8.20.2016

Listening to Metal for 100 Days


Several months ago, I began a journey which would take me through the decorated annals of metal history. 

It began on January 22nd, when I listened to Epicus Doomicus Metallicus by Candlemass. If I had actually followed my plan to listen to 100 albums in 100 days, I would have been finished by May 1st. As it stands, it officially took me 195 days, or nearly twice as long as I intended. I listened to the final album - Kings of Metal by Manowar - on August 4th. And it still took me two weeks to find the time to write this post.

I'm sure most of you are wondering why I did this. The answer can be summed up in one word; ignorance. Pure, blissful ignorance. I'm a fan of all kinds of music, especially metal. I am a child of the metalcore era of the late 2000's - I'm talking As I Lay Dying, Still Remains, Killswitch Engage, Unearth, August Burns Red, etc. These are bands that I'm still a fan of today (except All That Remains...yeesh). Along with Between the Buried and Me, Zao, Misery Signals, and several other bands, I realized that I don't really listen to straight-up metal. I listen to derivatives - hardcore, metalcore, deathcore (lol), some prog here and there. But what about the classics? What about Black Sabbath? Devin Townsend? The mighty Death itself? The pillars and foundations of the vast temple that is metal music were never present in my iTunes library. They weren't even in my CD case(s).

With this harrowing realization in mind, I scoured the internet for knowledge. My research began in earnest. I read countless "Top 100"and "Best of" lists. I posed the question on Facebook and several forums. If there was a band I was researching that had a large discography, I would go to Spotify to see what their top songs were - and then I would go to Amazon to see what their best reviewed albums were. In time, I was able to compile a list of 100 essential metal albums. Why 100? Because it's a nice round number. It was comprised of the purest genres - death, black, grind, doom, etc. It looked beautiful.

For a frame of reference, prior to beginning this list I had only heard 8 of the 100 albums. Only 8! And 3 of them were Metallica albums! Everyone has heard Metallica. I had never listened to a Judas Priest, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Anthrax or Mötorhead album. My friend's band covered "Raining Blood" and "The Trooper" in high school. My mom told me about a Judas Priest concert she went to one time. I may have heard "Tom Sawyer" in a movie or something.  

Isn't all this sad and pathetic? And I called myself a fan of metal.

So it began. My goal was to listen to one album a day for 100 days. I would listen to every album at least twice without skipping a song or giving up before the end. Then I would write a small blurb about the album and grade it on a 1-10 scale. I recorded my progress on the now-defunct absolutepunk.net (RIP). I was caught off guard by the site shutting down, so I lost all of my ratings and blurbs. Luckily, I had the original list with updated scores on a notepad file, so I migrated over to chorus.fm (AP's spiritual successor) and continued the process. Initially, 90% of the time I would listen to an album while I worked. The other 10% of the time I would listen to an album in bed at night, but I kept falling asleep so I nixed that and kept my experiment limited to daylight hours. 

As I mentioned, I rated each album based on a 1-10 scale. Fortunately, a fair majority of the albums I rated well above 5. I had three albums I scored at 5 and only two below, which was a good sign - I was enjoying most of what I listened to. There was a proliferation of albums I ranked at 7.5 and 8 - twenty-four in each category, to be specific. Twenty-eight albums landed scores of 8.5 or higher, with only one coming in at 9.5. 

It's important to note that I didn't rate albums based on their historical impact or how influential they were to metal as a genre. Otherwise, Master of Puppets would probably be at the top surrounded by Slayer, Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath albums. I approached each album as a mere fan of music with little expectations. However, it became pretty clear early on that I preferred certain genres/bands over others.

There were many albums and bands I immediately fell in love with - Atheist, Cynic, Dark Angel, and Blind Guardian, to name a few. Others were slow burners. I returned to Bonded by Blood by Exodus several times after initially giving it an average rating because I didn't understand why I didn't like it, until it finally clicked one day. Likewise, Dissection took me a while to 'get' but now I blast Storm of the Light's Bane in my car all the time. Unfortunately, there were also albums on the opposite end of the spectrum. I particularly did not enjoy Dimmu Borgir, Godflesh, or Repulsion. I broke my own rule with Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia, giving up about 85% of the way through. That only happened once, I swear.

Breaking things down into genres, it became apparent that THRASH IS FREAKING AWESOME. This was already known, but it was reaffirmed. I went through a huge thrash kick, with Sepultura, Testament, and Sodom regularly blasting me away with their intensity. Death Metal - be it tech or straight-up pure death - was always enjoyable. I instantly became a fan of Morbid Angel, Bolt Thrower, Gorguts, and the pioneers themselves, Death. Doom was a new one to me, and I explored the weird world of stoner doom courtesy of Sleep and Electric Wizard. Heavy metal was often a toss-up, as Operation: Mindcrime blew me away, while Abigail and Lightning to the Nations I found to be mostly average. I was pretty much immediately turned off by grind, and I consequently could not get into Napalm Death or Terrorizer. 

By far, I found black metal to be the most challenging genre to absorb. I gave Darkthrone a try very early on (probably around February) but was turned off by the lo-fi production, constant blast beats, and indecipherable shrieks. Spoiler alert: that's kind of what black metal is as a whole. I shelved A Blaze in the Northern Sky and continued the list. I went through Emperor, Bathory, Immortal, Mayhem, and Ulver with a gradual change in my attitude towards the genre. Eventually, I returned to give Darkthrone another listen, and I ended up enjoying it far more than I did the first time. It inspired me to check out their other albums, and it's increasingly easier to digest. I'm a long ways away from corpse paint and membership in the MLO, but I'll get there some day.

