Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wet, Wild Mars

Mars - the place Carl Sagan called our "Mythic Arena" in the sky, the nearest planet whose surface we can see, the site of adventurous fiction from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Leigh Brackett to Andy Weir. Liquid water obviously used to flow there. Enough to support life? Who knows. I did come across an interesting article about how much water used to be there and when - or at least a study that says it was more prevalent, more recently, than anyone realized. I didn't know that Mars has such an extreme axial tilt, and that we would too, if the Moon didn't keep us in check. I wonder how different life would be on Earth - or if life would exist at all - if we didn't have a Moon? Apparently those two little runts circling Mars ain't doin' their jobs.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two Sides of Peter Banks

It's been a while since I've done a record review, so here goes. On Father's Day, Connor and I did our traditional trip to buy old records, because yes, I'm a vinyl nerd. I'm also a progressive rock nerd, so I was pleased to find a re-release on heavy vinyl of an album I'd never heard of - Two Sides of Peter Banks. In my prog rock explorations - which I didn't start making until a few years ago - I've mostly ignored Yes, which featured Banks on guitar for the first two albums. So I honestly didn't know who Peter Banks was, which doesn't say much for my prog rock credibility.

Anyway, I bought the record unheard after looking at the lineup of musicians, which include Peter Collins and Steve Hackett of Genesis, and John Wetton of King Crimson, my favorite Crimson vocalist whose voice and bass work dominates by favorite incarnation of King Crimson (Larks' Tongues in Aspic through Red). Also present are Ray Bennett and Mike Hough, of Banks' post-Yes band Flash, and Jan Akkerman of Focus, who provides a meaty second guitar.

Released in 1973, the album's entire first side features only one instrumental song - something that screams "prog" just by looking at the track list. The epic song is divided into six movements, all of which have titles denoting knights, dragons, kings, and other fantasy fare common to early-70s prog groups. As an album side, it's almost perfect. Beginning with a mellow and sweet-sounding guitar duet between Banks and Akkerman, about halfway through it lapses into some bombastic metal that sounds like King Crimson at its heaviest. It certainly kicks anything Yes ever recorded in the balls. Not one to smash us over the head with heavy riffage, Banks pulls it back to the mellow after a few measures. But this time, the mellow has a more sinister quality, like that we'd expect from King Crimson or, say, Pink Floyd at their best. Subtle, tinkling guitar work and almost Rick Wakeman-like keyboards from Hackett keep us floating along until we're surprised again by a movement called "Battles," which smacks us in the face with a palm-muted metal attack not dissimilar to the chunka-chunka-chunka sound of Paranoid by Black Sabbath, only better. Things get a little sloppy here, but Phil Collins steps in with a drum break that leads to a frantic jazz-influenced barrage of point-counterpoint work from Wetton, Akkerman and Banks. Following this, things slowly die down, and the suite rounds out side one with a whimper, not a bang.

Side two is less impressive, consisting of another gentle instrumental followed by the thirteen-minute track "Stop That," which, according to the liner notes, was a spontaneous jam in the studio that engineers captured by chance. It's not bad, but it sounds like what it is, and was probably more interesting for the guys to record than it is for me to listen to, and Wetton, whose bass playing I'm normally quite fond of, seems heavy-handed and bored. A final instrumental jam is added almost as an afterthought, with some incredible southern-fried riffage traded by Banks and Akkerman. But the countrified nature of the jam, to me, doesn't sit well with the rest of the record.

What I take away from this: one, Peter Banks is an incredible guitarist. I have every intention of seeking out his other solo work and look forward to exploring the band Flash, which I'd never heard of. I also enjoyed listening to Phil Collins solely as a drummer, which I don't think I've ever really done (I'm not familiar with Gabriel-era Genesis). He's no Bill Bruford, and frankly, the drums seem snare-heavy without enough mic on the cymbals. Nevertheless, Collins provides a solid, thumpy backbeat that leaps out to accent in all the right places and other times is wisely subdued. I was impressed with his playing. I'd also never heard of Akkerman or Focus. Hell, I even listened to the first two Yes albums after hearing this. So it's a good "gateway" album for someone like me who likes prog rock but doesn't know a lot about it.

The real treasure of this album is, however, the guitar interplay between Banks and Akkerman. No one who is a fan of the instrument should miss hearing at least that first, side-long epic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Black Vault

So, John Greenwald has been collecting government information about UFOs for decades. He's tirelessly filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act and received some 150,000 documents spanning about 1.3 million pages. Early this year he posted the entire collection online at The Black Vault. Whether or not you take any of this seriously, it's certainly an entertaining way to kill some time.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Most Holy Trinosophia

In writing this article for the Jackasses of History blog, I learned about the 18th century mystic Cagliostro, who could be one of the authors of a book called The Most Holy Trinosophia. I'm interested in such esoterica, even though I don't understand it, so I tried to learn more. Said the scholar Dr. Edward Getsinger of the book:

"In all my twenty years of experience as a reader of archaic writings I have never encountered such ingenious codes and methods of concealment as are found in this manuscript. In only a few instances are complete phrases written in the same alphabet; usually two or three forms of writing are employed, with letters written upside down, reversed, or with the text written backwards. Vowels are often omitted, and at times several letters are missing with merely dots to indicate their number. Every combination of hieroglyphics seemed hopeless at the beginning, yet, after hours of alphabetic dissection, one familiar word would appear. This gave a clue as to the language used, and established a place where word combination might begin, and then a sentence would gradually unfold.
        The various texts are written in Chaldean Hebrew, Ionic Greek, Arabic, Syriac, cuneiform, Greek hieroglyphics, and ideographs. The keynote throughout this material is that of the approach of the age when the Leg of the Grand Man and the Waterman of the Zodiac shall meet in conjunction at the equinox and end a grand 400,000-year cycle. This points to a culmination of eons, as mentioned in the Apocalypse: "Behold! I make a new heaven and a new earth," meaning a series of new cycles and a new humanity. 
       The personage who gathered the material in this manuscript was indeed one whose spiritual understanding might be envied. He found these various texts in different parts of Europe, no doubt, and that he had a true knowledge of their import is proved by the fact that he attempted to conceal some forty fragmentary ancient texts by scattering them within the lines of his own writing. Yet his own text does not appear to have any connection with these ancient writings. If a decipherer were to be guided by what this eminent scholar wrote he would never decipher the mystery concealed within the cryptic words. There is a marvelous spiritual story written by this savant, and a more wonderful one he interwove within the pattern of his own narrative. The result is a story within a story."

Interesting. Want to learn more? Here's the whole book translated into English