Category Archives: Music

Entertainment Catch-All 2/4: The “2017 Doldrums” Edition

So, yeah. This is…this is all happening.

If, like me, you can’t stop watching the national trainwreck, it’s possible that it’s a little hard to go about the normal part of your day. That combined with a work schedule and a crop of films that it’s just a little hard to get myself out there to see (minus Elle and 20th Century Women which I’m going to do my best to get out there for) means that it’s been a little while since I’ve been out to see much.

Good news, there’s still a few things that I have a few thoughts on. I’ll try to keep things up and I’m sure once I’m revitalized by Lego Batman and John Wick: Chapter 2, the flow will return. But why not take a look at a few of the things I’ve been watching in the meantime?

Movies:

Live By Night

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Ben. Let’s talk, Ben. Look, Live by Night really isn’t that bad. Honest.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s stuffed to the brim and nowhere near long enough. It has one great idea for every two bad ones. Moreover, one great scene for every two bad ones. The performances are all over the place. It’s edited with a chainsaw. The dialogue is entirely tough guy platitudes. Just up and down…a lot of bad.

In an alternate world, Live by Night is the hottest HBO show running. It seems like there are so many ideas that could make for whole seasons or arcs. Gangsters vs. The KKK. A Boston ex-con establishing himself as a Miami Crime Lord. Bringing down the men who gave you a second chance. All of this needs so much room to breathe, but we flip through. Live by Night is like a gangster epic flipbook.

But there’s a surprising amount of charm to the film! It’s the kind of big mob flick that you have to admire for its ambition if not necessarily for its execution. Robert Richardson is a brilliant DP and this film is shot stunningly, helped along by some really fantastic production and costume design work. And Ben! You’re such a good director, that even the stuff that shouldn’t work totally does. There’s a shoot-out sequence you’ve clearly always wanted to make, some really handsomely put together action sequences, and when your material isn’t boring, it works.

But Ben…someone needs to tell you to quit casting yourself. Now, it seems that thanks to The Batman, you’re learning that lesson, do one or the other. And I do like you as an actor. But you’re an amazing director, the kind of simple, lean thriller director that I’ll come out for everytime. Find somebody to pair with. Do another movie with your brother. Or hey, here’s an idea: Start casting Jon Hamm in lead. You’ve worked with him before. Hamm gives you a guy who can pull off being morally complex while still looking like a Bogart-esque matinee idol, and you give Hamm a great meaty lead role that lets him flex his non-Don Draper wings.

Live By Night isn’t a total failure. But for a guy who’s kept the standards so high, I can definitely see why this felt like a nosedive. Hopefully this is the lesson that needs to be learned so Ben Affleck can really kick ass on the next one.

Enemy

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So, I’m pretty sure Denis Villeneuve is the next great semi-populist filmmaker. He seemed confined to a niche for a while, capable of making icy thrillers that mostly focused on the sort of emotional exhaustion they could put you through. But between the much warmer and more human Arrival and the…

Well, Enemy isn’t exactly those things, but it isn’t quite the thriller of Sicario or Prisoners. It’s a different beast entirely, more akin to an arthouse version of that original mode. Something deliberately ambiguous and difficult, to be pieced together and interpreted, never quite figured out.

This is more that I want to throw out my interpretation than actually review what’s going on here. I kind of throw in with the idea that Enemy is a film about creeping totalitarian control (gee, I wonder why I think that right now) and the ways in which we can so easily slide into it without realizing. The recurring motif of the spider, the way the webs appear in tragedy, the way it looms over the city, seems to point to this idea of this encroaching control, this encroaching presence. They don’t notice until it’s too late, even though Gylenhaal’s Adam is an expert in totalitarian control and the course of history. The double is removing his sense of individuality, it’s a distraction as the web slowly overtakes the city.

That final shot is when it’s undeniable, when the authoritarianism can’t be stopped. There’s a reason that Adam is the one to survive, and the one to stare it in the face.

TV Shows:

The Good Place

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You ever watch a show and wonder what the hell took you so long?

Yeah, that’s The Good Place. A high-concept comedy loaded with tons of weird comedic details starring a small but lovable cast? This is pretty much all I’d ever need, at least in the wake of Better Off Ted and Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation leaving me behind.

In fact coming to us from the creator of Parks and Recreation, The Good Place is about Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) who accidentally wakes up in Heaven The Good Place, a idyllic afterlife designed by whimsical heavenly architect Michael (Ted Danson). Eleanor has to figure out how she can keep herself here with the help of Chidi (William Harper), an ethics professor, and navigate the Place, which is now in chaos seemingly thanks to her arrival.

