Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Donald Trump explained for Artists

In case you've been living under a rock, Donald Trump is now the US president-elect.  And people are legitimately frightened not only for their livelihoods, but their lives. Just click here, here, and here to see what Trump's rise to power produced in the first 48 hours. It ain't pretty.

Those who minimize this by asserting that it's how Republicans felt in 2008 after Barack Obama was elected are in need of a serious reality check. The only person fearing for their life in 2008 was Obama. The bulletproof glass was for him, not for us.

  (NBC News / msnbc.com)                                                       

Points to whoever's idea it was to save a few bucks by giving the guy who checks guns at the door the night off.

But we must be careful not to characterize all Trump supporters as hateful bigots. Hell, even Hillary fell for that. Her lack of understanding of what neoliberalism has done to America is what's deplorable here.

Or, in plain English - the majority of small town folk are scared, full stop. Their way of life is disappearing.

This election revealed a magnetic reversal of the political poles in America.  Sure, the Democrats have unsurprisingly attracted the enlightened professional class, having embraced multi-culturalism and caught up to 21st century social ideals as implemented by the rest of the civilized world while drinking all the lattes that their decent salaries can buy.

But there's one important omission this time around:

The working class.

Disillusioned blue collar voters who have marked an X on the Democratic candidate for the last half century have abandoned the party that abandoned them. Trump is their man. He says trade deals have screwed them.

Republicans, on the other hand, are now rejecting unbridled free market capitalism, which has basically been their entire platform since rotary telephones.

It may be surprising to most, but some people called this as far back as the mid 1990s, never mind Noam Chomsky.

Rural America finally feels like they have a voice again for the first time in decades. And urban America is scratching their heads wondering how a bigot just got handed the nuclear codes.

(20th Century Fox)                                                       

"It's pronounced 'nuc-u-lar'."

Card-carrying members of the two parties hate each other now more than ever, and most of them don't even know why.  How do we get them to talk to each other?

I have just the solution.

Let's start by framing this in a way the artistic community and anyone with a vested interest in the field can understand.

We have seen cuts to the arts over the last century. When schools fall short of budget, what's the first thing to go?

The arts.

Even some governments make cuts to the arts. Hell, even as far back as Churchill this discussion was happening.  During World War II, expenditures had peaked and they needed more money.  "How about we dip into the arts?" suggested one well-meaning bean counter.  But rationality prevailed, as the British PM quipped, "Then what are we fighting for?"

So this isn't crazy talk.  It's real to all of us who make a living in the creative field. We don't want to see orchestras shut down. We don't want to see films stuck in the pre-production stage because the money didn't turn up.

  (ANONYMOUS / AP)                                                       

Although we can probably all agree that Jersey Shore shouldn't have even made it to the editing stages.

Now let's take it a step further - where the arts are eliminated altogether.

No music, no TV, no films, no visual art, no drama, no fiction, no poetry, no video games.

Sound ludicrous?

Not to about 50 million Americans.  This is how they feel right now.  They used to work in a factory that shut down.  Or a coal mine. And they live in a ghost town now, because that factory is literally all they had.  They couldn't care less about how the big cities are doing well.  They're broke, and their kids are sick of Kraft Mac & Cheese.

And it's Heinz Mac & Cheese now.

And if you talk to one of them about this, they'll mention the generations before them.  Let's stick with the arts language for perspective:

"But my father was a musician, and my father's father was a musician.  It's all we knew."

Just entertain the idea that the public education system sucks (it does), your IQ level is about 85, and you have few tools for intellectual improvement because this just isn't what your community did. You learned to be a musician, because that's all you needed to be. Things like depending on government handouts and seeing the big city as more than a possible vacation destination were completely foreign to you (without a passport that's about all there is - two thirds of Americans don't have one).  You played music, because that's all you needed to do to feed your family, and you were content to do that and only that.  But now all the music jobs are gone, and half your town is on food stamps.

And then a politician running for office comes along saying this:

"We're going to make America great again. I'm going to bring back the arts. I love music. You're going to have more gigs than you've ever had."

