Archive for January, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Grand Dame of American Fantasy & Science Fiction

Posted in A Wizard of Earthsea, Bildungsroman, Earthsea Cycle, Fantasy, Uncategorized, Ursula K. Le Guin with tags , , , , on January 26, 2018 by Manuel Paul Arenas

A few days ago I heard the sad news about the passing of author Ursula K. Le Guin, the outspoken grand dame of American Fantasy & Science Fiction whose career spanned over 50 years. I won’t pretend to be that knowledgeable about her vast body of influential work, but what I did read, I liked a lot.

Author Ursula K. LeGuin, 1973.

I believe I first heard of Le Guin through my colleague, Derek Fetler. Back in the days when Derek and I haunted the Cambridge open mike circuit as the Gloom Twins, there was a song we used to play that Derek had penned called Sparrowhawk, based on Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). I was not familiar with Le Guin’s work prior to that, but I was a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis from my childhood, so I was intrigued when Derek turned me on to the original Earthsea trilogy. I recall burning through A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970), and The Farthest Shore (1972), which told the coming-of-age tale of Ged, a wizard from the isle of Gont, and getting totally absorbed in Le Guin’s very distinctive fantasy world.

The Bantam paperback editions of the original Earthsea Trilogy. I always loved the artwork on these by Pauline Ellison.

While still under her spell, I picked up a chapbook called From Elfland to Poughkeepsie (1973) which is an essay by Le Guin on writing fantasy that had some valuable insight on dialog writing that I have tried to follow to this day when writing my own dark fantasy tales.

Chapbook of Le Guin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie (1973, Pendragon Press).

Over the years I tried to find more Le Guin books to read, but since a good portion of her output is pure Science Fiction, a genre I don’t have much interest in, I stopped seeking out her books. I did however read the novella The Beginning Place (1980), as well as the story The Rule of Names (1964), the latter of which I really got a kick out of, but I haven’t read much else since.

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1979, Bantam) featuring another lovely cover by Pauline Ellison, where I first read The Rule of Names.

When Le Guin published a 4th novel in the Earthsea Cycle, Tehanu (1990), I was initially excited, but I was so deep into my exploration into H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos by then that I didn’t get around to picking it up until relatively recently and still haven’t read it yet. Apparently, there is also a 5th novel called The Other Wind (2001), as well as a short story collection called Tales from Earthsea (2001) which I have yet to read as well, but might take a look at now that I have begun re-reading the original trilogy.

Paperback copy of Tehanu (1991, Spectra) which I used to see everywhere when it first came out.

At the tail-end of 2004 I saw a SiFi Channel mini-series adaptation of the original trilogy called Legend of Earthsea (2004) which was a watered down affair with none of the wonder and wisdom from Le Guin’s novels. I understand Le Guin herself was dissatisfied with it and accused the producers of “whitewashing”, by casting a fair-skinned actor in the lead when Le Guin explicitly describes the inhabitants of Gont as being of reddish-brown cast.

1st edition of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968, Parnassus Press) featuring cover art by Ruth Robbins depicting Ged’s coppery countenance.

Apparently there is an anime as well, which is a very loose adaptation of the original trilogy that also had Le Guin in a tizzy:

“Ursula K Le Guin, the author of the Earthsea series, gave a mixed response to the film in her review on her website. Le Guin commended the visual animation in the film but stated that the plot departed so greatly from her story that she was “watching an entirely different story, confusingly enacted by people with the same names as in my story”. She also praised certain depictions of nature in the film, but felt that the production values of the film were not as high as previous works directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and that the film’s excitement was focused too much around scenes of violence. Her initial response to Gorō Miyazaki was “[I]t is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie”. However, she stated that the comment disclosed on the movie’s public blog did not portray her true feelings about the film’s vast departure from original stories; “taking bits and pieces out of context, and replacing the storylines with an entirely different plot…”” [, retrieved 01/25/2018]

Perhaps someday someone will come along and do it right. Till then, do yourself a favor and pick up Le Guin’s exquisite books.

PS: As I re-read A Wizard of Earthsea I am reminded constantly of Derek’s song, Sparrowhawk, the melody of which goes round on a loop in my head. I wish we had recorded it together. Perhaps someday we will.



Lucifer’s “Faux Pharaoh”

Posted in Doom Metal, Faux Pharaoh, Johanna Sadonis, Lucifer (band) with tags , , , on January 20, 2018 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Lucifer band logo featuring the current trio line-up.

Well it seems that after a 2 year hiatus,  Lucifer has finally got a new album in the can which they plan to release sometime in the Spring of 2018. In the meantime they have released a download of their newest single, Faux Pharaoh.  Despite retaining their Doom Metal stance, their new sound is slightly more polished and mainstream than their previous work, though it still rocks, and of course Johanna’s lyrics explore familiar themes of occultism, Egyptology and death. The band is down to a trio, consisting of Johanna Sadonis, Nicke Andersson & Robin Tidebrink.  Multi-instrumentalist Andersson seems to be a veteran of the Stockholm punk & metal scene, most notably in The Hellacopters, Death Breath and The Entombed, and Tidebrink (ex-Saturn) played supplementary guitar for Lucifer on the last tour. One may see him in the Oldenberg video on Youtube playing some tasty solos over Gaz Jennings’ heavy riffage. I assume the wah-wah solo in Faux Pharaoh is his.

