30 Rock: Why Aren’t You Watching?

If you’re not watching 30 Rock just because you’ve got better things to do on Thursday nights (like come see me at the Barking Kudu, hint, hint), then you’re missing out. Because you can do like me and watch it on Hulu every week.

This week’s episode is one of the finest examples of the show I can imagine. You don’t even need to know who all the characters are or the situations to suffer a comedy-related aneurysm. There’re more laughs in the pre-opening credits moments than in any episode of 24. Guaranteed.

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Plus, Salma Hayak.  Le sigh…

The world according to Blog

Hey, it’s no weirder than Garp.  Or Zork.  Though the latter was more fun.

Interesting articleif deeply flawed – in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal about blogging. The numbers are dubious at best, and although the article is aimed at “professional” bloggers (those who monetize, or attempt to monetize, their blogging to make a living off of it), writer Mark Penn raises some provocative notions regarding blogs in general:

For now, bloggers say they are overwhelmingly happy in their work, reporting high job satisfaction. But what happens if they, too, lose work; are they covered by unemployment insurance if tastes change and their sites go under? Are they considered journalists under shield laws? Are they subject to libel suits? Are there any limits to the opinions they churn out, or any standards to rein them in? Is there someone to complain to about false blogs or hidden conflicts? At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Panasonic outfitted bloggers with free Panasonic equipment; did that affect their opinions about the companies they wrote about? There are more questions than answers about America’s Newest Profession.

Ignore the profession comment, as that term nowhere near applies (according to the OED, professions involve the application of specialised knowledge of a subject, field, or science to fee-paying clientele).  In fact, ignore the idea that you’re doing anything more than I am and spewing your thoughts onto a screen.  Those questions certainly still remain.

We’ve stepped into an age where anyone can call themselves a reporter, and it’s up to the reader to determine how much trust they will give to a source.  On a blog like this or Jason Mulgrew’s or Dooce, it’s not a big question, but then you’ve got all of the political blogs passing off opinion as fact (or worse, fiction or fantasy as fact).  You’ve got people presenting legal or economic advice with what may or may not be real-world experience and credentials.  Even my oldest friend Wade, who mostly writes haikus and and entertainment-related reviews, runs occasional newsworthy pieces.

(Quick note: Wade is a very experienced journalist with incredibly high-standards and a strong understanding of journalistic ethics.  These concerns aren’t inspired by him — in fact, if you want to make sure that you don’t have to worry about them, hire him as a consultant or take one of his classes.)

But here’s an example of my concerns, and a surprising one, at that:

It is hard to think of another job category that has grown so quickly and become such a force in society without having any tests, degrees, or regulation of virtually any kind. Courses on blogging are now cropping up, and we can’t be far away from the Columbia School of Bloggerism. There is a lot of interest now in Twittering and Facebooking — but those venues don’t offer the career opportunities of blogging. Not since eBay opened its doors have so many been able to sit at their computer screens and make some money, or even make a whole living.

This is from that same article, by the way, and it’s based on what (in my very untrained opinion) terrible research methodology.  But it’s presented as fact, and if it’s in the WSJ, then it’s gotta be true, right?  I mean, that’s THE source for financial information.

And yet….

Just because you read it doesn’t mean it’s true, folks.  And just because you write it on a blog instead of in a published paper doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily exempt from consequences, positive and negative.

In other news, Jason Mulgrew is actually a married man living in France. All that stuff about NYC and LA is made up.  You heard it here first.

Some people really don’t get it

Unlike the review mentioned here, the New York Times gives Crank 2 a short but solid thrashing, calling it (among other things) “near-pornographic.”  Which, I suppose, is their prerogative.  I understand that the movie is not for everyone — it’s a comic book on film, a self-aware parody of itself in which suspension of disbelief is suspended right along with the rules of nature.

The problem, though, is that either the reviewer is completely unaware of the nature of the movie (it’s really not meant to be taken seriously on any level), or has no sense of humor, or is just not a very good writer.  The movie seems to have been watched completely devoid of context, which makes it out to be the really bad film it is out of context.

Which gets me thinking, though.  I hated The Shining — Kubrick’s version — because it deviates from King’s book on so many levels (including the main thrust of the story, that it’s the hotel that ruins a good man, not that a bad man uses a hotel as an excuse), because to me, that movie will always be an adaptation of the book.  However, when I manage to force myself out of that perspective and watch the movie as a stand-alone entity, it’s a pretty damn fine horror movie that still creeps me out almost 30 years later. The twin girls, the elevator of blood… Kubrick’s sterile, clinical films usually leave me cold (no pun intended), but that detachment works here, exceptionally well. If only Nicholson hadn’t given one of the most over-the-top performances in history…

So context is important, but sometimes so is removing context, at least for enjoyment (I think I just made the lists of four Kubrick fans by thinking that).

Any thoughts?

Teabag The World!

