Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Friday, December 30, 2011

End of Year Thank Yous and a New Year's Mantra

I'm not going to droll on how rough 2011 was for me on a personal level. That's not why you're here visiting this site. I've found myself thanking God on a near-nightly basis for surviving a year such as this and the few preceding it simply because. I pray for those whose struggles supercede mine and I pay homage to the soldiers on behalf of our country for facing the daily horrors most of us are fortunate enough to avoid. I took my stepfather to the Vietnam Memorial this year and if we weren't already bound as father and son, this further cemented the deal. My stepfather survived The Rock Pile near Khe Sanh, site of some of the most intense action of the Vietnam conflict. Watching him confront his gory past in front of the wall and walking away with a profound sense of pride and relief was to me, inspirational.

Thus when my 69 year old stepfather took a face-first fall down the driveway into the street yesterday and came out with nothing but a chewed-up face, I admit I was shaken to pieces last night. A scary end-of-year finale to a dreadful 2011, but Lord, that guy is a tank. I love that man, and once again I find inspiration in my stepfather's capacity to defy the odds and come out of such a nasty spill on the better end.

When you keep it all in perspective, you learn to shake a stick at the bad and embrace the good when it graces you.

2012 has a big question mark above my head. Already my mother-in-law is hanging on by threads as cancer destroys her body, but she's put up a glorious fight. We may not have had the closest of relationships, but I respect her courage and her will to hang tough. It too reminds me to do likewise while I'm still reasonably healthy and in control of my destiny. I have numerous responsibilities, priority one being my son and wife, and the new year brings its own set of challenges that will wear me down as in years past.

However, I'm feeling more of a steeled resolve. In my professional life I deal with arrogance, pettiness, belligerence, crass conduct and greed. After years of it, I've had to adopt a stronger mode of perseverence and to push past the day-to-day nonsense I'm faced with on the job. I'm happy to say my journalism and writing life is hardly filled with the same drama as my day job and it provides me the opportunity to breathe and to be. I feel most like myself when I'm here at the computer, letting words spill. I've become fond of my quiet time to write when my family's asleep as I am when they get out of the door ahead of me in the mornings so I can kick on the tunes while I write. It's a natural feeling of freedom I can't begin to express, but if you write, you know what I'm talking about.

Writers are faced with greater odds than ever with triple the global population and technological advances both dummying down and entrenching the process. Yes, the internet provides a broader hub audience-wise and I'm absolutely grateful to all of those who've found me through the web and vice-versa. I remember the old days as a teenager and in my early twenties, pecking away on a typewriter and sending out stacks of query letters and short stories by snail mail. Same as when I tape traded with pen pals from around the world. The time it took to correspond with the world back then would seem interminable now, but there was joy in the mailbox when a literary agent or magazine editor responded (even if much of it was the same canned rejection lines you see today in email form) as there was when a package of cassettes came from overseas buddies in France, Finland and Japan, stuffed with bands I'd never heard of before. I still marvel at some of those distant never-were groups who popped into my world from someone else's country. Even when rejection letters made me feel "skunked again" like Ralphie and his elusive Little Orphan Annie decoder in A Christmas Story, all of it was the best of times, truly.

It's harder as an up-and-coming writer in the 21st century to break out (much as it is for bands, filmmakers, actors and visual artists) because the quality control that exists now is tougher than it ever was since there's very little quality control policing the digital frontier. Anyone can be a writer now and I hope the majority of those who come to the craft with noble intents realize their dreams as I have relentlessly pursued my own. The calling to be a writer is a gift and it's difficult to master. You need people who believe in you and believe in your work in order to make a dent and unless your last name is Kardashian, there's no fast lane to the head of a publisher's release queue.

At the same time, I am even more hell-bent than ever to take my writing career to the heights I expect from it, as was foretold by my grandfather to me back in 1984 when I sat with a paperback copy of Stephen King's The Shining with ballooned eyes and a resolved declaration that I too would become a writer. Spin the sitar-splashed intro of Yes' "It Can Happen."

I've come a long way in my journey and I can't ever close a year without thanking those who make it possible. I have to thank the editors who gave me freelance this year. The pickings were slim but these loyal friends offered me piece work when I was laid off earlier in the year and I'm blessed to have their company and empathy. I thank the editor of Carroll magazine for putting me on a groovy assignment at a town history museum this past summer, one of the richest experiences I've had in my journalism career.

I thank the fine folks at Sue Procko as well as Starz and Anchor Bay for flooding my box with films and interview set-ups. As the year became more difficult, it was a much-needed release for me to do the interviews and review the films. Likewise, I'm thankful to all of my longtime publicist and imprint chums who exhibit the confidence in me to place their valued clients in front of my recorder. One of these years, I will be taking you up on your SXSW invites and I'm sure the nights will be legendary. Ditto for those who set me up to shoot concerts. I'm not on the same 10-12 concerts-a-month schedule that I used to be before my son came into the picture, but I'm happy nonetheless anytime I'm perched stage-side with my camera as I am backstage or on a tour bus fielding interviews. My wife used to call me "Almost Famous." Now it's "Daddy" and I'm equally honored.

I thank Liz Kracht for spending a generous amount of time with me this year in the evaluation and development of my novel, "Saved by Zero." While we still have steps to go on that project, I'm eternally grateful to have been embraced by a literary agent whose patience and cheerful support keeps me in the fight. I can next thank Carmen Walsh, a good friend of mine with whom I have an amusing background story stemming back to high school. Carmen was there was when I was laid off and gave me free counsel and a resume tidying up since the formats have changed greatly since I used to write them for pay back in the nineties. I hope to be utilizing Carmen's editorial services in 2012 on future projects.

Thanks as always to my Danish cheerleader, Sheila Eggenberger. As my short-lived art director for Retaliate, Sheila has managed to become one of my most vocal supporters out there. The madness reigns, sister... I appreciate James Zahn's promotion of Retaliate when I still had a head of steam and a purported strong partnership. James brought me on at Fangoria.com and we've maintained a solid kinship since they folded the web staff a couple years back. Thanks to all of my fellow journalists and scribes, including Devin Walsh, a new voice to the metal community but his passion to write and reach an audience matches mine and it was a privilege to have him contribute to my blogsite, The Metal Minute. As for my other writing comrades, it's always good to hear from you now and then, though some of you are punks for not calling me when you're in town!

Thanks to Rat Skates, original drummer and founding member of Overkill, plus rising documentarian. Rat's been equally vocal in supporting my work out there and we've had a number of entertaining interviews and side chats. I look forward to his long-constructed documentary Welcome to the Dream hitting the masses and I further welcome his continued friendship. The dude was on my bedroom wall (in an Overkill group photo) as a teenager and I never discount the thrill of opening ties with an underground legend. Also thanks to Hades/Non Fiction axe slinger Dan Lorenzo, for his continued correspondence and all the freebies he's generously given me over the years.

I naturally have to thank my readers. It was a difficult decision to lay down The Metal Minute this year. For a blog, I had really built myself a sizable, niche-driven audience. Okay, so a sponsorship by MSN or Revolver magazine would've been nice, but the heavy traffic I maintained with The Metal Minute is something I'm still proud of. Today I still get bands and publicists asking for coverage over there. I laid it down for multiple reasons, top of the list being my familial and personal obligations. I'm slowly climbing out of my ruts and hoping to smooth out the crinkles of my life in 2012, and to do it, I had to make a big sacrifice. We'll see where The Metal Minute leads. I have a lot of other vibes hitting my ears these days, so I should explore any potential paths as they unravel themselves.

