Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Extra Point and American Football's Great-Granddaddy

Even though I'm a Green Bay Packers shareholder (and so is my daughter), I don't watch football anymore. I still like sports well enough, but between the responsibilities that come with work, child, spouse, and household duties, there's just not enough time in my day to justify a cable subscription.

But that didn't stop me from taking an interest in something NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently said about extra points. Specifically, he said the league is thinking about eliminating them.

Why? Because they're too easy to make. "Almost automatic," the commish said. According to his math, the extra point had a 99.6% success rate in the 2013 season.

So why do we even have an extra point attempt after the touchdown? The answer lies in the kicking-oriented days of early rugby, when the extra point wasn't the afterthought of the scoring play, but rather the main event.

Most of us know that American football evolved out of rugby. And in the dawning days of organized rugby, scoring a try -- what Americans call a touchdown -- didn't give the scoring team any points whatsoever. What it did was give the team a chance to take a free kick at the goalposts. The team that scored the most goals -- the equivalent of today's "extra points" -- won. For many years, there were no specific point values assigned for scoring. But in 1886, the Rugby Football Union adopted a system whereby a try would be awarded 1 point, while the goal counted for 3 points.

That's right. The "extra point" was worth three times as much as the touchdown.

Things started off much the same in American football. As documented in David M. Nelson's Anatomy of a Game, an invaluable resource on football history, when point values were introduced in 1893, the touchdown counted for 2 points, and the goal after the touchdown 4 points. Football was undergoing some radical changes around this time that would value the running game as highly as the kicking game, and accordingly, the touchdown was soon increased to 4 points, while the goal after touchdown fell to 2 points. Field goals, however, remained at 5 points for two decades. So the touchdown and the goal-after combined gave a team one more point than they could achieve with a field goal, but missing the extra point was a really big deal, as it devalued the "unconverted" touchdown to being one point less than a field goal.

It wasn't until the advent of the forward pass that the current scoring system began to take shape. In 1909, three years after the forward pass was legalized, the touchdown was worth 5 points and the extra point 1, while the field goal fell to its current 3. The value of the touchdown increased to 6 points in 1912, giving us the scoring values we still use today, a century later.

The 1919 Packers. Source: packerhistory.net.
But that extra point, even though it had been devalued to 1 lowly point, was still not the chip shot it is today. Following a touchdown, the extra point could be attempted in one of two ways:

1. The try-at-goal. The scoring team could move the ball to any spot on the field in a straight line from where the ball crossed the goal line. A free kick could then be attempted from that point.

2. The punt-out. The scoring player could punt the ball back into the field of play, where his teammates could attempt to fair-catch the ball and from there attempt to kick a try-at-goal. Either team was entitled to catch the ball, though, so this was far from a gimme play for the scoring team.

Australian rules football,
a.k.a. "footy."
Source: kidcyber.com.au.
The punt-out was abolished in 1920, but something similar exists to this day in Australian rules football, whereby any player who catches a kicked ball that's traveled at least 15 meters is then entitled to a free kick in the direction of the opponent's goalposts.

The first option still exists, too, in rugby. After a player scores a try, the ball can be placed at any distance from the goalposts, but it must be in a straight line from where the scoring team touched the ball down in the end zone. (Incidentally, the rugby rule that the ball must touch the ground for the score to count is where we get the term "touchdown," even though touching the ball down in the end zone isn't required in American football.)

Once the punt-out was eliminated, the scoring team was simply permitted to set the ball at any distance in front of the goalposts for the kick. In 1922, the extra-point play as we know it today was finally established, when the ball was put into play from scrimmage at the 5-yard line. It was moved to the 2-yard line in 1929, and that's where it remains today, under NFL rules. (College football sets the ball at the 3-yard line.)

So now that the extra point has lost its place in the spotlight and been reduced to an afterthought, what do we do with it? Should it be eliminated just because it's such an easy point? Or should the NFL consider some alternatives?

