2016: End of Year List with the best music

So, it’s been out there, but why not publish this for myself as well. It’s one of the great privileges every year to share a list of the best records. My top 20 of 2016, a year of highs, lows and Donald Trump (that’s a special sort of low). Here goes! My End of Year list with music, but of course also some other talk.

2016: A good year for rock’n’roll

I can list tons of great shows that I was able to enjoy this year. From the Roadburn sets of Converge and Amenra to the dazzling display of Kvelertak and The Goddamn Gallows. The most insane crowd I saw during a show of Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes in Dynamo and as always the grindcore-mayhem on Bloodshed Fest was a pleasure, but so was the soaring hights of Eindhoven Psych Lab or the metal  inferno of Eindhoven Metal Meeting. There was also the experiment of Avant.Wav and a bit of Incubate… so much good stuff! Oh, did I mention that I got to see Black Flag?

The list

    1. Amenra – Alive
    2. Winterfylleth – The Dark Hereafter
    3. Dälek – Asphalt For Eden
    4. Rebel Wizard – Triumph of Gloom
    5. Possessor – Dead By Dawn
    6. David Bowie – Blackstar
    7. Furia – Księżyc milczy luty
    8. Nails – You’ll Never Be One Of Us
    9. Murmur Mori – O
    10. Wildernessking – Mystical Future
    11. Trap Them – Crown Feral
    12. Kvelertak – Nattesferd
    13. Opeth – Sorceress
    14. Zeal and Ardor – Devil is Fine
    15. Black Tomb – Black Tomb
    16. Rotting Christ – Rituals
    17. Waldgeflüster – Ruinen
    18. Oskoreien – All Too Human
    19. Wędrujący Wiatr – O turniach, jeziorach i nocnych szlakach
    20. Sun Worship – Pale Dawn

Some more words

Truly, 2016 had so much great stuff to offer. I’m glad I could check out so many of the records that I love, but there’s plenty that I feel should be on the list too. Sometimes you have to make choices though. There was plenty to chose from in 2016. I have high hopes for 2017. I feel the underground is stronger and richer than ever. Music thrives in bad times I guess. Punkrock for example was one of those things, so what will the next year bring? Will Trumped up economics  bring back bands we thought lost to us or will a new protest genre rise from the ashes of liberty?

If anything, I recommend listening to these 20 records. I feel that many of them demonstrate return to something more pure, perhaps turning way from the society that produces so much crap. Back to the essence of their respective genres. Well, that’s how they feel to me. Listen to music, listen to new records and if you can buy them. On bandcamp you can purchase music for a few euro’s, but every euro you invest may come back in the shape of another great record. Records make life better, trust me.

What’s your list?

 

Underground Sounds: Murg – Gudatall

Label: Nordvis
Band: Murg
Origin: Sweden

I’ve written about the previous Murg record on this page before, though not so dense when I look at it now. You can check that out here. The band from Bergslagen brings back a lot of classic black metal elements on their albums. The black and white, but also a blistering, northern sound. Don’t worry, they are not trapped in time in some sort of way.

Within a year from their debut ‘Varg & Björn’, the band is back with ‘Gudatall’. This album continues the quest of these unknown Swedes to bring back some tradition to the disparate black metal world. In an interview with 3rd Eye Mag, they explain their influences with classical names such as Dissection and Gorgoroth (but with addition of Tulus and Mgla). That should tell you plenty about what to expect from this record.

What is noticable instantly is that the band has found a bit more of an atmosphere in their sound. This creates a richer and fuller sound on this album, compared to the rather straight forward predecessor. A sound that has that full flavor of the bands they mention as their inspiration, not the thin ferocity of the original bands in the 2nd wave of black metal. A wall of dissonant, bleak guitar work with that sense of the great epic Dissection to it. It’s much less raw though, more controlled cascades of riff work rolling through the noisy fog of distortion. The vocals are harsh barks, with a commanding, rustic feel to them, which you hear in the more rural black metal bands like Windir.

In general, the sound of Murg has also put up some of that wavery, atmospheric sound here and there. A thin element of Winterfylleth -like nature worship perhaps, since that seems to be the stronger theme in their music. Still, there’s that Nidrosian black metal element, orthodox, harsh and mysterious, that makes Murg such a compelling act. They’re not too likely to join the more progressive stream of the genre. The frosty crips of the vocals, the grey haze of the rhythm section and that tremolo guitarplay are way to stuck in the frozen north. The blistering hail on ‘Mästarens resa i mörkret’, with the fierce vocals or the jagged, frantic ‘Midnattsmässan’ are a testament to that.

