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!

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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.

the year in music – 2015

There’s two albums that have gotten more play from me – by far – than any other albums. It’s two of the three discs in a John Williams (the guitarist, not the film score composer) collection – “The Soloist” and “The Romantic.” These are the albums I listen to nearly every night as I’m trying to fall asleep. Yay tinnitus! I think we have to discount them as a result.

I bought 18 new albums (and two concert DVDs) in 2015, up from 2014’s eight, but for many of them, I waited until they were on sale for under $10 – and that includes the DVDs.

Now, on to the rest of the story. Here are this year’s top 10 most played albums. If you read my 2014 music missive, the top 10 hasn’t changed much. Whether or not this is unfortunate or not is another story.

10. AC/DC: For Those About To Rock, We Salute You (1981) (did not chart in 2013, #10 in 2014)

  • This ancient (2nd oldest in this list!) hard rock album exists in the shadow of its predecessor, “Back in Black,” but in many ways it’s a superior album. The BiB songs were largely written before Brian Johnson joined the band, and though the songs are good – it is, after all, AC/DC’s most-purchased album (the #2 album of all time with 36 million million copies sold worldwide – and a distant 2nd to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – which has sold over 68 million copies worldwide) – FTATR is a more cohesive effort. BiB’s frumpy songs are super frumpy, and FTATR is all killer/no filler from start to finish. You’re only likely to ever hear one song from this album on the radio – the title track – but what a song it is!

9. Sarah Jarosz: Song up in Her Head (2009) (#4 in 2013, did not chart in 2014)

  • Even though I’ve got both of Jarosz’s other two albums, this one still blows me away every time I spin it. The raw, guttural emotions present and just utterly fantastic musicianship keeps this album in regular rotation. Her other two albums are good, don’t get me wrong, but this one is transcendent. Enjoying this album’s resurgence after a year of not listening to it much.

8. Dead Can Dance: A Passage in Time (1991) (did not chart in 2013 or 2014)

  • A greatest hits album of sorts for Dead Can Dance, a creative writing teacher introduced me to this album way back in college when it was only a year or two old. He used the song “The Host of Seraphim” to set an emotional state for a writing exercise. I don’t remember what I wrote or what his name was, but I went out immediately and bought this album.

7. Cake: Fashion Nugget (1996) (#8 in 2013, #6 in 2014)

  • From “Frank Sinatra” to “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” this is an album full of quirk. When it came out, it set the radio on fire with two singles – “The Distance” and “I Will Survive” – but few people then knew that three of the 14 tracks were cover tunes. Beyond the singles, the best track is probably “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” – one of the covers.

6. Kingdom Come: In Your Face (1989) (#7 in 2013, #8 in 2014)

  • What can I say? I still love this album after all these years. Good songwriting, fabulous playing, excellent guitar tone and Lenny Wolf’s great vocals! It’s like a time machine back to the days of big hair and concert pyrotechnics.

5. Joe Satriani: The Extremist (1997) (did not chart in 2013 or 2014)

  • While “Surfing With the Alien” brought Satriani to the forefront of rock/metal instrumental music a decade before this album came out, this one’s the top of his heap. Great, great album.

4. Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats: Mind Control (2013) (#10 in 2013, #4 in 2014)

  • This was my top album of 2013 (& #10 most played) and got tons of rotation in 2014 (#4 on the list).

3. Black Label Society: Stronger Than Death (2000) (#9 in 2013, #2 in 2014)

  • I still enjoy this album quite a lot (obviously), but it’s become that album that I measure all of Zakk Wylde’s other efforts against.  He hasn’t put out anything this good since this album – and he just might not ever again.

2. Cutting Crew: Broadcast (1986) (#6 in 2013, #3 in 2014)

  • This is another throwback album that still makes me happy. A great album to put on and just listen as it flows from one song to the next. The song sequencing is near perfect.