Everyone here is really great, special shout-outs need to be thrown to Ted Danson and William Harper, who own basically every bit of the show. Its production design is absolutely top-knotch, with background gags and weird details that rival The Simpsons at its best. It’s definitely more screwball than Parks and Rec was. Much of the comedic set-up is about getting the situations put into place and seeing them slowly unravel.

I have so much more to say, but none of it can be said for a little while. Watch this. Now.

The Young Pope

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If I could ever be said to have “stories,” they would probably look something like The Young Pope. Yes, it’s indulging heavily in Paolo Sorrentino’s European art film mode of filmmaking. In fact, few shows have ever been so heavily auteurist like this one, so unbendingly owed to the visions and obsessions of a single voice. It’s a weird show, willing to go down whatever visual tangent it feels.

But why I think this is a “story” for me, something I’m really clinging onto, is that the show does have a surprisingly strong through-line that gets me (and other viewers) coming back week by week. This has been called the first show (unwittingly, it actually released in full last year) of the Donald Trump-era (because everything is these days), but I’ll admit that I see the argument. It’s a show about political intrigue and systems running up against a man who breaks those norms, who actively despises them. It’s an intriguing dive into power and the way we wield it, especially with your soul on the line.

Plus, Jude Law is giving an all-timer of a TV performance. A performance that’s absolutely aware of his perceptions as an actor and using them with all the camp he can muster, at least when he needs to. Law is owning this show, which is what he needs to be doing for this to work on any scale.

Music:

The Stage, Avenged Sevenfold

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Yeah, I never really thought I’d have much to say about an Avenged Sevenfold album either.

Let’s recognize a band when they actually improve. Removing the hard-rock swagger/Metallica and Iron Maiden-ripping sound that’s defined them up until now, The Stage replaces all that with a sound that can be described as veering towards prog metal. If it wasn’t for that surprisingly distinctive guitar tone, I don’t know if you could have told me that this was an Avenged Sevenfold album. Especially considering there’s a diversion from the angsty/swaggering lyrics to more esoteric material, more God and Space and Universe whatnot. Again, very prog metal. The talent in the band has always been there, it’s just nice to see them get to flex their wings. M. Shadows or whatever ridiculous stage name he has continues to be the band’s weak spot, his vacuum cleaner voice works in the heavier material but is noticeably thin in the quieter sections. But I defend James LaBrie in Dream Theater, so I suppose I shouldn’t say anything here.

Yeah, Avenged Sevenfold. Good for you. Keep it up.

Near To The Wild Heart of Life, The Japandroids

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I have nothing substantive to say except that this album rocks and you should go listen to it the first chance you get.

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My Favorite 15 Things That Weren’t Movies or TV in 2016

I’m a man of varied interests. By which I mean, I’m a man who’s interested in movies and TVs and I occasionally do other things to pass the time. You know, palate cleansing.

I’m not remotely qualified to really talk critically about anything here, but I did love all of it, which is kind of the criteria that brought it on this list. These are 15 things that brought me deep enjoyment in 2016 and that I’m probably going to revisit in the years to come. The bright spots of a difficult year.

PODCASTS:

Hard Nation

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You may be sick of politics this year, but Hard Nation really isn’t about politics. Like all great improv, it’s just a jumping-off point for some truly riotous, bizarre, and often gross character-based comedy. Hard Nation is a fictional radio show hosted by brothers Mark Hard (Mike Still) and Pete Hard (Paul Welsh). Mark is a right-wing blowhard and Pete is a left-wing dude and together they interview some of the great political figures of our time and seemingly always uncover the most bizarre secrets of their lives.

Always fun, never boring, and a chance to break out the sort of impressions you really don’t get to see all that often, Hard Nation is the best comedy podcasting you’re not paying attention to. Start right at the beginning with this one, but Episode 3 is when they all really start to find their groove.

The Hilarious World of Depression

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This is a pretty fresh one, only five episodes in as of writing. But host John Moe has taken an often trod ground (comedians who struggle with the darker parts of themselves) and given it a fresh-feeling spin, perhaps some of that ol’ NPR shine. The Hilarious World Of Depression feels like a perfect cross between the informativeness of something like This American Life and the personal confessional nature of WTF. Perhaps it’s the deep empathy the show has for its subject that whether you’ve been there or you know someone who has or you’ve never crossed paths with depression, you always feel like you’re coming out with a better understanding.