Goodell said one proposal being considered is to increase the value of the touchdown to 7 points and then give the scoring team the option to run or pass from scrimmage -- the same as the 2-point conversion play, only with a new twist. If the team is successful, it gets 1 point instead of 2. But if the conversion fails, the team loses a point, and the touchdown reverts to 6 points.

I don't know about you, but that sounds ridiculous to me. Unless the game was on the line in the dying seconds, nobody would ever attempt the conversion and risk taking a point off the board.

So what are some other options we can consider to make the play a little less predictable? Let's look at what some other leagues have tried.
  • The short-lived XFL awarded 6 points for a touchdown but prohibited kicked extra points. A successful run or pass on the conversion scored 1 point, but no points were ever taken off the board.

    (Incidentally, the NFL experimented with this option in the 1968 preseason, when NFL teams matched up against those from the American Football League. The two leagues would officially merge two years down the road, and this preseason experiment was an attempt to blend the rules of the two leagues. The AFL allowed teams to kick for 1 or run or pass for 2, while the NFL awarded only 1 point for either method -- which meant that nobody in the NFL ever did anything but kick, unless the hold was botched or the play otherwise broke down. The 2-point conversion was added to college football in 1958, and the AFL used it from the beginning, but the NFL didn't add it until 1994.)
  • The World Football League of the mid-1970s granted 7 points for a touchdown and also prohibited kicked extra points. The "action point," earned by run or pass, counted for 1 point -- but again, no points were removed for an unsuccessful attempt.
  • The Arena Football League gives 6 points to a touchdown and allows teams to either kick the conversion for 1 point or attempt to run or pass for 2 -- same as the current NFL rules. But it also awards 2 points for a successfully dropkicked extra point.
I don't like the idea of meddling with the point system. The beauty of a touchdown is that it's worth exactly as much as two field goals, and then you essentially get a chance to tack on another point (or two) as a bonus. Changing a touchdown to 7 points throws out of balance a scoring system that's served the game well for a century now. There's a reason it hasn't been meddled with, and the one league that did go with a 7-point touchdown didn't last very long.

My proposals, not that anyone asked:
  • Go the XFL route. Leave the touchdown at 6 points and require a run or pass for the extra 1 point. No placekicks.
  • Eliminate the kick but introduce two distances for the conversion. A successful run or pass from the 2-yard line counts for 1 point, while one taken from farther back -- let's say the 7-yard line -- counts for 2 points.
  • Allow conversions by run or pass, but also allow for dropkicked extra points, as the arena game does. Dropkicks are still a huge part of the rugby game, which uses a fatter, more egg-shaped ball than football does, but they fell by the wayside in American football when our ball was slimmed down to facilitate the forward pass. (Rugby never adopted the forward pass.) With the pointier ends of the American football, the bounces are unreliable, and that's why there's been only one successful dropkick for points in the NFL in more than 70 years (here's looking at you, Doug Flutie).

    Under this system, placekicks for the extra point would still be prohibited, but the dropkick could work in tandem with either of the first two options.
  • Continue to allow placekicks, but back up the spot of the kick. When you add up the spot from where the ball is currently kicked to the back of the end zone, you get a distance of about 19 yards that the ball has to travel to score an extra point. If the line of scrimmage for the kick was moved from the 2-yard line to, say, the 20, you're talking about a 37-yard kick. Still easy for most NFL kickers, but much less of a sure thing. Or offer the option of an even longer kick for 2 points.
But what I'd really love to see is the adoption of the rugby conversion. Touchdowns scored in the corners of the end zone would make the extra points much more challenging, because the ball would have to be brought out in a straight line from where it crossed the goal line. When that happens in rugby, the poor kickers have to work magic to hook their kicks through the posts, and sometimes they have to walk the ball back a long way just to get a reasonable shot -- but it sure is exciting to see when a kick from an extreme angle is successful. Check this one out.

