Friday, March 30, 2012

On Metallica

It's been a while since I actually posted anything about metal on this blog, so let's revisit the band that was my gateway drug: Metallica, the band you love to hate and hate to love.  James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich essentially kick-started the thrash revolution in the early 80's.  The fact that they are pretty dickish individuals, combined with the band's undeserved critical rep as "best metal band ever" can frequently make me forget that.  They really have made some great music over the years when all is said and done.

For those unaware, thrash metal was the opening salvo of modern extreme metal music.  The style combined the intricate riffs and complexity of 70's metal with the brutality and mosh-pit mentality of hardcore punk.  The key element of thrash music is the riff, and nobody typified this more than Metallica.  Thrash riffs are percussive, but melodic with constant chord changes.  Metallica were one of the originators of thrash, and certainly the first band to do anything noteworthy with the form.

Their early years were odd, given that "the talent" wasn't Hetfield and Ulrich, but lead guitar virtuoso Dave Mustaine.  Mustaine was, however soon kicked from the band for being an angry drunk, and it was better for all concerned that he was fired.  Metallica has always been the Hetfield/Ulrich show, and that's just too much ego for one band.  Nevertheless, half of the band's debut "Kill 'Em All" has co-writing credits from Mustaine who then founded Megadeth and one-upped his original band on all counts with the classic album "Killing is My Business... And Business is Good!".  "Kill 'Em All" does feel like Megadeth without the skill, though it was my first taste of the sheer fun that thrash could be back in the days before... well, before everyone wanted to be Metallica.

Two Metallica albums are still among my favorite metal records of all time.  The first is "Ride The Lightning", probably the best document of what Metallica did positively for their scene.  The songwriting on "Ride" is excellent, and it's packed with memorable tunes.  Metallica had decided to aim a bit higher than the mosh pits (just a bit) with powerful epics like the title track and "Creeping Death".  "Fight Fire With Fire" and "Trapped Under Ice" are the two best pure thrash songs that Metallica ever wrote.  I still get chills during "Fire" when Hetfield casually whispers "We all shall die".  "Fade To Black" is still a very moving ballad, despite its aimless ending.  "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is the first truly classic song that the band ever wrote, three minutes of ominous mid-tempo doom that really shows what the whole band can do.

What makes "Lightning" an unbeatable record is that despite the band's ambitions, they never forget to be thrashy and exciting.  Most importantly "Metallica Syndrome" hasn't taken hold yet.  As defined by Satan Stole My Teddybear, this disorder makes bands feel compelled to stretch every song out to 8 minutes in length, repeating a stale formula by rote ad nauseum. 

The band's next album "Master of Puppets" was the first metal record I ever heard.  Despite the album provoking my brain and making me want more, I've never liked it all that much.  One reason is the general tedium and length of the songs, but the other is that it has the most annoying production Metallica ever used.  The guitars are razor thin, and sound like they're in an echo chamber.  The softer, melodic portions sound great, but the riffs sound awful.  Imagine a Van Halen record where Eddie's guitar was busted so he had to use a ukelele and you're halfway there.

Which brings me straight to my all-time favorite Metallica record "...And Justice For All".  Call me crazy, but I love it when Hetfield and Ulrich go totally nuts with production tricks to sound more br00tal.  On Justice, the rhythm guitar and drums are stripped of any reverb or feedback whatsoever, made bone-dry and brick-wall heavy.  People say that the bass is inaudible, but I'm going to side with Hetfield on this one and say that the bass mirrors the riffs so closely it becomes indistinguishable.  And yes, it sounds like garbage when Hetfield has his rare Brian May guitar chorus moments, but this is not Queen by any stretch.  Metallica is about about riffs, riffs, and more riffs, and they sound great here.

The band's unfortunate condition had by this point progressed to their brains, making them incapable of editing a god-damned thing.  It feels like every song is 9 minutes long but weirdly enough it works.  The songs are so repetitive that combined with the bludgeoning guitar sound they become hypnotic.  I like to call this style "Ambient Thrash", since it almost feels like Kraftwerk had a co-writing credit.  To be fair, there's massive filler, and the best of parts of a few songs should have just been compressed into one totally insane shorter one. 

