2019: the year in movies

I think I said in my music post I wasn’t going to do one of these this year, but I had to look up some movies for something else, so why not!

jokerI only saw four first-run movies in a theater in 2019, and here they are in order of favorites:

  1. Joker
  2. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  3. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
  4. Men in Black: International

Joker was a dark, funny, thrilling, horrifying, dramatic movie and I really dug it. Men in Black: International sucked and I found it to be a waste of time and money. The Star Wars and Godzilla franchise entries had good and bad aspects to them but were overall enjoyable.

I saw some other new movies that came out in 2019, but went to streaming services quickly. Here they are in order of favorites:

  1. The Highwaymen (tie for 1st)
  2. Dolemite Is My Name (tie for 1st)
  3. The Report
  4. Captain Marvel
  5. The Irishman
  6. 6 Underground

The Highwaymen and Dolemite Is My Name are both comeback movies of a sort. Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson star in Highwaymen as two of the police officers who take down Bonnie and Clyde. It was a well-made movie, a good story (even though you know how it ends) and just excellent all around. Costner is best when he’s not trying too hard, and Harrelson was a great foil for Costner’s character.

Dolemite is Eddie Murphy’s return to form, and he’s a far better dramatic actor than I think anybody gives him credit for. I had never really heard of Rudy Ray Moore before this film, and I really dug it.

I did not enjoy The Irishman, though it was a well-made movie. The de-aging effects they used on Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino were fantastic and hardly looked like effects at all.  The story was boring, the acting was great.  It was gratifying to experience the end of what one of my smart friends called Scorcese’s “mob-adjacent trilogy” – this film plus Goodfellas and Casino.

6 Underground was a typical Michael Bay movie. If you like his movies, you’ll like this one. The story is thin, but the action and explosions are amazing. The opening car chase is a lot of fun, and I watched the movie only because Ryan Reynolds is in it (playing, naturally, Ryan Reynolds), as is Melanie Laurent, who I first encountered in Now You See Me, which is a capable and fun caper movie in which she plays an Interpol officer.

There were a lot of new movies I wanted to see in theaters, but ultimately didn’t pony up the time or cash. They include Shazam!, Booksmart, Yesterday, Hobbs & Shaw, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ad Astra, Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, Terminator: Dark Fate, Ford v Ferrari, Uncut Gems, 1917, Tall Girl, John Wick 3, Late Night, Midsommar, Shaft, Rambo: Last Blood, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I figure I saved myself close to $350 by not going to the movies too often this year. I’m sure I’ll be able to catch most of them on a streaming service before too long.

As for 2020, we know about a lot of movies that will be coming out next year. Here’s the ones I think I’d like to see, just based on previews and descriptions: Bad Boys for Life, Birds of Prey, No Time To Die, Black Widow, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Greyhound, Wonder Woman 1984, Top Gun: Maverick, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Bob’s Burgers, Jungle Cruise, Bill & Ted Face the Music, Death on the Nile, Ron’s Gone Wrong, Red Notice, Godzilla vs. Kong, Coming 2 America, and Dune.

If I only go see four like I did in 2019, it will likely be No Time To Die (I’m a sucker for James Bond), Greyhound (WW2 naval combat with Tom Hanks? no-brainer), Ghostbusters: Afterlife (it looks awesome from the preview), and Bill & Ted Face the Music because, DUH! Bill & Ted!! Plus also Dune and probably Godzilla vs. Kong, so put me down for six theater movies in 2020. I keep up with my local $5 theater’s listings too, so there’s a good chance I’ll see more theater movies in 2020 than just those, but maybe some slightly older ones.

Enjoy your 2020 in the dark!

2019: The Year in Music

Well folks, it’s about that time again.

2019 kinda sucked music-wise. Yeah, I said it. The whole year I only got 10 new CDs. Compare this to periods in my life when I was bringing home 10 new CDs a month, or even a week. Crazy. I guess I’m just set in my ways.

The lack of new music in my life makes choosing the top albums super easy, though.

1. Dream Theater – Distance Over Time: I stumbled across a three-part documentary on how Dream Theater found their new drummer, Mike Mangini, after they booted Mike Portnoy (or he quit, it depends on who tells the story). I’ve been a Mike Mangini fan for a long time, so I was pretty excited when I found out he was DT’s new drummer. He was in Extreme for a hot minute during the Waiting for the Punchline era, but I mostly knew him from his stint in Steve Vai’s band, which encompassed two albums (Fire Garden and The Ultra Zone) and a couple of tours. He’s a fantastic drummer and frankly the perfect addition to Dream Theater.

