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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Balzac



Photo from Balzac band website: Balzac band website

These guys are a lot of fun....


Balzac
Out of the Grave and Into the Dark
Misfits Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Rating: 4/5

Skeleton costumes, paper bag masks, Glenn Danzig face drapes, vocals hollered through a megaphone, an unwavering post-adolescent affinity for all things horror and splatterpunk and a pretty amusing takeoff of The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album cover… Welcome to the twisted world Japan’s Balzac!

What Puffy Amiyumi did for pop music in Japan, Balzac does for the lost art of horror punk, borrowing liberally from The Misfits (with co-production blessings by none other than The Misfits’ Jerry Only himself) and many facets of classic punk rock, assembling these elements into a mostly satisfying and entertaining array of punk revival tunes on Out of the Grave and Into the Dark.

“Zetsubou-no-ano-basho-e” rips the crap out of traditional Misfits theory and runs like a bloodthirsty berserker with it, while the fast hardcore rage of “Season of the Dead” prevents Balzac from becoming a bona fide Misfits knockoff, even with its noticeable traces of three-chord mania. A slick little breakdown makes this track Balzac’s and not The Misfits’. In other words, Balzac creatively puts their own spins on pre-existing fundamentals and acts like a bunch of liberated free-spirits in the process.

Of course, “Inside My Eyes” is undoubtedly Misfits-oriented all the way, as is “Came Out of the Grave,” “Art of Dying,” “Gimme Some Truth,” “XXXxxx” and “Blood Inside ’68.” Yet there’s more to Balzac than a lengthy serving of Misfits-inspired tributes.

“D.A.R.K.,” combines angry hardcore ala Agnostic Front with dashes of electronic sampling and melodic choruses. “Shi-wo-yubi-sasu” is a heavy-handed hardcore stomper with traces of Ministry in it (particularly through vocalist Hirosuke’s Alain Jourgensen-like distortions). “The Pain Is All Around,” “Gyakusatsu-no-mukougawa” and “Yami-no-hikari-e” interestingly heaps in doses of The Jam, Buzzcocks and early British punk into these rather tuneful pieces. Then there’s “I Can’t Stand it Anymore,” which is a gleeful nod to The Dickies. On the other end of the spectrum are the noisy industrial “Beyond Evil 308” interludes that keep you second-guessing Balzac.



These guys may idolize The Misfits, but their love for punk overall resounds louder once you get over the fact that they’ve gone to serious lengths to emulate The Misfits’ theatrical style, even by sometimes utilizing the same Crimson Ghost skull onstage…it’s all good, though, since The Crimson Ghost is originally an old-time movie serial (and a hellagood one at that) where the hero dons the exact same skull face as he squashes baddies left and right. Of course, Balzac has their own skull logo, which is more akin to the grisly chewed-face corpse in the original Night of the Living Dead.



If there’s any complaint to Balzac, it’s the incessant usage of various “whoa-oh-oh” combinations on nearly every song on Out of the Grave and Into the Dark. The homage to The Misfits by using this heralded gang chorus is honorable, but not even The Misfits themselves used it that much! It’s kind of like gratuitous use of the “Oi! Oi! Oi!” chant; too much of one thing ruins its coolness.

Out of the Grave and Into the Dark is a commitment, be warned. This is one of the longest punk rock albums I’ve ever heard at an hour eighteen and there’s a bonus DVD with three videos (the video for “D.A.R.K.” is downright surreal), live footage with high production values, and a pretty nifty mini horror flick, “Marchen aus dem Horrorwauld,” that is only made silly by the Balzac skeletal costume donned by its villain. Otherwise, it’s a nicely crafted Hammer-inspired sliver of Goth horror.

Balzac is maniacal, relentless and good for what ails you if you’re hankering for an escape from same ol’ noise cluttering your ears. Throwback it may be, Out of the Grave and Into the Dark is a ghoul’s night out that will give you hours of simplistic fun.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Totimoshi - Mysterioso? reissue

Totimoshi – Mysterioso? Reissue (Crucial Blast) by Ray Van Horn, Jr.

One of the genuine surprises of 2004 for me was Oakland’s Totimoshi. This trio of Melvins-inspired Latin fuzzbombers piqued my interest and guitarist/vocalist Antonio Aguilar turned out to be a pretty killer interview, to boot. Totimoshi’s release from last year, Monoli, nearly made my top-10 list for their stoner-esque (since no one seems ready to retire that tiresome tag yet), so it was a most welcome sight to see the reissue of their second album Mysterioso? cross my path.

In some aspects, Mysterioso? is better than Monoli in terms of its sonic jaggedness versus Monoli’s more polished act. That’s not to say Monoli isn’t a good album; remember I said it came close to being a top-10 finisher for me. But Mysterioso? for some reason has more bombastic punch that Monoli, and even though it’s about a half hour long, it’s full of rhythmic and hypnotic low-tuned chaos that makes the most of each minute. The vibrato of “Float” alone will shake your speakers, while the tonal nirvana of “Screwed” sets Totimoshi’s groove for the remainder of the disc, and it entrances you each step of the way.



For you Misfits heads out there, check out the bonus video for “Cellophane” and see where part of their shtick originates with Lyn Gaza’s psychedelic film footage of the Festival of the Dead. If you have to ask what that is, shame on you and pop this puppy into your CD-Rom at once; an amusing mini-film by bassist Meg Castellanos captures snippets of Totimoshi on the road, as well.

Totimoshi is well on-pace for a brilliant career. As they unashamedly honor The Melvins in their atmospheric sludge rock, their presence is as welcome as Crowbar, Mastodon, Mouth of the Architect or Weedeater in this drop-tuned underground they dwell in. Light a doobie if you must, but Totimoshi needs no external hallucinogens to get you high. You’re missing out if you’re not down with this band.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Breast cancer

Today my wife and I traveled from Maryland to New Jersey and back in the same day to attend a most disturbing viewing, the mother of some very close friends of ours. The passing of our friend's mom came as a shock to all of us, more so for the immediate family, needless to say. Ardisse and I have come to know this person through her visitations in Maryland over the years, and last year, she and her husband made us their guests for a couple of days. Think about it, nearly one year ago...