1. Mastodon: Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014) (#1 in 2014)

  • As in 2014, I just cannot get enough of this album. It is still averaging two plays a week and I’m not getting tired of it. Could be the sign of a modern metal classic!

Albums noticeably absent from my top 20 dating back to 2013: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicle; George Thorogood, Baddest Hits; Black Sabbath, 13; Volbeat, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies.

Honorable mentions for 2015:

11. Baroness: Yellow & Green (2012)

  • My friend Jon (whom I used to play with in metal powerhouse CRASHLANDER!) turned me on to both Baroness and Ghost in 2015. I can’t thank him enough. This double-album contribution from Baroness is equal parts inspiring, prog, metal and bizarre. Baroness is probably my favorite band of 2015, and this may be my top-rated not-new album of the year.

12. Various Artists: Maiden Heaven (2008)

  • I had to resort to eBay to track down a copy of this CD that was originally included with the August 2008 issue of Kerrang!, a UK music magazine. It features bands you’ve heard of like Metallica and Dream Theater, along with popular but lesser-known bands like Black Tide, Avenged Sevenfold and Coheed & Cambria, as well as bands you’ve never heard of like DevilDriver and Fightstar. The best song is probably “Wrathchild” by Gallows. Holy crap is it good.

13. Luka Bloom: The Acoustic Motorbike (1992)

  • A really fun, spunky and emotional album from the Irish king of open-tuned sorta-pop songs.

14. Pink Floyd: Animals (2011 Remaster) (1977) (#13 in 2013, #10 in 2014)

  • Still my favorite PF album by far, and getting regular – though somewhat less – rotation.

15. Enigma: MCMXC A.D. (1990)

  • I went through a big Enigma phase this year, just grooving on their beats and melodies. Fun stuff. Their other three albums rank in the top 35, but their debut holds a special place in my mind.

16. KXM: KXM (2014) (#9 in 2014)

  • dUg Pinnick of King’s X, George Lynch of Dokken/Lynch Mob and Ray Luzier of Korn came together for this one-off collection in 2014, and it still melts faces and shreds speakers. Whoa. A much better offering than the album Lynch did with Michael Sweet, though that album isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Also better than the Pinnick Gales Pridgen album, but I’m looking forward to their 2nd release.

17. Monte Montgomery: 1st & Repair (1998)

  • A singer/songwriter that many haven’t heard of, he plays the acoustic guitar like it owes him money. It’s a shame he’s not more popular than he is.

18. Cinderella: Long Cold Winter (1988)

  • More hair metal memories – way, way better than their debut album and with a lot more depth to the production and songwriting.

19. The Outfield: Voices of Babylon (1989)

  • Weird that this album got more attention than “Play Deep,” which is definitely my favorite Outfield album. I wonder why?

20. King Giant: Black Ocean Waves (2015)

  • One of my friends is a guitarist in KG, and this album is fan-fucking-tastic. If you dig Black Sabbath, you *will* like this album. Get it. Now!! http://kinggiant.bandcamp.com

Albums Released in 2015:

  • Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats: The Night Creeper (ok, but not as good as “Mind Control”)
  • Sweet & Lynch: Only To Rise (OK, but not amazing)
  • King Giant: Black Ocean Waves
  • Ghost B.C.: Meliora (HOLY SHIT THIS ALBUM IS FANTASTIC!)
  • Foo Fighters: Saint Cecelia (EP) (Good. Solid. As expected.)
  • Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color (Good 2nd album from a quirky, female-fronted retro-rock band.)

