Friday, December 31, 2010


Raven are easily looked over, hidden under the hullaballoo surrounding Anvil. But unlike Anvil, who are three parts Spinal Tap and only one part prophetic metalheads, Raven are actual heavy metal pros.
They began honing their craft in Newcastle in 1974 (from the same evil town that spawned Venom and, highly recommended by this author, Newcastle Brown Ale), and never really stopped, albeit going through a lineup change when their drummer/hockey goalie went off to become a session musician for Harry Connick Jr., and being briefly interrupted by a wall falling on Mark Gallagher and crushing his legs.

 This armor could only contain the jazz hands for so long...

I never thought about Raven much until I saw them live. I saw the video for On and On and was taken by the song's catchiness, but ultimately dismissed the band as just another cheesy British act confused about whether to go heavy metal and make real music or go glam and sell records.
But Raven were never confused, and I witnessed proof of their sense of purpose and direction at one of their 35th Anniversary tour gigs.
They got off to a start - the first thing you notice about Raven on stage is that they're real cartoon characters, the Gallagher brothers look like they came straight out of Asterix and Obelix.

Unlike Anvil, who get a bit neurotic (and who can blame them? Living in Toronto's frozen suburban wastelands and working shitty jobs between gigs would depress anyone), Raven actually have a sense of humor, an attitude that metal is the funnest thing in the world (like Scott Ian from Anthrax).
At first, John Gallagher's screaming banshee vocals were a brutal assault on the ears, but after getting acclimatized, what followed was unstoppable headbanging. What's more, respect to Gallagher for singing the way he does. One of the new generation of metalheads' greatest weaknesses is that they all sound exactly the same, either singing with their cookie monster death growls or their melodic crooning whines. Original voices, like Hetfield's used to be, or Bobby Blitz's, or Rob Halford's, or of course John Gallagher's, are rare and endangered indeed.
The setlist was:
Take Control
Live at the Inferno
All For One
Breaking You Down
Rock Until You Drop
A facemelting solo by Mark Gallagher
Speed of the Reflex / Run Silent, Run Deep / Mind Over Metal
A blistering bass solo by John Gallagher
Long Day's Journey
Lambs to The Slaughter
On and On
For the Future
and for the encore, another faceblasting bass solo followed by Break the Chain / Symptom of the Universe / Won't Get Fooled Again / Summertime Blues / Genocide / Break the Chain (reprise).
Take Control, On and On and Rock Until You Drop were the highlights. The guitar solos were prodigious and John Gallagher was a major rager on the bass. Raven deliver the metal goods with such boundless enthusiasm that it's impossible not to like them.
The night ended with a hug from John Gallagher - yes, that's right, one of the UK's metal gods hugged me! One of my proudest moments.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


It's Christmas soon! I am such a procrastinator, I have yet to write my post about the Raven show, and my review of Mustaine's autobiography, and 'I Am Ozzy'... now that finals are over I might have a smidgen of time but probably not!
Today they're playing the classic Rebel Without a Cause on TV so I felt compelled to write up a list of my favorite Christmas movies of all time (I know, Rebel Without a Cause isn't even a Christmas movie, it's a strange source of inspiration).
Here they are (not in order of preference because that would be too hard, but the ones in red are the true masterpieces).
A Christmas Story (1983) - the leg lamp!!!
The Canterville Ghost (1944) - only this one, and definitely NOT the remake with Patrick Stewart
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) - and also the 90s remake by Schwarzenegger with Diane Cannon
Scrooged (1988)
The Christmas Tree (1996)
Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)
White Christmas (1954)
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
Miracle on 34th St (any of them)
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Ghostbusters II (1989)
Die Hard (1988)
Lethal Weapon (1987) - see the scene with Mel Gibson and the thugs in the Christmas tree lot!
Bad Santa (2003)
Home Alone (1990)
The best ones are all from the 1940s and the 1980s. I wonder what that means.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Comet Is Coming!

Comet Hartley 2 is going to get really close to the Earth on October 20th - close enough to see with the nekkid eye (although considering that we all live in light polluted cities, probably need some binoculars). The comet is Hartley 2, first discovered in 1986, the year the Dead Kennedys were taken to court by the PMRC for Frankenchrist (Jello won), the year Master of Puppets was released, the year Raven released The Pack is Back, and the year Megadeth released Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?
What a year!
Anyway, the comet was discovered by Malcolm Hartley, and it orbits the Earth once every 6 and a half years - but this time its special, because it's making its closest approach to Earth since its discovery (close = about 11 million miles away).
Look for it towards the East (if you're in the US, I guess), near the constellation Auriga and its really bright star, Capella. It should look like a 'ghostly' green blob (just in time for Halloween). The best time to see it is early in the morning, so when you're stumbling home from a show look up at the sky.