In the span of that year, we've seen this couple in Maryland a couple of times, most recently in June. We'd learned earlier that our friend's mom had been in poor health, but talking with her in June, we could see a depressed woman obviously suffering a sickness for a lengthy time, and her biggest concern was getting back to work before she'd be laid off. In retrospect, it makes her passing more tragic; the woman had much to live for and she hadn't reached the legal age for retirement yet.

Naively we thought that she would continue to have a rough go of it for a little while, but we firmly believed she would ultimately overcome what was ailing her. What no one knew was that she was suffering from a rapid form of breast cancer that would ultimately claim her life.



(logo of The Ribbons of Pink Foundation)

From what Ardisse and I knew of her, we knew her to be a strong woman, a former nurse who knew how to laugh and enjoy life around her, particularly her grandchildren. There was fire in her eyes sometimes, and I could tell she harbored a take-no-crap New Jersey attitude that won your respect, since she had moments of tenderness I personally saw bestowed upon her grandchildren, as well as her affection with her husband.

A mostly packed funeral home told us that she was well-loved by many and at age 59, her untimely passing is not only bizarre, it's unfair and uncalled for. Ardisse and I contemplated why God wanted her so early in life on the windy Route 70 in Jersey. As my wife lost her father in April, the passing of this woman only a few months later seems so sadly surreal and it signals the importance of breast cancer research and treatment, but more importantly, the detection of it while it's still treatable.

Unfortunately, hers was found too late and it was a cruel, accelerated growth that raises many questions, the most pressing being, what would've happened if it had been spotted in time?

I don't want to drag this ordeal out longer than need be, but the point I want to make here is that I urge all women, and I know it sounds trite coming from a male, but I insist on driving home the message that breast cancer is a killer. It's not just a slogan you see in a public service announcement or a statistic on Discovery Health Channel. This is real, people, and it's indiscriminate. If you read the literature about breast cancer, it's striking women at earlier ages, and our friend's mother is living proof.

I know it's painful, and I know it's demeaning, and I know you say, Ray, try having your testicles mashed in a vice if you want to know how it feels, but dammit, please heed my warning and get a regular mammogram. Honestly, what would you rather have, a few minutes of discomfort or an early loss of life that is preceded by insurmountable agony?

59. That's too young, and I'm positive there's many more women like this one out there, good people struck down far too early in their lives from a notorious disease that somehow seems elusive through science and technology's cures, although technologists certainly have no problem in creating flash-in-the-pan, up-to-date palm pilots, laptops or multi-disc CD players, all convenience trinkets we selfish humans care more about than devoting such fascinating modern capacities towards seeking a remedy to life-threatening ailments such as cancer.

Honestly, friends, I think the cure for cancer exists, and I think it's ready to help dying people, but I have a dreadful feeling the message falls on ears that suffer from selective hearing, so I urge you to support genuine cancer charities and organizations such as these:

nationalbreastcancer.com

healingribbons.net

ribbonsofpink.org

causekeepers.com

thehungersite.com




Ladies, don't write this off. You can preserve so much in your lives if you take the preventive measures, and guys, don't take breast cancer lightly; it's a bona fide epidemic, so don't cave in if your spouse argues about how excruciating a mammogram is. Make her do it regularly. While you're at it, keep regular on your prostate exams, something I myself will have to practice what I preach in no short time...

The Essential Iron Maiden

As if... anyone who really loves Iron Maiden ought to be offended by that title!


Iron Maiden – The Essential Iron Maiden (Sanctuary Records) By Ray Van Horn, Jr.

No matter how long you’ve followed the immortal Iron Maiden, whether you’re a long-time devotee like myself or you’re just coming along to their devil’s dance, it doesn’t take a two-disc compilation of memorable tunes to realize the regimental influence of this band. At least twice a week in reviews I detect Maiden’s stamp on bands, particularly young newcomers who’ve obviously studied their metal history, well enough to realize that when you say the term “heavy metal,” the most immediate example that springs to mind is Iron Maiden. I could cheat my way out of this review and say ‘nuff said, but I won’t. Every chance I’ve had to write about my favorite metal band of all-time, I feel giddy, like the capricious feeling metal journalist icon Lonn Friend obviously felt when writing his foreward in the liner notes for The Essential Iron Maiden. His words are much to live up to for all of us music writers, as Iron Maiden is much to live up for their timeless epic metal compositions.



That being said, The Essential Iron Maiden is an absolute must-have for any of you curious metal fans that have wondered what this metal juggernaut is all about. For my personal tastes, a gratuitous two-disc set simply isn’t enough. In fact, it was a surreal moment listening to this condensed overview of a monster career and wanting to hear so many other tunes in succession. After all, Iron Maiden is an album band, not a singles band. Iron Maiden over the years has carefully constructed full-length masterpieces that seem incomplete without all of the necessary ingredients that testify to their greatness. For example, I so much wanted to hear “Alexander the Great” or “Caught Somewhere in Time” after “Wasted Years” and “Heaven Can Wait” from Somewhere in Time appears on this collection. I wanted to hear “Still Life,” “Where Eagles Dare” and “Revelations” after hearing “Flight of Icarus” and “The Trooper” from Piece of Mind. I wanted to hear “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “The Duellists” after hearing “Aces High” and “Two Minutes to Midnight” from (my personal favorite Maiden album) Powerslave. And honestly, how can one only hear “Number of the Beast” and “Run to the Hills” without getting “Invaders,” “Children of the Damned” and “22 Acacia Avenue?” Oh, you get the picture by now, I’m sure…

With the exception of a few live tracks lifted from various Maiden concert releases over the years, The Essential Iron Maiden is a wonderful encapsulation of this band’s studio mastery and it’s a goddamn tease in the same heavy panted breath. If you care about this band, you will be driven absolutely nuts to get your ears around Killers, Number of the Beast, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Piece of Mind, Brave New World or No Prayer for the Dying. A slavering of songs from each album just isn’t enough to satisfy a pure metalhead’s soul, I’m sorry. Therein lies the market strategy of this release and other greatest hits albums; prime your audience to seek out the pre-existing releases.

