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.




10.29.2015

Jordan Goes to Hogwarts Parts II & III: Things Are Getting Real Really Fast


So this series is pretty good.

If you read my last post, you'll remember that the Hogwarts Express left me behind at a very young age. I never read the books growing up (Redwall was king), and I expressed only a passing interest in the movies. They were entertaining. The LEGO sets were cool. But Lord of the Rings LEGO sets were cooler, and I'd take Uruks over a scrawny boy wizard any day.

NOT ANYMORE.

Without reiterating any more bland anecdotes from my Harry Potter deprived childhood, I'd like to talk about the second and third books. I know, I promised I would make an individual post for each book. I'm a liar. However, I chose not to do so for two reasons. One, I finished the second book and started the third one so fast that I had very little time to digest what I had just read. Two - and more importantly - I've been told multiple times that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is where the series starts to get dark. Because of this, I decided to combine both Chamber and Prisoner into one post. Although I'll admit, there were many dark aspects of these two books. Hopefully, "dark" doesn't mean exceedingly angsty/edgy. We all know how that turns out:



I really enjoyed the second book. Having seen the film once years ago, the only thing I could remember was the giant snake thing. Right away, I was annoyed by Dobby. I know that's probably sacrilegious to most HP fans, but the dude was a downright nuisance. He causes nothing but trouble, and repeatedly almost kills Harry just to protect him. I get it, I really do, but that doesn't pardon his obnoxiousness (what a cool looking word). On top of that, he's a MASOCHIST. Getting his freedom and all was nice, hopefully that means he won't show up for the rest of the series.

Just kidding, I know what happens to him :(

There are a host of new characters, many of them equally annoying (Colin Creevey) and some of them downright hilarious (Gilderoy Lockhart). Harry can talk to snakes, and Lucius Malfoy is about as awful as you'd expect from someone who spawned Draco. But seriously, Lockhart. He was a narcissistic airhead, but he was a genius! You know how some people are terrible at everything, but really good at only one thing? Lockhart was really good with Memory Charms, which allowed him to live the life of a celebrity without ever having to put his life in harm's way to deal with dark creatures. That's what I'd do in the wizarding world. Fake it until you make it! That's what I do in real life, anyways.

The dueling scene was probably one of my favorites. My college classes would have been so much more entertaining if my professors had blasted each other with spells in front of their students. And then I would have been able to volunteer and in turn blast another student across the room! I would have paid much more attention. I wouldn't even mind all this soul-crushing debt I'm in! WORTH.

Despite what I was led to believe, there were certainly some dark parts in the second book. I mean, there's a giant snake roaming through the pipes, plainly hissing its intention to "rip" Harry apart. That's kind of frightening. And oh, don't mind the eternally wailing ghost in the abandoned toilet, who just so happened to get herself killed by said giant snake. This is a book for kids? Forget going to the bathroom ever again. The fact that little Ginny is running around finger painting things in blood isn't exactly a cheerful image, either.

I'm still not quite sure what Tom Riddle is all about. He was a student at Hogwarts 50 years ago, but he lived on in a diary and became Lord Voldemort? Only to show up in the Chamber and get killed by the Basilisk's fang? How many times does Voldemort die in this series? Is he going to possess someone every book until he's strong enough to assume a more human shape? Pardon me and my Muggle intellect, I'm an HP noob.

At this point, you may have noticed that I'm not spouting on and on about prose and syntax and other useless words you learned in your English 101 class. This isn't literary criticism. I took that class the second semester of my sophomore year and I still don't get it, even though I got an A. No, this is merely a garbled stream of consciousness from a person reading the series for the first time. No delving deep here.


I will say this beforehand: Prisoner of Azkaban, along with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, are the two films I've seen the most. I remember each of them with a reasonable amount of clarity. I could recall many details vividly before I even opened the third book, which was kind of nice. It allowed me to put pictures to faces and places without much effort, even though imagination isn't supposed to be lazy.

If I could sum up Prisoner in one cheap blurb, it would read the following: "This is the book where things get real!!" That's not to say that a teacher with the Dark Lord's face on the back of his head or a giant basilisk that kills through eye contact isn't real enough. I quickly understood why the third book in the series is the favorite of so many HP fans. It also shed a little light onto why my wife wants to name our child after Sirius Black. What father wouldn't want to name their kid after a man thought to be an insane murderer? Sign me up.

My supervisor is a huge HP fan. He's the one who loaned me the books. He summarized the similarities of the first two by stating that it's mostly about Harry and his friends running around the castle, playing Quidditch, going to class, getting detention, etc. They uncover a mystery that warrants several trips to the library, and eventually they have to conquer whatever danger the mystery presents. Ron gets destroyed playing Wizard's Chess. Hermione gets petrified. It may sound like I'm being harsh, but there wasn't really anything I didn't enjoy about the first two novels. Neither of them really made me feel anything for the characters, other than mild distaste, annoyance, and a smirk here and there. For me personally, most of the charm and appeal of the early books comes from being plunged into the world of Hogwarts. There's something magical (I know) about reading how the characters merely walk through the halls of the castle, or picturing them trying to capture gnomes in front of the Burrow. But there's nothing heavy there. It's a kid's book, after all.

