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Friday, October 07, 2011

Book Review: The Armageddon Chord by Jeremy Wagner

The Armageddon Chord by Jeremy Wagner
2011 kNight Romance Publishing
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

You might know Jeremy Wagner, guitarist from Broken Hope and Lupara. Over the years, you might've read Wagner in the pages of Rip, Terrorizer and Metal Edge. The guy's a metalhead and he has some cred, suffice it to say. He has the qualifications to pen a novel about a metal shredder pit against the forces of evil in a guitar throwdown for the end of days.

The Armageddon Chord is Wagner's debut novel and therein lies the caveat. Wagner's expertise on guitar gear and stage and studio mechanics are par excellence. Also sharp is his knowledge on Egyptian and biblical history. These collide in a quirky R-rated Tales From the Darkside episode, The Armageddon Chord, a story where an unsympathetic guitar wizard is forced by a slimy corporate villain and his deformed Nazi sidekick into opening the gates of Hell.

Wagner's lead, Kirk Vaisto, is considered in this novel's cosmos, the God of Guitar. Kirk, former guitarist of a sleaze rock band, Cardinal Slynn, is running the ruts of a prolific solo career. The most we know of Kirk Vaisto is he rose to fame as a teenage prodigy and currently lives in swank without someone to love, save for his one night stands. Vaisto is relatively comfortable as a loner despite his fame, which leaves him ripe for the wooing by a pair of satanists, conglomerate overlord Festus Baustone and his Hitler-worshipping Egyptologist, Helmut Hartkopff. Helmut has unearthed a lost papyrus of music, the key to raising the devil from his underworld chamber. Helmut's hated financier Baustone simply craves immortality and considers no monetary figure high enough to achieve eternal life, even if life consists of a wasteland thereafter. As we learn, Baustone is so depraved he'll sell out his own offspring to get what he wants. The powermad partners in sin thus seek out Vaisto as a musical medium to finish the translations into playable music form and to expound them as a death sentence against mankind.

The plot of The Armageddon Chord is as nutty as it sounds. Vaisto unwittingly discovers the evil powers lurking behind the music once he scorches them from his bleeding fingers. His studio fries after playing it the first time and possessed by the music, Vaisto is introduced to horrific visions of death orgies, demon armies scalding the earth and his own carcass strapped to a giant guitar. Though he wants nothing to do with the music after learning its destructive capacities, Vaisto is coerced by Baustone and Hartkopff into fulfilling his contractual obligations and worse, extending them to their devious whims. Like Vader to Lando Calrissian, the deal just gets worse.

Along the way, Vaisto finds his former bandmate, Jack Slynn, who was reported to have died, though we learn Slynn has gone underground in fear of of his life. Slynn attracted Baustone's undivided attention after getting his daughter Mona, pregnant, then using her like a piece of trash, going so far as to kick her the gut while carrying their child. Wagner's introduction of Slynn is more the excuse to bring Mona Baustone into the picture. Mona oversees Kirk's translation progress and, go figure, they do the hump-dee-hump and fall in in love. Their bond is "cemented" when Daddy Baustone treats her like a pawn, worse than Jack Slynn ever did.

Vaisto is also confronted by a strange old priest, Father Zacharelli, who brings Kirk a guitar made of fragments from the sacred cross and nails used to crucify Jesus Christ. Though Vaisto is dubious of it all, Zacharelli convinces Vaisto enough to accept the holy guitar, which becomes an instrument of salvation once Kirk has unleashed Hell in a concert spectacle that rattles the entire planet.

To Wagner's credit, he has the guts to show Satan as pure evil and he, better than Stryper ever did, shows the glory of God in the name of metal. As Lucifer really is just a mascot of heavy metal, The Armaggedon Chord taps into the deceiver's vile propensities and exploits them for his story almost as effectively as Mercyful Fate's Don't Break the Oath. A lot of folks reading this story are going to chuckle when Helmut turns into a demon and literally pisses on the dismembered remains of his former benefactor. They're also likely to squint when Wagner has Satan declare himself the brother of Christ and morphs his image into a like representation of Jesus in the attempt to manipulate Kirk.

On the other hand, however, Wagner's novel is full of faults, the sign of a developing writer. You don't really buy into the romance between Kirk and Mona because there's not much glue between them before they skin it and shag one another. You would think Kirk is dubious of Mona, reported by Jack Slynn to be a stalker extreme, albeit the argument could be made Kirk has a soft side for the troubles she'd endured by Jack. Yes, people meet and are smitten by instant attraction, but to have Kirk suddenly cave in to Mona just because they got vertical? There could've been more potatoes with the meat to make us understand why they fell for one another. Love at first fuck? Only in Bon Scott's microcosm.

Worse, you have to wonder how a non-believer suddenly converted after God has chosen him to eradicate the devil has the wherewithal to continue his filthy conduct of speak after all he's been through. Vaisto is literally saved in the story's climax and embraces God's will to act as His channel. There's something virtuous God saw in Kirk Vaisto that Wagner implies but doesn't follow up on. We're to assume Vaisto's God-given gift of virtuosity was bestowed upon him as God's future knight specifically for this showdown. Okay, so we don't expect Vaisto to go puritan afterwards, but all of the excessive profanity in the final chapter tells us Vaisto isn't better off whatsoever for his traumas. Sure, he's reaming out his scuzbag manager for getting him into this mess, but you would think Vaisto learned a little humility.

A lot of the names of things, people and events are schlocky, as if Wagner subconciously mashed Mad and Hustler magazines with Hit Parader in his brain stew. Those, and Spawn comics. Consider band names like Korncobb, Snothole and Armored Darlings, a singer named Dizzy Letchfield and a guitarist named Bag 'O Shit Boggs. Seriously? At one point, the devil speaks like an old woman as he badgers Vaisto. Umm, does anyone else start saying "Why you do this to me, Dami?" in their heads? That's from The Exorcist, in case you miss the reference. While The Armageddon Chord has been compared to Joe Lansdale by one reviewer, Writer of the Purple Sage and Bubba Ho-Tep this is not. Wagner has a minute touch of Lansdale's bizarre hands, but they still need mucho mojo refinement.

Though The Armageddon Chord is a stealthy 253 pages in large print, there are times when Wagner smothers us with more tekkie information than needs be in order to keep things rolling. Wagner is astute in creating a rock 'n roll hell and in many spots he writes compelling passages that turns the book into a steamrolling juggernaut. Unfortunately, there are many cliches and skids that are the mark of a beginner. Aside from Mona, we don't really care too much about any of these people, and many of her lines are just the stuff of male fantasy. When Wagner explicitly describes the sex between Kirk and Mona, it's juicy but it's also Penthouse Forum. Flashing her tits at Kirk when they are separated from one another in trailers prior to the big hellraising concert? Yeah, you get why Wagner uses it as a tension breaker, but would people under such duress really act that way? What happens backstage doesn't always remain there, as Wagner implies in his writing.

Suffice it to say, The Armageddon Chord is absolutely silly, but Jeremy Wagner does demonstrate the ability to pen a start-to-finish concept with enough historical and technical decoration to flesh the venture out. Left with its bawdy elements intact, The Armageddon Chord would make a riotous episode in a Masters of Horror-themed cable anthology.

Not to rip on Wagner too much, because we want to encourage him as an author. Musicians today aren't allowed the luxury of artist development as they flub and flaw on the voyage towards their ultimate voice. Wagner as an individual artist is engaging himself and his audience on the same flux as his associated bands. Let's see what he dishes out next before further tattooing his work or praising it.

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