Like the recent Megadeth greatest hits compilation, The Essential Iron Maiden is an excellent crash course for new students to bone up on what is assuredly the highest standard of learning when it comes to heavy metal. It’s a metal Cliff’s Notes to what should be savored in its entirety, like Shakespeare. After all, the abbreviated versions of Hamlet or Othello may cut to the chase, but the intensity of the plot set-ups are nefariously lost, which makes it thusly criminal. This means new fans to the Maiden fold will have to painstakingly worm their way through the CD racks to assemble their Iron Maiden collections properly…and honestly friends, if you don’t own at least half of the Iron Maiden catalog by now, woe be unto you… www.ironmaiden.com / www.sanctuaryrecords.com

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Antimatter - Planetary Confinement

Antimatter
Planetary Confinement
The End Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Rating: 5/5

If soft, soothing music intimidates you as a metal fan, then you’re not really metal at all. Threaten to kill my cat for that remark if it makes you feel better, but one day it’ll dawn upon you, especially when you least expect it, that metal isn’t all about skullcrushing riffs, nearly incomprehensible speed and angry throat scrapes. Sure, it’s a wonderful release as a soundtrack to one’s inevitable frustration with life and trust me, I’ve been there and still feel various frustrations more pertinent to being 35 than I had at age 17, but let me tell you something about Antimatter’s Planetary Confinement… With nary a single ounce of metal to be found on this album, it’s one of the most metal albums I’ve heard this year.

Antimatter is the brainchild of ex-Anathema Duncan Patterson and his partner-in-crime, Michael Moss. Together they create separate compositions that soothe within their detached songs’ inner conflicts, and their crisp acoustics make Planetary Confinement an ultimately comforting corner to hang your head in, or at least find empathy.



Comparisons to Portishead and Radiohead have cropped up around this duo and in many ways it’s true. Primarily acoustic-driven, Planetary Confinement also utilizes soothing electronic elements ala Radiohead and Air, especially on Duncan Patterson’s “Relapse” “Eternity Part 24,” or his groovy cover of Trouble’s “Mr. White.” On some of Patterson’s songs, the innocuous vocals of Amelie Festa luxuriate them in the same way Harriet York did for The Sundays.

However, the thing that really sparkles on this album is the melancholic and heartfelt acoustic moodscapes created on songs like “Line of Fire,” “Legions” and Michael Moss’ brilliant “A Portrait of the Young Man As an Artist,” which calls to mind so many Old Master portraits in song it’s cheeky despite its overt despondence. At times Moss sounds like Peter Murphy, an appropriate inspiration to such far-flung music.

Metal is a state of mind, not an outright fa├žade. Metal makes us feel good, yes, and sometimes it’s therapeutic to rage along with some bestial form of aggression, but as far as music that cleanses with its depressive structure, Planetary Confinement is a soul wash that is more welcome than a neck-spraining headbang any day.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Iommi - Fused review

Iommi
Fused
Sanctuary Records
By Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Glenn Hughes is one of the best-kept secrets in metal. Having fronted the likes of Trapeze, Deep Purple and yes, Black Sabbath on the Seventh Star album, as well as boasting a prolific solo career (I heartily recommend 2003’s Songs in the Key of Rock) and collaborations with such noteworthies as Joe Lynn Turner, Hughes is at least a duke in the hierarchy of metal royalty, and poised next to one of its sovereign lieges in the form of Tony Iommi, the alliance forged here signals glorious tidings in the realm.

Lending his bass and soul-searing vocals, Glenn Hughes practically steals the show from his host on Iommi’s second solo album, Fused, which honestly, would sound like another Black Sabbath album squeaked on the lam otherwise. With Iommi’s trademark heavy strumming and riffage, you can already expect Fused to have a monster quality about it, but take “Wasted Again” for instance. As Hughes escalates his trademark shrills in accordance with Iommi’s magnificent solo licks and cataclysmic riffs, the track becomes more elegant as a result.



As much of Fused lumbers in traditional Sabbath fashion like on “Resolution Song,” “Grace,” “The Spell” and “Face Your Fear,” the ballady “Deep Inside a Shell” allows Iommi to peel off a bluesy solo within the song’s mainstream rock progression (which is undoubtedly Hughes’ influence), and it lends Iommi a bit more character outside of his archetype sludgy rhythms. The driving engine that fuels the rapid “What You’re Living For” gives just enough thrust to validate the slow choruses that sound triumphant because of it. And the 9-minute closing track “I Go Insane” is a triumph unto itself. Hoo, mama, that’s hard music at its finest.

Let’s face facts; every time there’s a Sabbath reunion with Ozzy, it’s done with the intention of giving the fans what they want: “Paranoid,” “Sweet Leaf” and “N.I.B.” If you’re quietly hoping for the original lineup to pull together for an official release, you might as well wait for reality t.v. to end its interminable course. Like Geezer Butler’s Ohmwork, Iommi proves there’s veritable life outside of Sabbath, and threaten my unborn children all you want, but aside from Ronnie James Dio, Glenn Hughes is the best vocalist Tony Iommi has worked with in his lengthy career. Hughes’ presence on Fused is absolute magic. Brilliant call, Tony…

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Misfits Meet The Nutley Brass

Misfits Meet The Nutley Brass
Fiend Club Lounge
Misfits Records/Ryko
By Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Rating: 1.5 out of 4

Now playing in your local all-night supermarket, gynecology office and All-You-Can-Eat Chinese emporium…The Misfits!

Half a point for its creativity, one full point for its sheer balls… I came to this nutty project with eager anticipation, honestly I did. I do have a soft spot in my heart for ridiculous novelty offshoots like Lounge Against the Machine or Iron Horse. It’s usually a fleeting, in-the-moment kind of appreciation that is usually undone by the next serious album, but nonetheless, when well-executed, the art of the music parody is kind of cool when kept in the proper perspective.

So why didn’t I dig Fiend Club Lounge, a Muzak hater’s absolute nightmare? When you consider this question, it scores a point in favor of The Nutley Brass’ twisted mastermind, Sam Elwitt. After all, how does one accelerate the splatterpunk terror of the long-defunct Misfits, who left their maniacal and frequently off-key twist on rock ‘n roll before Glenn Danzig got serious with Samhain and his solo ventures? Suffice it to say, The Misfits have garnished themselves a large cult audience over the years, which is the point I’m about to make with Fiend Club Lounge.



This “tribute” album is beyond bizarre, beyond homage…its synthesized strippings are so tacky it seems strained much of the time and therefore the mark of a cash cow. How else to market a band of far-flung popularity to newer generations than thinking of ways to tweak and twist the existing material? In the case of Fiend Club Lounge, it’s to serve a cheese-and-crackers (partaken with a martini, not wine in this instance) affair that is partially affectionate but mostly self-serving. The fact the album is billed as “loungecore” is likewise pretentious. I mean, come on.