Murg is a fresh breeze in the black metal scene in the sense that they feel comfortable, as that old pair of shoes. But also great, because you can finally wear them again. This is obviously a great album.

Underground Sounds: Stilla – Skuggflock

Label: Nordvis
Band: Stilla
Origin: Sweden

What if you let go of the clichés that make up black metal and you explore a direction that is more organic, more close to heart and understandable. Ok, Stilla is still a black metal band of the atmospheric sort, but there’s something honest and straightforward to the band that makes them stand apart in a sea of rather unremarkable acts.

Previous offerings by Still are already highly appreciated thanks to their authentic flavor. This third release somehow brings it all together. The Swedish band creates something that is both engaging and densely atmospheric.

What I find particularly typical to the sound of Stilla is the assault. There is no passive beholder/listener, because the elements that make the songs constantly assault you and create tension. That puts them a bit on their own trajectory compared to the run of the mill atmospheric bands. This is immediately on the opener ‘Irrfärd’. It translates as ‘roving expedition’, but immediately spells danger. Threat of predators, threat of the elements and of the companions on this journey. The true assault starts on the next song with natural sounding blast beats. There’s no polished production but a very natural, full sound to the music. The vocals are intrusive, confrontational even at points. As if another is shouting in your face. All part of the journey.

In the meantime the guitars create archs that give a more atmospheric feeling. They sound rather decadent in combination with the gruff rhythms. Sometime Still even has a bit of a bold swagger to their sound. For example the song ‘I Tystnad Vilar Själen’, which reminds me a bit of the Satyricon groove of later records. Clean vocals are a peculiar thing on the album, but on this song they’re there. Somehow it gives the track a more earthy, punky aura. I think that’s pretty cool.

You also hear some clear Enslaved influences, with more progressive, stretched out soundscapes being presented. The wild, wind swept nature is evoked by the sound, the image of a rugged land with strong bones jutting from the earth in the shape or mountains and hills. In that sense there’s a hang towards the Cascadian black metal genre (or post black metal as some call it). The chanting, the synths, they all point towards a more subtle and natural sound. Still, every time the band pushes that a bit, they soon jump back to the more conventional sound.

Maybe on that front the song ‘Till den som skall komma’ is most typical for where Stilla is at now. The free darting guitars, the subtle tempo shift, but also the ragged, traditional black metal buzzsaw drone still there. The eerie organ, but also the barked, commanding vocals and cymbal-clashing blast beats. This is also where the charm of Stilla is, it lies in their duality and tension between the two faces of the band. That’s what makes this record so interesting, by showing both the harshness and the beauty in one form.

Star Trek Beyond and Spock: a reviewism

Stardate 24 december 2016, Captain’s log. For those who have read the more nerdy bits on my blog before, you already know that I’m a Star Trek fan. I had not watched Beyond yet and not really penned anything about the death of Leonard Nimoy. Christmas seems to be as good a time as any to do so.

Christmas time is an odd time for me. It’s a moment where everything winds down.  Suddenly the time presents itself to do some things you normally never get around to. For me this is particularly so. So yesterday I cancelt the christmas party at work, didn’t go to two great shows in Eindhoven, but instead crashed on the couch with a glass of stout, a pizza and Star Trek Beyond.

[Spoiler Alert: though I tried to keep things foggy]

Star Trek Beyond

I’m someone who grew up with Generations, not The Original Series, so I have a bit more of a modern view on the show perhaps than others. Also, I did see TOS as a child, so characters like Spock, McCoy and Kirk are as vividly present in my subconscious as those of other childhood heroes from other universes. Still, I liked the intellectual quality of Star Trek. It was a static show, hard to get into sometimes, but so rewarding if you were in the flow of things. It was rather opposite the ‘other fandom’  of Star Wars, with its lightsaber wielding, blaster bursting action.

The rebooted series lacks that static element and is as action packed as any Hollywood blockbuster of these days. I remember reading in Leonard Nimoy’s biography, how he felt that Star Trek gave people something to think of. This was his biggest pride in the series, the fact that scifi changed reality. This part is hard to see on first glance in the new film. The characters, don’t get me wrong, are great picks. They really fit the shoes they’re stepping into. Maybe for me Chris Pine as Kirk does lack some of the bravado that William Shatner has, who did of course make his name as a Shakespeare actor.