I find the “tea-bagging” (thanks, Fox News and CNN!) going on today to be particularly amusing. Not because people are protesting the bailouts — I’m glad they can and are.  It’s excellent that people in this country have right to make their opinions known, and that we have leadership in position that doesn”t place dissenters in bizarre segregated areas far from anyone who matters. Ahem.

But then there’s this:

Plan to dump million tea bags foiled
In Washington, D.C., protesters had planned to dump a million tea bags in Lafayette Square and even promised to put the bags on the tarps and clean up afterward. But their plans were thwarted after National Park Service officials said protesters didn’t have the proper permit to dump the bags, NBC affiliate WRC TV reported.

“We have a million tea bags here, and we don’t have a place to put them because it’s not on our permit,” said Rebecca Wales, lead organizer of D.C. Tea Party.

And part of me thinks that its cool that they’re treating the protests respectfully, behaving within the boundaries of the laws.

But part of me thinks that it’s a damned good thing that those folks in Boston, some 230+ years ago, remembered to include “plans to dump large amounts of tea into the harbor” on their permit application. Without such forethought, the Revolution may never have been fought, and then where would we be?

And oh, for the love of whatever you hold dear, don’t go read the comments on their website (Google will find he link for you).  What sounds like a reasonable protest quickly turns south into the usual us vs them red/blue doldrums. If you find that you’re really bored, watch this from last night’s Daily Show, with Muppets and more:

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Mastodon @ Workplay, Birmingham, AL, 4/10/09 (review)

(This review originally appeared on Spin.com, Monday, 4/13/09)

(UPDATE: apparently, this review inspired the one that appears on Spin.  I’m not sure where mine fell apart, using their old reviews as guidelines, but apparently they didn’t dig my style. C’est la vie, eh? At least I got my name on a national mag’s website.)

(I also want to note, because I’m clever: I really, really wanted to work the nicknames “Black Floyd” and – as suggested by my friend Eric Macomb – “Widespread Sabbath” into the review, but I couldn’t work them in without some level of awkward. But Mastodon really have created a new niche in heavy music, and they are cementing it with this tour.  If Roger Waters joined Metallica, and then they all took lessons from Dream Theater, and hired Ozzy Osbourne to sing for them, you’d have Mastodon.  Put that into the bodies of guys in their thirties that play with the energy and brutality of hungry eighteen year olds and you’ve got Mastodon live.  I can’t recommend this tour highly enough — GO SEE MASTODON.)

Maybe Mastodon is taking a chance or breaking boundaries by performing their latest album, Crack The Skye, in order from start to finish; maybe not.  It certainly works, though, delivering less of an ordinary concert and more a theatrical experience, well worth the hype that their fans are giving the idea.

The two openers of the night, Intronaut and Kylesa, both delivered fine performances that deserve note, but frankly, Mastodon’s two hours of brutal, manic delivery of both the new and an excellent selection of older material erased any impression of what came before. The entire band (especially hometown guitarist Brent Hinds) attacked the songs with a ferocity one might attribute to a hungry bar band getting it’s first shot at opening a major arena show, never once giving the impression that it’s “just a job” – if heavier music is your choice of expression, then there’s a thing or two you can learn from Mastodon in the delivery.

It might have been that the Birmingham show was the opener of the tour; perhaps it was that the audience crammed into the 450-person capacity WorkPlay theater consisted in no small part of Hinds’ friends from high school and later (a bartender suggested that Hinds’ guest list brought the crowd 100 people into the Fire Marshal’s nightmares).  Whatever the case, the energy levels in the building were absolutely off-the-charts. If Mastodon can manage to keep this sort of adrenaline-fueled intensity for the entire tour, it will be impressive, to say the least.

The band opened with the first notes of OBLIVION, the opening track of Crack the Skye, and as they’ve promised in pre-tour interviews, didn’t stop until they had played through the epic THE LAST BARON.  A video screen behind the band played video images that managed to enhance the performance without ever distracting.  While there were a few moments where it appeared that the band members were still adjusting to the live nuances of the new material, the playing (both individually and as a unit) was jaw-dropping. Mastodon’s music is technical and precise, impressive enough in a controlled studio environment but simply astounding to see over the course of an evening without second takes. Especially of note was the seemless interplay between guitarists Hinds and Bill Kelliher, and the metronome-precise rhythm of drummer Brann Dailor and bassist Troy Sanders – any musicians in the crowd that fail to be impressed with the abilities of are too elitist to listen to.

A short but necessary break followed the Crack the Skye performance, and the band returned to the stage for an encore that would more precisely be called a second act, over an hour of songs culled from their earlier albums.  This set drew most heavily from Blood Mountain, but included enough from Leviathan (and one track from Remission) that it could fairly be called a Mastodon sampler.  It was in this hour that the contrast between random songs and a front-to-back album performance revealed itself.  There’s a comfort level in hearing a full album, one that allows you to fully immerse yourself in the music, no matter how loud or intense.  The more chaotic nature of the heavy metal fan, the shirtless mosher and the screaming, goat-throwing observer at the back of the room, is so much more noticeable (and louder) when you don’t know what song is next.