Fiend Club Lounge requires more of a sense of humor than actual patience. It many ways, it’s so terrible the reticence left in its wake is unforgivable. However, as deliberately crummy as much of these lounge covers are, you still find yourself singing the choruses to “Hatebreeders,” “Teenagers From Mars” and “Attitude,” and trust me, you’ll kick yourself while you’re doing it, but there won’t be a single person out there familiar with The Misfits’ material that won’t find themselves shouting “I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch!” in tandem with the nervy reworking of “Where Eagles Dare.”

As much as I want to slag Fiend Club Lounge, I have to give Sam Elwitt a bit of due credit for adding texture to his interpretations that don’t exist on The Misfits’ original scratchy and screechy recordings. I also get Elwitt’s joke, but because I was expecting more of an instrumental lounge act, which would’ve made Fiend Club Lounge a brilliant novelty enterprise, I found myself instead thinking back to my teenaged grocery clerk job… Clean up in aisle eight!

Sunday, July 17, 2005

A quick hello

As many of you know, I was laid off from work for six weeks. I won't rehash the feelings I've previously written, and will simply add that I have procured work once again in a different title company. After one week, I can say this job has the potential to be hard, but more importantly, it's the sense of welcome I've been given so far from my new co-workers that makes it an appealing place to work. There's a sense of surrealness about this job, yet I feel as if I can be myself there and that's aces, I tell ya. In one week, a handful of people have put me in a position where I feel like I've been there much longer. I anticipate a long, strange and sometimes difficult journey here, but if this past week is an indication of what's to come, it just may be a groovy thing after all. I can say that I feel humbled that these folks have taken me in and come to rely on me so quickly; it's an unusual circumstance that I've never felt in any job previous. Already the boss took us all out to Outback. The perfect time to start a new job, you might say! There's always a shaky sensation to any new job as you just begin to feel your way through the company, and I sense that my duties here will increase as I learn new things, but I'll meet that headstrong and hope I do a good job for these people.

As a result of going back to work, my spare time has been cut drastically. Not that I spent much time idle when I was laid off; I spent an easy 60% of my downtime searching for work, but another 30% was spent on doing band reviews and interviews and frankly, I was proud of my output during that time. It is now a period of readjustment for me, and while my week was frustratingly sluggish in getting my music work completed, I have enjoyed this past weekend to knock out a few reviews (two of the bands were breathtaking), and finish two interview transcripts. Not bad, considering we worked around the house as well on a rare Saturday home.

I do have to add that I'm thankful to have some of my wife's cooking again. As I was the house chef for six weeks, Ardisse's food has elevated my spirits. I feel I'm a pretty damn good cook, yet as creative as I did with many of the meals I cooked, there was still the laboring toll over my head that I needed to get a job as quickly as possible.

It's going to be a little sticky for awhile as we get caught up, but I feel a general peace of mind right now and I thank God for giving me the means to protect ourselves once again.

Once I get back into a rhythm with work and my home life, the blog will be more continuous once again. The hours I work now are a tad longer and I'll be soon readjusting things to accommodate my music life once I feel strongly entrenched at work. And answering my backlogged emails is going to be a nasty endeavor unto itself!

I will say that if any of you have been enjoying my Random Shelf Reviews, I've already done my blind reach and came up with A Tribe Called Quest's Beats, Rhymes and Life. Finally, something different! Stay tuned...

As always, I thank everone for reading. I know many of you are silent, but I appreciate your taking the time to check out what I'm doing here. Your comments outside of my blog is really the only reason I keep doing it. Thanks also to God, Mother Mary, my patron saints, my wife, my family and friends for the spiritual and emotional guidance to keep my head high through a difficult period of my life. The road ahead is no less difficult, weird and potentially exciting, but my faith in you all never wavers, and your faith in me is most appreciated...

Peace...

Ray

Circus Maximus
The 1st Chapter
Sensory
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Rating: 3.5/4

The Circus Maximus, for historical value, was the ancient world’s counterpart to modern America’s Super Bowl, a fiercely competitive chariot spectacle that drew watchers from all points within Rome’s monarchic majesty. The Circus Maximus was reported to hold up to 250,000 spectators and is considered to be a precursor to contemporary stadiums and skyboxes. The height of grandeur, societal interaction and intense sport for its time, the Circus Maximus signals the magnificent, a testament to opulent materialism the human race has historically worshipped above an unseen God. If you’ve seen the chariot race in Ben-Hur, then you have been given a taste of the Circus Maximus. Circus Maximus is also a Norwegian prog metal band with an equal taste for the lavishly extreme. A group of highly talented individuals, Circus Maximus is the embodiment of Dream Theater, Symphony X, Queensryche, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The 1st Chapter is a long, lavish and hefty (honestly, would it be any other way?) journey through prog metal that has genuine punch and textured songwriting that sometimes borders on mainstream.

“Alive” is about as mainstream as a prog song is going to sound in this day and age, at least since Yes’ “Roundabout.” Though one song cannot compare to the other, the point is that “Alive” has such pop power backing (ala TNT during the Tell No Tales days) to its prog structure that if it fell into the right marketing hands, it might stand a shot at wide release, though at 5:38 an edit seems inevitable.



Particularly notable is the way Circus Maximus’ Espen Storo reflects Yes’ Tony Kaye on his keyboards. In fact, the instrumental “Biosfear” is so much a tribute to Yes it’s blatancy is undeniable as it is entertaining. Also in true Yes fashion is the 19-minute title track, “The 1st Chapter,” which, despite a cheesy opening minute, roars out like Iced Earth then Dream Theater. In many ways, Circus Maximus is overambitious on this monster track, but there are enough wonderful moments to let it ride out.

The ten-and-a-half minute “Glory of the Empire” is a delicately woven song that draws its might from disciplined epic layering, building its strength from the soft melodies that support the heavier moments. Though Iron Maiden still reigns as kings of the metal epic, “Glory of the Empire” is an accomplished body of work in its own right. It luxuriates instead of explodes, almost like a modern sonnet in its reflection upon the Roman Empire that easily acts as metaphor to the cannibalistic empires consuming our world today. Also impressive is the frequently gorgeous “The Prophecy,” which has such a wondrous opening section before stomping off for the crux of the track.

