No More Lifeless Horror


[Spoiler alert: this post reveals the ending of Oculus and The Shining – though you really should have seen that one by now]

The last time everyone in my immediate family was in town we all sat down to watch a horror movie. My family loves a good scary movie. We live in an old wooden Victorian home that seeps at the seams with the creaks and rustles that build tension in ghost stories. Fear has a fun and almost playful dimension to it in a good movie. But sometimes horror gets too hung up on fear and forgets itself. Horror movies often ignore the hallmark of a good story in favor of some cheap thrills. So many mediocre horror films butcher their own themes to manufacture fear and end up lifeless because of it.

Trying to think up a good horror film to watch, I recommended Oculus. It is a very well put together film with solid acting and camera work, but it was ultimately mediocre. “It has a pretty bad ending.” I’d say, but it was more than that. It was a potentially great movie that chose to be mediocre.

In the shiny new horror title Oculus, a pretty standard scary movie plays out with an interesting psychological twist. Two siblings pit themselves against a satanic mirror that essentially killed their parents. The sister leads the charge and eventually recruits the reluctant brother who mostly wants to move on. The novelty of the movie comes from the way the mirror twists the reality around the siblings until they have to find cues and create signs of sanity to avoid getting destroyed by it. Bone piercing dread slips into what would otherwise be another dull battle with demonic forces. It isn’t a perfect movie, with some twists and reality bending moments feeling fairly predictable and some standard horror overacting.

The two siblings standing next to the possessed mirror. Photo courtesy of a review of Oculus from the film focused blog The Movie Guys.  https://jordanandeddie.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/halloween-film-review-oculus-2013/
The two siblings standing next to the possessed mirror. Photo courtesy of a review of Oculus from the film focused blog The Movie Guys.

However its biggest failure is not in cinematography or acting, but the mismanaging of a great theme. Like any good scary movie protagonists, the hubris of the two siblings lead them into trouble. They assume they can handle the mirror. Obviously they can’t. The movie plays out with perfect pace and little problem as the mirror brings back the trauma it inflicted on their childhood. In the final moments Oculus shatters its own momentum and dismantles motifs just to keep the audience on edge.

In the last thirty minutes of the movie the siblings uncover repressed memories of the reality behind the death of their parents. Possessed by the mirror, their father kills their mother and turns on them. With almost no chance of survival and the end nearing the kids cower near the mirror. In one tiny act of defiance the dad turns the gun to himself – against the will of the mirror – and shoots. His body smacks the corner of the mirror and gives it the only blemish it ever had in its centuries long history.

What builds is a human theme that a sense of love creates reality; that this familial, human love is the only thing that could fight back against an inhuman, monstrous force. Even if it is just a scratch, it is the only injury on an otherwise indomitable force of dread. This theme gives real meat to an otherwise just well executed fear fest. In the end love renews sanity and brings clarity in madness. The message is incredibly hokey, maybe even gauche, but simultaneously timeless and sympathetic.

When the ending arrives and Oculus promptly picks up the theme like a prized vase it just made and smashes it against the wall to draw some shock from the viewer. The mirror lures the brother into murdering the sister by distorting reality so he can’t see where she’s standing. He ends up carted off to an insane asylum screaming about how the mirror did it, and it goes back on auction presumably to claim another victim. Where was the love the film painstakingly built up to? Where did the lucidity of family go? The end of the film drowned it out after explicitly telling the audience that it was the only thing that could not be drowned out. The end of the film weakened it as a form of resistance after explicitly showing it as the only thing that could fight back against the mirror.

Out of fear that the audience won’t feel afraid, Oculus contrives an awful ending that betrays its own themes in the ultimate low-risk horror move of killing off all but one lone, knowing character to clear way for a sequel. This is what’s truly gauche about horror. This is the turn off. Nothing horrifies mediocre horror more than sincerity to a theme. Without a theme any story becomes directionless and hollow. Unfortunately horror movies often ignore themes and motifs to pound fear into the viewer, but this just cheapens the genre to what many people complain it is now: lifeless, heartless, corporate creations with rehashed stories.

Horror should hit home. Horror should stick with you in good endings and bad for the way that it drives at a point – just like any other type of story. It takes the courage to stick to a theme and deliver on it to actually hit home. Instead, horror chickens out. It gets scared of commitment and the cold feet scary movies have to their own themes turn anything memorable in them to something immature and fleeting. The problem does not end with Oculus. The dilemma extends to movies like Sinister – that also forces a bad ending on the audience likely to pave the way for its recently announced sequel – and so many others that have a glimmer of greatness and settle for the alright.

Jack's insanity memorialized. Taken from this blog post./a=href>
Jack’s insanity memorialized. Taken from this blog post.

Thematically well made horror is not an impossible dream either and The Shining shows this by endlessly building on themes of interior versus exterior and pure delusion. The Shining ends with the father of the family, Jack, alone and frozen in a maze, a smile plastered on his face. Overlook Hotel seems fine on the outside, but it is a malevolent place trapped in a terrible time. Engulfed by the hotel, Jack takes on its character so completely that his smiling façade belies a twisted interior, all of which is frozen in place. The end of the movie completes Jack’s delusion by directly putting him inside an old, black and white photo of the bar he saw in his insanity. The themes of façade versus interior and delusion to even the time period play out in simultaneous perfection at the end of The Shining. If The Shining were made with an ending like Oculus’s Jack would butcher his family and snap out of it as the cops wheeled him away. It would feel cheap and it would lead to a sequel that would feel even cheaper.

Modern horror with a completely bad ending can also capitalize on themes to create a more memorable experience. Let the Right One In – an austere vampire flick – thrives off of soul-sucking loneliness that every frame of the cold, empty Scandinavian scenery compliments. The trials of a lonely boy with an ever working mother provide the basis of a sense of solitude that does not end until the curtain call. Let the Right One In paints a dreadful, ageless child vampire that hides behind an aging and dying thrall. With every moment the white as snow vampire girl further seduces the lonely boy. Her warmth to him radiates amidst his cruel classmates, absent mother, and the snowy Swedish landscape all around. The contrast of the vampire’s simple warmth to the boy’s cold life stirred up my stomach for a week. Through themes Let the Right One In creates a vampire that is simultaneously frigid beyond belief and the warmest thing in a boy’s whole world. I slept fine after the movie’s end, but I never forgot it. Stills of the film stick to the lining of my subconscious like paintings in a museum. The tremendous use of solitude had captured me.