Oh right – Distance Over Time. If you like DT, you’ll love this album. If you hate DT, nothing I say is going to change your mind. Best songs on the album are “Untethered Angel,” “Room 137” and “Pale Blue Dot.”

2. Galactic Cowboys – Long Way Back to the Moon: I had no idea GC put out a new album in 2017, so I kind of freaked out when I found out they did just that. It’s a great album, I love it, and it sounds a lot like their first two albums, Galactic Cowboys and Space in Your Face – mostly because they got their original guitarist back. This is fun, crunchy heavy metal that doesn’t really let up and is enjoyable from beginning to end. Standout tracks include “Zombies,” “Drama” and “Believing the Hype” as well as the title track.

3. I picked up two Wes Montgomery albums to expose myself to classic jazz guitar – Full House (which is fantastic) and Smokin’ at the Half Note (which has an annoying narrator poking in several times for some reason). The guy is a jazz legend for a reason.

4. I got Queen’s Queen on Air two-CD package because duh, Queen! I already had about a third of the material and had heard most of the rest, so it was mostly a case of completing the collection. The ultra standout track is the fast/live version of “We Will Rock You.”

5. The Jelly Jam – Profit: TJJ is a side project of Ty Tabor (guitar & vocals/King’s X), John Myung (bass/Dream Theater) and Rod Morgenstein (drums/Dixie Dregs & Winger) – put out an album called Profit. Like DT, if you already like progressive hard rock/metal, you’ll dig it. It’s more mature than their previous albums, but it’s not better than them. IMO TJJ peaked with their second album.

6. The Quill – Born From Fire: Here’s a Swedish heavy metal band I’ve mentioned before. Their last album, Tiger Blood, wasn’t great. This album is better than that one, almost as good as their best album, In Triumph. The lead track, “Stone Believer,” sounds like a cross between Led Zeppelin and The Cult. Cool track.

7. Roger Taylor – Fun in Space: I went on a Roger Taylor kick this year and listened to all his albums, including the stuff he did with The Cross. Discovered I didn’t have this album, so I needed to take care of that. It’s good. It’s not great. It’s not Queen.

8. Jason Kui – Absence of Words: Somebody told me about this heavy metal/hard rock instrumental album, so I picked it up. Worth the money. He’s no Steve Vai (super progressive & often weird) or Joe Satriani (melodic & accessible), but he’s pretty good. A fun album.

That’s it. I don’t even have a full top 10 for you this year because the last album I got – Larkin Poe’s Venom & Faith – is still in the shrink wrap. I passed on over a dozen albums I probably should have gotten, including two Weezer albums (I just can’t with them any more) and albums from Rival Sons, Queensryche, Megadeth, Sammy Hagar, Baroness, The Black Keys, Tool, KXM and Prong.

Yeah, I still haven’t heard Tool’s first album in a decade, or however long it was. I’m just not sure I give a shit about Tool any more.

As far as what I listened to the most, here’s that list:

20. Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (down from #5 in 2018)
19. Wes Montgomery – Smokin’ at the Half Note
18. Scale the Summit – The Migration (instrumental prog metal)
17. Nobuki Takamen – The Nobuki Takamen Trio (live guitar-led jazz)
16. Ghost – Popestar (down from #3 in 2018)
15. Josh Fix – Free at Last
14. Booker T & the MGs – The Definitive Soul Collection
13. Black Label Society – Stronger Than Death (down from #4 in 2018)
12. George Thorogood – Baddest Hits
11. Pink Floyd – Animals (absent in 2018, top 10 in previous years)
10. Dead Can Dance – The Serpent’s Egg (up from #14 in 2018)
9. AC/DC – For Those About to Rock (up from #11 in 2018)
8. Sly & the Family Stone – Greatest Hits
7. Black Label Society – Grimmest Hits (not a greatest hits collection)
6. Gojira – From Mars to Sirius (down from #1 in 2018)
5. Galactic Cowboys – Long Way Back to the Moon
4. Muse – Simulation Theory
3. Dream Theater – Distance Over Time
2. John Williams – The Baroque Album (classical guitar)
1. Wes Montgomery – Full House

why taylor swift is re-recording her first six albums

I have to admit I don’t pay the most attention to Taylor Swift. I’ve never cared for her music, even when it was country-ish. Now that it’s pop-ish, I like it even less. I always respected her for having a hand in writing many of her songs, though, because it means she’s not just some pretty little singer, belting out whatever her producers tell her to so they can all make money.

No, she makes her money the old-fashioned way – writing songs, making albums, touring, etc. Like a real musician.

taylor-swift

Earlier this summer, a man called Scooter Braun bought Big Machine Records, the home of Swift’s first six albums. She was not happy about that deal, because it gave Braun control over the majority of her back catalog and a huge number of her hits.

