Monday, December 16, 2013

Final Post for 2013

Well, so much for getting around to some of the stuff in my inbox. I decided to get better about it, then I just went on being every bit as bad as I was before. It has become painfully obvious that if I get back on track with writing reviews, it isn't going to happen this year. I'm only in Las Vegas for a couple more days (which will be busy ones) before I head to Ohio for Christmas, and I'll be gone until around the start of January. Since I'm not going to spend my Christmas vacation with my family reviewing albums that I couldn't be arsed to review so far, what puny amount of output I've generated so far is going to be it for 2013.

I'm not even going to write any end-of-year lists, because frankly I've been so horrible about keeping up with new releases this year that even a simple top 10 would be utterly meaningless. I will say, however, that my favorite metal album of the year, almost by default, is Vexovoid  by Portal.

In 2013 this blog hit two milestones. Firstly, I reached 25,000 views. I'm sure a big chunk of that is referral spam, but I'm going to pretend like I don't know that. Secondly, I recently made my 500th post. That's not a terribly impressive amount of output compared with some people, but it does show that I've spent a pretty good amount of time producing content for this blog over the past almost-three-years.

Anyway, that's it for me in 2013. I haven't posted much, but that is largely because it's been a very eventful year for me in real life. I won't sit here making excuses, though. See you on the other side.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

My Top 50 Favorite Movies Part 5 (The Top 10)

Okay, time for the 5th and final installment, where I finally reveal my 10 favorite films. Pretty exciting, huh? I know it's not, but I'm going to act like it is anyway.

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#10. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Yes, the gay cowboy movie. I don't care what anybody says, as much as I hate cowboys I still think this is a great romance. Brokeback Mountain's reputation has taken on a life of its own, one which has largely overshadowed the film itself. Sadly, this has tended to distract people from the fact that this is a touching human drama filled with top-notch performances by a strong cast. This is one of those movies that has been subjected to tons of analysis from film schools, so I'm not going to heap more onto that pile. The simple truth is that I have loved this movie since the first time I saw it, and that's all that matters to me.





 
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Saturday, December 14, 2013

My Top 50 Favorite Movies Part 4

Part 4 is here now, bringing you numbers 11-20 on the list of my all-time favorite movies. Hooray!

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#20. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

England's notorious street artist Banksy is just about the only contemporary painter who I give a crap about on any level. In large part, that's because he so thoroughly recognizes the absurdly pretentious train wreck of today's art scene for what it is, and he never fails to cut through the crap. Enter Exit Through the Gift Shop, a maybe-it's-real documentary about street art that centers on the rise of a figure known as Mr. Brainwash. It dissects the hollow, bloated, trend-happy art world with brutal precision, and it does so with a story that may or may not even be true. If it's real, this is one of the most brilliant documentaries I've ever seen. If it's a hoax, then it's equally brilliant and even more elaborate. Imagine having to seriously debate whether or not This is Spinal Tap was fictional. In other words, the simple fact that nobody seems to know for sure speaks volumes about the subject matter all by itself.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Top 50 Favorite Movies Part 3

Part 3. Movies 21-30. Yay!

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#30. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Like I said, I really enjoy found footage horror films. This may not have been the first entry into the genre, but it blew the doors open and changed the face of horror in a way that few films ever have. More importantly, it's a movie that demonstrated an understanding of subtlety. So many horror films try to smash you in the face with buckets of blood and gore and monsters, ignoring the power of the unknown. I've heard a few people complain that they don't really go out and "show anything" in this movie, but if I'm being honest I tend to think of that as a very simple-minded complaint. Maybe I'm just being mean to people who disagree with me, but that's what I think.





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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Top 50 Favorite Movies Part 2

Alright, this post will cover numbers 31-40 of my 50 favorite films. Enjoy.

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#40. Rubber (2010)

I've often said that, for better or for worse, if I were to write and direct a full-length film it would probably be a lot like Rubber. This off-beat French comedy-horror about a killer tire with psychic powers is weird, disjointed, and really kind of stupid. Many elements don't make much sense at all, but it's pretty apparent that this detachment from reality is deliberate (I mean, how seriously can a movie about a killer tire really take itself). This isn't the same kind of unrealistic twist you get in a lot of comedies where things are just comically exaggerated, it's something else entirely. Anyhow, it's a wonderfully original effort, which is something I really prize in a movie. I feel like this is one that most people wouldn't like, but I thoroughly enjoy it. Besides, it's my list and I don't care what people say about it. So yeah, take that, imaginary critics.
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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Top 50 Favorite Movies Part 1

Inspired by a series my brother has been posting on his blog, I've decided to copy him and post a list of my 50 favorite films of all time. Also like him, I'm going to post them 10 at a time. So this, the first installment, will cover numbers 41-50. I'd also like to briefly list off the names that I honestly thought would make the list (or that I really wanted to include) but which just didn't make the cut.

Honorable Mentions:

Cloverfield - Annie Hall - The Trip - Napolean Dynamite - Fantastic Mr. Fox - Until the Light Takes Us -
Midnight in Paris - Jaws - Training Day - Hannah and Her Sisters - The Avengers - Finding Nemo -
Scream - Bronson - The Graduate - The Swimmer - City Lights - It's a Wonderful Life - Ink -
Gangs of New York - The Truman Show - Evil Dead II - A Clockwork Orange - American Beauty

I would also like to give extra special mention to Citizen Kane and The Godfather, because while both are great movies that I genuinely enjoy, I decided to leave them off the list. This isn't a "greatest movies of all time" post, and those two don't need me to help promote them.

Okay, with those names out of the way, it's time for the actual list.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

I hope you all have a happy Thanksgiving in the company of family and cherished friends. May your tables overflow with the bounty of life, your cups runneth over with the wine of happiness, and your heart fill with the joy of companionship.

Oh, and may you always be one step ahead of the evil turkey.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Beard Battles

Forget Whisker Wars, the world of competitive bearding has erupted into a legal battlezone.

In one of the sadder moves I've seen, Phil Olson has confirmed through his recent actions that my previously voiced concerns about his intentions with his 2014 "WBMC" were largely accurate. He has evidently got a copyright on the "World Beard and Moustache Championship" name (despite the fact that the event had been taking place for years before his first involvement). With the announcement that the WBMC would make its return to the USA in 2017, hosted by the Austin Facial Hair Club (with whom Mr. Olsen has had a decidedly rocky history), he has begun to send cease and desist letters with threats of serious legal action.

Of course, many people within the community are outraged that this man would try to shut down a community-run, non-profit competition held in a spirit of charity and camaraderie in an attempt to replace it with his own for-profit championship. Further, the fact that he's claiming ownership of an event which he did not start and does not run is in and of itself a major sticking point.

It may seem absurd to have such drastic disputes over something as fun and essentially pointless as beard competitions, and it is. However, this is a situation where everybody just wants to get along and raise money for charity and enjoy each others company, but one guy insists on creating a problem for everyone. So now the community is banding together in a rapidly expanding wave of backlash that is the central focus of activity in the bearding world at the moment. Hopefully the scale of this reaction will shut down Phil's profiteering attempts to hijack a community event, as hundreds of people have already agreed to boycott all events associated with him and his organization. In their place, competitors have been encouraged to attend any of the numerous bearding competitions which focus on raising money for charities.

And that leads me to my most recent valuable bearding find, the North American Competitive Beard and Moustache Alliance. The NACBMA has its own website here which conveniently provides a very good calendar of upcoming bearding events, making it the single best resource I've encountered for finding out about competitions. Additionally, it provides a set of guidelines for events including categories, judging methods, and the impetus that there be "No cash prize awards, and clubs are strongly encouraged to use profits for charity."