If you’re into prog metal, I need not outline this much further. Guitarist Mats Haugen picks and chooses his moments to be flashy, and when he does, he bursts forth brilliantly. Otherwise, he drives his riffs appropriately and sets his acoustic lines ornately. Vocalist Michael Eriksen carries his band in the confident way James LaBrie does for Dream Theater, and there’s hints of LaBrie in Eriksen’s vocals, as there are TNT’s Tony Harnell. All ingredients for a successful progressive foray.

Circus Maximus band site

Thursday, July 14, 2005

GBH concert

A review of Sunday night's show, done for Live4Metal.com:



Concert Review – GBH
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

About five years ago I saw a young kid wearing a faded GBH shirt and a ratty denim vest with an Exploited back patch teething at the seams. I said “Hey, dude, where’d you get those, from your older brother?” The kid paused for a second, sneered then continued on his way without retort. He showed more class than I that day. Suffice it to say I’m not so fond of the 2000 edition of Ray Van Horn.

I bring that little story up as it was well-reflected on a sticky summer Sunday in Towson, Maryland. GBH was always one of my favorite hardcore punk acts of the eighties. Following the original punk scene that probably died with The Clash, the hardcore scene, which was primarily founded in Britain, brought us legendary acts like the aforementioned GBH and The Exploited, as well as Discharge and Broken Bones, to name a few. I was a serious metalhead who came to GBH in the mid-eighties as they were getting revved up in their raucous careers. It was at this time when the ice began to melt between the eighties metal and punk sanctions, which heavy music historians will note as the “crossover” period. Before this era, GBH played fast and brackish punk with no apologies and no remorse, screw the corpse…



GBH has maintained a steady course for itself for 25 years and at this point their presence seems surreal although justifiable in light of the punk revival scene that has improbably manifested in the five years since I snootily scoffed at the kid who indeed inherited his older brother’s punk garb. I never saw it coming back then, if you want me to be honest. If, at that point, you’d tell me I’d be standing next to a bunch of mid-eighties throwback kids with towering mohawks and replicated attire that looked damn-near accurate to how it appeared in the eighties, I’d have waved you away. But it’s true. In 2005 I felt like I’d been scooped into a time machine and dumped back into 1985, and my friends and I were strange interlopers on what was ours to begin with. On the one hand, all of this is exciting. On the other, it’s downright bizarre. At either rate, the appearance of GBH in the Baltimore region after a nine-year hiatus was rewarding, especially to us older rockers. I’d missed GBH during their heyday and was given a show comparable to what the band might’ve produced twenty years ago.

The sacrificial lambs opening the gig, Mindside 19, were apparently caught off guard by a starting time that went a half hour earlier than scheduled. To their credit, they gave all they had and the results were split between good and average. The hostility of a few hecklers had obviously unnerved the singer, who said “I know, we’re not punk enough for you, you yuppies.” Such frustration was amusing but also indicative of a young band just learning its chops.

The second band, The God Awfuls, were a huge surprise. Clearly in the vein of GBH and eighties hardcore, The God Awfuls were anything but. Energetic, brash and mostly relentless, The God Awfuls chugged as professionally as the headliners and their efforts weren’t lost on the mid-sized crowd, who formed an old-fashioned circle pit for them. It brought memories back to my mind when I was still a participant of the pit way back when, as bristly and gelled mohawks turned in spin cycle. Another thing you’ve gotta love about The God Awfuls is one of their t-shirts that has GW’s picture alongside Hitler and Mao Tse Tung on it. It should be no surprise that Bush was the target of scorn for all three bands, exactly in the way Ronald Reagan took his lumps from punk acts of the eighties. Thus the cycle begins anew.

Through 25 years GBH has amassed a sizeable repertoire of material, yet save for a couple songs, the selection tonight was noticeably restricted to tracks from Leather, Bristles, Studs and Acne and City Baby Attacked by Rats, along with a few cuts from City Baby’s Revenge. The intent was crystal-clear on GBH’s behalf to present themselves to an audience that outranked the elder statesmen in such a manner as they would’ve seen in 1985. Young and old alike hollered back at lead singer vocalist Colin Abrahall to the choruses of “Time Bomb,” “Generals,” “I am the Hunted,” “Prayer of a Realist,” “Race Against Time” and “Big Women.”



GBH’s performance was rowdy, rambunctious, not always perfect, but in the end, a lot of fun. Their energy after so many years of playing this material was undeniable. As much as I personally wanted to hear a couple of songs off of Midnight Madness and Beyond and No Need to Panic or even “Malice in Wonderland” or “Lost in Fog” off of the EP Oh No! It’s GBH Again! I felt satisfied overall that the presentation here, obviously skewed to their most noteworthy albums, was an encapsulation of the GBH I missed back in the day. Then again, GBH pulled out “Diplomatic Immunity,” “Drugs Party in 526” and “Womb With a View” off of City Baby’s Revenge, and when they played both of the “City Baby” songs back-to-back, it was a clear-cut statement of GBH’s prowess and confidence of their history. As they dedicated their cover of “White Riot” to the late Joe Strummer at the show’s end, history was obviously a main theme of the performance.



As three-fourths of GBH’s original lineup still remains today, it was as authentic a reproduction of this revered British hardcore band as is possible in this day and age. As guitarist Jock (aka the other Colin) Blyth played with intensity and Colin toyed with the audience and even himself in mischievous fashion, the pace seldom yielded. At times Colin sounded a little sloshed, then he came back and delivered his vocals with exactitude. I can say that in my interview with Colin prior to the show, I found him to be a soft-spoken, levelheaded and detailed individual that made such a long wait to meet him particularly fruitful. The Colin Abrahall behind-the-scenes is a bit different than the stage persona who climbed the amplifiers with as much bravado as he would’ve 20 years ago. Depending on your age, you were either thrilled with such antics or you cringed in fear for Colin. The kid in him is evident with such thrill-seeking, as it was with his coaxing of the crowd to stage-dive, which prompted a few patron ejections afterwards. Cheeky to the last is Colin Abrahall…

If this tour scuttles through your city, do yourself a favor and check it out. GBH honors its past and will satisfy you appropriately.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Rosemary's Babies

Mini-review for AMP Magazine...