The Braun deal for Big Machine pissed Swift off, not just because Big Machine offered her an insulting deal if she re-signed with them that would have allowed her to recover her first six albums’ masters one at a time as she recorded new albums for Big Machine, but because Swift has accused of Braun of bullying, rude and even unethical actions towards her. Suffice it to say Swift is unhappy Braun is set to continue profiting off her work.

The solution? She’s going to re-record her first six albums for her new label, Universal Music Group. What happens after that is this:

  • UMG will issue new recordings of Swift’s greatest hits to radio stations across the country, and threaten to pull all UMG artists from the station unless they agree to only play the new versions.
  • UMG will only issue new licensing agreements to film and TV projects that agree to use the new versions.
  • Every re-recorded album release will be accompanied by much hue & cry in the marketing world, with UMG (and probably Swift, too) encouraging her fans to buy copies of the new albums, which will no doubt come with bonus material such as extra songs (previously unreleased demos, remixes, whatever) as incentive.

From there, UMG and Swift will be making more money off her re-recorded hits than Big Machine is off the original versions. UMG is bigger and more powerful than Big Machine could ever hope to be, and everybody will quickly fall in line behind UMG’s demands. Scooter Braun’s purchase of Big Machine will not end up being the windfall he thought it would be, and it will remain to be seen if he ever recoups the $320 million he spent on Swift’s former label.

Music is music, but music is also business. Crossing Swift in the music business world is probably not the smartest move anybody could make. She has enough influence in the music business that she was able to force UMG into agreeing to pay Spotify royalties to all its artists – not just her. Read that again. ALL OF THE ARTISTS ON UMG get Spotify royalties now thanks to Swift’s contract with UMG.

Swift is not the first and won’t be the last artist to re-record music after switching labels or booting key band members.  Styx did it, Suicidal Tendencies did it, Squeeze, Def Leppard, ELO (aka Jeff Lynne), Dave Mustaine (as MD.45), Ozzy Osbourne (with the specific intention of pushing out Bob Daisley & Lee Kerslake’s contributions so they wouldn’t get any more money from albums sales), and more. In the case of Styx and Squeeze, they re-recorded all their big hits, then forced radio stations to stop playing the original recordings in favor of the new ones.

Like I said – music is music, but music is also business.

4 tips to spot a phishing attempt in your email

Phishing is one of the most visible and easy ways for internet bad guys – referred to in the biz as “threat actors” – to separate you from your personally identifiable information, or PII.  PII is how a threat actor can compromise your business and personal accounts, steal money from you (by gaining access to your credit card(s) or bank account(s)) and even take over your identity – all in the name of fraud.

Phishing attempts – or attacks, if you will – use legitimate-looking email in the hopes that you’ll click on the link(s) in them. Once you do, you’re usually exposed to one of a small number of types of attacks (“threat vectors”).

One threat vector associated with phishing attacks is the installation of malicious software (malware) on your computer, either as an application that’s hidden from your view or as an extension in your browser. Either way, your computer now has what many people will refer to as a “virus,” but is in reality software designed to snoop on you and your activities, all the while looking for and collecting your PII. Vicious types of malware will even take over the operation of your computer, enabling threat actors to spread their malware in a way that looks like YOU are the problem!

Another – and frankly, far more common – threat vector from phishing attacks involves simply getting you to try logging in to what you think is a legitimate website. Take, for instance, PayPal, a web-based payment service used by millions of people around the world.  If you get an email that looks like it’s from PayPal, say, like this one I got just this morning…

Looks legit, doesn’t it?  Many people would just click on the “update your information” button and BOOM! YOU’RE COMPROMISED! Instead of insta-clicking on that button, though – or any other link in the email – stop and think.  Is what the content of the email realistic?

  • Do you even have a PayPal account?
  • Do you actively use it?
  • When is the last time you updated your information/profile/payment/address?
  • Have you ever received an email like this from any company before?
  • Will PayPall really restrict your account if you don’t respond within 72 hours? Have they EVER done that to ANYBODY you know before?

Now, before you click on that button (or link), there’s two other things you can check to see if you’re being phished or not.  First, the reply-to address.  If it’s something like “support @ paypal.com” then it just might be a legit email – but no guarantees.  Continue to be suspicious and investigate the email. If it’s nothing to do with PayPal at all, then be suspicious. In the case of the actual email I received (above), this was the return email address

Does that say PayPal? NO IT DOES NOT.  That’s a big-ass red flag right there. (Note: If all you see in your email program is usually “no-reply” and NOT the full email address, change that immediately in your email client preferences. If you use Apple’s Mail app, that process is Mail > Preferences > Viewing > UNCHECK Use Smart Addresses.)

