The Fourth Wave

Every person enjoys different kinds of music for different reasons. Some music is best listened to with eyes closed and head reclined, ready to soak in every note. Other music is more simplistic and best serves as a backdrop to set the mood. Ska is best listened to on the dance floor, as it has a driving, energetic rhythm that makes it ideal for dancing. The tight, percussive chords from the guitar give a bouncy energy to the music that can have the power to compel even the most timid of concert-goers to have a go at flailing their limbs about in a cathartic flurry. From their beginning the dance moves that were paired with ska were very simplistic, making them easy for anyone to pick up. While the dance has evolved along with the music, (and is now referred to as “skanking” by many in the ska community) the characteristic alternating arm swings remain, and still make the dancer look just a bit ridiculous.

Ska originated in Jamaican dance halls in the 1960’s, resulting from a mix of American R&B and jazz with various Caribbean musical styles. The Skatalites are one of the most influential bands from this period, backing up the top Jamaican singers including Toots and the Maytals and Bob Marley and the Wailers. They were an extremely tight band, as many of the members grew up together playing and learning music at a military-style boys school. The majority of the Skatalites’ recordings were done in only one take, with the singer recording on a separate track so they could do as many takes as they needed. These early recordings defined the sound of ska and were successful inside and outside of Jamaica’s borders. From ska came reggae, the next big musical movement to come out of Jamaica. Young Jamaican gangsters, known as rude boys, began to play ska records at a slower speed because they thought that dancing at a slower speed made them look tougher. This behavior inspired musicians involved in the rude boy culture to adapt their music to the new trend, though ska did more than inspire the music of reggae.

Ska made its way to England in the 1970’s and created a second wave of ska there. Immigrants to England from Jamaica brought with them their love of ska and shared this with the English natives. The music that resulted became known as 2 Tone, and mixed elements of punk rock and new wave with the original music of Jamaican dance halls. Many of the 2 Tone ska bands took a strong active position against racism, and used some of their songs to voice this opposition. They also adopted the fashion of the rude boys of Jamaica, wearing nice suits with ties and hats. Among the leading bands of the 2 Tone movement were the Specials, the Selecter, and Madness.

In the 1980’s, American bands took notice of second wave ska bands and adopted the style for themselves. In a little more than twenty years the American-inspired Jamaican music of ska had made its way back to the country where some of its roots lay, although sounding as if it had gone through a twisted game of telephone. This third wave in America was more varied than the second, with the genre of ska punk (or skacore) being innovated and lead by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Ska punk, as the name implies, emphasizes the punk element much more than the 2 Tone movement did.

By the early 1990’s, ska bands were achieving mainstream success in America. The first among them to do so were the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in 1994 with their album “Question the Answers,” which reached gold status. Many other bands followed this trend and enjoyed huge commercial success, though this only lasted until the mid-90’s. By the end of the decade many were declaring the genre of ska to be dead, as the general public seemed to have lost interest in it. While ska has been dubiously declared “dead” in America since the late 90’s, it is actually still alive and well, having started a new fourth wave. This fourth wave, like the ones before it, is introducing many different elements from other genres into ska, once again transforming its sound.

            The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were one of America’s first ska bands and they opened the gateway that joined ska and hardcore punk together. Their sound is much rougher and grittier than second wave ska because of their punk influence. Their career followed the curve of third wave ska and the top of this curve was their 1997 album “Let’s Face It.” This was their first and only platinum selling album, and also yielded a number one single, “The Impression That I Get.” Despite being at the forefront of the ska punk genre, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones show a bit of restraint on this album, starting with three tracks that stay mostly within the realm of ska. They deliver tight, precise guitar chunks on upbeats, catchy horn riffs, melodic, syncopated basslines, driving drum grooves, and with just the perfect amount of organ mixed in. There is almost no trace of their hardcore punk influence until about thirty seconds into the fourth track, “The Impression That I Get,” where a distorted guitar slides down into a thick, crunchy power-chord and Dicky Barrett (lead vocals) lets out a loud, gravelly scream.