ROSEMARY’S BABIES
Talking to the Dead

This is punk as it’s supposed to be…manic, relentless, idiotic and with a mean average of a minute-and-a-half per song. Prior to joining Samhain and Danzig, Eerie Von was drumming in this 80s hardcore unit that reflects everything from The Misfits to Dead Kennedys to DRI to Adrenalin OD. Songs like “I Vote Yes,” “You Just Don’t Rate” or “Becky Bondage” take the same fuzzbombed miniscule chord structuring of The Misfits, while songs like “I’m Gonna Be Sick,” “Let’s Molest” and “Sounds of Death” are paler shades of but no less monstrous than Dead Kennedys ala the Plastic Surgery Disasters days. Vocalist J.R. frequently sounds like a sickly Jello Biafra, which makes it as comedic as the chuckles he closes many of the songs with. Regardless, he’s a potent frontman who keeps these songs cheeky and fun. Featuring five live tracks from 1983, Talking to the Dead is a great slab of old school punk that comes at high recommendation. While Rosemary’s Babies might not be one of the most critical bands of the lost punk era of the eighties, it’s a hell of a reminder of how fucking cool punk used to be before it became a commodity. (RVH) (www.ghastlyrecords.com)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Random Shelf review: Fu Manchu - California Crossing

My latest behind-the-back blind pick has been sitting on my desk a few days. After a very enjoyable 4th of July spent with family and a roving camera's eye that captured close ups of dragonflies, expressionistic interpretations of fireworks and tender family moments mostly starring my cousins' personable children, I'm taking a moment to pause from job hunting, clear my mind and do this Random Shelf Review. I was really pleased it turned out to be Fu Manchu's California Crossing.


Fu Manchu
California Crossing

The more I hear the tag "stoner rock," the more it annoys me. If you want to talk about the blatant weedfuzz of Bongzilla and Weedeater, then you might have a case. If you think that Clutch's admittedly trippy "Spacegrass" lumps them as a stoner band, you're sadly tunnel-visioned, particuarly if you haven't given them a chance on their most recent two albums Blast Tyrant and Robot Hive/Exodus.

For posterity's sake, The Melvins inadvertently started something that Kyuss exploited after Mudhoney took a similar cue and Corrosion of Conformity dumped their crossover punk/metal hybrid in favor of, beginning with Blind. As Kyuss began to explore the potential for powerfully extracting heavy rock from low keys, they naturally adopted themselves into a more streamlined and rocksteady force in Queens of the Stone Age. In the meantime, bands like Crowbar kept a drop-tuned litany of faith in the underground as the form began to pick up steam in light of the associated doom scene revival with a renewed interest in Black Sabbath and Scott "Wino" Weinrich (courtesy of Dave Grohl's collaborative Probot album) and his doom relations with The Obsessed and Saint Vitus. Thus was created a veritable underground of drop-tuned rock that unfortunately grabbed the stigma of stoner rock in the process. Also unfortunate is the fact that Fu Manchu was dragged into this collective by drop-tuned association.

Fu Manchu comes from the same Southern California scene that has lately produced a blue chip stock brand of hardcore and metalcore acts like Avenged Sevenfold, Eighteen Visions, Bleeding Through, Atreyu and many others. As Fu Manchu had the early leg up on these groups by starting in the early 90s, Fu probably best encapsulates the spirit of SoCal with its hard-driving rock jams that mash skate rat punk with psychedelia and seventies rock 'n roll that is frequently relentless and almost always a solid rockout session on each tune. My friend Bob got me hipped to Fu Manchu at the right time when nu-metal was beginning to depress me and I was beginning to think nothing good was coming out in heavy music anymore. While this album California Crossing is probably Fu Manchu's most mainstream effort (Action is Go probably being my favorite), it is a damn fine listen that is more suitable to cruise to than to toke to.



From the grimy riffs of the opening jam "Separate Kingdom," one can tell that Fu Manchu at this point in 2001 has settled into its drop-tuned rock nirvana, choosing to keep certain skate rat elements that appears in previous albums like Action is Go, No One Rides for Free and King of the Road, while branching towards pop bases that grounds their feelgood work in nearly the same manner as The Donnas did on Spend the Night, only with less brazen sexuality.

"Hang On" continues Fu Manchu's betterment of Kiss' well-loved body of work from the seventies. As in the past, Fu Manchu sounds like what Kiss should've been after Destroyer. Interesting that it took almost 20 years to realize that a back-to-basics piss and sweat rock 'n roll scaleback was a viable and entertaining approach. Much as Redd Kross had figured out the formula and then lost it, Fu Manchu makes California Crossing sound like Kiss' Rock and Roll Over with more erection--and Fu doesn't have to stoop themselves to talking about banging chicks in the ladies' room or putting hands in theirs pockets and grabbing onto their rockets. "Thinkin' Out Loud," "Squash That Fly" and "Wiz Kid" are the best songs Kiss never wrote on Unmasked or Dynasty, which they should've written if they didn't let their egos and 3/4 dreadful solo outings (I need not mention Ace Frehley's is the lone masterwork) spell their undoing. Sometimes it takes a huge fall such as Kiss took in the late 70s and early 80s and a retrospective pickup by another generation's band to point out how vital the original band could've been. With the course Kiss took from their heyday, it's not out-of-the question to say that Fu Manchu is a better--if not as commercially important--band.

"Mongoose" has such nasty groove it'll be impossible not to bob your head along. Though there isn't much to bridge Fu Manchu to Montrose, it's not terribly risky to think of Montrose in terms of the way Fu Manchu belts out yummy riffs. Though you have to stretch your mind and ear a bit to hear it, there's a small hint of Montrose's "Space Station No. 5" in it as much as there is Kiss, Aerosmith and Sweet, and to go out on a real limb, Bay City Rollers.

The title track "California Crossing" sounds like an amphetemized version of Aerosmith's "Walking the Dog," mostly on the verses, while "Ampn'" keeps the album thrumming along all the way to the strangely funny "The Wasteoid," which may have you stoner taggers carrying on thusly: "See! See! I told you so!" Yet "The Wasteoid" rocks like an instrumental motherfucker, complete with a drum solo that is less flagrant than it is a flashy way to bridge the doom riff bookends that build up steam before the drum solo.

California Crossing is a good place to get started with Fu Manchu. You can't argue with its constant rocking presence that will drive you closer to a beer than a joint.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Independence Day



This will likely be one of the most unusual posts you'll read regarding the 4th of July, which, if you know me, I wouldn't have it any other way.

