Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review - The Traitor's Daughter by Paula Brandon

Finally, a book review! I don't have much time for reading these days, and even less for writing reviews, but here's one I jotted down while on the train to DC a few days ago.

I picked up The Traitor's Daughter, intrigued by the fact that it was billed as "fantasy romance." I didn't know that was a genre! And since it's the genre I would write in, if it existed, I figured I ought to do some research and read the novel, seeing as the synopsis and review soundbites made it sound halfway interesting - kidnapping, revolution, ominous magical signs, all taking place somewhere called the Veiled Isles.

Well, for a couple days after I finished reading, I wished I was still reading it. That's a good sign, right? It wasn't just that the characters became real to me and the plot was pageturning. They were really likable characters in an intriguing world, and I enjoyed spending time with them and finding out about their world.

The story centers on teenaged Jianna, a nobleman's daughter who is kidnapped by rebels en route to her arranged marriage. Although she is indeed spoiled, she's far from an annoying brat - she is actually intelligent and witty, adapts quickly to her new situation, and turns her mental acuities to escape rather than wasting time whining.

Even the "bad guys" arouse the reader's admiration and sympathy. (**spoilers**) Aureste Belandor, Jianna's father, is a cutthroat schemer who betrayed both his family and his people to hold onto his title and fortune, yet one can't help feeling for him as he wages everything to get his daughter back. Yvenza Belandor, Jianna's captor, is similarly ruthless, but touches of affection toward her adopted son, of sorts, bring nuance to her character. It is also nice to see a strong female character who is not sexualized at all. (**end spoilers**)

In addition, beyond the fact that most readers will probably root unconditionally for Jianna, it's rather unclear who the good guys and bad guys are. From an objective viewpoint, Yvenza's cause has at least as much, if not more, merit than Aureste's and Jianna's. Add some subplots and a looming magical disaster that threatens to wipe out the whole society, and the story quickly becomes much more complicated than the standard romance novel.

As far as worldbuilding goes, the world is carefully constructed. It has the hallmarks of many fantasy worlds - nobility, magic, sword-fighting - but with enough novel elements to make it intriguing. The author has invented new titles such as "Magnifico" and "Magnifica" to replace the commonplace "Lord" and "Lady," and the characters' names show a strong Italian influence alongside the usual Celtic sound. The magic is more developed than in many fantasy novels, involving devices and learned techniques along with innate talent and magic spells, making it more reminiscent of alchemy or steampunk tinkering than the usual magic. Several other elements - such as amphibian creatures, the rebellion and a zombie-creating plague - also bring something fresh to the genre, although I have to admit I'm still on the fence about the amphibians and zombies. While they are skilfully worked in, their significance hasn't been revealed yet, which makes their unusual presence feel a little haphazard. I'm sure the zombies, at least, will be addressed in the rest of the trilogy.

The book is not without larger weaknesses, either. I actually found the romance to be one of the weakest points. Although I knew it was coming, I was kept guessing for a while - until a certain character was introduced, and I knew immediately from the special attention the author gave him that he was the one Jianna would fall for. (This was in stark contrast to the previous romance novel I read, where things were well advanced before I was sure who the lucky guy was.) Jianna's eventual feelings also quickly became clear in the way that she thought about him, even if by the end of the book, they still weren't clear to her. Perhaps this is conventional in romance, but everything else in the book lifts it above the limitations of that genre, so why should the romantic relationship be predictable, when none of the rest of it is? Sadly, it struck me as the way an amateur slash writer would write romance. But Paula Brandon is not an amateur writer - she's actually Paula Volsky, an established fantasy writer (albeit one whose books I've never read).

Still, I did enjoy the book enough and got enough connected to the characters that I plan to, and look forward to, reading the next installment in the trilogy. Just that I won't bother holding my breath about whether Jianna gets her man, no matter how suspenseful the ending to this first book was.