The lonely boy sits bundled and guarded next to the vampire, who is warm even in the cold. Taken from the film's trailer.
The lonely boy sits bundled and guarded next to the vampire, who is warm even in the cold. Taken from the film’s trailer.

Films like The Shining and Let the Right One In make me want to return in earnest to horror. Yet each time I want to embrace the genre it rejects the sincerity of its own messages and motifs so suddenly and purposelessly that I have to deny the genre. I have to refuse it for something bolder. I have to find genres that have the guts and gore to say something real at the cost of pulling back on some emotional punches.

I am not calling for the end of all modern scary movies. I really want to love horror. Nor am I lobbying that all horror must be fine art. Slashers can deliver on themes too, and I don’t want to live in a world without them. Rather, I want to rally against what makes horror lifeless: the way it murders its own messages, motifs, and themes.

Melodic Mongolian Folk Metal


Metal’s made a name for itself representing the heyday of Norse raiders but the genre’s heavy riffing love goes above and beyond Scandinavia. If your culture has a violent voice buried deep in its past or present, some entrepreneurial metal heads will exhume it up and slap it into an album. Results vary in terms of quality. Recently an excellent subgenre has popped up from the sparse grassroots of the East Asian steppes. Welcome to the fold Mongolian Folk Metal.

Mongolia’s rich roots of conquest and epic raiding of sedentary societies makes it an amazing target for Metal’s Asian storytellers. Pair the slams of a double bass drum and the aggression of snarling guitars with a loud vocalist and you have a method prime to tell stories of plunder and societies torn asunder. It’s no wonder that Metal made its way to Mongolia!

If you want a good glimpse into the novel subgenre, then look first to Ego Fall, Seven Treasures, and Tengger Cavalry. These bands all come from China’s Inner Mongolia province. It aptly raises some eyebrows that the big names in Mongolian Metal come from China. It is hard to tell how big a touching point is it to the musicians. Does talk of appropriation abound, or is that a creative crisis unique to western art? The bands that have a presence outside the strange sheltered Chinese internet stress their Mongolian origin. Tengger Cavalry even speaks up about the things they see battering traditional Mongolian culture in China.

Tengger Cavalry politics

Accepting Mongolian heritage does not negate a Chinese aspect either. For the state and many people living in it, to be Chinese only means to be a citizen of China. One can be Han Chinese (the ethnic majority) or Mongolian Chinese or Tibetan Chinese. The Chinese state includes all ethnicities into one Chinese “family.” In a way America does the same with all its unlikely immigrants. America tries to bind with the hot water of a melting pot and China tries to bind with the blood of kinship. In the end the resident, immigrant, and artist chooses whether to accept that stamp of nationality, put heritage above it, or settle down in the middle ground between the two extremes.

Ego Fall is probably the most identifiably Han Chinese band among the trio, with songs full of Mandarin vocals. However, they still build their sound around Mongolian folk music and metal more than anything else. Ego Fall stands tall as the elder statesmen of this budding subgenre, having played the longest and produced the most of any of the three bands.

Pinning down Ego Fall’s sound in one category is a tough task. Some songs like “Legend,” and many others off their album Inner M constantly employ Mongolian traits such as the recognizable overtone throat singing as well as the incredibly bouncy twang of the horse-head fiddle. “The Horn Starts” also features whole verses of Mongolian throat singing matched with heavy guitar riffs.

In Spirit of Mongolia Ego Fall buck the folk trend and root themselves more firmly in heavy metal territory, with deep screeching vocals and damn near heavy everything. Songs like “The Rule in Troubled Times” create an odd take on a traditional folksy style of beat by recreating it with synthesizers. Other songs like “Iron Horseshoe” break from metal to return to Mongolian folk styling paired up electronically to sound a lot like hard rock.

Ego Fall keeps things interesting between every song by making it hard to guess what they’ll do next. That wildness can also make it harder to fall in love with the band due to some of its stranger shifts. If they settle into a groove you love, you’ll never know how long they’ll stay there. Furthermore, electric guitars dominate Ego Fall’s instrumentation, so when the folksy Mongolian elements fall out their music sounds a bit stale.

Nine Treasures sticks to a more consistent style and sometimes sounds more parts hard rock than metal. The singer fluctuates between rhythmic talking and deep throat singing, but never losing grip of his characteristic low, growling vocals. Like Ego Fall, Nine Treasures relies a lot on strings, but more those of folk instruments than guitars. “Sonsii” demonstrates how Nine Treasures songs play a bit like ACDC style rock anthems with lots of rising and falling action set to simple but powerful melodies. While their style can sometimes want for more, they do a great job of making songs that fit the image of hordes of horsemen galloping across endless grassy plains and incorporating folk instruments in a way that makes the Mongolian folk element more than a quick gimmick.

If Ego Fall sits like a great khan on this genre, then Tengger Cavalry is the true challenger rising up to take the kingdom. Tengger Cavalry formed in 2010 and has since hit the studio hard. The band instantly opened with an EP, then in 2011 produced their first full album, signed with an international label in 2012 to get the album out to western audiences, and then made two more albums by 2014. Their newest album came storming in less than a month ago.

Led by a man named Nature Ganganbaigal (Tianran Zhang), this band of all Mongolian artists does not have a weak song. Each album takes on a different sound that still stays identifiably Tengger. Folk instruments ride wild side by side super heavy pulsating double bass drum beats and distorted guitars.

