We Have Come From the Night
234 · 22 July 99
Gamma Ray: Power Plant
The last time I bought a computer, in late 1993, I opted to save money by getting only the components for which I had identifiable needs. I got what was then the fastest available processor, as much RAM as I thought I would actually use, a decent (but not extravagant) monitor, and precious little else. That computer lasted five years in my house, and has since moved on to a pastoral retirement at my parents' disconcertingly well-populated Home for Our Children's Outdated Technology. Five years is an enviable tour of duty, and speaks in favor of just-enough as a buying policy, but it was too easy to forget, there in my last days with the old machine, all the good times, and too easy to focus on its wheezy, encroaching senility. So last winter, when I bought this new one (my third, fourth or fifth, depending on whether you count the PCjr with which I got through college (probably), and the TI-99/4A on which I learned to write incomprehensible video games (probably not)), I sprung for any enhancement to which I couldn't formulate a moral objection. The machine was still state-of-the-art as much as a month after I got it, but by now, seven months later, the only part of it that retains any particular novelty is the lovely flat-panel monitor, which is less a matter of technical foresight on my part than lingering popular ignorance about how cheap they've gotten. All the same, the machine is bigger and faster than any of the three computers on my desk at work, and I'm pretty sure that the upper half of the memory chips haven't felt the touch of a spark since assembly. The tasks I give it are far below its capacities in concept, and only the monumental inefficiency of the software I use for routine work makes them any more challenging in execution. Most of the time the machine just sits there, patiently waiting for ten minutes to have gone by, so it can indulge itself in the momentary amusement of checking again to see if anybody has written me to complain that the Ben Folds song I said was in 3/4 is really just in swing eighths. Computers are either grandly stoic or extremely lazy, and don't tend to gripe about under-utilization, but I felt guilty that I didn't have any chores worthy of the device's continuous attention. All those circuits, idling, and no data to feed them. I did write a little prime-number finder, but absent a coherent rationale for what I was going to do with several million prime numbers, asking the machine to take on their generation as a life-work seemed pretty egregiously patronizing.
This sounds like facetious geek self-indulgence, I know. Cars cost more than computers, and nobody feels guilty about the time theirs spends parked. But a couple years ago, a Berkeley computer-science grad-student named David Gedye realized that not only were there lots of computers like mine sitting around doing nothing, and being fretted over for this reason, but increasing numbers of them were doing nothing while connected to the internet. That's a lot of idle processing power at one end of the internet, and Gedye happened to know of an enormous amount of data at the other end, pouring in from the Arecibo radio-telescope in Puerto Rico, as part of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, an ongoing research program to scan distant stars for the kind of faint but purposeful signal that might indicate the presence of an alien civilization. The inspired syntheses of these two predicaments is SETI@home, a networked screen-saver that starts up when nothing has happened on your personal computer for a few minutes, downloads a batch of transmission data from Berkeley, grinds it up looking for patterns, and when it's done trades in its results for a new batch. As I write, the project has been running for just over two months, and already nearly a million machines have convinced their owners to volunteer their time, and this sprawling, curious meta-computer has logged more than thirty thousand years of processing time. My home computer appears to be enjoying itself immensely. Somehow my computers at work found out about this, and demanded to be included, so now nights, weekends, meetings, lunches and the tedious interludes during which we humans sit staring at one or another of the screens waiting to be struck by Insight, my officemate David and I have nine machines, between us, all happily whiling away their time looking for messages from outer space. The four registered in my name have spent about a month of processing time working through four dozen batches of data. We haven't spotted the blueprints for any gyro-teleport towers yet, but it's slow work, and there's still a lot of hum that nobody has listened to.
The idea that your humble personal computer could be participating in Big Science, and SETI in particular, is likely either totally meaningless to you, or self-evidently awe-inspiring. Either you look up at the night sky and see a poorly-painted ceiling, or else you look up and can scarcely bear to think about how many cool places there are out there that we've never seen, and how pathetically, and precariously, we cower here on the one obscure whirling rock where we happened to grow up. Admittedly, the most likely conclusion to SETI@home's planned two-year run is a bit of self-congratulation for the logistics of distributed computing, and no messages from aliens. The sky is big, and Arecibo only scans a narrow band of it. If there are creatures in its traverse, they're a long way away, and we don't know if they're talking, and we're not sure we even know how to listen yet. But finding an intelligent alien race would probably be the most profound event in humanity's experience since our first ancestor stood up, so a few people persist, trying to ignore the stupendous myopia of everyone who mutters "We need to solve our problems here before we worry about outer space" (believing, presumably, that sinking boats in storms are best repaired from within them, under full sail), or "God created man, and only man, in his image" (and then hung a gargantuan, tantalizing universe over our heads just to piss us off?), or "Why not just wait until they get here?" (because that's what their idiots are asking, too). Objecting is insanely petty. A million computers chewing makes an impressive sloshing noise, but all they were doing before was making toast fly. Here's a random calibration of our priorities: the $100,000 grant that is supposed to fuel SETI@home for two years is enough to pay 49ers wide-receiver Terrell Owens to play football for just under twenty game-clock minutes of one game of one season of his seven-year contract. Last weekend this country collectively spent $100,000 for every forty-five seconds of a movie about a giant crocodile biting the heads off of sheriff's deputies. Or, perhaps more aptly, for every minute and fifty seconds of a movie about a nostril-less puppet discovering that he is an intelligent alien.