Next review: I'm about halfway through Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey (sequel to Leviathan Wakes) so that should be next!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Smithsonian Folklife Festival - Kalmyk and Tuvan Ensembles - 6/26/13 at the National Mall, Washington, DC

On Wednesday, I went down to the National Mall to get a glimpse of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival without a whiny kid (or a whiny adult getting bored by the talks I wanted to attend). I was lucky enough to catch a couple of groups performing Mongolian folk music, which is one of my favorite types of folk music. I snapped a few photos with my cell phone, but its camera kind of sucks, so hopefully I can replace them with better ones this weekend or next. There was so much to see at the Folklife Festival - so many talks on endangered languages that I wanted to listen to, so many performances to see, and so many booths of cool stuff from all over the world. Not to mention the intricate structures being built for the Hungarian Heritage section of the festival.

I'm not sure what that is, but it looks like some sort of horse. I hope I can find out more about it next time I go. I didn't actually go in the Hungarian area at all, just walked around it before the festival opened. I only had a few hours there that day and spent them all in the "One World, Many Voices" area which focuses on endangered languages.

I thought there was supposed to be a talk at 11, but when they finally let people into the area, there was nothing happening at the "Talk Story" stage. That was perhaps for the best, because I was drawn to some ornately dressed women who were singing and playing in a small pavilion with an airy, burlap-like ceiling that looks pretty cool in the photos, methinks.

The guy with the flute is just a picture on a backdrop
The three people at left in the front are also Kalmyk musicians, I saw them perform later.

Their translator was nervous or unprepared and didn't do a very good job introducing them, so I didn't find out until I hunted down their cd in the marketplace that they're the Orgaeva Sisters. The translator did explain a little about their background - they're Kalmyk (Khalmag), which are a Mongolian people that live in the Republic of Kalmykia in the Russian Federation. They're the only Buddhist culture in Europe. I looked up a bit about the Kalmyks and man, they have had it rough. The entire people were deported and dispersed all over Russia after World War II for having been "German sympathizers." Since then they've been allowed to return to their homes but I can imagine their culture might be a bit fragmented :( So it is especially encouraging to see this ensemble performing in their traditional language.

A guy joined them to play the lute so the sisters could sing a duet. It was a very lively song with a bit of dancing. I love listening to Mongolian and its linguistic relations, but I did wish there was some explanation of the content of the songs - that might have made the experience richer. (Someone did ask what this particular song was about, and the translator summed up the several sentences of explanation from one of the singers as, "A wedding. Marriage." >.<)

Then I did actually attend a panel on endangered languages, and found out a bit about the current situation of Welsh, Hawaiian and Passamaquoddy. Welsh seems to be doing quite well, with schools and TV programs and pretty much everybody in Wales (according to this guy) opting to speak Welsh first. Hawaiian sounds like it's doing ok - the Hawaiian representative on the panel didn't speak English very well and they didn't bother asking anyone to translate for her till close to the end of the panel, but it seemed Hawaiian is also taking off, with immersion schools for young children and classes up to the college level. Passamaquoddy's situation is more dire; its elders are dying off and I don't think anyone learns it as a first language anymore, although there are now after-school classes for children. The whole thing made me think about how stupid the Official English movement is - these people were here first, so why the fuck should the country's official language be English?

Anyway, back to things that other people actually care about. After the panel, I wandered about a bit, learned what Garifuna are (a people descended from Carib, Arawak and West African peoples, that now live mainly on the Caribbean coast of Central America), and saw kids trying to make an ax head and hollow out a piece of wood at the Hawaii exhibit. There was an actual adze for chipping away at the wood, and a guy was letting his 5 year old try it O.o He was supervising the kid pretty closely though.

Then I heard someone throat-singing and thought, "I must find the source of that sound!" I tracked it to a stage under a tent, where another Mongolian-looking ensemble was sitting and a middle aged man was demonstrating different types of throat singing. (I didn't even know there were different types of throat singing!) For those that don't know, throat singing is a vocal style where the singer can produce two or more notes at once, usually associated with Central Asian music. The one I think of first is always the style with a very low undertone and a high whistling tone floating over it - neither of which sounds like a sound that a human should be able to produce - but there are other styles as well, as I found out.

This is where the crappiness of the photos really starts to show.
I tried to get as close as I could without being obnoxious :/

This group turned out be Tuvan, which is another Mongol group, also living within Russia, but situated in the east, in southern Siberia. Their history (at least in the twentieth century) is less tumultuous than the Kalmyks, and their language and culture seems to be consolidating. Tuva is a very isolated place, and the number of Russians living there has steadily been declining, while Tuvan remains the first language for many people there. I'm not sure what this means for their economic situation, though.