First, though, it comes down to the readership. Everywhere I've written, I've had my fair share of fans and readers and it's still a wonderful thing to hear another writer say they read your work on their way up, as much as it is someone who just writes, "I love your stuff, man, and I love Guinness just like you." That's as inspirational to me as my stepfather and mother-in-law. The traffic here at The Crash Pad has spiked exponentially in the past few weeks, so I thank all of you for your time and support. Every one of you stokes my hunger to bust into the next level. It's waiting for me, I hear it, I am about to join it.

Most of all, I have to thank my family for their continued understanding of who I am and why I must do what I do. A true writer doesn't want to write; he or she has to. Writing sustains my very soul. There's less time for me to do it as I must juggle my family's needs and continue to plot a course where I've satisfied my obligations. At the end of the day, though, it's my family who rallies me when I'm at the computer--even when my son might get up too early and literally drag me from my desk chair. Little punk, I love you, man. Your mommy, too.

And so, for 2012 I've already opened a few new channels to discuss possible projects or collaborations. I have started other books, short stories and a script this year and I am going to let nature dictate which of those find life in the new year. What I can say is that my desire to succeed is unbreakable, even when I'm in low spirits or a headache is so powerful I can't look at anything but the dark. I know I can do this and it's best not to succumb to the negative energy badgering at me and preventing me from moving forward. I have resolved to take better care of myself health-wise, to eat better and to get myself into a better exercise regimen on top of achieving my goals. I've selected a few future teammates to help me on my way and I look forward to their camaraderie and assistance. I will grow stronger, not weaker.

My mantra, then, for the new year is: "DO. There is no die."

'Nuff said, I think...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Lionness' Posthumous Rage

If there's one thing a pragmatic upbringing and David Gahan of Depeche Mode have taught me, it's to stop and try walking in someone else's shoes before you think of condemning him or her upon sight.

That being said, I still have never really put together my thoughts about Amy Winehouse. On the one hand, there have been seldom few singers in today's artificially-aromatic pop scene where motherboards nurture questionable voices and return them back to the world carefully processed and prepped for mainstream approval. The trend these days, of course, is to utilize robotic voice scramblers to accent today's good good night pop dreck, reminding us we're on the threshold of bursting into the world of The Jetsons that technology so desperately seeks to crash into. Like, eep opp ork ahh ahh, man...

When I hear Amy Winehouse sing, or for that matter, Adele, I hear a pair of well-rounded vocalists whose interests in revivalism merely serve as the foundation of their craft. Winehouse, to me, was the pillow talk update of classic Motown and Stax, at least on her breakout Back to Black album.

After receiving her posthumous outtakes and miscelleneous goodies album Lionness: Hidden Treasures for Christmas, I realize Winehouse was on to something on a much broader scale. Still chasing the sweet effervesence of sixties soul and retro swing on her calypso-splashed covers of "Our Day Will Come," "The Girl From Ipenema" and her slow marching, rhumba-esque take on "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," it's no doubt Amy Winehouse might've one day issued an entire album full of R&B covers and she'd get away with it, sales-wise. The gal could hammer, no doubt. Listen to Amy belt away with Tony Bennett on "Body and Soul," thrown as a not-so-hidden track (but a cool treasure, yes) on Lionness. Only Bennett's rip with Lady Ga Ga on "Lady is a Tramp" (both songs appear on his Duets II album) outclasses this entertaining square-off. If anything, Amy Winehouse had become an unwitting fashionista of her trade.

Lionness has a number of previously-unheard recording sessions prior to Amy's success (and different takes, such as the original cut of her haunted "Tears Dry" and "Wake Up Alone"), including "Like Smoke," which features some pointless raps by Nas. The song stands on its own, but you see and hear Amy Winehouse branching into the new with a hair more pimp roll reminiscent of seventies funk. Then there's the overt hip hop ply which allows Nas to nestle in, even if I personally could do without him, no offense intended. Amy Winehouse and the Jurassic 5, however? That I would've loved to have heard. "Half Time" on this compilation proves Amy puts the hip into hip hop. J5 would've been natural collaborators.

I think the song that startles me the most and it might be the most revelatory track on Lionness, is "Between the Cheats." While we're only privy to the tabloid version of Amy's rambunctious marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, it's certain there was more drama behind closed doors than any of us could've known. Are we to assume Winehouse's self-destruction was triggered by unshakable despair? We often think performers who abruptly gravitate to the superstar ranks find themselves unable to handle the newfound pressure of fame. Said celebrities fall off the deep end and devolve into public spectacles, i.e. Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan and the dukes of debauchery, Motley Crue.

Assuredly "Between the Cheats" is Amy's confessional that something was amiss in her marital life. Moreover, it explains how unshakably bound she was to Fielder-Civil until 2009. Blake-Fielder has become Public Enemy #1 to Amy's fans, as Bobby Brown has to Whitney Houston's. Houston and Brown's substance abuse remains a pictorial of two fragmented souls that are simply toxic for one another, yet something intangible represents the glue. Tina Turner managed to break away from her nihilistic spouse, Ike, yet Amy Winehouse succumbed inside her own miasma. If Fielder-Civil was a man of infidelity as Amy purports in "Between the Cheats," you get why she flushed her life away--at least you do partially.

It's hard for me to scrub clean the image of Amy Winehouse performing at The Virgin Festival I attended a few years back, headlined by The Police and featuring a round robin of rock, alt and pop rock acts such as Ben Harper, the Beastie Boys, TV On the Radio, Cheap Trick, Incubus, The Fratellis and others. Given the strength and bawdiness of Back to Black, I was excited to catch Amy Winehouse at this outdoor concert.

That was, until I saw the poor kid could barely stand up against her mike stand. The beehive was perfectly mounted, but her twiggy legs wobbled beneath a pair of oversized cuff-curled white shorts that would've snugly fit a woman around 120 pounds. Amy's tattoos dripped sweat and her trademark mascara ran, bandit-like from her eye sockets to her ears. For nearly six songs of her set, Amy looked like a foal, one that had gin slipped into its river-run drinking water. She forgot some of her lyrics, she staggered about, trying to find her backup band, who gallantly saved the set. As competent an ensemble as you'll find today, Winehouse's band rescued her until she was able to get it together on the last three songs. By then, the crowd had been murmuring how sorry she looked up there, how stinked-out wasted she was and unfortunately, the venue camera planted an unflattering image of Amy where it appeared a couple of her teeth were missing.

It was heartbreaking stuff, but it was also maddening, considering the fact Amy Winehouse dove for a substance-filled sanctuary after the Back to Black cycle had run its course. Some were laying bets her career was over. Most were wagering she'd never see middle age. She divorced Blake-Fielder, the latter of whom fell into irons. Sadly, those who bet on Amy's demise were on the money.

Even now writing my thoughts in light of Lionness' release, I can't shake the airs of capitalism away, considering Amy's estate swears this is not her final recorded moment. It's to be considered a gift to her supporters and fans, and to be fair, Lionness is a hell of an album for what it is. Whatever's coming next from Amy's estate will be dubious because of the leeriness behind it all. You never can tell if a surviving family's interests lie for the fans or for their own profits. Again, you have to remember to take a long walk, as David Gahan suggests, before passing final judgment.

All I can say in summation is that I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to see Amy Winehouse perform, but I sure wish my lasting impressions had been more favorable. At least we can see Winehouse's spirit carried on by Adele, who will be carrying her own demons as the cruel public and paparazzi get on her case about her weight while touting the praises of "Rumor Has It." Don't you suspect beneath the cheats they too had a hand in Amy's death?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cool Yule

This is a lift and an update from a post I did last year at The Metal Minute where I came up with a list of holiday music that'll get you in the mood. Some of it is serious and reverential, some of it...not so much. Most of all, I just find these yuletide (now amended for 2011) selections the cream of the crop. Spike the nog, lock hips and lips under some mistletoe and have yourself a merry whatever you celebrate...