Other Albums Purchased This Year:

  • Baroness: Purple (2015; arrives 18 Dec.)
  • Baroness: Red (2007)
  • Baroness: Blue (2009)
  • Ghost: If You Have Ghost (EP) (2013)
  • Ghost: Infestissumam (2013)
  • Ghost: Opus Eponymous (2011)
  • Sarah Jarosz: Build Me up From Bones (2013)
  • Al Di Meola: Splendido Hotel (1980)
  • Al Di Meola: Elegant Gypsy (1977)
  • Black Sabbath: Live Gathered in Their Masses DVD (2013)
  • DIO: Live in London, Hammersmith Apollo 1993 DVD (2014)
  • Lenny Kravitz: Strut (2014)
  • Poison: Native Tongue (1993)
  • Triumph: Live at Sweden Rock Festival (2002)

Mastodon_-_once_more_'round_the_sun

you can’t kill free speech

As some folks know, I’m a member of the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington, or BMWBMW. I’m also a volunteer Board of Directors member, and in addition to my role as the Media Chair for the club, I also put together the club’s monthly newsmagazine, Between the Spokes. When I first started my editorship of BtS, I decided to run a periodic editorial column called “Between the Gutters” – a play on both the title of the club’s publication and magazine design, where the “gutter” is the space between columns or the space between the right side of one page’s content and the left side of the facing page’s content.  These columns have run the gamut from ethanol to tinnitus, and in the February 2015 issue, I addressed the issue of free speech. Most of the correspondence I have received so far has been positive, but this column did draw my first ever negative response. While it was well written and not at all aggressive, it did suggest that such a politicized issue as free speech had no place being discussed in a regional club’s monthly newsmagazine.  While I disagree, it’s certainly that person’s right to say so!

Now – on with the “offending” column!

In December and January, the attacks on free speech escalated. This is not a good trend, no doubt about that, but it’s not a new trend, either. We may think quashing free speech is a political, economic or religious issue, but it permeates many layers of our society, including the many thousands of words written by and about motorcyclists as well as the machines and products on which they rely.

While part of me still thinks it was a hoax, the cyber attack on Sony Pictures surrounding its release of the buddy comedy The Interview drew our attention in a small way to the issue of free speech. The film is a satire that bases its plot on an American TV personality, played by James Franco, and his producer, played by Seth Rogen, being granted an interview with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and then being asked by the CIA to assassinate him.

The assault on free speech related to this movie came from the attackers threatening more attacks and the release of private information if Sony went ahead with the film’s release as scheduled. Sony initially pulled the film, blaming major movie theater chains for refusing to show the film due to threats of violence against any of them that did. Under pressure from a wide swath of Americans, including President Barack Obama, Sony reversed course, releasing the film in a limited number of theaters and online through various websites in late December, more or less as previously scheduled. After earning more money than any previous digital release in Sony’s history, Netflix is — as of this writing — in negotiations to secure exclusive streaming rights for The Interview.

The incident that precipitated this column was the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper published in Paris, France. On 7 January, three masked men armed with assault rifles killed two policemen, including one who was serving as the editor-in-chief’s bodyguard, along with ten employees of the paper, including four cartoonists, two columnists and the editor in chief, himself a cartoonist and columnist.

Charlie Hebdo is well known for its anti-religion stance; they regularly publish full-color, front-page caricatures of Mohammed, Jesus, the pope, other religious figures including generic Muslims, Christians and Jews, and a wide variety of French and European political and social figures. Many of these covers depict these people in humiliating or sexual situations and are patently offensive to many.

The paper’s offices were firebombed in 2011, without loss of life, but this time, the frontal assault resulted in a bloodbath. One of the policemen killed was lying wounded on the ground with his hands up when one of the Kalashnikov-toting terrorists shot him in the face. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar,” a common Islamic invocation usually translated as “God is great.” These shouts were caught on video by onlookers, as well as a comment from one of the terrorists that they had exacted revenge for the newspaper’s portrayals of Mohammed. The outrage and sympathy at this horrific event focused on the perceived intention of the terrorists: punishing Charlie Hebdo’s writers, cartoonists and editors for their words and images, and by doing so, frightening other writers, cartoonists and editors into silence.