The next track, “Let’s Face It,” is a tribute to the English ska bands of the 1970’s. This song deals with the issues of racism and intolerance and the lyrics bear some resemblance to those you might hear on a track from the Specials. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, while still paying homage to their second wave predecessors, manage to give this song a vital twist. They brilliantly sandwich a screaming, distorted, wah-pedal guitar solo between two halves of an up-beat anti-hate ska song. This beautifully shows the duality of emotions that are present when dealing with the issue of intolerance. While their message in the song is one of love and tolerance, the anger and hatred felt against those who continue to spread racism and intolerance is reflected in the aggressive, warped guitar solo.

While the album starts out relatively tame, the punk influence becomes more noticeable as the album progresses. The last four tracks of the album show almost no trace of the typical rhythmic qualities of ska, but they still incorporate the horns in a way typical of the style.  It is as if the Mighty Mighty Bosstones are slowly weaning the listener off of the safe, warm, fuzzy feeling of ska and introducing them to the darker and dirtier sound of punk. The second to last track, “Desensitized,” open with someone saying “you gotta ease up…I can’t fuckin’ hear anything,” followed by “what the fuck!” as a piercingly loud scream comes from a guitar amp and morphs into the short solo that opens the track: a moment that solidifies this as not just a ska album, but a punk album as well. In both ska and punk music, tracks are typical shorter. Both styles are about high-energy, and this is not conducive to extended songs. This album is a shining example of that, with the average track length coming in at about two and half a minutes.

This punk mentality and approach stuck with much of the ska in America after the Mighty Mighty Bosstones popularized it, though much of the country’s interest in ska would fade by 2000, only three years after the release of “Let’s Face It.” Formed in 2002, Streetlight Manifesto never saw the glory days of ska in America itself. However, Tomas Kalnoky (guitar, lead vocals, songwriting) formed and led a ska punk band, Catch 22, during the height of the third wave. He left this band in 1998 after only one studio album, which he later re-recorded with Streetlight Manifesto. Kalnoky obviously brings this influence with him to Streetlight Manifesto, and their style is heavily based upon third wave ska bands, though they also draw upon many other influences and further expand the boundaries of ska, much like their predecessors the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. This is evident on their 2003 release, Everything Goes Numb.

Typical of most ska bands, Streetlight Manifesto has a horn section. Theirs is slightly larger than most however, featuring alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, trumpet, trombone, and in a few instances tuba and clarinet. This instrumentation is more akin to one you would find in a small chamber ensemble rather than a ska band, and the band uses this to their advantage. The horn section of Streetlight Manifesto serves a slightly different purpose than that of ska bands before it.

Typically, the horns would serve as an accompanying or rhythm instrument in ska, and may have occasionally had an important melody or two. Streetlight Manifesto’s horns go beyond this role, and will often play extended sections where they are featured. The arrangements for the horn section are also much more complex, with layered harmonies and intricate contrapuntal melodies. Take for example the track “If and When We Rise Again.” There is a long guitar build-up to a horn introduction, and then the horns state the melody, complete with harmony. The horns are featured for about 40 seconds after this intro before the vocals enter, which is not typical of any other horn break in ska. Kalnoky is not as reliant upon typical pop formulas for his songwriting, and he draws very heavily on classical and other instrumental music in his writing.

In a direct nod to one of classical music’s better know figures, Kalnoky uses the chord progression made famous in “Pachelbel’s Canon” in his song “We Are the Few.” The horn melodies in this song also contain fragments that are reminiscent of a classical etude, though they are not played with the gracefulness that is typical of that style. The track ends with another tidbit of classical theory, as the band fades and only Kalnoky and his guitar can be heard. Here he uses a suspension that most music theory students learn in their first class on harmony.

Despite the abundance of classical influence upon Kalnoky’s writing, the aesthetic of Streetlight Manifesto’s music is very much in the vein of punk. While no one can compare to Dicky Barrett’s throat full of rocks, Kalnoky’s vocals are still gritty and raw in their own way. The vocal chants and screams led by him throughout the album have a powerful impact, making the listener feel the music in a visceral way. The opening track, “Everything Went Numb,” is driven at points by this call and response, with the lyrics “Ski mask / Check! / Sawed-off / Check! / Guilty conscious, fear of death / Check, check, check!” These same raw, nearly screaming vocals are also present, and much more prominent, on the album “Goodbye Cool World” by Bomb the Music Industry!.