I only caught the last couple of styles that the throat-singing gentleman demonstrated, but after that, the young man next to him (I think the translator said it was the guy's son?) who is sixteen, performed a throat-singing song, accompanying it on a lute-like instrument (which might have been a doshpuluur, it sounded something like that).

After that there was a performance on a fiddle by the woman who is the director of the Tuvan National Orchestra (at left in the photos below). Like the Mongolian horsehead fiddle and the Chinese erhu (which was borrowed from the Mongols anyway) the bowstrings actually go under the fiddle's strings. What was unusual was that this fiddle had a much larger soundbox than most fiddles of that type that I've seen.

After that, the man on the right performed a song with intense, mournful vocals (man, could he wail) accompanied by a different sort of fiddle.

Then the Tuvans were whisked off the stage, and the Kalmyks came on. They started with a song performed together as an ensemble, and one of the sisters from earlier sang and danced with a white scarf.

Later on, when both of the sisters were dancing during another song, I noticed that both their vocals and dancing have the faintest Bollywood vibe, and I wonder if this is due to mixing with Indian traditions at some point in the culture's journey across Asia.

After that, there was an old folks' duet.

The old guy who is singing and dancing looked rather dazed, but his voice sounded pretty good. And I really should not have turned my phone upright for this picture cause having to rotate it made it even worse :(

Lastly, there was a string duet.

I wish I could have gotten a better photo of the horsehead fiddle, which is what the guy in white is playing. I believe this piece was some sort of story, cause the guy would stop singing and narrate at times, and there were sudden shifts in mood and tempo, such as a speedy segment at the end, like a horse suddenly galloping off.

There were some other songs as well, I think, but I could not take a lot of photos as I was running out of space on my phone (like always!)

My favorite pieces were those where the stringed instruments characterize galloping over the steppe on horseback, but I also enjoyed the slower pieces where the instruments and vocals gave the impression of rolling hills, or the vastness of nature. And I love the sound of the languages, a little bit rough and earthy, but also capable of fluid beauty. Heck, I am just addicted to Mongolian-style music. I have spent the days since going to the festival listening to Huun-Huur-Tu and Tengger Cavalry XD

Things I found:
You can actually hear a recording of part of the second Kalmyk performance I saw, with intro from their translator, who is apparently an acclaimed linguist. (Maybe public speaking is just not his thing.) And also see a better picture of the old folks.
I tried to find a similar audio page for the Tuvan group, but no luck yet - though I did find this page with  some videos of Tuvan music performances.
And the Tuvan group is apparently called Alash. I am gonna have to look into them, they could join Huun-Huur-Tu as one of my favorite folk music groups.

Edit: I have added a review of a later Tuvan and Kalmyk concert with better photos.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Concert Review - Lamb of God, Decapitated, The Acacia Strain - 6/19/13 at Ram's Head Live, Baltimore, MD

So, to make up for the kind of lame night of metalcore the week before last, here's a review of a solid night of killer metal (and metalcore). Although none of these are among my favorite bands, I knew that Lamb of God would put on an intense show, and both the openers had things going for them that made me curious to see them, so this promised to be a solid night.

I thought the Ram's Head website said Decapitated was going on first, so we were surprised to see The Acacia Strain come out out just a few minutes after we got to the venue (they started 15 minutes late, though). I had been hoping to see them live for some time, cause they are quite heavy and brutal (and that's pretty much all they are.) Their sound was very low and heavy, a churning maelstrom. The first song was basically like one long breakdown, slow, crushingly heavy, the vocals kind of in the background. The vocals were utterly incomprehensible anyway (which I don't mind; I read some of their song lyrics a year or two ago and then decided I didn't want to know what their songs are about). Every couple of songs, the singer would go on a half-intelligible rant, telling us things like, "Don't hate yourself; hate everyone else," and "There's too much positivity going on in music today." I thought they were good as an opener - a nice heavy start to the evening - but I don't think they would have held my interest for a headline-length set. I started to get bored of the plodding heavy parts where they weren't doing anything besides being really heavy. They had a very few different moments like a few seconds of melodic guitar (omg, a solo?!) or increased tempo, but mostly it was just constant breakdown (ironically, a guy near us in a shirt that said "No karate..." etc was bobbing his head during the breakdowniness).

