All posts by Erik Heter

In my professional life I am a patent agent, writing and prosecuting patent applications in the field of electrical engineering for high-tech corporate clients. In my home life I am a husband and a father of one son, football fan (the American kind, that is), a reader of history and many other things (avidly when time permits) and a lover of music (progressive rock in particular), among other things. I'm also a former submariner in the U.S. Navy.

The Caravel and the Starship

Prior to the 15th century, European maritime adventures were primarily limited to coastal navigation outside the Mediterranean Sea.  In the late 15th century, spearheaded by Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese developed a new type of ship called the caravel.  The caravel had capabilities beyond other sailing ships of the day, and because of its design, was capable of voyages on the open ocean.  On August 3rd, 1492, the caravels Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria departed from Palos de la Fronterra, Spain, heading westward into the Atlantic Ocean.  On October 12th, they made landfall on an island that is now part of the Bahamas.  Months later, the Nina sailed into the port of Lisbon with news of the discovery.  It was an epochal moment.  The world has never been the same.

Today, on the Gulf Shore of Southeast Texas, the world witnessed the first launch of the caravel of the Space Age.  Starship, boosted by the Super Heavy first stage (the largest, most powerful rocket ever built) cleared the pad and roared into the skies over the Gulf of Mexico.  While the flight did encounter what Elon Musk refers to as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly, one should not view this test as a failure.  This is particularly true when considering the iterative engineering process of SpaceX – and its mantra of “Move fast, break things.”  The flight hit several important milestones while also yielding valuable data which SpaceX engineers will use to further refine the design, fix flaws, and get the next iteration of this rocket on the pad within a few months.  Keep in mind that SpaceX is the same company now has over 100 consecutive successful, propulsive landings of the Falcon 9 booster – many of them re-used multiple times.  There was a time when the “smart” people said such a thing was not even possible.  And yet, here we are – propulsive landings of the Falcon 9 first stage are nearly as routine as successful airplane landings.  When a company has a track record like that, it’s foolish to bet against them.

Why is Starship significant? Just as the caravel was designed to carry people across the oceans of Earth, Starship was designed for carrying people across the oceans of empty space.  And just as the caravel took many too the new world, the motivation for designing Starship was the same, with Mars being the prime target (a variant will also take astronauts back to the moon).  It will be entirely reusable, capable of returning to the world from which its journey started, just as the Nina did.  No other such crewed spacecraft currently exists or has ever existed. Starship will be the first. Furthermore, it will further reduce launch costs.  Falcon 9 can already put approximately the same amount of payload into the same orbit as the Space Shuttle could – but at 1/20th of the cost.  A fully operational Starship promises at least another order of magnitude reduction in that cost.  Thus, in both cost and capability, Starship will be the vehicle that truly opens the final frontier, not just for a few astronauts that can meet NASA’s exacting standards, but for ordinary people.  When Starship lands on Mars with humans on board, it will be every bit as epochal as the moment when Columbus realized the significance of his discoveries.

Like the 1960’s, we live in tumultuous times.  But also, like the 1960’s, we live in exciting times, certainly when it comes to advances in spaceflight.  Whereas the previous era was driven by governments and the impetus of the Cold War, the advances of the present era are being driven by the private sector, and without many of the non-technical limitations of the former era.  While looking at some of the goings-on in the world today is rather depressing, the world of spaceflight is as exciting as it has been at any time since the build-up to Neil Armstrong’s call of “Tranquility Base here – the Eagle has landed.”  

To be sure, there is a long way to go, as the ending of today’s test flight attests.  But I am more confident than ever that we will see Starship take humans to Mars, and maybe even beyond; that we will see the first trickle of a migration that was once as inconceivable as the migrations to the New World were in 1491.  What an incredible time to be alive.

Godspeed, Starship.

Riverside … on Riverside (Drive, that is)

Riverside at Come and Take It Live, Austin, TX, February 22, 2023

Members of the band helpfully direct concertgoers to the venue

Sometime in the mid-to-late 00’s, I was surfing the internet looking for new music.  I happened upon this Polish band named Riverside who was creating a lot of buzz in the prog community.  I ended up purchasing their second album, and have been a fan ever since.  Unfortunately, the chance to see them never seemed to materialize, as what little touring they did in the U.S. never seemed to be near my home.  That almost changed in February 2022, when Riverside had a show scheduled here in Austin.  But almost as quickly as it was scheduled, it was canceled for some reason.  They promised on Facebook they would make it on the next tour, and I crossed my fingers.  And almost a year to the date after their originally scheduled show, they delivered on that promise.