Mastodon and their fans deserve a hearty commendation for putting on a spectacular show with such high energy.  If the rest of the tour is even comparable to the opening night, Mastodon will cement their place at the top of the list of important metal bands, hopefully challenging others in the genre to meet their standards.

1st set
The Czar
Ghost of Karelia
Crack The Skye
The Last Baron

2nd set
Colony of Birchmen
The Wolf Is Loose
Crystal Skull
Capillarian Crest
Iron Tusk
March of the Fire Ants
Hearts Alive

The Future of Metal

(This piece appears in the April 9 – April 16, 2009 issue of Birmingham Weekly)

Mastodon is a part of a small but elite group of bands that represent what one might call the next evolutionary step of heavy music. While many other bands have sought their niche by playing faster or slower, singer higher or lower, this Atlanta-based quartet have focused on absorbing and reflecting a diversity of styles. Rather than limiting themselves to a certain criteria that to them defines “heavy,” they seem to embrace the idea of doing whatever feels right, and in doing so soar far above the majority of their peers.

Their latest release, CRACK THE SKYE, completes an exploration of the elemental wheel (water, earth, fire, and now ether), and also cements them as one of the most important and intelligent bands in the genre, if not in music in general. While the sound owes a lot to early Metallica, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin, the atmosphere is more that of Pink Floyd or classic Genesis (albeit through a dark and distorted lens) – technical, brutal, not unlike a blow to the head, but atmospheric and sweepingly cinematic. The lyrics tell the story of a crippled boy who is only able to experience the world through astral travel; his soul becomes unmoored from his body, and he ends up in the form of Russian czar Rasputin. It’s a science fiction epic, as heady as any concept album from the prog-rock oeuvre of the 1970’s heyday, and backed by a musical bed as intricate and twisting as the story.

It’s worth noting, too, that the sci-fi story that sprawls across the fifty (or so) soaring minutes of the album is a metaphor for a number of things, including guitarist Brent Hinds’ experiences after a post-performance fight sent him into a three day coma, and a tribute to drummer Brann Dailor’s deceased sister Skye. And yet, none of this is presented in such as way that feels preachy or overt.

With CRACK THE SKYE, Mastodon and producer Brendan O’ Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Stone Temple Pilots) have taken both heavy metal and prog-rock and created perhaps the perfect blend of both. It is hard to overstate how uniquely masterful this album is, and how important Mastodon is to the heavier end of music. They’ve created a long-form sequence of songs — not an incoherent gathering of random tracks, but a full cycle of pieces that can be enjoyed apart but together present even more of an impact — that shows that heavy metal can be both brutal and intelligent. In appropriately nerdy terms, most metal bands are content to be big, scary villains who long for the big heist, but Mastodon is more akin to Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom, brilliant and evil men who will settle for nothing less than dominion of the universe and the simultaneous utter destruction of all the heroes.

* * *

At City Stages in 2004, the Exhibit(s) opened up the local stage, and we were to be followed by Mastodon across the way at the Miller Lite stage. We decided to play our bluegrass-infected version of Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, on a lark, because we knew all the metalhead kids across the way would hate it. And most of them did, but I heard later that the guys in Mastodon thought it was a kick in the ass. Regardless of what they would have thought, though, I was really glad that I hung out for their set that day.

At the time, they were preparing for the release of the album that really put them in everyone’s attention: LEVIATHAN, a dense, unexpected beast of an album that was obviously inspired by Moby Dick. Even in the summer heat – and having played two sets earlier, I can vouch for how unpleasant playing in that sun was – they were unrelenting, ferocious, and hungry. There was a frenetic energy in the air that day that I’ve rarely experienced at concerts – this wasn’t just a job for these four, but something that they truly felt.

All of this makes me – and hopefully, you, too – extraordinarily anxious to see their upcoming show at the WorkPlay soundstage. This show kicks off their tour, which means that we’re the fortunate first to see them perform CRACK THE SKYE in its entirety. The band has promised, in recent interviews, that there will be a full stage show to accompany the performance, adding visuals to the already sense-intense brew.

While the music is heavy metal – perhaps too brutal or “noisy” for many of you – I cannot recommend this show enough, even sight-unseen. Mastodon is an awe-inspiring live experience, devoid of the by-the-numbers feeling you get from so many concerts these days, and their latest material is thought-provoking and also important to metal as a genre – not representing a pinnacle or be-all-end-all but rather an opening of doors, a challenge to other musicians to aspire to greater heights and fewer boundaries.

Mastodon is playing at WorkPlay on Friday, April 10, with openers Kylesa and Intronaut. Their latest album CRACK THE SKYE is available in local record stores and through iTunes now.