Songs like “Hymn of The Wolf” and “Hero” blend in Mongolian elements so well that you could have sworn Metal was meant to have them. Other songs like “Legend On Horseback” rely much more on the folk elements. The violent reverb of electronic distortion becomes scenic background noise to the folk instruments, until the guitar solos take the song back over. “The Wolf Ritual” pits the stretched and sonorous sounds of traditional strings against the choppy and heavy blare of electric guitar. Old and new battle it out in a duel of string solos that evolves throughout the song until both styles blend seamlessly together for the finale.

In every song, Tengger’s exceptional mixing puts the band over the edge. Ganganbaigal worked extensively as a soundtrack composer, and his ability shows in the way he mixes the sounds of each song. The folk instruments never get drowned out, but they never sound artificially loud. For such a young act Tengger’s almost unbelievable sound quality sets a bar for Metal as a whole. Every note resonates. What’s more, they release albums almost annually and just put out their newest work Blood Sacrifice Shaman, which measures up easily with the rest of Tengger Cavalry’s discography.

For those inclined to the clean and craftily composed, ride into battle with Tengger’s curated sound ringing through your ears. If you love anthem rock, ally with Nine Treasures. For those obsessed with the distortive elements of Metal, follow the Ego Fall horde. If you can, check out all three! One day they may stand as legends in an even more fleshed out subgenre. In some distant dawn, these sweeping steppe melodies may run over the rest of the world! Tengger Cavalry has already taken the first step with international releases and lighthearted social media pages.

tengger-cavalry-cuties

~Austin R Ryan

P.S. – If you are interested in hearing more Mongolian music with excellent mixing and sound, see Nature Ganganbaigal’s recently made label, Khulug Music. If you are interested in learning about all sorts of excellent music check out WVAU – the site that originally published this piece and many better ones!

Tibet: Kumbum Monastery Part 2


At last we entered the final area, a little square enclosed by different buildings. Each one was somewhat squat, no more than one or two stories tall, with grey shingles. Everything looked almost stylized to the imagination of an Eastern temple. Out there in the cold near all the monks in red, it all felt very real regardless. The monks eyed us and we them, standing as strangers barred by language from a straight connection. Even if we had the tongue to tie our two groups together it would have been an entirely higher level of courage to break the ice. It was nothing particular about Tibetan monks. In the majority of temples we went to the monks did their own thing and let everyone else do theirs.

The tour guide told us to sheath our cameras at this point. In a certain area we could take pictures of monks, buildings, whatever else. Inside buildings and deeper within the monastery, they disallowed photography. I felt somewhat glad for it. Pictures help with capturing and keeping a moment but not necessarily for enjoying it. It is a tricky tradeoff where I remember less of what I could not take a camera to, but absorbed more of it at the time. At this point we entered the Grand Golden Tile Hall. Here and in the Potala Palace we got cut off from our cameras and it made the dimly light and sublimely colored Tibetan tapestries come alive.

You can see the gold tiles of the hall we would soon enter.
You can see the gold tiles of the hall we would soon enter.

The bright and glaring sunlight made its exit and only gentle lamplight wore on our eyes now. The intricacy of the tapestries and the cloth covering the hallways was so intense that it felt overwhelming to try and take it all in at once. All the complex interweaving patterns created a sense of what the world’s cosmological phenomenon might look like. Pockets of well-organized tomes stood not far off either, sparking off endless thoughts on what they contained. Wild parts of my mind flirted with ill formed ideas of tantric secrets, but it was more likely the scrolls contained sutras and religious history.

Eventually we came to the large golden statue of Tsongkhapa himself, the man whose spiritual deeds sparked such grandeur. The golden statue itself was beautiful and awe inspiring in its own right, but the atmosphere meant everything here. A church inspires with ceilings that stretch on endlessly high, and cavernous expanses allowing all a seat. Kumbum felt small, but personal. The hallways were spacious enough, but crowded with so many banners and colors showered in dark light that in some way it felt packed and expansive at the same time. In this area we saw more monks and visitors giving offerings and sitting before the statue of Tsongkhapa. The holiness of the area radiated in a way I can only imagine Notre Dame or the Sistine Chapel or the Hagia Sophia might.

A dear friend I had made on the trip remarked to me how incredible the experience felt to him. He called it one of the most intense experiences he had. I had to agree, and felt good doing so since I heavily pumped up Kumbum to him while we explored Xining. I try to keep a healthy balance between cynicism and romanticism, to not to get swept up into breaking things down into nothing or building them up so they become everything.

Never forget to look up!
Never forget to look up!

Yet, Kumbum deserved respect and absolutely should radiate holiness and awe even by objective standards. Kumbum is one of the oldest religious institutions in Tibet and second in importance only to Lhasa. It should inspire in the way Notre Dame might. Centuries of tribute and donation from a mostly poor peoples, centuries of elite support, centuries of a good section of many people’s resources funneled into this site.

The result was sublime. As we loaded back on the bus, I felt enlightened by an understanding of how so many people could give so much of what little they had to a venture that never paid them back materially. Grandeur and awe incite such a flood of emotions that they become a payment all their own. As I reflect, it is not so unlike the sky scraping buildings of New York or the terrifying obelisk we dedicate to George Washington.

Nation means nothing on its own, and neither does Capitalism, but seeing all that steel and all that marble help me admonish these ideas. The abstraction springs to life in form of the finest construction people can manage. Incredible skylines remind us of how far we have come. Named after businesses, they make remarks on what might have got us there, or at least paid for the construction. Marble monuments that seat Lincoln like Zeus in a hallowed hall solidifies America into a material realm. In Tibet the grandeur of golden Tsongkhapa does not seem so different, bringing to life an abstract idea of this man become sacred symbol.

The thought makes me feel so close to so many far places but so grounded in my home. I could understand the motives and sentiments of almost any monument, but the true meaning is different. My fingers might grasp at the meaning of monuments, but I wondered how much I could ever close in on it without living in the society that made them. I still wonder if I can only properly feel the full cultural pull of the National Mall.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tibet: Visting Kumbum Monastery Part 1


Before boarding the train to Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region proper, we had to see Kumbum Monastery. Kumbum provided the first real glimpse into the traditional Tibetan culture and religion that all of us had heard so much about.