For those of you who came for the actual scores and not the fluff, here are the ratings:

9.5/10
Megadeth - Rust In Peace

9/10
Atheist - Unquestionable Presence
Atheist - Piece of Time
Cynic - Focus
In Flames - The Jester Race
Mastodon - Leviathan
Metallica - Ride the Lightning
Morbid Angel - Altars of Madness
Opeth - Blackwater Park
Rainbow - Rising
Slayer - Reign in Blood

8.5/10
Agalloch - Ashes Against The Grain 
Anthrax – Among the Living 
Behemoth - The Satanist 
Blind Guardian – Nightfall in Middle-Earth 
Carcass - Necroticism
Death – Human 
Death - Symbolic
Devin Townsend - Ocean Machine
Dissection - Storm of the Light's Bane
Dream Theater - Images and Words
Iron Maiden - Powerslave
Mastodon - Crack the Skye
Mercyful Fate - Don't Break the Oath
Metallica - Kill 'em All
Metallica - Master of Puppets
Neurosis - Through Silver in Blood
Rush - 2112

8/10
At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul
Black Sabbath - Paranoid
Bolt Thrower - Those Once Loyal
Carcass - Heartwork
Cryptopsy - None So Vile
Dark Angel - Darkness Descends
Darkthrone - A Blaze in the Northern Sky
Dio - Holy Diver
Dream Theater - Metropolis Pt. 2
Electric Wizard - Dopethrone
Gorguts - Obscura
Judas Priest - Painkiller
Manilla Road - Crystal Logic
Metal Church - Metal Church
Motorhead - Ace of Spades
Obituary - The End Complete
Queensryche - Operation: Mindcrime
Rush - Moving Pictures
Sepultura - Beneath the Remains
Slayer - Hell Awaits
Sleep - Holy Mountain
Symphony X - The Odyssey
Testament - The New Order
W.A.S.P. - The Crimson Idol

7.5/10
Bathory - Under the Sign of the Black Mark
Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath - Master of Reality
Cattle Decapitation - Monolith of Inhumanity
Dark Tranquility - The Gallery
Death - Scream Bloody Gore
Diamond Head - Lightning to the Nations
Emperor - In The Nightside Eclipse
Entombed - Left Hand Path
Exodus - Bonded by Blood
Hammerfall - Legacy of Kings
Iron Maiden - The Number of the Beast
Kreator - Pleasure to Kill
Manowar - Kings of Metal
Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction
Meshuggah - Destroy Erase Improve
Meshuggah - obZen
Motorhead - Overkill
Ozzy Osbourne - Blizzard of Ozz
Pentagram - Pentagram/Relentless
Slayer - South of Heaven
Sodom - Persecution Mania
Ulver - Bergtatt
Voivod - Nothingface

7/10
Candlemass - Epicus Doomicus Metallicus
Fates Warning - Awaken the Guardian
Immortal - Pure Holocaust
Judas Priest - Sad Wings of Destiny
Kamelot - The Black Halo
Mayhem - De Mysterriis Dom Sathanas
Venom - Black Metal
Witchfinder General - Death Penalty

6.5/10
Bolt Thrower - In Battle There Is No Law
King Diamond - Abigail
Napalm Death - Scum

6/10
Dismember - Like An Ever Flowing Stream
Iced Earth - Something Wicked This Way Comes
Possessed - Seven Churches
Terrorizer - World Downfall

5.5/10
Suffocation - Effigy of the Forgotten

5/10
Autopsy - Severed Survival
Celtic Frost - Morbid Tales
Repulsion - Horrified

4.5
Dimmu Borgir - Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia

4/10 
Godflesh - Streetcleaner

It's funny looking back on this. If I had to redo the list today, I'd change a lot of ratings and spin many of the albums a few more times. For example, I'd probably rate Godflesh above Dimmu Borgir (I at least got through Streetcleaner twice). Suffocation would probably be much higher, as I was very distracted at the time of listening. Every black metal album would have better scores. Several other albums would join Rust In Peace at the top. That's the beauty of this list. These scores reflect where I was and how I felt at the time of listening to each album, and I can recall 90% of what those first thoughts were.

So what results has this had on my tastes in music? What has changed? 

I can tell you that more than just my taste in music has changed. Metalheads have always had this reputation of being elitist snobs. I won't speak for the masses, but by observing myself over the past few months, I'd personally say that this is pretty true. I find it hilarious that I ever considered myself to be a fan of metal with what I had been listening to over the past decade. I was disgusted with kids wearing Veil of Maya tank-tops and Born of Osiris tees at a show I went to two days ago. And it was at an Oh, Sleeper show! They don't even have a page on Metal Archives because they're metalcore! And speaking of metalcore, don't ever bring up genres when discussing music with a metalhead. You'll find that everything you listen to is filthy unwashed pleb noise. That doom metal band you like? Sorry, they're actually post-fuzz un-blackened re-blackened goregrind, you noob. Obviously you're not kvlt or trve enough. What does that even mean?

I'm glad you asked. Here's the Urban Dictionary definition for kvlt:

"Epitomising the musical ideals of sub-underground black metal - the kind of stuff that comes out in limited editions of 300 through vinyl-only labels based in a cave in Belarus. The exact requirements of kvltness vary depending on who you talk to, but usually involve icy, impenetrable production, black-and-white cover art, and concepts drawn from black magic, pagan myths or out-and-out nihilism. 