So Polish technical death metal band Decapitated had the second slot, of which I was glad - I would much rather hear more of them than TAS. My first introduction to Decapitated was hearing "404" on the radio about a year ago, and I did not dig it at all. But I mean, they're from Poland, the land of Behemoth and Unsun, so I figured I must be missing something, and got intrigued at the prospect of seeing them live. Turned out they were great. Their guitar work and drumming was very complex, but still groovy enough for headbanging. I am pretty picky about drumming, but I enjoyed the unpredictable drum rhythms in their songs (the thing I hate most in metal is nonstop banging on the same drum over and over). Even "404" sounded good (I didn't realize what song it was at first because the singer called it "Four hundred and four" and I didn't hear the last word clearly; I've always thought of it as "four-oh-four"). The strange rhythms and guitar squeals that I found so grating when I first heard it were not as prominent. Overall, their sound was a thick, nonstop barrage peppered with fast rhythms, so it was a good thing they paused every few songs and we got a breather. I didn't really notice any solos, except for one short one that was rather slow and atmospheric. The singer was stalking about the stage, throwing about his Chris Barnes-esque dreads, and sometimes doing a repeated cobra-like motion that made me think he was spitting on the crowd. Obviously, I never saw the original Decapitated live, so I can't say how they compare to that, but they certainly sounded heavy and technically capable. And since I've seen Lamb of God before, Decapitated was the gem of the night - the performance that really made it worth it.

After an "intermission" where decades-old movie theater commercials for popcorn and corn dogs were shown on screens on the stage, Lamb of God came out thundering. They also delivered a solid set - I realized that I actually know a lot of their songs, at least the popular ones. Their guitar riffs are aggressive yet accessible, like a cleaned up version of thrash riffs, and Randy's low vocals and the thundering bass bring a bit of death metal brutality. We got much closer this time than last time at the Fillmore - we were about five rows back, but off to the left, off the actual floor and nearer the bar. Which was fine - we could still see great, and didn't get caught in the meatgrinder that was the jam-packed floor (if the show wasn't sold out, it was pretty damn close - B market be damned). Randy called for moshing a couple times and seemed impressed by the crowd-surfing wheelchair guy, which cued us in that he wasn't the one behind the "No moshing" and "No crowdsurfing" signs at the venue. The venue didn't seem to intend on enforcing this policy either, because wheelchair guy crowdsurfed to the front no less than three times.

They put on an intense show, delivering a fine-tuned aggressive sound, with great energy - Randy was running around the stage - and with strong, roving lights and videos on the aforementioned screens adding to the effect. Some of the videos seemed familiar from last time, such as the animated one for "Ghost Walking," but some seemed new, such as the one for "Now You've got Something to Die For," which showed photos of their fans in the armed forces (of course they dedicated that song to servicemembers like usual). During the encore, the drummer from Decapitated (they called him "Polish Pauly" and kept flashing the image of his face on the screens in front of a Polish flag) played a song with them.

I think I enjoyed seeing them even more this time than last. The sound was better - we could hear the vocals more clearly - and being closer to the stage, we could see the band a lot better. S discovered later that they actually played the same setlist as in the fall, and we found out later that their tour last year hit the "A" markets, since they were not sure how long they would have Randy, and now that he's back they did a tour of the "B" markets. Nice to know that bands consider Washington, DC an important market - now if only tours like Helloween and Godflesh would hit it up!

Next show: Maybe Holy Grail on 7/1 or maybe Amaranthe on 7/18. We shall see.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Concert Review - Killswitch Engage, Miss May I, Darkest Hour, Affiance - 6/12/13 at Fillmore, Silver Spring, MD

Killswitch Engage has been through this area a couple times in the past few years, but somehow I've never managed to get out to see them. They're the only mainstream metalcore band that I consider to be a truly good band, and not just "pretty good for a metalcore band." Their sweet guitar melodies and the heartfelt nature of their clean vocals (as opposed to annoying whiny clean vocals from most metalcore bands) make them foremost in my mind in American melodic metal. 

