Flash Fiction Month #4: Religious Epiphany

I know little about the readers of Invisible Blog, and their browsing behavior, but they can always read the 3rd installment here.


“What’s that on the road? It looks sticky,” my daughter Anna said to me one warm, sunny day when I was supervising my childrens’ play time. She was pointing at a dark red discoloration towards the center that was roughly aligned with our driveway, perfectly placed for cars to repeatedly run over it. I sighed – with her fifth birthday a few months behind her, she was beginning to notice things about the world that I could not leave unexplained lest she begin to develop some dangerous ideas.

“That, my daughter, is God. You must treat it with the utmost respect and reverence,” I explained. She raised an eyebrow; meanwhile, her twin brother George waddled over to listen; even though he’d asked the question a few months earlier, his presence, knowing grin, and overfed mass would help drive in my points.

“Mommy told me that there are many gods, like Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya, and others. Is that Loki?” Anna asked me. This presented something of a problem I had to deal with before I could continue.

“Your mother, as a devout Odinist, will never agree with me on religious matters. We promised not to argue about it, but just between you and me… well… I don’t believe in those gods and never will,” I responded. As I spoke, I got out of the lawnchair I’d been reclining in, walked over to our cooler, and picked out a sealed vial of chilled blood. It was about a day old (I’d drawn it personally from a passing solicitor), but the cold had kept it reasonably fresh until then.

“By far, the most important part of worshiping God is feeding it, so that it may manifest more powerfully in our world. I will demonstrate.” I walked over to the stain, and after making sure there was no oncoming traffic, I unsealed the blood and slowly dribbled it onto the red stain in the road.

“How often do you do this?” Anna asked.

“No less than every three days, and preferably more. God is hungry and must feed until the great awakening… which could even be today, if we’re lucky.”

And then we were lucky, for the blood-stained asphalt began to glow bright yellow. Eerie multicolored runes and sigils appeared in midair, tracing an elliptical orbit twelve feet tall and perhaps half as wide. I gestured for Anna and George to stand back as the air between the corruptions faded to a dull brown, interspersed with a foul gray smoke that was beginning to expand out towards us. I remembered this from my training – any moment now, something would emerge from the coalescing portal to reward my efforts in tending to it!

“ARE YOU THE BEING WHO SUMMONED ME?” a voice called out, seemingly from everywhere and nowhere, although most likely still on the other side of the portal.

“Oh great master from beyond, it is I who has brought you forth into this world to do as you please! What is thy bidding?” I shouted back. Usually, I wouldn’t be so obsequious, but I had to set a good example for my daughter.

“DON’T OPEN THIS PORTAL AGAIN. I’M TRYING TO FARM PRESTIGE IN BLACK OPS III.”

With that, the portal popped out of existence with none of the drama that had heralded its initial appearance. The red stain on the ground disappeared. Anna raised an eyebrow.

“So… uh… is your mother taking converts?” I asked Anna, but she ignored me as she went back inside to play with George.

Flash Fiction Month #3: Everything But The Taste

It never ends… until the end of the month. Read the previous installment here.


There’s this new restaurant in town that specializes in flatbreads. Every type you could think of – pizzas, pitas, paninis, pancakes! …I guess that’s not exactly representative, and many of those aren’t exactly flat, but I had to alliterate. So many styles from all over the world, every possible filling I could imagine, Yelp reviews claiming good prices and large portions… needless to say, I had to give it a shot. Perhaps it was a bit out of my comfort zone when it comes to food, but sometimes I like to experiment. What could possibly go wrong?

Flatland (interestingly named) was built at the intersection of Elm Avenue and Steel Street, straight in the middle of a half-gentrified neighborhood that’s seen some pushback from the more impoverished of its artsy hipster inhabitants, as they seem to prefer inexpensive housing to luxurious shops. The frontline of the construction projects is about two blocks away at this point, so my dining experience was fortunately not dulled by sharp, ear-piercing noises of construction. The interior decorator must’ve had Edwin Abbott on the mind, because the furniture and decorations were rather more abstract and angular than the food. Upon arrival, I was immediately tended to by a polite and attentive set of staff, who saw to my orders and requests in a timely fashion.