Appearing at a venue with one of the most Texas names ever, Come and Take It Live (which, serendipitously, is located on East Riverside Drive in Austin), the band put on a two hour show that was just about flawless.  The setlist was quite interesting, and if there is such a thing as a concept album, I suppose this show could have been called a concept concert.  The band performed six of the seven songs off of their latest album, ID. Entity (I’m Done With You being the lone exception).  A number of other songs dovetailed nicely with the theme of ID. Entity.  These songs included the show opener #Addicted (from Love, Fear, and the Time Machine), Left Out and Egoist Hedonist (from Anno Domini High Definition), and We Got Used to Us (from Shrine of New Generation Slaves). Outside of that, the only two songs that didn’t really fit in thematically with the rest of the set were O2 Panic Room (from Rapid Eye Movement) and Conceiving You (from Second Life Syndrome). 

The performances were as excellent as one would expect from this group of musicians, delivered with high energy and intensity.  Delivery of Egoist Hedonist and Left Out were especially powerful, both including jams that extended their respective durations over their studio counterparts.  Mariusz Duda, in addition to being a great player, was engaging with the audience, and proved to be every bit the cool guy I had the good fortune of interviewing three times during my days at Progarchy.  The Duda indeed abides. 

The other musicians were in top form as well.  I continue to be impressed with Maciej Meller’s ability to play the parts of Piotr Grudziński with the right balance between faithfulness to the original and his own individual style.  Michał Łapaj was in the zone all show long, playing to the high standards prog fans expect of their keyboard heroes.  And Piotr Kozieradzki did not disappoint on drums.

In addition to enjoying the show myself, I managed to introduce Riverside to a friend and co-worker I brought along, one who is as much of a prog-head as I.  He left impressed, and was enticed by the lyrics of ID. Entity enough to spend $100 on a special edition of the album that included the main disk, the bonus disk, a 5.1 surround sound disk, vinyl-sized artwork, and booklet.  That’s a pretty nice way to start a journey of discovery of the Riverside catalog.  I’m kind of envious that he’s going to get to hear all their music for the first time.

It’s a few days after the show as I write this, but I’m still buzzing.  Their performance was so good, so tight, so energetic, and just so much fun.  There are a few other Riverside fans that contribute to this site, and a few more that read it.  So if their tour manages to stop close by, I highly recommend you go see them.  You will not be disappointed.

Who Are We?  A Review of Riverside’s ID. Entity

It’s been a long four and a half years since we last heard from Riverside.  In 2018, the band was still in recovery mode from the untimely loss of Piotr Grudzinski and, as a three-piece, released the spacious-sounding Wasteland, which thematically dealt with the apocalypse, on levels both personal and civilizational.  The present year finds Riverside releasing another thematically bi-furcated album. ID. Entity deals with the themes of the impact of social media and, more broadly technology, and its impact at the level of the individual and society as a whole.  Given the present zeitgeist, ID. Entity is the timeliest thing they’ve ever done, which is saying something for a band that has albums like Anno Domini High Definition (ADHD) and songs like #Addicted (from Love, Fear and the Time Machine) in the repertoire.

Musically, ID. Entity has a palette as broad as its cover.  That’s no coincidence, as bassist/lead vocalist Mariusz Duda has more or less said in a number of interviews regarding the album.  Sounds ranging from synth-pop, heavy metal, electronica, and 70’s prog, among others, can be found in what is Riverside’s most musically diverse collection of songs yet.  But still, the music has certain threads running through the album that make it unmistakably Riverside.

Friend or Foe kicks off the album, with much of the first half of the song extracted from the 80’s, with synthesizers, a prominent bass line, and a steady drumbeat, before new guitarist Maciej Meller brings a few meaty riffs to the party.  And speaking of Meller, the band has done an excellent job of integrating him into the fold.  Stylistically, there are enough similarities that he fits in with what Riverside does, while still allowing him enough space to be his own guy.  Meanwhile, Duda ponders what the present is doing to our own identities:

Who is behind the filter?