For me, this is the be all, end all of Christmas music. Even when I don't want to get into the spirit just yet, one spin of Guaraldi sedates me like no one else can at the holiday season.

Tchaikovsky. 'nuff said...

Christmas rockabilly style. Santa gets mondo horsepower here thanks to The Rev.

Setzer's become the mack of Yuletide Rock 'n Roll albums.

This one's hard to track down on CD, but Elvis can whoop it up and bring you to your knees with his Christmas lore. Fret not, though, there's a ton of different Elvis Christmas albums, so get some!

It's not Christmas until Nat sings...

Even if there's a controversy about "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" being originally recorded by Savatage and swiped for this album, it's still a good time, particularly if you've seen TSO live...who would've thought metal and Christmas could co-exist back in the day?

Might be the best acapella holiday cheer you can grab...

It's okay, you're not a wuss. This one's simply divine.

Dig him or not, this is solid crooner revival, holiday-style...and I dig Harry.

Of course, we have to acknowledge the Chairman.

This one almost makes me wish I was alive in the 1940's. Bing and The Andrews Sisters, sweet sweet. Just put me in a P-47 and let's swing it.

Cheesy, but it goes down like a port with pinot noir.

Chuck Berry's the true king of rock 'n roll and "Run Rudolph Run" is the greatest Christmas rocker of them all.

"Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)." Seriously, what a gem. Miss you much, Joey.

C'mon, you know you want to laugh.

Resistance is futile, so just laugh.

Admittedly, we were all dubious when Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford (the greatest voice in heavy metal history) issued his all-Christmas-themed third solo album. In actualilty, Winter Songs is a home run. Shame on us for doubting The Metal God.

A new addition to this list, The Bird and The Bee's sensuous shoegazing take on "The Carol of the Bells" from 2007 has me lamenting the loss of Lush and Ride, but this might be the most textured, inventive holiday cover of this era.

Another new discovery I had this year, Brandon Walker's hilarious Chanukah vs. Christmas jam "Chinese Food On Christmas" could probably overthrow Adam Sandler if more people get exposed to it.

Reportedly kicked out of George Bush's fraternity, the DC-based Root Boy Slim and The Sex Change Band's "Xmas at Kmart" is so damned funny you'll go to Kmart just for their popcorn. "I must have died and gone to Heaven, 'cause Hell is Christmas at the 7-11." Riot. Rest in peace at the eternal blue light sale, RBS...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Deadlines (A Christmas Poem)" by Ray Van Horn, Jr.

photo by Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Deadlines (a Christmas poem)
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

arbitrary winks of orange stab the dark
as she smokes her last cigarette until pay day
a kaleidoscope glimmers through her naked drapes
aspirant beacons from a festive middle class she doesn’t talk to
she spins Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco
because the yuletide numbers leave their sting
with their holly jolly fa la las
and their hung over rum pa pum pums
McCartney can go bite it, she thinks

cookies come to life in the oven
there’s no money for real presents this year
her kids sleep with a collective smile she envies
they’ve been on extra good behavior this week
because Santa’s coming tonight
she burned the first batch through her tears

she wants Prince Charming to caress her heart
and to stoke her warmth before she grows colder
than the icy sidewalk outside
it used to be cookies
were a socially acceptable gift

masters of the domain caught in a circle jerk
beneath capitalist’s mistletoe
the egg nog is more palatable than a deadline
standing and delivering
is just a new wave bloke’s ode
touted carelessly by politicos on parade
their paychecks are secured
their jingle jangle Christmas trees

she drags her cigarette down to the bitter end
and curses her landlord, her mechanic
and the electric company, who all got paid this week
she spites Kris Kringle for not being real
if she could just find a dimebag in her stocking
better, the delinquent child support
the pain might go away for a little while...

her next paycheck will have less on it
she’ll either kick nicotine or bum for two weeks
since pay day isn’t until another dubious new year

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Some of the Most Reprehensible Horror Flicks Ever

Now comes that point of the holiday season where I sneak away from my wife and son as they sleep and throw on the most evil holiday flick ever conceived, the original Silent Night, Deadly Night. For some inexplicable reason, I end up tossing on this disgusting film without fail every Christmas. After enough hearings of Paul McCartney's syrupy synths on "Wonderful Christmastime," I'm ready to kick the nearest box of wrapping paper into oblivion. You understand, right?

Seriously, I do love Christmas, but call Silent Night, Deadly Night a weakness of mine. Half of the film is utterly shocking. Half of it is pure shlock. I suppose that's how I justify to myself the repetitive viewings of this trash classic. I can remember film critic Leonard Maltin condemning Silent Night, Deadly Night on Entertainment Tonight when it first hit theaters in 1984. It triggered that sinister gene which makes a boy a boy and I desperately wanted to see the film back in the day. When I eventually did on VHS, I actually felt dirty having watched it, even though I was morbidly fascinated. The abundant nudity was half the equation, I'll admit, but it really did feel like Christmas Americana thrown through a meat grinder. You really could fathom an innocent child being corrupted witnessing the gruesome murder of his parents by a rogue Santa Claus. Silent Night, Deadly Night goes against everything I stand for, particularly at Christmas time, yet it might be the one film so morally bankrupt that I can stomach to watch more than once. Its sequels, not so much, though if you watch the second Silent Night only, you'll kill two birds with one stone. You horror vets know what I'm getting at.

There have been a lion's share of foul, crude, vulgar and disconcerting horror films over the decades, be it Blood Feast, Behind the Green Door, Pieces, Teeth, Ichi the Killer, Hostel, Sick Girl, the Faces of Death series or both versions of I Spit On Your Grave. The methodology to most horror films today is to push past all previous limitations in the name of shock value. It's not so much the power of suggestion driving horror directors of this era. It used to be less is more. Our desensitized society has helped push modern filmmakers past all taboos and limits of good taste. Nowadays, you can't show enough and it's all focused upon sadism, torture and degredation.

The nefarious cannibal films of the early eighties (i.e. Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox, aka Make Them Die Slowly) set the bar as the most nauseating horror flicks of all-time and today they remain the most brutal pictorials of human cruelty ever released. Interestingly enough, these two films are still the mark to beat beyond anything depicted in modern horror cinema.

The Cannibal movies hardly skimp on the extremity of violence; moreover, they force you to watch it all. You really are a part of the action, so don't eat beforehand. Castration, dismemberment, impalement through the breasts, vaginal mutilation, carving a fetus straight out of the womb and of course, unadulterated flesh eating, all testing your mettle. Only soldiers of war have seen worse. Survive these two flicks and you can take on any of them.

That is, until you're forced to watch slow and methodic geek grind from ruthless directors whose prime directive is to tweak your innards to the point of surrender. Castration has been a big hit with contemporary shock artists and it's no longer so much the act of penis removal that draws them. That no longer carries the punch it once did. No, you now have to endure a guy (half of them actually deserving of the dishonor) screaming for minutes on end as the severing act is drawn out sadistically. That's only part of the sequence. For poetic justice purposes, the man is now forced to eat his own bloody crank or he's slapped in the face with it. In the case of the inexplicably vile Sick Girl, an innocent victim is castrated, then the titular bad gal mounts his dick atop a protruding piece of steel which she makes into a makeshift strap-on and sodomizes a female victim with it.

