Friday, November 6, 2009

Can Music Really Be Used to Torture People?

As “reliable sources” recently bared that works by prominent American Rock musicians are being used as “instruments of torture” in Gitmo, one wonders can music be used to torture people?

By: Ringo Bones

As an art form, music really has the ability to shock. Just as I was shocked to learn back in the 1980s that Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser Festmarsch was routinely played in NAZI-era concentration camps as captive Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Fast forward George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” and we are once again witnessing history repeating itself.

Lately, prominent American Rock musicians had been recently demanding accountability via the Freedom of Information Act that the Bush Administration and the US Central Intelligence Agency should reveal whether or not their musical works are being used to torture terror suspect detainees in the now notorious Guantànamo Bay Prison. Ah yes, Guantànamo Bay, a US Navy and Marine base at the eastern end of Cuba. Affectionately named Gitmo, it had unfortunately become the 21st Century’s version of an American toned-down version of Auswichz.

One of those prominent American Rock musicians demanding accountability from the Bush Administration on the use of their music as a torture device is Metallica lead singer James Hetfield. Hetfield was somewhat divided over the use of Metallica’s music as a torture device when played at sound pressure levels above 120dB to “torture” terror suspects / detainees. Hetfield says that he’s proud to do his “patriotic” duty – i.e. his music being used against America’s enemies – but not to the point of violating the Geneva Convention (or maybe alienating long-time principled fans?).

Another prominent American Rock musician concerned over the use of his music as a torture device in Gitmo is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. An artist whose musical works gained notoriety for containing ridiculous amounts of low frequency information sufficient to damage loudspeakers not designed to play it at high decibel levels. Reliable informants revealed that terror suspects were held in stress positions reminiscent that of Apartheid-era South African political prisoners making them unable to protect their ears against the sonic onslaught.

As of late, Pearl Jam, REM and The Roots are forming a coalition to investigate on the use of music as a torture device at Gitmo. While Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine plan to sue the Bush Administration and the US Central Intelligence Agency for misuse of product liability reasons. While a recently released Gunatànamo Bay Prison detainee on interview stated that the music often used to torture terror suspects to cause sleep deprivation was Born In The USA by Bruce Springsteen. While Roseanne Cash – daughter of the legendary country singer the late, great Johnny Cash – is also leading a coalition to close Gitmo. Which everyone can check out at

Most forms of art really have a funny way of protesting against unnecessary wars. Even something as inanimate as the tapestry replica of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was draped by UN staff when then US Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the United Nation’s Security Council to invade Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction back in 2003. Even Richard Wagner’s estate had since allowed prominent Jewish conductors to perform the great Classical composer’s works in order to distance his legacy from anti-Semitism and Adolph Hitler. Making Bayreuth even friendlier than George W. Bush-era America.

Using music to torture people to me at least is a form of a cruel and unusual punishment. Which – according to most civilized countries – is against the law. Even the Geneva Convention has a proviso against cruel and unusual punishment against enemy combatants. This is why you’ll never see Judge Judy play Tori Amos songs at dangerously high decibels at convicted rapist - even if she has been probably tempted many times in the past. Or do the same to paedophiles and child molesters using the music of Avril Lavigne and / or The Veronicas. Not to mention Aloha From Hell.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Remembering Michael Jackson

As the undisputed “King of Pop”, will Michael Jackson be remembered for his very remarkable music career that funded his humanitarian contributions, or by his dubious lifestyle excesses?

By: Ringo Bones

One of the few saving graces of being part of the older generation is being able to witness and appreciate first hand Michael Jackson’s musical prowess before he was unfair treatment by the court of public opinion. But ever since the King of Pop’s untimely passing back in June 25, 2009, everyone – including me - had come to agree with the Reverend Al Sharpton on remembering Michael Jackson for his musical genius and humanitarian contributions. Not to mention Jackson being an inspiration for a lot of people the world over. The most unlikely ones being the "notorious" prison exercise regime - a You Tube viewing staple back in 2007 - when inmates of the CPDRC in the Philippines made their own rendition of the Thriller video choreography as a program for the inmates to stay out of trouble.