In case the reply-to address checks out, you can check out a link before you actually click on it.  Mac and Windows computers both use “context menus” for many things; you may not know they’re called this, but I’m betting you know how to bring them up.  Hover your mouse pointer over the link (or button) and right-click on it.  If you don’t have a two-button mouse or a trackpad that understands the concept of right-clicking, hold down the “CTRL” (Control) button on your keyboard and then click the button. You should get a context menu, which (on my Mac) enables copying the link, as such:

Then paste the link into a text editor (TextEdit, WordPad, etc.) and see if it looks legit.

Well that certainly doesn’t look like a PayPal address!

Here’s some alarming information about phishing that may wake you up a little.

  • 1 in 12.5 million spam emails generates a successful phishing attack
  • 14 billion spam emails are sent every day
  • 76% of US businesses suffered phishing attacks in 2017
  • The average email account receives 16 malicious emails a month
  • Over 92% of malware is delivered via email
  • The most common phishing attacks are emails disguised as invoices (bills), delivery failure notices, law enforcement actions, and package delivery notices
  • The FBI says phishing attacks and other email-based scams cost US businesses over $676 million in 2017

By taking just a few moments before clicking on the link in that legitimate-looking email, you can save yourself from a whole lot of trouble. Be Smart: Shop S-Mart… and also protect yourself from phishing attacks!

2018: the year in music

It’s once again the time of year when I talk about the new music I’ve discovered or new albums that captured my attention (and my money). Yes, I am still that guy that buys CDs, and I don’t apologize for it. I probably listen to music on my computer or phone 95 percent of the time; CDs only get played in the car, and even then I might use my phone to listen to podcasts or something like that when I’m driving.

Let’s cut right to it then. I bought 20 CDs in 2018, probably a record low of some sort. Thirteen of them would be considered metal of some sort. There was also four EPs (short albums of 3-7 songs), including two from friends’ bands. One of the EPs was surf music, one album was pop-tinged classic-style rock, there were two jazz guitar albums in there and one bluegrass/folk/Americana album. Two CDs were from all-female bands, and one from a female-fronted band.

BEST NEW ALBUMS OF 2018

Ghost_-_Prequelle_(album)1. GHOST – PREQUELLE. It’s not even fair this year. Ghost’s new album is fantastic, everything you expect from the shock-metal band plus a bitchin’ saxophone solo in a killer instrumental track. Releasing “Rats” as a single ahead of the album’s release was a brilliant marketing move. I rounded out the year in a fashion by going to see Ghost perform at a large theater in downtown Richmond. I enjoyed the show greatly, but at some level it was about the spectacle, because there wasn’t a lot in the live show that I haven’t heard already by listening to the other Ghost album I got in 2018, Ceremony & Devotion, a two-CD live album. That album was a little disappointing because it was mostly like listening to the album versions of the songs with a little banter between them. Still, Prequelle – best album of 2018. There’s no standout tracks, it’s a fantastic album front to back. (It’s OK if you skip the opening instrumental intro though – I do!)

2. MUSE – SIMULATION THEORY. This is probably the least metal album of Muse’s catalog. It’s almost like they set out to write a soundtrack album for a John Carpenter movie. Tons of electronic music, but Muse totally makes it work. What guitar is on the album is on point, and the bass and drums are thumpy and strong throughout. Muse’s music tends to be super dramatic, and Simulation Theory is no exception. An excellent listen.

3. UNCLE ACID AND THE DEADBEATS – WASTELAND. Their last album (The Night Creeper) disappointed me a bit, mostly because it wasn’t as awesome as Mind Control. Wasteland is about 95 percent as good as Mind Control. From my perspective, Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats are back with their most Sabbath-y sounding album yet, plus great production and good sounds all around. Call it post Sabbath, and yes, it’s that good.

4. STRYPER – GOD DAMN EVIL. This is Stryper doing what they do and doing it well. Twin guitars, great solos, soaring vocals, and everything you expect from middle-aged Christian metal maniacs. They’re kind of the anti-Ghost in every way if you know what I mean.

5. NOBUKI TAKAMEN – THE NOBUKI TAKAMEN TRIO. If you dig jazz guitar in the trio format (guitar, bass, drums), then you must get this album immediately.

THE REST

BLACK LABEL SOCIETY – GRIMMEST HITS. You gotta like BLS to like this album, but if you like BLS, you’ll love this album. It brings exactly what you expect from Zakk Wylde at this point, so if that’s what you dig, there’s no way you’ll be disappointed. Oh – by the way – it’s not a greatest hits compilation. It’s all new music!