So the action packed story is great, though perhaps slightly unlikely, but so are the original Star Trek films. Perhaps the near-death experiences are a bit too numerous. Where old Kirk took gambles, that luckily worked out, new Kirk jumps into the fire and rolls out unscathed a bit too often. But that’s part of the spectacle of current day cinema, particularly the fantastic. Simon Pegg was co-writer on this film. Regarding his view on nerd culture, that might be a good thing for the future, keeping Star Trek in line with its past.

To equality and beyond

But to the subtext, are there still provocative elements in Star Trek? Well, though Uhura would be the sexy lady of the film, she is now also a strong, independent woman, not just that one at the intercom. Looking back, that was something new in TOS, a woman in a professional position, but in a way it was a glorified secretary.

Sulu meets his ‘husband’ (implied by the fact the two have a child), which of course still counts as controversial in many parts of the world. It is peculiar to know though that George Takei’s homosexuality was never part of the show (though many will say it was evident). Takei didn’t like the decision, because it was contrary to the characters history and identity, and rightly so. So though it was intended as being forward thinking, the result feels forced and not very sincere.

So what remains? There is a story arch, culminating in a fight between Kirk and a former soldier, who believes war is what shapes us and can’t deal with the peaceful way the federation works. The obvious triumph of Kirk can be read as peaceful means of bureaucracy to be always preferable over war. It suggests that flawed organisations like a NATO or the fledgling EU are atleast attempts at something that is better than the sword. As a friend of mine told me once: “Ask any veteran who has seen battle, they’ll all tell you that to prevent war any alternative is better, any situation is preferable over war…”.

United in diversity… Food for thought for a generation or perhaps two that only knows discontent in peaceful times.

Also, before I forget to mention, the actor who plays Chekov, Anton Yelchin, died before the release of the film in an accident due to a problem with his car. No recasting for Chekov follows in the future.

Spock

One scene that makes an impact, is where the young Spock is informed of the old ambassador Spock’s death. A wordless scene, only briefly a picture of Leonard Nimoy shows on the screen as the elder Spock. There’s a moment that touches you. Nothing needs to be said, but Star Trek itself needed this good bye. We’ve said goodbye to Nimoy and now also to Spock.

The next mourning, I watched Star Trek II: Wrath Of Khan, with the end scene where Spock dies as well in the reactor chamber. It now really hit me that Spock is gone with Leonard Nimoy. Sure, Zachary Quinto is an excellent actor, but he is not Spock. The loss finally really sank in for me and it saddened me greatly.

A legacy

Leonard Nimoy has for me become someone who is larger than life. I read his biography’s and even though he’s just a man with failings, he is also a role model. He did so much in his life, which is hugely inspirational. I love how he spent his latter years exploring poetry and photography and vigorously opposing smoking. His first biography was titled ‘I’m Not Spock’. In this Nimoy is denying the connection between him and the character (check my bits on those books here). This book was difficult and felt like an identity crisis, but also conflicted on different levels. In the following book, 20 years later, Nimoy was free of those concerns. The title is ‘I am Spock’ and in it Nimoy embraced Spock as a part of Nimoy (and I guess of Nimoy as part of Spock).

It shows that unique thing that fantasy can do, which is to change the real world. To affect real people and inspire millions. Spock has become an entity, that used Nimoy as a conduit, or vice versa. He is fictional, but he can’t be, because he impacts the world, no? Maybe our fantasy is much more powerful than we know. That’s what I learned from Spock.

It’s like losing a father figure in a way, someone you truly look up to. Not like a child, blind to the failings of the man, but seeing them as character, like an adult. . I’m glad that there was a good bye moment. I’m not sure if the future of Star Trek will rekindle the fire of passion in me that I felt for it. Let’s hope so though.

Live Long and Prosper.

source: Trekcore.com

[END of Spoiler Alert]

There is a documentary out on the life of Nimoy/Spock, titled ‘For the love of Spock’, made by Nimoy’s son.

 

Bare chests and weak women: Barbarian metal

Metal has been widely divided into many subgenres, mostly based on sonic elements. We have the death, doom, black, prog and so fort, but there are always certain streams that defy genre but are constant. For example, Viking metal can range from pagan black metal to cheesy folk metal, as long as the Viking theme is present. There’s another type I’d like to mention: barbarian metal!