"I have great gigs.  The best gigs."

He's talking to you, trombonist who hasn't had a gig outside of your living room since the Clinton administration. He's reaching you on both a professional and an emotional level. You feel respected and validated. He understands you in a way that the last few presidents haven't. Even Reagan said 'screw you'.

And the thought that you might work again overrides literally everything else.  You don't care that he thinks he can grab women by their genitals without their consent because he's famous.  You don't care that he's blaming immigrants for why you're out of work.  You don't care that he says he's going to build a wall to keep the Mexican musicians out.


There's gonna be hell toupee.

When you're poor, nothing else matters.  You're afraid, and you're desperate.  And now with this guy in the race, you're hopeful.

You'd better believe you'll be voting for him. And in case you still weren't sure, the other person running for election barely mentioned musicians at all throughout their entire campaign (and when she did, it didn't go down so well).

Assuming most people who worked in those factories don't understand the science of climate change (that's very likely the case), their jobs being outsourced to Asia pretty much boils down to "Let's hire that other band for the half the money even though they suck; plus the drummer is banging your girlfriend."

Every faction of urban American society needs to find a similar analogy to understand their rural counterparts.  Until Trump's detractors engage with his supporters in this very style of dialogue and thereby humanize this overlooked part of the conversation, the country is not going to begin to heal.

IT consultants?  Cancer researchers?  It's up to you now.

Because when Trump is given a second term in 2020, I don't want to be the one who says "I told you so."

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Ban the air show?

Ahh yes, the annual air show in Toronto.  That moment during the Canadian National Exhibition when we glorify the tools of combat as warplanes fly through the sky, officially marking the end of summer.  Right?

Because during war, planes are always busy making patterns that look like Don King's hair.

No, of course it isn't that simple.

Wait, what?  Nuance?  Say it isn't so !

Nope - it is not exclusively a war show.  People enjoy and are awestruck by it, if only for the athleticism and precision displayed by the pilots.  It's synchronized swimming in the air.

But it has its detractors, plenty of whom would have it banned in a heartbeat if they could, even just for the noise it makes in a residential area, never mind any anti-war sentiments felt.  But let me ask this: how many of the loudest complainers have pursued their passion to the point of building a skill where they can say they are in an extreme minority in their prowess?  Probably not too many.

Of course, warplanes have killed people.  And for some, especially now in a city with thousands of refugees, it is a trigger for trauma, as that sound of a warplane in their country of birth would almost always be followed by the sound of bombs, people screaming, and hundreds of lives ending in an instant.

But here is something literally nobody is talking about.  I was on a lovely walk through High Park with a friend, and one of the airplanes made a peace sign.  Let that sink in: the international symbol for pacifism was drawn by a warplane, and nobody seemed to notice.  One pilot decided to make his statement on the validity of air shows in 2016 with this grand gesture.

Rachelle Janicki                                     

Put this on the front page, and hippies everywhere may go through an existential crisis.

Clearly what's happening here is a re-imagination of the function of a warplane.  It's not unlike the white poppy.  It, too, offends people, especially those who lost relatives or even fought in a war themselves, as the red in the traditional poppy symbolizes the blood shed for our freedoms.  But the white poppy isn't intended to minimize that.  It recognizes it, and additionally intends to provide the message that war isn't the only method of transportation to peace.  Just ask Václav Havel.

This article in the Toronto Star has gained some traction, but let's call a spade a spade - he's a social activist writing an opinion piece.  He may be a "PhD candidate", but he is no writer.  He can put a sentence together, but he has made no effort to see all sides of the issue.  And naturally he didn't notice the peace sign in the sky because he was too busy writing his article with previously conceived notions about the airshow instead of actually watching it.

We haven't heard from any refugees on the issue.  This far more balanced editorial is the closest thing to an official response from someone from a war-torn country, and even she doesn't advocate closing shop.  Otherwise we've only heard from people speaking for the refugees.  So let's open up the dialogue with them, and listen carefully, while telling them about our traditions.  After all, the reason why we have an airshow every year is to commemorate those who gave their lives to ensure a safe haven for these refugees in which to live some day.