The third book changed all of that. From the very second Harry storms away from Privet Drive into the dead of night, everything felt different. Shortly after his unceremonious exit, Harry sees a pair of gleaming yellow eyes and a monstrous black wolf in the shadows. I remember thinking "Well OK, that's how this book is going to be." Later, with the introduction of the Dementors, I got to take a much deeper look into who Harry really is, and just how much the death of his parents truly molds him as a young wizard. We've seen him sit in front of the Mirror of Erised long into the night just to see them, or longingly flip through his photo album of James and Lily at a younger age. But when the Dementors come near him, he's forced to relive the memory of his mother's death as her screams echo in his head. Upon learning that Sirius Black is responsible for his parent's fate, he resolves to kill Black, even after being repeatedly warned not to go anywhere near the madman. He's what, 13? And already contemplating murder? Hearing those screams in my head would land me right in a therapist's chair. Do they have that in the wizarding world?

My point is, Harry grew up a lot in this book. While things like Quidditch and Cho Chang are nice and fun to think about, hearing a teacher tell you that you're marked for death will change a man. The climax of this book sums up Harry's transformation in a dramatic fashion: Instead of letting Snape capture Lupin and Black, Harry disarms him rather violently despite being unsure whether or not Black is telling the truth. He levels his wand at Lupin and Black, urging them to get to the point. As the truth is slowly revealed - seriously, that whole scene in the Shrieking Shack was rather frustrating - Harry ultimately makes up his mind to believe Black's side of the story. Especially when, you know, Ron's rat turns out to be this disgusting mess of man and a former servant of the Dark Lord. And the Time Turner! Normally time traveling is exhausting and cheap, but I loved the use of it here.

After reading these two books, it always baffles me as to how Harry can go back home each summer to live with such awful people. I get that he doesn't really have a choice, but what's to keep his uncle from putting him in an orphanage? That seems like it would make life way easier for his relatives.

That's a minor thing, but there's something else that I've been wondering about. This whole time, I've been unable to understand just how the wizard world exists. It seems like a different dimension or something. I mean, they walk through a wall into another place entirely different from London, right? Somewhere on the course of the train ride, do they go through a warp and end up in another sphere of existence? Does this world exist parallel to our world? I've already started the fourth book, and they  sort of go into details about it, but it's still something I'm unsure about. I know, I can't even figure out a children's story.

My thoughts on books two and three end here. This series is getting better and better, and I can see how someone could be easily enchanted reading them at a younger age. However, youth has fled me. I suspect I'll be finishing the final book in a retirement home. That's where I'm at in life.

JDS

PS I called someone a Mudblood the other and they just stared at me like I was insane. Maybe I am. These books will get me killed. Expecto Patronum!

PSS Lupin is my favorite.


9.06.2015

Jordan Goes to Hogwarts Part I: I Wish I Was a Wizard


It's 1999. I'm in 6th grade. My Reading/English class is split into two back-to-back courses, comprising my 2nd and 3rd morning periods. I was always a decent student, but I really enjoyed writing intensive courses, even at age 11. At that point in time, the only thing that really blew my childhood mind away was Star Wars. The Phantom Menace had been released earlier in the year and I had already seen it three times. That movie was absolutely my jam. Nothing else mattered. I had my Star Wars and my Star Wars Legos. The Lord of the Rings movies didn't exist yet. I didn't own a Gamecube. And I certainly didn't care about a scrawny black-haired kid with glasses.

I can vividly recall my first encounter with Harry Potter as it occurred one morning in Reading/English. The bell had rung, signalling the seven minute break between classes. Of course, since my second and third periods were in the same room, I usually just stayed in my desk (I was about as sociable at age 11 as I am now). This girl Jessica, whom I definitely had a crush on at some point in time, was reading a book while her friend was trying to talk to her. Eventually her friend gave up because Jessica wouldn't stop reading whatever book she had on her desk. I remember her saying "I'm sorry, I can't stop reading this. It's just so good!" I was able to catch a glimpse of the title - some book called Harry Potter - before I went back to ignoring them.

This was a critical point in time, a point that millions of readers most likely encountered at a young age. If Star Wars hadn't happened, I probably would have jumped on the train to Hogwarts right then and there. Maybe if I was braver I would have asked Jessica about the book. But I didn't, and all the fond memories and adventures that came with a childhood built upon reading Harry Potter died right there in 6th grade. Of course, it was 1999 - The Prisoner of Azkaban had literally just been released - so it's not like I was missing the beginning of the journey. The journey had already started two years prior  in 1997 with the first novel. I was in 4th grade in 1997, all I cared about then was Pokemon. Honestly, if you would have told me that Harry Potter was about a kid who went to a school to learn magic and ride broomsticks, I would have laughed at you. Why should I care about that? Star Wars had space battles and pod racing and lightsaber duels. 