Like anyone who takes art seriously these days, kvltists are the target of much mockery even from fellow extreme metal fans."

While we're at it, here's the entry for trve:

"Used by kvlt black metal kiddies to describe how awesome a new album is even with its horrendous sound quality at shitty album art. Also used mockingly of said group."

So yeah, that's where I'm headed. Even though I have Chevelle and Breaking Benjamin on my iPod, I'll find my way to the Mecca of trve-ness.

In all seriousness, I can't stop listening to metal even though my experiment has ended. I visit Shreddit and the Metal Archives multiple times a day. I ordered several patches for my battle jacket. What's that? I'm glad you asked:


I took that image from a website called cvltnation.com.

I also ordered this book:



Because I'm intrigued by the murder, suicides, and church burnings associated with the genre in the early 90's. But seriously, the history is pretty compelling...if you're into that stuff.

I've gone on long enough. This experiment was long and eye-opening and I'm glad I was able to educate myself. Next time we're hanging out we can finally discuss what our favorite Swe-death bands are. 

I can just hear the sounds of keyboards clicking frantically as most of you will inevitably un-friend me and/or block me on various social networks. I don't mind. You're just a False anyways. You'll always be a False.

May your winters be icy and your riffs meaty.

Cheers,

JDS

PS - if you actually enjoy metal, here are some bands with new albums this year that I've enjoyed thus far: Zhrine, Oranssi Pazuzu, Vektor, Ripper, Howls of Ebb, Chthe'ilist, Cobalt, Deströyer 666, Grave Miasma, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Obscura, Coffin Lust, Dark Funeral, and Lycus.

PPS - if someone did a nu-metal or alt-rock version of this list, I swear I'd do it with them.













4.08.2016

Jordan Goes to Hogwarts Part VII: The End & Final Musings


Well, that's it. It took 6.5 months to complete the journey, but here we are. I began this series in August, reading at a frantic pace at first. Over the course of the series, my reading slowed down as things and life and other dumb stuff began to pick up (I won't bore you with the details). I actually finished this book two weeks ago and I'm just now writing this. It's strange to think that this book came out nearly ten years ago. Heck, the film adaptation(s) are five years old themselves, and I just found out how the whole thing ended. Now when people drop references to the series, I'll finally understand them! Seriously, it's been keeping me from being a part of society for decades.

I want to talk about the book itself first, then mention some overall thoughts on the series. Then I'll share a few random thoughts that didn't really fit anywhere else. 

This will be a long post.

First, the book itself. I'd have to say that I rather preferred the first half to the second - with a few exceptions. Coincidentally, the final film is the only one I've never seen. But we're talking about the books. I figured I'd just put my thoughts in list order, rather than spew a meandering stream of consciousness. Nobody wants that. We'd all drown in boredom (if you haven't already).

1. The Journey Aspect. I've always enjoyed the "quest" narrative. Frodo has to cross Middle-Earth to destroy the One Ring, Mario has to save every princess ever, and I have to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night without stepping on any dog toys. There's a very clear beginning and ending, with obstacles keeping the hero from the end goal/boss fight. Nobody needs a watered down explanation of this idea, because we all went to school. I just wanted to mention that I'm partial to the whole idea of the hero having to go on some sort of journey to obtain something that will help them overcome the ultimate evil. In this case, Harry's mission is to find all of the Horcruxes. Perhaps the most compelling part of it is that it's not made out to be some glorious cross-country adventure. These kids are hiding in a tent, going from one random forest to another. They bicker often and have trouble finding food. It doesn't seem fun at all, and they start to wear on each other. Speaking of which...

2. Ron's Departure. Honestly, with all of the crap this guy has had to put up with over the course of the series, I'm surprised he didn't peace out earlier. There were stretches where he wasn't talking to Harry or times when Hermione wasn't speaking to him, but nothing so severe that would prompt him to leave his friends for good. The dude broke his leg, got knocked out by a giant chess piece, barfed up slugs, etc - not to mention his constantly having to live in Harry's shadow while growing up in relative poverty. Actually, Ron kind of gets the crappy end of a lot of deals in the series. His frustrations, coupled with the tension that wearing the locket brings, finally culminates in his abandoning of Harry and Hermione. That's when the "quest" sort of hit a low point. He does find redemption in the end, in a fantastic way. 

3. The Horcruxes. Count me as a fan of this plot device. Finding all the stars/pieces of the Triforce/ancient weapons can be a repetitive trope, but when a dude splits his soul into seven pieces and your goal is to find and kill those soul remnants, it sounds much cooler. What made this more interesting was the addition of the Hallows themselves. Suddenly, Harry finds himself deep in internal conflict. Should he pursue the Horcruxes and the original mission as Dumbledore intended him to? Or should he put his faith in an old legend and prevent his mortal enemy from acquiring a powerful weapon? This conflict lands him in trouble several times, creating a rift between him and his friends. In the end, Harry's choice to continue his initial mission gave Voldemort access to the Elder Wand, which was a monumental sacrifice to make.