Bomb the Music Industry! has a history similar to Streetlight Manifesto’s in that both of their leading members came from prominent third wave ska bands. Jeff Rosenstock is the leading member of Bomb the Music Industry! and had started a ska punk band in 1995, the Arrogant Sons of Bitches. This band achieved some success in the ska punk scene, touring and playing shows with Catch 22 (post-Kalnoky) and the Toasters. Their break-up came in 2004, and from the ashes of the Arrogant Sons of Bitches rose Bomb the Music Industry!. As their name implies, they are anti-music industry and record labels, recording and distributing all their music themselves. This do-it-yourself approach to music is one that can be connected back to third wave ska’s punk roots in England.

The third full album from Bomb the Music Industry!, “Goodbye Cool World” was released in 2006. Musically, this is one of the most diverse ska albums to be released. While still clearly containing many of the hallmarks associated with ska, “Goodbye Cool World” feels free to wander around and explore many different styles. Rosenstock incorporates synthesizers and a drum machine on this album, both to varying degrees of success. The first track alludes to the album’s diversity, opening with a sample of a man yelling “Let the great experiment begin!”

Experimentation involves dealing with the unknown, and the results may not always be totally satisfactory. Some tracks on “Goodbye Cool World” benefit more from the addition of electronic components than others. For example, the track “5 Funerals” uses the synthesizer in a very tasteful way. It opens with an intro featuring the synthesizer, first repeating a low, fuzzy sounding melody, and later entering with higher pitched chords on the off-beats, imitating an organ that might have been heard in some second wave ska bands. The synth also has a similar melody in the outro.

“Sorry, Brooklyn. Dancing Won’t Solve Anything” is a track that, unfortunately, falls on its face. If the intended effect was to make the listener laugh as the song played, then this track accomplishes its goal. This song draws a bit from reggae (the tempo is slower), and the drum machine and synth seem wildly out of place on it. In other places on the album they are blended in much more with the other instruments; here they stick out like a sore thumb and do nothing but distract the listener. The track ends with a huge, thick chord with vibrato from the synth that eventually devolves into banging on the keyboard, which if Rosenstock had been doing throughout the whole song might have made it blend better.

Whereas many ska bands that had come before him wrote lyrics inspired by perceived political or social injustices, Rosenstock’s lyrics are more personal and are often autobiographical. Because of this, his lyrics are often about musicians, bands, and the music industry as well. One example of this is the song “My Response To An Article In Alternative Press,” in which Rosenstock screams and vents his anger at musicians that are willing to sacrifice parts of their music for the sake of fame. The most important line of the lyrics is the repeated chant of “S-A-F-E / You play it safe!” Rosenstock has a very fitting voice for the style and particularly this song, and is yelling equally as much as he is singing. He is often out of tune and has terrible tone, but his voice is never lacking emotion.

The most personal lyrics on “Goodbye Cool World” are in the song “King of Minneapolis Pts. I & II,” and they recount an alcohol-induced, potentially fatal, mental freakout. Musically, this is one of the best tracks on the album. It experiments with some different time signatures, something that is not often seen in ska, but works in this song. This song beautifully flows from one style to the next. The beginning has a poppy, up-beat feel, which shifts to straightforward punk rock on the bridge. The bottom drops out of this and leaves only acoustic guitar and voice, which carry the song to its conclusion as they are eventually joined by the rest of the instruments.

Throughout the history of ska, it has always adapted to new environments and absorbed parts of them. To claim that ska died in the late 90’s is akin to saying that rock died in the late 60’s, when it merely branched off in many different directions. Like the bands of the first wave, who mixed American and Carribean music, and the second and third waves, who mixed punk and ska, bands of the fourth wave of ska will continue to create new combinations of possibilities for the genre, and will continue to reach new audiences because of this. With their embrace of technology and the internet, Bomb the Music Industry! is demonstrating that ska actually has even more potential to grow now than it did before. Streetlight Manifesto may also soon join them, as they have voiced their discontent with Victory Records (their label) and have directly told their fans via their website to boycott all of their products sold by Victory or in record stores. With these two bands being major players in the fourth wave and both being extremely anti-record label, it seems as if ska’s future is not on the shelves of a record store, but mostly likely between the ones and zeroes of the internet.