Well, I didn't care. And so the whole Hogwarts experience completely passed me by. Sure, I watched some of the movies and I thought the Lego sets were cool, but I never actually picked up one of the books, unless it was to move it off of the Nintendo system so I could play Rogue Squadron. My sister owned pretty much all of the books, and the series had had the opposite effect on her - she loved it. But before going on, I simply can't stress the following enough: as I grew up, the continued choice to not read Harry Potter didn't stem from some inner desire to shun something universally praised, as a lot of blowhards are wont to do these days. I also wasn't partaking in intentional ignorance - pretending to not know that the books existed, thus acquitting me of any blame for not having read them. Nope, I just cared about other things. By the time The Deathly Hallows was released in 2007, I had started watching the NFL religiously after joining my first fantasy league. It was all downhill from there. Simply put, the whole thing just moved on without me. Harry Potter merely existed as a global phenomenon that I had missed, and that was the truth of it.

So here I am at age 27, having just finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Why now? 

When I met my future wife, I was just about to begin reading Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, a massive fantasy series. I already said everything I had to say about that series here, so I won't go on about it. Basically, I had decided to read nothing else until I finished all ten Malazan books, all while promising my wife to finally read Harry Potter when I was done. Well, I finished the series and made good on my promise.

So how did I like the first book?

I'm trying to get through this post quickly, but true to my normal tendencies, I've written a wall of text without getting to anything resembling a point. I want to finish this post quickly, because it absolves me of all obligation to the first book and will allow me to move on to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I made a promise to myself that I'd try to share my thoughts about each book in the form of blog posts. Essentially, as soon as I wrap this up I'm going to go sit and bed and read the second book. That's my life at 27.

My sister has been waiting even longer than my wife for me to read these books. Seriously, what did we even talk about all those years? When she asked me what I thought about the first book, I believe I described it as a "fond experience." That was Wednesday. Four days ago. FOUR DAYS WITHOUT READING MORE HARRY POTTER.

Yep, I'm all in. I registered for an account at pottermore.com that very evening. I bought an owl, a wand, and accessed my vault at Gringotts. I was placed in House Gryffindor (BORING). I spent too much time looking at old Harry Potter Lego sets on the internet. Holy crap, those things are EXPENSIVE.

As for the book itself, it was fantastic. I hate the Dursleys. Professor McGonagall is intense. I would have kicked Filch's cat so hard. Malfoy is a jerk, and the centaurs are awesome - if not a little cryptic and strange. I can hear the Sorting Hat's song in my head and I can see the stars in the roof of the Great Hall. Every time I sit by the fire in my apartment, I'm imagining I'm in the lounge of the Gryffindor dormitory. I want to wander the ever-changing halls of the castle. It seems like a wondrous, dangerous, and whimsical place to live. Quidditch is SO COOL. Owning a dragon seems like a huge inconvenience. At this point, I'm surprised Harry hasn't been expelled yet - he's done some astonishingly dumb stuff. And I was right about who gave Harry the Invisibility Cloak - not that it was hard to guess.

That's the abbreviated version of my thoughts. Disclaimer: I have seen all of the movies, barring the last one - so I'm not exactly starting tabula rasa. However, I've only seen most of the movies once. There's the one with the Big Snake, the one with Alan Rickman, the one with Edward Cullen, the one with the Evil Pink Lady, and the last two. I literally don't recall a single detail about The Half-Blood Prince. So while I am aware of some pretty major plot points, it still doesn't take away from my reading experience too much. For example, I was completely surprised by Snape and his protecting of Harry. I didn't remember that from the films, and it was a nice twist, if you can call it that.

I could say more, but I have to go read the second book now. I promise my post about the next book will be more reflective of my thoughts of the story itself. This post mostly served as an explanation as to why a 27 year old would suddenly decided to read the books. It's because I love my wife. Also I'm a nerd.

I may or may not be listening to the soundtrack to the first movie right now. Go away.

JDS

PS this post is dedicated to my sister. After 27 years, we finally have something to talk about! Happy birthday Sis :)


8.23.2015

Three Million Reasons Why I'll Never Read a Fantasy Book Again


I finally did it. I finished reading Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, composed of ten tomes of the best high fantasy that exists. It only took two years and three attempts. I started the first book, Gardens of the Moon, years ago after picking up a tattered copy in a used bookstore. I absolutely did not understand it. I don't mean that it went over my head like Ulysses did after reading the first sentence. I mean, Erikson dropped me into the middle of a highly fleshed out universe without a compass, a map, any knowledge of the native languages, and no night sky to guide me by the stars. 

Apparently that's how it's supposed to be. Remember that show Lost? You know, the one where not even the writers knew what was going on? Pull it up on Netflix, go to a random season and watch any episode other than the finale or premiere. Also, switch the language to Spanish. That's sort of what my first read through of Gardens was like. You are not expected to know what is going on. Instead we are told to be patient, because the wait will pay off in the end.

The end?? You mean like ten books and 10,000 pages later?! 