Few places matter more to the Yellow Hat or Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism than Kumbum Monastery. Voices in media often speak of Tibet as one entity held tight by one faith. The reality has a few more grits to sort through. Tibet once had heavier pagan or shamanistic beliefs but these seriously started to lose prominence when one of Tibet’s great dynastic kings, Songtsen Ghampo took over. Songtsen was no small talent, quickly taking control of much of the Tibetan plateau and patronizing the region’s early Buddhism. Eventually he would even rout the forces of the Tang Dynasty.

Later on the Bon faith would arise in contrast of Buddhism, though it could never get quite as hard a hold. Tibetan Buddhists themselves could not quite agree on everything and splintered into several sects that rose and fall. The Dalai Lamas and the Gelug School now iconic across all the world started up in the 14th century with Tsongkhapa and a small town outside Xining that would become Kumbum Monastery.

Standing outside Kumbum
Standing outside Kumbum

Our bus wheeled up to the outer wall of Kumbum early in the day, just as it opened. We had all layered up but the cold winter morning could cut through any number of layers. The whole place was quiet except for us shivering and chattering. For a while everyone just stood outside, waiting for a signal from our guide to head in.

An eager salesman with a plucky grin spotted us. He had the reigns of a shaggy white pony in his hands and offered rides for anyone willing to pay. None of us were much pliable to the offer, though. As tourists we likely disappointed, not buying from the stands of handcrafted goods outside or opting in on pony rides. Most of us were saving up for Lhasa, a place bubbling with commerce and worship.

Doing business
Doing business

Aside from our group Kumbum did not have so wide an audience this early in the morning. A Tibetan woman and her kid came walking in with us and there were a few other folks scattered about. I do not doubt that, come a little later time, the place would get a bit more active. Still, Kumbum was a monastery slightly removed from the really big population center, so it may never have had so many worshipers as monks.

The sparseness of the monastery added to it anyways, at least for a visitor from far off. Generic holiness as I knew it always had this idea of solitude surrounding it. Generic holiness shows itself in form of a person alone in a church atoning, like in the movies. Yet if there was anything that the Yonghegong monastery in Beijing and my sometimes unstable routine of bible study taught me, it’s that faith and religion come alive when people come together underneath it. The people make the faith as much faith makes the people. That dialogue with an idea of something holy or unworldly good was always what gripped me.

Two people headed in to the monastery
Two people headed in to the monastery

Still, Kumbum easily shined through the biting morning cold and everything else that kept attendance away did not mean much. The monastery gradually wove upward into the side of slightly sloping mountain. The sharp red, gold and greens burst to life in the sunlight and from that moment I could feel myself romanticizing everything. I fought against that urge. I love the romantic but it can really run against you if you really want to grip something.

Red arches welcomed us into the monastic compound. Our long linger in the cold came to an end with a row of white stupas topped with colorful spirals at their tops and intricate colored patterns at the bottom. Each stupa represented a different part of the Buddha, Shakyamuni’s life and teachings. The sun shined down and the tour guide led us further in. First we visited a few rooms on the outside of the complex, shrines to various religious figures. We could not take pictures inside and unfortunately my memory cannot hold all the specific images. Still, the colors in all the temples, the deep reds and oranges stitched into so much incredible quilt work, and the glimmering gold of mighty statues has not left me. Rather, the colors just bleed into a mess of mixed images that won’t separate for all my pulling at them.

neatly lined up stupas
neatly lined up stupas
A closer look at the stupas
A closer look at the stupas

We walked through the thick and brilliantly colored cloth that covered the thresholds of some of the shrines and dropped small donations as we went. Sometimes we got shawls in payment for a donation. They feel thin to the hand and would not combat the cold, but they have beautiful color and decoration. They came with a meaning too, red for passion and love, orange for prosperity, and so on. Even with the meaning attached the shawls reminded me that I was as strange as a person could be to this place, separated by layers of culture thicker than a thousand of these shawls.

The tour guide showed us complex statues made from Yak butter, and important offer given to Tibetan temples and monasteries, before we walked off the beaten path to somewhere deeper in. Along the route we ran across some monks making their way into the main complex where we would soon be. They worse Nikes and eagerly eyed their smart phones.

So much color!
So much color!

It might seem a sharp contrast, but Buddhism and Capitalism do not often clash so much. Even before capitalism ever came about, any religious order needed money and resource to stay alive. Often those resources had to come from the surrounding towns, the monks and abbots too busy with holy scripture, prayer or meditation to manage all on their own. So monks in many places lived as a privileged class funded through heavy donation.

My father never pushed Buddhism very hard on any of us, but he had demystified it for me. Buddha does not wipe away the little terrors people feel. Even monks stay human, eating human food, finding human shelter, at least until the accounts say they burst into clouds of lotus flowers. Like any religion Buddhism could coexist alongside anything from something as small as smartphones or as sinister as fanatical violence. I was glad to see monks in Nike’s as another reminder to not fetishize faith.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The View From a Train to Tibet, Part Two


When the morning came and I woke up I got right back to my task of trying to write down the scenery. At the time I think I hoped that the brief project would help me understand how to describe complex sights in an understandable way. Now, feeling I may not get a chance to go back and see the same sights, I hope it worked like taking notes in class, each word helping me remember a mountain carried away from my memory by time and space.

The mountains on one side take on a reddish hue. The wide grassy plains look torn from the American West. On the other side bits of shredded white glaze the stony grey or dark yellow mountainsides. Sometimes we pass a truly impressive peak far out in the distance. The huge, awe inspiring peaks strike out from the ground like a massive white tooth. I could see the peak clearly, except for where a veil of clouds covered it. It seemed straight out of a fantasy book.

Power lines trace our progress, sometimes skating alongside the train. No one seems to live beneath us. On the Tibetan plateau near the railroad, the houses sit in isolation. Each one is wide apart from another with herds of livestock between the next home. Sometimes a village comes along full of squatting, single level houses fenced in by short brick walls. Each house looks modest and brown, some have been painted splotchy white.