But if this really is a "nuisance" for the majority, then maybe we should be like Switzerland and have a public referendum on this.

In the meantime, this collection of responses to the Star article display a variety of opinions on the matter, which is healthy in a democracy.  This shows that the national dialogue on the subject of tradition versus accommodating new Canadians is alive and well.

Whatever your view on this subject is, just try to find the gray.  It's never as black and white as we think it is.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Classic Albums - part deux

A few years back I wrote about the nature of classic albums, past and present.  But on this occasion I'm thinking about them a bit differently.

One of the most interesting phenomenons in modern popular music is that virtually every act who sold millions of records in the 70s had a huge creative lull in the 80s.  Surely it isn't as simple as artists suddenly becoming dinosaurs who couldn't adjust to new technology or business models.  Is there any decade to decade transition in the last century that compares to the marked decline in quality of commercial music like the 70s to the 80s?  There is no simple answer.  Of course there was still much great music in the 80s, but most of it wasn't seen on MTV.  Of course it can be argued that artists of any era tend to have a creative peak that only lasts a few years, but something else is at work here.

The business had changed in many ways. FM radio went from album oriented radio to playlists in the late 70s, as it was becoming clear that a bigger audience meant higher advertising revenues. With hits now being on both AM and FM radio, albums became progressively less marketable. When there's no need to make an album like you used to, the product becomes less cohesive, not to mention the pressure to create a hit song takes its toll. Almost all successful artists of the 70s did not make the transition into the 80s well. People like Peter Gabriel were the exception to the rule (incidentally, he was flat broke by 1982).

There were other factors. With the advent of things like video games and creating your own mix tapes, people were spending less money on LPs by the late 70s. For the previous decade, LPs were what most teenagers and adults spent most of their disposable income on. People had prided themselves on their record collections. It was an extension of who they were. Artists knew this. The focus was on creating the great album, not the hit single. The lead single was selected after the album was finished. But with FM radio's change in business plan and record companies following suit, this would no longer be the case.

They say things move quickly now - just look at how much the nature of popular music changed between 1975 and 1980.  You can bet your life that Queen wouldn't have gotten a record deal with A Night At The Opera in 1980.  Zeppelin would've been thrown out of the record exec's office with Physical Graffiti.  Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here starting with a 13 minute song?  Forget about it.

"What do you mean it's not marketable?  Of course you can make a music video with Dionysus and the marble white.  Place them right beside the hearts of men despaired."

There was no comparable seismic shift in any art form until YouTube came along.  Today we expect things to change quickly, but in the 70s people really thought the LP would last forever, and along with that, music on the radio that would continue to be new and exciting and more interesting than the previous year.  It was the format that drove artists to be great, with the added bonus of new territory to be found as the technology grew.

A ton of good music has been produced since then and will continue to be produced, but so much has changed in the way the business interferes with the process of its creation when its target is mainstream audiences.  Articles like this are more revealing than most people would ever want to realize, and I feel like the Grinch for even mentioning it.  But this is not a new phenomenon.  Motown had already become a musical assembly line by the mid-60s, but most other branches of popular music were about to enjoy a period of unparalleled creativity untampered with by the powers that be.  Additionally, any number of artists or record label employees in the late 60s and early 70s would tell you that more revenues were pumped into artist development during that period than ever.

Music is not consumed the way it was consumed 40 years ago, either. The world is a much different place, not least because there is so much music available and it has become so disposable in the form of downloaded files, as opposed to a physical piece with liner notes and artwork that you stared into while listening to the music and doing literally nothing else for 45 minutes after proudly carrying it home without a plastic bag as if it were a badge of honour, your statement to the world of what's important to you. But nothing lasts forever.

Artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Doors, Supertramp, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder truly were a product of their time. 1966-1976 was a magical period to create popular music, and such an environment and canvas will probably never be seen again.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Black Sabbath - "The End"

Last night Black Sabbath's "The End" tour hit First Ontario Centre in Hamilton, appropriately named for the legendary band's final road trip across much of the globe.

