noise rock and your poor bleeding ears

last week I wrote about Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto, this weeks is on noise rock band Lightning Bolt – which I really don’t think is too dissimilar to Prok at all. Prok 2 at times has that same grotesque loudness as Lightning Bolt that makes both of them so fun and energizing to listen to.

 

Ride The Skies

 

noise rock’s appeal is easily lost on people – they hear the ripping, crunchy, raw abrasiveness of the music and peace out before really giving it a chance. “i don’t understand how anyone can possibly think this is good” is a common phrase I’ve heard from friends when I show them something like Lightning Bolt. but of course you’re not going to like the music at first! music takes work to like! the listening experience isn’t really something you can tune out – actually taking the time to listen closely for nuance, lyricism, layering of the track, etc is how to begin to like music you usually wouldn’t like before. radio pop being manufactured for listenability is a science they’ve got perfected – it’s music you don’t have to work for and music people can like right away. whether or not this makes them bad is debatable, but I really don’t think it does.

back to Lightning Bolt – these guys are nutty. this shit is over-the-top cocaine-hit hyperactivity where a drum beat is battered into your skull. the bass guitar is incredibly crunchy and distorted; the drumming sounds like a rabid animal was let loose. mix these together with a 300BPM track, repetitive yet energetic bass melody, and you’ve got an eardrum-blasting ADHD rock banger. it’s also great at the gym. this is music that hypes you up – it’s got a kind of primitive allure where you just can’t help but let go of social nuance and the facades of daily life and just really candidly jam to loud disorderly shit. this “primitive allure” is completely unpretentious and raw; it draws on that same aspect of smashing office supplies with a sledgehammer. and in the middle of our structured, university-bound lives, we need some of that release from time to time. 13 Monsters is my favorite track from Lightning Bolt. it’s rhythmic as hell, the bass guitar absolutely shreds through the air with crackly stentorian timbre and commands the soundscape along with our monstrous energy from Dave Chippendale. there’s not really much else I have to say about this album besides that it’s some fun stuff.

 

Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto: Dissonant Lyricism (and other meanderings on concertos)

*** To any music majors out there: please don’t crucify me for my lack of higher-level music training. I’m just a casual listener who really likes these pieces.

 

I’ve always loved the concerto format – it’s virtuosic, fun to listen to, and showcases many of my favorite melodies of all time. Some are certainly easier listens (Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak) than others (Sibelius, Bartok), but they’re all gorgeous in one way or another. The Sibelius Violin Concerto is icy cold but punctuated by intensely lush violin solos that epitomize the instrument’s capability of conveying passion.

 

Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and 3rd piano concertos are masterworks of virtuosity (the 3rd pretty much becoming the stereotyped “hard piano piece” – well, that and Fantasie Impromptu/Moonlight Sonata’s 3rd Mvt) and of course, are romantic as hell. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is a lot of impressionist fun in the first movement, and becomes very quiet and thoughtful in the second, with a flowing melody that Ravel has said to have “almost killed him!” while writing it. Dvorak’s Cello Concerto is pretty much the cello piece (besides Bach’s cello suite) for aspiring cellists – it’s deeply rich and incredibly soulful. There’s a ton to say about pretty much every concerto, but one has really stuck out to me in the last few years that I’ve been listening to it: Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto. My favorite concerto has been almost every piece on my list down below at some point, but I just keep returning to this criminally underrated piano work.

 

(You’ll have to check out the album on a Spotify account if you’d like to give it a listen)

Of the two groups of “easy to listen to” vs “more difficult listen,” Prok. 2 definitely falls in the latter. During its first debut, many listeners were said to have simply got up and left. A few even thought that “the cats on the roof make better music!” In our modern times, atonality and modernist pieces are probably taken a lot better by the ear, with experimentation in music having progressed as far as it has. After multiple listens, it becomes easier and easier to pick out what I call the “dissonant lyricism” of the concerto; the melody starts to unfold out of Prokofiev’s haze of seemingly random notes and chromaticism, and bits and pieces of a very brilliant, romantic tune makes itself apparent.