Fighting In The War Room

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Little bit of a cheat, yes (as is the next one). Just a movie discussion podcast, there’s tons. But Fighting In The War Room stands out for being a uniquely well-informed movie discussion podcast and one that never feels quite like any other out there. The hosts, including Indiewire’s David Ehrlich, Thrillist’s Matt Patches, Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich, and freelancer/podcast extraordinaire Dave Gonzales, have a chemistry equal parts camaraderie and combativeness that keeps discussion always fresh. It’s got the vibe of a bar discussion between the most interesting people in the field, and who can hate that? No matter what they’re discussing, you can always laugh, get angry, or have a great time thanks to the knowledge and vibe the hosts bring.

You Must Remember This

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It’s a history podcast, honestly. You Must Remember This is a production by film historian Karina Longworth where she dives in deep to the tales that shaped Hollywood during its Golden Age. Much of this year’s season was an epic tale of the Hollywood Blacklist, told from all angles and given a due degree of thought and weight. This is Longworth’s specialty, always informed and thoughtful and with the production value to back it up. It’s almost some part an old-time radio show, a cast of characters flickering in and out to give texture to the history Longworth tells. Like the best non-fiction book that you’ve always meant to read, You Must Remember This floats you away into history.

VIDEO GAMES:

Inside

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From the creators of the haunting Limbo, Inside is a spiritual sequel that somehow manages to top that phenomenal original. A deeply atmospheric game that grabs hold of you from the first moment and gives you no quarter (nor do you ask any) until its jaw-dropping conclusion, Inside is just a barrel of chills and thrills that demands a second and third and fourth playthrough. Any more would be telling.

DOOM

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Look, I’m honestly as shocked as you are. But this reboot of seminal FPS Doom is the Fury Road of the franchise, doubling down on what makes this series so appealing and then ratcheting it up to the sky. DOOM is a fast-as-hell arcade experience that gives you just enough time to breathe in between nerve-ruining sequences of demon hordes. What DOOM especially excels at is a sense of power. In any other game, its talk of Doomslayers and you being the scariest dude on Mars might come off as unnecessary posturing. DOOM makes sure you feel it and live it in every moment.

Final Fantasy XV

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The truest blockbuster of gaming, Final Fantasy XV is a massive, sprawling, totally flawed experience that’s all the more lovable for it. This game has so much going on and part of the difficulty is just deciding at any given time what you’re going to focus on. But with a lovable cast and a story dripping in that good ol’ Final Fantasy cheese, you can’t help your slow endearment with the game that really keeps you flying through the adventures of a bunch of bros on their way to save the world.

Darkest Dungeon

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Darkest Dungeon hates you. That’s just being honest. Darkest Dungeon is designed to stress and designed to make the player scrape and scrap through encounters they’ll barely survive and come out all the worse for wear on the other end. All for a few scraps of victory and the little hopes in the bleak horror that you live game to game. It’s not what I’d call the most fun I’ve ever had, but Darkest Dungeon makes sure that your victories feel earned and that holding on to your sanity in the horror is the greatest thing you’ve ever done. On that merit alone, you can work through the hate.

BOOKS:

The Caped Crusade

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So, I’ll cop. I suck at keeping up with new books. This list should be longer, but it’s not, because I suck at this. I mostly reread/finally getting around to much older works. So from that list, let me recommend Silence, Never Let Me Go, The Passage, A Head Full of Ghosts, and On Chesil Beach.

But the one definitely great book I read from this year was The Caped Crusade. For someone fascinated by the way nerd culture has developed over the past few years, The Caped Crusade is one of the most clear-headed looks at why Batman appeals to heavily to a certain group of nerd and how the overly dark evolution of the character has mirrored and mapped out his fans. Weldon attacks all this with clear prose and no small amount of humor.

MUSIC:

Touche Amore – Stage Four

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There’s been a lot of great works of grief this year, but almost none more focused and poetic than Touche Amore’s Stage Four, about the cancer death of lead singer Jeremy Bolin’s mother. Haunting and unrelenting and raw, Stage Four spans a wide range of the emotions and thoughts plaguing the aftermath of the loss of a loved one, with Jeremy Bolin’s pained howls producing the feeling of hearing someone barely keeping it together while they tell you a story. A more melodic riff style for this record adds a perverse catchiness that sticks those hard emotions all the more in your head.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!

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Can we just say that Donald Glover had a hell of a year? He ended the year as the new Lando Calrissian and as the producer/writer/director/star of the smash hit Atlanta. Oh, and he put out this phenomenal record. Glover goes back to the 70s to pull a perfect blend of virtuosic funk and soul with his searing and frankly unexpected vocals. Songs are affecting, catchy, and ripping often all at the same time. Just one hell of an album and one he should absolutely be proud of.

Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

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You know what you’re largely getting with an Insomnium record at this point, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t surprise with how incredibly good it is. Winter’s Gate is ambitious, an entire album composed of a single 40-minute song (a far cry for a band that often puts out smaller and poppier melodic death cuts). But Insomnium hardly takes the excuse to wander, using the space to focus and move through gobs of beautiful and crushing riffs with Niilo Sevänen’s roars giving the whole thing that Viking funeral feel. Just about as good as it gets.

Khemmis – Hunted

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Traditional Iron Maiden-style metal can get a little repetitive, which is why when a band can make the genre feel fresh and new, you stand up and take notice. Taking influences from all across the spectrum (hints of Doom, Trash, Death, and more), Khemmis’ second album is grand in scope and grander in talent. I want to throw particular notice to the closing title track, which is a 13 minute journey with one of the best outros I’ve heard all year.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

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Hand in hand with the young pain of Touche Amore is this world-weary look of grief from absolute genius Nick Cave. Completed after the loss of his son, death and that black cloud hangs heavy over a man already so obsessed with death. It’s an album that knows things will never be the same again. Haunting and beautiful and layered, it’s almost too personal, a look into a man who is careful with how much he reveals. A once-in-a-lifetime work with the most tragic reason for it.

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3

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I don’t know what the first album of the Trump-era will be, but let me nominate Run the Jewels 3. It’s perfectly of a kind with their first two, El-P’s cyberpunk beats underlining his and Killer Mike’s brilliant venom spitting against the powerful and hypocritical. No surprises there. But there’s a certain vitality that feels even new for RTJ3, it’s an anger that threatens to foment a revolution, even openly calling for it. Here, Killer Mike and El-P look into the future, and they’re ready to fight for it.

Beginning of Fall Album Capsules: Insomnium, Alcest, and Opeth

I’m gonna be real upfront. I want there to be a lot of different content on this blog, more than just film reviews, though that’s always gonna be our bread and butter around here. So, I’m gonna be making a whole lot of little dumb experiments, some will stick, some won’t. Please hold with me through them. 

This one is an attempt to figure out a way to do some album reviews. I’m doing metal, not only because it’s what I know, but it’s also where my first ever works of criticism lie. Fun fact. 

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Alcest – Kodama

Released by Prophecy Production on September 30, 2016

Alcest is the kind of band that gets a good ol’-fashioned fight going in the metal community. Their grasp on the title of “metal band” has always been tenuous at best (barring Le Secret) and Alcest has always felt more comfortable with shoegazers and bands like Deafheaven that flirt with infusing metal into their work, though Alcest has done less and less of that as of late. Shelter was most notable for a lack of any metal influence at all, essentially a post-rock record with vocals along the lines of Sigur Ros or Talk Talk. It’s led to the kind of hackles that get raised anytime a metal band abandons the metal, which is a shame, because Alcest is still doing phenomenal work, even without the riffs backing them up.

So, good news, Kodama puts some of the metal back in. I mean, no one is gonna mistake this thing for Revocation or Meshuggah, but Neige’s pained and caustic screams make a return as do the occasional explosion of a black metal riff or a blast beat section. Alcest kind of remembered (and this was I think many people’s problem with Shelter) how effective those metallic sections could be as the post-rock crescendo and as an emotional release to the build-up.

That metal ethos also rests with a more focused record. While retaining the band’s dreamy and painterly qualities, the title track and “Untouched” in particular, Kodama finds itself remarkably more focused, guitar work deftly telling a story and vocals loaded with meaning even without a recognizable word of English in the whole thing. There’s no riffs, but the texturing gives the songs just as much of a spine. There’s an earthy, mystic quality to these songs, appropriate given the influence Princess Mononoke apparently had on this record.

It’s unfortunate Kodama doesn’t maintain its grace through its whole. This is an incredibly frontloaded album (a shame when it’s as short as this one is) and it gets limp towards the end, kind of spiraling off into nowhere where it needed a big, powerful punch. And for people who’ve not been hot on the non-metal Alcest, this feels like a very tiny olive branch, not much to draw back in people who weren’t already fans.

But for those who still are, there’s a lot to admire here. In my eyes, Alcest consistently puts out beautiful work, and anyone who’s stayed on board has a great little present to unwrap with Kodama. 

Grade: B+

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Opeth – Sorceress

Released by Nuclear Blast and Moderbolaget on September 30, 2016

Hoo boy.

Okay, look, I’m all for letting artists grow and change and find new influences that work for them. Hell, I’m all for letting a band completely change styles if they feel like it, that’s the whole point of growing as an artist. But I’m also firmly a believer that I don’t necessarily have to go along with something that has stopped working for me, and I believe that growth and change has to be accompanied by an ability to actually perform what you’re trying to alter yourself into.