Football fans would certainly have to get used to a few unfamiliar sights. The rugby conversion can be taken from as far back as the kicker wants, and he kicks the ball alone from a tee, not from scrimmage. His teammates aren't involved in the play, and because the play is a free kick, the defense has to stand in the end zone and can't start to move toward the kicker until he begins his approach to the ball. One huge advantage is that the risk of injury would be nearly eliminated on the play, and that's something the NFL is greatly concerned about these days.

Just one little change like the rugby conversion could alter the entire red-zone strategy of the game. If the scoring football team wanted to take its extra point from as close to the center of the field as possible, it would have to try to punch the ball into the center of the end zone. Defenses, in turn, would clog up the middle and try to force ball carriers to the corners.

The rugby kick today counts for 2 points (versus 5 for the try), and given how hard it can to be to make the conversion, it would seem sensible at first blush to retain that point value for American football. The downside, however, is that if the scoring team makes its touchdown in the center of the field, we'd end up right back where we started with a chip-shot extra point. So maybe the rugby-style conversion would be worth only 1 point in American football, or maybe you award 1 point for a kick taken from inside the hashmarks and 2 points for one taken from outside. There are lots of possibilities. The rugby-style conversion could even be used in conjunction with an option to run or pass for the extra point(s). If a team decides the angle for a kick is too extreme, for example, it could choose to run a play from scrimmage instead. You could even retain the current placekick option, only moved farther back. So maybe you end up with a variety of options for the extra point -- something like this:
  • Rugby-style free kick, taken from a straight line from where the touchdown was scored: 2 points outside the hashmarks; 1 point inside
  • Run or pass from a scrimmage play at the 2-yard line: 1 point
  • Run or pass from a scrimmage play at the 7-yard line: 2 points
  • Dropkick from a scrimmage play at the 2-yard line: 2 points
  • Placekick from a scrimmage play at the 20-yard line: 1 point
  • Placekick from a scrimmage play at the 30-yard line: 2 points
Anyway, instead of getting rid of extra points, as Goodell has proposed, let's consider some of these other options that would retain a historical part of the game but could make it a lot more exciting -- and competitive -- without altering the scoring system.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Album Review: Transatlantic, "Kaleidoscope"

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Full disclosure: The prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic is one band for which I lack any type of objectivity. Their first album, SMPT:e, which came out in 2000, was to my ears unrivaled by any music I'd heard since Yes' 1974 Relayer. And Yes happens to be another band about which I lack objectivity.

As a fan of progressive rock in general, and symphonic prog in particular, I figured I'd love this band before I ever heard a note of their music, and they didn't disappoint me. A few years before their first album came out, I'd discovered Spock's Beard and The Flower Kings, the bands from which two of Transatlantic's members hailed. Those bands were two of the leaders of the so-called third wave of progressive rock that emerged in the early 1990s, and although I didn't immediately warm up to the Beard, it was pretty much love at first listen for the Swedish monarchs. The song "Church of Your Heart," in particular, contained all the beauty, majesty, and compositional brilliance of any classic Yes piece.

Yet unlike, say, Starcastle in the late '70s, the Kings' music managed to be much more than just a Yes pastiche. Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Roine Stolt obviously drew his inspiration from the heady days when prog reigned supreme, but he built his own edifice on top of that foundation. Working from the template of symphonic prog -- with all its ornamentation, experimentation, multi-part suites, extended song lengths, light and shade, and an overall approach to music that blended the muscle and propulsion of rock with the virtuosic musicianship and melodic sensibilities of classical music -- Stolt added some contemporary flourishes and mixed it in with a bit of Scandinavian whimsy. Personified, the music would be something like a guitar-wielding hippie in a jester cap, fully aware that he was an anachronism in the dawning era of grunge, but playing on with unbridled passion, a knowing wink of the eye, and not a care in the world about what anyone else thought.