Overall I find the NACBMA site extremely helpful, and I would advise anybody looking into beard competitions in the United States to go there as your primary resource for information of the topic. With any luck, this other ugliness will pass in short order, and we can all get back to making friends, drinking beer, and having a good time at our silly contests.

Final Note: Thanks to the site, I have learned that the 3rd Annual Northern California Beard and Moustache Competition will take place on my birthday this spring, so I plan to make that my own first entry into competitive bearding as a participant.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I Can't Believe I Missed It Again

November 18th was one of the world's most important holidays, and I missed it yet again.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Metalheads Hate Hipsters

Ah, the hipster. That self-important bastion of pseudo-intellectualism. Why do we metal fans hate him so?

This is a subject that, truth be told, could fill a book. In fact, that book would only be a single volume in the complete series of why the rest of the world hates hipsters. I'm not going to write a book, though. I'm not even going to write an essay on the subject, though I've seriously considered doing just that on more than one occasion. Instead, I'm going to let the hipsters speak for themselves.

This is the opening post of a thread I recently encountered entitled "Hipster Black Metal".

"Most of you probably know what this is, but for those of you who do not, hipster black metal is pretty much what it sounds like. It is a fairly recent wave of blackmetal based from the hipster culture, mostly of the U.S. Except unlike traditional black metal, hipster black metal has refined the genre and purged it mostly of the asinine, senseless negativity and hate.

As you know, black metal is a very philosophy-driven subgenre of metal within its lyrical content. Since hipsters normally tend to be more philosophical, deep, opinionated, and intelligent than your average metalhead, this movement is rather fitting for the progress of modern black metal. In other words, the artistic, inovative thinking and ideas encouraged by the hipster culture is basically what has rescued black metal from stagnation.

Though it does go without saying, enthusiasts and acts of the second wave (mostly of Europe and Scandinavia) are very critical of the movement and take yet another oppritunity to bash American black metal. My theory is that they are totes jealous and feel threatened that their style and methods are obsolete and now it's finally time to pass the torch.

With that all said, what are your favorite hipster black metal acts?"
 
I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.
 
Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against philosophy or intellectualism. In fact, I have a bachelor's degree in philosophy. What I do have a problem with is pretentiousness, and that quote is one of the most pretentious things I've ever read. Admittedly, one could argue that this is an isolated instance of one individual expressing his personal opinion, but I've spent enough time around hipsters to know better. This is a succinct expression of the collective viewpoint of every black metal hipster I've ever encountered.
 
If we set aside the mind-numbing arrogance for a moment and just focus on the idea behind it, then we'd see something that seems valuable. Or rather, it would be if it were actually accurate. For one thing, there's plenty of hate in hipster black metal, it's just focused in a slightly different direction and expressed with a minute fraction of the testicular fortitude that other black metal displays. For another thing, as this *ahem* fine young gentleman has pointed out himself, black metal is already a deeply philosophically-driven sub-genre of music. In fact, I would assert that the vast majority of the legitimately deep, philosophical, intelligent black metal that I've encountered has come from outside of hipster culture. All the hipsters have done is see this fact, ham-handedly imitate what was already being done better, drain the music of its passion and honesty, then pretend that somehow by sterilizing it they had created something intellectually superior. 
 
The result is a generally inferior product being passed of as something aimed at "the thinking man" so that anybody who sees through the facade and calls bullshit can just be dismissed as being too stupid to understand. Meanwhile, the genuinely independent thinkers are boxed out and considered "asinine" and "senseless" and other such dismissive pejoratives. And over the whole operation, any indisputably correct criticism of this behavior can be parried with that all-important hipster get out of jail free card: irony.

This, in a nutshell, is why metalheads, hate hipsters. I'm guessing you already knew all this, but I just felt it needed to be said.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Big Five . . . of Freestyle Beards

Yes, it's yet another non-metal blog post, but after all, 'Beards' is in the title. Anyway, as I briefly noted already, the most recent biennial World Beard and Moustache Championship was just held in Germany, so this seems like a good time to look at some of the frequent top-end competitors.

There are many categories in competitive bearding, most of which vary from one event to the next. However, two specific categories tend to be the "main event" as it were. While the field may not be huge in the musketeer or Dali moustache groups, there are others which always provide plenty of size and excite the most interest and prestige. They are full beard natural and full beard freestyle. Of the two, I find freestyle the most interesting, and I'll tell you why that is. Growing a huge full beard is impressive (and totally metal) but it really comes down to genetics. Yes, maintenance and presentation matter to the judges, but in the end if John's beard grows bigger than Dave's, John is generally going to win and there's nothing Dave can really do to improve his chances or step up his game.

Not so in freestyle. For a good freestyle beard you need plenty of hair to work with, sure, but it's not all about what nature gave you. Here costume and presentation can play a bigger part, and most importantly skill and creativity in beard styling matter. If somebody gets beaten by an opponent with a bigger beard, they can work on their styling precision, they can come up with newer and more interesting designs, and they can legitimately step up their game to compete with their one-time freestyling superior. These factors make the freestyle categories the most legitimately competitive and interesting in my mind, and since styling a full beard is the biggest event for freestyle work, that category is my favorite (and I'm certainly not alone on this, either).

Which brings me to my topic: there seem to be five big names in the full beard freestyle category at the highest level, so I'm going to profile the "Big Five" of the sport for those of you who don't follow awesome competitions like I do.

Special note: The man pictured above is David Traver, who took home a somewhat controversial World Championship win in the freestyle category in 2009 (he was president of the host club, under which circumstances it is customary not to compete out of concern for biased judging). He has since cut off most of his beard.

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Gerhard Knapp

A pioneer in the world of beard competitions, Knapp is generally credited with inventing freestyle as a category. Owing to his role in developing the category, he has been a powerhouse in the world of freestyle bearding right from the start, though it is very difficult to find records of event results from the '90s (the first WBMC events were in 1990, 1995, 1997, and 1999). Up until relatively recently, his rivalry with Elmar Weisser was a defining characteristic of the category at the top level, though it was that type of rivalry where the older man is quickly eclipsed but fights on in second place. In the past decade or more, as competitions have grown and new blood has been introduced, Knapp's techniques have been imitated and expanded upon by many other freestylers. This year the 77-year-old failed to make the podium at the World's, raising the question of how much longer he'll be able to stay near the top. Still, he's done well in other recent World Championships, taking 3rd in 2007, 2nd in 2009, and 3rd in 2011. Additionally, his stature within the community assures him a place amongst the elites.

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Elmar Weisser

As I've already noted, Weisser was Knapp's main rival prior to the more recent upswing in bearding popularity, and after taking over the throne he remains the man to beat on the world stage. This year he took 2nd, but he claimed gold in the category in 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2011. His rivalry with Knapp is at its root a philosophical one. Knapp has always styled his own beard, and he has adamantly maintained that elegant patterns of curves and curls are the appropriate way to style facial hair. Weisser, on the other hand, has his sister do his styling after he presents her with a concept (there are no rules against this) and his creations are always outlandish formations of objects like clocks or bridges. He's really the only person to take this very crowd-pleasing design approach, and as a result his photographs are the closest to "viral" of any competitive freestyle bearder.

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Hans-Peter Weis

Weis came along once Weisser had established his freestyle dominance, and he has spent several years nipping at the heels of his more successful opponent. He has claimed national championships both in the USA and in Germany, though, and he is a perennial (technically biennial) contender at the world championship level. He reaches the podium in virtually every competition he enters, and in typical fashion he just took 3rd at the World's, following 2011's 2nd place finish and another 3rd in 2009. Unlike Knapp and Weisser, Weis has not made a habit of changing his styling much. While the others have continually tried to develop newer and better creations, Weis has quietly honed a specific look to near perfection. Additionally, Weis is the only top competitor who plays with coloration in his beard. Coloring is permitted in freestyle, so long as no "unnatural or garish color" is employed, so Weis has put this to use as a dramatic highlight for his now well-established look.