For a brief moment we reached a high point where I could see a lot of what we passed. Where the mountains swooped down and reached their base formed up great dips and clefts. The light and smooth grassy slopes encircled the mountains. Far off I can see even more clearly the land of pure white peaks that tower above us even still. They form up in a wide range, the white of their peaks pushing toward the white of the clouds. Though today there’s nearly no clouds across the sweeping blue sky.

Not a cloud in the sky to block out the light!
Not a cloud in the sky to block out the light!

The sun beams down on a set of small white houses. The houses sit atop a hill lording over a flat area where a bunch of shaggy yaks graze. On the other side not so far away is a huge grey industrial park full of black bricked factories or warehouses. A dusty fog accrues around the streets surrounding the industry. The mountains rise up behind the park, obscured by a lingering film of smoke. The smoke sits stout and low over the factories, allowing me to only catch the white tips of the distant mountains, gleaming beneath the sunlight all but unfettered by clouds.

The park was at a station we arrived in for a moment. A crowd of people line up at a small shed, maybe to get a ticket to board.

On the side away from the park the sky glows the brightest shade of blue I have ever seen. The park looks empty, but it is still very early in the morning. Only a couple hours have passed since sunrise. I was only half awake to catch the early morning hours. What morning scenery I do remember was beautiful.

A slight crest of light crept over the edge of the mountains. A rim of casual, almost dull light ran across the top outlines of the mountain range until it gradually started to tumble down the slope and illuminate everything else.

Apologies for the odd tilt!
Sunlight’s tint over red mountains

When I woke up fully the sun had risen fully with me. I beheld so many frozen lakes and rivers. Thin layers of icy frost covered some streams entirely. In other areas the sparkling white ice crusted at spots around the shore. The lakes and rivers stretched for a while, some with a darker blue haze of ice over them. They all glinted in the daylight.

Now we leave the station and the factory. The eerie industrial mists contrasted the incredible clarity of the streams and the sky.

Large red mountains miles off in the distance look over great grassland. Little black dots mark out some sort of grazing animal, maybe yaks or goats. Small brown and white houses dot the plains as well. Far beyond the red slopes and grassy flatland, another epic icy peak pierces up toward the sky. Even though it is so distant it sticks out so clearly. A truck runs along an empty road. Gradually a thin trickle of car traffic populates some few roads crisscrossing plains.

The train pulled in close to a small bunch of houses. Most have a nice white sheen of paint on them, though some are brown. None have two stories, but they are longer than I had thought looking at them from a distance. Some rooftops have solar panels on them, and most have a rope decorated with multi-colored triangular flags that leads from the roof to the ground. One area had two small clusters of houses, one with about five and the other about ten. A frozen lake sat dead between them. The houses all had the multi-colored flags, some ropes of them linking one house to another. I also caught sight of some hefty tents and practical motorcycles and mopeds too.

An example of the flags on the bigger buildings in Lhasa
An example of the flags on the bigger buildings in Lhasa

The train leads us near a swathe of behemoths, the icy peaked mountains I saw before only in the very far distance. They are mostly blanketed in snow, the but the grey of their rocky sides show in some places and yellow green grass grows in some flat areas along their base. Even though we are close to the mountain ranges, it is mostly grassy right around the train.

All across the land water floods and freezes over in little divots and streams. Less people live beneath these large white peaks. Still, I saw a large spacious looking town of at least twenty houses beside the flat land running next to the train. When I looked hard enough I caught another pretty large town close to the foot of a mountain. The snow around these villages flakes off before the glow of the sun so that even the village near the mountain has a sea of dry, yellow grass around them.

Some houses seem dirty, somewhat shabby and rundown. The white sheen of these houses cracks and muddies, the multi-colored flags are dulled by stains. Others have a cleaner, fresher veneer, with the white of the paint and the colors of the flags marking their houses brightly out beneath the shining sun. Most houses have at least one motorcycle, maybe as an automated way to stay mobile and keep track of pastoral animals, if not just to cross vast distances like anyone else would. The kinds of motorcycles they have are plenty popular in China’s dense, sprawling cityscapes.

I saw some Yaks up close as well. They look kind of goofy, like big shaky, shaggy masses of messy fur loafing around. They seemed like a cross between a St Bernard and a cow. A Tibetan herded them along, dressed in a dark blue shawl with grey scarves. What looked like a white dog ran next to him or her, helping manage the herd.

Not quite the same site as the sun peaking over the mountains, but its close.
Everything seems a little endless from up so high

I had trouble keeping an eye on the houses and plains since the mountains to both sides of me caught my eye the most. The soft red slopes returned and out of them erupted the sharp, craggy brilliance of those snowy peaks that reflected the sun’s rays. They stretched and stretched until they filled the whole horizon to the brim. The snow caps on top looked so picturesque. One ran like the edge of a serrated sword, curving until it formed a semicircular ring atop a mountain.

Not a shred of air separated the image from my eye. The contrast between that and smoggy Beijing was striking. But the air here seems clear compared to the States too.

It ends abruptly there. If I had my eyes set on putting these little accounts online when I started writing them, I may have written a more satisfying conclusion. The whole trip to Tibet still sticks out distinctly in my memory. Maybe later I will drag my recollections back out into the air and collage them into another article. It could do me good to get some words down before time stretches them even further from the little things they once described.

Looking back at what I focused on, I think I betrayed my own background more than Tibet’s. Growing up in the flat American Midwest, mountains have always impressed me. Seeing something natural go up that high is just plain unusual where I came from. The mixture of snow and grass, cold and less cold, was just as novel to me. Most of all, after spending near all of my life living in cities I have always liked looking out on long rides and seeing some of the countryside.