Now that's entertainment, as The Jam would scoff. Then there's the now-legendary Human Centipede. No movie (other than Teeth, which does have a compelling enough story to back up its gut-churning vagina dentata motif) in the past decade has infiltrated past the underground on its sicko reputation than this one. Regardless of one's constitution for observing filmed cruelty, almost everyone hearing of The Human Centipede is drawn to it out of sheer curiosity. I'm almost stunned by the amount of non-horror fans who not only know about this drecky film, they've watched it. All of it.

The mere insinuation of the fecal matter dumping from one "piece" of the sewed-together human chain into the mouth of the connecting "piece" makes The Human Centipede reprehensible alone. Word has it the sequel actually shows the shit and the grue and if that's an attractive proposal to you, well, I'm not one to judge, but you're the reason these films keep being made.

Blame a good part of this Grand Guinol revival upon Eli Roth's Hostel films. They've literally opened the crimson floodgates and ushered a monsoon of celluloid barbarism. Herschell Gordon Lewis no doubt would've given Roth a hearty round of applause for the dastardly concept Roth devised in Hostel and Hostel Part II. To be fair, Roth stumbled upon a unique concept and his inherent social commentary about the moral standing of Americans in other parts of the world is dead-on. The fact Americans fetch a higher price for his stately torture mongers is straight out of global headlines as much as it is straight out of one of Cannibal Corpse's death-tech thrashers. The strenuous maiming and slicing are strictly for the gorehounds, yet it's the child-like, inquisitive nature of these murdering thrill-seekers which present the true horror behind the Hostel films. Some of Roth's well-versed killers treat their doings in the slaughterhouse as they would a brothel. Pay to play, get your rocks off. Leave the mess, it's taken care of in the asking price.

And that's where we're at in horror cinema. Go as far to the edge with your film as you're willing to risk a non-rating. These directors aren't interested in commercial breakouts. That was the Saw series, which aided and abetted Eli Roth's mission to push the limits of the genre. The original Saw was a nifty little number with a whoa kind of ending. The sequels ended up taking an entirely different direction through six more films filled with morality lessons on top of moist, sinewy and outrageous death traps. It's no wonder horror film directors believe the chains are off. The Fifth Amendment protects their freedom to speak boisterously onscreen, regardless of the MPAA's checks and balances system. Besides, it's more fashionable to withhold a deleted scene or two for the highly-marketable "Unrated" home video release.

It's not just American horror films. The British horror underground has been ripening nicely with the Descent and 28 Days Later films, as a couple of prime examples along with the hilarious Shaun of the Dead and Dead Set miniseries. Then you have the Asian horror market, which makes everyone else's look pussy. Used to be in the eighties the Italians ruled the horror world with their no-holds-barred gorefests, including those dastardly Cannibal films.

There's one British film I saw recently, however, which simply pissed me off. That would be Eden Lake, a smartly-executed film about a well-to-do couple getting lost in a backwoods section and literally tormented by a ruthless set of youngsters. The open-ended savagery these junior devils extol upon the couple is reflective of the American trend referred to as "torture porn," which was handed specifically to Eli Roth's Hostel films. It has since broadened to all horror films which opt to drag out scenes of animalistic nihilism. Eden Lake fits that category, even without nudity or sex. These kids are such bastards you want the female protagonist to trip across a conveniently left machete and chop them all to pieces. You especially want some avenging angel to come rescue the poor girl at the finale and annihilate all of the Britnecks who are insinuated to be handing her a Deliverance-styled demise as the credits roll and the nasty leader of the kid pack has gotten away with all of his atrocities. Fuck you, all involved.

Save for Let Me In and its Swedish originating source, Let the Right One In, I've grown way tired of the bad guys winning in the end of all of these films. It used to be clever and at one-time, the sight of a serial murderer actually getting away with his or her crimes was unnerving but damned good storytelling. Now it's cliche, as is the sight of fingernails being pulled out with forceps and seemingly normal doctors scarfing guts behind closed doors. Shrinks and sociologists observing depravity from one-way mirrors, cliche. Cops turned to the dark side, cliche. Pissed off chicks chopping up rapist thugs, eternally entertaining (the 2010 remake of I Spit On Your Grave might've become the greatest if harshest of all revenge flicks), but...cliche.

In the eighties, gore was amped twofold as were slasher flicks. They became cliche and nearly obsolete. At least back then the gore was intentionally fantastical, assuringly comical. Only George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead seemed pliable with their overloads of grue, despite the fact there are no such things as zombies. Like AMC's The Walking Dead, the gore is shocking, yes, but not so much as the premise and the stories lending them credence. You have something tangible to connect with in those films because characterization is more important than a bucket of blood.

Still, I believe most modern filmmakers sat in awe of the slapstick splatter of Evil Dead 2, Bad Taste, Dead Alive and Re-Animator, along with the stalker films like Friday the 13th, Halloween, Slumber Party Massacre, Slaughterhouse and of course, Silent Night, Deadly Night and missed the point altogether. They were supposed to be horrific, yet intentionally stupid escapism. Once Maniac, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and American Psycho came along, the red writing of reality was slung upon the wall.

Yet none of those films graphically shoved a lopped-off cock up a cheerleader's creamy little bum. To think we used to laugh at the phrase, "Go stick it up your ass..."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Catching Up With a Few Missed Musical Gems from 2011

I've felt a little bit of unfinished business with music this year, primarily because I was busy digging my ass out of a few ruts and trying to stay awake doing it all. Now as everyone ushers their best-of lists, I decided this past week to make it a priority to catch up with some albums I missed this year. Some have been sitting in a promo pile of the damned and some were downloaded promo albums earlier in the year and remained in my file folder thence. In a couple cases, some of my good friends in the music business obliged me with comp copies without expecting editorial on them. Merry Christmas to me and a merrier Christmas to said friends. You all rule.

While I'm still letting the new Hammers of Misfortune and Feersum Ennjin albums linger upon my ears as holiday tunes are starting to wedge themselves in for their fair share of attention, here's a handful of goodies I managed to catch up with in the past week, all certainly deserving of honors lists:

Yes - Fly From Here

Drama-era, Buggles-fused Yes gets a second crack (though Trevor Horn primarily acts as producer and backing vocalist) and they triumph with the flexive, mid-range pipes of Benoit David. Jon Anderson, he is not, but so what? This cat is as confident as they come in his duties and Yes gives him tapestries of texture to decorate instead of empower. It still pays dividends. Moreover, Yes 2011 merges Drama and Tales From Topographic Oceans with only a few shades of their eighties attempt at a pop crossover that only worked once. Steve Howe got lost in his retrospective grandeur and this quasi-concept album soars accordingly. Mostly, this is an intelligent, detailed and alluring return to glory most people might've missed as I almost did. Easily Yes' finest hour since 90125.

The Decemberists - The King is Dead

Many Decemberists fans balked at the critically-praised The Hazards of Love, which capitalized on the band's breakout sensation, The Crane Wife. Almost everyone connected to the indie scene has sung the praises of this year's offering, The King is Dead, a forty-minute alt-country, REM-coated happy pill that goes down palatably like a kid's gummy vitamin. Certainly, the back-to-basics mentality Colin Meloy and company employ on The King is Dead is a revitalized venture.

Obscura - Omnivium

I saw this release sitting high upon many metal critics' best-of lists for 2011 and with good reason. This German tech-death-grind hybrid may have a random hiccup or two because their mathematics are so complex it must riddle their playing digits at times, yet Obscura are simply astonishing on their fourth album. Picture Nile, Nektar and your favorite death metal band wrestling for dominance over each style and succeeding admirably.