Disclaimer: This is merely a bit of thinking out loud… excuse me, thinking on paper. I’ve not really delved into the literature on this, I’m just thinking about what our changing society might think of something like barbarian metal. Can it still exist? Sure it can, I think.

Let me elaborate on this subject. It’s not metal about barbarians, it does feature certain imagery and references. The imagery is close to the sword & sorcery themes, featuring strong looking men, often bare chested, wielding heavy weaponry. The sound is also strong, pounding and rarely features subtleties. I’ll elaborate on this in the following paragraphs. What I want to adres mostly is the inevitable question about this stream in metal. Does it have a place in the now? With gender equality and beyond, does Conan metal still have a place?

The Eternal Warrior

I came across the concept of the ‘Eternal Champion’, through a similarly named band. The concept is derived from the work of Michael Moorcock. Wikipedia has defined the champion thusly: The Eternal Champion, a Hero who exists in all dimensions, times and worlds, is the one who is chosen by fate to fight for the Cosmic Balance; however, he often does not know of his role, or, even worse, he struggles against it, never to succeed. But as the man describes it himself:

Now, if we look at fiction, we could define many versions of the eternal champion. Drizzt Do’Urden, Aragorn, Varian Wrynn maybe even. Any sci fi franchise has their own. There is one verson though, that I would like to isolate here and that is the one of Conan The Barbarian. Conan exemplifies the expression found in what I call barbarian metal, whose progenitors are Manowar. A band loved by many, but clearly embracing the essence of this Eternal Warrior.

Conan, Masculinity and Metal

Conan is pure in all his emotions, he is cunning, fierce or benevolent, but he is always a warrior standing alone versus the tide. Bare chested with bulging muscles, he epitomizes the masculine directness that we find in various characters in fantasy and that is embodied in pretty much every Manowar song. Manowar even has a mascotte, named Manowarrior, who is pretty much Conan, standing on top of his battered and beaten enemies.

The music expresses the same values, it features muscular riffing and a straight forward approach. There are the pumping, heavy hitting rhythms and everything about the sound is ment to evoke that same feeling of epic manliness in a barbaric sense. There is little doubt about the inspiration for this, especially if you see the picture of Manowar in their loin-furs:

Mind, this is not a write-up on the whole gender matter. This is a theme that has been present in metal and fantasy for a long time, where masculinity (as we seem to have defined it) is pushed to its human limits with bulging chests, curving biceps and a full display of the male body as an invincible tool. It’s almost resembling the way we end to depict women these days, but this is not sensual in any way. This is a warrior. His body is his weapon, it’s the engine that drives the blade or axe to smithe the enemies.

It’s easy to make fun of Manowar, but their appeal is worldwide. It’s a band that attracts through its particular charm of masculine power, remarkably catchy songs and brotherhood vibe. They’re one of the great bands in the metal history. 

The music is similarly strong, loud and boisterous. It deals with exactly the warrior themes, but without any complexities or discussion, morals or any crap. It’s a straight forward masculine approach. To want is to take, to fight is to win.

Warrior music

Bands following in the steps of Manowar hold on to that notion of aggression and climactic songs. It’s music to pump your fists to, to bang your head to and stand with legs wide and raised fists. It’s empowering in a very pure and direct way. Though some bands might include this in their package, there’s no attempt to be knowledgeable about history as Iron Maiden does. No attempt to incorporate the occult and spiritual, like Led Zeppelin does. No politics and social themes like in Metallica‘s music. It reduced it to force.

Force and power, those are the main values. Domination of the other and the continuous struggle. It oversimplifies struggle to something that can be resolved with fists and bravado. With flexing muscles and the warriors cry. These have always been part of the metal discourse, as discussed by the more academic analysis of heavy metal. But what does that mean for todays attempt at gender equality?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PQ6335puOc

The thing is just, this is something we love. Something primordial that lifts us up and makes us feel better. Listening to a Manowar album or even one by Conan themselves can lift you up. It can make us do things with less fear, because the music makes us feel better. It doesn’t make us feel superior as men, but it does profoundly affect us.

Gender Equality and battle music

Now, we live in a time where gender equality is kind of a big deal. In a sense this would seem to be one of those last bastions that needs to be conquered and overthrown. But does it really? Is this masculinity really something that is bound up with gender that much or is there a place for female listeners too? Do they perhaps have equal desires for some fight, for power and strength? Wasn’t there a Red Sonja next to Conan? Don’t girls play video games, where crushing your opponents is awesome? Don’t they love fantasy and science fiction and playing Dungeons & Dragons? There is no gender bound up with this mentality and love for the sword.