When I wrote for my journal I was just a step away from glorifying it all over the steel jungles I have come to love and call my own. As lovely as the view to Tibet was, my image could never be honest to it. The literal high points of the landscape probably stuck out too much, as did all the things I made of its rustic nature. Cities wear you down after a while with all their bustle and no cities I had yet seen had the bustle of Beijing. After my tour through the endless modern oddities that are Chinese cities I perhaps saw too much of what I really wanted in Tibet: a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Great Twerk Debate


I’ve got a new pleasure, and it’s not guilty. The metal band Mastodon’s music video for their new song, “Motherload”, started a great twerk debate, and I am in love with all of it.

Mastodon became a bit of a progressive metal staple by loading albums full of stories often fantastical and deeply personal. Their recent music video for their song “Motherload” shattered any expectation. Mastodon managed to fuse classic esoteric 90’s music videos with pure, raw twerk. It is a bizarre video with an even more bizarre debate around it.

To summarize, the video is full to the brim with odd images of vaguely pagan rituals. The first forty seconds or so start the whole thing off like it was any average Metal music video. Strange robed men with pale skin slowly carry an old bell. The screen pans over to scantily clad women from just off-screen start full on booty clapping. Black veined and half naked men stand completely still. In front of them, the twerking continues in slow motion. The camera catches every ripple of flesh as they connect to form a wave of continuous movement.

Everything happens with little connection to everything else. The weird Metal imagery and the twerking never connect, one just happens in front of the other. By the end, the video cuts in between shots of the band playing and the women dancing. There’s even a part where one of the dancers twerks so hard that the video falls into a psychedelic kaleidoscope of spiraling booty shaking. Unlike in other music videos the dancers do not exist to affirm the band’s collective virility. The dancers and the band perform separately, but in the same area. It really is confusing.

Mastodon only just joined the ass obsession, but Metal fans are going to war over the band’s new move. The Youtube comments are the battleground. Some old hardliners insist that Metal is better than this! Mastodon besmirches the age old art of blazing guitar solos and double bass-drum beats with their bouncing butt bloated music video.

The progressive metal vanguards enter, fighting for Mastodon’s metal citizenship. Some of Mastodon’s defenders tell the fuddy duddies on the other side to relax, while others cover for Mastodon with satire. The serious metal band that made stories of astral projecting Vikings must be commenting on modern, sexist pop and rap music.

Outsiders come in to scold some metal fans for feeding into the genre’s negative image. Some people are just there to have fun. They get mad that so many people miss out on genuinely impressive music paired with genuinely impressive dancing just to argue with strangers on the internet. The controversy goes past comments and into commentary.

The Guardian published an article, decrying the video as sexist and immature. The author calls it a step backward for a genre that had since grew out of its chauvinist roots. A feminist outlet, Slutist, admonished the piece for putting the dancers and their control of their bodies and sexuality on front stage.

mastodon twerk article group pic
Picture courtesy of Revolver Magazine

One of the dancers came forward and explained how Mastodon selected local dancers from all walks of life to perform and have fun. She lauded the band for their behavior in doing something unheard of, and the way they centered the video on dancers from the Atlanta community, a community that long supported Mastodon.

The band’s singer/drummer Brann Dailor chimed in in an interview with Pitchfork. He explained that the band knew how serious they could be. They use quirky, offbeat music videos to do something to lighten up their heavy catalog.

Mastodon started off wanting to make a semi-satirical homage to classic 90’s metal music videos. They intended to satirize metal, not rap. They just needed something to knock the video over the edge into the absurd. A sexual dance battle did the trick probably better than Dailor anticipated.

Dailor even addressed the Guardian article. “I’m really upset!” he said candidly, “[…] this was really a fun thing that doesn’t really mean too much. It’s not to be taken so seriously. ” Dailor only enriched the discussion. He did not try to end the issue by defending the video as satire on mainstream sexism, or something meant to be straight sexy or empowering. Instead he asked his listeners to take the band’s silliness seriously.

What the hell? Are you telling me to take Metal lightly? Heavy is in the name, pal! Am I supposed to just consume your media without thinking seriously about it, Mastodon? What a ridiculous request.

Speaking sincerely, Mastodon did something awesome by starting a conversation that captures so many different stances of sex, society, twerking, Metal and media all at once. The band fused two contrasting things, and ended up unearthing so many more contradictions. I have no idea who is in the right, or what it means for music. But a heavy band’s light look at local dancers stirred up a lot of people, and that should be absurd enough for anyone to appreciate! Bring on the swirl of psychedelic booty!

~Austin R Ryan

The Importance of Being Metal


A friend and I started to talk on music. We talked on the beauty behind new genres we found. Talks of new music led to old. We came back to a common heritage, a genre we loved and never forgot: Metal.

What was the reward in the furious grapple of gravelly voice burned hard over a rhythm beat in the double bass of a built up drum kit? How did guitar distorted rougher than ocean waves and racing bass beats do to endear anyone to metal? Metal held something to us that avant-garde indie oddities, post-rock empty swelling melodies, and sweet soft folk serenades never did. Buried beneath harsh beat on harsh beat was sincerity.

What is the importance of being Metal? What does a genre that cannot reach coffee shops, elevators, or common rooms clutch tight to sustain itself? This inglorious genre does not garner half the fame and money as most of its friends and contemporaries.

Yet, – like a musical Zeus – it mates and pro-creates sound on sound so often that an onslaught of bastard sub-genre progeny come clan on clan to offer homage to the blood of Mother Metal. That coagulated blood begat Mastodon’s erratic prog rock crock full of half-baked stoner storylines. Those furious fingered guitarists, overcompensating instrumentalists, beat life into the heart of Boris’s gargantuan wall of sound. The sludge and mud of Metal’s greasy thick stereos formed hard into Iron Maiden. The furnace of lyrics bloated with battle shaped Metallica.

Check out the Map of Metal if you have not already!
(Taken from the fantastic Map of Metal website)

Metal’s family tree has grown so wide you’d think they were Irish-Catholic denying prophylactics. The roots and branches broke into ice cold Nordic lands, tapping deep into Viking lore. Branches touched Japan’s peaks, crawled a place into China’s ancient scrawled history, and pushes ever onward. All of the woodwork comes back to bear on the stump they came from, to bicker. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most Metal of them all?