SETI is not trivial. I suspect it's one of the least trivial things on the planet, at the moment. Part of the reason some people have trouble understanding that, unfortunately, is the chain of associations that runs from SETI to aliens to movie aliens to movie "science fiction" to the kind of people that stood in line for days to see Star Wars. The Star Wars zealots are plainly deranged, therefore the entire enterprise is deranged. The flaw in this logic, somewhat obviously, is that Star Wars has nothing whatsoever to do with science. It is not science fiction, it isn't even technology fiction, it is costume opera accessorized at Radio Shack. The Matrix is a comic book and Muppets From Space (I was surprised to discover, although perhaps I shouldn't have been) is about hippies. Real science fiction, by which I mean stories that explore the plausible implications of real science, exists almost solely in books, frequently long and complicated books, books that the people who resent the time somebody else spends on SETI are certainly not going to spend their own hours reading. But if all it takes to get a project as clever as SETI@home running is $100,000, then the best tactic may be to forget about trying to get funding from the government and assume that if there are a million people with computers and internet hookups who believe that SETI is worthwhile, some of them just think that Fast Fourier Transforms look cool, but some of them understand, and statistically one of those should be becoming an IPO millionaire any minute now. I think the great secret is that those of us who care can now (or soon) afford to pay for these projects ourselves. I hereby pledge that if the software company I work for goes public and I become a millionaire, the next $100,000 SETI project is on me. The search for alien intelligence is better off conducted in obscurity, anyway. As long as we don't need the opponents for anything, we might as well encourage their misconceptions; it keeps them out of our way.
Playing loud, garish heavy metal whenever they come around will also help. Metal's juvenile, pseudo-science iconography comes from the very much the same escapist palette as Star Wars. The cover of this Gamma Ray album is archetypically ludicrous, with extra moons, spaceships shaped like pyramids, some sort of metal-clad demon clambering out of a portal to deep space, ranks of Van de Graaff generators shaped like Anubis, and a lot of labyrinthine insignias that I'm guessing are products of the illogical assumption that aliens who are mysterious to us are also mysterious to each other, or else they're all Freemasons. Of the eleven songs on this album, only two of them do not revolve around night skies, celestial voids and related darknesses out of which one can emerge, but in every case the blackness is metaphorical, a constricting force instead of a beckoning way, and not even "Anywhere in the Galaxy" really bothers to look up and understand that the sky does not exist to reflect the darkness of our own souls. The general intellectual level is rarely any higher than "Heavy Metal Universe"'s doltishly recursive "With a burning hot desire / Like a supersonic blast, / We have come to show the world / That we have come to last". The music, not different in any important way I can spot from the first Gamma Ray album ten years ago, expends a dizzying profusion of notes without dispelling the pervasive aura of bombastic simplemindedness, and a daunting amount of arena-scale shrieking without ever sounding productively upset. Kai Hansen and Dirk Schlächter may be peripherally conscious of the developments in metal since the mid-Eighties, but they don't let any of them intrude while they're working. Power Plant not only shares half its name with Iron Maiden's 1984 album Powerslave, but the same artist painted both covers, using nearly identical grammar and perspective, and the songs on the two records sound virtually interchangeable to me.
Of course, I liked Powerslave, and although in 1984 I didn't have that much to measure it against, by 1990 I was old enough to know better, and still put Iron Maiden's No Prayer for the Dying on my top-ten list. Heavy metal is a visceral distraction for me, like a roller coaster. It imparts sensations, but they don't mean anything, and don't have to. In fact, I think I keep liking heavy metal, even after Star Wars has started to seriously offend me and I've long since quit enjoying roller coasters, because I can imagine that Gamma Ray understand their place. George Lucas thinks he's creating mythology; Gamma Ray know that they're just playing very quickly, and pounding melodies into your skull with the subtlety of a pecking roc. Their music is extremely intricate, but not at all complex, more or less the opposite of SETI, and thus a perfect smokescreen.