The next post will be a metal one, I promise. In fact, I'm not reviewing Dave Mustaine's book yet because I have midterms, but I'm definitely going to be reviewing the Raven show I went to... John Gallagher hugged me!

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Origin of Life

I always thought metal and science are alike. Both require technical mastery and precision, and metal, like science, usually looks down on religion with the disdain and ridicule it deserves (unless it's Christian metal, but Christian metal is an oxymoron like 'honest politician' or 'abstinent teenager', because if you're smart enough to play metal, you shouldn't be dumb enough to fall for religion).
So the time has come for another science posting... on the origin of life!
If there is a God, then instead of being a beardy weirdo in the sky, it's probably some sort of giant bacteria God, because in the grand scheme of things, bacteria win. There are more bacteria in a handful of soil than there are humans on Earth, and bacteria sat around on their own on the Earth for 2 billion years before any other life came along. That means almost half of the history of life was dominated by bacteria only, and humans... well, humans make up less than 1% of life's history.
It was Space Week on National Geographic channel last week, and aside from the annoying lady who kept comparing the Earth to a tennis ball and the sun to a basketball and wandering around city blocks incessantly yammering on about how far tennis ball Earth is from basketball sun in city-block distance, there were some interesting things going on.
Have you heard of the Murchison meteorite?

Well, it's just a rock from outer space that smashed into the Earth in the 60s, but scientists found amino acids on the Murchison meteorite. Amino acids are the chemical building blocks of DNA, so they're pretty exciting, but if your brain's skepticism center is working properly, you're probably saying "So what? Obviously the meteorite was contaminated by dogs weeing on it and plants growing around it and birds shitting on it, so these amino acids just came from the Earth, and there's nothing to get your knickers in a twist about."
Good point, but there are only about 22 amino acids that occur regularly on Earth, and this meteorite has over 100 on it. Not only that, but molecules have something called chirality, which means they can always take two different mirror image forms, a right-handed form and a left-handed form. All the molecules that make up life on Earth like amino acids are left-handed, but on the Murchison meteorite, there were left-handed amino acids and right-handed ones.
So a rock can come from space with chemicals that don't exist on Earth, the precursors of extraterrestrial DNA, and crash into our humble planet - and this was much more common when our planet had just formed, around the time life began, because there were bits of debris smashing around everywhere in the solar system. No God, no Allah, no Adam & Eve, no Puff the Magic Dragon, just a rock from space and a few chemicals.
In fact, you don't even need a rock from space. There was a scientist called Stanley Miller in the '50s who built a contraption with some tubes and filled them up with water vapour, Nitrogen, ammonia, and some other chemicals that were around when all the planets formed, and he zapped this concoction with electric currents to simulate lightning bolts (lightning happens on other planets too), and out of the tube dripped all the ingredients of life, a primordial soup made of half-formed bits of DNA (nucleotides) and amino acids (which make up DNA and the proteins that form living things), as well as sugars.

So life was made by chemical reactions, some lightning bolts and some meteorites, not by a beardy weirdo on the sky, just as thrash is made with hours of practice, beer and headbanging. Next postings will review Ozzy Osbourne and Dave Mustaine's autobiographies, a cross-cultural study in the differences between European (Brummy, no less) debauchery and American excess!
I will get around to it if I ever finish my Biology lab readings for uni.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

ONLY DEATH IS REAL - An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and Early Celtic Frost (1981-1985)

!! This review contains a lot of detail, don't read it if you don't like spoilers!!

I opened the package Only Death is Real came in, expecting a small metal hardcover with plenty of photos and a few anecdotes here and there, but instead a gigantic textbook-sized feast lay before me. First, an introduction by Nocturno Culto highlights the fanaticism Hellhammer brings out in people, having tattooed the Hellhammer bat on himself.
Next, an insightful forward by Joel McIver, author of Cliff Burton's biography "To Live is To Die". McIver states, in his usual, dignified way, that Hellhammer and Celtic Frost were pivotal in setting the stage for later thrash acts and, of course, black metal. Martin Eric Ain sums up Hellhammer's powerful influence with these words: "the music led to a radicalization inside of me and to the desire to define my life with music."

