Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Remember That: Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven

"...and she's buuuuyyyying the Stairway To Heaven."

-The final words to Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven, a song that could leave any young teen positively beaten in spirit or in a sheer state of ecstasy-

There are many days when I just check out. My mind wanders and ponders the many trivial points of this vast universe like a biker on an open country road.  These thoughts flow coming and going. These thoughts are general reflections of things from my past or that generally amuse me and they will come to you by way of these irregular posts.

Why not?  Reflections on those by-gone days had been simmering for some time.

You know my affection for 80s music.  I love George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice, Volume I [1990], a masterpiece of music composition really.  It was an eighties album to kick off the 1990s, but George I'm still waiting for that second volume already.  Any day would be good my friend.

Of course, there are recordings you would prefer never to hear again.  You know the expression, "If I never hear that song again it will be too soon"?  There's definitely truth in it.  Other times I guess we just need a break - a really long break.

Well I swear once upon a time during the seemingly endless days of high school dances there was always one song to rear its ugly head at the closing of the night.  After a seemingly sweaty few hours of navigating the dance floor, spending time amongst bleacher creatures and generally trying hard not to get noticed by some but still noticed by others, the inevitable end would come.

The close of the night was reserved by the DJ at least in my town and those towns in the general area for Led Zeppelin [1968-1980; 9 albums - what's an album?].  Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven was absolutely positively automatic.  It was of course an endurance test, because the eight minute plus song Stairway To Heaven was an epic.  That ballad was a guarantee.  It was the essential ending to any dance.  Depending on who you were dancing with or whether you were dancing it all and merely gazing at the girl you wanted to dance with dancing with another, it was, in essence, heaven or hell.  Those final minutes were crucial to your identity, to your mental well-being and of course to your fragile heart.  Those were the breaks.  If you were on the gym bleachers staring out at the swaying masses you were pained beyond words.  If you were with the girl of your choice you were positively liberated.  If you happened to be the choice of someone other than that girl it was a long haul of a slog fest on that dance floor.  The same held true for the girls I'm sure.  It's funny to think The Sci-Fi Fanatic either sent home the ladies happy or with marked disappointment. Oh well.  Yes, those were indeed the days.

By God as the final minutes of the dance drew upon us, desperate efforts were either made to secure a dance looking out at the prospects like a wolf to sheep or those less fortunate might have devoted energies to convince the DJ to play anything but Stairway To Heaven.  Despite protests for a three to four minute ballad gem, the DJ spun his records like a red-faced Mephistopheles.  He looked out and he knew the torture he would inflict on some and the heaven on others.  When the opening notes of Led Zeppelin wistfully drifted across the basketball court or dining room's makeshift dance arena, it was all but secured that the night was indeed over.

Sweating profusely, quickly collecting data looking around the room a quick decision was required.  Bodies closed in spaces like celestial heavens.  The pressure was on.  And when the first notes ticked out of those speakers you were about to enter the eight minute fray of Led Zeppelin either alone or with someone, perhaps anyone.  If a decision, good or bad, wasn't made you were assured a bleacher spot along with the nameless rabble of broken hearts strewn across metal stairs like the piles of sweaters and coats that adorned them. You were on the benches, the sidelines or you were dancing softly and sweetly for eight long minutes, a veritable epic in a young man's life of pure, unadulterated passion.  Body to body.  Heat to heat.  It was Stairway To Heaven and the DJ guaranteed that song each and every dance.  And each and every dance those inevitable final moments came like a rousing crescendo of action from the latest Die Hard flick.  You swayed back and forth as Robert Plant and Jimmy Page elevated the tempo beyond ballad as you ascended those stairs.  There was nothing gentle about those moments but they certainly reflected the abnormal pacing of the heartbeat within. It was a rush of sheer joy and pain that every young man should have experienced.  But when those notes lit up the gym like a stately ball, I swear the eyes rolled to the back of the head and I said to myself at least once, "son of a bitch, Stairway To freakin' Heaven again!"  It was quite the trial in the 1970s and 1980s to be sure.  Judging by the images I found, I'm not alone in sharing this feeling.

Nevertheless, today, I actually really love Stairway To Heaven.  What an amazing song.  Without the weight of peer groups and the opposite sex throbbing around me in fuzzy sweaters, I can enjoy that song again.  My son and I have been loading up the blue ghost for trips with everything from Filter and Smashing Pumpkins to Soundgarden and AC/DC to, well, would you look at that, Led Zeppelin.  I plopped down $1.29 for Stairway to Heaven on iTunes along with Black Dog, Misty Mountain Hop, Immigrant Song, Whole Lotta Love, All My Love, Fool In The Rain and some Big Log solo stuff from Robert Plant.