Even though I wasn’t yet born during Michael Jackson’s stint as a child prodigy with the extremely youthful Jackson 5 back in the 1960s, I experienced first hand his four best solo albums – to me at least – Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous. What I like about Off The Wall is that Michael Jackson – through judicious choosing of session musicians – probably raised the late 1970s LA Studio scene to mythical proportions, not to mention allowing very talented guitarists like Larry Carlton an escape from relative obscurity. Working with Toto’s Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen also allowed Michael Jackson to reach out to folks who are fans of cutting-edge guitar playing who usually don’t give Billboard chart-topping pop music a second thought.

The financial success of Thriller – not to mention the fame - probably allowed Michael Jackson to fulfill his humanitarian goals during the mid-1980s. By underwriting USA for Africa and the We Are the World single as the American leg of the then concerted effort by the affluent West to help the famine-stricken citizens of Ethiopia. Michael Jackson has for all intents and purposes made himself not only the best loved musical artist of the world, but also one of the world’s most beloved humanitarian. Which fostered scores of music-based humanitarianism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jackson’s decision to make Bad a Heavy Metal guitar-leaning album probably allowed him a marketing share of the late-1980s Heavy Metal Music renaissance. Not to mention the cut Man in the Mirror that probably hastened the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the nuclear armed Cold War confrontation between the East-Bloc countries and the West. The political yearning for a change for the better also influenced some of the songs on the album Dangerous, which Michael Jackson’s choice of hiring then Guns N’ Roses axe-man Slash only highlights his yearning for unity between disparate musical camps.

The scandals that plagued the King of Pop during the 1990s – plus the rise of other previously ignored music genres and scenes – seemed to steer Michael Jackson’s musical career into apparent obscurity. While making his private life into a sordid media circus. Though Jackson was never proven guilty in court, many of his fans are turned-off after the September 14, 1993 summons. Back then, it seems as though his humanitarianism during the mid-1980s was forgotten.

Even though I still find it irreverent to suggest that dying is the best career move a musician – or other artist – can make, our paparazzi-run 24-hour media tends to reinforce such viewpoints. But it is still safe to say that Michael Jackson’s contribution to American pop music will live much longer than his lifestyle excesses. Maybe witnessing the King of Pop first-hand during his heyday in the 1980s is probably one of the best perks of belonging to the older generation.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

In Defense of The Music Album Cover Art

Legally downloaded digital music files may have a lower carbon footprint than CDs or LPs, but is it driving another artform into extinction – namely music album cover art?

By: Vanessa Uy

I’ve just read a Heavy Metal Music magazine from 1989 whose reader’s poll had voted Testament’s Practice What You Preach album as the best album cover artwork of the year (1989 that is). Fast forward twenty or so years later and it makes me start to wonder that whether anyone still gives a rat’s ass about music album cover artwork in this age of now legalized digital music downloads.

Even though Internet downloadable digital music has really has the upper hand when it comes to “green credentials” – i.e. the size of the carbon footprint - in comparison to physical media like CDs, SACDs, DVD Audio, and LPs in the distribution side. Sound quality wise, it still lags behind when compared to it’s physical media siblings. Why abandon my 500-US dollar universal disc player when the digital downloaded version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle on my i-Pod makes the recording sounds like it is being played on a 100-US dollar CD player circa 1995? The sound quality had improved over the years and musicians are no longer ripped-off, but the sound quality of digital music downloads still needs a lot of improvement.

But what about the album cover art issue? It isn’t just the mainstream music world that benefits from snazzy album cover artwork. Western European Classical Music albums are the exemplars of utilizing music album cover art to dazzle music lovers since the sale of recorded music became a multi-million dollar industry – i.e. during the first half of the 20th Century. Even the “World Music” sector has been at it too. From Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party CD boxed sets, to the Sudanese oud virtuoso Hamza El-Din.