Now, judging from the service, you would probably guess that I was quite impressed with Flatland as a whole. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I ordered some miniature pizzas as appetizers to hold me over for my main course – a dish of Ethiopian wat made with fresh chicken and served with injera. This was when my entire experience fell apart. Bear with me for a second – I’m not saying the food was bad, because to be honest, it actually wasn’t. It might’ve been a better experience if it was, though – I can remember almost nothing about my meal other than that it at least resembled what it was supposed to be. I guess the real problem is that I, a middling cook at best, could’ve prepared the sort of dishes I saw for about the same price and investment of time. If I’d done that, the flatbreads would at least be tailored to my personal tastes. Instead, I ended up wasting gasoline for a surprisingly… flat experience. I guess you can’t get lucky every time.

Needless to say, I can’t recommend Flatland, but it troubles me greatly that I can’t honestly condemn it.

 

Flash Fiction Month #2: Alternative Fuel Sources

The second installment. Read the last one here. Comes in handy if you’re not viewing posts chronologically.


Railroads are like rattlesnakes. If you spot one off in the distance and hear a train whistling, you should get out of the area as quickly as possible; otherwise, the train might see you, mark you as prey, and jump the tracks in an attempt to kill you and then devour you. That would especially inconvenience the passengers.

Between highways, cargo planes, and enormous container ships, trains have had it rough in the last few years, as their sources of prey grow ever scarcer. In the 19th century, none of these were particularly concerning (much less existent) threats to railroad tycoons. Nowadays, they call those years a golden era – when with the help of a horde of underpaid drudges new tracks would veer dangerously close to your land, and all you could say for fear of reprisal was that you hoped it would grant you access to goods from New York or Philadelphia.

The funny things about trains are that they take bribes, and that they don’t have an especially advanced sense of self preservation. This confluence first entered public eye when on May 12th, 1851, the enterprising Alexander Rodkin snuck into a switching station under the cover of night. Using a rare blend of cunning, guile, and (mostly) gold bullion, he convinced a steam locomotive intended to carry grain from Chicago to an industrial bakery in Erie to attack a nearby passenger station on the way. Besides resulting in seven fatalities, it had the despicable side effect of delaying the grain shipment by over seven hours.  Jurisprudence back in the day didn’t account for murderous machinery, but Rodkin’s actions were condemned nationwide as irresponsible, and he spent the rest of his days imprisoned.

For whatever reason, the train got off without any consequences. It also managed to convey its newfound taste for human flesh to locomotives across the country. You should know the rest of the story from here – a wave of deadly train ‘accidents’ across the country, desperate attempts to design less barbaric railroads that were quickly squashed by the beginning of the American Civil War, and eventually an uneasy equilibrium as we slowly learned how efficient and cost-effective a carnivorous train can be. By keeping a harsh penal code and otherwise sacrificing a pound of flesh or so as needed, the United States ensured the dominance of its rail system for decades.

Some people say that between the declining use of commuter rail and the increasing popularity of diesel-electric motors, the age of killer railroads may be coming to an end. Personally, though, I’d keep my wits about in case an opportunity arises to serve the greater good.

 

Flash Fiction Month #1: Coping With Workplace Feedback

I’m trying something new and presumably interesting this July! Each of this month’s posts will be a self-contained story, most likely of about the usual 400-500 word length. I make no guarantees of subject, style, or anything else, and this one actually turned out a little lengthier than expected.


“Pac-Man with a goatee? That’s… frightening.”

Jim Simmons had been working as a concept artist for Bandai-Namco for an entire week, but he was sure he wouldn’t make it to the second. Nobody seemed to appreciate his design ideas, and his boss had already yelled at him on Wednesday, almost begging him to stick to illustration.

“If my count is correct, you’ve submitted at one hundred twenty nine separate proposals to change our character designs in the last two days,” she’d said. “This includes fifty one changes to the Tekken roster, fourteen variants of the King of All Cosmos, and no less than twenty five separate and sometimes conflicting redesigns of Pac-Man. Absolutely none of these are salvageable! What were you thinking?”

In the present, Jim’s boss sighed and slowly, almost delicately tore his latest image (entitled “Pac-Riker”) into uneven strips of paper. It wasn’t ideal, but his previous artistic efforts had jammed her office’s shredder. After depositing the scraps in her trash bin, she had to jam her foot down on the ensuing pile to keep it from overflowing and covering the floor with garbage.

It was 4:01 PM on a lazy Friday. Jim was trembling outside his cubicle, almost certain that within the hour, he’d be summoned back to his boss’s office for an immediate termination. One thing was certain – he absolutely had to find a way to prove his worth within the hour in order to have even the slightest chance of keeping his job. He looked at the stack of recent drawings on his desk, and finally decided that conventional means weren’t going to work – these were hasty and incomprehensible even by Jim’s standards. One of them caught his eye, though – a nondescript humanoid of ambiguous species and most everything else, except for a strangely flat and angular head – Jim suddenly had a flash of brilliant insight. He was working in the wrong medium! With that idea suddenly animating him, he stood up from his desk, collected his portfolio, and headed for a nearby copying machine.