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Hans Gassner

Gassner has not reached the podium in a WBMC since taking 2nd in 2007. His collective successes still place him high in the freestyle ranks, though. He has excelled in many competitions, including 1st at the Italian International Championships in 2003, the European Beard Olympics in 2005, the European Championships in 2010, and the World Championships in 2003. His styling, as this photo illustrates, has tended toward the wild end of the spectrum. Though he has been surpassed in WBMC events recently, a talented freestyle competitor can always make a big comeback even if he's been out of the spotlight for a while. Of the men not currently placing at the top, Gassner has easily the most impressive overall track record.

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Aarne Bielefeldt

The first American citizen to win a world title in the category*, newly crowned 2013 World Champion Aarne Bielefeldt is German-born like all the other top freestyle competitors. Until just a couple years ago, Bielefeldt competed exclusively in full beard natural (where he won the American title in 2010), so when he made the jump to freestyle it came as quite a surprise. Even more surprising was his level of proficiency, as he exploded onto the scene winning nearly everything he entered on his way to a German Championship. He accomplished this feat during his time as the consensus favorite on the TV show Whisker Wars, so these successes catapulted Bielefeldt to a level of popularity previously unheard of in competitive bearding. He has not been in the game as long as these other men, but in the short time since he entered the category, Bielefeldt's signature "octo" beard has dominated the freestyle world.

*Technically Traver is the first American citizen to win freestyle, but as I've already noted, that victory is difficult to regard as being entirely legitimate.

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So what happens moving forward? Does Weisser reclaim his throne? Does Bielefeldt's recent dominance spell the birth of a new freestyle king? Does Weis finally break through and claim a World Championship after years of playing second fiddle? Does the aging giant Knapp get one last hurrah? Or does the former champion Gassner make a dramatic comeback? There's always the possibility that another new face will find its way onto the podium in Austria in 2015, but these gentlemen are the gatekeepers. I've made it a serious personal goal to be there as a competitor myself so I'll (hopefully) get to see it all unfold firsthand. In any case, this is an interesting and exciting time to be a fan of competitive bearding.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

2013 World Beard and Moustache Championships

Today, the world championships were held in Germany. I have yet to see the full results, but I do know that the current American national champion Jeff Langum took home first place in full beard natural. Burke Kenny, who is pictured to the left and has my dream beard, won in full beard with styled moustache, and my favorite competitive bearder Aarne Bielefeldt won full beard freestyle. Other Americans who reached the podium are listed here, though Bryan Nelson (who took second in full beard natural) was left out of that article.

[It appears Nelson was added after the error was noticed.]

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Greatest Metal Frontman

I love lists and rankings, and I love metal. So naturally I love the idea of ranking the greatest metal frontmen of all time. Of course I've got my own opinions on this and I'll likely write an article with my own rankings, but I really just wanted to post this to direct you to the current Loudwire contest, which is still in round 1 so there's time to get in there and add your opinion to the polls.

Greatest Metal Frontman

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Slayer

Yesterday I saw Slayer live for the first time. The opening act 4arm was solid, Gojira was next and they put on a good show too.

The real impression Slayer left on me was with their final two songs. I didn't take the picture you see here, but it was from the show. The band ended their set with South of Heaven and Angel of Death, performed in front of this tribute banner while large screens to the side of the stage played a video montage of Jeff Hanneman footage. It was a touching and very appropriate tribute to a fallen comrade.

R.I.P. Jeff Hanneman, Angel of Death.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

WoodWall - WoodEmpire

I've been terrible about reviewing new albums this year. Something like 50 or 60 bands and promoters have sent me new music to review, which admittedly is far less material than many metal bloggers receive, but it's still enough to make me feel bad about the fact that I've barely touched any of it. Well, I have decided to try a little harder for the rest of the year to cover at least some of the records piling up in my inbox, and I'm starting tonight with a group who contacted me a couple weeks ago.

WoodWall are an Italian band who released their debut album WoodEmpire  last month. They play, as you've probably guessed just by looking at that sweet album artwork, a brand of psychedelic stoner metal.

My initial assumption was that this would be something of an Electric Wizard-esque stoner doom record, but it's quite a bit lighter than that. While definitely psychedelic, and still metal, this record comes with more of a Pink-Floyd-playing-blues-rock flavor to it than I'd anticipated. That works well, and it makes this extremely easy to get into for more casual listeners who may not be ready for thunderously heavy music. The guitar solos sound great and are played with restraint and an emphasis on flowing organically from the songs. The bass maintains a good groove, as it should in this type of metal, and I found myself focusing on it quite frequently as I listened. The drums fit well, but as is often true of groove-oriented metal, they don't really take the spotlight. In my opinion the vocals are the weakest facet of the album, though it's not to the point of being distracting or anything. They just aren't delivered with much power, which is exacerbated by the fact that the only real problem with the mix is that the vocals are a little too low. At its heart, though, this is a guitar record more than anything else. Guitar and bass are the real keys to most psychedelic/stoner music, inside metal and out, so that's not really a surprise.

I do have one other gripe, which that while there are some strong songs here, there are also a couple filler tracks. Now "a couple" doesn't sound too bad, until you realize that there are only six songs on this record. Those tracks aren't really even bad per se, but this would have been a stronger showing if it had been released as an EP without them.

Overall, this is a good record. I doubt it will go down as one of the best releases of the year, but it's groovy and enjoyable. As a debut, I think it shows a lot of promise. Once these guys refine their songwriting a little and bring out a full album of their best material, I can see myself really getting on board.

Grade: B


(You can find the full album on bandcamp here.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to Behave Toward the Police

This is a subject typically tackled from a racial, comedic standpoint by the likes of Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle, but today I'd like to take a few minutes to share a very recent event and provide some honest advice. To make it clear, I'm talking specifically about how to behave toward the police in a traffic-related context, since I'm guessing drug dealers and SWAT teams have a rather different dynamic than most of us are likely to encounter.

Let's begin with story time. Tonight my internet was driving me crazy with its total lack of performance (and by this I mean it wouldn't even open web pages). I decided, since I hadn't eaten dinner anyway, to go grab a hamburger and just use the wifi at McDonald's or wherever I went. So I grabbed my keys and my laptop and headed out the door. A block down the road I realize I forgot my wallet so I go back to get it, which turned out to be pretty important.

Anyway, back on the road, just a few hundred yards off The Strip, I decide to change lanes because mine is at a dead stop. I glace in my mirror, all looks clear, so without turning my head to check my blind spot I whip to my left and hit a taxi. Broken shards of plastic scatter across the street as he hits his breaks. Great. I flip on my hazards and the cab driver and I do the whole get-out-and-survey-the-damage thing as he puts in a call to his supervisor. The next hour or so is spent waiting and answering questions in one form or another, as two police officers and his supervisor arrive and do their thing. In the end, the officer in charge elected not to write up a full report or give me a ticket, since there was minimal damage and there were no injuries, so I was sent on my way with nothing but a dented fender, a broken turn signal casing, and some contact information for the other party should I choose to file a claim.

This whole thing could have gone differently. I could have been given a ticket for several hundred dollars and potentially seen an increase in my insurance rate. That didn't happen, though, and I'm going to share with you some of the reasons why (I think).

These are four things I did that we should all do when dealing with the police in a traffic-related incident.

1. Be polite. This really should go without saying, but for some reason many people seem to ignore it. I'm not saying you have to turn into some fawning, obsequious toady, but you should behave in a calm, civil manner. Remember those basic rules for polite behavior that your parents (hopefully) taught you as a child? Well consider this a good opportunity to practice them. It's just common sense that a police officer is going to respond better to somebody who is polite to them.

