Monday, February 12, 2018

This article originally appeared on Laser Time, November 24, 2015.  This is my original, unaltered version.

7 Soundtracks inspired by books



We live in a world filled with countless soundtracks available to us: soundtracks based on movies, TV shows, video games, and Broadway musicals. But soundtracks based on books? Those things with words written on paper? Well, those are rare indeed. Here is a list of six soundtracks that nail the difficult task of translating books into music. As for the seventh entry, well... you'll see.

“Music Inspired by The Life and Times of Scrooge”
by Tuomas Holopainen
Based on: “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” by Don Rosa

Tuomas Holopainen is the keyboardist and lead songwriter for the Finnish metal band Nightwish, and though that juggernoght of a band has constantly kept him busy, he had long wanted to produce an album based on the Scrooge McDuck comic – a book he claims as his favorite story of all time. The album, released in 2014, is not a metal album in the style of Nightwish, but more of a traditional orchestral score, with some vocals. The music is tremendous. An epic tale of sweeping melodies that puts even the most grand Hollywood movie score to shame.

“Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire”
by Joel McNeely
Based on: “Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire” by Steve Perry

In 1996, Lucasfilm launched a hugely successful Star Wars expanded universe story called Shadows of the Empire. Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the book was only the beginning. The project also spawned a series of action figures, a Nintendo 64 video game, a comic by Dark Horse, and its very own soundtrack. Joel McNeely was personally selected by John Williams to take on the project. McNeely may not be a household name, but he's definitely no slouch and is a very accomplished composer in his own right.

The music score is outstanding. The production quality is right up there with an proper Star Wars film soundtrack. There are elements of classic Star Wars themes, but the score is largely original, and yet it fits in perfectly to the Star Wars universe. This soundtrack sounds like it belongs to an early 80s sci-fi adventure that was never made.

“Nightfall in Middle Earth”
by Blind Guardian
Based on: “The Silmarillion” by J. R. R. Tolkien

Blind Guardian is a German band widely considered to be the king of the genre called Power Metal – a style of metal that is highly melodic with a larger than life style of epic, bombastic music. Many European metal bands feature fantasy themes, but Blind Guardian's 1998 album is the only one of its kind: a full length concept album based entirely on a book that is neck-deep in Tolkien mythology. Blind Guardian's massive, wall of sound approach to music comes roaring to life on this album, punctuated by the band's incredibly technical musicianship and lead singer Hansi K├╝rsch's insane, harmony drenched vocals.

“Fear and Bullets”
by Trust Obey
Base on: “The Crow” by James O'barr

Trust Obey's Fear and Bullets was released in 1994 as a companion piece to a special edition of James O'Barr's classic graphic novel, and timed to ride the wave of publicity based on the movie's release that same year. Trust Obey was the brainchild of artist and musician John Bergin, friend of James O'Barr.

Fear and Bullets is a harsh, dark, industrial gothic take on O'Barr's highly stylized tale of revenge. Though it is not directly related to the movie, the album works as a companion to it as well as the book. Trust Obey later signed onto Trent Reznor's record label and only produced one other album, but it wouldn't be John Bergin's last appearance on this list.

"Traitor General”
by John Bergin
Based on: “Traitor General” by Dan Abnett

Based in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Traitor General was part of a fifteen(!) book series called Gaunt's Ghosts. I can't begin to make heads or tails of Warhammer, but I can tell you that this album seems to be crazy obscure, as I couldn't find a single listing for it on Amazon or eBay (though the entire album is on Youtube). I can also tell you that this music is a perfect fit for the Warhammer brand: dark, brooding, intense, and uncompromising.

Out of the roughly 10,000 books set in the Warhammer expanded universe, why they made a soundtrack based on this one book, god only knows, but it is worth checking out.

“The Dark Saga”
by Iced Earth
Based on: “Spawn” by Todd McFarlane

Iced Earth is arguably second only to Blind Guardian for Power Metal royalty. Both bands were hugely instrumental in popularizing the genre in the 90s. Iced Earth, however, always had more of a thrash metal edge to their music, which is fitting when it comes to this album. The Dark Saga is a retelling of the classic Spawn story in a way that only makes sense: through dark, brutal, heavy metal.

This album isn't Iced Earth's best work, but it is a showcase for what they are very good at: these guys love concept albums, and Spawn is a perfect fit into their style, which always leaned more towards sci-fi than fantasy.