Support act Rival Sons opened the festivities.  The Long Beach, California band's influences almost exclusively lie in 70s rock, making them sound derivative at times, but there were many moments of excellence, particularly in an extended version of the ballad Where I've Been, where guitarist Scott Holiday offered a soulful solo not heard on the studio version.  Singer Jay Buchanan worked hard to win the audience over, and genuinely stated numerous times their pleasure of being the last band to open for Black Sabbath.  For this audience of predominantly 60-somethings, they were exactly the right choice.

The main dish hit the stage a bit before 9pm, with a dazzling video display that eventually revealed the band's logo, leaving the audience mesmerized before even playing a note.  They soon launched into the title track from their 1970 eponymous album, and the faithful in attendance sang along to every word.

Within a couple songs, it became quickly apparent that it would be an uneven performance from Ozzy Osbourne.  Several gigs earlier in the tour were cancelled with the frontman having a bout of sinusitis, but it wasn't a case of him being unable to sing.  Even though most of the songs were tuned a whole step down, Ozzy sung flat for much of the night, varying from song to song.  The front of house sound technician wisely adjusted the frontman's fader to have him a bit lower in the mix than a lead vocal should be, so that his flaws wouldn't be as apparent.

But there's no hiding from it on video:

"Fairies wear boots, and I don't wear in-ears." -- Ozzy Osbourne {{citation needed}}

In the world of opera music, for example, audience reaction to such proceedings would range from utter disbelief to seeking a refund, but classic rock crowds generally aren't as discerning.  If they cheered after every song Led Zeppelin played in 1977 when 100-pound Jimmy Page (on a diet of little more than groupies and smack) was barely able to play on some nights, then they were going to love every minute of this grand event, shortcomings notwithstanding.  With the ever-familiar concert smells in the air, not only does this iconic singer know he can get away with a lackluster vocal performance, every sentence of Ozzy's banter can contain the F-bomb with impunity.  Being an orator is not in the job description, either.

But he still did have his great moments, like his call and response with the audience in War Pigs.  Being in the middle of a crowd singing the soaring melodies at the end of the Nixon era anti-authoritarian war protest anthem is one of the great concert experiences any rock fan can have, not unlike Hey Jude at a Paul McCartney concert.  It is the same common denominator of bringing people together.  And it was extra special this time, knowing it was the last time.

His movements on stage were classic Ozzy at all times, often prompting the audience to sway their arms during most mid-tempo passages, for example.  But he was the one weak link in an otherwise flawless show.  Visually and aurally, it was everything a farewell concert should be.  Stock footage of the band in their heyday was used at the right moments, and the vibe was one of celebration of music that not only defined a genre, but created one.  The setlist reflected exactly what their audience wanted to hear; all but three songs were from their first three albums.  Their next three long players (particularly 1975's Sabotage) showed a great sense of musical maturity, but it was their self-titled debut, Paranoid, and Master Of Reality that pioneered what is now called doom metal.

Guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler were completely on their game, executing their parts with a surgeon's precision, replicating the album cuts to perfection.  Filling in for Bill Ward, drummer Tommy Clufetos was a faithful servant to the music, and his solo spot in Rat Salad was a show highlight.  For flare and presentation he gets a 10/10, but it was the polar opposite of someone like Neil Peart of Rush who turns a drum solo into the musical equivalent of a Shakespearean play, complete with plot twists, births, deaths, and an exquisite combination of mainstay sections and forays into the unknown.  Clufetos, by contrast, simply offered sheer intensity and power, finally finishing with an ostinato kick drum signalling the beginning of Iron Man, a very effective way of building to one of the many peaks of the evening.

Utility outfielder Adam Wakeman (son of Yes legend Rick Wakeman) added some keyboard and guitar from backstage, but was only really in the sound mix on a couple occasions, notably not in Dirty Women, which should have a pretty vital organ part.

