Saturday, October 13, 2012

Muse's The 2nd Law: A track-by-track review

I'm trying something new here: a track-by-track review of an album on a first (or close to first) listen. I've listened to the first five tracks a few times, but these are as close to my "first listen" thoughts as I can manage. I have been a fan of Muse for three albums now, since 2006's Black Holes and Revelations, and I'm quite familiar with all of their work. I've eagerly anticipated The 2nd Law - a perhaps overly reaching reference to the law of thermodynamics that deals with entropy, the tendency of all systems to head toward what essentially amounts to disorganization or chaos - for several years, and I thought it might be apropos to give my knee-jerk reactions to each track. I've given short thoughts on each track, as well as a quick one-word review: Excellent, Good, Neutral, Weak, or Bad. My thoughts on the whole album will be included at the end.

Supremacy: The album-opener sounds like Muse's attempt to write a Bond theme song (I have no evidence to back up if it actually is, but it definitely sounds like it.) It moves fluidly from jagged guitar work to piercing falsetto to trumpet-infused melody in classic Muse fashion. Excellent.

Madness: A very poppy track that relies on a solid musical underpinning with Bellamy's signature vocals. It has a great groove and funky sensibility, and it works really well. Excellent.

Panic Station: A poppy throwback to 80s pop-rock bands like Madness and Crowded House. I'm surprised to hear it this early in the album, as it seems like the kind of track that would often be buried somewhere in the "track 8-10" zone on an album. Then again, Muse has never been conventional. It's going to take time to figure out if it works, so for now it gets a neutral.

Prelude: A track that exists only insomuch as to serve as a musical introduction to "Survival". It features more of the classical sensibilities of the band, and it does work well as a lead-in to the lead single. Good.

Survival: This is the first true "Muse" track on the album. It's easy to hear their career trajectory from Absolution through Black Holes and Revelations to The Resistance on this song. I will admit that, although I appreciated the song when I heard it as part of the Olympics this summer, it did not fit that context. Here, it fits perfectly. Good.

Follow Me: A classic Muse love ballad that meets up with dubstep partway through. It's an interesting mix, and I think this might be the kind of song that really shines in other forms, whether it be concert acoustic or full dubstep dance remix. Good.

Animals: Calling back to earlier Muse albums, this flamenco-inspired track is another meditation on human morality. It moves into an interesting instrumental breakdown partway through, but then it seems to end suddenly; I'm sure it doesn't, but it felt like it did. I think it's the kind of track that will grow richer in subsequent listenings, but for now, it's just kind of there. Neutral.

Explorers: Another stripped-down ballad (at least at first) in the vein of "Invincible" from BHR that feels like classic Muse. It's actually a lullaby, which makes at least two songs on this album that seem to be influenced by the band's children (the other being "Follow Me"). All three are playing to their strengths here, and they produce a solid track that will translate well into their arena tour. Good.

Big Freeze: Another 80s pop-throwback tune, "Big Freeze" is arguably one of Muse's most poppy songs ever, as it sounds like it could accompany the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie. It seems like a step in the right direction for Muse, and the layering of instrumentation works within the pop context. Good.

Save Me: Easily the track that is least recognizable as Muse, as bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes over lead vocals for the iconic Matt Bellamy. It lacks a lot of the bombast that accompanies the rest of the album, but I think that's a good thing. It's a gentle track, and it works. Good.

Liquid State: And we're back to the kind of driving prog-rock for which Muse has become famous. Wolstenholme takes lead vocals again, but I think this song would have been better served by Bellamy's falsetto and being placed earlier on the album. It feels like this track could have used a few more revisions, and it seems like the weakest track on the album. Weak.

The 2nd Law: Unsustainable: The promised payoff of the "concept" of the album finally comes with a track that begins symphonically before progressing further into dubstep before finding a way to weave Muse's now-typical orchestral layering with a techno-dance sampling. I wonder if this might have been better as a beginning track of the album, with its partnering titular track serving as an ending track. Good.

The 2nd Law: Isolated System: More layering with dubstep, but this time with a more introspective piano-driven melody. It's more of a dénouement for the rest of the album than its own track, but it works. Neutral, at worst.