“Space Jazz”
by L. Ron Hubbard and others
Based on: “Battlefield Earth” by L. Ron Hubbard

You are not going insane. Yes, it's true: You just read the words “Space Jazz, based on Battlefield Earth.” Released in 1982, along with the book, Space Jazz was touted as the first ever soundtrack for a book. L. Ron Hubbard is credited as the composer, but it is believed that his project partners did most of the real work. If you're into jazz, you might recognize some of the guest performers like Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. It is surprisingly hard to track down audio clips from this oddity; there are only a couple tracks you can find on YouTube, and, well, it's jazz all right.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

This article originally appeared on Laser Time, August 20, 2015.  This is my original, unaltered version.

8 Reasons Predator 2 is the Best Predator

Legendary director Ingmar Bergman once said of cinema: “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” In the film Predator 2, Danny Glover's character, Det. Mike Harrigan, said: “Okay Pussyface, it's your move.”

And that is Predator 2 in a nutshell: harsh, intense, blunt, and above all, aggressive. Predator 2 is a nasty piece of work, and I mean that in the best way possible. Full of awesome action, brutal violence, and more f-bombs than you can shake a smart disc at, Predator 2 has always been a personal favorite of mine, and I've long felt that it has been unjustly maligned ever since its release back in 1990.

That's right. 1990. Which means 2015 marks the sci-fi sequel's 25th anniversary. What better time to countdown the many reasons why Predator 2 is the best Predator of them all.

1 - Twentieth Century Fox spared no expense...

Here we see the production of Predator 2 recreate a typical Los Angeles rush hour”

Though the budget for Predator 2 is listed at $35 million, it looks like it cost twice that amount, and director Stephen Hopkins is owed much of that credit. His vision of a near future Los Angeles is shot through an impressive array of camera techniques, from ultra-smooth stedi-cam work, to long, elaborate dolly shots. Combine that with great cinematography and razor sharp editing, the movie is a visual stunner, which brings us to the amazing production itself: Elaborate sets, large scale location shots in the heart of Los Angeles, amazing practical and optical visual effects, and a tremendously large cast full of great talent: Danny Glover, Ruben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, Gary Busey, Bill Paxton, Robert Davi, Morten Downey jr., Kevin Peter Hall as the Predator, and a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin.

To top it all off, Predator 2 was given the Thanksgiving holiday for its opening weekend, one of the top four premier weekends for the entire year (Memorial Day, The 4th of July, and Christmas being the other three). Regardless of the Monday morning quarterbacking that came afterwards, Fox was all-in on Predator 2.

2 – No Arnold? No Problem

I'm too old for this shit? No, YOU'RE too old for this shit!”

Much of the blame for Predator 2's lack of box office success was place on Arnold Schwarzenegger not returning. I never understood this argument. The movie is about the Predator, not Arnold's Special Ops unit. It only made sense for there to be a new group of characters to follow, and a new environment as well. Anything else would be a simple rehash of the first movie. **cough-Predators-cough**

Danny Glover may not have been the iconic action hero that Arnold was, but he sure gave it his best shot – and gave us one of sci-fi's most memorable characters in return. Glover's Mike Harrigan is one serious mother fucker. He is a tightly wound coil of pure testosterone and aggression. He isn't just a loose cannon, he's a loose artillery battalion. Get in his way and he will knock you the fuck out and not give a shit. He is the action movie version of the Honey Badger.

3 – We join our story, already in progress...

One of the great things about both Predator movies is that they would still be compelling stories, even if the Predator wasn't there killing everybody. Set ten years after the events of the first movie, Predator 2 takes place in the “future” world of 1997, but they don't go overboard on the futuristic setting. The only indication that the movie is set in the future is that all the guns have laser sights and the police drive around in Pontiac Transport vans.

In the future, all guns will have laser sites.”

However, the near-future setting is important, because the movie depicts Los Angeles as a war zone, with rival gangs of Colombian and Jamaican drug cartels fighting for control of the city. The police are out numbered, outgunned, and barely keeping their heads above water. The city is on the verge of Marshal Law, and that is before the Predator shows up. Much like the Spec-Ops mission of the first movie, the LA war zone is a fantastic setup for a great action movie. The alien hunter from space who rips out spines and keeps them for trophies is just icing on the cake.

4 – The Predator is Bigger, Better, and more Bad Ass

In the first movie, the Predator simply had his cloaking device, wrist blades, and a shoulder cannon (As well as the handy self destruct weapon). Showing that much like human hunters who stalk animals, the Predator shows up to the hunt with the odds in his favor to take on prey that has no idea he is there with ridiculously overpowered weaponry and call it “sport.” But I digress.