2. Be honest. I was at fault, and I knew it. What's more, I admitted it. This is another of those things that needn't be overdone (you don't have to become a fountain of incriminating information) but when you're asked a clear, direct question you should give a clear, accurate answer. Don't adorn it with hyperbole, don't avoid the question, and don't feign innocence. When you're asked what happened you should just give a clear, accurate, and appropriately detailed account of the event. These are people who deal with traffic accidents on a daily basis, so a quick look at your situation has probably already given them a good idea of what occurred. Further, they constantly deal with people lying to get out of trouble, so if you're full of shit, the odds are pretty good that they know it. Nobody likes being lied to, so if a police officer senses that you're trying to pull one over on them they probably won't respond very well to you. In my case, I was specifically told that part of why I didn't get a ticket was because I fully and immediately admitted that I was at fault. That's something to keep in mind.

3. Be cooperative. This pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. These can be stressful situations, and the officer on the scene is trying to keep everything controlled and orderly, so do your part to make his (or her) job easier. Have your license, registration, and insurance card ready. Answer their questions, stay put when they tell you where they need you to be, and generally try to make the situation as convenient and manageable as possible. If you spend your time freaking out at the other driver, wandering into traffic, or trying to avoid providing your information, you make the officer's life harder. And when you make peoples' lives harder, they have no reason to refrain from making your life harder in return.

4. Be non-threatening. Maybe you just want a stick of gum, but don't dive into your pocket. Don't use aggressive body (or spoken) language, and always keep your hands clearly visible. The officer at the scene doesn't know whether or not you're a dangerous person, and for all they know you might have a concealed handgun. It's not unheard of for a police officer to get shot because somebody didn't want a ticket. Keep in mind that as stressful as this is for you, they have the additional stress of not knowing whether you're a threat to their safety. This is basically just another facet of being cooperative, but it warrants special attention because it is very important. An officer who is at ease, like anybody who is at ease in a given situation, is much more likely to treat you kindly than one who thinks you might try to harm them.

So in summary: be polite, honest, cooperative, and non-threatening. I feel like all of this should be common sense, but as is often said, I fear that "common sense is not very common" when it comes to dealing with the police. Traffic accidents can bring out the worst in people, but if you keep a level head and behave appropriately you can save yourself a lot of trouble. And money.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Proper Way to Serve a Stout

Many things in life can be done several ways, and in many cases there's nothing really wrong with taking one course over another. There are some things, though, that can be done the right way or the wrong way. Today, I'd like to address one such thing.

Stout beers should not be served cold. Within the European context beer in general is meant to be drunk at room temperature. This convention isn't always the best course, since many popular American beers taste atrocious when served warm, but when it comes to stouts it is absolutely correct.

You see, there are only two reasons to chill a beer. The first, which applies to those popular American lagers I just mentioned, is that it masks the taste. Flavor is harder to detect in a cold beer than a warm one, and since Coors Light tastes like piss, when it gets warm enough to really experience the flavor it's basically undrinkable. Served cold, though, it's tolerable because you can barely taste it.

The second reason to chill a beer is to make it a cooling, refreshing drink. After all, on a hot summer afternoon, nobody wants to take a break and sit down with a warm beverage. This is understandable, but it's also not really the time for a stout. These situations are why we have lagers, because their thinner, lighter, sharper nature makes them ideally suited to enjoying cold. A cold lager is crisp and refreshing. A cold stout is not.

Stouts are, at least in my (correct) opinion, cold weather beers. When I come in from sweating my ass off in the yard on a scorching July afternoon, I want a frosty Yuengling. When I come in from trudging through the snow on a bitterly cold December night, that's when I want a pint of Guinness. It's a thick, hearty beverage which serves as the beer drinker's equivalent to a nice hot chocolate or a steaming cup of coffee. That's not to say it should be served hot, but it's certainly not going to stick to my ribs and warm me up if it's served a few degrees above freezing. At that temperature I can't enjoy the taste, I can't enjoy the desired warming effects, and I can't imagine I'm sitting in front of a toasty fireplace in a little cottage in the woods.

If you're drinking it at home, obviously you can handle this however you like. To all you bars out there, though, take a look at a good Irish pub. If there's anybody in the world who knows how to brew and serve a good stout, it's the Irish, and you'll notice they set down a pint glass that's just as warm and cozy as their establishment's oak-paneled interior.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fairweather Fans

Now that the NLDS is over and the Pirates have been eliminated, I'd like to address the "fans".

Dear Pittsburgh sports fans,

You disgust me. I'm just going to open with that so there's no question about where I'm going with this article. For years now the Pirates have languished in mediocrity, stringing together losing seasons and building toward the future. During that time, their beautiful stadium (frequently recognized as one of the best places to watch an MLB game) sat half-empty game after game despite having the lowest ticket prices of any National League franchise. The supposedly healthy and loyal fan-base in the city around them treated the Pirates like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, alternately attacking or ignoring them. Now that they have put together a winning season and competed in the playoffs, though, suddenly everybody in Pittsburgh is a Pirates fan. That's their team, don't you know?

Well let me tell you something. Do you know how I know that PNC Park was half-empty game after game? Because I was actually going to Pirates games. Despite having to spend 2 hours in the car each way to get there, I attended multiple games each season. That's because, unlike the throngs of "fans" who cropped up this year and acted like they'd always supported the team, I actually am a Pirates fan. Does that sound bitter and judgmental? Good. You see, I'm not delusional enough to think that everybody out there should latch onto a professional sports team and support them through thick and thin, but when somebody claims to be a fan of a team it means that they're a part of something bigger than themselves. They're part of a community that shares failures, and through that shared experience they take communal joy in the triumphs. But hopping in as a fair weather fan is wanting all the good without paying for it. It's being an atheist your whole life, dying and meeting Saint Peter at the pearly gates, then suddenly shouting "Yeah! God is awesome!" and expecting to get into Heaven.*

To highlight the way Pittsburgh sports fans have treated the Pirates over the years, I'd like to briefly recount something that happened to me about four years ago. I was in Pittsburgh to pick up a friend from the airport. I happened to be wearing a Pirates shirt that I had received during one of the promotional free t-shirt days at the ballpark. As I'm walking into the terminal, a little old lady stopped me. She said "You shouldn't be wearing that. You should wear a Steelers shirt instead." Yes, that was only one person, but never before or since in my life have I had a member of the public admonish me for wearing an article of clothing that supported a team in their own city. That's who the Pirates were to the city of Pittsburgh just a few short years ago. They were the team you "shouldn't" root for, for no discernible reason other than the fact that they weren't winning. Now, though, with the Steelers off to a terrible start and the Pirates finally demonstrating that their GM's long-term planning was well-advised, suddenly the entire city of Pittsburgh are Pirates fans and want to pretend like they've been cheering them on all this time. Well excuse me, but as an actual Pirates fans I'd just like to say: screw you Pittsburgh.

*This is not an endorsement or condemnation of any belief system or lack thereof. It is purely an illustrative example.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Top 10 Norwegian Black Metal Album Covers

Norway's infamous second wave of black metal is one of the most infamous scenes in music history. It produced some of the most iconic bands, albums, and images in the extreme metal world. The movement's aesthetic was unmistakable, and it has long since become the face of black metal to the rest of the world.

Amidst the church burnings and corpse paint, though, the movement also gave us some of the most stunning and starkly beautiful artwork ever to grace an album cover. Below, I list my personal choices for the 10 greatest album covers ever to emerge from Norwegian black metal. You'll doubtless notice a stylistic trend as you near the top of the list.

[Note: Honorable mentions go to Darkthrone's Panzerfaust, both versions of Dimmu Borgir's Stormblåst, and to Windir's Arntor which I wanted to fudge for, but which I decided I couldn't honestly count as black metal.]

