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