“Breaking Bad” (Season 1, episode 6: “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” AMC)

Jesse (left) and Walter (right)

Imagine you are diagnosed with stage-three, terminal cancer. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high-school chemistry teacher, is forced to deal with this situation in the television show “Breaking Bad.” Because of his extensive knowledge of and skill in chemistry, Walter chooses to enter the world of drug production (specifically methamphetamine) in order to earn enough money to leave behind a large inheritance for his family. While very knowledgeable of chemistry, Walter is nearly clueless when it comes to selling drugs. He discovers one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), is a meth dealer who is being investigated by Walter’s DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), and uses this knowledge as blackmail to get Jesse to help him with the business part of his planned meth operation. In episode six of season one (“Crazy Handful of Nothin’”), Walt begins to buckle under the pressure of the two lives he is simultaneously living, and he goes to drastic measures in an attempt to regain control of his life.

“Breaking Bad” is an engaging and unique show because it features a main character that is an awful person, but it is still able to humanize him. Cranston’s ability to make Walter someone who can be empathized with is amazing, considering all of the terrible things Walter does. He is a hypocrite, a liar, selfish, and always over plays his hand (as the title of the episode implies), but it isn’t hard to connect with him and want him to succeed.

Walter must lie to his family in order to keep his source of income a secret. Walter is with his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), at a therapy session for cancer patients and she voices her concern about the amount of time Walter’s spending alone (cooking meth with Jesse). He lies, saying he spends the time appreciating nature on walks. He continues to distance his family with deceit, even though he claims his first priority is to take care of his family. Almost every time Walter is in a scene with a family member he is in some way lying to them.

Walter is extremely selfish in his partnership with Jesse. He scolds Jesse’s every move and always shifts the blame to him, even though Walter would be nowhere without Jesse’s help. After Jesse spends all night dealing meth by himself and returns to Walter the next day with $2600, Walter gets angry and says, “I am breaking the law here. The return is too little for the risk.” Talk about a superiority complex. He doesn’t appreciate or even acknowledge the risks Jesse has taken for him. He sees Jesse as inferior, and simply a pawn he is able to move.

Jesse experiences his first beating of many to come throughout the series in this episode.

Unfortunately, pawns are the weakest piece on the chessboard. Even though Walter is being selfish and not very rational, Jesse wants to help him out. He sets up a meeting with a high-level drug kingpin via a connection of a friend. Walter told him to find a high-level distributor, and he is simply following orders. This meeting goes awry and Jesse is beaten and hospitalized, losing both meth and money. Jesse put himself on the line for Walter once again, but this time failed because of Walter’s bad guidance and greed, and Jesse was the one to pay the price for it, not Walter.  This is the first of many times that Jesse will take the punishment for Walt’s bad decisions. Walter will not hesitate if he has to inadvertently hurt Jesse to get what he wants.

In between all these moments of lying, illegal activity, violence, and cooking meth, we see Walter going through the struggle of a cancer patient. This is the episode where he first has chemotherapy treatment, and there are many scenes that show the cancer’s effect on him, as well as the effects of his medication. These brief moments are when Walter is seen showing vulnerability. He is no longer putting on the image of drug dealer who is a tough guy, and acts like who he really is: someone who is scared of his situation, and desperately alone and isolated because of the lies he has told his family. This makes him easy to feel sorry for and empathize with, despite how terrible he has acted.

Walter uses fulminated mercury as an explosive against Tuco.

When Walter finds out about Jesse he visits him in the hospital. Walter seems not to care as much about Jesse as he does Tuco, the drug kingpin. He asks Jesse’s friend about him and where he can find him. Walter’s selfish nature drives him to want to take back what is his and show Tuco that he is superior.  He visits Tuco and is able to take back what was stolen from them with the help of an explosive chemical compound, as well as earn Tuco’s respect and his business in the process. As soon as Walt gets in his car with money in hand, he celebrates with a primal, guttural sound and then a brief smile flickers across his face before he drives away.

Despite all of the terrible things he had to do to earn that money, it is hard not to celebrate with him, especially since he is the ultimate underdog. How can you not root for the guy who is in way over his head, and also has a large quantity of highly explosive chemicals? On top of all that is Cranston’s amazing performance. Even with all of the illegal activity and deceit that Walter is involved in, he is still a man dealing with his own mortality. Cranston captures this highly emotional and unstable state perfectly in his acting, and that is why it is possible to relate to one of the most horrible characters on Breaking Bad.