I completely understand why such a structure would be a turnoff to readers of fantasy. I may be exaggerating a little with my Netflix analogy, but it's close. And the thing is, it's not like the book starts off slow. In fact, this is an illustration of the opening battle:

 Siege of Pale

Yes, that is a giant floating castle thing shooting blasts of energy at masses of soldiers below. Awesome, right? How could that not pull you in? I love intense opening scenes! In Final Fantasy 7, you're thrown right into the game as an ex-soldier working for a terrorist group. You jump off the train, and soldiers rush to intercept you. It's thrilling. In A Song of Ice and Fire, we begin outside the Wall, where things quickly turn sour for a trio of Night's Watch men within the first few pages. Remember the opening shot of Star Wars, with the Star Destroyer chasing the good guys? Amazing! That's what happens here, in a sense. It's what follows that is hard to understand.

For context, Erikson wrote Gardens of the Moon about ten years before the second book. Not only that, but much of the story is based off of Erikson's and fellow Malazan-author-and-creator Ian C. Esslemont's days of role-playing gaming, where Erikson and Esslemont would actually play out the scenarios that involved the characters in the books. Interesting and confusing. Because of the huge gap between the first and second volume, the writing is noticeably better by the time you start Deadhouse Gates. I read Gardens twice before even thinking about moving to book number two, but after my third re-read, I decided to purchase Deadhouse Gates and take the Malazan plunge (which I've heard is like being "thrown into the ocean with anvils tied to your feet"). 

Lo and behold, I gave up after the first chapter of the second book. Some time later I tried again, making it to nearly 100 pages, before again setting it down and forgetting about it. One of the most frustrating aspects of the series is that different books take place in different settings. Only a few characters carried over from book one to book two, and they were on a completely different continent. This happens about three times throughout the course of the series. Characters you've fallen in love with while reading book two won't show up again until book four, and then - wouldn't you know it - book five takes you to a whole other continent with new characters/threads/plots. It's nuts. And yet, in the end it is all worth it.


Obviously, I eventually finished Deadhouse Gates, and any reservations I had about the series quickly disintegrated. The last 100 or so pages of book two absolutely blew me away. I purchased Memories of Ice (book three) and from then on, I embarked on an epic journey through what I strongly believe is the best fantasy series ever written. I had already ordered books four and five before I was halfway done with Memories.

As the title of this post suggests, the main series contains roughly 3,325,000 words spread over 10,000 pages. It took me two years to finish it. That's not an impressive pace. I'm a slow reader and sometimes a whole week would go by before I would pick it up again. That amounts to about fifteen pages a day. Easy, right? Well, it just so happens that Tor (the company that published the series) was also hosting what they called "The Malazan Reread of the Fallen" on their website, which is a series of chapter reviews/summaries written by two authors - a brand new reader, and one who had previously read the series. That way, you get to experience two viewpoints - one of a newbie and one from someone who had already read all ten books. Early on, I would every now and then check out the reread posts after a particularly difficult chapter. Eventually, it got to the point to where I would read the reread posts after every chapter, which literally numbered in the hundreds.

So after all that work, was it still worth it? I mean, the first book has a preface that lists FIVE pages of all the characters that make an appearance. Each volume after that follows the same pattern - a "Dramatis Personae" so you can become acquainted with the main players. Hundreds of characters, millions of words, thousands of pages, dozens of plots spread across a multitude of continents. There is nothing easy about it. Erikson's writing is dense, and there's a lot of it. So would I recommend it to other readers of fantasy?

Yes and no.

The enthusiast in me wants to say that everyone should read it, but that's not true. In fact, if you were to show even the slightest interest, I'd pick up my roughed-up copy of Gardens, meet you at a coffee shop (or bar, your choice), buy you a drink, and tell you why you should read this series. Of course, not everyone has the same tastes, and this is no exception for fantasy readers. This isn't something that the middling fan of fantasy could pick up and enjoy. Reading Lord of the Rings and the aforementioned A Song of Ice and Fire and enjoying them is one thing, and I say that with the utmost austerity. Everyone knows I'm a nerd and I love Game of Thrones, but it doesn't hold a candle to Erikson's masterpiece. Not even close. In fact, I think Malazan has ruined fantasy for me by making all other fantasy virtually unreadable. 

Hence, the title of this post.


I've obviously read Tolkien and Martin. I've read Robert Jordan and Glen Cook. Eddings, McKiernan, Weeks, Rothfuss, Reichert, etc. All of these authors are great. Some of them will and have already gone down as masters of high fantasy (Tolkien, Jordan, Martin), but I believe Erikson's writing to be superior. I'm not saying that to cause controversy, nor am I saying that I'm super-duper smart for reading some erudite series that only people possessing advanced intellect would understand. Nope. I just love fantasy, and I happen to love Erikson's brand more than any other. Heck, numerous blogs and reviews told me that I would enjoy the writing of Patrick Rothfuss since I enjoyed Erikson, so I downloaded the audiobook for The Name of the Wind. Highly touted as the next classic, I just....couldn't bring myself to care. It wasn't bad. It was enjoyable if you enjoy the mostly typical tropes of the genre. But it was fluff without substance. I NEED SUBSTANCE, PEOPLE.