Perhaps we always will have some warrior element in us and probably this is not just bound up with man, woman or whatever one claims to be. It’s a part of us it seems, regardless where it comes from what charges it. We all feel affinity with the warrior, with glory, with brotherhood… or sisterhood?
So if we leave out the manly, maybe this leaves metal as a perfect bonding ground of whatever sex you are or chose to be. We can all raise our horns together.

 

Underground Sounds: Harmasar – Din Pământ

Label: self-released
Band: Harmasar
Origin: Moldova

Moldavia is too most, me including, a strange land. Caught between east and west, the orient and the occident. It’s not fully known to me what the identity of this place is. Reason enough to rejoice, for Harmasar is there to tell us more about it with their particular Moldavian folk metal. There is a connection with bands like An Theos and Bucovina.

‘Din Pământ’ is the debut of this group and it tells us of the great battles that took place in the region in the ancient past. Back then the region fought against foreign invaders, like the Romans and Ottomans. It’s that feeling the band puts in their music. It also sets them apart from other folk bands who use folk more as a gimmick. In the sound of Harmasar it seems to be more fundamental, even more so it’s the base for their sound. The group hails from the capital Chisinau, where an active scene is brewing.

The title track opens the record with an upbeat bit of balkan folk, with a tinge of melancholy and an oriëntal flavor (however mild) to it. That folk element gets the heavy weight and bravado of a more modern war chant thanks to the addition of the guitars and drums on ‘Daoi’. A thunderous bit of war metal, with burly, masculine vocals, that even further set the tone. There’s a lot of screaming guitars, but all in all the music is not trying to over complicate the metal part. If needed a folky flute will give that special feel to a song ina solo

Particularly nice is that the band doesnt eschew any of the stereotypes of the region. They use what is there, which is also the sorrowful song on ‘Tapae’. It leavces you picturing a group of men sitting around a campfire, there wagons in a circle. The men are singing of their trouble. The tendency for the dramatic is definitely something you’ll find in Balkan music. Using it is only logical. The same goes for the energetic rhythms. The lamenting vocal delivery is in concord with that same whistle, which blows gently. Granted, the production is’nt sublime, but it’s good enough to properly convey the sound of the band and their gruff essence.

‘Din Pământ’ is a bold statement that puts Moldova on the folk metal map. Where folk metal has grown stale with an endless flood of German and Nordic bands, this is something new and more folk-based. Let’s hope translated lyrics will open up the rich history in the songs to the wider public of the genre.

 

Underground Sounds: Temaukel – Spirit of Wintek

Label: Self released
Band: Temaukel
Origin: Chile

There’s part of history you’ll never hear of, things you’ll never read about. It’s because they’ve become footnotes in a history so dense with violence and misery that we’ve simply forgotten it. Temaukel was there before time. Temaukel is the supreme deity of the Selk’nam people, creator of earth and the eastern sky, also named Wintek.

The Selk’nam, though heavily reduced, still reside in their native
Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of Chile. The few that are left, as a result of the civilised people that arrived there. Violent and hungry entrepeneurs launched an extermination campaign against the indigenous people, almost driving them to extinction. The band is the project of Krenn and this is the first release from the Chilean musician.

The album opens with a thunderous drum rhythm, which helsp in evoking a fiery, tribal spirit. It sounds like some heavy blackened death with bombastic elements. The continuous blast beats create a sort of calm on which the interwoven synths come out to play and enchant the listener. The fierce growled vocals complement the forward pushing music, always edging on the listener. It’s important to point out that the music is a vehicle for something deeper. I believe that the emotion in the music makes this album especially relevant, the frustration of repressed history and denial of past errors.  This is tangible in the presentation, while the studio work really helps in preserving the quality of the sound.

There’s a clear melodic structure that the sound forms, which makes it easy to listen to and follow. The lyrics are in English and are as important as the rest of the sound, even with the guttural, transformed delivery that is offered on ‘Howenh’.  The lyrics are saturated with spirituality and its almost tangible in the delivery. It’s a fierce, swooping sound that Temaukel delivers, which reminds me at time of Behemoth and maybe of the death and roll  of Satyricon. 