SLEEP – THE SCIENCES. This album made a number of “best of 2018” lists, so I figured I better get it. It’s OK. I’m no overvwhelmed. It’s good, Sabbath-y sludge metal and they have a song called “Giza Butler” that mentions the gom jabbar, so I’m in. Still, I don’t know why it topped one of the best of 2018 lists – it’s good, but it’s not amazing.

I’M WITH HER – SEE YOU AROUND. I got this album because Sarah Jarosz plays on it and I think her music is amazing. I never heard of Sara Watkins or Aoife O’Donovan, but apparently they make I’m With Her some kind of bluegrass/folk/Americana supergroup. If you like any of those styles of music, you’ll dig this album.

7TH GRADE GIRL FIGHT – JUMP BACK/SUMMER IS OVER. Fun, engaging pop rock from Debra Guy, who I used to play with in Honeychuck. These two EPs came out less than three months apart, both in 2018, and you should get them. Check them out at 7thgradegirlfight.bandcamp.com.

MINOR 56 – MINOR 56. Dude. Atmospheric and psychedelic and weird and worth listening to on those days when you need a break from all the craziness going on around you. Check them out at minor56.com.

OK now, that’s it for the albums that came out during 2018 – but you know I got some albums that came out in previous years. Let’s get into those.

BEST ALBUMS I DISCOVERED IN 2018

Black_Sabbath_Heaven_and_Hell1. BLACK SABBATH – HEAVEN AND HELL/MOB RULES (1980/81). I have no idea why I didn’t listen to these albums until this year, but shame on me. “The Mob Rules” is hands down my favorite Black Sabbath song of all time, and all things considered it’s maybe the best song from this pair of Dio-led albums, but “Heaven and Hell” and “Neon Knights” sure give it a run for its money. I know there’s a lot of controversy around calling these Black Sabbath albums, and that’s probably why the boys called their touring band Heaven and Hell during the 1990s and beyond, but with the music behind Dio being classic Black Sabbath, I have no problem calling these Sabbath albums. They’re brilliant.

2. GOJIRA – L’ENFANT SAUVAGE (2012). L’ES doesn’t replace From Mars to Sirius as my favorite Gojira album, but DAMN it’s good. For a band I didn’t listen to until 2017, Gojira has quickly become one of my all-time favorite metal bands – even without guitar solos.

3. LIVING COLOUR – SHADE (2017). After reading something about Vernon Reid, I ended up on the Wikipedia page for Living Colour and discovered they put an album out last year! AND IT IS GOOOOOOOOD! It reminds me a lot of their 1993 album Stain, and I like that album a lot. Shade is heavy and melodic and angry and passionate and beautiful.

4. TEAMSTER – S/T (2015) + “Litany of Strength” (2018 single). Teamster’s drummer Sean Saley helped me and Steve Bowes out when we were working on demoing out the songs that would someday become the epic rock opera called FANTOMÉ. He played with Pentagram, then The Skull, but Teamster remained his hometown (DC) hardcore project. Their 2015 EP is well worth your hard-earned dollars. It’s a fantastic blend of punk and metal, with tight, aggressive playing and crisply written songs. “Litany of Strength” is a song they put out late this year, and it’s better than the stuff on the S/T EP. Check them out at teamster.bandcamp.com.

5. AJ GHENT – THE NEO BLUES PROJECT (2017). AJ played at the MOA rally in Iowa back in July and wow, what a great band. His EP is rock, blues, funk, soul and everything in between plus some great slide guitar playing.

THE REST

L.E.O. – ALPACAS ORGLING (2006). If you love ELO, you’ll likely dig this album. I got it because it features Andy Sturmer, former drummer/lead singer for Jellyfish, one of my favorite bands. I’ll tell you this, though – you gotta love ELO to dig this album.

TONY MACALPINE – MAXIMUM SECURITY (1994). An instrumental rock/metal album from way back. I was talking about it with a friend, and Tony had been in Steve Vai’s band for a while playing keyboard and guitar, so I wanted to check out this album I used to have on vinyl way back in the day. It’s not as good as I remember it, but it’s fun, classical-tinged instrumental stuff.

REINHARDT & STETLER – LIVE IN DER STADKIRCHE (2016). Dual acoustic guitar jazz. If that floats your boat (it does mine) then you definitely need this album.

RUSSIAN CIRCLES – EMPROS (2011). Instrumental metal – not quite progressive, but close. Really good, lots of fun, lots of texture and layers to it. Well worth checking out one of their albums to see if you dig their style of music. I think they’re from Texas, though, not Russia.