On this tour, they were supposed to be supported by As I Lay Dying, one of those bands that I consider "pretty good for a metalcore band" (PGFAMB?). They're both decent sounding and unmemorable - I don't know how many times I heard "Paralyzed" on the radio, thought, "Hey, this guitar part is pretty good," checked the info and went, "Oh. These guys again." So I was a little interested in seeing how they would sound live. But then that whole thing with Tim Lambesis trying to have his wife killed happened, and they dropped off the tour.

They were replaced by Darkest Hour, another PGFAMB. Darkest Hour, originally from DC, has some really good melodic guitar parts, but the rest of their songs don't really live up to promise of those guitar parts, generally turning into a repetitive mash of screams and banging drums that bury the guitar. I saw them last year opening for Machine Head and was not too impressed. Still, I thought I'd give them another chance, so I ambled over to the venue around their start time (leaving S to settle the bill at the Irish pub where we were waiting out the less acceptable openers, haha. He arrived two songs after I did.) They sounded much better this time than last time. They seemed louder and heavier than at Ram's Head (maybe more to do with the sound system than the band). In some songs, the bass was too loud, or there was not enough going on with guitars, but for about half their songs (that is, three out of a six song set) the guitars were fairly prominent and melodic. Also, I couldn't fault the vocalist's screams - they were delivered with metal ferocity, even deepening into death metal territory at times (such as in the last song, "Sadist Nation"). The guitar was pretty prominent in that song as well. I was pleased that I got there to see most of their set, and would probably see them again, with the hope that they keep sounding better.

I had never heard of the next support act, Miss May I. They started out very promising, high energy, the singer jumping about on stage and wearing an actual metal shirt (Sylosis), and the long-haired guitarist windmilling his hair. Their sound was certainly a sonic assault, loud and fast, with intense screams. But they had too much going on at once, which gave them a confused sound. Every now and then a melodic guitar part would sing out, but mostly the guitar was relegated to a background instrument, and everything was dominated by the hammering bass. Whenever things would calm down enough to hear the guitar, the bassist would come in with some cringe-worthy overly emo clean vocals. There were a few good parts where everything was together, and a nice thundering breakdown in the second to last song, but mostly I found them kind of a mess.

Fortunately, Killswitch Engage made the night worth it. As I said, I like them mostly for their sweet guitar melodies, so I was surprised to find they were much more hardcore-oriented live - thundering bass, tank tops and short/shaved hair, and an aggressive stage manner. Of course, any band will sound heavier live, but for Killswitch Engage the shift to a hammering-bass hardcore sound totally changed the character of their music. The guitar was still perfectly audible, though, and many songs were quite guitar driven ("Life to Lifeless," "Rose of Sharyn") or melody driven (slow songs like "The Arms of Sorrow"). "My Curse" was a good combination of bass, guitar and melody - it started out thundering, but with the guitar gamely riffing away, and then softened for a melodic chorus. For the whole set, Jesse Leach's vocals were intense, in keeping with the hardcore spirit. The clean vocals were full of feeling, real feeling, not emo whininess. Jesse hardly talked besides to say "The next song is.." a couple times. Guitarist Adam D did most of the talking, including joking with the audience (inviting fans to suck his tits, calling for a "circle pit of love" ie. holding hands, and claiming he could smell someone menstruating - he had to be cut off by Jesse at that point). I also thought it was amusing that, being quite tall and decently muscled, he looked so out of proportion to his guitar that it looked like a toy. I enjoyed their set even though I didn't know most songs, which is unusual for me. There was enough energy with the powerful bass and their lively stage presence to keep me pumped, and enough guitar going on to keep me interested and headbanging. I will have to learn the choruses of some songs for next time though.

Next show: Tomorrow! Lamb of God, Decapitated and The Acacia Strain.

There should also be a book review at some point, because I finished a book a few weeks ago. I have been so focused on my own novel-writing that I haven't had much time for reviews, and that's why the concert reviews have been so slow! But things should calm down toward the end of June.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Concert Review - A Sound of Thunder, King Giant, Blood Corps, Sons of Eddie - 6/8/13 at Empire, Springfield, VA

A Sound of Thunder is hands down my favorite local band, so I try to get out to support them whenever they can. They have a kickass vocalist with a powerful voice, lyrics that delve into all kinds of fantastic and dark corners of the imagination, a really talented guitarist, and best of all, they live up to their name and shake the walls when they play live. I missed their last cd release party and a lot of their recent shows opening for awesome acts like Doro, so I was determined to get out to support them this time.