So who then is the intended audience? To put it bluntly, Malazan is high fantasy for the high fantasy fan. That sounds like nonsense, but perhaps I can better explain it. Are you trying to write your own fantasy novel? Are you deeply interested in magic systems and the nuances of how they work? Or are you merely a fan of good worldbuilding, enjoying the lore and history of a novel's setting? Have you ever DMed a game of D&D or Pathfinder or any other role-playing game? Are you sick of elves/dwarves/orcs/dark lords/powerful artifacts/farmboys with dormant powers, etc? ME TOO!

The Malazan world is so vast and overwhelming, I literally cannot fathom all the work that went into creating it. Erikson studied anthropology and archaeology for years, so you'd better believe that he's put work into creating ancient civilizations with histories that span thousands of years. His system for magic is wonderfully inventive, unlike anything I've ever read. There are gods beyond gods and incredibly innovative races, each complete with their own rich histories. 


I realize I've gushed endlessly with no real credible arguments as to why I prefer Malazan over everything else. Not only that, but I haven't said a word of what the series is actually about. It's because I CAN'T. I still struggle to tell people what the series is about when they ask. But if you really want to know, maybe we can grab that drink I mentioned earlier and I'll again try my best to explain myself.

In conclusion, I can safely say that I'll be taking a break from the whole high fantasy thing for some time. I can only assume that it will be a number of years before I visit Malazan again, for reasons I've already mentioned. My new mission? Harry Potter for the first time. My wife has been wanting me to read HP for the entirety of our relationship. I think I was reading The Bonehunters (book six) when I said that I simply would not read anything else until I finished the series (I lied, I took a break to read Gone Girl between books eight and nine). 

Well, I finished. So I guess it's off to Hogwarts for now. 

PS I'm serious about that whole getting a drink thing. I promise to take it easy. JUST LET ME SHARE MY HAPPINESS WITH YOU, GUYS.

Read these books.

JDS


5.09.2015

Thoughts on Suicide: Part III

When you put distance between yourself and death, it becomes harder to write about. Not for lack of courage or will to do so, but for the inevitably hazy details that come with trying to recall a face you've only seen once or twice in your lifetime. That brush with mortality fades into obscurity, until it seems that your encounter is a memory belonging to someone else. It is much like standing in a museum, staring at a painting of the scene of your own person hailing death with weak but open arms, ignorant of the impending fallout. 

Surely that is not me, you think, squinting at the featureless mask glazed over the mock depiction of your face. Those arms, so weak. They belong to one of lesser constitution. 

Yet the more you gaze upon that convergence of the finite facing the immutable, the aspect of that harrowing scene becomes one of unassailable truth, save for one detail: that poor soul in the painting was you, but no longer. The scene was set, the struggle played out, and you survived to stand in front of your own memory in art form. Victory - there is no other word for it.

No thought of victory appeared when I was led to a cold room armored in cinder-blocks in the hours following my first attempted suicide. The pillow was a dirty lump sheathed in plastic. My roommate was a bear of a man who uttered murderous threats in his sleep. It was Halloween, and I had set to haunting myself for a lifetime. What victory lies in this?

Victory did not manifest itself after my second suicide attempt, as I voided my blackened bowels into a bedpan while a nurse blithely stood mere feet away, bored eyes never leaving her clipboard. They were trying to get what I had swallowed to kill myself out of me, and it was working gloriously. All dignity vanished. The room stank of failure and worse. Another strange bed in another frigid room. Is this the reward for my victory, my overcoming death?

I had forced my hand in a matter that did not belong to me. No power had been given to me in choosing my time to go. It was never my time to begin with.

A different scene: four and a half years removed from my first suicidal episode, I sit on the end of a jetty. The tide is low, and normally submerged rocks are upturned in their barnacle-encrusted immodesty. Shrill cries from boys stumbling upon a giant crab in the shallows. Across the sound stand the hulking Olympics, a solemn barrier upon the distant horizon. I have driven by those mountains, stood in their shade. I have walked through these waters. I have taken the ferry across the sound to Kingston, feeling as if I were in a European film. This, this is the painting I want to see. That was this morning. This is that elusive victory.

After moving to Seattle, I never thought I'd try to kill myself a second time. But then, suicide is often accompanied without the faculties of deep thought in its haste to rectify a life no longer worth living, personally speaking. There is no contingency plan, it's a blackout or nothing at all. 

When I sought to bleed myself out, I saw nothing past my naked wrists, ripe for carving. Nor did I think about tomorrow as all feeling fled my legs when I stumbled about the ER waiting room. I saw what I thought I had to do, because there was nothing else that could be done.

I didn't see my wedding day. I didn't see my wife walking down the aisle. I didn't see all of my family gathered in one place for the first time in years. Moving into our apartment, setting off down the coast of Oregon for our honeymoon, beginning life together as a married couple. 

Would I put down the knives if I saw what the future held? Not only would someone choose to love me, they would surrender their heart to me for all time - and I to them - would I possess the willpower to bring that ghastly scene to an end? A man backed into a corner sees only one way out. I saw my exit. 