SMALL TOWN TITANS – THE HYBRID SESSIONS (2017) (EP). I got this because of their fantastic rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It’s the best version of that song I have ever heard. No contest. The rest of the EP is OK. Not great, not terrible. It’s well recorded and the singer has a great voice, but beyond that it’s fairly standard hard rock.

THE SURFRAJETTES – THE SURFRAJETTES (2017) + “Party Line/Toxic” (2018 single). All-female surf band. Good surf music, catchy and poppy and fun. Five songs of joy right here. surfrajettes.bandcamp.com.

That’s it for new music for 2018.

Not a terribly exciting year for me music-wise, and even less so when it came to movies. I’m not even doing a post on movies for 2018, it was that weak. See you next year with the best music of 2019!

WHAT I LISTENED TO IN 2018

gojira mars siriusThis one is a little more cut and dried. Here’s the list of top listened-to albums for 2018.

  1. Gojira – From Mars to Sirius
  2. Ghost – Prequelle
  3. Ghost – Popestar (EP)
  4. Black Label Society – Stronger Than Death
  5. Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
  6. John Williams – The Soloist
  7. Black Sabbath – Mob Rules
  8. Cutting Crew – Broadcast
  9. Joe Satriani – Surfing With the Alien
  10. Slayer – God Hates Us All
  11. AC/DC – For Those About to Rock
  12. Baroness – Yellow & Green
  13. Sevendust – Black
  14. Dead Can Dance – The Serpent’s Egg
  15. Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies
  16. Gojira – The Way of All Flesh
  17. Gojira – Magma
  18. Kaleo – A/B
  19. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
  20. Queen – Jazz

Doesn’t look at all like my lists from previous years. The most obvious absence is Pink Floyd’s Animals, which is usually in my top 10 and this year doesn’t hit the list until #26.

the Richmond Times-Dispatch ends candidate endorsements … for now

Ending the endorsements of political candidates in every election cycle is an interesting move on the part of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Their endorsements have never meant much to me – after all, they always endorsed the Republican, I hate the two-party system, so why would it matter?  (here’s the column by Tom Silvestri, president/publisher of the RTD)

In 2016 the RTD endorsed Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president. They didn’t do it for any high-minded ideals (pun intended!), but rather because they were never going to endorse Hillary Clinton and they couldn’t bear to endorse Donald Trump. They felt like they had to endorse somebody because that’s the way it had always been done.  They even said Johnson could be a viable candidate if only people would give him a chance – which they have refused to do for other Libertarian candidates in the last two years. Indeed, Libertarian candidates are consistently left out of debates and media coverage by outlets both major and minor, including the RTD.

What the Richmond Times-Dispatch should have done was endorse nobody, and explained why. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you MUST do something.

Now, to another of Silvestri’s points, that they’re ending endorsements because it’s too difficult to explain the difference between the Editorial department and the News department in a newspaper, and to create an understanding that the News department can (and does) run opinion pieces that aren’t straight news.

I agree with Silvestri that this can be difficult, and one of the commenters even quipped that the Johnson endorsement caused him to cancel his subscription. There is clearly a disconnect between opinion and news is this country, with people – including many on Facebook and other social media outlets – conflating opinion with news.

When you can have pure opinion, news-based opinion, opinion-based news and straight news all in one publication, it can indeed be confusing to the casual reader. This is one of the greatest problems our society faces in the 21st century – we have become casual consumers of everything and as a result, we stubbornly refuse to put much thought into what we’re reading, watching or saying. Parroting the party line or screaming “fake news!” at every opportunity does nothing to further the discourse that drives our political system.

People forget that democracy, for better or worse, is less than 300 years old. It is still a fledgling system, and a difficult one to maintain at that. There will be ups and downs, highs and lows, bonuses and deficits, all to the benefit or detriment of much of the population.

Refusing to engage – as the RTD is saying it’s going to do in the future here – is abdicating one’s moral responsibility to the republic. That’s on us, the citizenship of the United States of America – every last one of us.

Frankly, doing something just because it’s always been done is the #1 stupidest reason to do something. If you’re not doing something because that’s what needs to be done, stop doing it. Traditions are worthless, because all they do is tie you to a past that may not be worth repeating or frankly, even remembering.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” The RTD’s Johnson endorsement in 2016 cause an identity crisis on many sides. Internally, I’m sure they struggled with it. Externally, the readership that had come to expect de rigueur endorsements of Republicans found themselves stunned at the change they saw before them, perhaps unable to process what had just happened.

Our society’s greatest problem right now is its utter inflexibility, the refusal of so many to even consider an alternate idea, opinion, practice or process. Think about it – if Copernicus had simply gone along, we’d have never accepted the idea that the Sun – and not the Earth – is the center of our solar system.