Who Who’s behind the mask?

How much of yourself is left in you?

Landmine Blast follows, a quirky mix of hyper-kinetic electronic keyboards, pounding bass, and guitar that ranges from long leads to power chords.  There is a nice mix of dynamics in this song, loud juxtaposed with quiet, fast with momentary interludes of breath-catching.  In some respects, this song channels some of the same energy from ADHD, but updated for the present.  

The title of Big Tech Brother leaves no questions about its message, beginning with a sarcastic ‘Terms of Service,’ followed by a musical introduction that even includes some brass – a first for Riverside.  Lyrically, allusions to Huxley and Orwell are mixed with those of the present for a potent message, underscored by the dark, pounding music.  Post Truth musically turns things down a notch, but just a notch.  This song seems to point its criticism at the media, traditional and social, and the constant stream of BS that emanates from both.  Meller’s guitar work on this song is particularly good, at times hinting at Alex Lifeson and other times sounding somewhat like the work of his predecessor in Riverside. 

The most overtly prog composition on the album is the 13-minute mini-epic, The Place Where I Belong.  This song has some strong 70’s prog influences, including the use of the Hammond by Michal Lapaj, and within the structure of the piece itself.  The quiet interlude in the middle is an especially good touch.  I’m Done With You follows, with plenty more of the Hammond and lots of prog-metal goodness while Duda pontificates on cutting poison people out of one’s life. The album closer, Self Aware, begins as a straight-ahead rocker, but has a nice keyboard- and bass-driven quiet jam at the end.  It also has a little bit of reggae-beat worked in, reminding me a little of Rush’s Vital Signs.

If you were like me and bought the deluxe edition, you are treated to single edits of Friend or Foe and Self Aware, along with two new instrumental tracks, Age of Anger and Together Again.  Both are worthy additions and worth the extra money. 

In summary, ID. Entity finds Riverside’s music branching out into new areas and new sounds while still maintaining all of their trademarks that have made them one of the best 3rd wave progressive rock bands around.  It’s no accident that they are my favorite band to emerge in the last 20 years or so, but even if they don’t hold that lofty position for you, this album is still worth checking out. 

Thoughts on Afghanistan from an anonymous military officer

I found this over at Instapundit this morning, and I won’t copy the whole thing here so as to drive the traffic to them they deserve. I will leave a few choice quotes from the piece though – but you should go read the whole thing. Nevertheless, this is a great critique of our current military “leadership” (yes, the quotes are intentional and mean what you think they mean), with some critiques of the politicians thrown in. I’m not sure if there is any difference between the two at this point.

We should blame President Bush, not for the decision to attack into Afghanistan following 9-11, but for his decision to “shift the goalposts” and attempt to reform Afghanistan society. That was a fool’s errand any student of history would have recognized. And yes, we should place blame on President Obama for his decision to double down on failure when he “surged” in Afghanistan, rather than to withdraw.

However, most of the blame belongs to the leadership of the US military, and the Army in particular. The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” detailed years of US officials failing to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan, “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” That report was two years ago, and the stories within it began more than a decade before that. Afghanistan was, and always will be, “unwinnable”.

In fact, Afghanistan was worse than Vietnam in that at least the Vietnam War was tangentially related to the effort to stop the global spread of communism during the Cold War. Afghanistan was worse than Vietnam in another respect: the military’s leaders of the Vietnam era had no precedent to dissuade them from a disastrous path. Today’s military leadership has the precedent of not just Vietnam, but also Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. That much obtuseness must be punished and removed from the system.

Let me conclude with one last thought: the generals, the intelligence analysts, the defense contractors, and the pundits all leveraged America’s rarest resource: the American serviceman and woman. They are the ones who fought, and sweat, and bled, and died for what is now clearly a failed strategy and a doomed mission. Even after its failure was apparent to their leaders, they continued to enlist and reenlist, largely because their superiors—the experts—assured them that success was possible. It was not. It never was. Absent American support, Afghanistan collapsed over the length of a long weekend. That is proof enough that the last 20 years were in vain, and proof enough that the system is broken from within.