Hellhammer was born in 1982 in Zurich, Switzerland, initially a 'clone' of Venom. Tom G Warrior is a mysterious figure, sometimes coming across as an embittered, spiteful recluse. In fact, in Warrior's own words (describing Hellhammer): "it took years for the accumulated unease to subside."
But now that the unease has subsided somewhat, we are allowed a glimpse into Warrior's world. The book begins with the theme of alienation - Warrior was at odds with his bandmates in Grave Hill, who could not understand his drive towards more extreme music.
Back then, metal was as scarce in Zurich as it would become in the rest of the world by the 90s. It's hard to imagine the challenges Warrior faced putting a band together, barely being able to afford instruments, getting beat up by other guitarists and frowned upon by disapproving neighbours. Warrior not only faced these difficulties, but also had a profoundly disturbing childhood. To put it mildly, Warrior's mother was a crazy "cat lady." I have no idea how Warrior survived his ordeals with any of his sanity left intact, but it's clear that the pure evil that emanates from Hellhammer and later from Celtic Frost was not just inspired by music, but came from the grim reality Warrior faced. The darkness in their sound is very morbid, very raw, and very real.

Here I will stop to make an observation: Warrior endured all this adversity, hatred and pain, but he did not become a serial killer or a rapist or a bankrobber or a terrorist or a religious fanatic. Instead of using it as an excuse, he channeled it into metal. It seems that Warrior coped better than Mustaine, but then again he was far removed from the glitz, drugs, and violence in LA. In fact, Steve Warrior recounts: "But Fischer is the only one who doesn't smoke, doesn't do drugs, and doesn't drink."

Warrior pinpoints early on the role of disharmony in metal - songs never following the logical path of melody and harmony the listener comes to expect. This organized chaos, this disharmony, is at the root of what makes metal so interesting to listen to. The problem at the beginning of the 80s was that gods such as Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult and Aerosmith had by now become tired symbols of consumerism - boring and cheesy, and definitely following the expected path. This dissatisfaction led to NWOBHM and the formation of bands that would profoundly influence Warrior, like Venom and Angel Witch.
Despite having worthy influences, Hellhammer had a rough time starting up; their first drummer had to leave because he was too docile, their second drummer refused to grow his hair long, and they were all relatively inept at their instruments. Warrior never comes across as arrogant, describing his skills as "marginal at best" in the Hellhammer days, but he is unwavering in his metal fanaticism and also in his anger: at one point, Warrior says "My hatred towards human beings had become immeasurable. Even though it served as a valve, Hellhammer's music was sometimes barely able to contain my infinite detestation." Don't we all feel that way sometimes? :-)

Nonetheless, the members of Hellhammer were diligent: practice was incessant. The book describes in detail their first flyers, their first photo shoots, their equipment, and their growing setlist. "Angel of Destruction", with the lyrics "burn a church, strike it down" probably inspired an entire generation of Scandinavian pyromaniac pagans. [Bizarrely, in the early 80s, one of the only places for metalheads to meet near Zurich was at a church parish's hall, where the church council organized a regular music evening called "Quo Vadis" featuring metal.]

Anyway, the story of Hellhammer continues with the recording of their second demo and numerous line up changes. Eventually, Warrior's hatred shifted towards Hellhammer: "The obsessive struggle to abandon Hellhammer's inadequacies dominated everything." Thus Hellhammer was buried, and Celtic Frost was born, only to lose their drummer, Stephen Priestly. It seems that Hellhammer and Celtic Frost really were afflicted with the Spinal Tap self-combusting drummer curse.
Despite losing their drummer early, Celtic Frost embodied Warrior's vision in ways that Hellhammer never could. The first positive review came from Germany's Hard Rock zine: "You all know what I thought of Hellhammer, and now this! First class production, much better drum work, faster guitar parts, and I suddenly even like Tom Warrior's dead corpse throat. Celtic Frost are Europe's heaviest and most extreme band!"

One really interesting feature of the book are the commentaries written by Steve Warrior and Martin Eric Ain, among others, about what was going on in their heads and in the band. Martin Eric Ain: "I was able to identify with this figure, the monster [...] But seeing myself as the monster, I was not merely ugly and repulsive, I also radiated with might and power." This doesn't sound just like a description of himself, but rather like a description of the entity Celtic Frost had become - nefarious, repellent, and yet compelling and indomitable.
Martin Eric Ain also dissects the lyric-writing process, mentioning the influence of Michael Tournier and Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. Watch Immortal Ad Vitam if you like Baudelaire - the main character, Nikopol, whispers Baudelaire's poetry as his body is possessed by Horus (Aggressor!).