4. The Ending. This list isn't really in any chronological order, so it may seem like I'm getting ahead of myself. Sadly, I must say that I found the ending a little anticlimactic. What's more is that I didn't feel this way immediately, but from the time I finished the book to the writing of this post, I can't shake the notion that I am underwhelmed at how it all played out. When you're telling a seven-book story and the main villain is established early on, revived halfway through, and assumes full power 3/4 of the way through, it's pretty clear that he's going to be killed by the hero in the end. There's nothing wrong with that - the good guys have been winning since the art of telling stories was invented. I suppose it's the manner in which Voldemort was defeated. We knew it had to be Harry or him to die - and that it would most likely be him, because nobody wants to read seven books and see the bad guy win (most of us, I'd assume). I guess the image of Voldemort and Harry circling each other, taunting one another, basically spelling out how one bested the other to the reader, followed by a one spell battle - and Voldemort dies in the same way he almost died all those years back - just wasn't the most exciting ending to me. The Dumbledore/Voldemort battle was way cooler, and that happened in my least favorite book. Heck, the graveyard scene in book four between Harry and Voldemort was more exciting. Perhaps Rowling wanted to avoid a drawn-out ten page battle between the two, but I just feel a little ripped off. Couldn't Harry lose an arm or something? Then he'd have to cope with being a one-armed wizard the rest of his life, and maybe Ginny wouldn't have married him because she prefers a two-armed wizard. This brings me to my next point...

5. The Real Ending. I'm probably just being crotchety here, but the final chapter (the 19 years later part) seemed gratuitous. Everyone ended up marrying exactly who we thought they would marry, giving their kids predictable names, sending them off to the same school, etc. There's a majority of readers who need that kind of closure to give them warm feelings, but that's not my thing. Most of us could have assumed that all that would eventually happen without being hit on the nose with it. I also 100% didn't get the King's Cross chapter, but that's something else entirely.

6. Snape. What I 100% was on board with was the handling of Snape's character. As I've made plain in most of my entries, I've seen almost every film in the franchise. I knew about most of the big events and deaths. I didn't know what would become of Snape. I wasn't sure if he would actually even live. I made it clear in my last post that I was holding out hope for Snape. All signs pointed to him being pretty much the worst person ever, which we were made to believe from the very beginning. I was greatly relieved when he ended up being Dumbledore's man through and through, right to the very end. Personally, I found Snape's death to be the most moving - even more so than Dumbledore's. This guy hated Harry for the entirety of the series, but he was so furiously in love with Lily Potter that this love compelled him to remain at Dumbledore's side throughout the books. Most of us can't fathom a love that intense, and Snape did not provide any opportunity for Harry to believe that there was any good in him until his absolute last dying breaths. Harry's subsequent journey through Snape's memory in the Pensieve is probably the most poignant series of events in the books. It revealed so much more to a character who was never meant to be likeable or noble, when in truth he was nobler than 95% of the rest of them. Long live Severus.

7. Brief Thoughts. Griphook was the worst. It was good to see Neville grow into such a strong character. I did not expect Lupin to die. His death occurring off-screen was even worse. Lame. Molly Weasley said 'bitch' and it was awesome.

As for my thoughts on the series as a whole, it was a glorious journey. It's easy to see why the books are so well-loved. Anyone who can't understand that is just being a contrarian pill or flat-out can't read. I pretty much knew about most of the major events. I knew Fred, Dumbledore, Dobby, Sirius, and even Harry (in a way) all died at some point. That definitely didn't detract from the overall story, which is the mark of a good storyteller. Even when things were obvious from a mile away story-wise, walking that last mile was still a fantastic experience. It takes a lot to tell that kind of tale. The not-so-subtle exposition bothered me at points, but that's no big deal. We've all been taught to "show and not tell" in our writing, but we can't all follow the rules. We can't all create such a wondrous world, much less populate it with characters worth following around for hundreds of pages. 

If I had to rank the books, it'd probably look like this: 6, 3, 4, 7, 2 & 1 (tied), 5. I reserve the right to be absolutely wrong about that.

One final thought. In my last post I alluded to a silly theory I had about the story in relation to Dumbledore's death, Snape's act of killing him, and Horcruxes in general. You see, even with my staunch belief that Snape would end up being a good guy after his killing of Dumbledore, I needed a reason to reinforce that idea. Here is that reasoning: Snape knew about the Horcruxes, and Dumbledore himself was a Horcrux! So obviously Dumbledore needed to die at some point in order for Harry to defeat Voldemort for good. It didn't necessarily have to be at the hands of Snape, but they found themselves in a situation where that was the best decision at hand. Isn't that crazy?? Don't ask me about the logistics of getting a part of a person's soul into another person, it's magic. You can't explain that. Good thing I didn't write these books!

Harry Potter was a remarkable journey. I feel like it was the last great obstacle preventing me from functioning like a normal adult. Sure, I've never read Shakespeare and I can't tie knots, but that's far beneath the importance of knowing what a Muggle is, right? Right, guys? Please tell me I'm right. 

I guess I'll have to go on reading other books now. I mean, I've already started - but there's no attachment yet. The wizarding world still has its grip on me. 

Who knows when it will let go?

Regards,

JDS









1.27.2016

Jordan Goes to Hogwarts Part VI: It Will All Be Over Soon


I'm very nearly there. I've finished what is deemed to be the quintessential book in the series, and I must say that I agree with all the noise I've heard about it. You'll recall that the last book wasn't necessarily my favorite. Interestingly enough, it seem that books 5 and 6 are the most polarizing books in the series. People either hate Order and love Prince, or vice versa. They seem to be interchangeable. I count myself part of the latter camp: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is my preference out of the two, and indeed out of the whole series (thus far).