When the show was first announced, I was about equally excited to see Terracide open for them. I got their demo a month or two ago at a show, and was stupefied by the epic melodic metal assault that assailed my ears. Sadly, they dropped off the show, and were replaced by an Iron Maiden cover band, Sons of Eddie. S wanted to see them, but we did not get there in time. (Although we did get from Arbutus to Springfield in less than an hour, as promised, using my secret route, so it's not my fault!)

Fairfax, VA band Blood Corps was on next. We didn't have time to check them out ahead of time, so we had no idea what to expect. When I heard them sound checking, the guitars sounded all right, but I heard the vocalist doing metalcore screams and started to get worried. But once they started, I actually really liked the clean vocals. On most songs, they had a bit of an old rock and roll feel, like Volbeat has, with touches of Iced Earth or Disturbed on a couple songs. The metalcore screams were bearable (it's mostly the emo-sounding clean metalcore vocals that I can't stand, and they only used those on one song, "Drawn Together"). The guitars were solid, heavy and kind of groovy, but also kind of slow paced and bland. Maybe it was the sound mix, though - I caught some hints of something more interesting going on. The band seemed to have co-leading guitars - there was a girl guitarist and guy guitarist, and they appeared to be switching off taking the lead. Their best song was definitely the last song, "Rockstar Mafia," which was faster and very groovy, and thundering when the drums picked up.The band held my interest, but didn't quite hook me - perhaps if there had been more going on with the guitars.

Next was King Giant from Arlington, VA. We had looked into them ahead of time and got the impression that they're a southern metal band, there's a bit of twang to their sound. They were more polished than Blood Corps, but not my type of thing. They did have some interesting guitar hooks, but mainly had a droning stoner feel, with a bit of country twang, and I didn't like something about the vocals. I spent a good deal of their set trying to figure out what it was and couldn't quite put my finger on it, but something along the lines that the vocals were neither clean or harsh, but kind of gritty. And for some reason that didn't do it for me. I did like the gravelly vocals at the start of "Appomatox," though. They seemed very popular with the crowd, but I couldn't get into them.

Not too long after, A Sound of Thunder came on. I was looking forward to hearing them play a headline set, and hoping to hear a bunch of songs from all their releases. Unfortunately, I was kind of disappointed in their set and their sound overall. They started out with "Queen of Hell," a charging, fist-pumping type of song, but Nina's vocals were too low, and so the song didn't sound as impressive as it could be. The vocals were fixed a few songs in, but the band was plagued with sound problems throughout the set. They played a lot of songs from the new album, which was perhaps to be expected at a cd release party, but I had hoped they would spend a little more time on their "classics." They played a few from the second album Out of the Darkness, and only "Blood Vomit" from their first full-length, Metal Renaissance (although, if I had to choose only one song that album to hear live, that would be the one!). They didn't play any from their demo, which was unfortunate because that has awesome songs like "Walls" and "Archangel" (Metal Wings/Wings of Steel) that sound great live (the other two songs on the demo are good, too, of course). A lot of the songs they chose had long instrumentals which dragged, although the solos were great - Josh can really shred. Overall the new songs seemed slower paced and more low-key, and with post-drunk tiredness kicking in, it started to get hard for me to keep focused. "Power Play" and "Reign of the Hawklords" were my favorites among the new songs, because they were the most energetic, with something of a power metal sound. But none of new songs (besides "Queen of Hell," if it had been louder) had the thundering power of songs like "Blood Vomit" and "A Sound Of Thunder" which made me fall in love with band. The new songs sounded better on the album though, partly because I could actually hear vocals and follow the story in songs like "I'll Walk With You" where that really counts.

There were probably about a hundred odd people there when King Giant went on, and most of them still hanging about when A Sound of Thunder started, but by the time they finished the crowd had thinned to about thirty or forty. Not sure why the crowd diminished so, but I felt bad for the band. Usually they put on a really killer show, but this time it seemed a little slow and dragging.

Next show: Killswitch Engage, Darkest Hour, and some other bands, on 6/12.