And now, nearly six months into marriage, I nearly weep at the memory of that cornered man. Don't you see?! There is no corner at all, to your back lies liberation, through those before you that would entangle your spirit lies liberation as well. There is no exit, friend. There are only open doors all about

I've repainted that scene twice. I've been diagnosed with multiple mental disorders, various medications, met with several therapists. And through all of that, I finally see that victory. None of those burdens succeed in dragging me down, just as my past encounters with death are rendered to a scene I can only stare at in disbelief. I was there, but no longer. My spirit grows stronger as the colors of that painting fade.

I write this post today because I have survived. I no longer entertain thoughts of death. I am in love, and I have a future. You do, too. Never in my wildest dreams did I see my life as it is today. The empty husk of the person I was would have laughed at the bliss of my present self, because he did not believe that such joys were attainable. They are, and they always have been. I do not regret that I emptied myself of all hope, if only to be led to the victory that I was meant to find. That I was meant to live, and live on.

I'll never be able to erase the details of that painting. I can only hope to dull the colors until it becomes a foothold on the path to a full life. There is not enough canvas in the world to depict how I intend to live out my life, in spite of that first frame. There are not enough museums to contain the victories I intend to achieve. 

Victory will come to you, too. It belongs to all of us.


JDS

2.04.2015

My Favorite Music of 2014 (non-metal)

My favorite metal of 2014.

Last year's list.

So it turns out that being married and the New Year and all that stuff keeps a body busy, as evidenced by the fact that this post is over a month overdue. Can you tell that I take this business seriously?

In my last post, I lamented the fact that very little in the 2014 realm of metal music that impressed me. Of course, all bands should strive to impress a 26 year-old newlywed male nanny. What a better world this would be with all that amazing music! 

Despite my unfounded opinion regarding the spectrum of harder music, I cannot say the same about the rest of the music I listened to in 2014. I'm glad I moved away from numeric lists and rankings, because this year's list was harder than 2012's and 2013's by a large margin. And when you've been doing this unprofessionally for nearly 2.5 years like I have, THAT'S A LOT OF LISTS. 

I'm blowing smoke here, and I want to talk about good music, so let's just get to it.


YES, I'M STILL 12

Chevelle - La Gargola


When discussing music, it's important to remember where your roots are. I came from the horrid swamps and bogs of early 2000's alt rock and nu-metal. I grew out of 90% of that music, but I'll never let go of Chevelle. The Chicago-based trio has very steadily putting out solid hard rock albums every few years. I jumped on board with their 2002 release Wonder What's Next and never looked back. That's why I enjoy La Gargola ("the gargoyle" in Spanish) so much. I feel like I'm a freshman in high school again when listening to "Hunter Eats Hunter" and "An Island." Chevelle may not be the most creative band ever, but they're consistent, and I personally think this is their best album since Vena Sera, which is a hard rock masterpiece.



MORE THAN A PLEASANT SURPRISE

Copeland - Ixora


I did not expect a new Copeland album in 2014. I missed their farewell tour in 2009, which came a year after the superb You Are My Sunshine. Every girl I knew in high school was obsessed with this band, which was reason enough for my adolescent self to turn away from them. Boy, was I a dummy. Every time I listen to Copeland, I feel as if my ears are being simultaneously drenched in honey-covered sadness and joy. Despite the band not playing music together for years, Ixora is perfect, encompassing everything I've come to love about Copeland. It's also - in my opinion - the best winter album of the year. Listen to it while walking in the snow, and everything will fall into place.



GOODNESS FROM ACROSS THE POND

Dry the River - Alarms in the Heart


This British indie/rock/whatever band blew me away in 2012 with Shallow Bed, their first full-length. To me, Dry the River is personified by soaring vocals, on-point triple harmonies, and amazing lyrics. Oh, the lyrics. I'd give this album a high score for the visuals and metaphors alone. Blaire and I were fortunate enough to see them this past year, and they were phenomenal, English accents and all. In fact, we were having dinner down the street from the venue before the show when a few of the band members walked in and sat down at the bar. We couldn't stop staring at them, and they very obviously noticed us. I think they were checking out my wife (don't blame them). I'll let them off the hook because they put this album out. But if I ever find myself in the UK...



SWEET SOUNDS FROM SWEDEN

First Aid Kit - Stay Gold


Another European band, another band I listed two years ago, another band I was lucky enough to see this past year. These Swedish sisters are on the brink of taking over the world (if they already haven't) with their brand of 60's tinged folk rock. Stay Gold is just as heavy and sad as 2012's The Lion's Roar, it just looks happier because of the brighter colors. If you ever have the chance to see them live, do yourself a favor and do so. I've been to a lot of shows over the years in all manner of venues, and First Aid Kit's Seattle show easily made it into my top 5 all-time favorite live performances. Seriously, the whole thing felt like a massive living room show, except with hundreds of people instead of only a handful. Blaire and I have decided to see them if they ever come within 100 miles of Seattle again, no matter the circumstances. That's how good they were.



