ought to be in this graphic is Transformers.  The title of this post should be I Wanted More Than Meets Michael Bay's Eye, Tranformers Could Have Been Better, but thats way too long.

I saw The Dark of the Moon the other day.  It was definitely better than the last Transformers film.  When seen back to back to back, however, the trilogy is not good.  It reminds me of Die Hard and Indiana Jones, where the 2nd movie (the one in the middle) is the worst.  The biggest issue with Die Hard and Indiana Jones is the fact that they are prequels to the original.  That and the chick in Temple of Doom is a terrible actress, and protecting an airport is not as cool as a one-man siege of a building.  Transformers: The Rise of the Fallen doesn't have these excuses, however.  Dark of the Moon is so much better that it has been able to highlight the glaring ineptitude of its predecessor, much like With a Vengeance and Last Crusade did to their previous films.

The problem with Rise of the Fallen is the same issue most film franchises have when making a sequel.  The market success of the first film has creators, studio, and marketers clamoring for more.  More new characters, more action, more explosions!  The film suffers from the desire for more.  Michael Bay decided the Dark of the Moon would be the last of the Transformers films, and neatly tied up all the loose ends.  I wish he thought of doing only three movies to start with.  Planning a trilogy ahead of time is much better than doing it piecemeal.  If you dont plan ahead, you may end up with the second and third films sucking (see the graph for Jaws, Planet of the Apes, and the Matrix).

Planning ahead means you've either already written the complete story, or have a pretty good idea how it will progress (see Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Back to the Future).  Star Wars is actually a really good example of a film in three acts, the middle film being the second act, seeing the protagonist seemingly defeated, and at his greatest despair.

Transformers doesn't do this.  In fact, after watching the third film, it became clear that the second film (although references are made in passing) is not at all necessary to the plot.  The main protagonist in the second film is never mentioned, which is odd as two primes hang out together in the third film.  The Fallen (the prime who betrayed) is portrayed as such a powerful figure in Transformer history, you would think Optimus would maybe bring it up to Sentinel.  Also, there are Transformers that are never seen killed that do not appear in the third film (both autobot and decepticon).  On top of this, the arrival of the Transformers in the first film should have made someone involved with the Apollo Moon missions somewhere sit up in shock and make some important phone calls.  No one would be able to watch aliens descend on the planet and still keep that secret.

I would like to point out too that arguably the biggest baddest decepticon has been upstaged in two consecutive films by another villain.  Megatron vanishes in The Fallen, and has to be goaded into taking back his masculinity in Dark of the Moon by a human chick.  And, as cool and badass as Shockwave was, I'm pretty sure he is supposed to be a constant rival for Megatron's power.  Come to think of it, so is Starscream, although their methods vary significantly.  And while we're on the subject of decepticons, I'm also pretty sure a majority of Megatron's followers transformed into aircraft, fighter jets to be specific, not police cars, SUVs, or Mercedes Benz.

And then there is the autobots.  The only thing I did not like about the third film is the Transformers themselves.  The characters that share a name with the title of the film are upstaged by just about every human character.  I wanted to see a movie about shape changing robots, not a bunch of cliche human characters.  The autobot characters are sadly underdeveloped.  And the ones that are developed even a little bit are ones that no one cares about (like the old smarty pants inventor, and the two annoying little toy-sized ones).  The Fallen had the same issue.  The focus is put on the newly introduced characters and not spent making the older characters stronger.  I wanted to see more Ratchet, and Sideswipe, and Ironhide.  What I got was two smartass Chevy Sparks, motorcycles, a crusty old transformer named Q (watch Bond movies much?) an RC truck, Nascars, and a metal gremlin.  Pretty lame.  There are so many better autobots to choose from.  Why make up stupid ones?

If Transformers had aspired to be a trilogy of epic proportions, a three act play ought to have been conceived ahead of time.  Even if the first film flopped and no other films were made, they would still have an anchor with which to draw from, one film at a time.  Continuity would have saved the second film, and made the third less awkward.  Oh... and all three films may have had better plots.