Or nearly perfect, anyway. The one detail of Power Plant that I stop, unexpectedly, and puzzle over, is the album's sole cover, a deadpan metal rendition of the Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin", complete with sixteenth-note kick-drum rumble, squealing guitar solos and angelic backing-choirs. What the point of this is, I haven't the slightest idea. Megadeth's version of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK", Anacrusis' cover of New Model Army's "I Love the World", Celtic Frost's ritual disembowelment of Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" and Skyclad's slashing revision of Kevin Rowland's "Come On Eileen" all had obvious novelty appeal, but if I didn't know the Pet Shop Boys' original, and didn't read the credits, I don't think I'd have any reason to think this wasn't just another Gamma Ray song. I wonder how many of Gamma Ray's fans won't hear anything amiss. Given the traditional antipathy between Euro-metal and Euro-disco, especially over implied sexual preference, I wonder how pleased they'd be to discover the song's origins later. Intriguing. The band might be more self-aware than I've been giving them credit for.
Angra: Angels Cry
Angra, a sticker on one of these records helpfully contends, is South America's premier metal band. I'm sure there are lots of other metal bands on the continent, and perhaps several with their own designs on "premier", but the only other one I'm familiar with is Sepultura, who I don't particularly like, so the title seems reasonable enough, however insignificant. Angels Cry originally came out in 1994, and why we had to wait until this year for a domestic issue I can't imagine, as the band sings in clear and generally unaccented English, and most of this record sounds like the album Queensrÿche might have made after Empire if they'd stuck more closely to their progressive principles, modulating them towards accessibility only by incorporating a few traces of Gamma Ray's histrionic glossiness and fondness for quasi-classical excess (results, probably, of Angra having recorded this album at Kai Hansen's studio in Hamburg, with Hansen, Schlächter and Gamma Ray drummer Thomas Nack all dropping by for cameos). At seventeen I would have preferred Gamma Ray's florid, irrepressible silliness, and at thirty-two I can still put myself into a para-teenage fugue-state and mostly reconstruct my old naïve receptivity to heavy metal with the courage to live out its stereotypes, but it gets more difficult every year. Angra's version of heavy metal, more literate and sophisticated than the Gamma Ray-Iron Maiden axis, still uses too many of metal's tropes (churning rhythm guitar, rococo solo runs, battering drums, vocals leaping from growl to shriek, etc.) to sway anti-metal audiences, but the songwriting is supple, the performances emotive without being overblown, and if the lyrics don't accomplish that much more than Gamma Ray's, at least they appear to get this far without straining as hard. The brief symphonic intro, "Unfinished Allegro", seems to regard Pärt, Beethoven and Swan Lake as interchangeable, which won't win Angra any conservatory residencies, but as one-minute excursions into neo-classical composition by heavy metal bands go, I think it's among the more convincing. Twittering showoff-songbird keyboards enrich the galloping "Carry On", and help the breakneck guitar solos feel like parts of the song's development instead of gratuitous interjections. "Time" is hardly the first metal song to jump from acoustic balladry to martial stomp in the middle, and both the song's dynamics and some of its guitars remind me of Queensrÿche's "Walk in the Shadows", but Angra veer towards compassionate anthem where Queensrÿche turned sinister, and I think they do a commendable job of channeling aggression into the song instead of letting it take over. "Angels Cry" sprints without flailing, "Stand Away" conjures strings and choirs, and the epic, spellbinding "Never Understand" invokes a spiraling folk melody around which Andre Matos winds a surprisingly graceful lead vocal. "Streets of Tomorrow" is menacing and inexorable, and "Evil Warning" sounds a bit like an excerpt from the heavy-metal remake of Fiddler on the Roof, but "Lasting Child", the conclusion (not counting the alternate versions of "Evil Warning", "Angels Cry" and "Carry On" included as bonus tracks), builds on muted piano as if the other instruments are drawn involuntarily to its presence.
And if Gamma Ray's cover of "It's a Sin" hinted at an otherwise undetectable slyness, the cover here, a reverent setting of Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights", suggests that Angra have a wider perspective on the position of metal in the style-universe than most metal bands. Matos switches into an adroit and fearless falsetto to take on Kate's fluttering melody, and the band restricts their meddling to an expansion of expressive range, pushing Kate's already-cathartic choruses further into grandeur. Heavy metal is often wearyingly insular, Gamma Ray and Helloween and their ilk usually behaving as if neither space nor time ever extend very far past the ends of their guitars, so it's encouraging, I think, to find a metal band that not only is aware of other styles, but even has theories about where they and metal intersect.