The plus side of the songs being tuned lower was that their sound became even more dark and mysterious.  The main guitar riffs in N.I.B. and Into The Void sounded like pure Satan, just as the doctor ordered back in 1971.

The last song of the set proper, Children Of The Grave, was the only one to be performed in the original key, which is actually tuned down a step and a half on the album.  The band left the stage, with Ozzy sounding tacky as ever while guiding the audience in a "one more song!" chant.  They finished with the staple Paranoid, and the otherwise stoic Iommi cracked a smile towards the end.  He may not have been quite as pleased thirty seconds later, though, as Osbourne forgot the lyrics of the entire last verse, despite having a teleprompter at his disposal.

The fans couldn't have cared less.  Black Sabbath were bidding their farewell, and respect for the music and its creators was all that mattered in the end.

Three and a half stars out of five.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Dream Theater - The Astonishing

We can safely say hell has frozen over.

Rolling Stone had ceased to recognize the mere existence of progressive rock until literally last year, where Rush were finally given their first cover story after Britney Spears had her seventh.  And now they're actually writing about a current band in the genre (the article is well worth the read).  Dream Theater has existed for over 25 years, more or less innovated a genre of music (progressive metal), and sold ten million records without a hit single.  Love them or hate them, they have an audience; a dedicated and passionate one that will fill up theatres anywhere in North and South America, and arenas in Europe and Japan - a feat that few artists have ever achieved.

Their strongest albums are almost indisputably Images And Words and Scenes From A Memory.  But lately their biggest flaw has been their almost constant need to put their technical ability before good songwriting, lately to the point that they've almost become a parody of themselves. I've always thought that they could use some healthy outside interference, kind of like Rush did ten years ago with Nick Raskulinecz.  Enter veteran producer David Campbell, whose CV that includes Michael Jackson, Adele, Justin Timberlake, and Muse would make your computer crash.

After a couple listens of The Astonishing, above all else I hear a band bravely making a huge departure from their sound with mixed results - but mostly good. The concept is king, and the technical wankery is restricted to a minimum, as it's always complimentary to the story. Refreshing.

For the first time, singer James LaBrie is the star on a Dream Theater album, with keyboardist Jordan Rudess a close second.  LaBrie sings all eight characters in the story convincingly, and perhaps for the first time, Rudess displays his gifts as an arranger in full.

Also, National Geographic recently recognized his goatee to be an entire ecosystem.

John Petrucci is more of a writer than guitar hero here (which isn't to demean his contributions on the axe, but to highlight his compositional abilities), bassist John Myung holds his own as always, but drummer Mike Mangini comes across as pedestrian, which may sound unusual given his technical prowess and feel in other situations (think Extreme).  His sound is so processed and artificial that it almost sounds like a drum machine.  This is my only major gripe with the album.

At their best, Dream Theater are remarkable at what they do, which leaves me all the more sad that Mike Portnoy isn't on it.  Now estranged from his bandmates of 20 years, his playing has a balance of technicality and personality more than pretty well any living rock drummer, with the possible exception of Danny Carey or Neil Peart.

At over two hours long, this album is unlikely to draw hoards of new fans to the Dream Theater fold. But it may finally make people realize that there's far more to this band than long songs where guys play fast. This is the exact opposite. There are thirty-four tracks, and none over eight minutes in length.  There is depth in the storytelling, ultimately making this a great example of a 21st century rock opera.  It may not rival Tommy or The Wall, but if you're into progressive rock and willing to invest the time, you'll very likely find it to be a rewarding listen.

However, like so many double albums, some listeners may find themselves wondering how much stronger it would've been as a single album with a dozen less tracks (people have even said this about the White Album, never mind a Dream Theater album).  There are many hooky songs here (like The Gift Of Music and The Beginning), but they may get lost amidst the many ballads.

So I'm not sure if it can be called "Astonishing".  But it is still very good.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars - their strongest outing since 2009's Black Clouds And Silver Linings.  But their best days are likely behind them.  Albums like Images And Words and Awake are scenes from a memory (see what I did there?).