Before I get into it, a quick word. I've stated before that I've seen most of the movies and I'm aware of several major plot points, including "that one" from this book. I knew it was coming, even if I can't remember ever watching the film. That's a spoiler you can't hide from in this day and age. That didn't mean I was ready for it.

I'm not generally a fan of single-narrator stories, which is why I loved the first few chapters of this book. I'd have to say 75% of the questions I have about the series concern the way the wizarding world interacts with the normal world, or the muggle world - if you will. Can they see what wizards see? Do they know that dragons exist? This awkward relationship is on display right from the beginning of the book, as the Minister of Magic (or former Minister) meets with the "other" Minister to discuss the dark things that are occurring in the world of magic. The point of view is a refreshing change of pace, and it's nice to know that there are perspectives that are just as interesting as Harry's. Not long after, we see another point of view, this time while in the company of Narcissa, Bellatrix, and Snape, while they perform what is called an "Unbreakable Vow." More on that later,

Up until this point, we have been following only Harry around. He is our constant guide through the series, because it's obviously about him. However, I think we can safely say that this volume isn't just his story. It's also the story of his mortal enemy - Voldemort. This is overwhelmingly what I enjoyed the most about Half-Blood Prince. We get to look into the past of the world's most feared dark wizard. We see him as a child, already bending his peers to his will. We see him commit his first murder. Over time, his obsession with power slowly transforms him into the twisted Dark Lord we see at the present. It's a harrowing journey through the villain's past, and a heck of a lot more exciting than this guy's childhood:


I can understand how Harry and Dumbledore's repeated visits into the Pensieve might grow wearisome for readers. I'm surprised I didn't grow tired of it myself. Exposition and repetition aren't exactly the most exciting ways to tell a story, but Voldemort's story unfolded in a way that made it feel like a jigsaw puzzle, as Dumbledore himself pointed out. When the pieces all came together, things moved very quickly.

There are some good "Holy crap!" moments in these books, and I believe the best ones are in Prince. I repeated the above exclamation when Malfoy petrified Harry on the Hogwarts Express, then straight up stomped on his face and broke his nose. Like, really? Up until this point, Harry and Draco have been calling each other names and pointing their wands menacingly at each other, but just like most angry adolescents, it's all for show. That is no longer the case. I remember audibly freaking out when Harry blasted Malfoy with the sectumsempra curse. There they are, slinging hexes at each other in a bathroom, and all of a sudden Draco gets freaking gashed by this mysterious spell, nearly drowning in his own blood. I guess things have escalated from name-calling and pulling pranks. Let's kill each other now!

Of course, how can I not mention Harry's love life? The dude's been stumbling through five books with a crush that doesn't make sense for a character who doesn't matter, while his best friends can't figure out if they love or hate each other. This whole time, there's this A-MAZ-ING girl who dates every guy in the school, displays a keen penchant for casting jinxes, ends up as one of the better Quidditch players, and utters one of the few curse words in the series - while she's in the library! When Harry sees Dean and Ginny snogging (worst word ever, I just wanted to say it once to induce cringing), it becomes clear to him how he feels about his best friend's little sister. I remember thinking "Really? Just like that??" My wife wisely pointed out that sometimes, that's how it happens. These are teenagers, after all. All they do is snog. Either way, I remember thinking "FINALLY!" It only took 6.5 books!


There are a few scenes in Prince that are more than memorable, standing out as some of the best in the series. The whole Felix Felicis sequence was great. Any time wizards get drunk, awesome stuff happens. "The Cave" was one of the most intense passages of storytelling I've ever read, and my choice for the greatest Harry Potter chapter of all time, with one more book to go. Everything - from the chamber being hidden in a seaside cave, to the door requiring blood as payment, to the Inferi crawling out of the water - was perfect. I could play that scene in my head again and again and never grow tired of it. 

It was around that chapter that I reached the point of no return. You know, the "I-can't-sleep-until-I-finish-this-book" point? I have been listening to the audiobooks at night after I get in bed. I usually fall asleep before a chapter ends, and just pick up wherever I left off in the morning. I remember just staring at the ceiling the entire time I listened to "The Cave," - and the two chapters following it. I didn't sleep well that night. 

Everything seemed to slow down leading up to Dumbledore's death at the hands of Snape. I've only ever heard the words "Snape kills Dumbledore!" - I recall nothing of the sixth film. And still, it shook me. I felt something for Dumbledore that I didn't feel for Sirius. He seemed to be the one constant in the story. Stuff would go down and then someone would be like "It's all good, we have Dumbledore on our side!" Seeing the characters I've grown to love react to the death of such a noble and wise wizard was very visceral. I feel that Harry as a character is at his best when he is wrestling with his grief. I recall his struggles in the Prisoner of Azkaban, as he is repeatedly subjected to the screams of his dying mother. That traumatic experience pushed him to his limit, unleashing his ability to summon a fully formed Patronum. At this point, all the protection and guidance provided by Dumbledore vanishes, leaving Harry with another sick feeling in his stomach, right next to where the grief for his godfather exists. It's in these circumstances that I find Harry to be most admirable. The way he responds to grief molds his character in fascinating ways, and he's never the same after the fact.

I will say that the final three chapters were very heavy. I've only straight up cried twice while reading a book (Book Thief and the final volume of Malazan), but I had tears in my eyes during the scene in the hospital wing where everyone learns of Dumbledore's fate. Hagrid's cries when he sees the body...yeesh.