Angra: Holy Land
The follow-up, Holy Land, released at home in 1996 but also just trucked up here in quantity by Century Media, finds common borders with even more styles. The intro this time, "Crossing", is a Palestrina motet over natural ambience. "Nothing to Say" is relatively conventional metal, but "Silence and Distance" moves from a legato opening that could almost fit on the Titanic soundtrack to a spiky stomp closer to echolyn or Magellan. The ten-and-a-half-minute centerpiece, "Carolina IV", recruits flute, viola and crashing Latin and orchestral percussion. "Holy Land" weaves in acoustic bass and some Japanese instrument samples, and although the metal crescendos do arrive, the lattice frames around them are unapologetically gossamer, and the coda is a pan-ethnic groove that wouldn't sound too miscast on a Juluka record. "The Shaman" is macabre and evasive, with a long field-recording in the middle of it, but the languid "Make Believe" opens with piano, acoustic guitar, organ whir and a rustling snare, and never wholly sheds their jazzy composure. "Z.I.T.O." returns to melodic speed-metal and prog-rock architecture, but "Deep Blue" has a minute of hymn at the beginning and a liturgical choir in the middle, and the finale, "Lullaby for Lucifer", Matos accompanied only by acoustic guitar and ocean noises, is actually what it says it is, a bedtime song to console a fragile, insecure, powerless Evil.
Rather than continuing the band's expansion, though, 1998's Fireworks, recorded in London with veteran metal producer Chris Tsangarides, opts to reconsolidate their energy, and while there are still scattered quiet moments (a tambourine rustling behind the Fripp-ish guitar cycles at the beginning of "Petrified Eyes", sighing strings and eerie synth-chimes in the middle of "Paradise", some bongos and mock-sitar laced through "Gentle Change"), there's not much genre crossover, and little invention of any sort, the vast majority of the record grinding away at a comparatively blunt variant of half-epic thrash. I heard this one first, and was excited enough by it to rush back out and buy the other two records, but now that I've heard them all, this one no longer seems as charming. It's as if the trilogy has been told out of order: Fireworks sounds to me like the most primitive and unformed of the three records, by far, less the culmination of the other two than their prehistory. I don't think the studio relocation and change of producer for this album are coincidental; Angra's musical field of vision appears to have narrowed once they left Gamma Ray's sphere of influence. Ironic, I might have said, but maybe I underestimate.
Leaping almost halfway around the globe, on the theory that all places far from here are fundamentally alike, we find Finnish ex-crypto-metalists Amorphis, who are undergoing a weird bipolar metamorphosis of their own. On one hand, this is the first album for which they've written lyrics from scratch, rather than adapting them from Finnish mythology, and the first one on which guttural founding vocalist Tohi Koivusaari is credited only with rhythm guitar (and although it turns out that he does croak most of "Greed", his absence from the other songs is more notable). On the other hand, Tuonela is the Finnish underworld, and the original lyrics here are relentlessly bleak, even measured against the grim fables adapted for Tales From the Thousand Lakes and Elegy. And although Santeri Kallio fills in, in a few places, for departed keyboardist Kim Rantala, Kallio isn't credited as a band member, and his contributions are correspondingly minor. Sakari Kukko plays flute on one song, and sax on two others, but otherwise the album is just guitars, bass, drums and voice. I'm starting to believe that reversion to hard rock is the natural decay-pattern of a metal band. Vocals shift into the mid-range, the kick drums get thinned out, the guitars start going through one cycle per measure instead of twelve, and before you know it you sound like Aerosmith. Amorphis are only just starting to show symptoms, and a few songs, like the sparkling, moaning "The Way", the sitar-lined rant "Greed", the ominous "Divinity", and the slow, roaring "Summer's End" seem essentially unscathed, but the Hammond on "Morning Star" could be Deep Purple, "Tuonela" falls somewhere between Black Sabbath and Alice in Chains, "Withered"'s guitars flirt with funk and "Rusty Moon" reminds me of Jethro Tull. As with Power Plant, all but two of these songs are based on the primitive equation of night with evil and day with good. In the centuries since the Kalevala, though, I think the balance has slowly reversed itself. We have floodlit the world, so it wouldn't scare us any more, and certainly many truths are phototropic, but the nimble truths, the ones resourceful enough to elude us, have retreated into the few remaining pockets of darkness, including the one straight up. Days are too well understood, too constrained, bleached too pale for spells. We peer out at the stars, and into caves and atoms and each other's eyes, in search of dark territory still malleable, still magic, not yet so micro-determined that the big questions have become unaskable.