Tag Archives: herbert

Man Your Own Jackhammers

Over the years I’ve had to explain the appeal of Yes, Rush and Phish to various music fans, not always from the stance of an apologist but usually in answer to “Why do you listen to that?” When I mention Coheed and Cambria, add in “Who are they?”

The answers flow freely from a mix of outstanding musicianship, intense live performances, creative composition that breaks out of the 1-2-3-4 rock box, and a near Talmudic scholar depth to lyrical interpretation. To be fair, it took me about three months to truly appreciate Coheed and Cambria’s catalog, having found a seat on the fence (sorry) just as their fifth and subject-of-debate album, “Year of the Black Rainbow” was released. Coheed’s canon (first five, and first seven if you count the pre-prequel “Afterman” albums) convey a Herbert-detail level space opera with killer viruses, intergalactic despots, robots, love, betrayal, redemption, and battle. Set it all to insanely complex composition and that’s Coheed in a nutshell.

Disassemble it a bit and you’ll find traces of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books, “Star Wars,” Greg Bear, Robert Heinlein, and La Boheme. Were I to teach a college course in operatic sci-fi, the background reading would be John Scalzi’s “Redshirts” (ref: The Writing Writer in Good Apollo), Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio” (ref: Monstar virus and a visceral background for “The Broken”), Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” (ref: trust and relationships, the Jesse character in the Amory Wars), Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” (ref: recycled personalities in times of crisis, Coheed and Cambria themselves), and Frank Herbert’s original “Dune” (ref: loyalty, fealty, assassination under duress — Dr Uwe in Dune, the creation of the Monstar virus and eventually “Pearl of the Stars”). When I hear the “Man your own jackhammers” chorus of “In Keeping Secrets,” my mind goes to the Fremen/House Harkonnen battle in “Dune”, where the desert army reclaims their stronghold with primitive yet functional weapons.

It’s that chorus, the quintessential bit of obscure lyricism coupled with outrageous riff, that captures why I love Coheed and Cambria: seeing them live. You will never find a more intense and informed group of fans who are equally rocking out yet respectful of their fellow concert goers. Despite being packed three thousand deep on the floor of Terminal 5, there was absolutely no bad behavior – no elbows, no shoving, no copious quantities of spilled beer or anything else gnarly – just lots of what Claudio Sanchez called “Coheed karaoke.” When you look slightly left, catch the eye of someone 30 years your junior whose first thought is likely “What’s the old guy doing here” followed by “Oh, he knows the song” and you both go back to belting out the chorus, you’re inflated by the same feeling as seeing a touchdown in the Super Bowl or a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. These are your unnamed yet contextually well known friends, the world’s best seat mates for the few hour journey that stimulates whatever deep visual, aural and olfactory memories you associate with the music.

Each Coheed show is slightly different; each solo, each interpretation, each choice of when to let the audience sing or to lead from the front of stage. At the break between the “album part” of the show and the encores, front man Claudio Sanchez offered two sincere explanations – first, that the entire band was sick (you wouldn’t know from the previous 90 minutes of music, another testament to their work ethic and musicianship) and second, that the voice of the little girl on “Good Apollo” was his (then) three year old niece, at a time when he was far from fatherhood himself. Ten years later, his niece was on the stage side, enjoying the show, Claudio talked about life on the road and missing his own son, and the show resonated with any number of us in any number of new ways. This is the future of music: outstanding performance and authentic presence.

Hannu Rajaniemi’s “The Fractal Prince”

Warning: mild spoiler alert, but nothing that will reveal the actual quantum of goodness that is Rajaniemi’s second novel in the Jean LeFlambeur series.

I read the first book – “The Quantum Thief” – based on Rajaniemi’s nomination for a “Best New Author” award. The accolades heaped on that book barely dent the surface of its sequel. Each of his books introduces hard scientific and computer sciences concepts that are central to the story, just far-fetched enough to be difficult to imagine today but fair extrapolations of current scenarios. Whether it is the intense, multi-layered privacy of gevulot in “The Quantum Thief” that makes Downtown Abbey appear medieval in social complexity or the seals that reduce to nano scale firewalls, Rajaniemi starts with a just-creepy-enough foundation. The mark of a great book, for me, is if I find myself still mulling on its themes weeks after reaching the last page.

Three weeks, later, I’m still thinking about this one. He explores what it means to be human, not on a moral or physiological scale, but on a physical one. Are we primarily quantum or classical physics creatures? Do we give ourselves to the many-worlds or the open-ended possibilities of quantum physics, or the strictly procedural and well-known classical model? The dialectic is that of two views of science and faith, but with the roles reversed such that faith rides on the horse of harder science. “Fractal Prince” also convolves genres better than Robert Moog’s ring modulator: it’s Ocean’s Eleven and Charles Stross-deep sci-fi crossed with Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” and a noise injection from Frank Herbert’s Dune (axoltl and ghola indirect references) and Antoine de Saint Exuperay’s Little Prince to produces a “what really makes us human” opera.

The storytelling is fast paced and magnificent, and even if the first hundred pages are tough going until you grok the invented vernacular. Rajaniemi uses grammar and even punctuation to wonderful effect – changing a proper name to a lower-cased noun to differentiate a thing and copies of the thing, a self-referential Xerox and xerox copy. Layers upon layers of the story themselves form a set of quantum waves that collapse to your delight as you reach the conclusion. I just pre-ordered the third book in the trilogy, eager to see what LeFlambeur steals from — or gives to — this time.