I have my own theories about why Snape killed Dumbledore. I won't state them here, because they're probably wrong and I'm one of the few remaining people in the world who gets to find out why it had to happen. I don't want to raise the ire of the HP purists with my silly musings. I will say this - I still believe Snape is good. He had a reason for his decision, and it will end up being the right one in the end. Like I said, I'm most likely reaching, but I only have one more book to go. Don't tell me!

One last ride.

Regards, JDS

PS I'd like to dedicate this post to my lovely wife, Blaire. On February 8th of 2014, I knelt down in the falling snow and pulled a copy of Half-Blood Prince out of my jacket and offered it to her. Inside, I had carved out the pages leading up the chapter "The Unbreakable Vow," in which I had tied a ring to a piece of purple lace. I then performed the spell that would bind us together until the day of our deaths. But seriously Blaire, I love you. You are everything that is beautiful in the world. Let me never break the vow I made to you, or you to me. I have to finish the last book first! Then we can die together happily.

Just don't spoil it.


















12.31.2015

Jordan Goes to Hogwarts Part V: The Definition of Filler


Welcome to the fifth entry of my journey into J.K. Rowling's fascinating world of wizardry. This post has been a long time coming, mostly because I felt that a different approach was needed this time around. To be fair, I finished the book two weeks ago - before Christmas and a trip to the Southeast - so a lot has happened since then. I find that the more distance I put between reading the book and writing the post, the more critical of the text I become. So let's have at it!

Order of the Phoenix is the longest book in the Harry Potter series. This has been true for each respective book at this point; every book is longer than the previous one. As a fan of high fantasy tomes that regularly number in the thousands, I wouldn't say it's a long book. It's definitely long for the series and the genre, but it's not the page count that wore on me. It was all of what I felt to be completely unnecessary filler. What is filler? Filler is anything that is included that isn't essential to the story or does nothing to advance the plot. In other words, we could do without it and not really miss anything. I'm sure everyone has an idea of something they consider to be filler: Season two of The Walking Dead, the Nikki & Paulo episode in Lost, 75% of Dragon Ball Z, etc.


I may be coming across as harsh, but I assure you that I enjoyed Order. There's plenty to like, it's just that the things I didn't like outweighed the memorable parts. The beginning of the book is actually pretty great. The Order of the Phoenix is an cool plot device, and definitely serves as the coolest book title in the series. The idea of an elite group of wizard bodyguards that serve to protect (read: plot armor) is pretty awesome. Dementors showing up in Harry's hood and messing with him and his cousin (who deserves everything) is intense, as it shows that the agents of Voldemort are not opposed to taking massive risks in their attempts to destroy Harry. The stakes are higher, and this demands the attention of prominent powers. Hence the presence of Moody, Shacklebolt, Lupin, and other characters being added to the fray.

After Harry's harrowing flight from Privet Drive, things definitely slowed down plot-wise. He is kept in a safe place, and what does he spend his time doing? They clean Sirius' house. There's literally a whole chapter of them doing housework. This is the absolute definition of filler. I get that we learn about Sirius' family and we are introduced to Kreacher, but none of that is worth a whole chapter. Speaking of Sirius, I feel that his character was totally wasted in this book. More on that in a minute.

Of course, I can't mention the things that bothered me without talking about Dolores Umbridge, aka Satan's Handmaiden. 


Umbridge is one of those characters you "love to hate." Other examples include Joffrey Baratheon and Commodus from Gladiator. I don't even love to hate Umbridge. I wish I didn't have to spend any sort of emotion or energy on her at all. The moment she appeared during Harry's hearing, I knew she was going to be an obnoxious character. Of course, I've seen the film already - so I knew what I was in for. She looks even worse in the book, and it's actually annoying how Rowling can't describe her without likening her to a toad. She's literally the worst character in the Harry Potter universe, next to Rita Skeeter and Filch and whoever else I'm forgetting or haven't met yet.

I could spend this whole post talking about Umbridge, but there are only so many ways I can say that she's the worst. I understand her place in the story, for the most part. She serves as the Ministry's agent at Hogwarts, informing Cornelius Fudge of all the suspicious activity. I loved how Professor McGonagall very openly despised her. Umbridge's best scenes were her interactions with the Transfiguration instructor - not to mention the part where she gets carried off into the woods by centaurs, of course. That part was great.

Unfortunately, Harry himself mightily bothered me. I'm glad people don't really incorporate these flawless main characters that can't be touched by anything into stories anymore, but Harry's flaws are really glaring in this book. He is a teenager, and that obviously explains a lot of his behavior. I've written before about his temper, and it seems to be getting worse with each book. The guy rages at his friends regularly, going on tirades about how much he's been through and how he didn't choose his life, etc. I mean, the part where he destroys Dumbledore's office near the end of the book was hilarious. He's not satisfied with Dumbledore's answers/lack thereof, so he decides that trashing his office is a great idea. That really was a frustrating scene. Not only does Harry act like a petulant child, but Dumbledore takes forever to explain himself. And his explanation isn't good enough. he basically admits that he stalled giving Harry answers every year, thinking that he might be ready for them when he's older. Another year goes by, another regretful Dumbledore - until we end up here in his office, for a whole chapter of exposition and info-dumping. Spell it out for me too, DD. No fifteen year-old would understand you anyways.