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#10. Enslaved - Eld (1997)
It's pretty uncommon to see good full-color portraits on black metal albums. Those that we do see are usually so heavily filtered that they may as well be black-and-white. With this cover, Enslaved went against the grain in a really compelling way. I wouldn't want to see a ton of album covers in this style, but I think Eld comes across with a really effective look.









#9. Arcturus - Aspera Hiems Symphona (1996)
Admittedly there isn't very much to this one. It's fairly minimal, but it's minimal in the right way. The image captures the feeling of northern cold, solitude, light in the darkness, and the hauntingly magical mysteries of nature that all come with the Northern Lights. You may not see a lot when you look at this, but I for one feel a lot when I see it.









#8. Old Man's Child - Ill-Natured Spiritual Invasion (1998)
This cover kind of looks more like a death metal album cover to me. That doesn't really matter, though, because it also looks pretty damn cool. The background, easily ignored when staring at that striking central figure, has a haunting, supernatural glow and those tattered banners that reminds me of the Black Gate of Mordor. Given the departure here from the usual black metal aesthetic, I think this stands as a good example of effective alternative styles black metal bands can adopt.






#7. Burzum - Filosofem (1996)
This one is a classic. Admittedly my perceptions may be colored by the fact that I really love the album, but nonetheless I think this cover really captures the old-world mystique of the music really well. It always makes me think of the silent vampire classic "Nosferatu" and that's a great image to have in your head when listening to black metal.









#6. Dimmu Borgir - For All Tid (1994)
It's easy to forget, given their lack of street cred these days, that once upon a time Dimmu Borgir were a pretty serious black metal band. They've had several good album covers, but their first full-length in particular sported a gloomy, evil-looking cover that just looks spectacular. The black, deathlike figure is as ominous as can be, the towering white fortress is suitably ancient and fantastic, and the whole thing ties together perfectly.







#5. Burzum - Burzum (1992)
Speaking of grim, ominous figures, Burzum's self-titled debut features one of the darkest, gloomiest images I've ever seen. I can just imagine myself, freezing cold as I wander lost across a frozen moor, icy breeze swirling the thick fog, and seeing this black-robed ghoul loom out of the darkness ahead. It's chilling, and that's exactly how a black metal cover should be.









#4. Immortal - At the Heart of Winter (1999)
Immortal peaked a little later in their careers than most of their contemporaries, as far as I'm concerned. The high-water mark for the illustrious black metallers came in 1999, both in terms of music and artwork. The frozen fantasy land that Immortal craft in their music is beautifully illustrated here, with a black metal cover that has just enough darkness to keep its edge.








#3. Antestor - The Forsaken (2005)
Kristian Wåhlin is unquestionably my favorite metal cover artist, and one of his best works belongs on an album that comes out of left field. Antestor are a rare breed: a Christian Norwegian black metal band. In their early career they reportedly received death threats from several of the more aggressive members of the scene, and after disappearing from the music world for years they re-emerged in 2005 with an album so fantastic that even the actively anti-Christian black metal reviewers of Metal Archives give it a 97% score. Wåhlin contributed the artwork, which I absolutely love.




#2. Dark Funeral - The Secrets of the Black Arts (1996)
I didn't even know this one was by Wåhlin until I just now, but that fact that it is just illustrates how much his style appeals to me. This cover combines the dark, gloomy figures on numbers 5 and 6 with the blue tones and fantasy landscape of numbers 3 and 4. Even the band's logo looks cool and evil on there. This cover really has it all, and it would be an easy pick for the top spot if it weren't for. . . .








#1. Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse (1994)
Wåhlin's masterpiece. This cover is perfect. On top of that, it couldn't belong to a better album. This isn't just my favorite black metal cover, it's my favorite album cover of any kind. I won't go into details about this record, since it should be very familiar to anybody with even a passing interest in black metal, but the harsh, delicate beauty of the cover art speaks for itself.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Appearance of Age

As I move closer to 30, and as my little sister starts planning for the start of her college career next year, I find myself thinking about aging. I'm not one of those overly dramatic "I'm almost 30, my life is practically over!" types, but I do think that when you realize that high-school ended a decade ago, it's natural to reflect on the fact that you are getting older. While there is always room to learn and change, at this point you've largely stopped growing and started aging. This post isn't really about the internal psychological or spiritual aspects of aging, though. Rather, it's a reflection on how the world around us watches us age.

I was often puzzled, as I grew out a full beard for the first time, at how often I was told that it made me look old (or at least much older). How is it possible, I would ask myself, that a little hair can  change the appearance of my age by that much? I know beards are often seen as a symbol of maturity, but it struck me as peculiar that 10 years could be magically added to my face just like that.

Similarly, I always looked at the little old ladies wandering the grocery store with jet black hair and wondered who they thought they were fooling. The fact that the puff of hair on your head is a uniform coal color rather than a swirl of grey and white with a hint of light brown doesn't make you look younger, it just makes you look insecure. Again, white or grey hair is a sign of age, but in this day and age of easy access to hair dyes, do people really put that much stock in hair color when gauging age?

On closely a related note, receding hairlines are often a signal of age. I've seen men in their 60s with more hair than some men in their 20s, though, so this is yet another of those factors that seems like a largely superficial one that most people would overlook. Yet for whatever reason, most of us don't overlook it.

It's odd, but people see and apply all those aging factors to their perceptions, without really thinking about it and without even going beyond hair.

Then there's fitness. Obviously being in good physical shape makes you healthier and extends your lifespan, so I'm not going to criticize anybody for taking care of their body. But again, I'll hear people remark that so and so looks like a 20-year-old, and all I think is that no, they look like a 60-year-old who takes very good care of themselves. Good for them, but you can have abs and still look old.

Of course on the flip side of a fit body with an aged face, some people just have those "baby face" qualities that make them look younger than they are, even when the wrinkles start to form and their body starts to degenerate. These people seem to, by simple virtue of their facial structure, resist the appearance of aging in some strange way.

On top of all these things, there is the notorious Hollywood treatment, where a magical blend of makeup, lighting, and cosmetic procedures melts the years right off . . . or at least it's supposed to. Obviously this works to an extent for some people, but for every Jennifer Aniston there's a Steven Seagal. This particular factor doesn't seem relevant to most of us, since it doesn't come into play in our own appearances. It matters, though, because we see actors and models all the time, and despite the knowledge that they don't really look like that in their daily lives, the way they look on camera alters the way many people think we should all look as we age.

Combine all these factors in the right way, and it's astounding how big of a difference a person can make in the appearance of their age. None of this really matters to me personally, but I wrote this article just to provide a little context for the following visual demonstration, which I think is rather stunning.


Pictured here we have Tom Cruise on the left, and Aarne Bielefeldt on the right. As you've probably guessed from the nature of this article, they're about the same age. As nobody would guess without said context, Tom Cruise is actually the older of the two by about three years.





Now does this mean that somehow Cruise has aged the "right way" and Bielefeldt has aged the "wrong way"? Well, no. Aging, like any other part of our lives, is a reflection of who we are. How you handle the process, and how your body reacts to it, are pretty vital elements of you as an individual. It is, after all, one of those few things that we are always doing. I'm a big advocate of the idea that people ought to age gracefully, but that just reveals my own personality. I'm not judging those who hang on to youth in one way or another. Rather than placing either of these men alone on a pedestal, or targeting either of them with criticism, I'd say they each embody a particular ideal of masculine aging. (Of course, feminine aging has a whole other set of ideals and issues surrounding it, but I'm not a woman so I'd be speaking without much experience or context if I dove into that subject.) Our culture is pretty divided on how men "should" age, and I think these two effectively represent the ideal state of the man of about 50 as seen by either side. Which of the two camps you lean more toward (or where you fall elsewhere on the matter) says a good deal about your personality and values, in my opinion. It's not one of those things that is distinctly right or wrong, though. It just illustrates our differences.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Government Shutdown

I am not a very political person, and I promise I won't make a habit out of posting on political topics. That being said, the current semi-shutdown-trainwreck-bitchfight that is the US Government has brought out the political side in everybody recently, so I've found myself drawn into more debates than I'd typically participate in, with people from every corner of my social circles. (Yes, I realize I just talked about the corners of a circle.) These discussions tend to go the exact same way, regardless of the other participant.