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Not even 24 hours after this terrorist attack, the Chinese government arrested and imprisoned the three brothers of a Chinese-born US citizen. Shohret Hoshur is a Uighur, and the Uighur are a long-oppressed ethnic minority under Chinese control. The implication here is clearly that if Hoshur continues to report on anti-Uighur events taking place in Xinjiang, his brothers will be subjected to unspecified punishments extending beyond the five-year sentence one of them has already received for discussing his arrest on the telephone with Hoshur.

In 2014, a dustup called “Gamergate” shook the video gaming world; while it spreads through a variety of issues, one of the core concepts is the active suppression of the opinions, ideas and efforts of female game designers, programmers and reviewers. Several women were threatened with rape, assault and death in an ugly, misogynistic attack on a perceived minority in the gaming world. In reality, females make up 52% of those playing video games according to the Internet Advertising Bureau’s study published on 17 September 2014.

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist writer who writes for the website Feminist Frequency and regularly discusses tropes that denigrate and marginalize women; one repercussion of Gamergate was the cancellation of Anita Sarkeesian’s talk at Utah State University after an unknown person emailed the university promising to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if the talk proceeded. Sarkeesian, as well as game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn, later fled their homes in the wake of numerous death threats.

All of these events above are ways in which somebody attempted to infringe on free speech in ways that evoked or threatened violence. They don’t have anything to do with motorcycles, though, so I’ll give you an example that does relate to our sport.

Most of us are familiar with Motorcyclist magazine. I have a subscription and read it cover-to-cover when it arrives. It’s a good magazine, but its administrative staff once fired a writer over a negative article he wrote for a completely different publication.

Dexter Ford contributed articles to Motorcyclist for three decades, but was summarily fired in September 2009 for an article he wrote for The New York Times. In “Sorting out differences in helmet standards,” Ford examines US and European helmet certification standards, which can often be confusing as they overlap and contradict each other. He criticizes the Snell Foundation for its 2005 and 2010 standards and reports that some helmet manufacturers have stopped submitting helmets for Snell certification in favor of US Department of Transportation (DOT) and United Nations ECE certifications.

Ford’s article is clearly critical of Snell, but does not mention any helmet manufacturer by name; the closest he comes is a passing mention of a “$400 Snell-certified helmet.” In 2009 in the US, that meant only a small number of helmets.

It wasn’t long before emails got leaked showing exactly why Ford was let go. Brian Catterson, then the Editor-in-Chief of Motorcyclist, said, “I’m getting serious heat over [Ford’s article],” because, as Catterson writes, Ford “greatly downplayed” the Snell 2010 standards.

“Sorting out differences in helmet standards” wasn’t Ford’s first blast at Snell’s standards. He wrote an exposé of just how bad the Snell 2005 standards were for Motorcyclist called “Blowing the lid off.” He researched extensively for the article, even backing his assertions with data from scientific tests, proving to himself and many others that Snell standards were inferior to DOT and ECE standards. Unfortunately, the article is no longer available on Motorcyclist’s website, but you can find it with a quick Google search.

The heat felt by Catterson came from helmet manufacturers Arai and Shoei; in 2005 and perhaps even 2009, these two manufacturers dominated the motorcycle helmet media, if not the market, enjoying their heyday before the proliferation of Korean- and Chinese-made helmets. It’s reasonable to think they were also major contributors to the Snell Foundation, which is a not-for-profit group that operates with funding from helmet manufacturers.

To boil the issue down to its component parts, Arai and Shoei threatened to pull their advertising from Motorcyclist because Ford wrote an article denigrating Snell standards for The New York Times. By doing this, both helmet manufacturers engaged in an attempt to quash free speech. They threw their weight around like the industry giants they were and cost a man his job. (Disclaimer: I currently own two Shoei helmets and have owned two Arai helmets in the past. All are/were excellent helmets and a Shoei RF800 and an Arai Quantum/f protected my head during two separate crashes. The RF800 most definitely saved my life in 1999.)