Overall thoughts: Well, I was pleasantly surprised, as there was only one track that seemed weak ("Liquid State"), and even that was not too bad. The rest of the album is solid, and I think it will get better with subsequent listens in different contexts (Muse always seems to sound better in my car). I'm not sure that the theme of the album really hits as much as they might have thought it would, but I do appreciate the level of craft involved with having a definitive theme and identity for each album. The 2nd Law is a solid effort as Muse has begun to move more into pop and dubstep, and it works as a progression from their past albums. It is more introspective, which is a necessary move after the extreme braggadocio of The Resistance. The album is a must-buy for Muse fans, and it serves just as strong an introduction to the band as any of their past albums. Muse has carved out their niche, and they do it well - now I would just love to see them in concert.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On church membership: Part 1

It was on Thanksgiving Sunday a decade ago that I felt like the idea of church membership actually started to mean something to me. It was the first time that I had actually chosen my community and that I had made a decision to step into membership. I don't think I have ever shared my story as a whole, so I thought it might be time to do so. I have tried to be sensitive to different churches in not naming them here, since I do not want to assert any negative ideas about any of them or project assumptions on their character. This is my journey through church membership over the past fifteen years, and each of these communities has been integral in that journey. I have learned from each experience, and I do not regret or dismiss any of them. With that caveat in mind, here goes.
I grew up in a Mennonite Brethren church that grew significantly in numbers as I got older; by the time I left at age 17, it had grown from a small community church (of which I had little memory) to a large community over 600 people and two services each Sunday. I was entrenched in the church from having attended there throughout my childhood, but I was not really connected there. I was involved in the drama team, even writing and directing several skits on Sunday mornings, and tangentially involved in the youth group, but I'm not sure I ever really felt like I fit in that community for various reasons: when I was young, there were no boys my age; when I was in junior high, all of my peers were really immature; and when I was in senior high, most of the kids who attended our youth group were skateboarders - not exactly my scene. I connected most with the twenty-somethings, as well as in another youth group in the city which included friends with whom I shared interests. So it was "my church", but not really "my" church. Here's the funny thing: I went back only once to my home church after I moved away, and that was on a youth night with a friend who was still in Grade 12 at the time; I felt entirely out of place and spent most of the evening visiting with the youth leaders. It wasn't that I disagreed with the church's theology, or that I was bitter with the way I was treated at that church; I just didn't have any remaining connection to the church.
I had decided to get baptized shortly before my 16th birthday, and I realized afterward that as a result I was automatically accepted as a member of the church. I know that I did not understand what it meant to be a member of a church at the time, or even that there were many ways of engaging as a member. As far as I knew, I was part of the church, as I had been my entire life, but I didn't really make any changes after becoming a member. Our church offered spiritual development classes which followed a baseball metaphor (I still can't believe that they talked about "getting to second base" from the pulpit without giggling), and even though I took a class on growth and membership and I understood more than most of my peers did, I'm not sure that I could have actually grasped what membership meant at that age. I actually stayed a member there for two years after I left, but then I was put in the special section of the church phone book for "members in absentia" or something like that. The weird thing was that only two people - one of whom was my youth pastor - ever followed up on me after I moved away, and those were both within my first few months on my own. I wasn't disappointed or embittered, though I did find it interesting that being a member did not make it any my absence any more or less meaningful.
When I moved away to a different city for university, I found a similarly large church that I attended for several years. I never became a member, partially due to the transient nature of my existence as a student, and partially due to being unsure about some of the doctrines and practices of that church. I almost left that church several times, but I ended up staying because of some of the friends I made there, because of my place in ministry at the university (there was a lot of overlap), and because I needed to be there to sort through some of my thoughts about that church. I left as well as I could (I felt), and I was glad that I had a home church to go to. See, while I was away at school attending a larger church, I began to connect with a church in my hometown that was a "plant" from the church I had attended throughout my youth. It was smaller community - about one hundred people, rather than 600 or 700 - and it was dynamic, exciting, and fresh. My mom had gone with the church plant, and my dad had started going to church there, so it seemed like a good place to start connecting - and I did! I connected with the pastor there immediately, I made some strong friends, and after attending there around a dozen times (over the course of two summers and the intervening holidays during the school year, I decided to become a member there. Technically, I was "transferring" my membership within the denomination, but there was something new about what I was doing that had not been there before. I chose my new community, and admittedly, they chose to take a risk on me. They knew my family, but they barely knew me other than popping in every couple of months or so, but the pastor brought me in anyway. I was 19 when I was accepted into membership there, and church membership meant something to me for the first time. I had already decided that I was going to move back to my hometown after that year of school to take the Education program there, so I only had to be away for a year.
I moved back and immediately found a place within that church. I was part of a "care group" (the terminology there for small groups) that included some newlywed friends and five couples who were well established in their marriages and families and church leadership and a precocious 19-year-old. It was a great experience for that year, and although at times I had to work hard to moderate myself in that context, I appreciated the richness of that group and the community. Then, at the end of that year, two of those couples moved away, and things changed. The group was different, and I struggled to stay there much longer; I left only a couple of months into the following year, though now I realize that I should not have. The new leadership of the church started tweaking things a bit, and there were more politics than before. I stepped into a nominal leadership role with young adults, but I soon found myself burning out, as I was still in leadership in ministry at university and trying to manage a very long-distance engagement. I tried to engage as a member, but I found myself often rebuffed where I had been embraced before. Halfway through that school year, I found myself realizing that I was not in sync with the church, and it seemed like they were going a different direction than I was. I remember the coffee I had with the pastor when I shared my realization with him and how he implored me to stick around just a little longer for his sake. I agreed, but I had reservations; I did not feel like I could fully be a member with how the church was moving. He died unexpectedly from a fast and sudden cancer eight months later.
I had a new problem now: I did not feel like a member there, but I did not feel like I could leave in the aftermath of the pastor's death. I stuck around half-heartedly for that school year, engaging only tangentially with the church, feeling a general disenfranchisement with my membership, as did a number of my peers at the church. In the meantime, I had some friends who were also working through their places in their respective churches; we sought each other out and banded together in an attempt to work through our issues with our churches and North American Evangelicalism in general. We called it "Ecclesia Semper Reformanda" - "the church always reforming" - and it was much more organic than it was organized (and not nearly as pretentious as it sounds). We worked through our issues on a weekly basis for the year in what essentially amounted to our primary faith community; wost of us were all connected, at least on paper, to a church, but our churches did not meet our needs. Many of those relationships are still significant to me today, and ESR got me through most of that year. By the time April rolled around, I knew that I needed to leave membership at my church for good. I did not know where I was going to, but I knew I could not stay there. I did not know if I would ever return to church membership, or even if I agreed with the idea of church membership, but I knew that I needed to take a risk and be freed from whatever I thought it might have been. I needed time to recalibrate and rethink this whole idea of "church membership" and what it really meant to me, so I took it and did not look back.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story, coming up in Part 2!