"Blackened", "One", and "To Live Is To Die" are masterpieces.  "Blackened" has a main riff that is angular, violent, and catchy.  The band chops it up randomly with time signature shifts for no reason and an amazing bridge, combined with an honest-to-god great Kirk Hammet guitar solo.  Actually, Hammet does some great work  all over the record.  He goes for chaotic noise mostly, and it feels like blood spattered on marble in the best possible way.  I don't know what happened during the guitar solo in "Frayed Ends of Sanity", though.  It sounds like Hammet drugged the rest of the band, who zone out for 30 seconds staring off into space and drooling while he inflicts pain on that instrument of his.  "One" is the ultimate Metallica epic, and "To Live Is To Die" is a mournful instrumental that never fails to devastate me.

After "Justice" the band became ridiculously famous and you all probably know enough about them that I don't need to belabor the point.  It was probably for the best that they backtracked after "Justice", and Bob Rock was pretty good at convincing them to write songs of a digestible length for a few albums.  "St. Anger" really wasn't such an abomination when taken as a voyeuristic snapshot of a band eating its own tail, drowning in studio time and money, yet completely miserable.  And "Death Magnetic" finally showed the band enjoying themselves again, and writing fun thrash metal (though three minutes could have been cut from every song on that record to improve it).

At the end of the day, I will never love Metallica as much as Megadeth or Anthrax, but they did some great stuff at the end of the day.  And I'm glad they hung in there, because we all got treated to the Big Four Live DVD, and for that the world is a better place.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

How to Smell Bullshit From A Mile Away

Couresy of Mario Piperni
Here's a hilarious debating technique that I've heard some far right conservatives use quite frequently lately.  When asked about why we should deny gay couples the right to get married, Rick Santorum has replied that "It's not about gay marriage, it's about religious freedom".  When asked why women should be denied medical coverage for contraception, Newt Gingrich has responded that "It's not about contraception, it's about the government intruding into our private lives."

When someone says that the debate isn't about what it's about, that's a pretty clear indicator that they're trying to mislead their audience with bullshit.  Then again, that might be my liberal bias towards rational thinking.  What a pesky socialist atheistic radical muslim freedom-hater I must be.  So to recap:

1) Giving gay people more rights would be a restriction of Christians' religious freedom.  And I suppose if you mean the Christians' long-denied freedom to beat up gay people free of consequence, you're right.

2) Giving women more choices would be intruding on the freedom of women.  Because more choice makes you less free.  How existential! *bongos*

Just making sure we've got that clear.  I'm glad someone's fighting to restore the theocracy that this great nation was built on.  I don't think I'll feel free until I have to get approval from the Christian church to make any choices.  

Metal Philosopher v. MPAA - Exhibit A

Today I would like to shine the spotlight on the latest example of the MPAA being itself: ruining Zack Snyder's 2011 film Sucker Punch.  Normally I wouldn't discuss the same film twice in one week, but there's a good reason for doing so this time.  The PG-13 and R-rated cuts of Sucker Punch are two entirely different films.  I recently posted my immediate gushings about Sucker Punch, and was of the opinion that Snyder had made a needlessly difficult film, but one with rich depths to explore.  After seeing the R rated edit, I erupted into cheers over the closing credits.  The movie finally makes actual sense!  It's vibrant, full of life, more honest, and a hell of a lot more fun.  But Dave, you say, why on earth would the studio release a ruined version of their film to theaters anyway?  Let's get to that.

The plot has been discussed elsewhere, and I won't dwell on it unnecessarily.  Essentially there are three levels of "reality" in the film:

1) A young woman is forced into an asylum by an abusive step-father, where he bribes an orderly to have her swiftly and quietly labotomized.  The (all-female) inmates are put on stage and asked to revisit their personal traumas, ostensibly to cure them (though the orderly creepily remarks that it's a pretty hot show regardless).

2) For much of the film, the young woman visualizes the asylum as a high-class brothel.  In this world she is known as Baby Doll, and her virginity is for sale.  The creepy orderly is now their pimp.  The brothel girls are compelled to develop "personal dances" that they will perform to entice customers, who will purchase the services of the girls they like.

3) Baby Doll's dance turns out to be the most unimaginably erotic ever seen at the club, and male onlookers fall into a stupor witnessing it.  We never see the dance however, as during it Baby Doll retreats into a video-game like fantasy realm.  Here, she and the other girls engage in insane action sequences where they massacre cartoonish enemies (zombie nazis, orcs, robots, etc).  These sequences' drool-inducing effects on the audience are meant to be similar to the effect of Baby Doll's dances.