A NEW CHALLENGER HAS ARRIVED

Gates - Bloom & Breathe


I'm a sucker for good album art and names with ampersands in them. Gates' debut full-length caught me by surprise (as most good music does these days), as I had only ever listened to their four song EP with mild interest. Gates has helped me deal with the breaking up of Moving Mountains, captivating me with the same vein of ambient post-rock and passages of twinkling shoegaze. The vocalist sounds like Dustin Kensrue whenever he screams, which is always a flattering comparison. Bloom & Breathe is a beautiful album, and I'm very much looking forward to what this band does in the future.



DRIVING AND DANCING IS LEGAL, RIGHT?

Lights - Little Machines


2014 was the year I started to listen to lots of electronic music. I don't mean the kind you'd listen to in a club while tripping on acid. Nah, I'm talking about the kind that your friends might make fun of you for listening to. If you pull up next to me at a red light and I just happened to be dancing in my car, it's probably because I was listening to this album. My exposure to Lights was limited to hearing the song "Lions" in 2009. She's done a lot since then, and when she released the ridiculously catchy "Up We Go" in anticipation of Little Machines, I was 100% on board. This album is dance-worthy, and I hate dancing. You don't want to see me dance. If you were at my wedding, I'm sorry. That's PTSD worthy. This album is a jam. Only tone-deaf clods would refuse to tap their feet to this record!



A YEAR OF RESURRECTION

Pompeii - Loom


Every year, there are seemingly defunct bands that rise from the ashes to release beautiful new music, like the aforementioned Copeland. Pompeii is the latest band to revive themselves with a renewed passion. I thought they were done for, having produced no new music since 2008's Nothing Happens For A Reason. Loom brings with it the familiar ambient sound (complete with cello!) and a more refined direction, as the whole album blends seamlessly together, which is something few albums do anymore, barring superficial segues. I love seeing old friends after years of little communication, only to see that they've become cooler than me in the long absence. Enter Loom.



LOVE AT FIRST LISTEN

Prawn - Kingfisher


Ah, Prawn. Every once in a while I get sick of what I'm listening to and promptly embark on a quest for new music. Prawn was the first band I found on one such journey back in late summer. From the first bright notes of "Scud Running" I knew that I had found a classic. At times reminiscent of the tamer side of American Football, other times bursting with the fervor of Tiger's Jaw, Prawn's Kingfisher quickly became one of my most listened-to albums of 2014. I'm pretty terrible with music comparisons, but they also give me a slight The Appleseed Cast vibe, which if you know me at all, you'd know they rank among most-loved bands. Catchy, high-energy, and emotional, Kingfisher is the perfect summer album. Or really any-time album.



I LIKE IT WHEN YOU'RE QUIET

Tides of Man - Young and Courageous


In this year's list of metal albums, I mentioned the band Intervals, which started out as an instrumental outfit before adding vocals. Tides of Man has done the opposite, losing the voice of their band but continuing on regardless. And it's for the best. Prior to Young and Courageous, Tides of Man could be described as a post-hardcore band, akin to Emarosa or Secret & Whisper. They weren't bad, quite the opposite, but I always felt that the musicians were far too talented for a genre hampered by copycats and try-hards. After years of looking for a vocalist, they decided to go on without one, and it resulted in my favorite post-rock album of the year. If you like Explosions in the Sky, early This Will Destroy You, or good music in general, give this record a go. Also, is it just me or does the kid on the cover look like a really young Macaulay Culkin? 



THE BEST BEARD/VOICE IN THE BUSINESS

William Fitzsimmons - Lions


Old Willy and I go way back, at least to 2009. That's when I heard his album The Sparrow & The Crow playing over the speakers in a Barnes & Noble. I immediately purchased it, quickly realizing that it might possibly be the most depressing album I had ever heard at the time. For some unknown reason, William saw fit to play a show in Abilene, TX when I was going to school there, shortly after the release of his 2011 album, Gold in The Shadow. His songs are not for the faint of heart. The singer-songwriter has seen some hurt, and each album is another step in the healing process. Lions finds him at his strongest, with signs of  breaking free from his malaise, especially in the opener "Well Enough." I was able to see William again this past year. He's hilarious, never without a beer on stage, and always poking fun at himself for writing such depressing music. Bonus: if you do a little Facebook stalking, you'll find a picture of me with him in 2011 and again in 2014. He's the one with the beard.



NEARLY ALONE AT THE TOP

The Hotelier - Home, Like Noplace Is There


Most of my 2014 music preferences looked like this: The Hotelier>>>>>>>everything else, by a long shot. That's not to discount everything I've listened prior to this point. I mentioned that 2014 was a phenomenal year for music, and a large part of that is because of this album. Receiving nothing but glowing reviews early in the year, I decided to check out the buzz. I found myself turned off by the vocals. However, the music and amazing lyrics were enough to keep me interested, and I eventually found myself in love with this record. It remained my absolute favorite album for about 60% of the year, and it wasn't close. This album is incredibly raw and emotional, coming from a deep-down place of personal anguish and introspection in vocalist Christian Holden, who thoroughly destroys his vocal cords over the course of the album. After the first line of album opener "An Introduction To The Album," you'll know that you're about to listen to something special unfold. Do yourself a favor and read the lyrics; the story of Home, Like Noplace Is There will pull you apart.