It's a strange thing that Spock's Beard didn't click right away for me. My first impression was that the singer sounded like a cross between John Lennon and Greg Lake, and the music was a strange amalgam of Genesis, Gentle Giant, Yes, and ELP. So there was certainly nothing for me to dislike about it! Maybe it was that the music at times sounded almost too polished and modern, as if these guys were really contemporary pop-rock musicians who could play like their prog idols in their sleep, but maybe their hearts weren't really in it. After hearing more of their music, I decided that the degree of their musical sincerity really didn't matter, because the music they made was just so amazingly good. Not only were all the ingredients of great symphonic prog present -- long-form suites, wall-to-wall Mellotrons and Hammond organs, busy and chunky bass lines, unusual time signatures, and top-notch vocal harmonies -- but the songs were absolutely packed with incredibly delicious hooks and melodies.

That was when it dawned on me that what I liked about the Beard was exactly what I liked about Yes. Not only were the band members consummate musicians, but they never lost sight of what made music enjoyable. You could get lost in the meandering excursions, but you'd always come back to those hummable, memorable moments. (Think of "Roundabout" -- classical guitar flourishes, a fiery organ solo, and a chugging, Clavinet-like bass line, coupled with vocal lines that practically beg you to sing along.) In a way, it was a perfect blending of musical ambition with commercial sensibility. So when Neal Morse -- the Beard's singer, songwriter, keyboardist, and second guitarist -- once referred to his band as prog's version of the Backstreet Boys, I understood exactly what he was talking about ... and it didn't faze me in the slightest.

That's exactly the same reason that I love the more pop-oriented prog-rock of Trevor Rabin's Yes of the '80s and early '90s. Nothing can top those progressive masterpieces of the '70s, but the Rabin version of the band tapped into something very special that struck a tremendous balance between fresh, contemporary, and exciting music and the exploratory grandeur of prog's heyday. Their 15-minute 1994 epic "Endless Dream," the final song on Rabin's final album with Yes, stands as the towering example of how both eras of music could be masterfully blended together.

To my ears, Spock's Beard did the very same thing. And boy, they did it well. By the time I heard Morse's performances on SMPT:e, I stopped doubting the sincerity of the Beard's music -- and the Beard's opus V, released just a few months later, cemented that view. You just couldn't make music this good if you weren't genuinely in love with what you were creating.

Transatlantic, then, was an ambitious side project whose name reflected its international makeup. Morse, an American, and Stolt the Swede were joined by another American, (now former) Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, and English bassist Pete Trewavas from Marillion. I liked Dream Theater and had followed them since their big breakthrough album from 1992, Images and Words. I knew the least about Marillion, though I did enjoy their 1994 concept album Brave.

The band's debut album did not disappoint. SMPT:e was everything a fan of symphonic prog could ask for. Extended instrumental workouts, brilliant musicianship, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and really, really long epic pieces. The opener, "All of the Above," clocks in at just short of 31 minutes. The band has tended to intersperse the big pieces with shorter, more conventional ones, but it's when these guys let themselves stretch out that they really excel.

The follow-up album, Bridge Across Forever, came out a year later, with musical themes weaving in and out of the separate pieces, creating something of a concept-album feel. 

And then they were gone. Morse, following his spiritual muse, left Spock's Beard to pursue a solo career focused on what I'd call Christian praise music. Some of the music was fairly straightforward (but smart and catchy) rock 'n' roll, but Morse still managed to cook up some delicious prog-rock excursions. Portnoy became Morse's go-to drummer for his solo projects, but Transatlantic looked to be dead in the water.

Fast-forward to 2009, and Morse found himself with a 45-minute piece of music that seemed to call out for the Transatlantic treatment. The other members came together and added their own musical ideas, and the result was the third Transatlantic album, a 78-minute song cycle called The Whirlwind. It marked a triumphant return for a band that had been sorely missed.