Gary Clark, Jr. - The Bright Lights EP

One of the most imperative EPs to come out in recent history. Even though Texas blues guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. has been awhile at carving out a sizable niche as the newly-crowned Stevie Ray heir apparent, his newfound fame exploded this year. The title track is like Big Brother and the Holding Company's acid-drenched soloing from "Combination of the Two" on Cheap Thrills played to a street thug's pimp stride. "Don't Owe You a Thang" is one to give Robert Randolph a hard run in their homages to Leadbelly and Howlin' Wolf. Gary Clark, Jr. is on his way to becoming an overnight sensation. Here's hoping this cat has career longevity to-boot.

Krum Bums - Cut the Noose

I might've fallen out of touch with the current punk scene since I spent much of the year tooling through the seventies and eighties punk rock, but it really seemed to me as if the genre didn't have much to offer in 2011--at least on the radar. LCD Soundsystem may not be pure punk, but they certainly were electro-punk and their breakup this year made more headlines than the new Flogging Molly album. Thank God for the Krum Bums, who put out an entertaining, old-fashion punker punch this year. That was well-needed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Clarity" (A Poem Inspired by Bad Religion's "Sorrow")

Clarity (Inspired by Bad Religion’s “Sorrow”)
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

What is it that I seek?
Why does the destination
mean more than the journey?
Words are just words
but they sting and they sanction
when I’m the craftsman and the craft
my soul kept before your eyes

Pick any window and it’s the same old view
life is shit and life is bliss
it moves faster than I can inhale
I sag and I writhe
I stand tall and I sigh
Can pleasure subjugate misery?

Why does family often go to their graves
without settling debts of forgiveness?
Why does the generation gap
factor into antiquated absolution?
Why is handing a homeless man a bite
less heroic than winning a hand?

Faith sustains me but I don’t believe
I pray the voices in my head unite as one
and tell me they’re God symbiotic
and to never fear Christ’s blood spilled
I am cleansed and I am healed
and there will be...sorrow...no more...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You Got Tebowed

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The major headline of the 2011 NFL season might've been the improbable rebound of the Detroit Lions or the Green Bay Packers very possibly achieving what the New England Patriots did not: a perfect season. On the flipside, you have the realistic scenario that the Peyton-stripped Indy Colts aren't going to win at all this season. The Cincinnati Bengals have invested in their future with a bright and gritty rookie behind the scrimmage, Andy Dalton. Steeltown and B-more are (at this point anyway) destined for a round three dukeout the scalpers will sell at quadruple the face value. The Buffalo Bills were on their way towards a surprisingly successful year while we've hit that point in the season where coaches are fired by angry, impatient general managers, as the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins did yesterday with only three games left in the regular season.

While the Pack, Pats, Lions, Ravens, Steelers, Saints, Texans, 49ers and maybe the Jets and Giants are the most likely candidates for this year's playoff scenario, the team everyone needs to watch out for, of course, is the Tim Tebow-revived Denver Broncos.

It's not enough Tebow has gone 7-1 in his first eight starts. Nobody these days appreciates a less-than-flashy quarterback who doesn't put up 270-300 yards a game. Even if a quarterback has three short drives equating into touchdowns, if said quarterback doesn't have a long ball in his arsenal, much less the capable hands downfield to receive it, nobody really cares about him. It's often overlooked where a quarterback's presence of mind and his ability to keep his troops motivated are sold short. Tim Tebow may not be a Rothlisberger or a Brees or a Rodgers yet, but his offensive line buys into him and it's unfortunate his newfound celebrity has come at this critical period of his development.

"Tebowing" will likely replace planking as the new national fad. Perhaps we'll see kids genuflecting in strange places such as a cemetery, a McDonald's or by a toilet bowl and taking shots of themselves. The sad part, however, is how much of the country's wrath Tim Tebow has incurred for his religious views.

Okay, so the Bronco fans making jerseys with Tebow's number 15 and the name scrawl "JESUS" on the back is over-the-top and a mite sacriligious. That's football fans for you. Whether they're wearing stormtrooper helmets or Road Warrior garb with their team colors on them or gaudy clown wigs and other stupid head accoutrements, you can't exorcise the beast that compels football fans to shame themselves as if Monty Hall was coaching their beloved team. They can't play the games, so it's how they endear themselves to something they love but have no control over its outcome.

Tim Tebow is obviously a spiritual young man. Tebow is obviously vocal in his praising of God. Tebow is obviously a quarterback still finding his rhythm. Yet the cat is winning and if he praises the Lord after a victory, so what? The national uproar against this guy stems from a common view by sports nuts that Tebow believes God favors the Denver Broncos over everyone else in the National Football League. Indeed, they are afraid of this kid because he turns up his juice in the 4th quarter when the Broncos appear to be heading into the loss column and then they magically win. Check out Denver's front office to figure out how Tebow has mastered the two-minute drill in so short a time.

I'd say divine intervention has nothing to do with it. It's more like an Elway intervention. In the case of this past weekend, the Broncos put on another miracle show with Matt Prater's phenomenal 59 yard field goal to tie the Chicago Bears with seconds left in regulation, then a 51 yarder OT boot to win. Keep in mind the Bears fumbled on their way to a presumed victory in overtime and they have the gall to disrespect #15 after they got "Tebowed," as the press is calling it. Really, when you break it down, the Bears choked and have no other way of saving face than hopping aboard the nation's sentiments and declaring Tebow a Judas. Whether or not Tim Tebow leads the Broncos to the promised land Moses-style remains to be seen with three regular season games and a slew of meaty, aggressive AFC teams who will kill one another to have the right to play in the Super Bowl. Are we setting this kid up as a modern day Daniel?

In the meantime, the nationwide hatred of Tim Tebow's public profession of faith is disconcerting, particularly when you consider a generous helping of athletes point to the skies after a field goal, a touchdown, a home run or a strikeout. You don't really see any religion in hockey, save for the Hanson Brothers' comical sign of the cross before taking the ice. Still, we've been living with athletes who offer praise during a game and then huddle with their opposition onfield afterwards to give thanks. It's hilarious to see Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers fans slit each others' throats over a fabricated rivalry that's played out for their entertainment onfield; hilarious when in the past you've seen Steelers and Ravens players praying together after the game. Even Ray Lewis and Ben Rothlisberger have broken proverbial manna with hands clenched together for anyone to see.

Are they vilified? Hardly. Are they celebrated? Nope.

What's celebrated by modern football fans is posturing and showboating. The sports analysts call theatrical athletes "divas" and they're on their way out, as Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson is learning the hard way. Johnson's relocated to a contending team with receivers who aren't the "look at me" player Chad is. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez coax Tom Brady's favor with their muscular follow-throughs for extra yardage whenever he tosses them the ball. They seldom pose or shoot off their mouths, instead relishing in most of New England's scoring plays like professionals. Still, football fans in general only acknowledge Gronkowski and Hernandez with mere respect for their abilities. Instead, they go wild over players who muscle flex, thrash their limbs maniacally or have gimmicky post-play gestures which are all disrespectful towards the opposition and disrespectful towards the game. Dancing around in the end zone may not be as vogue as it was in the nineties and early 2000s, but the fans still love it anyway.

Is the Lambeau Leap disrespectful? To a degree it is, since opposing defenses have to stomach watching Packer receivers dive into the stands and get love from their fans for as long as a full minute after a scoring play--never mind the risk of an excessive celebratiion penalty. Almost no other stadium has such a capacity, but it's common knowledge Green Bay's lifeblood is through the Pack, so they tend to get a pass on the excessive celebrating--by the officials and the public at-large.