The Predator shows off his Fatality from the new Mortal Kombat game.”

Our hunter in Predator 2 comes with those standard weapons, but packs a whole new bag of goodies: a net launcher, a retractable spear, a spear gun, and the smart disc – a heat seeking, bladed Frisbee of death. His new mask also has more “Predator Vision” modes that he can see in. There have been countless iterations of the Predator in comic books, video games, and a few movies, but his arsenal of gadgets has remained largely unchanged since Predator 2, because it just doesn't get much better.

5 – It is Alan Silvestri's finest hour

Music composer Alan Silvestri is arguably best known for his scores to Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and, well, Predator. For good reason: Alan Silvestri is an outstanding music composer whose list of film scores is riddled with excellence. And Predator 2 might just be the best of them all.

Silvestri takes the themes established in the first movie and cranks them up well beyond eleven. With an ever-so intensified tempo, the percussion hits a little harder, the strings stab a little sharper, and the horns hit you in the chest like a sledgehammer. Added to the mix are a fresh set of tribal drums and a creepy, low end vocal chorus. The results are audio gold.

I you need any convincing, just listen to the End Titles suite – an eight minute tour de force that starts off slowly and softly before weaving upwards of six or seven distinctly different motifs that builds and builds to a monumental climax. It is equal parts mysterious and sinister, epicly sweeping and intensely action packed. If you get to the end of that track and don't feel goosebumps, you better go see a doctor, because you are probably dead.

If you like what you hear, be sure and get the album through Laser Time's link.”

6 – Bill Paxton completes the movie-monster trifecta

Spoiler Alert: Lots of people die in this movie. Most of them very violently. In fact, Predator 2 is reportedly the first movie to earn an NC-17 rating purely for violence – it was edited several times to get an R rating (Even Stephen Hopkins himself seemed shocked by the violence in his own movie when he recorded his director's commentary for the DVD). Bill Paxton is among the vast body count, making him the first, and only, actor to die onscreen at the hands of a Predator, and Alien, and a Terminator. But he doesn't go down without a fight. Paxton's death in Predator 2 is much more heroic and dignified than the latter two movies.

Dying on-screen is my specialty!”

And before anyone says “But Lance Henrickson in The Terminator, Aliens, and AvP...” - Remember, Bishop survived his encounter with the Queen in Aliens; it was the escape pod's crash in Alien 3 that was his ultimate undoing.

7 – The massive, 30 minute climax

So... remember what Harrigan said about the Predator's face earlier?”

The final showdown between Dutch and the Predator in the first movie was a classic mano-a-mano movie beat down, but much of that climax played out like a stealth mission in a game of Splinter Cell. By contrast, the finale of Predator 2 is more like a kinetic, non-stop epic game of deathmatch in Titanfall, and it lasts nearly one-third of the movie's running time.

It starts with an intense shootout in a high speed subway before spilling out into the LA streets, through a meet-packing plant, across rooftops, through brick walls, down elevator shafts, and finally ending up somewhere we've never been before – inside the Predator's ship itself, which leads to...

8 – The trophy case

Little known fact: The Predator ship also doubles as a laser tag arena.”

The lore and back story of the Predator was only hinted at in the first movie. Predator 2 opened up a whole universe of mythology the moment Harrigan discovers the Predator's trophy case on board the ship. Not only does it contain a few human skulls, but a wide range of all matter of creature skulls from many other alien worlds, including the jaw-dropper: an Alien Xenomorph skull.

Never before had one sci-fi movie made such a direct connection to another of that magnitude. Predator 2 may not have been seen by a lot of people when it hit theaters, but everyone remembered that scene. It was the mother of all Easter eggs that helped spawn the vast Aliens vs Predator franchise that includes comic books, video games, expanded universe novels, and even two movies. For better or worse, our pop culture gained a lot from what was intended to be a small, inside joke.

Honorable Mention – Because of “Fucking Voodoo Magic!”

There might be no sequence more bonkers than the one that results of the quote above: About twenty minutes into the movie, the camera enters the apartment of the Colombian drug lord El Scorpio. He is so busy having insanely crazy sex with his girlfriend that it takes him several moments to notice a band of Jamaican gang members have broken into his home.

The Jamaicans are there to prove their superiority over the Colombians by capturing their leader and cutting out his heart (which they do). But then the Predator shows up, kills the Jamaicans in a massive firefight, and shows them whose boss by hanging them up and skinning them. It is an insane series of events that you will likely never see in a movie again.

It says: 'Welcome to Jamaica, Mon. Have a nice day!'”