Five years later, the quartet has come together once again to release their fourth album, Kaleidoscope. And that's what brings us here today, dear readers. I know, it feels as if I've spent all this time talking about Alice's Restaurant when I really came to talk about the draft. But I don't want to assume that all my readers are familiar with this genre of music. Not to mention that the long intro is my way of mimicking prog-rock style in prose. Yeah, that's it.

The first thing that struck me about the new disc was the song titles:
  1. Into the Blue
  2. Shine
  3. Black As the Sky
  4. Beyond the Sun
  5. Kaleidoscope
At first glance, this looks undeniably like a concept album. All of the titles either look skyward or reference light in some way (a kaleidoscope, after all, can't work without light). That would make sense, given Morse's spiritually charged lyrics last time out, on The Whirlwind.

But if there is a lyrical theme this time out, it certainly doesn't dominate the proceedings. If anything, the words convey a sense of being lost and confused in the material world, while striving to remember that there are helping hands and greater rewards that lie beyond this realm. The Christian theology isn't overt, but it's there, lending a sort of Yes-like air of spiritual positivity that uplifts but doesn't proselytize.

The album fades in on a dreamy bed of swirling keyboards and guitars, not too dissimilar to the mood Robert Fripp and Brian Eno set on their ambient 1973 collaboration "The Heavenly Music Corporation." Soon a cello appears, introducing one of the themes we'll hear during "Into the Blue." And with a roll of Portnoy's tom-tom, the band kicks in and we're off and running. A majestic synth line from Morse gives way to a frantic guitar-based riff, which in turn shifts into a slower, lumbering groove that contains definite shades of both The Flower Kings and Dream Theater. (Flower Kings fans will surely be reminded of the sinister riff from "Monster Within," on the Space Revolver album. Imagine that, with Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess playing one of his distinctive synth leads over the top of it.)

Just a few minutes into the album, it already feels as if the individual contributions of all four members have blended together quite nicely into a unified whole. That's not always been the case with Transatlantic, as it's sometimes easy to pick out parts that have the distinct musical character of one particular member. Nothing wrong with that, as far as I'm concerned, but it's interesting to hear a more collaborative approach to the music, which can't be an easy thing given the time constraints of the Transatlantic projects. Generally, the members convene for a week or two, bring their ideas to the table, flesh them out, record the framework of the album, and then put on the vocals, overdubs, and other finishing touches after they've all gone their separate ways. Pretty amazing what these guys can come up with in such a short window of time together.

Another notable thing about "Into the Blue" is that it's largely driven by two primary themes that dance around each other for the entirety of the track. Most Transatlantic epics have something of a hodgepodge feel to them -- more like a long medley of ideas stitched together with recurring musical motifs. This piece may just be the most fully realized epic the band has ever recorded, in the sense that it's those few ideas that keep coming back to propel the song forward. Less musical hopscotch; more continuity and flow.

Yet there's plenty of variety as we go along, by way of an intelligent use of contrasting musical moods. Morse's "The Dreamer and the Healer" theme delivers all the soaring spiritual splendor that Transatlantic fans have grown accustomed to (I hear a bit of the otherworldly Spock's Beard epic "The Great Nothing" in here), while Stolt's "A New Beginning" injects a darker and heavier mood. There's a sparse, funky-feeling bass-and-drum bit pinning down this section, with Portnoy playing all around the beat and Trewavas holding down the groove. Stolt's vocal delivery begins with an electronic treatment that gives his voice a sort of low-pitched growl, before the accented English of his natural voice appears. Portnoy sings a few lines of his own, and then we're off on a three-minute instrumental excursion that builds from a slow, spacious vibe to a roaring climax, led all the way by Stolt's incredible guitar work, which slowly builds from a whisper to a scream.