What it boils down to, however, is football fans don't want to be preached to. Most go to church on Sunday first before parking their asses in front of the tube or in their seats at the coliseums. Football fans are outraged by Tim Tebow's visual praying and vocal thanks to the eternal force above. You know what, though? Tell me those same hypocrites aren't on their knees at church begging the Lord for a win by their team and yelling "Thank God!" when purported manifest destiny occurs later in the day.

God likes your team better, admit it...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ray's Top 40 Albums of 2011

Now comes the time each year when we draw close to the extensive holiday break in the music industry. In the past, I'd be called upon as early as November 30th by the magazines I wrote for to generate my top picks. Rolling Stone just issued their Top 100 albums of 2011 yesterday, and I've been mulling over my favorites for about a week, so let's get on with it, eh?

This year saw many changes in my life and as my obligations surmounted, I was able to dedicate only enough time to the music industry to keep abreast of things. While most of my readership musically-speaking come from the metal and punk sects, this year found me probing through the indie and alt folk scene, much as I did in the late eighties and early nineties when heavy metal died in America and I deeply explored the original alternative scene.

Thus I feel my listening experiences for 2011 were more well-rounded and enlightened. My metalhead brethren are probably going to find me mad for mingling my metal album picks with the others, but so be it. It summarizes the chaos and disorder of my life this year. Without these albums and the rest in my collection, I might've gone insane from the chronic stress and headaches this year. At least I was able to relieve some of the ever-present tension by working on my novel "Saved by Zero" and by spinning music on a constant.

There are a number of albums I wanted to hear this year based on singles that caught my attention and unfortunately did not. A couple surprised me by their success, such as Foster the People, who put out an average album overall, though they capitalized off of their tremendously catchy "Pumped Up Kicks." Of course, the Black Keys' new album El Camino is sporting a stout pre-release hype and eventually I will check out the new Amy Winehouse archives album plus any others that should've hit my radar. I'm looking forward to hearing the new Snow Patrol album in January since their current single is irresistible.

So, out with this year and onto the next. We will see what 2012 holds for my involvement in the music industry, but for your edification (more so mine), here are the top forty albums I heard this year:

1. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
2. Zombi - Escape Velocity
3. Devotchka - 100 Lovers
4. Wilco - The Whole Love
5. Anthrax - Worship Music
6. Mastodon - The Hunter
7. Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin'
8. Thomas Giles - Pulse
9. Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1
10. Gary Moore - Live at Montreaux 2010
11. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
12. Rachel Yamagata - Chesapeake
13. Ana Kefr - The Burial Tree (III)
14. Opeth - Heritage
15. Paul Simon - So Beautiful Or So What
16. Totimoshi - Avenger
17. Long Distance Calling - s/t
18. Sepultura - Kairos
19. Adele - 21
20. Alice Cooper - Welcome 2 My Nightmare
21. Tedeschi Trucks Band - Revelator
22. Between the Buried and Me - The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues
23. The Cars - Move Like This
24. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
25. A Pale Horse Named Death - And Hell Will Follow Me
26. Chthonic - Takasago Army
27. Admiral Browning - Battle Stations
28. Wino - Adrift
29. Iron Claw - A Different Game
30. Megadeth - Th1rt3en
31. Flogging Molly - Speed of Darkness
32. Hemoptysis - Misanthropic Slaughter
33. Givers - In Light
34. Primus - Green Naugahyde
35. Josh Freese - My New Friends EP
36. Young Circles - Jungle Habits
37. Black Tusk - Set the Dial
38. Saxon - Call to Arms
39. Ghost - Opus Eponymous
40. Hank III's Three Bar Ranch - Cattle Callin'

Honorable Mentions: Even though it's only a two-song split, ambient metal artisans Junius and Rosetta delivered a spectacular, emotive EP which leaves you begging for their next full-lengths. Also a hefty nod to Jimi Hendrix's South Saturn Delta. Considered a posthumous album full of new pieces and alternate takes of old classics, the Hendrix estate has been on fire issuing all of these hidden archives. This one may be the best of the lot so far. Then there's Gary Clark, Jr.'s blazing The Bright Lights EP...Robert Randolph and Ben Harper had better keep an eye out for this Texas slinger...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Few Impressions of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina

We live in an age where excess is both cherished and rebuffed. Of course, this largely depends on whether the bed you wake up in has a frame made of mahogany or cheap, pressed wood. It also has to do with feelings of inequity and unfair distribution of goods--moreover, the average man's capacity to earn a right to those goods. Inherently, this is the foundation of the Occupy movement which is starting to flounder as local governments have fulfilled their obligations to meet constitutional rights and have now said enough is enough is enough.

The world is too complicated, too diverse and too automated by electronic convenience for the second coming of a French Revolution--at least here in America. Here, the modern aristocracy is both celebrated and villainized. The haves versus the have nots are clearly defined by the parameters of a board room and the shadows cast by corporate towers and the bombastic Hollywood letters, both of which essentially put the common man in his place. Yet it's the middle class in an eternal struggle amongst its own ranks to keep up with one another and create a false illusion of empowerment and material sovereignty. The middle class defines its self-worth by the amount of debt-chaining gadgets and gizmos it covets. The rich thus must be amused by such hapless financial suicide.

I found myself thinking of these things when we took a holiday visit to the Carolinas with our longtime friends and they brought us to the Biltmore in Asheville as an early Christmas present. They'd even treated us to the audio tour of the gargantuan alternate residence of George Vanderbilt, who wasn't on this earth long enough to fully savor his work.

On the one hand, there's a certain pomposity that greets you around the slope from the statue of Diana, who smiles from her perch across the estate. To get to Biltmore, you first have to navigate a couple of miles of exotic backwoods of the Pisgah Forest, which are worth the trip alone. You can imagine guests of the past and their impressions of such a long trek to the estate, particularly at the turn of the twentieth century where Tin Lizzies and horse-drawn carriages and sleighs would've been the normal mode of transportation.

At the same time, you feel like George Vanderbilt had created America's Camelot with the intention of not only enhancing his life, but those he interacted with and employed. Considered this country's largest private home, the Biltmore was actually Vanderbilt's second residence outside of his equally lavish quarters in Manhattan. Veritably a palace in the merged designs of French Renaissance, Gothic, Victorian, Flamenco and Rococo, the Biltmore is perhaps one of the most astonishing buildings I've ever visited.

It's particularly fun as you're waiting in line to enter Biltmore to scope all the gargoyles and spirits carved into nearly every tier. I imagined George's future heirs having quite a few shakes and terrors from the demonae guarding the circumference of Biltmore on top of its supporting layers. Back then, it could've been quite imposing, even as George Vanderbilt's intent for the estate was to create a safe haven for his family and friends. Gargoyles are said to be protectors of the establishment. Hovering atop such an oasis as Biltmore, if you believe in such matters, you get the feeling any interloping malevolence was well-thwarted here.

Instead, the dark forces got to Vanderbilt at a pretty young age when he died from a side effect of an appendectomy. It was said his wife, Edith Stuyvescent Dresser, was as gracious a hostess as they came back in early American high society. I was intrigued to learn both George and Edith Vanderbilt were such hospitable folks to their guests, to their servants and to the community surrounding the eight thousand acres marking the Biltmore estate.