Prok. 2 is a gargantuan piece – in the first movement, a five minute, extremely difficult cadenza in the latter half of the concerto highlights a pretty dark and impenetrable fog of gliding chromaticism and huge chord leaps. In the recording, it’s not until 8:13 that the “lyrical” melody really becomes obvious; the left hand’s heavy chords work with the right hand’s endless arpeggiating to dictate an epic tune that’s been said to describe “implacable fate.” All of this climaxes to a colossal peak, where the rest of the orchestra return to blare an incredible melody that sounds absolutely apocalyptic; the end of the world is here and stars are colliding; fate’s destructive end is at last being enacted.

The 4th movement also showcases the “dissonant lyricism” that the 1st contains. Although we begin with a frenetic string passage, all of it dies down into a quietude at 1:51 that sets up our “fantasy” passage. Personally, I think this short passage starting from 1:51 is the most beautiful melody of the whole piece, and one of my favorites ever. The cellos are bare and enigmatic, providing the setting for our story to unfold: it’s a frozen Russian winter, bleak and bare from the hardships of life. The soft, minimalist piano introduces us to our lonely main character, trudging through this barren landscape – this story is going to be deeply unhappy. Our piano continues with a mysterious, uneven rhythm, before the horns finally join to begin the rising action. Here, our character’s emotions build and build until it finally reaches a fever point at 4:05 – a very raw outburst shows the humanity behind all the dissonance, and similarly exposes the humanity behind our tired and beaten character. This point is what I consider to be the pinnacle of our lyricism, the romantic core of the entire piece.

(Side note: Just listen to how gorgeous 3:42’s right hand piano section is! Our continually driving right hand is finally resolved by a simple F major scale. Yuja Wang’s rendition is very gentle in these small details.)

Definitely give it a listen!

 

*Forgive my lack of love for the classics Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt… I’m working on branching out! I’d love to hear about your personal favorites in Classical.

A list of personal favorites:

  1. Prokofiev’s 2nd for Piano
  2. Rachmaninoff’s 3rd for Piano
  3. Prokofiev’s 3rd for Piano
  4. Ravel’s in G for Piano
  5. Dvorak’s Cello Concerto

and others unranked but also loved:

  1. Elgar’s for Cello
  2. Dvorak’s for Cello
  3. Moszkowski’s in E for Piano (also underrated!)
  4. Tchaikovsky’s 1st for Piano
  5. Sibelius for Violin
  6. Tchaikovsky’s in D for Violin
  7. Rachmaninoff’s 2nd for Piano
  8. Grieg’s in G for Piano
  9. Chopin’s 2nd for Piano
  10. Chopin’s 1st for Piano
  11. Paderewski’s Piano Concerto

Captain America is Barely a Character – On the Importance of Fallibility

I’ve never liked superhero movies. Regardless, I promised to watch Captain America: The First Avenger with my friend to see if it would change my mind. Unfortunately, it did not.

Image result for captain america the first avenger

Young Steve Rogers is scrawny, thin, and short, but it’s his heart of gold that makes him stand out among the rest. As a “man,” the movie makes sure to highlight that he falls short in all of the stereotypical traits – he’s weak, bad at talking to women, and constantly stands about 4 inches shorter than the rest of the men. His dream is to be able to fight in the war to support his nation, but it’s his poorly-dealt hand of his array of genetic problems that’s holding him back. Regardless, the movie goes to show that it’s his endless dedication and his ability to get back up and try again that defines true masculinity and bravery. Rogers doesn’t have the physical strength to be a soldier, but he’s got the brains, the willpower, and that heart of gold that makes him a true hero.

And that’s pretty much the worst thing about him. Captain America, as a character, is utterly perfect – even BEFORE he becomes “Captain America.” CA has no moral flaws presented in this movie; he’s a Mary Sue (which is ironic, given that the movie states on multiple occasions that he should remain his “imperfect self,” but gives no imperfections to dwell on anyways). Presented to the audience, he’s an underdog, someone constantly underestimated and stepped on in society. But that’s a problem not inherent within his character, but one inherent in society itself. Rogers doesn’t need to learn anything in this movie to become a better human being because he’s already the equivalent of a saint. He’s virtuous, endlessly determined, and courageous. The only real issue that Rogers is put through is his scrawniness and his ineligibility to fight for his nation, which, of course, is promptly taken away with a few roids and some bright flashy lights. This is the second worst thing about this movie – the fact that Captain America’s last remaining flaw in physicality is absolved through absolutely no tribulation of his own. Now he’s just become a saint with ripping abs and a razor-edge jawline.