Finally, should newspapers even be printing opinion pieces at all?  Is it their job – their responsibility – to tell me how they think I should be voting?  Or is it their job to gather the facts, express them in a clear, concise fashion, and let me come up with my own reasons for voting for this candidate or that one.

One of the reasons so many people trash reporters and cry about this or that being “fake news” is because of the high opinion-to-fact ratio present in much of modern mainstream journalism. The difference between news and opinion has largely become obscured to the point of pointlessness. When opinion is mistaken for news, the result is what kids today refer to as “butthurt” – that is, a great sense of offense at the words being printed or spoken.  When news is mistaken for opinion, facts cease to matter and there is no viable path to Truth.

I wish I could solve this last problem with the snap of my fingers or the wave of a magic wand.  I know that is unrealistic, and especially so as long as some among us steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that their opinions are not fact and continue to refuse to regard the opinions of others as having any validity at all.

review of Ghost’s new album, Prequelle

If you haven’t heard of Ghost until now, Prequelle is a good album to get started with. It’s not their best album to date – that honor goes to their 2015 offering, Meliora – but it is both excellent and highly accessible.

I’m not going to get into the theatrical aspects of Ghost, because they are irrelevant. Ghost is a band, that band put out an album, and this is a review of that album. You can look up any number of articles about Ghost’s stage show, legal problems and the alter egos of their leader and singer, Tobias Forge.

prequelleThe minute-plus album intro “Ashes” is, unfortunately, pointless. I’m not a fan of intros in general and have already deleted “Ashes” from my computer (through which I listen to most of my music). The only saving grace of “Ashes” is that it delivers the motif that returns at the end of “Rats” in a crushing riff.

“Rats,” then, is when the album kicks off – and does so with greatness, pomp, circumstance, joy and harmony. I may sound effusive here, but seriously – from the crisp drum intro to the crushing outro riff (bringing back the motif from “Ashes”), “Rats” is quite possibly the best mainstream metal song to come out so far in 2018.

Note I say MAINSTREAM metal – by this I mean accessible, widely popular, likely to be played on the radio, etc.

“Rats” has it all – a fantastic hook, a great chorus, beautiful vocal harmonies, a great guitar solo, a tight end, everything you’ve come to expect from Ghost’s best songs.

Following “Rats” is “Faith,” possibly Ghost’s heaviest song to date. It’s wonderful to hear them laying down a heavy groove with the typical soaring vocals over top. I read somewhere that “Faith” is a slap at the former Nameless Ghouls who were part of the band in past years and are now suing Forge for back wages, but in all honesty, I rarely pay attention to the meaning behind the lyrics of any band. I care about melody, not meaning.

Prequelle slows down after “Faith,” with an early power ballad, “See the Light.” It’s a good song, with nice piano playing and some little industrial flourishes before the guitars kick in, but ultimately it’s still a third-song ballad when I don’t really like to see a ballad on a metal album until track four. Yes, that’s a picky nit to jab at, but who’s writing the review, you or me?

“Miasma,” the next song, builds slowly and ominously into a slick tune fueled by riffs that would be at home on any of Ghost’s previous albums. The fact that it’s an instrumental gives me a little pause, wondering if Forge is trying to make a point that he’s more than just a singer, more than just what the television industry would deem a “shot caller.” Forge may be trying to remind people that he’s a musician first and foremost, and that whatever mask and hat he’s wearing is mere adornment for the show. What propels “Miasma” over the top, quality-wise, are the extended guitar, keyboard and saxophone solos that build in intensity to the end of the song. The sax solo in particular is brilliant – fantastically played, excellently recorded and precisely what the song needed. Having been in the position in my own career as a recording musician where I suddenly realized the reason a song wasn’t coming together was because it needed a saxophone solo, I commend Forge for indulging that particular need.

“Dance Macabre” comes next, and this is the song that’s going to separate Ghost’s previous fans from their future fans. “Dance Macabre” is not a metal song. It is a pure-D, full breed POP song, complete with thumping drums, romantic longing and a disco undertone that is absolutely undeniable. It evokes “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and “Calling Dr. Love” by KISS, which is obviously one of Ghost’s biggest influences as far as their image and stage show go. I can absolutely see “Dance Macabre” becoming a Top 10 radio hit. It’s got a fantastic guitar solo, by the way, even if it is too short.

Back in the old days of LPs and cassettes, “Pro Memoria” would be the first song on Side 2, and it definitely has that kind of “reset” feel that flipping a record over had when you were a kid. It starts with gentle keyboard pads and strings, then turns into a beautiful, piano-driven power ballad reminding us that we are all mortal (“Don’t you forget about your friend Death,” etc.). Slick harmony guitars take over several times during the song, reminding the listener that Ghost is still a hard rock (at the least) band. It’s another ballad, but it’s a good one.