That section of music is what makes me think of Stolt, in so many ways, as the MVP of the Transatlantic project. Morse is an incredible songwriter with a rare gift for hooks and melodies, but it's Stolt's guitar work that so often takes Transatlantic's music to another level. His style is hard to pin down, but if I had to point to just a few examples, I'd say his approach is rooted in guitar hero-style classic rock, with a bit of Allan Holdsworth's jazzy inflections and Martin Barre's blues-tinged playing, with some wah action and subtle bends here and there for flavor. But there's also a very melodic, vocal-like quality to his playing that comes awfully close at times to the way David Gilmour makes his guitar sing and cry like no one else. Stolt manages to blend all those styles into something that's uniquely his own. On this track, he shines brilliantly with his guitar mastery.

Daniel Gildenlöw.
Photo: flickriver.com.
A soft, ethereal section follows the big outburst, as we return to the "Dreamer and the Healer" theme, highlighted by a soaring guest vocal from Daniel Gildenlöw, whom Transatlantic fans know best as the fifth touring member of the band. The mastermind of Swedish band Pain of Salvation, Gildenlöw has gone on the road with Transatlantic as an auxiliary player for every tour since Bridge Across Forever, but this is his first appearance on a Transatlantic studio album. His delivery here is so gorgeous that I have to wonder how much he could bring to an album if he were ever invited to be a full-fledged contributor.

Morse takes control of the proceedings from here to the end of the piece, punctuated by some more blazing guitar work from Stolt, before the grandeur dissipates and flutters off into the ether. Now that's how to open an album. When a 25-minute piece feels like it whips by in about five, you know the musicians are doing something right.

Next up, we get to cleanse our palates with a shorter, more straightforward piece: the Morse-driven "Shine." Transatlantic has made it a tradition to balance the full-blown prog excursions with some gentler ballads from Morse, and this time out was no exception, as we get both "Shine" and "Beyond the Sun." First up is this lovely piece, starting off with Morse on acoustic guitar, setting a mood very reminiscent of some of the softer moments on his Christian-themed solo albums. Morse's voice, as always, is packed with soul and emotion here, with just a little bit of a raspy edge. Morse never over-emotes in his delivery, but when he's feeling the emotion of what he's singing, you, the listener, can feel it, front and center. There are few in the rock business who can match his soaring heights when it comes to conveying a mood through song.

Stolt and Portnoy take their own vocal turns, and Stolt turns in a pair of tasty solos before things wind down. We also get a brief reprise of the main lyrical theme from "The Dreamer and the Healer" just before the end. This is a very well-crafted piece of music, destined to take its place among other great Transatlantic ballads, notably "We All Need Some Light" From SMPT:e and the title track from Bridge Across Forever. 

Neal Morse. Photo: progarchives.com.
Next up, smack in the middle of the album -- third of five tracks -- is a real barn-burner. "Black As the Sky" is uptempo and intense from start to finish. Morse leads the charge with regal synth and choppy Hammond organ on the intro, and Stolt handles most of the lead vocals (though all the other guys take a brief turn as well). I think this song had to mostly come from Stolt's hand, as it carries on some of the darker themes from the latest Flower Kings album, Desolation Rose, where Stolt's usual hippie idealism steps aside for a sobering look at a world ruled by corruption, deception, greed, secrecy, nationalism, religious extremism, and war. "Black As the Sky" is, best I can make out, about those who rule the world from the shadows, using money, surveillance, and violence to control those who are either oblivious to what's really going on around them, or powerless to do anything about it. "You pray for some justice / but no one can hear / so you look to the skies," Stolt sings, carrying forward the skyward-looking lyrical theme on the album. 

Of all things, the chorus on this one reminds me a bit of something Styx could have cooked up in their prime -- one of those hard-rocking pieces from James Young, perhaps, with all three vocalists belting it out in unison. But the middle instrumental section is totally "The Colony of Slippermen," from Morse's synth tone to the way the groove unexpectedly shifts from triplets to sixteenth notes and back again. If they play this song in concert and don't veer off into an extended Genesis quote at this point, I'd be shocked. They're not shy about playing covers, and in fact they've performed "Firth of Fifth" and "Return of the Giant Hogweed." After about a week's worth of listening, this is my favorite track on the album so far.