A good counterpoint is Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko, at the beginning of his journey, is deeply indoctrinated with the toxic mindset of his uncaring father. Being so young, Zuko’s identity latches on to what he’s grown up with, and genuinely believes in the aggressive, warlike nature of his environment. Through a bit of help from Uncle Iroh, Zuko eventually undergoes immense change of heart and realizes that his identity is his own to dictate, and chooses to become a virtuous man. However, it’s through great tribulation and failure before Zuko is able to enact his change, which the show communicates through stories like his vignettes in the Earth Kingdom, the manipulation by his psychotic sister, and of course, his ultimatum with Uncle Iroh in Ba Sing Se.

Zuko is likely one of the most well-written characters ever. His change comes realistically and is constantly explored with the golden rule in mind – show, don’t tell. This is how compelling, human characters are created, through purposeful flaws. Captain America, on the other hand, feels like he’s barely even human, and is more of America’s cliched icon of bravery and what it means to be a hero. But if being a hero means not having to work at all to overcome your weaknesses, then what kind of motivational story are we trying to tell? Frankly, if the meaning of the movie is to not underestimate the little guys, why does Captain America need to become a super soldier in order to prove it? Captain America, after becoming jacked, effortlessly dispatches hordes of evil men all throughout the movie. He’s smarter, taller, hotter, and more moral than everyone else. The only hardship he endures is in the “death” of his best friend, Bucky. The movie shows Captain America struck with guilt about “causing” his death. However, his “fault” is immediately exonerated by our other Mary Sue, Peggy, and the plot chugs on, with nobody learning anything. This is more a fault of the movie’s writing than a flaw in Captain America’s conception as a whole – his friendship with Bucky just isn’t developed well in the first half.

Perhaps Captain America’s story wasn’t meant to be centered on Captain America in the first place, because there’s really no story left to be told about this man. He was already born perfect. And that’s just not interesting.

The Wackiest Man Alive, and Articulating his Lessons

Nardwuar is a special man in the music world – a prolific interviewer known for his eccentric, extremely dedicated character who goes to incredible lengths to make his interviewee sound interesting. His interviews are backed by ridiculous amounts of effort and research, all in the pursuit of making his interviewee’s experience more substantive and the viewer’s experience more fun.

Nardwuar gave a TEDx in 2011 talking about his journey as a small journalist, and how he managed to snag big-name interviews with Jay Z and extract famous quotes from the Prime Minister of Canada. It’s by far the most interesting and entertaining TED Talk I’ve seen in my life, and also the most oddly inspiring. After having watched his conference, I am genuinely convinced that Nardwuar might just be the most goofily charismatic man ever.

 

 

The lessons that Nardwuar advocates aren’t entirely obvious, partially because of how his eccentricity usually takes center-stage in his stories, and partially because he doesn’t explicitly preach the benefits of his strange journalistic methods and allows the viewer to derive inspiration from his stories on his or her own.

The main theme of his talk, however, is clearly and consistently reiterated: to ASK. Nardwuar, incredibly, has managed to build his career up entirely from “doing it himself” – or, from ASKING others. Nardwuar, conventionally, shouldn’t be one of the most famous interviewers on the planet; he started out just as another random music enthusiast hosting a small radio station in Vancouver. Yet, he’s able to get big interviews with important people just simply by asking them, or by going through some roundabout method to contact them. Here, Nardwuar elucidates the power of putting in the backbone to truly try hard to get what you want, and how more often than not, people are willing to help you. This belief in others’ willingness to help is an optimism essential to the confidence needed to succeed, and the motivation that catalyzes both career and personal growth. Being able to believe in the openness of others, and applying genuine effort to show them why you deserve a chance, is an incredible life lesson that Nardwuar reinforces over and over in his stories to communicate why anyone with even seemingly improbable goals should at least proudly and confidently ask.

Closely tied with his lesson of asking is his willingness to look foolish. The “School of Life” Youtube channel advocates a similar piece of advice in one of their videos – “The fastest route to confidence is to stop being so attached to one’s dignity and seriousness; and plainly admit that one is – of course – an idiot. We all are.” Nardwuar takes this phrase to heart and dials it up to 11 – he’s a 50-year-old man who dresses in excessive plaid and bright yellow and red suits and gets important, high-ranking politicians to play the “hip-flip” game, a plastic children’s toy that involves flipping a cup over using your hip. Nardwuar’s interviewer character is a persona, but it’s one that involves endless confidence and the ability to make every interaction as entertaining and interesting as possible. It’s Nardwuar’s infectious enthusiasm and jauntiness that makes him so likable, and why interviewees are so consistently impressed and similarly willing to let their guard down for more personal questions.