Ted Nasmith, “Tuor Reaches the Hidden City of Gondolin”

Ted Nasmith is most known for his illustrations of characters and events from the mythos of J.R.R. Tolkien, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, among others. While these subjects exist strictly in a world of fantasy, what defines Nasmith’s vision of them is the realism that is in his work. Even though the figures in his painting are fantastical in nature (some being creatures such as elves, orcs, dwarves, etc.), he treats them in a serious manner, as if he were depicting scenes that were from actual history. His work drawing concepts for buildings as an architectural renderer helped him to gain this realistic quality in his work. In “Tuor Reaches the Hidden City of Gondolin,” Nasmith utilizes his realist approach to breathe life into a key moment and place in the foundational story of Tolkien’s entire Middle-earth mythos, complementing the detailed yet poetic descriptions Tolkien gives in The Silmarillion.

The moment Nasmith captures is Tuor’s first sight of the city of Gondolin, the most magnificent city to exist in all of Tolkien’s stories. In the fictional history of Middle-earth, (Tolkien’s imagined world) Gondolin was built completely in secret, and modeled after a city built by the gods; very few people had witnessed a sight that even came close to its beauty, including Tuor, and this powerful moment of awe experienced by him is what Nasmith chooses to set the city of Gondolin against. The grandiosity of the city is captured by the perspective used, putting Tuor close and shadowed in the foreground, with Gondolin shining clear and bright like a beacon as the main focus. This juxtaposition serves to dwarf the mighty hero Tuor and magnify Gondolin.  Nasmith’s past experience in architecture lends itself to the detail, accuracy, and proportion of the white walls that climb the mount the city is built upon, as well as the golden tower-tops that jut up from it, and this is the image of the city in its full glory, before it falls to evil.

Tuor does not directly cause Gondlin destruction, but it was brought on by his arrival. He begins his journey in Vinyamar, donning newly found arms, and sets out to bear a message to the king, Turgon. Nasmith foreshadows this with his choice to place Tuor in the shadows of the surrounding mountains, as opposed to also putting him in the sunlight with the city (as he does in “Tuor at Vinyamar”). He begins his journey at Vinyamar with good intentions, but by the end he arrives at his destination and bring only darkness and evil.

Miles Davis, “On the Corner” (1972, Columbia Records)

Vote Miles

The year is 1972. Miles Davis is a few years into his “electric period,” in which he abandoned the traditional instrumentation and tones of jazz in favor of new technological elements. With his first three electric albums (“In A Silent Way,” (1969) “Bitches Brew,” (1970) and “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” (1971)), Miles successfully bridged the gap between jazz and rock, opening the gates for a new musical movement. Mile’s musical exploration presented on these three albums firmly divided (and still divides) his audience into two camps: those who felt they had been abandoned by Miles or who were jazz purists, and those who were ready to begin exploring a new frontier along with him. Mile’s fourth electric studio album, “On the Corner,” (1972) is more firmly rooted in the feel and groove of rock than its predecessors, though it still retains the experimental and exploratory elements of them.

Another common thread between these albums together is Mile’s collaboration with Teo Macero.  Macero had a long standing relationship with Miles as his producer at Columbia, even producing the prolific “Kind of Blue,” (1959) but with “In A Silent Way” his role became much more integral to the album and the music-making process as a whole. These first electric albums were recorded in a very loose and free manner, a recording session usually being a jam with little or no pre-determined direction, or direction being given on the spot by Miles. Macero took the raw recordings of these jams (along with a few overdubs) and pieced together the album from them during the editing process. Macero’s contributions further demonstrate how much Miles wanted to move on from the past with his electric work; he was breaking every convention of jazz he could, and using the studio as one means to that end. The recording process used on “On the Corner” is evident because the album has two main sections (these are split into individual tracks, but they flow continuously) that are each over 20 minutes, while the editing process is slightly less apparent and subtler. Macero skillfully plucks bits and fragments of melody and texture from the unedited jams and fits them together like a jigsaw puzzle to create something totally different, yet still related.