Step 1: They make some loud, blanket assertion like "This is all the Democrats'/Republicans'/President's/Christians'/corporations' fault!"

Step 2: I say "Pointing fingers and laying blame isn't going to solve a problem that arose from pointing fingers and laying blame. We should take this opportunity to talk about the structural issues underlying our failing government rather than sitting around calling the opposition idiots."

Step 3: They say "My side is the only logical one, we can't take the middle ground. Those guys are idiots."

Step 4: Repeat Step 2

Step 5: Repeat Step 3

And so on and so forth.

I know it sounds like I'm creating a straw-man here, but I'm really not. This is essentially the level of political discourse that our nation of pseudo-intellectual "informed" citizens seems to be capable of producing at this point.

Now, in terms of my own stance, I'm not really taking a side. Sure, I have my opinions, but I largely stay away from party politics and there are very few issues about which my view is particularly strong or polar. What I do believe, though, is that the political system in this country is severely defective, in a deep and systemic way that goes far beyond issues of being "too liberal" or "too conservative". My thoughts on the matter are perhaps best summed up by a portion of one of my recent online arguments, which I will include here as my closing statement on the matter:

This shutdown has created a prime opportunity for people to see how broken the current political system is and to engage in meaningful discourse about how to solve the structural problems that have allowed a situation like this to happen in the first place. Instead, all I see are a bunch of self-righteous soap-boxers on both sides pointing and shouting and saying that the other party is to blame. It's sad to watch a bunch of presumably intelligent people insist on furthering the problem rather than taking a step back, getting off their high-horses, and looking at the bigger issues at hand.

And I'm not talking about taking the middle ground. You're hung up on which side of the boat to sit in. I'm saying that the whole damn boat is sinking, so maybe before we worry about seating arrangements we should fix the boat.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Living in Las Vegas: Perk #621

I don't know why I picked that number, it just felt right.

Anyway, today I popped next door to the Hard Rock Hotel and picked up a ticket to see Slayer next month. Then, as I strolled back home, I thought about how different my concert-going situation is now that I'm once again in a major city with a booming tourism industry. In the last 5 years in Ohio, I was only able to go to maybe 2 or 3 metal shows a year, and for most of those I had to drive over an hour each way. The sole exception to that long-distance issue was Skeletonwitch, who as I've stated before were from the town where I lived and therefore played locally.

Well after that extensive drought, I'm now back in a situation where bands are regularly coming through my city. I saw Black Sabbath not long ago, Slayer and Gojira are on my plate for next month, Nine Inch Nails the month after, and I've already bought tickets for January when Las Vegas is the first stop on the Amon Amarth tour with Enslaved and (ironically) Skeletonwitch.

I can't express how good it feels to again be able to go to metal shows on a regular basis. The fact that half of these shows are less than a 5-minute walk from my front door is just icing on the cake.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Moss - Horrible Night

British doomsters Moss released their 3rd full-length album "Horrible Night" in March of this year. It took me a while to get around to it, but I finally listened to the record.

The band's previous record, "Sub Templum", is often my go-to album when illustrating the line between funeral doom and drone. It hovers right on the edge, with just enough structure and bite to still feel like doom, while sporting the kind of run-times and ultra-slow tempos that just feel excessive for anything that isn't purely background music.

Well this record is a significant change of pace for the band. Gone (for the most part) are the earlier snarling sludge vocals. Gone are the half-hour tracks. Gone is the feeling that the music is some unseen Lovecraftian horror inhabiting the blackened depths of a subterranean chasm. In place of these features we have much more straightforward British doom band. The vocals now fall into that vaguely Ozzy-esque sound that so many traditional doom bands emulate. The songs now mostly clock in at around 10 minutes (so they're still not "short", they're just not as long). And the feel of the music, while still essentially funeral doom, has moved closer to the fuzzy heaviness of surface-dwelling stoner doom bands.

Now first off, the good: this album reminds me of Electric Wizard. That statement alone should tell you all you need to know. Somehow, without the use of a bass guitar, the band has managed to achieve that crushing low end, while maintaining the fuzzy wall of feedback.

There is, however, also some bad. For one thing, the Wizard have some of the most memorable, monolithic riffs ever set down on tape. Riffs that carry you away as they grind your bones into dust. While Moss have certainly captured the right feel, they are unable to equal the riffing quality for the most part. Some songs, like the title track, definitely grab hold of you, but some songs instead just feel like filler. And when every song is the same length and tempo, those unmemorable tracks really fade into the background. The other downside is that, while I really do enjoy this record, it kind of moves into a niche that is already filled while vacating one that Moss had all to itself. They are currently left fighting with Dopethrone in the Electric Wizard Clone Wars, when before they were my go-to band for a specific sound.

While the negatives section was clearly longer than the positives, you should not take that to mean that I disliked this record. It was a very good, very enjoyable album, and I expect that I'll find myself coming back to it in the future. I do have some mixed emotions about it, as is often the case when a band you like goes through a radical style change. They haven't abandoned their funeral doom roots, they haven't sold out, and they haven't really even taken a step down. They have shifted in a more accessible direction, though, in what I would call a surprising lateral move.

In terms of recommendations, if you are a Moss fan it's worth checking out, but be warned that it's not quite what you'd normally expect. If you're an Electric Wizard fan, you'll probably enjoy this. If you just like funeral doom in general, it's a good record and you'll probably like it. And if you are new to the sub-genre and want to explore funeral doom, it's no masterpiece but it's an acceptable place to start.

Grade: B+


Work Footage

The other day on Good Morning America, there was a massive card stunt on a dry lake bed south of Las Vegas, where Britney Spears came down for an interview discussing her upcoming extended-engagement of shows at Planet Hollywood. I was on the crew for the live broadcast. This video is some footage my boss shot with a remote-controlled camera drone, and that sexy beast you see operating the jib (camera crane) is yours truly.

This was actually a pretty exciting occasion for me, since I've typically just done tech work, but on this occasion I actually did a little backup camera work during a live show.

Video is here.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Our Full Beard Champions

After writing what was essentially a rant when all I started out wanting to do was talk about the national bearding championships, I wandered off and started looking through photo galleries of this year's contestants. There were a lot of new faces, and many of the regulars appeared to be absent. Still, there were a lot of really good beards, and that's the important thing.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how, in the first four years of this competition, a different man has won the main event every year. The categories have expanded from 4 to 18, so in many of the smaller groups it's a different situation, but the main category is full beard natural and that has been there since the first year of the event. So I decided it might be interesting, for your viewing pleasure, to present to you the four big winners so far. You'll likely notice, as I have, that there appears to have been a shift in the type of beard that wins. I'm not sure why that is, but it does appear on the surface to be the case.

So here they are:

1st Annual National Beard and Moustache Championship in Bend, Oregon. 2010.
Winner of Full Beard Natural: Aarne Bielefeldt



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2nd Annual National Beard and Moustache Championship in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 2011.
Winner of Full Beard Natural: John Burgess



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3rd  Annual National Beard and Moustache Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada. 2012.
Winner of Full Beard Natural: Neil Moherman


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4th Annual National Beard and Moustache Championship
Winner of Full Beard Natural:Jeff Langum

Friday, September 13, 2013

2013 NBMC and 2014 WBMC

Just this past weekend, the 3rd annual NBMC was held in New Orleans. A new face took top honors in the main event, Jeff Langum. You can see footage of the final here.