Lucifer in 2017: Robin Tidebrink, Johanna Sadonis, and Nicke Andersson, looking as polished and pretty as their new single.

Speaking of Mr. Jennings, his guitar sound is conspicuously absent from this recording. I imagine his layered tones and unique riffing style will be sorely missed on Lucifer II. Even so, the new song is decent, Sadonis sounds great, and I am curious to hear the full album when it comes out. I just hope that I am not disappointed, as my expectations are high after having played both Lucifer I and the Oath album to death,  which also features Ms. Sadonis. I will definitely review it here once I give it a few spins, and I will also try my damnedest to see them when they take the new album on the road.

Faux Pharaoh is available for download on Lucifer’s Bandcamp profile:

Rush’s “Caress of Steel” (1975)

Posted in Caress of Steel (1975), Prog-Rock, Rush (band), Works inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien with tags , , , on January 12, 2018 by Manuel Paul Arenas

During my sappy youth in Montevideo, Uruguay during the early 80’s my friend Rolando turned me on to Rush. Over the years my appreciation for the band has grown, despite their fluctuating popularity. Although I respect their decision to move with the times and explore new trends, I really only ever listen to the early classic works from 1974-1981, which chronicle their growth from a Led Zeppelin-inspired hard rock band to the heavy prog-rock royalty.

Cover art for “Caress of Steel” by Rush (1975, Mercury).

Caress of Steel (1975) was the band’s 3rd album, and the 2nd one to feature their new drummer Neil Peart, who brought to the mix not only his singular percussion skills, but also his talent as a thoughtful and imaginative lyricist. Topics range from French history to Tolkienesque fantasy, and nostalgia for the halcyon days of one’s youth. It is musically “heavy” in the old-style rock vein, though not quite heavy metal per se, with complex arrangements and serious chops. It also has moments of delicacy, many of which may be found in the epic track, The Fountain of Lamneth.  The album opens with Bastille Day, which rocks like a classic Led Zeppelin tune, yet with much headier lyrics than anything the mighty Zeppelin ever penned. Somehow I can’t imagine Robert Plant ever singing about the storming of the Bastille and guillotines claiming their “bloody prize”.

Then comes I Think I’m Going Bald, a mid-tempo rocker which according to Wikipedia is a spoof of the Kiss song “Goin’ Blind”:

Canadian progressive rock band Rush, who had opened for Kiss during both bands’ early years, poked fun at this song with “I Think I’m Going Bald”, from their 1975 album Caress of Steel. In the book Contents Under Pressure, Rush frontman Geddy Lee explained: “We were touring a lot with Kiss in those days and they had a song called ‘I Think I’m Going Blind.’ So we were kind of taking the piss out of that title by just coming up with this.” Lee noted that the title originated with Rush drummer Neil Peart, who was making light of the fact that guitarist Alex Lifeson was constantly worried about the future possibility of going bald, often employing “all kinds of ingredients to put on his scalp. And I think it just got Neil thinking about aging…” [, retrieved 01/07/2018]

Lakeside Park is a light song about Neil Peart’s memories of working a summer job at the titular venue on Victoria Day. I rather like its wistful sentimentality, although I understand Geddy Lee would as soon forget it:

A lot of the early stuff I’m really proud of. Some of it sounds really goofy, but some of it stands up better than I gave it credit for. As weird as my voice sounds when I listen back, I certainly dig some of the arrangements. I can’t go back beyond 2112 really, because that starts to get a bit hairy for me, and if I hear “Lakeside Park” on the radio I cringe. What a lousy song! Still, I don’t regret anything that I’ve done!