Teo Macero (left) with Miles Davis (right) outside of the Columbia studios. c. 1971

Each of the main sections (“On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles” and “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X”) has a groove between the bass and drums that remains consistent throughout the majority of the piece. While the dynamic, intensity, or color of this groove may fluctuate, it provides the heart beat of the music: a consistent pulse that feeds energy to the rest of the band and gives them room to play freely. The rest of the band takes advantage of this freedom, as they are able to focus more on creating textures than the harmony or playing licks.

The opening title track begins with an abrupt cut, slamming the listener into a jam that has been going on for an undetermined amount of time. The opening sets the tone for the rest of the album; it is in your face and doesn’t hold any punches. A soprano sax is heard in the distance and eventually it takes the forefront, along with the occasional single chirp from a synthesizer or an interjecting guitar riff. All of this sits on top of the continuous bass and drum groove with other percussion and rhythm guitars backing them up. It is as if someone went into a jungle or rainforest, recorded the natural environmental sounds, and somehow electrified and distorted them. The last track, “Mr. Freedom X,” exemplifies this natural element, but in a more literal way. The song opens with only various percussion instruments playing together in an inter-locking way, and this serves as one of the main components of the track. The way the drums interact and seem to communicate is reminiscent of African tribal music.

Track Sheet for "On the Corner" recording session on June 1, 1972. This session yielded what would become the first part of the first side.

“On the Corner” is a testament to Miles Davis’s ability to consistently reinvent himself and change with popular music so that he always remained relevant (even the album art is aimed at a younger audience with its cartoon style). A transformation that began with “In A Silent Way” is completed with “On the Corner,” and the final product is a unique blend of rhythmically driven groove based rock and post-bop jazz improvisation.

“The Thing” (1982, John Carpenter)

Within man exists an innate fear of the alien and the unknown. This fear is rooted in our instincts of self-preservation and propagation. John Carpenter’s “The Thing” tackles this fear and its consequences head-on, pitting man against alien in a completely desolate arena, where the only thing that matters is one’s will to survive.

“The Thing” is set in Antarctica on an American scientific research camp. The story begins with two Norwegians (from another camp) chasing and trying to kill a dog in a helicopter. They are unsuccessful, and instead chase it right into the American camp and inadvertently blow up their helicopter with thermite, leaving the Americans with no explanation of their violent behavior. As it is revealed later in the film, the dog is actually an alien capable of assimilating and imitating any other life form. As the Americans investigate the strange behavior of the late Norwegians, it leads them to discover the nature of their new (sometimes) four-legged friend, but by then it has already sown the seeds of destruction and paranoia throughout the camp and its team. The stage is set for Carpenter’s horrific drama to unfold.

The thing watches as the American team examines a burnt thing-corpse they found at the Norwegian camp.

One of the elements of “The Thing” that contributes most to its merit as a horror film is that it chooses carefully what information to give the viewer. There are many scenes that are purposefully ambiguous and left without explanation (and some of the action occurs off-screen), and the viewer is expected to draw their own conclusions from them. This is not a movie that will hold your hand along the way and make sure you understand what is going on.  Most of these scenes create tension and suspense because the viewer is not sure who has or hasn’t been infected by the thing, and the ambiguity provides many possible opportunities for the characters to be infected. Just like the Antarctic crew, the viewer must always be on their toes and vigilantly watching.

The Norris-thing's head after it has sprouted legs and eyes.

The visual effects used for the alien are another defining feature of “The Thing,” and without them the movie would not be as frightening. Groundbreaking for their time, the special effects and makeup by Rob Bottin separates “The Thing” from the typical sci-fi horror film. While they are fantastically grotesque, they still have an element of realism that only makes them even more terrifying. One of the more particularly disturbing effects is the Norris spider head. The thing has imitated Vance Norris (Charles Hallahan) and is revealing itself as the thing to the team. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the film’s hero, torches the alien with a flamethrower, but its head separates from its body, pulls itself away from the flames with an extended tendril-like tongue, and then sprouts legs and a pair of eye stalks as it tries to escape. While the thing can perfectly replicate and imitate humans, it is simultaneously an amorphous monstrosity within that can come out at any time. This duality is what makes it so terrifying and unsettling. Without realistic human-looking special effects, the terror of hiding in plain sight would not be as effective.