My wife and I were watching Troy last night, which was better than the reviewers would lead you to believe, despite the hokey battle charge yells like Brad Pitt's laughable "Immortality! Take it, it's yours!" It was a different quote, however, that set the tone of the story and it never left my mind, particularly as the gruesome battle scenes raged on and the principle characters began to gradually die off in spectacular fashion. In the beginning the Greek king says that "Peace is for the weak," that the gods only look after the strong and the strong fight wars.

Given the way the Trojans initially repulsed the Spartans, one might say that their defense was justifiable in light of an act of aggression. When Eric Bama counsels the Trojans to let the defeated Spartans realize the extent of their defeat and ultimately cower home, the Trojans opt instead to attack in the middle of the night with the theory that you crush your enemy when he is weak.

Said act reunited the troubled Spartans and through a series of events, the fall of Troy was complete with Achilles' brilliant Trojan Horse tactic.

What is the point, you ask? What does this have to do with the 4th of July?

I'll tell you.

When the colonies united to defend this country against the evil empire of the British, their cause was just. A cry for justice and independence prompted our forefathers to fight a bloody campaign to drive oppression out of the newly formed America and history was made. Never mind the fact that our forefathers also drove the native denizens, the original Indian tribes out of their own rightful existences, and never mind history would bear the fact that our forefathers thought nothing of kidnapping Africans into this country to break their backs as slaves to serve an empire in the making.

When you see what America has achieved in almost 230 years of existence, it serves as a beacon light of hope to other countries. Over here we not only tout the freedoms we enjoy, we flaut them. Granted, it's quite true that the United States is the staple for basic freedom by which all other countries should exemplify. Unfortunately, we as Americans take ourselves too seriously in the grand scheme and as slogans such as "God Bless America" and "Freedom Isn't Free" sprout around the country like the brainwashing diatribes that they are, we look like elitists to the rest of the world. God Bless America? I may have sung that song proudly as a child, but my adult mind processes things quite differently and all I see is pomposity.

God loves all of his children, Americans, Africans, Asians, Europeans, Russians, Middle Easterns, you name it. Call me a left wing hippie all you want, I have no allegiance to any political party. Why isn't the song "God Bless the World?" We're a global community, people, not just an interstate-connected subdivision of red, white and blue patriots filled with a superiority complex who think that God favors us above all else? That is wrong and it is an example of a country too comfortable with itself and as we extend ourselves beyond our shores, we must remember our role as philanthropists and goodwill ambassadors, not aggressors.



Like the Trojans, America fought for its right to live independently, but a folly in thinking led to the fall of Troy. Did Americans set sail to nail the British on their native soil back in the late 1700s? No. The enemy defeated, America began its constitution as a free-thinking country and realized the limit of its capacities. The Trojans did not. For that matter, Rome did not either.

I was watching Ben-Hur the other day (for some reason I'm kind of stuck on epic movies lately) and when Stephen Boyd as Massala tells Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) that Rome is the center of the world, it kind of reflects in the way our vainglorious president has turned a righteous war into an act of aggression. The minute he turned away from Afghanistan and focused on Iraq, his cause was unjust and ultimately doomed. Son mistakenly thought that the war of his father would be a lay-down and now both Americans and Iraqis have shed unnecessary blood.

Don't get me wrong; when I see these car magnet ribbons that say "Support Our Troops," I think that it's a hell of a thing to see a country learn its mistakes from the way it treated our soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Where was their support? Like our troops today, they are all pawns in a bullshit war with little to no substance and Iraq has become nearly the same mess as Vietnam and to pull out now would show irresponsiblity. That's the sad fact.

As a peace-loving individual, I am greatly saddened our brothers and sisters have been sacrificed to a cause they thought was noble. Saddam may have been ousted, but the effects ever since have been far worse. So I say even today, as repugnant as I find the Iraq war, my heart breaks and bleeds for every Marine and military personnel that dies doing their duty. It also bleeds for every Iraqi civilian that dies in crossfires or bombings from zealotry on their own turf. When you see one side declaring a holy war and another marching onto foreign soil with the preamble "God Bless America" behind it, there's no way you can't look at it as a new millennium Crusades.

And so it is with a heavy heart that when I select my 4th of July shirt for this year that I do it with less enthusiasm for my country, but you will see a star-spangled chest that has the flag spread across a "hang loose" sign. To me, this is what America is all about, a chance to hang loose without fear of repercussion, to be yourself as best you can within a certain guideline of behavior and lawful conduct. As much as I slag our president, I will never take away the fact that he represents a country that you can feel somewhat free to be and express yourself, and the fact that so many men and women have died under this ideal...well, that's the true meaning of independence.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Job woes and Realm

Consider yourself lucky if you're employed and not forced to find work at this time of year. While there seems to be jobs aplenty out there if you're an accountant, truck driver or commissioned sales rep, it's not so easy matching something up with my expertise or even in finding something on a new path. I've heard I command too high of a salary more times than I need to, and the main reason for this is when I was laid off, the college graduates were entering the work force at the same time. Having stood elbow-to-elbow with wide-eyed, almost clueless youngbloods at job fairs or in recruiting offices, the sympathetic, caring person inside of me wanted to offer these kids advice. Problem is, they're my competition and unfortunately when you have a mortgage to pay and a rapidly emptying refrigerator, then the nihilistic credo "mercy is for the weak" actually makes a little bit of pragmatic sense.

I've had a job slip through my fingers because they were worried about the long commute. No matter how much you politely stress to an employer that a commute is not an issue and that you have four-wheel drive to contend with snow, it seems puzzling when they convey to a recruiter that you're ideal for a position but refuse to offer it over something trivial like a commute. I've spent much time over the years on the road in my working career; good tunes almost always carries me through. I guess you have to really be into music like me to really understand what I mean by that.

I was invited to come up to New York City to interview with a music publicity firm. No telecommuting, unfortunately, and I'm in no financial position to incur an expensive move up there. As appealing as New York City is to my hungry writer's blood (after all, the music and poetry scenes can't be beat, except in maybe LA or London), I'm very close to my family. Otherwise, I might've considered moving to NYC a long time ago. Still, you can't put a price tag on a tight-knit family. So many people go their lives without a strong familial infrastructure and I pity them.