Finally, Nardwuar’s ultimate career advice is excessive preparation. Having the gusto to ask is but the first step; excessive, almost absurd levels of preparation is how to more closely guarantee success. Nardwuar is renowned for his deep-dives into the lives of his interviewees, digging up old childhood secrets and facts from close personal friends that seem almost stalker-like in quality. Nardwuar’s excessive preparation earns him respect, because it defines the effort and hard work that he’s willing to go to to make his interviews truly interesting and worth watching. It’s this ridiculous level of preparation that means he ends the semester with an A+, an IA position, and a better appreciation for the subject, rather than stagnating to meet bare minimums. Excessiveness is the work-ethic quality of his that creates exceptional work and allows him to be one of the most interesting interviewers alive.

Nardwuar’s TEDx is absurd, hilarious, and just really weird as a whole, but there’s this amazingly infectious and inspirational quality to his work. He’s tirelessly optimistic and puts in endless effort to build his career. He’s a man utterly nonjudgmental, one who’s never afraid to ask, even at the risk of looking like a fool. In a time when social media enables narcissism and a too-serious demeanor on life, maybe we could all take a page from Nardwuar.

Emotional Vulnerability in The Glow Pt. 2

“There’s no black or white, no change in the light
No night, no golden sun
The sound of cars, the smell of bars
The awful feeling of electric heat
Under fluorescent lights, there’s sacrifice
There’s hard feelings, there’s pointless waste”

– “I Want Wind to Blow”

 

There are few albums that capture the complexity of human emotion as expertly and accurately as The Glow Pt. 2. To me, this is one of the primary benchmarks that help differentiate between good music and bad music – the ability to express nuance and realism in emulating the feelings of human beings. It’s really not that “pop music is bad these days because all they talk about is drugs sex partying and money” but more so that it often lacks the authenticity of the human experience and forefronts a catchy beat or hook as the music, which, if your instrumental isn’t interesting or meaningful, is really a quite basic take on things – it’s just earworm fodder to please the brain. Of course, these songs are serving its purpose of a catchy dance tune, but I wouldn’t confuse them for being “great music.” That being said, a lot of popular music is fantastic and does capture human emotion well, is interesting sonically and lyrically, and are generally authentic and believable in the way they do so. The Glow Pt. 2 also manages to conceive these aspects.

The Glow Pt. 2 is upsetting. Its content is wistful and deeply unhappy. It’s not easy to grasp the genius of the album on first listen; it seems that the tracks are a tangle of confusing and harsh sounds, but also include some genuinely lively and pleasant melodies. It might seem a bit random, with the sudden introduction of the crushing, grating sound at the end of the first track, or the transition from gentle guitar strum into heavy noise rock. What’s going on? The lyrics lend a helping hand to picking apart these confusing sonic choices.

“I Want Wind to Blow” starts the album off with some very solemn imagery – it’s the lonely period of time after loss, the long, helpless phase of emptiness that comes after all the anger and turmoil has been kicked out of you, when “the thunderclouds have broken up, the rain dried up, the lightning let up.” The guitars strum back and forth, playing a very earnest and candid theme, while Phil Elverum’s raw vocal quality describes the despondency he finds himself in. Then, halfway through the track, our guitars switch over to a gorgeous folk tune that’s shaded with nostalgia, and it seems like our narrator is reminiscing over all the beautiful times he’s had in his previous relationship, over the glow of his happy past, and the lightheartedness of life. He communicates all this without speaking a word, letting the pleasant guitar tune carry us with his sweet memories… until a crashing, tumultuous cacophony explodes into the soundscape, and exposes us to the true turmoil and aching sadness of the narrator’s present. It’s here that we know our singer is broken, empty from mourning, and hopeless – he can only wish for the wind to blow, for anything to help knock him out of his endless nadir.