The band also doesn’t shy a way from some folk music on ‘Fires of Karukinka’, which is a long, wavery folky ballad. The final song ‘Tierra Del Viento’ follows in that same path, evoking a melancholic wish for the coast and the sea. The contrast and connectin between these songs and the previous part is bewildering, but a great listen. For a time gone and a past buried under time. A great record that should get the attention it deserves.

 

Underground Sounds: Khonsu – The Xun Protectorate

Label: Jhator Recordings
Band: Khonsu
Origin: Norway

First of all, boasting of guest appearances of Obsidian C. (Keep of Kalessin) and Torstein Parelius (Manes),  this instantly grabs attention. You’d almost think they’re just throwing names around, but there is absolutely no need for it. Khonsu has used prime musicians in the past, as a result of which their concept was made into a reality with the musical extravaganza that it requires.

Khonsu combines black metal, industrial and progressive elements and is a project of two musicians. S. Grønbech is the brother of Obsidian C. and worked on the well known Reclaim EP. T’sol has been active in various bands.  Khonsu” means “traveller” or “pathfinder” and is a reference to an Egyptian deity. The sound of the group really feels like a futuristic take on black metal with a strong narrative element to it. It’s quite awesome.

The band achieves an eerie vibe through long passages of keys and samples. You can taste the influence of krautrock with soaring passages and those weightless keyboard moments that seem to linger. The riffing comes in short, controlled bursts, overall sounding extremely tight and interwoven with various effects to increase the progressive feeling and story of the record. Vocals vary from monotonous chanting to deep grunts and soaring moments of operatic ecstasy.  You may deduce from this, that the album has plenty going for it, while holding definitely enough variation to keep the listener intrigued.

I dig the aggressive nature and awesome art work of this album . You can let your imagination run with it. The depiction in sound the band offers is futuristic, while sounding dystopian in a way. Perhaps that’s what the galaxy under the boot of the Empire feels like in Star Wars. It’s grim and dark, much like a Warhammer 40K universe, but more clinical I suppose. You can feel the empty void that is space in their sound. It’s VNV Nation without hope, Dodheimsgard without the blasting fury and maybe even a connection to Fear Factory’s desolate stories of a post-industrial, post-World War III landscape.

I’m just throwing tome things out there, while The Xun Protectorate is a great album full of shifts in pace, theme and timbre. Short narrative intermezzo’s form the intro’s of songs or quick breaks in between. It’s music for metal fans and sci-fi lovers alike, making it a great record, with all the right elements.

Lessons Learned from playing Dungeons & Dragons

Not too long ago I started running a Dungeons & Dragons Campaign. Though the game we play is just the starter set of the fifth edition, ‘The Lost Mine of Phandelvar’, you can gain some insights. Though they are crude, I’d like to share them with you.

See, role playing may seem like a fun activity for your free hours, but you can learn a lot and apply a lot of it to, so here’s five lessons I’ve learned from playing D&D. But let me preface that with the fact that D&D’s magic doesn’t lie in the characters or setting, it’s in the collaborative effort. That’s where the magic happens and how that comes to be is not so different to work situations.

1. Being a DM is much like managing

For those who don’t know, a DM is a dungeon master. Essentially you play the monsters, other characters that the players encounter and you judge whether things that the players try to do work out. Most importantly though, you run the story and try to make everyone enjoy the ride. As a DM, more often than you think, you’ll try to guide the players or direct them. However, you shouldn’t, as this is exactly the part that they need to do themselves. As a DM you have to rely on the qualities of the party. You can suggest or hint at things, or throw some extra stuff their way, but basically you’re managing a team of skilled individuals. Trusting them is a challenge.

2. Role playing only works when you are vulnerable

Role playing is collaboration. Collaboration between the DM and the players and between the players. This only works fully, if you manage to be open and trust each other. As a DM I sometimes have to voice certain characters. Since I’m not a voice actor, it can be tricky, so the willingness to engage with my meager acting skills is extremely important for the mutual fun we want to have. Similarly, if I laugh or mock another player for attempting things in the game or imitating a voice, I might cause a big decrease in expression and joy of that player. He or she will think twice before speaking up again.

Do you have one of those managers or bosses that are hyper-direct, blunt and pretty much always right (even when they clearly aren’t)? Pretty much everyone knows the kind of character I’m talking about. It’s that person who chokes the creativity out of any project group or team, the one that makes refrain from sharing ideas/suggesting things. That’s exactly the same thing. Feeling safe and being able to feel vulnerable are key ingredients in any collaboration.

source: Dungeonsmaster.com Click the image for a great article (even though its 4) on engaging your players.