But let's face it; after 5 weeks on the unemployment line and easily 100 resumes floating out there, it's getting a little weary out here the more I see jobs I could get in a less fierce market to kids willing to take cheaper salaries just to get in the door. I remember exactly what that was like, even though I originally thought $17,800 was big money when I first entered the workforce in 1993. I learned quickly I was being exploited, and when some of these kids learn the same thing, the vicious cycle in the job market will begin anew. I'd like to hope that something finally pans out for me by then. God put me in this position for a reason and I try to patiently work my way towards discovering the reason, but I'm not cut out for surviving on an unemployment check. It's not in my blood. I'm used to working hard and in my former job I gave six years of dedicated effort that were some of the hardest days in my career. Granted, there were moments when things slowed down, which is a stressor unto itself since I'm not one to be idle on the clock, but for the most part, a solid thrash song is soundtrack to the working pace I kept there. Keep that in mind as this blog entry continues.

In my travels I met a gentleman who's been unemployed for three months through he's tried no less hard than I to procure work. At one time I prayed harder for him than myself and I've either gone to bed every night praying for a job or I've often thrown myself at Mary's feet at the Grotto of Lourdes and asked her for continued strength and inspiration.

Fortunately my music writing life has been no less demanding, thus I've stayed active by taking many band interviews and belting out CD reviews. I've finally started to organize things for my nonfiction book on heavy metal so that I can attack it properly. I've come up with a script idea I've queried to a publishing firm to submit it to and I've made myself available as a freelance writer and copywriter. Since I'm not compensated for the majority of my music writing (the unemployment office will be happy to know that), I do it for the love of the music and for possibly making a band's day by helping them with coverage and press, although I was recently confronted by a band I slagged in such an ugly manner (it was done the first week I was laid off and pissed beyond words) that I took accountability and rectified the situation by making my point in print more articulately and with supporting reasoning, even though I didn't change my unfavorable rating. I felt my original draft was grossly beneath my professional standards and I'm glad I was able to restore my reputation as a writer, which the band expressed appreciation for, though they were no less disappointed with my overall evaluation.

So, it's been a little tough out here, friends, and I've felt on occasion that things I have to say go unnoticed, unacknowledged or outright refuted by people I know, which makes it feel like I don't know what I'm talking about, and that is no less frustrating. Certain things I expect dissension and argumentation, which I openly embrace and have no problem with, but after awhile, so much of it seems like a gang bang and frankly, it's hard to maintain confidence in such an environment as I deal with currently.

While I've experienced a few random moments of Me Against The World lately, I have to note than when the chips are down, I routinely get surprised by caring gestures within my networks and my close intimates. My mom took Ardisse and I out last week to see Batman Begins, which was one of the best movies I've seen in awhile, while some of the record labels and p.r. I deal with have caringly sent me reference letters, a couple without any prompt whatsoever. I've either landed some very high profile career-boosting band interviews or have them in the works by my p.r. friends and it's a very gratifying thing to have their trust with their most valued clients.

For example, when Anthrax had their reunion gig in Sayreville, NJ, the gig was long sold-out and the guest lists were filled. I interviewed bassist Frank Bello the week prior and I'm already friends with lead singer Joey Belladonna... my p.r. miraculously found a way to squeeze me on the guest list. One of my closest friends in the business, Dave Brenner, has been keeping eyes and ears out there for me and he's found little jobs with record labels, but one's in NYC, the other in Philly. The Philly job was only 2 days for 3 hours a day; the long commute to do it would eat up any money in gas and tolls, but it was a nice foot in the door, and as Dave supplies me a good 60% of the bands who cross my desk, my relationship with him is one of the best I have and I'm grateful to him. My Megadeth vs. Metallica blog found his eyes, which he forwarded to a well-known national magazine in the metal circles and there's a strong chance it may see print.

And then last night, an extremely caring gesture came my way from one of my closest friends, who shall remain nameless only because I don't wish to incriminate him, but I was lamenting to another friend about a Milwaukee thrash band from the 80s called Realm. I used to have their album Endless War back in the day, and while Realm was never one of the big radar bands, they were quite an articulate thrash act whose cover of The Beatles "Eleanor Rigby" gets my vote as the best cover song of all-time. Smashingly brilliant, even with the cheeky proposal of a thrash version of a famous chamber fugue song, which is definitely in my top-5 Beatles tunes. Endless War was one of the albums I truly regretted ever parting with as it's been long out-of-print and the CD is so rare it fetches anywhere from $40-80 on the market.

As I was putting the edits to an interview I did with Baltimore locals Trephine, who have a decent shot of breaking out of the market, an email popped up with the header "A Prize for You." I almost deleted it until I saw who'd sent it. A note came with it that said maybe the email would cheer me up a little since I was having such a rough time lately. A link took me to a server and I realized how strong the milk of human kindness can be. Available for download was Realm's Endless War. I was very touched and my grin touched my earlobes as I fired that up and went right to "Eleanor Rigby." No less impressive in 2005 than it was in 1988.

Endless War is a very relentless thrash album, which is why it's in high demand. The shrieking vocals of Mark Antoni were a bit cheesier than I recalled them back in the day, which tells me that I'd grown desensitized to falsettos (with the lone exception of that annoying-as-shit ball sac-splicing C.J. Snare of Firehouse) throughout the eighties. In today's market, only the old-school throwback smash success of 3 Inches of Blood with their dual Rob Halford-like shriekers Cam Pipes and Jamie Hooper would give a sliver of a chance for Antoni's acceptance; otherwise, he's way out-of-step in the new milennium.



Still, songs like "Slay the Oppressor," "Fates Wind," "Root of Evil" and "Poisoned Mind" absolutely shred with a commendable degree of fortitude and articulation. Guitarists Paul Laganowski and Takis Kinis were one of the best-kept secrets in the eighties and if you listen to Endless War today, they still have something to prove amidst their peers. A very solid tag-team whose presence kept Realm a brief, but potent force.

To end this rather long entry, I just want to say that I have no real room to complain about my life in light of other people's misfortunes such as my cousin, a detective who recently lost his best friend on the police force, or my good friends Matt and Sandi, who just learned Sandi's mother has lung cancer. I have no real worries in comparison. I'm not defeated, I'm still strong, I do get an unemployment check that barely helps cover our bills , I know there's a way out of this rut if I can simply make the connection, but most importantly, whenever I feel flashes of dejection, I have a support system that comes through without asking, and that's worth my whole insignificant existence.