The tracks that follow delve deeper into this very depressing theme, and they’re all similarly contemplative and complex. It’s an album I would highly recommend listening to multiple times, and one utterly expressive of the depths of heartache and being alone.

Favorite Track: The Moon

Stand-Outs: I Want Wind to Blow, The Glow Pt. 2, The Moon, Map, You’ll Be in the Air, I Felt My Size, Samurai Sword

Deltarune – a lively, charming demo from Toby Fox

Deltarune unexpectedly came out a month ago, and having really really enjoyed it, I wanted to give my thoughts. Deltarune is the first chapter of the successor to Undertale (although not technically a sequel nor prequel), an indie game that blew up in 2015. I’d highly recommend playing both (Deltarune is free!) and not reading the rest of this post if you haven’t, as even knowing a little bit about these games drastically harms the experience. They are incredibly strong narrative-focused games that have a surprising amount of depth and an immaculate attention to detail. Mild spoilers ahead duh.

Image result for deltarune
https://www.deltarune.com/ Link to install

 

If Undertale wasn’t evidence enough, Deltarune pretty much confirms my conviction that yeah, Toby Fox is a genius. It’s really incredible how talented Fox is in so many different aspects – the narratives of his games are excellently written, Undertale with a strong focus on the themes of resolve, pacifism, and choice, or in Deltarune’s case, the opposite; the characters are charming, each flawed in some significant manner, but are all likable and sympathetic; the soundtracks are top-notch, stupidly catchy and add a ton to the atmosphere; the humor is consistently quirky and interesting, and really helps in making the characters in the world feel like more than just 2-dimensional cardboard cutouts. All of it oozes with personality. And that’s really what seems to set these games apart – Deltarune in particular is a colorful, concise, and emotive experience that immediately draws the player in to caring about this crafted fantasy world and its characters. From the instant you step foot in the Fields of the Dark World, the vibrancy of its lavender grass and the flushed, scarlet trees, the small, humorous details littered all across the area, coupled with an absolute banger of a soundtrack, evokes this very strong feeling of going on some wondrous, childlike adventure – it’s kind of like the feeling of being whisked away in Disney World, where you just can’t help but smile as the costumes and the bright lights and attractions all take you back to simpler days.

 

 

I might as well take the time here to talk about the soundtrack. It’s superb. Better than Undertale’s. “Fields of Hopes and Dreams” is a delightfully upbeat track that sounds exactly like its title – a glittery piano melody joyfully dances away into an innocent sounding higher register passage that encapsulates the feelings of having so many great hopes and dreams for the future; an infectious optimism that communicates a lot of love for being alive. The next section sees a more sultry, saxophone-like synth take hold of the melody, and just adds a lot of smoothness to our already bubbly, playful song. This was my favorite new track. A very close second of mine is “Scarlet Forest,” which is a bit more mature, and doesn’t have that ring of 8-bit video game sound that Undertale was known for. IMO, Toby Fox should do even more like “Scarlet Forest” – the strings and flute are a welcome addition to the instrumental cast of the game and build a very lively atmosphere to the Forest setting.

I’ve heard Deltarune called “the most Tumblr thing they’ve ever played,” while which is perhaps an accurate observation (and is considered a pretty awful pejorative), takes a bit of concerted cynicism towards the game’s writing and design that I think is unreasonably pessimistic; it’s easy to call out the narrative as cheesily progressive à la Tumblr, but in doing so, you might neglect a lot of the genuine fun and personality that Toby Fox packs into the experience. Undertale and Deltarune (and art as a whole) should be enjoyed without having a pretext for disliking them due to the rabid fanbase or because of the negative echo chamber that comes from anything that generates too much hype, and I just think it’s a terrible shame to let these externalities influence the public perception of what’s on its own an incredibly earnest story of compassion for others.

According to Toby Fox, it might be quite a few years before the rest of Deltarune comes out, which is disappointing, but given how long he’s been working on this project and just how quality it is, it’s some time I’m willing to wait. I thought that Deltarune was a pretty strict upgrade from Undertale, with better music, an improved battle system (graze to generate TP is a great idea taken from the Touhou Project), and more likable characters (which I had wanted to dedicate a paragraph to, but this post is already waaay too long). Playing the demo, I found myself often smiling and laughing at just how fun the whole game is, and I really hope that as many people who enjoyed Undertale will enjoy Deltarune. Toby Fox deserves it.