— Geddy Lee, Raw Magazine  
[, retrieved 01/07/2018]
The Necromancer is where the album really begins to hint at what was to come as far as Rush’s new direction is concerned. This is a song which really shows the influence of some of the Prog-rock bands they had been listening to at the time, particularly Genesis:
Alex Lifeson cited Steve Hackett as a major influence on the sound he strove for in this song and album, particularly on the guitar solo during “No One at the Bridge”: “Steve Hackett is so articulate and melodic, precise and flowing. I think our Caress of Steel period is when I was most influenced by him. There’s even a solo on that album which is almost a steal from his style of playing. It’s one of my favorites, called ‘No One at the Bridge.'” [
The song is separated into three parts: Into the Darkness, Under the Shadow, and Return of the Prince. Each segment begins with a half-speed voiceover setting up the scene. The lyrics tell the story of “three travelers, men of Willow Dale”, which apparently is a veiled reference to the members of Rush, as both Lee and Lifeson grew up in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale. The travellers find themselves in the demesne of the Necromancer who espies them through his prism then, magically ensnaring them, locks the trio away in his dungeon. They are eventually freed by Prince By-Tor who, oddly enough, appeared in the song By-Tor and the Snow Dog on the previous album Fly By Night (1975) as a villain.
The music is moody and the lyrics are evocative of the darkness and doom of the Necromancer’s lair:
“Even now the intensity of his dread power can be felt, weakening the body and saddening the heart. Ultimately they will become empty, mindless spectres. Stripped of mind and soul.” My favorite line comes soon after where the shadow of his nearness weighs like iron tears. This is all very reminiscent of what Frodo and Sam go through as they try to avoid the Eye of Sauron when trudging through Mordor to destroy the One Ring.
The flip side of the album continues in this vein with the sidelong track, The Fountain of Lamneth which tells the tale of a young man’s quest to find the titular fountain in six individual, but thematically connected, songs. Along the way he has experiences that constitute a sort of rite of passage. In the opening track, In the Valley, Geddy Lee sings: Look at me, I am young / Sight unseen, life unsung. The rest of the song tells of the beginning of his journey traversing a valley and over a mountain. There is some nice pastoral imagery as the young man muses on the novelty of all he sees:
Living one long sunrise, for to me all things are new / I’ve never watched the sky grow pale, or strolled through fields of dew
Continuing, he affirms his steadfastness of purpose:
I do not know of dust to dust, I live from breath to breath / I live to climb that mountain to the Fountain of Lamneth.
Part 2, Didacts and Narpets, the title of which is I have never seen explained anywhere, consists mostly of waves of percussion cresting in exclamations of commands. From what I gather of the following quote from an interview with Peart, I assume Narpets is a scramble of the word Parents, but I cannot suss out Didacts:
Regarding the section “Didacts and Narpets”, Neil Peart, in the October 1991 news release from the Rush Backstage Club, said: “Okay, I may have answered this before, but if not, the shouted words in that song represent an argument between Our Hero and the Didacts and Narpets – teachers and parents. I honestly can’t remember what the actual words were, but they took up opposite positions like: ‘Work! Live! Earn! Give!’ and like that.”
[, retrieved 1/10/2018]
This segment seems, lyrically at least, to be in an odd spot in the narrative since the hero is already on his journey. Unless he is remembering what he was told by his elders before he left. (Update, 02-13-2018: I have since given a closer listen and think that I may have been too hasty in my assessment of the timeline here. I believe the actual journey does begin in part 3 ) Some cassette editions of the album swapped the sequence of this track to with I Think I’m Going Bald on side A, sandwiched between Bastille Day and Lakeside Park. I actually owned one of these back in the 80’s. I have read somewhere that this was because of time constraints in the formatting, but there do exist cassette versions with the tracks in their rightful places.

Caress of Steel US cassette tape with Didacts & Narpets swapped with I Think Im Going Bald.

No One at the Bridge continues the journey, this time at sea. Sea spray blurs his vision as the hero’s barque is tossed about on the pitching waves. Desperate, he cries out for guidance and salvation but no one seems to hear. He reflects on how eager he had been at the start of his voyage, how eagerly he took the helm, but now his crew has deserted him and he is lost at the brink of the maelstrom.
Despite his precarious situation in the previous segment, he makes it ashore where he encounters a mysterious woman, Panacea, who gives him shelter…with benefits. Although artless in execution, Panacea has a lot of tenderness and is an honest depiction of a young man’s moon-eyed first encounter with love. Alas, his bliss is short-lived, as he must move on to continue on his journey:  My heart will lie beside you / as my wandering body grieves.
 Bacchus Plateau finds our hero drowning his sorrows in wine as he questions his path and hankers for his former passion for the quest:
Draw another goblet from the cask of ’43 / Crimson misty memory, hazy glimpse of me / Give me back my wonder – I’ve got something more to give / I guess it doesn’t matter – there’s not much more to live.
In the end, he reaches the fountain: Now, at last I fall before the Fountain of Lamneth / I thought I would be singing, but I’m tired…out of breath / Many journeys end here but, the secret’s told the same / Life just a candle and a dream must give it flame.
In fine, although a bit unwieldy and naïve, The Fountain of Lamneth is an inspiring and epic song, and it resonates with me even today in my maturity. Unfortunately, I am about the only person who seems to feel that way. Caress of Steel didn’t fare well with critics and sold poorly.

Mercury Records ad for Caress of Steel.

Due to poor sales, low concert attendance and overall media indifference, the 1975–76 tour supporting Caress of Steel became known by the band as the “Down the Tubes” tour. Given that and record company pressure to record more accessible, radio-friendly material similar to their first album – something Lee, Lifeson and Peart were unwilling to do – the trio feared that the end of the group was near. Ignoring their record label’s advice and vowing to “fight or fall”, 2112  ultimately paved the way for lasting commercial success, despite opening with a 20-and-a-half-minute conceptual title track. [, retrieved 01/10/2018]

Rush promo pic from 1975. (L to R: Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson).

By sticking to their guns they created the album that made them stars, but were it not for the chances they took on Caress of Steel and the flack they caught for it, they might never have been inspired to prove their mettle and create such an epic album as 2112. To me Caress of Steel is a prime example of an artist following their heart despite what the pundits or mainstream taste might dictate to the contrary. A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.