As I said, hit the link and go read the whole thing.

America Returns to Space

It seemed on one hand to be so familiar … and on the other hand, so new.  Launching astronauts into orbit?  Been there, done that.  Launching a new type of capsule-type nasa-spacex-crew-dragon-launch-may-2020-1spacecraft into orbit?  Started doing that in 1961.  Two astronauts in a spacecraft?  Gemini 4, with two astronauts, took off from the Cape in 1965.  Launching astronauts into orbit from Pad 39A of Cape Canaveral?  Many times starting in the 1960’s … including the most famous liftoff of all time.  And despite all that … it was all so new.

It was new in large part because of who was doing it.  SpaceX is not a traditional NASA contractor.  The Falcon 9 rocket which pushed Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit today was developed almost entirely with private funding, and without any guarantee of a NASA contract for services rendered.  It was the same for the Dragon spacecraft that flew atop the Falcon 9.  The propulsive-landing first stage was also developed by SpaceX.  Thus, in another first, the successful landing of the Falcon 9 first stage marked the first human spaceflight in which the booster stage was propulsively landed, with the possibility of use again in the future.

The Dragon spacecraft itself was something that is sleek, new, and modern, even for the Space Age.  Replacing a dizzying array of switches, buttons, knobs, and analog gauges were an array of touchscreens, neat, clean, and orderly.  The tour of the Dragon given to us by the astronauts earlier this evening showed a spacecraft that is much roomier than the Apollo command module could ever hope to be.  And the entirety of the assembly that roared off Pad 39A was smoother than any crewed launch vehicle to date.

But more than that, this just felt different.  For a mission that was, on one hand, not much more than a simple mission of sending astronauts to the International Space Station, it attracted an inordinate amount of attention.  This might not have been like watching Apollo 11 leave for the moon, but it did seem to garner the same level of interest present when John Young and Robert Crippen took the space shuttle Columbia on its maiden flight in 1981.  There are reasons – transcendental ones – that go well beyond the historic nature of a private company developing and successfully launching a rocket and crewed spacecraft, largely independent of any governmental space agency, that made this mission different.

Elon Musk and SpaceX have made space cool.  Sure, there was a lot of interest in the topic when I was a kid, growing up during and later, in the wake of the Apollo moon landings.  Back then, space was seen as the proper province of government programs and not private entrepreneurs.  And kids like me that were interested in it, well, we were kind of the nerdy ones.  Then public interest faded for decades, with only us die-hards maintaining any real interest in the goings-on off-planet.  Nowadays, Musk’s tireless advocacy for truly opening up the final frontier – backed by his actions in founding SpaceX and leading it to and through days like this – is having a cultural impact that could go far beyond that of Apollo.  Culturally, the impact of that program began fading when Armstrong and Aldrin left the moon on that glorious July day in 1969.  It fell straight off a cliff when Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt left the moon for what was (at least for now) the final time in December 1972, relegating Apollo to museums and history books.

Instead, Musk has got people talking about space.  Not just tech geeks, but average people with no particular reason to be interested in the topic.  My wife, for one, received a text message from another housewife friend today letting her know that the launch was imminent.  That came from a source I would not have expected, which made it’s arrival all the more satisfying.

Moreover, through the heavy lifting (pardon the pun) that Musk and SpaceX are doing, people can now actually talk about sending humans to Mars and living there BB14OBbJpermanently without the snickering and eye rolls of what not too long ago was considered pie-in-the-sky naivety.  When a guy says he wants to send people to Mars and then founds his own rocket company that designs and builds rockets and crewed spacecraft and actually sends them into space, you can no longer brush it off with snide remarks.  When he crushes launch costs and leaves former industry heavyweights like Boeing and Lockheed in the dust, it’s time to stop laughing.  At that point, it’s time to stand up and take notice.

In that vein, one of the most satisfying phenomena I observed today was something that occurred multiple times on Facebook.  Pictures, posted in various groups and pages, by proud parents of their young children, dressed up in homemade space suits, manning the controls of their makeshift spacecraft, waiting for this real-world launch to undoubtedly be followed by their own (for now) imaginary journeys into space.  One little girl even used an iPad for an instrument panel, which was particularly fitting given the description above of the Dragon spacecraft.