According to the termination letter sent by Catterson to Ford in October 2009, Ford wasn’t being fired for the hit piece he wrote for the Times; rather, his termination came from what Catterson characterized as Ford’s inability to prevent personal vendettas from infusing his work. Catterson mentioned specifically a press conference — not even a written article! — Ford participated in after the publication of the article. Of course, the leaked email chain refuted Catterson’s assertions, exposing the real reason why Ford was fired – because he crossed two of the magazine’s biggest advertisers, who complained to management. It’s also clear from the emails that Catterson shares Ford’s opinion of Snell, yet Catterson throws Ford under the GS, blaming him directly for costing Motorcyclist about $100,000 in advertising money.

Dexter Ford only lost his job. He wasn’t gunned down like the Charlie Hebdo staffers, he wasn’t threatened with rape and murder like the women of Gamergate, and he wasn’t even arrested like Shohret Hoshur’s brothers. From the day that Ford was fired, though, nobody writing for Motorcyclist would be able to continue to do so without taking into account the magazine’s advertisers — no matter what outlet they were writing for. Arai and Shoei are heavy hitters, but once manufacturers of their size and strength were able to force Motorcyclist to punish a writer for what he wrote, it’s not hard to believe that larger advertisers — say, motorcycle manufacturers — or even smaller ones wouldn’t be able to do the same. Once the seal is broken, as they say, it’s all downhill.

I’m not in any way trying to equate the firing of one motorcycle journalist to the brutal murders of ten political/cultural/societal satirists and two policemen, but both situations show the extent to which people will go to prevent the publication or dissemination of information with which they disagree or find offense.

There’s a reason that the freedom of speech is one of the very first things codified in our Bill of Rights. Free speech and a free press are fundamental concepts of social contract theory, a body of sociopolitical philosophy that has come to govern much of the world since its emergence in the 18th century. The American and French Revolutions, and the Constitutions that came after them to guide each country, were built upon the bricks of social contract theory. The citizens of the free world should never allow the actions of radicals and malcontents to curtail this fundamental freedom and must endeavor to protect these freedoms at all costs.

Without the freedom of speech and of the press, there is no freedom at all.

The article that got Dexter Ford fired is available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/automobiles/27SNELL.html.

book suggestions

A former student emailed me asking for suggestions on some history books to read, so I thought I’d share with you what I shared with her.  If you end up reading any of these books, please comment here, email me, or send me a Facebook messages with your thoughts on the book(s).

The best – hands down best, no kidding – history-related book I have EVER read came out not too long ago.  It’s called Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly & the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson.  It happens that one of my favorite movies (ever) is “Lawrence of Arabia,” and the author deconstructs the movie as well as the reality of TE Lawrence.  Just a fantastic book, no kidding, plus it really opens the mind to why the Middle East is the way it is now.

Another really good book is Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion & the Armies of Rome, by Stephen Dando-Collins.  He’s written a bunch of books in this series and they’re all OK, but this one is the best of the bunch.  The cool thing is that they read more like novels/stories than history books – maybe I appreciate them because that’s the way I like to teach!

Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, is a cool book that takes a serious world-spanning look at how the effort to acquire just one of life’s minor luxuries helped shape the world as we know it.  Fascinating.  This book was recommended to me (along with another book that wasn’t quite as good) by a 17-year-old home-schooled girl, and I’m glad I listened to her on this one.

If you’re interested in Cold War-era stuff, look at The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, by Lewis Siegelbaum.  You wouldn’t think a book about crappy cars made in Bulgaria or Hungary would be that interesting, but when you look at them in their geopolitical context, pretty cool stuff.  Another good CW book is Red Moon Rising: Sputnik & the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, by Matthew Brzezinski.  It’s a little more … dense & academic … than most of the other stuff I’ve listed here, but I’m obsessed with sci-fi, so I always liked this book because it combines history and space.

OK last suggestion, and this one might be a little off the wall: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman. It’s a graphic novel filled with mice, cats & pigs, but it’s a really powerful book about how an American man learns to cope with his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor.  My copy is 2 volumes, but I think it’s available as one complete book now.

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