Thursday, October 16, 2014

Card Magic

I may have mentioned once or twice that I love card magic. Maybe I haven't, in which case: I love card magic. There, now I've said it. I may also have mentioned that my favorite magician is Ricky Jay. If not: my favorite magician is Ricky Jay. There, now I've said that too.

There is a beautiful simplicity to a card trick. Any idiot can stand on a stage in a puffy white shirt, waving their arms theatrically while the crew and assistants handle all the actual work of making that helicopter disappear or whatever. But behind the stage, props, and crew those "magicians" are frequently almost comically devoid of skill. To put it another way, the David Copperfields of the world are to magic what Brittney Spears is to music. A card trick, though, doesn't have all that elaborate polish to disguise a lack of substance. It's a pure demonstration of skill, where a master craftsman demonstrates years of careful practice by doing seemingly impossible things with a simple $3 pack of playing cards. It's an alluring idea that no Las Vegas contract or massive props department would be needed for you or me to be able to do the same thing we just saw: all it takes is lots and lots of practice. I'm part way there myself, but that's another story.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a few videos of the kind of tricks I love.

This is by no means a "best of" list, as anyone with a serious interest in magic will see that I've excluded some really vital names. Nor is it a list of the most influential and important pioneers of card magic. Rather, it's a simple selection of routines from some of my favorite card magicians. Enjoy.

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Bill Malone was the first magician who really captured my imagination. His "Sam the Bellhop" routine almost single-handedly fueled my childhood interest in card magic. Not only is he a skilled sleight of hand artist, he is a supremely entertaining performer with a good sense of humor and a highly engaging personality. His "Devilish Miracle" is a nice display of all these qualities in one concise package.


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Alex Elmsley was a magician perhaps better known to other magicians than to the general public, because he was responsible for something that mostly only magicians know about. Setting that cryptic statement aside, he was a charmingly genteel performer who epitomized the subdued elegance of well-executed card magic. This trick was from his performance in the "Lake Tahoe Sessions".

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 Michael Vincent is an extraordinarily refined sleight of hand performer who has arguably the most pure technical skill of any living card magician. That isn't likely to come across unless you know what you're looking for, but then, that is kind of the point. Unfortunately the video of my favorite routine of his, from the show Penn and Teller: Fool Us, is no longer on YouTube. I found it on another site, though, which I've linked right here.

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Ricky Jay is, as I said earlier, my favorite magician. I enjoy his patter, I'm amazed by his skill, and I deeply appreciate the fact that he's a true scholar of his art. Most magicians take very little time to note the history and innovations of their predecessors, but Jay has spent a lifetime studying, preserving, and honoring their legacies. I respect anyone who has real respect for the history of their chosen art-form, and Ricky Jay epitomizes that quality.

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Dai Vernon was almost certainly the 20th century's reigning king of close-up magic. "The Professor" spent his long life perfecting a skill set that made him an idol to magicians around the world. Vernon didn't care much about anything except for perfecting the art of magic, and as a result he became a vitally important figure in shaping and refining many routines that are used today by other performers.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Premature Nostalgia

[This post has a slightly more specific target than just general nostalgia-bashing. Give me a minute to warm up first, though.]

I am well aware of the fact that people of my generation are excessively, annoyingly premature to jump on nostalgia trips. It's true that in one artistic medium, the video game, the '80s and early '90s were actually a really pivotal time that shaped the future of that field. In general, though, there was nothing special about that period of time. Yet a striking proportion of my generation sits around obsessing all over everyone about the "good old days," despite being far to young to have much meaningful context or perspective on our adolescent years. For that matter, shouldn't our late 20s still be part of the good days? I know everybody thinks the world was better back when they were 15, because people are egocentric enough to conflate their own youthful energy and coming-of-age excitement with the pinnacle of human civilization, but can't we at least wait until we're in our 40s like previous generations have before we start getting all obnoxious about it? Maybe it's the way the internet has sped up the world, pushing one generation out of the spotlight before their time. In any case, said trait is extremely annoying. Unfortunately, it's ubiquitous to an extent that renders criticism basically fruitless. I'll still criticize, because that's the way I am, but that's not the main thrust of this post. Instead, I want to take some time to talk about a very specific nostalgia-driven phenomenon that puzzles me to no end.

Cassette tapes are making a comeback.

Just think about that for a minute. One of the worst, least reliable, least convenient, poorest quality formats in audio distribution history is returning to the shelves for no reason other than that people approaching 30 are having their midlife crisis a couple decades too early. I've seen them again and again over the past year or so; brand new cassettes are cropping up on record store shelves. Yikes.