“Witch Image” gets things back to the harder side of the equation, with an almost grunge-like song structure (jarring intro, mellow verse, heavy chorus). It’s three and a half minutes of what Ghost does best – plus another harmonized guitar solo. I love Ghost’s guitar solos; in the fashion of bands like Queen and Extreme, they are often compositions within the composition and add to the overall musicality of the songs.

Did you know Forge is Swedish? In case you forgot, he includes another – much lesser – instrumental track called “Helvetesfönster.” Google Translate tells me this means “Hell Window.”

I think they’re right, too. The German word for window is fenster, and that’s pretty close to fönster. Further, the German word for Hell is Hölle, so if Forge was German, the song would be called “Höllefenster,” which is damn close to “Helvetesfönster.” I wonder if Ghost had it printed as “Höllefenster” on the German copies of the album.

Anyway, even though this is a campy instrumental, it brings back the melody motif from “Dance Macabre,” which is a nice touch. This song wouldn’t be out of place as the entreacte in the middle of a Broadway show. Excellent piano playing, though, no doubt about that. Still, it is the second instrumental on one album, when I’m not sure Ghost has done two instrumentals on the totality of its three previous full-length albums.

The last song on the standard version of Prequelle is “Life Eternal,” yet another ballad. YET ANOTHER BALLAD, I SAID!!! Three ballads on one album from a hard rock or metal band is a sure sign that they are angling for a more mainstream presence – and a million units in sales, no doubt. More power to them, I guess. At least it’s a good song – for a ballad. It’s very Ghost as well, with the typical guitar-driven tensions and vocal melodies (and harmonies) we’ve come to expect from the band. The best part of the song is the last minute, which features a gospel feel to it in a question-and-answer vocal part that is (in my opinion) too short.

Ghost then does another thing that drives me nuts on a CD – they insert 30 seconds of dead air before the bonus tracks start. I’m glad it’s only 30 seconds though, and not like what Tool has done on some of their CDs. Bands need to quit doing this. I dislike paying for dead air on an album.

At any rate – bonus tracks. I don’t know if I ordered the deluxe version or if this is just the typical CD that goes out to people who order the album from Amazon, but closing out my copy of the CD are two (bonus) cover tunes.

Before I tell you about these two covers, I have to say that Ghost may be doing cover tunes better than any other band out there today. I include Foo Fighters in that statement, and Foo Fighters do some excellent covers.

Ghost hasn’t put a cover on one of their full-length albums since their debut (Opus Eponymous), when they did an amazing, dark version of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” They did an EP of five covers (If You Have Ghost, led by the Rory Erickson song of nearly the same name), and when they release their hit song “Square Hammer” as a single in 2016, they made it the lead track on an EP called Popestar, filling the rest of that disc with fantastic covers – including Eurhythmics’ “Missionary Man.” What I’m telling you is this: Ghost has a history of doing great covers of songs both obscure and common.

Chances are if you weren’t into Pet Shop Boys, a dance-pop band stupendously popular in the 1980s and – in case you didn’t know – still making music as recently as 2016, you never heard “It’s a Sin.” It’s a catchy song, no doubt about that, but when it gets the Ghost treatment, it’s elevated from catchy to downright addictive. It evokes everything keyboard and electric drum-heavy 1980s synthpop music was about and is a brilliantly executed cover song.

The CD closes with Ghost’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche.” I admit I know nothing about Cohen’s music beyond that song “Hallelujah” that’s been in just about every movie and TV show since it came out and has been covered both well and poorly by just about everybody, all over the world and YouTube. You can’t throw a rock in 2018 without hitting somebody who has either covered that song themselves or has a favorite version of it somewhere they totally want you to listen to. “Hallelujah” is like the Crossfit of cover tunes, and not in a good way.

Ghost could have (should have?) left “Avalanche” off the CD. It’s not a bad version, but it’s a bad closer. Closing on the upbeat “It’s a Sin” would have been greatly preferable, if for no other reason than listening to Forge struggle with the low melody on “Avalanche” distracts from the song’s appeal.

All in all, this is a good Ghost album. It’s a good album, period, and better than a lot of other stuff that’s come out this year. It’s not Ghost’s best album from my perspective, partly because of the weak instrumental towards the end of the album and the proliferation of power ballads. There are way worse things to spend $12 on, though, and if you like any kind of hard rock or mainstream metal music, you’d be well advised to get this album as soon as you can.

I give Prequelle an A, four stars out of five, an 8 on the 1-to-10 scale, and a hearty “buy” recommendation.