By God I never thought I would have wanted to hear Stairway To bloody Heaven again.  But you know what that song is amazing and I appreciate it in a way I never thought I would have.  And Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin are absa-freakin'-fantastic anyway. To this day, the band ranks among the musical elite.  No one can touch them.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Fringe S1 Ep3: The Ghost Network

"Agent Dunham if I'm not always completely transparent with you there's a reason.  This little task force that you and I call our day job now, it sometimes requires, shall we say, bureaucratic maneuvering to keep it alive and free from political meddling, which means sometimes I don't tell you everything for your own protection. ... When you're ready, 'til then I suppose you'll need to trust me." 

-Phillip Broyles, Homeland security agent and senior-agent-in-charge of the Fringe Division-

The Fringe Division enters the latest installment of Fringe once again in fairly conventional territory, like The Same Old Story.  The series appears to be attempting to establish a pattern or at least a groove for its cast and writers as it plunges into the murky world of fringe science by interpreting X-Files-like ideas or conventions into its own stylish Fringe formula.  That is the impression in yet another visually stimulating exercise on a series still getting its footing but looking that much more self-assured with each passing entry despite the less than original plot lines.  We're still not there yet, but Fringe is a solid escape.

The Fringe team comes across a bus of victims frozen in amber resulting from a silicone-based aerosol gas.  The dastardly event is the work of a man named Matthew Ziegler.  The very moment Ziegler pulls out a gas mask and places it over his head viewers are immediately unnerved.  This is a terrifically unsettling image in a post-911 world.  It's another disturbing Prologue with an act of seeming terrorism as its epic opener.  Additionally, the exterior shots and genuine location shots really open up Fringe.  It gives the series an intense cinematic look. These massive event moments open each episode of Fringe and Fringe, Season One, Episode 3, The Ghost Network continues to secure that approach.  There's no shortage of talent on the technical side of Fringe.

A former test subject of Walter Bishop, the troubled but sympathetic Roy McComb, acts as a human receiver psychically experiencing events before they happen including foresight of the plane event from Hamburg to Boston in the series Pilot entry through a kind of secure human telecommunications network.  McComb sketches out his disturbed visions opening the episode in a Catholic confessional desperate for understanding and answers to his personal crisis.

Agent John Scott is honored and buried in a memorial service.  His mother glares at Agent Olivia Dunham from across the burial site.  Olivia is uncomfortable honoring a man that not only betrayed her but his country.  This is the character of Olivia Dunham.

Walter and Peter share a little time at a diner where Walter is over the moon about blueberry pancakes.  Gosh, I love them too.  More is hinted to Peter's past as he speaks firmly with a man at the bar who had been taking pictures of him.  Peter takes the camera memory card from the unknown man that tells Peter he was supposed to "check in."

Examination by the FBI's Fringe Division of an on-board bus camera reveals to exceptional investigator Dunham that a back pack is missing. Images reveal a woman on the bus did indeed possess a back pack that is now missing as denoted by the video.  It is determined she was an undercover DEA Agent named Evelina Mendoza.  Broyles and Dunham meet with DEA Agent Grant Davidson who tells them that Mendoza had stumbled upon a connection to The Pattern.  Davidson identifies her body at the morgue with oversight by Dunham and in a moment alone appears to be stroking or holding her hand but is obscured by his back.  The suggestion that he may have been intimate with her is seen in Dunham's face and she is sympathetic to his potential pain.

At the Harvard lab, Walter determines the silicone-based aerosol solidifies when contacting nitrogen in the air.  The chemicals can be traced back to Massive Dynamic.

Later, Charlie Francis and Olivia check out Roy's apartment where they find gruesome images of Pattern events, a model mock-up of Flight 627 and other disturbing drawings.

Roy is interrogated.  He receives images and must recreate them through detailed, dynamic drawings.  It began roughly nine months ago about the time the FBI became aware of The (mysterious) Pattern.

An MRI is performed on Roy and he nearly dies.  The magnets of the equipment essentially begin pulling Roy apart.  Roy has metal in his blood.  It turns out Roy was a former test subject of Walter.  Walter once handled an experiment for the US military injecting people with an organo-iridium compound in an effort to send messages directly to the brain. The compound would act as a receiver for messages over a covert radio frequency dubbed the Ghost Network.  Roy is receiving messages from individuals who have discovered the network, but those messages are being deposited into Roy's sensory cortex thus he feels and sees them.  But they need to be deposited into his auditory cortex in order for Roy to hear them.  Where's the Observer? The clever planting of the Observer serves as evidence regarding a thoughtful plan for Fringe.