Now, I understand the nostalgic appeal of vinyl. For one thing, it's been around long enough to have some actual historical significance attached to it. For another thing, it was the dominant audio distribution format when most of the formative albums that shaped our musical landscape were released. Hell, we still call albums "records."

Besides that, there are non-nostalgic reasons to buy vinyl records. They have huge covers, so collectors get a much better display of the jacket art. They have a warm, rich sound that (when played through quality stereo equipment) makes for a listening experience you can't get from newer formats. They have room for cool little oddities like a never-ending loop at the end of the record. You could spin them backward and hear the music in reverse. These peculiarities helped shape the mystique around bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin in a way that no modern distribution format can match. And on a really basic level, if you only want to listen to one song on the album, you can just drop the needle in that place and play it instead of having to fast forward for ten minutes.

Of course, for those who don't want to go all-out digital download mode just yet with their music collections, there are also CDs. True, there's nothing terribly nostalgic about a CD, since they're still the dominant physical format. The thing is, they replaced cassettes for a reason. You can skip songs. You have cleaner, clearer audio. You don't ever have to worry about your player eating a CD. You can leave them in your hot car without fear that they'll melt. CDs are vastly more durable and convenient than cassettes, while still giving you a much bigger, nicer cover art display and better audio quality too.

Cassettes, like eight-tracks, are nothing more than an embarrassing byproduct of audio distribution's awkward adolescent phase. They were not some superior product we had back in the day before all these kids born in the late '90s came along with their high-speed internets and cellular telephones. To think otherwise is to succumb to the same kind of collective delusion that leads 28-year-old women to believe that *NSYNC was actually any better/different than One Direction currently are (spoiler alert: they weren't). Cassettes sucked, and the 25-35 crowd needs to stop trying to resurrect shitty technology like that before we complete our premature metamorphosis into crabby old people who sit around ranting about how much better things were back in our day.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Troldhaugen - Obzkure Anekdotez for Maniakal Massez

Troldhaugen are an Australian group who released their second full-length album in August of this year. I'd never heard them before, so I came into this without any expectations or back-story in my mind. All I knew was that Metal Archives calls them Avant-Garde folk metal.

Honestly, that's the best label I could imagine. It's no secret that I like bands who do weird shit, so I absolutely loved this. To make the quickest, most obvious comparison I can think of, Tollhaugen sound a lot like a fusion of Finntroll and Mr. Bungle. Their style, while in carries on that "trollish" vibe throughout, wanders all over the place. One minute you're listening to a power ballad, the next you've got death metal vocals snarling over top of synthesizers and xylophones. The band's energy is through the roof. The range of instrumentation is massive. The musicianship on display is as sharp as it is schizophrenic. The vocals hit on virtually every style you can imagine, though that Finntroll-esque growling speech seems to be the closest thing to home-base for them.

There's really no way to accurately describe in detail everything this band does short of writing a full book, because there's just so much going on in this album. The short version would be this: if you like Mr. Bungle, Sigh, or just hyper-actively energetic weird music, you'll like this. If you prefer more conventional metal, you'll probably be mostly annoyed and confused by it.

So there you have it. Not for everyone, but amazing for those of us who enjoy this kind of thing.

Grade: A


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (#5)

One album I liked.
One album I disliked.
One album I something-elsed.

The Good: Alestorm - Sunset on the Golden Age

Alestorm have always been one of those fun-but-goofy bands built so heavily on their particular schtick that they become almost impossible to judge by the normal standards of a metal band. The whole pirate thing is still here, as it kind of has to be, but this album saw the band take a turn for the more serious. It's a striking, dramatic, and really well executed album that carries way more thrash influnce into their sound than anything they've done in the past. Typically I'd enjoy an Alestorm release while admitting to myself that it's basically stupid. In this case, though, they've released a legitimately good metal album that holds up on its own musical merits. Not only is this an unexpected turn, it's also an indication that the band will still have plenty of life left in them should they choose to move away from their initial premise.