3. Engaging your players is harder than you think.

Apart from that safe environment, there is another huge challenge if you want to get things done. Engaging with your players is vital to the success of a D&D campaign. If they don’t feel invested or attracted to the campaign, they won’t get into it. Even less chance that they do in the way you want them to. In fact, to get the interaction going and the story rolling, you need every single person around the table to be invested. To achieve such engagement, knowing their various strengths and interests is vital.

This, again, is very similar to a project. No one wants to be bothered with a project that doesn’t offer any challenge. Why? Because it’s boring and doesn’t give you those positive vibes of excitement that make you go out of your way to contribute your best/to do your best, etc.. Simply ‘challenging’ someone does not make for a good project. It’s a matter of constantly estimating their attitudes and interest and working that on a personal level. Challenges have to be tailored to the individual. Have you ever been in a project where everyone was agitated and nobody felt like it was really his or her project? That’s the absolute opposite of an engaged group. If you find that exact bit of the story in which the player can excel, it becomes her story. The same goes for work-like situations: if you don’t feel engaged, you’re not switched on.

4. Reward effort, even when it fails.

Your players will attempt stuff, that will be creative, weird or even utterly out of place. Also stuff that you were simply not prepared for. So… sometimes they fail. Sometimes players come up with elaborate schemes and actions, but they roll, you roll and they fail. However, that’s not the end of it: the creativity of the players should always should be rewarded. Just let them succeed or do some accidental good to the players. Why? Because speaking out is brave, trying things is daring. Creativity already is stomped upon way too often in this world of ours.

Again, let me compare this to the bad manager that sits you down at a table and asks for ideas, yet somehow every idea gets ridiculed and mocked. How many ideas would you like to share with this person? None. So it’s vital to reward people that share thoughts, give feedback, offer suggestions and so on, because once that flow of information stops, you might end up having to do all of the work by yourself. For a D&D game, that would suck. For any work endeavor… well, what do you think? Always show grattitude for the input of others and reward the courage to stand up and say whatever you have in your head.

5. You could treat any project like a dragon

Ok, so I kind of added this one for fun, but also to wrap it up. If you spark the interest, engage players and manage to provide that environment where people feel cool and feel that they can be creative, you can do anything. Seriously, ANYTHING! You’d be surprised by how often you see a D&D party beat the odds with daring ideas, out-of-the-box thinking and the creative madness that is born out of the excitement.

You might think: well, yeah, but they’re beating paper dragons… Well, isn’t most of the work we do all just paper dragons. Paper dragons are, at their core, problems that need to be solved. If you can make your team feel like they are facing a dragon and if they get as pumped and inspired as my D&D party, you’ll be surprised by what you can achieve. Really, they might just slay it in a way you had never thought of.

Underground Sounds: Black Kirin – Xiao Shao

Label: self released
Band: Black Kirin
Origin: China

‘Xiao Shao’ is a reference to a musical movement in the mythological Emperor Shun’s time. The album is an acoustic, unplugged version of predecessor ‘National Trauma’. That means this is an almost pure folk ablum delivered by the Chinese group, which is mighty interesting to listen to.

Black Kirin has been around for a while and has members in the ranks that have been active in The Samans, Skeletal Augury and Anthelion for example. China may have one of the most unexplored scnenes, partly thanks to the language barrier, so finding this gem is a greatly exciting thing for me.

The music features traditional instruments and an overal vibe you’d associate with the Chinese sound. Unfortunately my best reference seem to be attractions in theme parks and the Pandaria expansion for World of Warcraft, but the tranquility of the sound, the swooning, wailing instruments (instead of vocals) that take the center stage and the playful, natural way of delivery seems mighty familiar.

Some parts of the album feel more like listening to a Spanish guitar, but what is most stunning is how the beautiful songs emerge when you strip them completely down. Melancholic and fragile, the songs appear to have a strength of their own to them and evoke an imagery that is timeless and unbound by cultural components. It easily fades to the background, but if you focus on the intricate guitar play, this is a marvelous record to experience. The way the songs break down and lift up again, the tremolo guitar and purity of it.

This is some definitely beautiful music from another world. It opens up the roots of the black metal the band creates normally to the listener and it’s a little miracle what you find then.