With five minutes to go before the workday ended, Jim’s boss left her office, intending to cut Jim loose and therefore save her company. She’d barely opened the door when she heard a bloodcurdling scream to her left. The firing would have to wait; she sprinted towards the source of the awful noise, only to slip on something red, damp, hurtling towards her-

It was somebody’s blood. The boss scrambled to her feet, desperately trying to find out what was going on. She soon saw that Jim was repeatedly slamming the lid of the copier down onto the head of her secretary. To be honest Remy’s fastidiousness and demands for exacting precision occasionally got on even her nerves, but his administrative skills still had made him the star of the department up to that point; in an office full of creative types, that was quite an achievement. However, it looked like Remy wouldn’t be able to perform his duties any more – Jim’s constant bludgeoning had smashed his head open and flattened his skull into… was that a rectangle?

Jim finally noticed his boss had arrived on the scene, and gently lifted Remy’s mutilated  corpse off the copier, presumably to demonstrate his handiwork.

“What do you think of my Remy redesign? It’s a little drastic, but I’m hoping you’ll like it,” he said to her in the calmest voice he’d mustered ever since she’d first trashed his drawings.

“…I actually quite like it,” she responded. Then she fainted.

Needless to say, Jim’s handiwork didn’t go over too well with the police.

 

Acid Bath – Paegan Terrorism Tactics (1996)

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What separates Paegan Terrorism Tactics from its immediate predecessor? I’d say it boils down to two years of alternative/indie rock history. In many ways, it continues the path set by When The Kite String Pops –murder, torture, genre bending, beat poetry -, but in a more streamlined, svelte package. I don’t know how influential that first album was (iffy sources claim it had sold 37,000 copies by 1999), but this album is definitely a faithful successor. Familiarity with one may well lead to knowledge of the other.

By circumstance, my impression of this album’s music ends up nearly identical to Acid Bath’s aforementioned 1994 debut. Various styles of rock and metal across the entire spectrum of extremity cavort together, and frequently mix so thoroughly as to be difficult to extricate from one another. Vocals remain important, especially since they drive (potentially) disturbing lyrical content that wins points for its use of vivid, almost synesthetic imagery even if the topic matter is pretty common in metal. Paegan Terrorism Tactics does, however, have the significant advantage of more coherent songwriting, with less random turns and better riff glue between song sections. When the band members do decide to go all abrupt on me again (Example: “Locust Spawning”), they even manage to exploit the contrasts in such a method more effectively. Add to that a notable, if relatively minor production/audio engineering advantage, and you have a pretty standard improved/iterated 2nd album situation; not that there’s anything wrong with that.

To be honest, it took me a while to decide whether or not Paegan Terrorism Tactics was actually better than When The Kite String Pops. I mentioned in my review for the previous album that it was one that took some time for me to really appreciate, although there were a few tracks that drew me in nearly immediately. After developing an appetite for sludge, it didn’t take me nearly as long to apply that taste to the task of appreciating this one. As you can expect, I took to these tracks more immediately, and that alone is enough to seriously distort my perception of this album. This phenomenon has definitely happened before; it’s flavored my opinions of bands like Morbid Angel, Therion, and Enslaved, to mention a few that don’t often come up on Invisible Blog anymore. Still, I was able to isolate some aspects that I think actually are superior on this album, which makes it hard to resist writing something along the lines of “that has to be worth something”… but I think I managed to avoid that cliche, right?

Either way, Acid Bath’s second (and final) album is a better version of their first one, which in itself is a worthy listen.

Highlights: “Bleed Me An Ocean”, “Graveflower”, “Dead Girl”

Manilla Road – Voyager (2008)

1000x1000.jpgVoyager predates the “nation designer” feature in Europa Universalis IV by seven years. If you ever purchase that game and want to play as an ahistorical Norse nation in Mesoamerica, then you have yourself the perfect soundtrack right here. Voyager is also another prime example of the expanded and dare I say exaggerated post-reformation Manilla Road. It certainly has something of an intensity edge over Spiral Castle, which I certainly appreciate, although much of its abrasion and grit are channeled into slow, even doomy songs where older incarnations of the band preferred raw speed.