A mere review can't even begin to sum up the completeness of this Hellhammer/early Celtic Frost autobiography. It's not only riveting to read, but also full of album art, reviews, scans of old flyers and zines, and technical details. A must have for any Hellhammer or Celtic Frost fan, but also a worthy introduction to the next generation of metalheads who might not have a clue about the raw, morbid power of Celtic Frost yet. READ IT!

Monday, August 30, 2010


Bats have a small, but nonetheless significant presence in metal, from the Overkill bat first drawn by D. D. Verni to Ozzy's infamous bat eating incident. Outside of metal, they're best known for their bloodsucking proclivities.

When I was little and spent a while in Spain, I saw the bats swoop down at dusk every evening and drink from the swimming pools. In fact, one family in that Spanish village had even drained their pool and filled it with toads and snakes, but that's a whole other story, so back to the bats.

I hadn't thought about bats for a while, but I picked up "Second Nature" by Jonathan Balcombe, and it reminded me that bats are really interesting, because they're so common - if you took all the mammals living on Earth today, one in every four would be a bat - but also because they're so unique and different. Bats are the only mammals that can fly (flying squirrels and other little airborn rodents don't count, because they just glide). Not only that, but they live in an entirely different sensory universe from ours.

They can switch their hearing on and off on command. Why do they do that? Well, it's because some of them use echolocation to find their way around, and the way echolocation works is that the bat listens for echoes of its own vocalizations to pinpoint where things are. The echoes are very faint, so the bat has to shout very loud - in fact, it makes a pulse of sound that can be over 140 dB, loud enough to cause human ears physical pain. So the bat's solution to this problem is to use muscles in its ears that can twitch 120 times a second to switch its own hearing on and off - when it makes its call, it switches its hearing off, and when it listens for the echoes, it switches it back on.
Our ears are sadly not this advanced. If mine were, I would use my twitchy ear muscles to switch my hearing off every time there's a horrible poser-metal band opening at some show.

Spotted bat
But bats are not just living in a different sonic world, they also live at a different speed. They give a whole new meaning to the expression "live fast, die young." Bats can make time discriminations in their perception of echoes down to 10 billionths of a second! They can also see ultraviolet light. So there you have it - bats perceive space, light, time and sound differently.

They're also little reservoirs for disease - all the nasty ones like rabies, SARS, and ebola, but they've evolved some sort of symbiosis with these viruses so they can carry them without actually getting sick. A useful skill for vampire bats, since they go around drinking blood that could potentially be infected with any number of nasty things.

Food for thought!

Simmon's, J.A. "Formation of perceptual objects from the timing of neural responses: Target-range images in bat sonar." The Mind-Brain Continuum: Sensory Processes. 1996.

Monday, August 23, 2010

To Live is To Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton

Just before a roadtrip down to San Francisco, Cliff Burton's home and Metallica's stomping ground, I bought Joel McIver's new book "To Live is To Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton."
McIver is an experienced scribe, having penned 17 books on bands as metal as Slayer and on bands as unmetal and questionable as The Kings of Leon. Having just heard that his next book would be a biography of Tool, my hopes were not exactly high, but nonetheless I was excited - basically nothing has come out about Cliff since Cliff 'Em All.
Although it's easy to dismiss Cliff as a country bumpkin, he was a complex creature: a determined, dope-smoking musical prodigy, interested in literature, art and philosophy; a quiet, reserved guy at times, but nonetheless an uncompromising, relentlessly raging force to be reckoned with. McIver's book is dignified and understated, just like Cliff, but it's a must-have for any self-respecting metalhead.
Spoilers follow, so if you don't want to know, don't read the rest!
The book follows a chronological timeline, beginning with Cliff's birth at 9:30 p.m. on February 10, 1962. We meet Cliff's parents, Jan and Ray Burton, who were integral in forming Cliff's mature, musically sophisicated personality. His mother, Jan, enthusiastically supported his ventures, once saying "I didn't care what kind of music he played as long as he was good at what he did. The fact that it was heavy metal made it kind of exciting to me, rather than some la-de-da pop or country. It was different to our lives, so I thought it was exciting; I still think the Metallica scene is exciting."
Cliff took piano lessons at a young age, but it was his brother Scott's death that prompted him to pick up the bass. Cliff is remembered as a musical genius, someone who knew more than anyone else in Metallica about theory, different scales and time signatures, truly a bass virtuoso, but it was not always so. Reading about Cliff's slow progress with the bass - how he spent two years on his own plunking away at the bass, and then another year and a half studying under Steve Doherty of ABC Music - gave me some hope. Perhaps mastering an instrument is not out of reach after all.
On the other hand, Cliff was extremely dedicated. He practiced his bass 4 to 6 hours a day, even after he got into Metallica. He never stopped learning, soaking up Bach, Beethoven and Baroque music, jazz, blues and country, influenced by the Misfits, ZZ Top, Blue Oyster Cult, Thin Lizzy, Rush, Black Sabbath and R.E.M. Cliff was definitely a force of progress, a constant source of evolution, and if he had survived, Metallica would surely never have released the stagnant radio-rock cesspools that were Load, Reload, St. Anger and their other embarrassments.
But I disgress, so back to the book! McIver follows Cliff's career with Metallica, providing a detailed analysis of every track, from how it was recorded to how it sounded on the album to how it was played live. He dissects tracks, minute-by-minute, describing the scales, riffs, and fills note-by-note, giving us plenty of insight into Cliff's techniques.
McIver also fleshes out the era with anecdotes of the times. We all know "The Call of Ktulu" and that it was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, but I for one didn't know that Cthulhu perpetuated the 80s, and during the Reagan era, there was even a t-shirt produced which read "Vote for Cthulhu... why settle for the lesser evil?"