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Yesterday's Enterprise

25 years ago, the history of the future changed with the airing of "Encounter at Farpoint", the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm sure a lot of nerds have written about this momentous shift(Brian Phillips from Grantland among them), and I'm not sure how much commentary there is to add to the volumes written, so I'm going to attempt to engage in the dialogue in a more personal manner, rather than trying to examine broad tropes or themes.
It's almost hard to believe that until 1987, Trekkies only had Kirk, Spock and Bones and the original crew to enjoy, considering how universal characters like Picard, Data, and Worf have become. In fact, it's hard to imagine science fiction as an episodic entity at all without the influence of TNG. There's something about the way that TNG "engaged" its audience (pun intended) that made it one of the last science fiction programs that had a wider appeal and entered the mass pop culture consciousness. Their influence was strong enough that they were featured in four movies, and that there were an additional three television shows commissioned as a result of the success of TNG, which was anything but guaranteed when it premiered. Who knows where Star Trek would be without TNG?
I started watching TNG when I was about eight or nine years old. It became a ritual for me and my dad to watch TNG on Friday nights at 10 pm. We would make a bowl of popcorn at around 9:45 and make our way downstairs to the den, where he would take several minutes to get the VHS set up to record. My dad still has every episode on VHS with all of the commercials removed, mostly in order of presentation. Once the show had made it through the teaser, opening credits, and the episode's title had graced the screen, I could sit in "the curl" (what my dad would call the space behind his legs as they formed a sideways vee on the couch) and enjoy the show. I think I started watching at the beginning of the fifth season; I am not sure which was the first episode I actually watched - I think it might have been "Redemption Part 2", the season five premiere, but I have fond memories of watching tapes of season 4, including "Remember Me", which may have contributed to my childhood crush on Dr. Crusher. For the next three years, I was there every Friday night, watching with my dad, as the adventures became more ethically nebulous. I collected cards, pogs, and figurines, most of which I still have. It engaged my intellect in a way that few science-fiction shows have since, and in a way that Star Wars never could. (I remember being dumbfounded by Lucas' dialogue and characters even at age 10.) Although I know the plot of almost every episode of The Original Series, I have not watched many full episodes, and I did not watch any of the subsequent iterations of Star Trek (DS9, Voyager, or Enterprise); I'm not sure why, but I think it was because I felt like I had what I needed from TNG.
My wife and I have recently started watching through the series from the beginning, and I have been surprised at how many early episodes I had not seen in full, and how little I had missed them. Watching Season 1, in particular, is more a test of endurance than of entertainment; there are some standout episodes ("Conspiracy" in particular), but the bulk of the season is spent figuring out the characters and major ideas. Tasha Yar's death marked a significant improvement for the series, and Season 2 provides a marked improvement in quality and character development, including actually having one constant Chief Engineer (I think I counted six or seven in Season 1). We are now partway into Season 3, 54 episodes into the series, and I'm excited to start getting to episodes that are in my actual memory (as opposed to episodes that I know because I read the plots or had the cards). I'm glad Star Trek: The Next Generation was a personal cultural touchstone for me, and I'm glad that it has (mostly) held up 25 years later. I know I will not get to see any new voyages from that crew, but I can always go back to the voyages of yesterday's Enterprise.

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