Olivia and Peter retrieve a neural stimulator hidden in the walls of the Bishop's old house.  It is used on Roy's head in an effort to shift the messages.

It turns out players in this dangerous Fringe game, including Davidson and Ziegler, are going to meet at the South Station subway in Boston.  The messages indicate the item they wanted was on the body of the dead DEA agent Mendoza.  Olivia connects the puzzle pieces.  Roy's drawing of a stigmata and bloody hands laying prostate makes her realize Davidson took something off Mendoza's body that day in the morgue.  He cut her hand for it.

Davidson is killed by Ziegler and Ziegler, before being arrested, sacrifices himself by falling back into an oncoming bus.  Now that is a fanatic.  The FBI do get the item.

Later, Broyles and Olivia look at the glass disk connected to The Pattern.

The episode ends with an interesting exchange as Broyles gives the disk to Nina Sharp and the two talk ambiguously about Dunham and her future.  The scene is shrouded in terrific lighting only magnifying the mystery and covert nature of the relationship between Sharp and Broyles.  Who trusts who and how much is another matter entirely.  Sharp resides on the Oversight Committee as seen in The Same Old Story.

But trust is certainly thematically central to Fringe like it was for The X-Files [1993-2002].  These are the kind of general, overarching comparisons between the two programs of which, along with Millennium [1996-1999], Fringe is an undeniable descendant of in spirit.  The X-Files operating principle of Trust No One is definitely in play, but Dunham operates in a kind of you've got to trust someone mentality. She turns to Agent Charlie Francis, Phillip Broyles, Peter and Walter. Her perspective as a female lead isn't entirely special, but she operates from a very different place as a young female agent and it's interesting to see how Dunham approaches the characters in her sphere of influence.  Ultimately, Dunham, at this point is on a need-to-know basis and by being left in the dark she is required to place her trust or faith in those around her for whom she directly works.

At Massive Dynamic, Sharp provides the coin sized affect / disk to her scientists who indicate it is required to break the encryption.  Data streams from a lifeless, preserved John Scott across computer monitors.  Technology and Fringe continue to combine for a fascinating combination.

Criticisms varied widely The Ghost Network as many were still very much on the fence about Fringe at this point and that is still understandable.  Most felt the story was as good if not better than the previous episode but generally not by much.  IGN's Travis Fickett dubbed Fringe "a solid show, but [not] exceptional yet."  Still, there were some that were extremely generous.  Stephen Lackey of  believed Fringe "finally ... hits that special place of TV series addiction reserved for shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica."  I wouldn't be ready to bestow that kind of crown on the series based on the first three entries.  I'm not quite there yet, but I like the optimism.  He certainly seemed ready to praise Fringe and elevate it to one of the best series of the year.  Would it be?  He may have wish-fulfilled correctly.

Writer John Kenneth Muir offers the best, most insightful critique of the bunch and his concerns regarding what is problematic with Fringe are legitimate and ring true to me viewing the series early on.  They don't deter from the enjoyment of the episodes for me personally, but they are of sufficient concern.  Apart from referencing similarities to The X-Files' Oubliette, Blind or the feature film, I Want To Believe [2008], he explains a major issue with Fringe.  The series "only skims the surface of an interesting idea, and comes up short on the actual science on display."  These aspects are indeed noticeable as the writers get their footing.  He adds further supporting his hypothesis, "When Fringe fails to convey accurate information on routine subjects such as psychiatric drugs [like the ones Walter concocts] and surgical procedure, you have to wonder about the integrity of the series."  The scripts do handle these areas with a very cursory touch.  There are never any great details, but these were flaws I was willing to forgive from the beginning to a degree.  Muir does note that Joshua Jackson's performance continues to grow stronger and is a "brightspot."  It's the "superficial" ideas that bothered him as a viewer and I suspect bothered a number of viewers in the start.  I know precisely the scenes to which he refers and they are awkward and have me asking questions, but not enough to discount the entertainment value of the installment.  Alex Zalben, a UGO writer, actually preferred The Ghost Network to The X-Files I Want To Believe, both released within a span of two months from one another.  So feelings were indeed fairly mixed and fairly so.

And for the kinds of things that would seem to defy logic, and that I have forgiven thus far, I point to the moment Peter Bishop breaks into his old house with Olivia Dunham.  He justifies his actions to break and enter, to of all people - an FBI Agent.  The incredulous move feels a bit contrived and forced.  I felt a little better about reading that the writers and creators of the show had debated how to handle the Peter character and how this particular scene should be handled.  For me, personally, it doesn't feel right and clearly Joshua Jackson's character is a work in progress.  So I was pleased to see it wasn't just me, but rather the actual writers who were uncertain about this particular moment.  But, it's fine entertainment and thus I accept and move on, but you would prefer to see less of those kinds of moments as the series develops and progresses.  Lapses in good judgment or logic problems can take their toll.  So far, I've moved on.