MY FAVORITE ALBUM OF 2014

Pianos Become The Teeth - Keep You


I mentioned that The Hotelier beat out pretty much everything else I listened to in 2014. Their album led me to Prawn, Gates, and Pompeii - all listed here. However, Keep You tops my list, edging out The Hotelier, and I'll tell you why. 

Prior to this album, I wasn't a fan of Pianos Become The Teeth at all. There was a time (2012) when I was listened to all these post-hardcore screamo bands like Defeater, Touché Amoré, and La Dispute. They were emotionally charged, intense, and all kind of blended together. I never gave Pianos a listen because they were associated with all of these bands. When Keep You kept getting brought up as being vastly different than anything Pianos had ever released, I still wasn't about it. Long-time fans were upset that the album was composed of only "clean" vocals while others praised the new sound. Thinking that I might appreciate the new direction, I decided to give the band a chance. I'm glad I did, as Keep You quickly supplanted my previous favorite album, if only by a slim margin.

Keep You is nothing like Pianos' older albums (I've since listened to them). There is one line of screamed vocals on the entire album. Much of vocalist Kyle Durfey's lyrics focus on the loss of his father, and I've heard the progression of their albums described as anger, mourning, and the healing process, respectively. Keep You is the beginning of that healing process. I can't imagine losing a loved one, much less turning the loss into something as heart-wrenching as this album. The second track "April" is my favorite song of the year, regardless of genre. If the final seconds of album closer "Say Nothing" don't evoke any sort of response from you, then you have no feelings.

Keep You is my favorite album of 2014. Listen to it, read the lyrics, and let's talk about it.



HONORABLE MENTIONS

Bad Suns - Language & Perspective. One of the catchiest albums of 2014! Indie rock at it's most fun.
The Cinema - Talking In Your Sleep. I haven't spent much time with this, but it's Lydia's Leighton Antelman's electro-pop side project. The last one was amazing. What's not to like?
Circa Survive - Descensus. Another year, another record for these post-hardcore giants. They refuse to slow down, and Descensus is harder, faster, and louder than anything they've done in years.
††† (Crosses) - Self-titled. Another Chino Moreno project, described as "dream pop" and "dark wave." It's definitely darker than Deftones and Palms, that's for sure. 
Golden Youth - The Cabin. My favorite discovery of 2013 returns with another lovely EP. Much like the title, this album gives me the feeling of camping in the woods for days on end, with only the sounds of nature to accompany me.
Horse Feathers - So It Is With Us. The Portland based folk band does nothing but release excellent music year after year. Guitars, strings, tambourines, you name it. My favorite folk band for sure.
Kina Grannis - Elements. A singer/songwriter with a powerful voice, perfect for summer.
Kye Kye - Fantasize. The electronic trend continues. Unable to find any form of their previous releases, I was thankful to get a hold of this album. Dreamy, trance-inducing, layered in warmth.
Merriment - Sway. Does the DuPree family have a monopoly on the musically talented family front? This time, Christie (the youngest DuPree) takes center stage on this indie-pop offering. For fans of Eisley, Perma, Rising Fawn, etc. See the trend?
thank you, scientist - maps of non-existent places. This band opened for Coheed on their In Keeping Secrets tour, the first to sign to Claudio Sanchez' Evil Ink Records. Equal parts System of a Down, The Mars Volta, The Fall of Troy, except with trumpet, sax, and violins. They are also insane live.
Tycho - Awake. My second favorite instrumental album of 2014, sure to be the number one of the genre for many.
White Sea - In Cold Blood. More electronica! Major keys laced with brutal lyrics. Can you handle it?

DISAPPOINTMENTS 

(highly personal opinions)

Accents - Tall Tales. This one is selfish of me. I missed the dark, stripped down sounds of Growth & Squalor. Here, we have an overproduced album with far too many sounds going on. And I'm a jerk, but I don't like the female vocalists' voice at all. Pander to me!
This Will Destroy You - Another Language. I haven't liked these guys since the release of Tunnel Blanket, where it seems they moved from traditional post-rock to a more drone oriented sound. It puts me to sleep, and not in the good way.
New Found Glory - Resurrection. I'll probably get flak for this, but this just felt like NFG putting out an NFG record without any sort of experimentation or branching out. I get that they're in a genre that isn't particularly known for creativity, but there was very little about this album that came across as memorable. About half of the songs are good, and I'd write the rest off. Maybe I'm not used to just one guitar in the band, who knows. I'm probably just an old man.

Best Show? Like I mentioned, First Aid Kit. Go see them!!

And that will do it for my musical musings for 2014. I don't review albums, I don't do Twitter, and my opinions bear no weight. I mostly just type what I feel and then cringe in the editing process.

Is there anything I missed? Anything I should check out? Anything you want to fight me on? Please comment! We're all about conversation here.

Hopefully I'll be on time next year.

JDS