Not only that, but the kid is mindless when it comes to girls. I know he struggled with it in the previous book, but he only appears dumber in Order. I didn't know anything about girls when I was fifteen. Heck, I still don't, but I know enough not to talk about another woman in front of my girlfriend. No wonder Cho broke up with him! That whole ordeal makes me wonder, what was the point of Cho? What did she accomplish? Was she simply there to serve as Harry's first kiss? I can't remember a single important thing she did in the books. I guess Harry needed a love interest, but going after the girl who's boyfriend died the previous year might not be the best idea. Whatever, I'll chalk it up to young love.

Last and perhaps least, we need to talk about Sirius. He was a fascinating character right from the start, painted as a murderous madman capable of escaping the world's most heavily guarded prison. He could sneak into Hogwarts undetected, without alerting the Dementors. He could transform into a massive black dog. What does he do in this book? He withers away at home and grumbles whenever Harry is actually around. He's miserable 85% of the time, and still willing to fight Snape over name-calling. I understand that he's "not allowed out" and because of this, he feels useless. He does show up to rescue Harry in the end, but is killed by his cousin. Just like that, one of the coolest characters in the HP universe is dead. Sadly, I didn't feel a thing when he died. This may be because I've seen the film and I knew that it was coming. He just wasn't that cool in this book, and now he's gone.

Of course, there was plenty to like. I did like the idea of a bunch of students meeting up for secret meetings to learn Defense Against the Dark Arts. It made the middle of the book more interesting, and characters like Neville more useful. I learned the answer as to why Harry has to stay at Privet Drive every summer, which is something I had been wondering since book one. At first, I thought Luna Lovegood was a pointless character, but she played some very important roles. Her father's magazine served as a platform for Harry's story, allowing the public opinion of him to slowly shift into the positive realm. She was also able to see the Thestrals, which made the journey to the Ministry possible. Also, I'm generally down with weird characters who always seem to be high on something. The final showdown with the Death Eaters in the Department of Mysteries was pretty intense, even if it was sometimes hard to picture the setting. It wasn't unrealistic either - Harry's friends basically get wrecked when they try to face a bunch of dark wizards. Lastly, I was at first bummed that Harry's dad and Sirius were such huge jerks when they attended Hogwarts, but the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated how Harry ended up being a different person. He has his own flaws, and he doesn't need the shortcomings of his father to make him a more interesting character.

When looking at popular culture, there is generally a clear consensus as to what people like and what they don't like. Metallica's older albums are better than their newer stuff. Most people dislike the Star Wars prequels. A Storm of Swords is the best Song of Ice and Fire book. It appears that the consensus is that Order of the Phoenix is everyone's least favorite HP book. I even had a ten year-old tell me to persevere through it, admitting that he himself almost gave up. People told me to prepare myself, as it was long and tended to drag at parts. It's hard to go into something unbiased with all these negative opinions, but they were mostly right. And you know those obnoxious people that sport unpopular opinions just for the sake of being different/elitist? You know, the type of people that prefer Cheese Nips over Cheez-its? I couldn't even pretend to be one of those people after reading this book. It's clearly the worst in the series. The popular opinion was right on this one, which makes me sad.

As I type this, I'm fully expecting a few responses from people explaining why Order isn't so bad. I welcome that kind of discourse. I don't do any research on these things, I simply read the book, post my thoughts, and then watch the movie. I'm open to learning more, because I am still essentially an HP noob.

I must say, I'm very excited to start book six. I don't think I've ever seen the film, as I can't recall a single plot detail. Perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised, which would be nice after this downer of a book. Until next time!

JDS

PS Happy New Year!

11.12.2015

Jordan Goes to Hogwarts Part IV: Middle School Is Awkward


I remember middle school as a time of turbulence. I attended a school where we were required to wear uniforms - an ensemble of white or navy polo shirts and khaki pants/shorts. It didn't bother me much. On the contrary, I would show up on free-dress days wearing my uniform, claiming to forget that I was allowed to wear whatever I wanted. I think I was just lazy, or too ashamed of my Jnco jeans and orange Ecco shirt.

Ages 12-14 were not without a great amount of frustration and awkwardness. I started wearing glasses - these great golden monstrosities that did little to aid my already dorky looks. In 7th grade I had a crush on a girl named Katie. I remember sending a friend to ask her if she liked me back. She didn't. There were hierarchies and tiers of popularity. Looking back, I'm astounded at how easily everyone assumed their roles in middle school society. Mine - that of a short nerdy kid who liked to stretch my shirt over my knees and amble around like an drunk ape - was not up to the standards of the established society. I was not cool, for some mysterious reason.

Harry Potter is cool. In fact, he's the coolest, despite having hair that cannot be tamed, huge glasses, and a serious lack of knowledge considering the wizard world. In the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry is the same age as I was during those difficult middle school years. Sure enough, Harry begins to deal with many of the same petty and avoidable troubles that nearly all middle school students face. His age and the trials associated with it are much more apparent in this book.

More on that later.

In my last post I discussed my thoughts on books two and three. My read-through and conversations with HP fans have led me to the conclusion that the story starts to get really dark. The opening chapter of Goblet confirms this. We begin not with the repetitious setting of Harry counting down the days until the school term starts while trapped at Privet Drive - which I was thankful for - but instead in another place entirely. There are new characters. There is a seemingly disembodied voice, a giant snake, and an overall feeling of dread. Before you know it, someone dies. Just like that, in the very first chapter.

Well, all right. Death it is!