Regardless, anyone who’s familiar with prior recordings by Manilla Road should expect even more of it from Voyager. The band’s trademark epic take on traditional heavy metal continues unbroken here (just like the narrator’s family in the intro to the first track), but those who skipped over from an album like Crystal Logic might find the extended songwriting, abrasive guitar, and occasional straight up death metal vocals take some getting used to. Considering that Manilla Road never ended up joining the death metal bandwagon in the 1980s, the fact they’ve amped things up this much is pretty impressive. The songwriting hasn’t changed much on a structural level, but songs tend to be significantly longer and rely more on repetition to get their points across. To be honest, I can see a hypothetical 1983 Manilla Road writing this album, although I doubt it would’ve sounded as heavy.

The emphasis on repetition and aural texture isn’t unheard of, but it’s rarely this prominent within Manilla Road’s individual songs, much less entire albums. The lone exception, so far as I am aware, is Gates of Fire, and I would go as far as to claim that album is basically a rough, unrefined prototype for this one. Combine this with the heavier emphasis on theming, and you have a recipe for unmatched cohesion in the band’s discography. It makes listening to this album quite a journey, especially if you listen to the entire thing in one go. That way, you’ll get a feeling for how Manilla Road keeps developing their set of musical ideas throughout this album. On the other hand, the individuality of these songs suffers in the process. The ideal for this sort of concept album, at least as I see it, is a band that can reach further into their creative reservoirs without sacrificing cohesion. More individual and/or complicated riffs might’ve helped, and some of the more distinct interludes, while occasionally cool (like the organ solo at the beginning of “Blood Eagle”) aren’t very effectively integrated into the rest of the tracks in which they belong. I guess we can’t win them all.

Even with that songwriting flaw, this is not only a well executed Manilla Road album, but still a distinct one compared to the collections of songs that make up most of their discography. I won’t go as far as to say that Manilla Road should keep writing tight concept albums; for all I know, they already have, but since I’ve yet to listen to anything newer, I can’t personally speak on the matter.

Highlights: “Tree of Life”, “Voyager”, “Conquest”

Mike Oldfield – Hergest Ridge (1974)

mike-oldfield-hergest-ridge-ds55p-front.jpgNo, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Mike Oldfield’s discography. I am assured by polite company that it is enormous. Hergest Ridge, while not as commercially successful or as well known as the guy’s debut (Tubular Bells), still tells an interesting commercial story – it reached #1 on the British OCC album charts before being knocked off a mere three weeks later by … you guessed it, Tubular Bells. Progressive rock used to be big money; now, the music industry is shriveled and dying even as the quantity of available music increases at an ever growing rate. But let’s not dwell on such things for the moment.

Hergest Ridge is a compilation of two lengthy instrumental pieces that presumably are inspired by the scenery of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands where it was conceived and recorded. You can imagine how such sparsely settled countryside (… by European standards; compare to the USA if you need a laugh) would make for generally soft and approachable music, although there are a few sections that break this rule, including the famous “thunderstorm” in the second part that was my formal introduction to this album. One of Mike Oldfield’s famous gimmicks is that he imitates some structural aspects of orchestral music by recording lots of instrumental parts and overdubbing them to make dense walls of sound; he also uses a lot of studio wizardry to make instruments sound like other instruments. The sheer amount of effort here means that any attempts to transfer Hergest Ridge to other arrangements would dramatically alter its sound, even if maybe not so much its structure.

Since I haven’t listened to the rest of Oldfield’s discography, I can’t say to what extent the upcoming songwriting tropes hold elsewhere, but one thing I’ve found particularly notable is that this album seems to strike a balance between the extended ‘narrative’ songwriting a lot of other progressive rock albums engage in and a more ambient approach. The number of discrete song sections on display (which are a good sign of the former) is easier to pick up on, at least initially. The order that Oldfield organizes each part of his songs, as well as the transitions between them, though, emphasize mood and texture over dynamics. If you’re not paying attention, Hergest Ridge seems to repeat itself a great deal, but there’s enough subtle microvariation here to keep that from literally being the case. I should also note that the second part, while not dramatically different and even sharing many of the same musical themes and motifs, is more active and formally structured than the second.

Most likely, Oldfield’s greatest strength on this album is the aforementioned ‘ambient’/’progressive’ fusion. It’s not entirely unheard of, and a lot of bands on one side of the fence stuck their toes through to the other just to feel out what it was like, but it’s still pulled off well here. It doesn’t always align with my tastes, but it does make for an interesting spin on the era’s formulas.

Highlights… aren’t exactly helpful on an album with only two tracks, but do pay close attention to the aforementioned “thunderstorm” after 8:30 in Part II.