Sincerity was what gave Metal that special spark. Earnest love for the deep sludge, the battered rhythms, and the battle-born lyrics made it all possible. More than that, it made Metal exceptional. How a songs sounds will come down to the ear of the beholder. Believing in the value of those subjective sounds means a lot in any genre. But for me, nothing goes beyond glory so hard as Metal.

Indie rock styles – fueled by Arcade Fires – go to NPR. Pop anthems populate the VMA’s, with Rap and Country earning awards at their own shoes. Hipster heartlands buy out tickets to Broken Bells and St Vincent. In recent years one of Metal’s big breaks was a documentary on the once popular but quickly obscured band Anvil. Anvil’s picture of unrequited love to a not-so-friendly audience played out a lot of scenes. But Anvil’s poor popularity meant nothing in the face of their earnest efforts, and that earned them their return to fame.

(Anvil the band, courtesy of their website)
(Anvil the band, courtesy of their website)

Metal’s prize possession is that sincerity in all that does. Metal is the band trying to make it big off obscure reference to wordy fantasy unworthy of literary snobbery. Metal is the group of poorly maintained people staking their lives to speak on orcs and emotions. Metal is not the fusion jazz group earning accolades. Metal is not the careless Punk band beating social statements out of the streets of Brooklyn. Metal probably cares too much, and in a time where folks have gotten pretty debonair, that’s cool.

So even though I met and know all sorts of genres, even though my love for other music may supersede it, Metal’s something I want to keep up with. I want to keep watching as the odd branches born from Iron Maidens, Slayers, Blind Guardians, Black Sabbaths, and Dream Theaters contort out to conquer new lands. I want to catch the next power balled beating to death high fantasy tropes, blanketing emotional cries in ugly gore. I want to plunge headlong again into the mosh pit that never ends. I might not put it at the top of playlists, and I might not end up with hair long and black as the shirts that I wear, but I will always recognize the importance of being Metal.

~Austin R Ryan

Special thanks to Devon Bealke for introducing me to the wondrous world of Metal!

New Nostalgia


My roommate recently started on an Outkast spree. “Hey Ya” blares on through the speakers and across the room. Reveling in the nostalgia feels glorious. Memories of riding back on the bus from public school in 2003, kids asking the driver to turn up the radio, come flooding back.

It would take endless effort to separate the song from childhood. The same goes with “Ms. Jackson” and “Roses.” I would spend the article space writing a love letter to Outkast and exonerating the good things of the late nineties and early thousands, if I were sure I really loved any of it.

Nostalgia works like a pair of rose-tinted glasses. Something slips them over my eyes whenever I glance at “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers. I loved the song once, do I still love it now? Is my mind caught as much in the music as it is in the past? “Mr. Brightside” remains buried with Outkast and all the old Kanye while modern favorites sit in all my playlists.

After all that time, can any sound penetrate the raw wall of nostalgia laced over each beat? There is no complete way of knowing. If the enjoyment feels sincere, run with it. No one needs another reason than nostalgia. For all the obfuscating it may do, I would not abandon nostalgia. I’d rather the past flow like honey, than sting like a bee.

    Rose colored air waves

But each moment of remembrance that made an old song feel so much stronger came to me from the radio. Billboard still got a few in one hundred in my head. Bands formed up vast waterways of sound. Labels became seas opening and genres oceans.

The radio made Somethings float to the top and gloss the surface of sound in every car. The radio formed up rivers of hit songs that we would trace back out to the oceans and seas. I got older and made it out to the ocean more often. I swam to the bottom to pick pearls up from the seafloor. Getting through the radio-pop gloss at the top made it worthwhile.

It seemed to work that way even for my non-musical friends. The most nerve wracking moments came in pooling up the jewels everyone gathered from the deep sea. We got to be explorers breaking through the surface trying to measure our successes using the ears of others.

When the water left my ears those old glossy songs on the surface sounded better then I remembered. The notes rang with radio intervals. Colorful personalities played it out to me. Sitting there, the radio brought plate by plate of commuter music. The rose colored air waves made it age like wine but it still felt less classy than a natty. The pleasure was guilty to the bone.

The radio brought the songs it beat to death back to life in vivid color.

    Radio is dead. Long live radio!

This image is from Broadcasting World's article: "ONLINE, DON'T MIRROR OFFLINE RADIO INDUSTRY"

Now radio dwindles and old seas grow into oceans. Everybody has a fond memory, and that reverie will create nostalgic ecstasies. With so many more bands, fan groupings, and new scenes I wonder how nostalgia will come of age.

Will kids ditch radio but stick with the top 100s? Perhaps radio will never die, not even faint, ever revived and kept alive to dish musical entrees out of large label kitchens. The kids might socialize it quicker, torrenting CD’s, speeding through discographies to keep friendly. Hit songs might not live long, and maybe memory will no longer wrap easy around the ears of a full generation.

It could all stay the same, just put in a different with new tools just used the exact same. Soundcloud and Google made it useful to scoop seaweed off the surface of the deepest oceans.

It would not work to try and divine nostalgia’s next line. But when dealing with the horizon you should make some stretches. To me it seems that something new might come through. With so much changed, media so rearranged, one true pop king might find harder to reign. Instead warlords come claiming teen scenes in scattered out places. The nostalgia of Orlando will not sound the same to kids from Kansas City riding high on the new Killers.

Bastion’s Soundtrack


Supergiant Games recently came out with a new game called Transistor. If you enjoy music you should really know about their last project, Bastion. Supergiant creates games that feel catered to the soundtrack behind the action.

Few other studios, whether they create movies, shows or games, put the same love into their soundtracks. Supergiant set themselves apart by putting music at the core of their story, almost like the videogame version of an opera. With transistor now out in stores, take some time with me to remember how Bastion’s soundtrack did something truly unique.

Click this link to catch my latest WVAU article, and read about why few soundtracks measure up to Bastion’s.