Some of this wasn't too easy to pick out in the original theatrical release for one simple reason: The MPAA hates it when people are honest about sex.  Their ratings board demanded cuts before giving the film a PG-13.  Snyder bowed to their demands, likely because he was contractually obligated to produce a PG-13 film.  Studios sometimes demand this because films that are rated R generally make far less money.  Since this project was probably rather difficult to finance, it's not a far fetched scenario for the the MPAA to have made Snyder its bitch.

The action scenes were shortened by several minutes.  Not a lot of specific content was cut, but the MPAA simply demanded less of it.  Bloodlessly slaying 1000 enemies must have unsettled them more than bloodlessly slaying 800 enemies.  Pretty much any scene that directly references the girls ever having sex or being intimidated was cut down or removed.  Many important shots were cut to the point where they seemed overly vague and tame.  Eventually, Snyder found that the effect of these edits was to make the brothel seem less objectionable, leaving viewers wondering what was so bad about it.

A very unfortunate casualty of this effect was a lavish musical number for the song "Love is the Drug", where all of the girls perform their dances to turn on the rich clients in the audience.  Each girls' dance has a unique theme with elaborate sets and special effects.  We see the men in the audience being turned on, as well as the gambling and organized crime activities that regularly happen at the club (unseen and unspoken of in the edited version).  Snyder cut this scene because after the rest of the film was neutered it made the brothel look like an absolute blast, which was not his intention at all.

Aside from removing one of the most amazing sequences in the film, the MPAA's interference changed the entire tone of the movie.  In the theatrical release everything seems more muted.  The film feels sleepier, greyer, uncomfortably vague.  I kept holding my breath for the edgy stuff that I felt lurking around the corner but it just wasn't there.  Sucker Punch (PG-13) feels like an unsettling and incoherent dream.  Sucker Punch R is alive and vibrant from start to finish.  There are ecstatic highs (such as the musical number) as well as unsettling lows (the objectionable stuff that the MPAA disagreed with).  The action sequences are longer, punchier, and also more fun.

Most troubling of all is that the girls in the R rated version are happier!  Alternate takes were used to make a few shots of the girls smiling less cheerful in the theatrical cut (because the idea of victims ever being happy is supposedly distasteful).  In the MPAAs world, you can show children a film that's clearly about victimized hookers as long you trivialize their plight by omitting details, and NONE OF THEM EVER HAVE MOMENTS OF JOY.

Another side effect of removing all references to sex, virginity, or victimization (which are kind of the three main topics of the film) was to render the film's metaphors incomprehensible.  The brothel's stage show is a clear analogue for the girls in the asylum engaging in "group therapy".  This metaphor still exists in the theatrical cut, but you've got to dig for it, since the stage show was entirely removed.

Finally the most egregious wound inflicted on Sucker Punch was the alteration of its ending.  In the R rated cut, the doctor delivering Baby Doll's labotomy is symbolized in the brothel as the suave, well-dressed High Roller.  He pays an ungodly sum of money to purchase her virginity, and a climactic scene shows the two of them in a bedroom, as he tries to convince her to give into him willingly, not to make him take her by force.  He offers her freedom from pain, freedom from responsibility, and all he requires is that she give herself to him.  His invitation is mirrored by the prospect of her being labotomized in the asylum, similarly checking out of the world and agreeing to become a helpless victim.

This entire sequence was removed, and with it the entire character of the High Roller.  He appears in one brief scene, but unless you knew beforehand who he was, you'd never realize it.  All references to Baby Doll's virginity are removed.  The PG-13 ending makes no goddamned sense.  Even I was unable to figure it out, and chalked it up to a weak script.  It's no wonder everyone hated the movie.

In it's R-rated form, Sucker Punch is a goddamn masterpiece.  I love it to death, and it's abhorrent that the MPAA demanded it be kneecapped and made incoherent for the supposed needs of its audience.  Let's make one thing clear: being honest about the sexual elements in a film is a good thing.  Talking around them and pretending that they aren't there is infinitely more creepy than dealing with them head on and putting them into context.  They made the film more unpleasant, so that it would be suitable for children.  Well done.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Technical Support from Cosmo Castorini

Dear Cosmo,

My computer has been acting up lately, with applications freezing and everything generally not running as fast as it used to.  I've contacted Microsoft tech support, but they won't help me because they hate their customers.  Is there anything I can do to tune up my system without dumping a lot of money on a new computer?

- Clueless in Queens

Dear Clueless,

There are three kinds of computer. There's the kind of computer you have, which is garbage.  And you can see where that's gotten you. There's Linux, which is pretty good... unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. Then, there's Apple... which is the only computer I use. It costs money. It costs money because it saves money.