The Bad: Within Temptation - Hydra

I'll admit that this was kind of a lazy pick. For one thing, I already know I don't like Within Temptation. For another thing, this album isn't the kind of bad that makes it fun to attack. Instead, it's just boring. Really really really really really really really really really really boring. Even the cover art is boring. While my track record does sort of indicate a distaste for female-fronted metal bands, a topic I've already explored in far greater detail than I have room for here, the reality is that I'm fine with clean female vocals in metal so long as they are powerful or moving or in some way interesting. You know, the same standards I have for male vocals. These just sound like she, and her bandmates, are sleepwalking through the studio session so they can get this in the can and move on with their lives. That's the opposite of all those potential positive qualities I just named, and so is this album.


The Ugly: Sons of Crom - Riddle of Steel

"The ugly" is kind of a mean term for this slot. In reality, a lot of different types of albums end up in what amounts to my wildcard category. Today, what we have is a perfect example of a mixed-feelings release. On the one hand, I really love the Quorthon-doing-epic-doom sound they clearly seem to be aiming for with this. On the other hand, Quorthon was something of an anomaly: a Bob Dylan of metal whose voice and musicianship, while lending him a unique flavor, feel like handicaps he had to overcome rather than standards to which others should aspire. As a result, channeling that magic can be tricky, and while there are some great moments on this album, the overall results are still pretty shaky. I hope they continue in this vein, because I love the premise. I also sense that there's a lot of potential for this to grow on me, and my undying love for Bathory will undoubtedly compel me to give it multiple chances to do so.

As an aside, wouldn't an album named Hydra  have benefited tremendously from cover art like Riddle of Steel's?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Nightbringer - Ego Dominus Tuus

Wow, talk about evolution. A scant six years ago, Nightbringer produced their full-length debut as yet another forgettable and utterly mediocre underground black metal band desperately aping the Norwegians. Last week, the Colorado-based outfit released their fourth album, Ego Dominus Tuus. Obviously I'll need to ruminate on it a little, but my immediate reaction places this as probably one of the year's top three black metal records.

First off, I should explain what this album isn't. It isn't a perfected version of the classic Norwegian black metal formula. It isn't a murky, chilly, lo-fi album. It isn't an all-out assault on the senses. It isn't designed to appeal to kvlt purists. And it isn't dreary, atmospheric indie black metal.

So what is it, then? It's a perfect example of why young black metal bands are better off finding their own identities. There's not another band I can bring readily to mind that this sounds like, to my ears. There are moments and similarities, but this doesn't follow any set formula too closely. The best I can some up with is a combination of Behemoth's black metal side, slow Nile songs, and a healthy dose of Carach Angren all rolled into one oversized slab of black metal. The production is clean, and the overall sound is more polished than I usually want in a black metal album, but for what the band was trying to do here I think it was necessary.

For the most part, the guitar work tends toward the melancholic end of the spectrum, with a lot of melodic, evocative riffs. There are still plenty of hostile, aggressive passages, though. And that is a big strength of the record: it makes use of a relatively broad tonal spectrum. There are a lot of things going on in this album, with frequent changes of tone, pace, and dynamic coming along, often accompanied by assorted complementary backing instruments (largely synthesized on a keyboard, I think, but still quite effective and never overbearing). It all manages to flow together coherently, keeping the music interesting without becoming jarring.

The vocals are wildly varied. Everything from black metal rasps to distant monstrous bellows to ominous spoken word passages to echoing Middle-Eastern chants crops up on this record. As far as I can see, every member but the drummer makes vocal contributions, and the result is a huge, complex blend of sounds and styles that make this one of the most vocally rich and interesting black metal records I've ever encountered.

There seems to be something almost operatic in the composition of some of the music (though not in the vocals), which infuses several songs with a sense of sweeping drama. It never goes too far, though, before some unexpected twist pulls it back down to earth or carries the music off in some other direction. These tactics go a long way toward keeping the album feeling fresh long after most records would have worn out their welcome.

Some trouble does crop up when we get deep into the seventy-minute runtime, though. The ninth track, "Salvation Is the Son of Leviathan (Alabas in Memoriam)" is basically a six-minute interlude that should probably have been trimmed down to less than half that length. At a certain point, I found it detaching me from the music in a way that would work fine as an outro. The trouble is, that wasn't the outro. Instead, it just made me take several minutes to reengage with the music for the twelve-minute finale. It's my only real quibble with this record, but in an otherwise amazingly engaging album, such a misstep stood out enough to be worth noting.

Overall, I thought this was a tremendous release. Yes, it gets off track briefly around the one-hour mark, but it still pulls things together for a strong finish. And the music leading up to that point is some of the best I've heard this year. I can definitely see where this wouldn't appeal to every black metal fan, but for me personally, it was a major winner.

Grade: A-