The audio tour painted George as an arts and architecture enthusiast on top of having a charitable nature. Now, I'm sure every day at Biltmore wasn't fabled nirvana. I'm sure the history of Biltmore could reveal potentially nasty stories involving the scores of employees who kept the machine running, as it were. Biltmore was one of the very first private homes to have full electricity, an indoor pool, an indoor bowling alley and a thundering pipe organ inside of its enveloping banquet hall. Side note, look for an original colonial era "Don't Tread On Me" banner in the rafters. It takes a considerable staff to keep all of that moving and more than likely there are scores of undisclosed clashes between the bluebloods and the front line help. Then again, it's been testified by many that George and Edith were considered outstanding employers.

On the other hand, you can't avoid smiling at stories of Vanderbilt generously giving away one of his prized spruces to an employee for Christmas after the employee's sons cut down the wrong tree. Likewise, the tale of Edith taking lengthy measures to ensure all the staff and their families had Christmas presents each year is unprecedented. I don't want to spoil the estate's audio tour, but there is a hilarious turn of the karma wheel involving a little girl who turned away Edith's gift of paper dolls. This led to a yearly bestowment from Edith to said girl which could've spelled a fortune in Christmas ornaments had fate not played a hand in things.

Biltmore was opened on Christmas Eve in 1895, thus you can tell the Vanderbilt clan really took the holiday seriously. When you enter Vanderbilt's overwhelming library (the man had more than 23,000 books in his entire possession, 10,000 shelved in this library alone) with the dwarfing ceiling painting The Chariot of Aurora by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, it's noted that George was especially fond of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. He read it repeatedly and took Dickens' haunting paradigm to heart. One of the warm legends of George Vanderbilt has him reported to have thrown the Biltmore staff many annual Christmas parties, Fezziwig-style.

Ironically, we came through the estate during its month-long "Christmas at Biltmore" which is something to behold in itself, particularly inside the banquet hall where your task will be to find an unlit ordinary light bulb on the stories-high Christmas tree. This has been a snarky tradition in the modern era of Biltmore. I recommend the white and rose house Christmas wine, while their Pinot Noir is simply divine.

Biltmore romanticizes the essence of capitalism and you're drawn in. George Vanderbilt was a major fan of Napoleon and you'll find various tributes in bust and painting form amidst the estate, but what impressed me was Vanderbilt's acquisition of Napoleon's actual chess set and oak playing table. Every room inside of Biltmore is a time tunnel into yesteryear. You can visit so many period houses and mansions throughout America and be submerged by all the wealth and prosperity igniting such grandeur. None of it compares to Biltmore, I assure you. When I say this is a living museum, I don't issue the statement lightly. I actually felt a presence inside the third floor living hall, so hello, whoever you were...

The tour takes you through 42 rooms, which tend to change invariably. We were in the estate for more than three hours just to cover this much and the outdoor Loggia, which happened to be open for our visit. I felt like we were in one of the promenades of Hogwarts from the realm of Harry Potter, much as I felt I was inside Washington, DC's National Gallery of Art with Vanderbilt's two Renoir originals and his winter garden which had festive poinsettias amidst the tropical plants and the sparkling fountain. As it was, the National Gallery actually brought thousands of masterworks to Biltmore during World War II out of fear of possible air attacks upon Washington. These were stored away from the public in the Biltmore's music room, which was only finished in 1976.

I'm fascinated the Vanderbilt family established three schools in the area, while George introduced various agricultural techniques to the region, which has long since produced food, horticulture and award-winning wine. Edith resumed her philanthropical activities after George passed away and even though she later remarried, she honored George by working with government officials to preserve the Pisgah Forest and of course, Biltmore Estate. Today, descendents of the Vanderbilt lineage operate Biltmore and it is now considered a national landmark.

At the end, you find yourself appreciating all that went into the place and the people who made it their duty to create a self-contained fantasia. It reeks less of arrogance and wafts more of a monument to mankind's capacity for imaginative wonder. It still comes down to money, naturally, but you find yourself wanting less of it once you've ventured through such a beautiful, yet cumbersome retreat.

All photos (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Are Re-Recording Packages Cheesy?

It's starting to become vogue and I don't like it. I'm talking about heritage bands feeling the need to gyp their fans with pointless re-recording discs.

It started innocuously enough with recent albums by Kiss, Journey and Foreigner. In those cases, each band slipped in a bonus disc of re-recordings by their current personnel, obviously not the original troupe who'd first laid down those cuts. Wal Mart was usually the sponsor of these multi-pack releases which, happily, also contained a live album or a live DVD to give buyers a pretty good deal. Three discs for twelve to fifteen bucks. Wot a bargain, so long as you recognized what you were getting. The live DVD with Kiss' Sonic Boom is probably the best of the bonus bunch, even if their re-recordings disc of vintage years tunes featuring Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer instead of Peter Criss and Ace Frehley is, well...insulting.

Then you have brand new releases from well-known bands lacking the proper clauses in their contracts enabling them to release brand new full-length material. Instead, they return to the old catalog and redo them with their existing stables, almost always a mix of original players and hired guns. Recently Styx unleashed the utterly pointless Regeneration Volume I & II. Bad enough they tried to pawn this collection of redos and two cover songs without Dennis DeYoung (whom we know will never return), but to make it look like a major league, comphrehensive anthology in two volumes that hardly fill out either of their maxed CD spaces? Sorry, but that's weak.

No offense to Tommy Shaw and JY, who pick up the main vocal duties on Regeneration Volume I & II. They do a respectable job, but neither are DeYoung...save for "Renegade," which is haunting in its vocal accuracy. Musically, the current lineup of Styx nails the tunes exactly as you remember them, minus a click or two off the original beat. "The Grand Illusion," "Blue Collar Man," "Miss America," "Come Sail Away," "Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)," "Crystal Ball" are all there, but no "Babe" or "Mr. Roboto" (Styx's biggest commercial hits) if you're curious.

Seriously, though, you'd do better with the 1995 comp, Styx Greatest Hits if you're only looking for the hits instead of Styx's dramatic and progressive full lengths. Nobody really needs to hear Styx cover Damn Yankees' "High Enough" and "Coming of Age," which you get on Regeneration. Double lame.

There was a stretch of time in the seventies when most of the fifties and early sixties rock 'n rollers, doo wop and soul acts re-recorded their best-known hits for low price (and low value) greatest hits packages that I consider mega swindles. Everyone from The Platters to Jerry Lee Lewis to even the true king of rock 'n roll, Chuck Berry, released limp dicked re-recordings albums.

You'd figure history had learned its lesson. Save for the undiscriminating listener seduced by the five dollar sticker in a clearance bin, most people know to steer the hell away from those drecky re-recording packages. You'd figure.

Another recent example is Kingdom Come's Rendered Waters, which is essentially vocalist Lenny Wolf with a new band hoisting eight of the band's past catalog. At least he cared enough to record three new tracks for Rendered Waters and they're quite good, actually. Even the re-recordings are pretty spiffy considering they have a new verve, a new kick, a bit more amplitude and less Zeppelin to them. Wolf tread the fine line between good taste heraldry and bold-faced huckstering. Cheers to Wolf in that respect, and I thank the man for a damned fine interview last year in support of Rendered Waters.

In general, I give acoustic hits albums a pass if they're done well and not just recordings of old comrades getting drunk in the studio and jamming out without realizing the record button is on. John Lennon's Acoustic is a worthy endeavor since there's revelation of deeper rubber soul within his stripped, mano-y-guitarra cadence. Then you have bands who issue covers albums and rare is it the all-covers album which actually rules. Slayer's Undisputed Attitude, Johnny Cash's American Recordings series and the Ramones' Acid Eaters come to mind on the positive side.