70s prog (think Can, Camel, and Yes) has always been the underlying throughline of Opeth. Half the reason they were so loved is the dynamic shifts between a crunchy, authoritative death metal with those lighter bits of folky 70s progressive rock. The other half was that they could do both with so much skill.

Opeth’s last few albums have not only lost those dynamic shifts, dropping the death metal elements (most notably frontman Mikael Akerfeldt’s monstrous growls) and keeping a few harder-edged riffs to become just another progressive rock band.

Which is their most-overwhelming problem on Sorceress. There’s nothing really unique. It’s not necessarily a bad album, everyone is still clearly talented, and Akerfeldt’s cleans are still some of the most beautiful in metal. But there’s nothing new, nothing different. It’s largely a meandering and soulless record. No focus, no dynamics, just noodling and running through the standard sort of tracks that every other progressive rock band can write.

“Will O’ The Wisp” and “Chrysalis” come the closest to feeling like an old-school Opeth track, but even those more feel like markers of how far the band has fallen. You can hear where there might have once been some inspiration, some shift. Instead, Sorceress ends up largely a resounding yawn that will flutter off into the ether. All talent, no soul.

Grade: C-

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Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

Released by Century Media on September 23, 2016

Now this is a metal record.

I don’t know what exactly I expected when I heard Insomnium was doing a single 40-minute song for their next album. Insomnium can kind of be like Amon Amarth or AC/DC. You know what you’re gonna get, and it’s never that different from the last thing you got. I say that with all the love in the world, but they can be predictable.

And there’s plenty of standard Insomnium on here. Big, emotional riffs with big, emotional growls and tons of atmosphere, everything pitched up to 10. Winter’s Gate knows how exhausting that would be without a break, though, after all, you usually get a few different tracks and different sort of riffs on their albums.

Winter’s Gate knows that to be a single 40-minute song, you have to go dynamic. So dynamic they go. Winter’s Gate runs the gamut of modern melodic death metal, there’s shades of new and old Insomnium, as well as bands like Swallow the Sun, Omnium Gatherum, Edge of Sanity, and a heavy dose of black metal for safe measure. It finds moments for quiet restraint, moments to ride on a riff, and moments to explode and engulf in sonic violence.

This is a winter album, crafting a cold, stormy atmosphere, swirling the listener into the heart of a blizzard. It’s the kind of experience that transports you, an immense epic that anyone can admire for the sheer level of craft and heart. Plus, there’s a riff drop in Part 7 of this record that may rank as one of my favorite artistic moments of the year. It’s so good.

This is an album I have a hard time being super critical about, partially because it feels so deeply up my alley. Epic, intelligently written, and makes 40 minutes fly by like it’s nothing. An announcement by a band that I thought was capable of one thing that they may be able to do anything.

Grade: A+

WagTunes: Operation: Mindcrime is a scarily resonant piece of Reagan-era anger

Just so you know, I like a lot of things. While I’ve written and will continue to write about film and television, I also love music. And as with all thing  I love, I have a lot to say.  So, from time to time, when the muse strikes me, I’ll write here about the albums I love with WagTunes. 

As time moves forward, so ever does our nostalgia move along with it. America loves to live with one eye looking back, pop culture is guilty of this in particular. Perhaps it’s due to the nature of the creative, drawing from one’s own experiences is going to induce a certain amount of mythologizing of your own history, and we’re now in the era where the children of the 80s are the creatives with power.

I also think that we tend to look back at eras that feel remarkably similar to our own, out of a need to feel that we survived it and that we can turn their art and culture and history into a mythology that makes us feel better about our own. The 80s feel remarkably resonant to an era where the threat of apocalypse looms large and where the men of power feel insular and arrogant in a way that induces a begging for them to come crashing down. So we take a little neon and some synths and hope that reflects a world we’ll make it through.

This looms large to me right now thanks to the recent rediscovery of Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime.

Continue reading WagTunes: Operation: Mindcrime is a scarily resonant piece of Reagan-era anger

Negotiating the Art and the Artist From My Archives: Megadeth’s Dystopia

Another one to whet reader appetites. This one was written in January after the release of Megadeth’s Dystopia. I had been seeking a way to talk about this topic as well as heavy metal for a little while. I found it sitting in LAX.

Summer brought us the seeming toppling of two of comedy’s greats. Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, both rocked by sex scandals very different in their details, yet seemingly similar in the wide attention it brought. But the after effects were very different.

Continue reading Negotiating the Art and the Artist From My Archives: Megadeth’s Dystopia