This article also features a small gallery of photos from the event.

Now on to the main point of my article.

In related (and somewhat more troubling) news, it was recently announced that the United States will host next year's world championships. This is an extremely controversial claim within the bearding community. Normally the World Beard and Moustache Championships are held every other year, with the 2013 event in Germany rapidly approaching, and the 2015 event already scheduled for Austria. However, in a surprising move which I have not yet seen much information about, another championship has been announced on the WBMC website for 2014 in Portland, Oregon.

This may be the sign of a final, fatal split within the competitive bearding community. The American Phil Olsen who runs the WBMC website, Beard Team USA, and the national championships is not part of the governing body that organizes the world championships. He has in fact had numerous run-ins with that organization (the World Beard and Moustache Association) over the years, and has made thinly-veiled threats in the past to basically dictate the future of the event via his control of the WMBC's online presence. It would appear at first glance that he has now made his move, as it were, by trying to establish and legitimize a world championship of his own based out of the United States rather than the event's historical base in Germany.

The way this manipulation of information plays out could prove to be really interesting from an Orwellian perspective, but mostly I hope it doesn't prove too damaging to the burgeoning beard competition community. It's possible new information will arise that shows these concerns to be unfounded. Maybe the WBMA simply decided to increase the frequency of the events, making them annual in response to the growing popularity of the "sport". As I already stated, a minimal amount of information is readily available at this time. My inclination at this point in time, however, is to believe that Olsen is attempting to use his position to take control over the world championships by spreading misinformation. The troubling thing is that when the press reports on this (and the mainstream media actually does briefly touch on these events) it will be doing so from a position of ignorance and simply spread the erroneous information most easily available. That will, in turn, create a kind of retroactive 3rd-party validation and cause the public at large to adopt the falsely created event as the "real" one.

Of course, one might pose the question of whether or not any of this matters to the health of the community itself. After all, if there are 1000 potential participants and 900 attend the "fake" event while only 100 attend the "real" event, hasn't the fake one now established legitimacy since it's the bigger event with more competition? Well, yes and no. "Yes" because, quite simply, the more competitors an event has, typically the better and more valid it becomes as a measure of individual accomplishment for the winners. "No" because, if an organizing body representing many nations holds an impartial contest in an agreed-upon location, the results are going to be far more fair than when an event is run by a single self-appointed individual with his own agenda and a demonstrable willingness to play dirty. At this point, Phil Olsen has shown himself to be just that kind of person. I've been following the competitive bearding scene since the last WBMC held on US soil, the Anchorage event in 2009, and in that time I've seen enough interviews, articles, and independent documentaries to convince me that the man is a power-hungry egomaniac who has a clear agenda and who wants to reshape the community around his own goals. Admittedly he's done more than anybody to grow and promote facial hair competitions in the USA, but he seems to think that that means the entire sport belongs to him.

Competitive bearding is in the early stages of a huge surge in popularity. While it will never be on the level of major sports, it is establishing an increasingly visible niche for itself. At this pivotal time in bearding's growth, this kind of selfish power struggle is one of the last things the community needs. I sincerely hope that I am overreacting, but I fear that the next few years could set competitive bearding on a crash course toward manipulated results and corrupted leadership that would be absolutely crippling.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thoughts on "Geeks" and "Nerds"

I've had a few conversations related to this topic recently. For those of you who haven't noticed, every teen and 20-something in the whole world these days seems to claim that they are a "geek" or a "nerd". This has lead to some social backlash.

Well, a friend just posted a link to this article attacking/spoofing people who have issues with those who self-apply those terms.

Since it's a topic I've been thinking about recently anyway, I posted what I believe to be a relatively thoughtful response to the topic, which I've decided to go ahead and share on here as well.

Here it is:

I don't think it's about judging others for not being geeky enough. I think it's more about the defensiveness surrounding a label that arises when one suffers for belonging to a group.

Like it or not, being "nerdy" is in right now, and when something gets popular it's a simple fact that people will jump on the bandwagon for attention. That's not an attack on "fake geek girls" or anything, it's just a statement of truth. Well that's all fine, but kids who grew up in social isolation, bullied on the playground and beaten up by classmates for being "nerds" or "geeks" are understandably going to have some issues with the popular cheerleaders from school sitting down to play Minecraft with their friends and then self-applying those same labels.

That article/video paints it as a "this is our club, you can't join" thing, but I don't think that's accurate. I think it's more of a "don't patronize me by pretending you know what it feels like" thing.

I hesitate to put the terms "geek" and "nerd" in the same category as racial or homophobic slurs, but in many respects they are lesser manifestations of the same ideas. Like with those other terms, seeing somebody from outside the group use them without the context of knowing the pain they once caused can be grating. It can lead to the feeling that "you haven't earned the right to use that word," and that, I believe, is at the root of the recent outrage over many of the people who self-apply those terms.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11 and Moving

First off, as we all know, today is September 11th, so it felt appropriate to acknowledge that, even though I have nothing to say about it that hasn't been said a million times already.

Secondly, I've moved into a new apartment here in Las Vegas. I've spent the past few days moving things over here from the friend's house where I had been staying since arriving in town. Tonight is my first full night in the new place, so I guess at this point I'm now officially moved in to my own apartment.

It's a small 1 bedroom place, kinda cheap, but I love that I'm only 3 blocks away from the heart of the Strip. It makes for a great view from the parking lot, and it's cool to know that I can walk to one of the world's most famous and spectacular tourist destinations in about 15 minutes.

I'm also basically next door to the Hard Rock Hotel, where I have tickets to see NIN in November.

[Edit] I know it says this was published at 2am on the 12th, but I've changed timezones and my blog hasn't, which is why I was still calling it the 11th.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Papers, Please

There are two new games I picked up on Steam which have occupied my time this weekend. One I've already discussed. The other is a dystopian indie title from last month, "Papers, Please".

I love fiction surrounding totalitarian dystopias. 1984 many well be my favorite novel of all time, and Brave New World sits pretty high up there, too. Sadly, though the basic setting of crumbling, fearful societies policed ruthlessly by oppressive, virtually omnipotent governments is common in gaming, the application is generally superficial. It's kind of the cyberpunk alternative to a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a world at war with futuristic monsters, since those three pillars of action seem to be the only versions of the future where running around shooting people is an acceptable pastime. A dystopian game that feels genuinely grim and hopeless, which leaves the player with little power to affect the monolithic hand of his oppressors, is a rare commodity.

Papers, Please is that rare game. You are a 1980s bureaucrat: a rubber stamp serving as the inspector at a militarized border checkpoint on the way into Arstotzka, which is basically a German-meets-Soviet totalitarian nation. All day you sit in your booth examining increasingly complex sets of  travel documents and deciding if the person in front of you will gain entrance to the country. On the surface this may seem very dull. Admittedly the game is not what I would call "action-packed," but a number of interesting sub-plots involving covert political movements, government officials, terrorists, drug runners, and the desperate people who beg and bribe and coerce you for entrance all serve to flesh out the slate-grey world you inhabit.

I've been fighting not to overuse the word "oppressive" in this article, but that really is the best term for almost everything about the game. The music and sound is oppressive, with monotonous marching themes and crackling orders barked indistinctly over loudspeakers. The graphics are oppressive, consisting of a primitive and largely colorless 16-bit rendering of a desk setting and an overview of the guarded area outside your booth. The writing is oppressive, making you feel nearly as trapped and powerless as the nervous souls awaiting your judgement. Even the game mechanics are oppressive, forcing you to maintain vigilant focus as you balance quality control with speed so you can bring home enough of a paycheck to keep your family afloat for another day.