You’ll have a hard time convincing most parents that their kids taking such an interest in opening the final frontier is a bad thing, especially given all of the focused study and knowledge that one needs to attain to get there.  Thanks to Musk and his brilliant employees at SpaceX, these kids – unlike the generation of Apollo – may actually get to see the final frontier truly opened, the door kicked in never to be closed again.  These kids, thanks to happenings like the one today, have a real chance of making their dreams into a permanent reality.

Godspeed and Ad Astra.

A Long and Winding Road to Freedom – The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee

Every now and then you read a book that really impacts you.  A book that simply sticks with you, one that, for days after you finish, you can’t get it out of your head – and don’t The Girl with Seven Nameswant to.  It can be a novel, or maybe a non-fiction book, maybe something about history that makes you look at the world in a different way, or stretches you mind into a previously unknown shape.  It may also become something about which you feel absolutely compelled to tell others.  For me, the book that currently occupies that space is the incredible story of a defector from the prison-state of North Korea.

Originally published in 2015, Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names is not merely a harrowing tale, it is a collection of them.  These are stories that are all too real for the millions born in North Korea and for the intrepid few who dare to seek freedom by attempting escape from its bondage.

Ms. Lee’s book is subdivided into three parts.  The first part chronicles her life from birth until her eventual escape.  It includes multiple moves until her family finally settles in the town of Hyesan, on the North Korean border with China and within sight of the city of Changbai – they brighter lights of which eventually became a lure to the author.  Some of what is revealed is unsurprising – the forced indoctrination, the public executions, the atomization of society, the forced reverence for the pathetically insecure “Dear Leader”.  Other aspects were more surprising – such as a border with China that was frequently crossed in both directions, the amount of smuggling that occurs, and so on.  In retrospect, one should not be surprised that a system as oppressive as that in North Korea produces so much bribery, black market commerce, and general corruption that filters all the way down to the lowest levels of society.

And speaking of the levels of society, the author educates the reader on the North Korean system of songbun, in which people are ranked within society in one of fifty-one gradations spanning over three broad categories – loyal, wavering or hostile.  Ms. Lee rightfully notes that the system of songbun had created a society more stratified than that of a feudal society, and one in which upward movement is nearly impossible.  Like all communist animal farms, that of North Korea is one in which all animals are equal, but some are most definitely more equal than others.

As Part One nears its conclusion, the author’s disillusionment with her home country grows, particularly during the famine of the mid-90’s which left about a million dead.  Nearing the end of her high school years, facing college and adulthood, and the aforementioned allure of the lights of Changbai, the Ms. Lee decides to take a short trip across the river to get just a small taste of freedom before returning home to begin the next phase of life.  As this first part ends with a walk across the frozen Yalu River, in what eventually became a one way journey.

Part Two chronicles Ms. Lee’s life as an illegal in China.  In short order, the author finds out that while she is technically free from the bonds of North Korea, she is still not truly free.  In addition to a myriad of other human rights abuses, the Chinese government’s miserable record on human rights includes the repatriation of North Korean defectors, sending most of them to a back to their prison-state and leaving them to a fate of hard labor, execution, or both.  Thus, the author’s existence during her decade in China was a precarious one, forcing her to adopt new identities with the frequency of a spy in a John LeCarre novel (hence the seven names to which the title refers).  In numerous instances she is nearly caught, escaping arrest with a combination of guile and luck.  To complicate matters further, she managed to stay in communication with her mother and brother back in North Korea, bearing the weight of guilt regarding loved ones left behind.  More than once her mother implored her to come home, assuring her the right people could be bribed to make her return a safe one.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my own mother is a defector from East Germany, crossing into West Berlin with her family when she was age 10.  While the train ride she and her family took in 1953 was not without risks, their freedom was assured once they had crossed into West Berlin.  Such was not the case for Ms. Lee, as crossing the border into China was only the beginning of a very long journey, one that was fraught with danger every step of the way.  The fact that she did not go home despite the continuous hazard of being an illegal in China is a testament to her courage – and the incredible difficulty of escaping North Korea.