MacReady about to torch a thing with his trusty flamethrower.

While the alien is the cause of the paranoia among the crew, the backdrop against which it is set heightens this paranoia even more. The barren wasteland of Antarctica is the scariest place one could imagine for this story to take place. It is isolated from the rest of civilization, almost no life can survive there (one of the exceptions being the thing), and it seems as alien and foreign to us as the creature does. The American Antarctic team is literally the last line of defense that can stop this alien from infecting the rest of the planet, and with the little resources available to them because of their location they must rely solely on human ingenuity and tenacity (and a few flamethrowers and barrels of kerosene) to defeat the thing.

Those looking for a simple cut and dry horror flick should stay away from “The Thing,” as it may leave you confused, bored, and with a full barf bag. “The Thing” is for those who want to experience a confrontation with one of man’s worst fears, realized in a way that is disturbing when seen and even more disturbing after you’ve seen it, while the thoughts it creates rattle in your head keeping you awake at night.

Coltrane Review Redux

In the world of jazz the name John Coltrane is recognized by nearly everyone, and is surrounded by legend, myth, some mystery, and, most importantly, virtuosic and revolutionary music. The name John Coltrane, if you know his music, conjures up the sounds of continuous streams of notes (or “sheets of sound” as it is sometimes called) in the mind of the listener. On his recordings “Giant Steps,” “My Favorite Things,” and his solos on Miles Davis’ record “Kind of Blue”, this is a style that Coltrane implements frequently, and it is the sound that he is most known for today.

In the two years leading up to Ballads,” Coltrane’s releases on Impulse! (“Live! at the Village Vanguard” and “Coltrane”) were adventurous and had a mixed reception with critics. Coltrane strayed to some degree from his “sheets of sound” approach on these albums, and the music is much more free, open, and organic than it previously was. Some listeners had a hard time following what was going on because of the casting off of a more traditional structure, hence the amount of negative criticism it received.

In 1963 the release of “Ballads” was refreshing because it was a return to tradition for Coltrane, not only in his approach to soloing, but in the way the quartet approached the arrangement of the songs. There are no extended solo sections or long vamps like in “Live! at the Village Vanguard,” and most of the songs are no longer than four and half minutes. Harmonically, everything stays true to the original versions, and Coltrane respects all of the song’s original forms as well. The nature of the recording session may have been the cause of this, as there was little rehearsal, the arrangements were written hastily, and all but one of the tracks are first takes. The impromptu nature of the recording session lends to “Ballads” a nostalgic vibe that is reminiscent of older jazz records that were recorded in the same fashion.

As the title implies, all of the songs on “Ballads” are ballads. The slow tempo of the ballad gives Coltrane a chance to show off his ability to play beautiful melodic lines, while also at times implementing his “sheets of sound” approach. It is intriguing that while his playing on “Live! at the Village Vanguard” garnered so much negative feedback, it is just as melodic, if not more so, than his playing on “Ballads.”

While all of the tracks are ballads, there are some moments where there is a departure from that style, such as in “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”  The band (McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and of course Coltrane) opens with a chilling and dramatic rubato introduction, supported by the warm, bowed tones of Garrison’s bass and lush, full chords from Tyner. Coltrane plays the melody entirely through, interpreting it in a simple yet powerful way. At the start of his solo, there is a transition into a double time feel as Coltrane slowly lets his “sheets of sound” enter his solo, before abruptly slamming on the brakes and returning to the rubato feel similar to the intro to close the song. The duality that exists in this track is the reason “Ballads,” while being deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, is a progressive album. It is a marriage of the past and the present (in 1963) of jazz, one bookended by the other.

The best moment on “Ballads,” however, is the track close to the end, “It’s Easy to Remember (But So Hard To Forget).” It is also the shortest track, coming in at two minutes 49 seconds. Coltrane simply plays the melody accompanied by his rhythm section and there are no solos, which is unusual for a song on a jazz album. The beauty of this song doesn’t come from the virtuosity of the soloist, but from the interactions between the quartet and the intricacies of them. After having listened to this track many, many times, these very small moments will reveal themselves, and you realize how much can really happen in a three-minute song. The decision to forgo solos was a genius one on the part of the quartet, as it skillfully highlights these moments between them. Without any improvised solos, the listener instead can focus on other elements of the music and appreciate them as much as the skill of improvisation. Instead of a long, slowly evolving song like one that might be on Coltrane’s first live album, it is a short, densely packed one.