One of the things I appreciated most about this book is the amount of information the reader gets about the wizard world. There's a Quidditch World Cup? There are other schools?? There's an awesome tournament that only occurs every X amount of years? These events pulled the scope back and revealed that there's more to the story than just this one school somewhere in Britain. Upon finishing the third book, I had glaring questions regarding the world of wizards. Where is Hogwarts, in another dimension? Goblet - at first - did nothing to clarify these questions. How in the great heck are the wizards able to keep a giant coliseum hidden? Aren't there Muggle airplanes flying around able to see everything?

Thankfully, I began to understand more as I read on - the classic Read And Find Out strategy - who would have thought? Through the use of Memory Charms and other wards set up around sites like the World Cup and Hogwarts, Muggles aren't able to see magical things. If they look at Hogwarts, they just see a bunch of mountains and whatnot where the castle would be. At least that's how I understand it. Hermione explained it, and she's smart. So I don't doubt it.

The formula of the books was changed with the introduction of the World Cup (which was awesome). It was further augmented by the Tri-Wizard Tournament, which was even more awesome. It is revealed that there are other wizarding schools out there - one in what is seemingly Russia, and one in France. This opens up so many possibilities and questions. Is there more than one Ministry of Magic? Is there a French Voldemort-like character?  I MUST KNOW. To the library!

I began this post with a brief note on my middle school days. I return to that theme now because the age and behavior of the characters in this book make so much more sense when I think about them as a bunch of 7th graders. Take Ron, for example. He perfectly encapsulates the clueless tendencies of boys everywhere when he so obviously likes Hermione and vice versa, but he still dreams about going to the ball with the popular and pretty French girl. The dance itself is a perfect setting to showcase the eternal struggles of adolescent behavior. Both Ron and Harry ignore their dates because they are too busy fawning over who they wanted to ask in the first place. Girls like boys and boys like girls and no one can figure out how to properly demonstrate their feelings. I get it. I went to one dance in middle school. I wandered around for an hour and a half with a cup of punch, talking to exactly zero people. If you ask my siblings, they'll tell you I hid under a table the whole time. It was a wasted night.

Before long, the Tournament begins to dominate the plot. There are few times when this series surprises me, but I was entirely caught off guard a few times in this book. The first instance was when the Goblet spat out Harry's name. It should have been obvious given the title of the book (I've even seen the movie once). Harry suddenly becomes the talk of the school yet again, but for once it isn't exactly for good reasons. This quickly culminates in Ron's jealousy of Harry, something that seems to define their friendship. After all, how would you feel if your best friend got all the praise and recognition in the world while you were made fun of for being poor? Ron's frustrations are completely understandable, and I felt myself being plunged into the terrifying world of middle school behavior yet again. Harry and Ron spend half of the book mad at each other, using Hermione as an unwilling mediator. Once again, no one knows how to communicate or listen. But they're fourteen! It makes sense.

Before I ever read a page of the books and I only had the movies to go on, the one thing that bothered me the most was Harry's penchant of inevitably doing something heroic just in time for the school year to end, resulting in accolades and praise and ballyhoo. If I was the average kid attending Hogwarts - let's say a third year in Hufflepuff (because why not), nothing Harry Potter did would surprise me.  I'd be like: 

"He faced the spirit of Voldemort and saved the Sorcerer's Stone? That's amazing, what a guy. He rescued that Weasley girl from a giant snake thing and faced down Voldemort a second time? Impressive, it seems he has the Dark Lord's number. Oh, he caught the Snitch again? Cool, I guess. He blasted a hundred Dementors away with a spell that's incredibly hard to learn? Of course he did. His name just so happened to come out of the Goblet, breaking the age-old tradition of there only being one Champion per school? What a jerk, always looking for attention." What if there are other really good Quidditch players at Hogwarts but no one ever talks about them? Is literally no one capable of doing anything amazing other than this Potter kid? Dude's been doing cool things since he was in diapers. It's no wonder the Weasley kid gets jealous.

The truth is, that line of thinking had dissolved by the time I finished the first book. Who cares if I'm not surprised by Harry saving the day again? The series is literally named after him, of course he's going to be this logic-defying hero. Would you read a series about Neville Longbottom? Don't lie. 

In times of doubt, we turn to memes. Dumbledore sums it up pretty well. Language warning:


I try not to spend these posts going through the book chapter by chapter, but I have to talk about the ending. It's a testament to the increasingly dark nature of the series when the book begins and ends with death. I can't really recall if anyone died at all in the first three books combined (I have an atrocious reading memory). The nature of the final death scene makes it all the more harrowing. Voldemort utters three words and his henchman kills a teenager without a moment's pause. He doesn't even have to do it himself. Before long, Harry is chained to a gravestone and Death Eaters are Apparating left and right. 

Can we take a second to talk about how cool the name Death Eater is? It's so metal. 


It seems to me that this final scene acts as a bridge between the first several books and the last few. I don't expect the series will focus much more on Harry getting detention or potting Mandrakes. The players are set, and the sides are chosen. I feel like there will be no shortage of death in the coming novels.

In conclusion, I liked this book more than Prisoner. I'm a sucker for lore and world-building, so all of the backstory leading up the the World Cup and the Tri-Wizard Tournament were very enjoyable. My complaints are silly and small, but I hope that someone figures out how to tell their crush the way they feel. Teenagers are so oblivious.

On to book five and the Evil Pink Lady!

JDS

PS Rita Skeeter is just the worst.