Lessons from The Chinese Server, part 1


Without knowing a word or character of Chinese, I decided to study abroad for a semester at Peking University. At the time I foolishly expected much of the world to move to my mother tongue. My interests in Chinese economy and history ran deep, and my advisor told me that I would need to know the language to continue to pursue my interests.
The curiosity for China did not stop at figures and books. Something about the unfamiliarity of the country’s philosophy, language, and even geography created in me an idea of a wholly unfamiliar people. I suppose I wanted something to explore. Perhaps that thirst for exploration plunged me into the Chinese league servers. I knew I wanted to play League in China as soon as I submitted the application to go abroad.

For a twenty something male, the desire should not seem so out of place. In my life back home League formed a legitimate means of communication. My friends sometimes spent entire nights on the NA server. We gleefully constructed ridiculous team comps and ideas. Other times we tried to semi-seriously push our ranked 5 team up the ladder. After playing League for so long, the game started to become a type of social indicator. The way that you played League reflected on how you behaved in real life, and who you associated with. When I first began, I played with a friend who took the game more seriously and stressed about winning games. He did not rage and loathed the raging community around him. We enjoyed painting the game with this sort of heaviness.We enjoyed trying to win and get better. As time went on, we both transitioned into college. He stopped playing League.

I continued with a new group with a much goofier attitude. We like to mess around. We created two ranked 5 teams dedicated to goofing off in game. Our first team, Lock In and Wreck Face, required us to instalock a full team and try to win with whatever we got. In our second team, Off Brand Cereal, we got to pick our champs but we had to use off-builds and go into weird lanes. The time constraints of double majoring, continuing to write creatively, running an internet radio show, and going steady with a girl meant that I could not play with that same serious mentality.

I wanted to play League in China for a lot of superficial reasons. I did not want to get too rusty. I wanted to see if Asian players were truly gods amongst men. I wondered whether their meta differed and what champs they played. At the end of the day, I just enjoyed Leaguing. Above all these, two reasons pushed me into going through the odd process of creating a Chinese account. League reflected attitudes in real life and to me it seemed a window into a Chinese gaming mentality I knew nothing of. Do people rage, do people troll, do people run goofy comps? I wanted to know because the answer to each question taught me something of a reality still mysterious to me.

The biggest pull came from my absolute Chinese illiteracy. Hard fought loss or an outright stomp, even losing a game of league took effort. I tired of hearing so much bickering. I grew up in a house with three older sisters and a bit of a hot head dad. I wanted the thick sort of skin that could steel me against a household bursting full with wild emotion. Failing to keep my cool fostered this deep feeling of inadequacy. It gripped deep into my chest and pulled at this long standing desire for emotional strength. Every time I queued up and felt some fury, those talons clawed away at my self-image. In China, I could League and appreciate the game all in my lonesome. No matter what anyone said it literally could not scathe me. I felt damn sick of the other players. I wanted a chance at the silence and purity of play that NA could not give me.

I broke into the Chinese server, following the complex guidelines set out to me by a Reddit post. I needed to play bots before I entered PvP. Mulling over who to pick for my first bots game abroad, I spotted the Chinese art. The Chinese splash art looked gorgeous. Karthus went from a skeleton with silly hat and a big robe to a terrifying, no faced necromancer with burning eyes and a gilded staff. Twitch had longer arms and legs, looking like a scrawny and more humanoid anthropomorphized rat. He looked like a more PG version of the visually reworked twitch. Cho’Gath resembled a terrifying, gargantuan monstrosity ripped loose from the void. The Chinese splash art raised the bar on almost all occasions. It gave the game a polish I never realized the game could use.

Splash arts never came across my mind in America. Back home I played set roles and set champions. I had certain top laners and marksmen that I preferred, and a pool of owned champions to select from. In China, I could choose any sort of Champion. Sure, I still knew what I liked, but once you threw out the meta, the rune pages and the masteries, every champion played a lot differently.
When it came time to pick a champ, it took me longer to deliberate. During the races against the clock to secure a champ, the splash arts seriously came into play. Seeing a champion in this sheen of idealized glory made them more enticing. In those last minute decisions, the splash art conveyed a quick feeling of the full glory of a champ. As a player brought back to level 1, not knowing which champ to pick, it made all the difference.

Even old favorites like Wukong had this almost preposterously badass look about them. The whole visual styling in China felt different, but more appropriate. China focused on evoking images of intense battle and heroic power out of each splash art, as where the NA server had a more playful and light focus. I preferred China, because to me it just fit. I am a summoner controlling one of the most powerful entities in a world, even if I am just playing a game. It helped that for the most part the Chinese splash art seemed better drawn.

In the very first co-op vs. AI match I played, our Blitzcrank rallied four of us to the tribush near the bot tower. We cheesed first blood and beat the bots into the dirt. For a second I let the prospect of an inherently more talented server carry my mind away. Over the next few days the Blitzcrank free week faded along with the rose tint on my glasses. The early levels provided a lot of easy wins. It felt unkind to stomp new players. Luckily it did not take long for games to become battles between smurfs. As I climbed my match history evened out with wins and losses. At around the tenth game matchmaking placed me in with the rest of the smurfs. I started playing games at level 8 where teams took dragon and occasionally used junglers and supports.

It seemed no different than smurfing in NA. Smurfs still lacked runes and spells to play all positions. Supports and junglers did not exist. Ideal team comps did not exist. All bruiser teams duked it out against all burst mage teams. Even all smurf games looked messy and strange. It provided a pleasant reminder of the days when I loaded up a smurf to play with low level friends. That familiarity felt soothing in a place where the trees, the birds, the spiders, and the air I breathed all looked different. When arriving, the foreignness of it scared me so deeply. It felt terribly lonely without school friends to speak with. Knowing nothing of the language sometimes put me into isolation. It became tiring to function at a basic level. League provided a rejuvenating normalcy to retreat to.

Part 2 Coming next weekend.

 

~Austin R Ryan