My re-assessment is beginning to fortify my belief I got Fringe very wrong, but exiting the series after these first three episodes alone, while premature, is precisely what happened for me.  I needed to give it more time.  The further and deeper I go into the world of Fringe, these earlier entries are not surprisingly far less complex.  They lay the ground work in building up to something much bigger.  In many ways, you need to prepare for that much denser mythology, and these earlier seemingly more familiar stories ease you into the completely unfamiliar madness ahead quite nicely.  It's a process and The Ghost Network is part of the infrastructure of the Fringe architecture.  You're likely to appreciate it even more later.  Moments, actions, behavior, events will likely take on greater resonance the more we discover.  One thing is certain, Fringe is a meticulous production in its professionalism and technical approach and the stories while familiar thus far are certainly not forgettable.  You may have seen this ghost before but you never forget it.

The Ghost Network: B-.
Writer: David H. Goodman, J.R. Orci. Director: Frederick E. O. Toye.
Glyph Code: AEGER - Latin for SICK.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Corey Hart: Young Man Running & Boy In The Box

"Hey Mister don't shadowbox with me cuz' I don't wanna someday be an old man cursing what I might have been."
-Corey Hart, In Your Soul from the recording Young Man Running [1988]-

X-file? One of the many unsolved X-Files along the way was whether or not David Duchovny and 1980s Canadian pop singer Corey Hart were of the same birth mother, perhaps the result of a mutual zygote.  I always found the two to be awfully similar in appearance. It may have been me, but I find things like this to amuse me.  This genetic coincidence has always been one of those "extreme possibilities."  But David Duchovny did spend a good deal of time in Canada for The X-Files.  And in science fiction anything is possible.

This post, originally intended to be something of a light-hearted offering, transformed from a simple idea into a full blown 80s music retrospective.  For fans of all things 80s, enjoy the memories.

It is without question, unlike Duran Duran, The Human League and Depeche Mode, pop star Corey Hart has been all but forgotten at least in the United States.  The Canadian pop rock star who left girls swooning is all but a faded distant memory to most fans of the 80s never mind the casual music fan. I'm not even sure most remember he wore his Sunglasses At Night.  How cool was this guy once upon a time? His big claim to fame was a pulsing, driving, delicious synthesizer delight. In fact, it's not until I started watching The X-Files again that I thought, "David Duchovny always reminded me of Corey Hart."

I'll have you know this random connection brought me back to my Fancave to dust off my collection of Corey Hart music.  I honestly haven't touched those CDs in years and most of you would probably agree I'd be better off.  But I refuse to bow to the pressure of my peers and relent to the sound sensations of 80s glories like those heralded by Corey Hart.  Mult-instrumentalist, singer/ songwriter Corey Hart penned a number of fine little pop gems along the way and was certainly not without talent.  The Montreal born native even penned songs for his wife Julie Masse and singer Celine Dion and was showered with awards for a solid decade.  The very X-Files-like back cover of Corey Hart's First Offense.

As I poured over my collection of Corey Hart, I immediately knew I would need to load iTunes with the very best and burn a CD for the sandcrawler rides about town and to further torture my children with my clearly square choice of music.   What I can't understand is how I can be scolded by a daughter who liked Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. Nevertheless, there was no messing around here people.  I had to get right to the heart [pun not intended actually] of the very best of Hart's work.

Fans of 80s music should know they cannot go wrong with the hits collection called Corey Hart: The Singles [1991].  That collection has almost everything you need.  But running down the list.  The aptly titled First Offense [1983], produced by Jon Astley, was a solid start for a newcomer and had the two pop gems Sunglasses At Night and It Ain't EnoughPeruvian Lady, She Got The Radio and a few others are sub par but may be worth a purchase.

Boy In The Box [1985] quickly followed suit with a lead-off ballad Never Surrender, a story about running away, and took full advantage of Hart's good looks at the registers. I recall my friends and I in high school thinking Boy In The Box was a pretty solid collection of pop songs.  On the whole, the album is one of two solid productions by Hart and would be worthy of a place on your 80s shelf.  The thrilling title track, the gorgeous Everything In My Heart, the stunningly seductive Eurasian Eyes [employed for the film 9 1/2 Weeks which says something], the aching Waiting For You, rockers Komrade Kiev and Silent Talking and even Water From The Moon are all perfect pop songs.  There really isn't a misstep in the bunch.  In fact, I always felt like British pop act Cutting Crew lifted Everything In My Heart for their recording The Scattering [1989] and renamed it Everything But My Pride.  It sounds incredibly close and many of you know I love Cutting Crew's Broadcast [1986], but that group took their liberties with Hart's song or so it seemed.  Well, like Broadcast, Boy In The Box is a classic.