There are quotes and interviews from everyone who knew Cliff - his parents, his girlfriend Corinne Lynn, Ron Quintana, Kirk Hammett, Hetfield, Harald Oimoen, Brian Lew - and from people who didn't but wish they had - fellow musicians and bass players in the realms of thrash and death metal.
If McIver's book has one flaw, it is only that it is a little too repetitive, especially at the end, describing the aftermath of Cliff's death, but the rest of the book more than makes up for that. I found out a ton of things I didn't know about Cliff, about Metallica, and about those good olde thrash days of yore, but more importantly, the book was a worthy tribute to such an important individual in the history of metal.

"When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die."
The Call of Cthulhu, H. P. Lovecraft


This city, in the 2 years that I've been here, hasn't shown me a single decent record store worthy of a 'loony'.  That is, until today.  Yes, ladies and germans, today I have discovered the wondrous and highly uncompromising delicious inventory of one Scrape Records. 

I must admit that I didn't expect much from this tiny locale (how did I know or come to believe it was tiny? Well, a local shredder had pointed out to me that while they have 'everything' metal you could want, it was too small for local bands to play at.)  After doing the 'street view' on google, its apparent 'wee' storefront was even more evident... Then we walked in the gated entrance (sound the gong!) - the first sightings we see are CDs, and on a ledge above are some blood-stained SLAYER VINYLS! (re-issued).

It was apparent that there was all sorts of merchandise in the crevices, but I wanted to go in a counter-clockwise direction, very slowly. I didn't want to dismiss the store without first seeing all the possibilities it had to offer.
First on the list of worthy items was the reissued 20th anniversary CD/DVD of the legendary Napalm Death: "Scum". It was only 20 bones - I would have snatched it up if it were the only game in town.. but alas, there was more, much, much more....

In the DVD section I spotted Sodom's "Lords of Depravity", along with some other worthy titles, but the one that really caught my eye was Destruction's "The History of Annihilation", and being the sucker for all that is Metal History, it was on top of my list. Another one on my list was the "Bang Your Head Festival" series of DVD concerts.

The t-shirt section was smaller than the other t-shirt haven located downtown, but in some ways much more respectable. The hoodies and even girls' t-shirt selections were well stocked with decent choices by the store owner; there was plenty of SLAYER and IRON MAIDEN shirts, but there was also VOIVOD, DESTRUCTION, ULVER, KREATOR, SEPULTURA, among others.

There was a Venom watch that is now on my list, next to a couple of METALLICA watches in the display case which shared space with rare imported CDs (most expensive ones at that!).   
The walls were decorated with expensive, hard to find vinyl and even singles, like for example a RAVEN single which featured UDO - and it was a picture disc to boot.  Talk about rare! 
There was the ever elusive JUMP IN THE FIRE single complete with the beast waiting in the orange glow.  Looked like new so maybe there is some re-issue thing going on with those?  I'll find out soon enough.  Only 80 bones....

Then there were the most amazing vinyl gems I could ever have hoped to find: 

NAPALM DEATH's original pressing of SCUM
DRI original pressing of DEALING WITH IT

TOTAL: $185


Total purchases today:
Voivod t-shirt $34.95
1988 Kerrang magazine (Frolic in Frisco) $3.99
Destruction DVD - The History of Annihilation $29.99