There are obviously some downsides, largely self-evident ones, to playing a game that consists of examining paperwork in a darkly depressing environment while a demanding employer looks over your shoulder, criticizing your failures and basically ignoring your successes. One could be forgiven for thinking this just sounds like a bad office job. The tension, atmosphere, and genuine immersive involvement of this game more than compensate for those flaws, though. Everything on your desk can be handled and moved and shuffled and organized in a way that feels so much more real than you might expect. This tangibility, small as it may seem, greatly enhances gameplay. More importantly, though, the player's moral compass is tested in far more interesting and subtle ways than the typical "this is the good decision, that is the evil decision" method we see so often in modern games. Instead, you inhabit a grey area, and you try to do what you can while recognizing the simple fact that your can't afford to help everyone. In the same vein, you can't even play the full-on heartlessly obedient government stooge, as it's virtually impossible to keep your bills paid and your family alive unless you dip a hand into the cookie jar of bribery and mutual favors now and then.

The closest game to this that I can think of would be Cart Life, and some older gamers may feel that it plays a bit like a dark, micro-managed Oregon Trail. In reality I don't think there's anything else out there quite like this game. I'd heartily recommend it to anybody who has a degree of patience and an interest in dystopian fiction, because I think those gamers will find that Papers, Please gives a big payoff for a modest price.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Electronic Super Joy

I recently picked up Electronic Super Joy while poking around on Steam. The game advertised itself as a brutally hard indie platformer, and since I like indie games and platformers and challenging games, I bit.

The first couple levels are simple jumping from platform to platform. With the 8-bit silhouette characters (retro is in these days) set against brightly flashing background colors and patterns, the "kooky" "random" dialogue and story (I need to get revenge on the wizard who destroyed my butt? Really?) and the thumping dance club soundtrack I thought this may just be a case of the developers dangling some shiny keys in the faces of casual players and trying to pass off said distraction as a game.

Holy crap was I ever wrong. This game has a difficulty curve like a brick wall, and it's definitely not meant for casual gamers. After those introductory levels that acclimate the player to the basic game mechanics, you're thrown into a whirlwind that feels like doing speed runs through Super Meat Boy at a rave. To call Electronic Super Joy "hard" would be like calling the Universe "big" or Sean Penn "pretentious". It's crushingly, mind-numbingly difficult, and anybody who claims otherwise is either Billy Mitchell or some turd who thinks lying on the internet about his video game prowess will get him girls. As for the bright colors and club music, I actually found them growing on me as the game progressed. Not my flagon of mead, normally, but here they fit perfectly and they add to the general hyper-ridiculous flavor of the game as a whole. I'm still not clear on why the save point flags all make sex moans, though.

The principal difference between this and other notoriously challenging indie platform games is that it doesn't give you any time to think. While you can take your time and work through a puzzling situation in Super Meat Boy, the combination of moving screens and rapidly multiplying missiles in ESJ often make staying in one place for more than a split second as good as a death sentence. One level was only about 40 yards long, if we assume the character is roughly human sized, yet it still took me about 50 tries to beat it. I've already died a few hundred times, and I'm not even through the first of the game's four worlds. I have reached the first boss fight, against the Pope in a spaceship (no, I'm not making this up) and that's also structured like the SMB boss fights, where you're mostly just racing through a difficult level with the boss character hanging around to prompt your hurried pace. After dropping dead at least 40 or 50 times with no end in sight, I decided to walk away so I could come back to it later with a clear head. Coming back to it I discovered that defeating the Pope is actually a multi-phase process, with the later portions including a Space Invaders-style battle, and a section with more direct combat against him. Overall, it's an effective and highly challenging mix.

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that the game is unbeatable. I'm sure it's been done. People have been climbing Mount Everest for years, and I'd imagine beating Electronic Super Joy is only slightly harder than that.

As for the all-important question is "is it fun?" I'd say yes. It's tremendously frustrating most of the time, but it's that kind of frustrating that motivates you because you can see that you've nearly reached the next checkpoint or level end and you refuse to let the game win. The sense of accomplishment when you actually do reach that next level is wonderful, because you know you had to earn it. That has sadly vanished from mainstream hand-holding games in recent years, which as I've previously explained is part of what draws me to these kinds of titles. It's like the difference between a getting a pat on the head for trying your best and having your teammates swarm you as you cross the plate after hitting a game-winning home run. The grown-ups may tell you that you're all special no matter what happens, but deep down inside you know this is just empty praise. So thank you, Electronic Super Joy, for having enough respect for your player-base to make us earn our success, even if do you seem to think we're all 13-year-olds.

World Beard Day

I would be remiss in my duties as a hirsute blogger if I didn't point out that today, the first Saturday in September, is World Beard Day. So, to all my fellow bearded warriors out there, fighting the good fight against facial tidiness and sex appeal, today is for you.

Happy World Beard Day!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Carcass - Surgical Steel

After a 17 year break, death metal juggernauts Carcass are releasing a new studio album this month. Bill Steer and Jeff Walker are back, with a pair of new faces on board to flesh out the current lineup. The album was made available to stream, which was linked in this Blabbermouth article.

Now as the record first started to play, I have to admit I was struck with a chord of terror, because the intro track sounded like I was in for an evening of power metal wankery, but thankfully that sensation vanished once the first proper song started. This is pretty much "Heartwork"-era melodeath Carcass, which could either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on where you fall when it comes to the band's eclectic discography. Basically I'd say you can gauge you much you'll like this based purely on how well you liked it's aforementioned brother, so rather than go into further detail about the record itself I'd like to go off the rails a bit and examine the reasons why I'm not personally sure how I feel about it just yet.

You see, melodic death metal and I have grown apart somewhat over the past couple of years. In part I blame this on the general quality of the music being produced within the style, since the heyday of the Gothenburg sound is long gone, and in the place classic At the Gates and In Flames the sub-genre has become stuffed with sensitive goth prettyboys pumping out bland, syrupy mush full of "emotional" screaming and whining. Basically, it's the festering spawning pool of the metal world's equivalent of boy bands.

That's not to say that there is no good melodeath out there anymore. Dark Tranquillity have basically stayed the course, Insomnium are an unstoppable colossus, and Amon Amarth are still Amon Amarthing. That said, there has been a general sense of toothlessness pervading melodic death metal for some time. As a result, music simply falling into the style has tended to put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth unless it's something I already know.

Of course the alternative to this theory is that I've just grown beyond my melodic death metal phase and have moved on to bleaker pastures. The sound served as an excellent gateway, but maybe now I'm at a stage where I no longer need the connecting strands holding my music to the hard rock world and I'm just shoving my former favorite sub-genre into the same box in the basement where people hide the embarrassing clothes they thought were cool back in high-school. The egotistical part of my brain, which admittedly is a pretty big portion of the whole, rather likes this idea. Moving on to something different doesn't have to be an act of growth or improvement, and it's entirely possible that my tastes have simply made a lateral move, but it sounds better in my mind when I view it as a form of progress.

Ultimately, whether melodeath has changed for the worse or I've just left it behind, the simple fact of that matter is that I don't listen to it very often anymore. I still go back to old records I know and old bands I trust, though, which is what puts "Surgical Steel" in such a uniquely weird position. It's not a familiar album, since it's brand new. And it's not part of a trusted routine the way every new Amon Amarth record is. It's still from an old band that produced a pioneering melodeath record, though, and it's a band hasn't destroyed their credibility with a string sellout disasters. So there's familiarity in limited quantities.

Really, the music needs to stand in its own right, and I think "Surgical Steel" does that fairly well. I also think, though, that I'm far less enamored with it than I would have been 5 years ago. Basically, I find it difficult to approach this objectively enough to give it a fair review, so I'm not even going to try.