Producer Jon Astley who recorded those first two Hart efforts did a couple of albums himself in much the same vain producer Rupert Hine dabbled outside of The Fixx on his own as a self-professed singer.  Astley, you might recall, came out with an excellent production called Everyone Loves The Pilot (Except The Crew) [1987; a great name for an album] and another recording called The Compleat Angler [1988].  Each effort yielded two wonderful pop singles including Jane's Getting Serious and Put This Love To The Test respectively.  Astley has mastered recordings for Led Zeppelin, Tears For Fears, Paul McCartney, The Boomtown Rats, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Level 42, Eric Clapton, Toto and even Bono.  Astley is an interesting character but he's an X-File for another day.

Corey Hart followed up Boy In The Box a year later with Fields Of Fire [1986], borrowing a refrain from Big Country's The Crossing [1983].  While Fields Of Fire certainly saw Hart maturing as a songwriter and vocalist it had its hits and misses and became an uneven follow-up.  The standouts include the striking I Am By Your Side, the terrifically wistful Take My Heart and a very effective and simple remake of Elvis Presley's Can't Help Falling In Love, one of the better remakes I've heard.  But if I'm to be honest the song was omitted from my self-made CD compilation.  Seriously, who hasn't remade that song?  If I never hear that song again it would be too soon.  Paul Young was one of the absolute finest vocalists to remake songs out of the UK, and he never remade that one and that's saying something.  But, he's a more likely X-file for another day too.

Finally, the second must-own production for the library is Hart's underrated, under appreciated and essentially discarded work Young Man Running [1988].  Two years later and his selections are more sophisticated but just as melodic.  Spot You In A Coalmine and Don't Take Me To The Racetrack are upbeat numbers you'll find on his best of collection as well as here.  But the best songs for my money, hands down, some of which can only be found here, are in no particular order the fantastically reflective, even nostalgic In Your Soul [this one is a pensive beauty], the gorgeous Still In Love, No Love Lost, the yearning Chase The Sun and the incredibly moving Truth Will Set You Free, a gay anthem open for other interpretations.  Truth even received a work over by Hart in 2012 with newly recorded vocals and an entirely restructured track by 1 Love.  Young Man Running is a wonderful production.  I can't tell you how many times I saw that one in a dusty bargain bin and thought to myself, what a shame.  Hart was proud of that effort and deservedly so.  A lot of effort was put into it.  Pulling out those songs last night and hearing them again reminded me why I loved them so much.  They are timeless and well-produced, while Boy In The Box may sound a little dated with its synth-heavy compositions, Young Man Running flows with a kind of grace to it. Minor quibbles aside, those two efforts are the classics.

Bang! [1990] arrived with a fizzle and I can't say I was all that impressed myself honestly.  Attitude & Virtue [1992] had a similar effect on me.  Apart from A Little Love from Bang! and maybe two tracks from the latter I felt like Hart lost his touch a little.

Corey Hart [1996] and Jade [1999] are also on my shelf.  Jade is in the wrapping still so I have no idea, but I did give Corey Hart a listen last night and it is a production filled with what Hart does best now - ballads. There were easily a good handful of songs including his remake of Love Hurts I enjoyed and will give that self-titled work another look.  I have heard Break The Chain and the lovely French duet La Bas with his wife Julie Masse, both are from Jade, and are very good.

By now you're probably slack-jawed that someone could have that much passion for Corey Hart let alone write about him.  Well, only at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic I say. Up next, Led Zeppelin.  Honest,ly my music tastes are all over the bloody map.  I swear.

But to give Corey Hart his due there's something to be said in the titles of two of his finest moments.  Both Boy In The Box and Young Man Running reflect a journey and offer expressions of a man and his creative place.  Without the world of American Idol there aren't many artists who could claim success and self-propel themselves to a fairly lengthy solo career in music on sheer talent alone at a time when an industry ate pop stars for breakfast and no one ever heard of iTunes.

Corey Hart Discography: First Offense [1983]/ Boy In The Box [1985] */ Fields Of Fire [1986]/ Young Man Running [1988] */ Bang! [1990]/ The Singles [1991] */ Attitude & Virtue [1992]/ Corey Hart [1996]/ Jade [1998]. * essential