“Ballads” is an album that is great as an introduction to Coltrane for the inexperienced listener, but is also full of complexities that devoted fans of Coltrane can enjoy. While tamer in some aspects compared to his other works, “Ballads” shows Coltrane’s strong connection to the history and tradition of jazz, while showcasing his steps to expand and progress the genre as well.

John Coltrane Quartet, “Ballads” (1963, Impulse! Records)

In the world of jazz, the name John Coltrane is recognized by all, and is surrounded by legend, myth, some mystery, and, most importantly, virtuosic and revolutionary music. The name John Coltrane, if you know his music, conjures up the sounds of continuous streams of notes (or “sheets of sound” as it is sometimes called) in the mind of the listener. On recordings of his such as “Giant Steps,” “My Favorite Things,” and his solos on Miles Davis’ record “Kind of Blue”, this is a style that Coltrane implements frequently, and it came to be the sound that he was most known for.

In the two years leading up to Ballads,” Coltrane’s releases on Impulse! (“Live! at the Village Vanguard” and “Coltrane”) were adventurous and had a mixed reception with critics. Coltrane strays to some degree from his “sheets of sound” approach on these albums, and the music is much more free, open, and organic than it previously was. Some listeners had a hard time following what was going on because of the casting off of a more traditional structure, hence the amount of negative criticism it received.

“Ballads” is refreshing because it is a return to tradition for Coltrane, not only in his approach to soloing, but in the way the quartet approaches the arrangement of the songs. There are no extended solo sections or long vamps like in “Live! at the Village Vanguard”, and the songs are usually no more than four and half minutes. They also respect the harmonic progression of the compositions and do not stray from this original form. The nature of the recording session may have been the cause of this, as there was little rehearsal, the arrangements were written hastily, and all but one of the tracks are first takes. This process was common historically in jazz, where recording session were often impromptu, with little to no rehearsal time.

As the title implies, all of the songs on “Ballads” are ballads. The slow tempo that ballads have gives Coltrane a chance to show off his ability to play beautiful melodic lines, while also at times implementing his “sheets of sound” approach. It is intriguing that while his playing on “Live! at the Village Vanguard” garnered so much negative feedback, it is just as melodic, if not more so, than his playing on “Ballads.”

While all of the tracks are ballads, there are some moments where there is a departure from that style, such as in “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”  The band (McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and of course Coltrane) opens with a chilling and dramatic rubato introduction, supported by the warm, bowed tones of Garrison’s bass and lush, full chords from Tyner. Coltrane plays the melody entirely through, interpreting it in a simple yet powerful way. At the start of his solo, there is a transition into a double time feel as Coltrane slowly lets his “sheets of sound” enter his solo, before abruptly slamming on the brakes and returning to the rubato feel similar to the intro to close the song. The duality that exists in this track is why this album works. It is a marriage of the past and the present (in 1963) of jazz, one bookended by the other.

The best moment on “Ballads,” however, is the track close to the end, “It’s Easy to Remember (But So Hard To Forget).” It is also the shortest track, coming in at two minutes 49 seconds. There are no solos, it is just Coltrane playing the melody of the song, accompanied by his rhythm section. The beauty of this song doesn’t come from the virtuosity of the soloist, but it comes from the interactions between the quartet and the intricacies of them. After having listened to this track many, many times, these very small moments will reveal themselves, and you realize how much can really happen in a three-minute song. This was a genius decision on the part of the quartet, as it skillfully highlights these moments between them. Without any improvised solo, the listener instead can focus on other elements of the music and appreciate them as much as the skill of improvisation. Instead of a long, slowly evolving song like one that might be on Coltrane’s first live album, it is a short, densely packed one.

“Ballads” is an album that is great as an introduction to Coltrane for the inexperienced listener, but also is full of the complexities that devoted fans of Coltrane can enjoy. While tamer in some aspects compared to his other works, “Ballads” shows Coltrane’s strong connection to the history and tradition of jazz, while showcasing his steps to expand and progress the genre as well.