The third part of the book finds the author finally making it to Seoul, South Korea, and her eventual convincing of her mother and brother to defect.  She returns to China and the border near her hometown and escorts them over 2000 miles into Laos.  Along the way, the hazards of being caught are as ever present as they were in her previous decade as a Chinese illegal, only with higher stakes by having her mother and brother in tow.  In Laos, her mother and brother are arrested and held in jail for months, although thankfully, not repatriated (apparently even the government of Laos is more humane than that of China – a low bar to hurdle).  After exhausting all her options and running out of money to bribe the Laotion authorities, serendipity intervenes in the form of an Australian man who decides to help for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.  Even a hardened misanthrope would have to reconsider his outlook after reading about this incident.  With Ms. Lee receiving the funds she needs, she is able to spring her family from jail and finally get them into Seoul.  Free at last.

Today, Ms. Lee spends a lot of her time as an activist for North Korean defectors and human rights in general.  She wants the world to know the true fate of North Koreans, both those that remain and those that defect – both successfully and unsuccessfully.  She has done multiple TED talks, one of which is embedded below.  While North Korea still suffers under the boot of a third generation “leader” in Kim Jong-Un (or, as I refer to him, Pudgy Bucket of Baby Fat with the Worst Haircut Ever), Lee and others like her seek to shine the light of the international community on the horrible conditions imposed on North Koreans, the savage human rights abuses, and above all, a form of government for which no decent, civilized human being should give any quarter.  Her goal is to see the Korean peninsula re-united, with the people of the North living under the banner of freedom.  We should all say a prayer for the North Korean people, and root for Ms. Lee to one day to witness the realization of her dream.

Exit The Warrior: Neil Peart, 1952-2020

There are drummers, and then there are really good drummers.  And then there is Neil Peart.  It’s almost fitting of Peart that his death was not announced until today, January 10th, three days after his actual death on January 7th.  Whereas others did things in simple time and merely kept the beat, Peart’s timing – in drums and in life – was never conventional.  Hence the announcement of his death not on the day he died, but three days later.  The beats never fell quite where they were expected.

There is not much I can say about Peart, the drummer, that hasn’t already been said.  Just about every superlative imaginable has been used to describe his drumming, and a few have probably even been made up.  Peart was simply so good at what he did that new words needed to be invented if one wanted to give an adequate description.  And still, it fell short.  You just had to listen to him play, and if were lucky, see him.  Peart set a standard the drummers everywhere have been trying to live up to, with only a few able to even get within the ballpark.  That’s not a criticism of those that can’t.

Part of the reason Peart was such an incredible talent on the drums has to do with his own philosophy for living.  Whether by temperament or practice, Peart was a Stoic’s Stoic.  He comported himself in a way that would have made Epictetus and Marcus Aerelius proud.  Far from indulging in the perks of fame and fortune and losing his head, Peart shied away from the excesses of the rock star lifestyle.  Instead of flying in a fancy jet between tour dates, as would be common for rockers of his stature, Peart rode his motorcycle between cities, choosing instead to indulge himself in nature and the world around him.  Instead of chasing groupies and destroying hotels, Peart would sit quietly in his room, reading books, filling his head with knowledge.

And as an artist, he valued his integrity above all else.  He was never content to simply go through the motions for a given song or a given album.  It had to be his best.  Nor would Peart, the chief lyricist of Rush, chase hits with sappy love songs and the like.  He deplored the excess commercialization of rock music, as spelled out in the lyrics of one of Rush’s more popular songs, The Spirit of Radio.

From a personal perspective, the timing of the arrival of both Rush and Peart into my life was most serendipitous.  In the spring of 1979, I purchased their breakthrough album, 2112.  As Rush fans are well aware, 2112 revolves around themes of the individual vs. the collective, totalitarianism, and the human spirit’s unshakeable yearning to be free.  Around that same time, I was having numerous, lengthy conversations with my maternal grandmother who, along with my grandfather, aunt, and mother, were defectors from the communist hellhole known as East Germany.  Whereas Peart’s lyrics from 2112 introduced me to a fictional world in which the human spirit was crushed by a totalitarian government, the talks with my grandmother introduced me to one that was all too real.  Individually, 2112 and the talks with my grandmother both left strong impressions on my.  Together, those impressions reinforced one another to leave an indelible mark.