Regeneration, though? I don't wish to quibble (particularly since my copy was sent to me for free), but this goes beyond the intent of connecting with future generations and reconnecting with old demographics who want more than "Too Much Time On My Hands" on classic rock radio. Styx are fooling themselves but not too many of their fans. Better to just hit the summer festival circuit and prosper if they don't want to let it end.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Do Wop She-Bop...

The Flamingos, photo courtesy of Singers.com

I'm starting to cruise through the first four chapters of my new project. Currently I'm dialing up my entire stash of fifties' music for the most recent chapter I've been writing. I find I am still in love with The Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes For You" as I ever was in my younger years when my stepfather used to play us all of his old 45s nearly each Friday night as I was growing up. Before girls entered my life, I used to find "Eyes" as wondrously ethereal as Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk." As I grew up, I wish I'd lost my virginity to this tune instead of Billy Idol's "Cradle of Love." Yeah, I said it. Heck, I'm positive a large percentage of 1959 and 1960 born babies were conceived with The Flamingos crooning overhead, do wop she-bop...

The Flamingos' dreamy hike of Dick Powell's original is to me, the sexiest song ever recorded. It made the cut on the American Graffiti soundtrack, as well as my own imaginary soundtrack I conceived and burned while writing "Saved by Zero." As it turned out, I selected Maxwell to hypothetically swoon atop a critical scene of that novel since it had more crediblity for the scene's context, but the romantic sap in me really wanted "Eyes" in there. Keeping it honest versus keeping it real, you know...

Friday, November 18, 2011

3o Films I Tend To Watch While Writing On a Major Project: Numbers 21 - 30

21. Unforgiven

Many consider Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch the art house western flick. True enough, but Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is the genre's greatest work of art. Atypical of most of Clint's prototype shoot 'em up cowpoke parties (aside from High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider), Unforgiven takes a humanistic approach of not only Eastwood's grizzled William Munny, but also the entire cast, who elevate the film to a nearly-unprecedented sense of far-flung empathy. By the time Eastwood reacts brutally to Gene Hackman's barbaric mistreatment of Morgan Freeman, his snapcase sadism is believable and wholly startling. Far deeper by proxy in comparison to the gunsmoked revenge sagas of Hang 'em High and Fistful of Dollars.

22. River's Edge

You know you're in for Hell when the opening frame greets viewers with a full frontal nude female corpse. River's Edge is partially about an act of cruel insanity in which an oafish outcast murders his improbable hottie girlfriend. It's more about the swarm of his low rent peers (including Crispin Glover in his finest hour) and how they react to his overt and sick braggadocio of the killing. With Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye and Dennis Hopper, River's Edge could've been subtitled "The Real Suburbia." A bitchin' soundtrack laced with heaps of Slayer makes River's Edge even more of a daunting venture.

23. Woodstock

I wasn't there at the original '69 Woodstock, but I feel a strange sense of connection to the festival. My mom would have me less than a year later, but she'd often told me she'd planned to car pool up to Woodstock but relented at the last minute to spare my grandmother needless worry. The music, the spirit and the urgency are all felt along with the hopeless ply for a utopia that was slightly shattered by the lack of proper sanitation, rainy weather and occasional rowdiness. Still, three days of music featuring The Who, Santana, Joan Baez, Mountain, Ten Years After, Ritchie Havens, Crosby Stills and Nash, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and a ton of other crucial rockers and folkies of the sixties? Man, it had to have been something. I always look forward to the scene in this documentary of the nuns who made it to Woodstock, one of them flashing up the peace symbol at the camera. It reveals the comradely nature of all walks of life as it does one generation's strive for change in the midst of social upheaval. Woodstock the movie captures all ends of the festival, in front of the stage, behind it and of course, all over it. If ever a case for widescreen was to be made for home video, Woodstock is it, with its frequent three-panel barrage. Still a spectacle in these jaded times.

24. The Other

Here's a film my mother gave me one Christmas with the message, "You need this film for your writing." And how. You've seen the story of combative twins many times over, but The Other (not to be confused with Nicole Kidman's creepy ghost tale The Others) is the be all end all. Well-written, sharply directed and even though you suspect what this movie's about, it still delivers a fair shock at the end.

25. Rebel Without a Cause

"What are you rebelling against?" "Whattya got?" James Dean issues a halcyon slamdunk to rival them all. If ever a film "got it" about explosive teenage angst (outside of The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, Boyz in the Hood and American History X), Rebel Without a Cause is the ultimate snipe at conventionalism and domineering authority figures. James Dean and Natalie Wood could've been an unwitting Bonnie and Clyde in the making. Instead, they come off as young romantic fools eager to show themselves to the world as much as they simply want to be left the hell alone. Powerful prose in film form.

26. Memoirs of a Geisha

Ziyi Zhang (normally a butt-kicking movie martial artist) is a knockout in this more restrained role as a timid girl, Sayuri (fka Chiyo), sold into slavery by her family and thus learning the geisha trade under adverse conditions. Sayuri's trials and rise to prominence as an in-demand geisha sets her up for a near-fall from grace. Her love for Ken Watanabe's character "The Chairman" creates further tension to the story and it's positively beautiful to finally see their union. The cinemaphotography is as lush and vivid as Zhang herself, while Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe and Gong Li are stellar. Visually stunning and rather provocative in theme, Memoirs of a Geisha is a harsh and moving story.

27. Nosferatu

In my opinion, this is the greatest vampire film of them all. Max Schreck's silent jewel Nosferatu is the reason for the season when you're talking about vampire lore. Dank, murky and chilly even with no sound, Schreck's scowling features and creeped-out stalking are dervied from Bram Stoker's original Dracula novel, yet there's a fearsome overload to the vehicle. He comes off as the real deal, which invites a look at the fictitious story-behind-the-story Shadow of the Vampire, starring Willem Dafoe. That now-classic indie horror flick purports Schreck was a genuine vampire on the set of Nosferatu. Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee deserve all of their long-established accolades, but Max Schreck could send the combined Twilight and True Blood casts into obscurity as sheer posers.

28. Let Me In

While we're on the topic of vampires, Let Me In gets the distinction as one of the best horror remakes of all-time. Based on the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, this unnerving yarn about a persecuted tween befriending a female vampire preserved within his age bracket is so well done you can't take your eyes away from it. It's enough the film (gloriously executed by the rebounding Hammer Studios) captures its eighties-based setting with respectable accuracy, but the unholy union between boy and girlish vampire is played both innocuously and with terse squeamishness. Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz exhibit impressive chemistry for their ages. A newer selection for my mandatory movies while writing a project, Let Me In is a tender and visceral horror film well-deserving of any honors it receives.

29. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Filled with celestial eye candy and stunning sets, 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most engaging spectacles in film, much as it is a searing social commentary. The moral of machines taking over our lives was issued long before this current Renaissance of technology. Doubtful anyone's learned their lesson since Stanley Kubrick taunted audiences with his evil spaceship computer Hal, but never let it be said the warnings weren't there.

30. Black Swan

Another one of my more recent additions, Black Swan, along with Let Me In, might be two of the most important transitional films for dark American cinema. Even without the shades of horror in Black Swan, the film is grandiose. Natalie Portman gives the performance of her career and while some reports indicate this is her swan song, let's hope she returns at a later date. Never has a film about ballet focused so deeply upon the obsession of the craft, to the point Portman's "Swan Queen" is suffering delusional maneuevers even as she herself is succumbing to the pressure to deliver nothing short of the perfect performance. If you know the entire saga of Swan Lake, you know what "perfection" constitutes. Graceful and horrific, Black Swan is an instant modern masterpiece.