Will the music album cover art die an ignominious death in the 21st Century? Maybe it is too soon to tell. More probably though is that it will instigate an artistic revolution. Probably during the second decade of the 21st Century, Andy Warhol wannabes will be doing “modern art” using album cover art of the 20th Century’s top music albums. A "colorfield" painting of Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You album is a good place to start. How’s that for a backlash against the digitally downloaded music revolution? As the saying goes, you can’t tactilely touch a digital image file.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Gathering’s “How to Measure a Planet?”: Best Concept Album Ever?

Though it came after when their Nighttime Birds album was praised by music fans disenfranchised by mainstream music, is The Gathering’s “How to Measure a Planet?” the best concept album ever?

By: Vanessa Uy

A somewhat large majority of concept album sounds in long listening sessions like they are way worth less than their glossy album cover artwork tries to portray them to be, although there are a few exceptions. Released after their Nighttime Birds album gained them a fan-base composed mainly of disenfranchised music fans fed-up with Nirvana and Pearl Jam clones of the mid 1990’s. It seemed like the band members of Netherlands-based band The Gathering had it in spades when they released their “How to Measure a Planet?” album near the end of 1998. But “fate” had never been kind to artistic visionaries.

Fronted by Anneke van Giersbergen with her skillful use of Western European Classical singing in a Progressive Metal context, which to me at least, is probably the lynchpin which makes The Gathering not only one of the greatest Progressive Metal bands brave enough to release an album with nary a hope of commercial success. But also make them stand out against the slew of Northern European Progressive Metal bands of the late 1990’s, like Lacuna Coll (whose style was later ripped-off by Evanessence) for example. The rest of the band members that made The Gathering one of my “bands to die for” are: Frank Boeijen on keyboards, Hugo Prinsen Geerligs on bass, Hans and René Rutten on guitars.

Though The Gathering’s “How to Measure a Planet?” gained widespread popularity in the “post 9 / 11” Central Asian enclave in my neck of the woods. Probably by conscious artistic decision or by “creative accident” the band sounded like a Gibson Les Paul and Marshall Amplifier equipped Bardic Divas of Central Asia singing about space travel and space exploration – related topics, literally. Looks like not all “space rock” tunes is about psychoactive drug use in the Christian West by the way.

Probably popularized by the regular airplay of the music video of Liberty Bell on some cable stations not allied to MTV, The Gathering did manage to stick out like a sore-thumb in a musical landscape populated by teen-aged fashion models forced to sell “product” despite of their musical ineptness. Though my favorite track is probably “How to Measure a Planet?” this 28 minute 32 second instrumental track is probably the band’s attempt at channeling John Coltraine during his heroin-induced musical panegyric. Probably after hearing first-hand the tune that God hummed to Herself when using Her infinite wisdom in creating our universe.

What I like about The Gathering, well, unlike the late 20th Century American “Boy Bands” which they were unfortunately in competition. Their female vocalist at least knows how to sing and has a really great voice, unlike their Billboard Chart-topping contemporaries. And I don’t know if anyone who have ever heard of The Gathering’s “How to Measure a Planet?” album being played in a really good hi-fi rig loves or hates them for it. It is that they “sound” as if the band is playing in a venue intended for Classical Music performance – rather than a recording studio overstuffed with sound-absorbent foam. I know a number of Heavy Metal music aficionados pointing this out – especially fans of older American Blues-based Rock which kinds of bothered me. But in spite of this, The Gathering did gain hi-fi demo disc status because of the unique way they used (probably digital-based) reverb to make them sound that there are playing in a space other than your typical recording studio.

Even though the band kind of went downhill creatively after releasing subsequent material following the “minor” success of “How to Measure a Planet?”, majority of The Gathering fans that I know of are still hanging on to these two albums. Namely: “Nighttime Birds” and “How to Measure a Planet?” as The Gathering’s best albums of all time. If you want to know more about the band, please visit their homepage at or you can e-mail them at in the hopes that they might tour in a major city near you.