My story is just one of perhaps millions with regard to the influence of Neil Peart.  The impact drummers have on their fans is through their drumming, and little more.  They set an example of how to play drums.  Peart, on the other hand did so much more.  He set an example on how to live, how to maintain one’s self when the surrounding world is pulling in different direction, how to maintain one’s integrity through the ups and downs that life throws at all of us.  And thankfully, so much of that is recorded for posterity.

Thank you, Neil, for being a shining example for all of us.

Tool de Force: Tool’s New ‘Fear Inoculum’ Was Worth the Wait

We’ve been waiting.  Oh man, have we been waiting – over thirteen years, to be exact.  I fear-inoculumhad begun to believe that the title of the their last album – 10,000 Days – was Tool telegraphing us the time it would take to see the next one.  Thankfully, they beat that by a good fourteen years.  Better yet, what they have finally delivered has made the wait all the more worth it.

Fear Inoculum – the digital version, anyway – clocks in at a hefty one hour and twenty-seven minutes.  Not only is the album itself long, but six of the album’s ten tracks eclipse the 10-minute mark, with the longest clocking in at over fifteen.  But it’s not merely the duration of the album or that of the individual tracks that is significant here.  Every second counts on Fear Inoculum, which is more consistent in its excellence from start to finish than any of their previous releases.

Lyrically, the album continues the trend of introspection and contemplation started on 2001’s Lateralus, while dispensing with the rage-fueled catharsis of previous works dealing with institutional decay (Intolerance), the decadence of Los Angeles (Aeneima), or humanity’s lamentable will to fight each other over any and everything (Right in Two).  On Fear Inoculum, Tool focuses in on the inner struggle of facing one’s fears (the title track, 7empest) and dealing with one’s aging and mortality (Invincible, Descending).

From a musical perspective, Fear Inoculum is stunning in its quality.  The soloing in Adam Jones guitar work is as dynamic as its every been, while in plenty of other places he dishes out scores of power chords as meaty as a thick, sizzling ribeye.  Danny Carey’s drumming exceeds even his own typical excellence, combining the rhythmic intricacy of Bill Bruford at his best while also employing plenty of Bonham-esque heavy thuds right when appropriate.  Justin Chancellor’s bass work provides a nice, thick bottom to the music, wrapping perfectly around Carey’s drumming while keeping the listener engaged in guessing where the next beat will fall.

Although the album is stacked with good tracks, there are two in particular that stand out for me.  Invincible is the first of these tracks.  This one is positively infectious; it just gets into your bloodstream.  The first seven minutes are a textbook example of slowly building tension.   After the explosion, the song slows down, although Carery’s heavy drumming is active underneath, before the band makes one final, mad dash to the finish line.  Throughout, the aging warrior tries to hang on to what was as Father Time strips it away.

Tears in my eyes chasing Ponce de Leon’s phantoms.
So filled with hope I can taste mythical fountains.
False hope, perhaps,
But the truth never got in my way before now.
Feel the sting. Feeling time bearing down.

7empest is the penultimate track on the album and possibly the ultimate track in Tool’s catalog.  In its fifteen-plus minutes of running time, it encapsulates virtually everything that makes Tool great.  After a delicate intro of about a minute and a half, Jones guitar snarls and lets the listener know that go time is rapidly approaching.  Carey’s drums join in, and soon enough, the band punches it, the g-forces pushing the listener back into their seat from the sudden acceleration.  The music builds to a first climax, before transitioning into a middle phase notable for Jones’ hypnotic, exotic soloing.  Meanwhile, Carey’s drumming and Chancellor’s bass work provide a solid underpinning.  A brief, (relatively) mellow interlude follows before the song picks up the pace and the band brings it to a close.  It’s a very satisfying listen.

In fact, the whole album is a very satisfying listen.  Fear Inoculum is an album that breaks enough new ground to sound fresh while still having the recognizable Tool tool-fear-inoculumsound.  Lyrically, it is by far the most mature album they have made, perhaps owing to the wisdom accumulated over the years (most definitely including those from the last album to this one).  After such a long delay, it’s fair to wonder when we will see the next Tool album, much less if we’ll see another Tool album.  Should this turn out to be Tool’s swan song, they will have gone out on the highest of high notes.  You can’t ask for much more than that.