Roine Stolt.
Photo: musicametal.blogosfere.it.
"Beyond the Sun" is up next, and it quickly sets a somber mood, with a cello and a swooping steel guitar trading lines before Morse joins with vocals and piano. The album credits say mixer Rich Mouser played the steel on this song, so I'm not sure any of the other members of Transatlantic are present here. Moreover, in the "making of" DVD that came with the deluxe Kaleidoscope package, there's a mention of having four songs -- not five -- written for the album. So my guess is this was a later addition from Morse.

Lyrically, it conjures up memories of the "Rose Colored Glasses" section of The Whirlwind, which spoke of a sad goodbye on this earth but a longing to meet again someday, after this life is over. Musically, it has the spacious, stately beauty of "Bridge Across Forever." There are also some echoes of the Spock's Beard song "The Distance to the Sun." It gathers together all those influences and melds them into something with its own plaintively beautiful essence.

Serving almost as a musical prologue, "Beyond the Sun" moves without a break into the album's nearly 32-minute title track and grand finale. "Kaleidoscope" is much like past Transatlantic epics, in that several disparate ideas have been weaved together into a larger structure. But just like those epics of old, the end result is an exciting roller-coaster ride from start to finish. A handful of themes, heavy on organ and piano and with a distinct Stolt-like melody line bobbing in and out, wind around each other to kick things off.

Pete Trewavas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Just after the three-minute mark, a bright, organ-heavy riff takes over, bearing the characteristic poppy-prog sound that defines so much of the best Spock's Beard music. The summery-sounding verses and chorus practically defy you not to tap your feet and sing along -- this is Morse doing what he does best. When Stolt's first solo gets under way, we're left musically somewhere between the Spock's song "Day for Night" and "All of the Above" from SMPT:e -- both very sonically pleasant places to be. (Incidentally, the recurring "Ride the Lightning" theme established here has nothing to do with the Metallica album and song of the same name!)

We move from there to a section featuring Stolt's vocals that sways back and forth between lighter-sounding Flower Kings fare and a heavy, ominous riff, though the lighter moments belie the subject matter -- the human and environmental toll of drilling for oil.

After an abrupt stop, it's on to a laid-back, Beatles-flavored section sung by Trewavas. "Walking the Road" is punctuated by a simple but memorable melody and a synthesized trumpet interlude that only serves to amplify the "Summer of Love" vibe here. This section, following a slow-paced Stolt solo, flows smoothly into an acoustic guitar-driven revisitation of the "Ride the Lightning" theme.  

Mike Portnoy. Photo: grablewski.com.
The band builds in intensity on its way to a lengthy instrumental break, leading off with some blazing synth and organ work before slipping into a Stolt-influenced passage that puts me a little bit in the mind of Zappa filtered through The Flower Kings -- just a bit of that whimsical, slightly jazzy flavor Stolt often brings to his music.  From there, the section takes on kind of a kitchen-sink feel, as we move through previous themes, and even a few passages that bear a strong resemblance to some music from past Transatlantic albums. 

We come to another stop, and Morse's growling organ leads us into one of those anthemic, wave-your-lighters half-time codas that Transatlantic is so good at. It's the "Ride the Lightning" theme again, and that's where the album says goodbye lyrically. For the final two minutes, dramatic Mellotron chords pin down one last great solo excursion from Stolt -- and on and on it rolls, as the song rises into the clouds and fades away, "Supper's Ready" style.

And that's it -- unless you have the bonus disc, which is wall-to-wall cover songs. Every Transatlantic album has offered a deluxe package with bonus tracks -- some alternate takes, some songs that didn't make the cut, and lots and lots of covers. Most of them are done up pretty faithfully to the originals, and this time out is no exception. One cut, Focus' "Sylvia," is an instrumental, while Portnoy sings on King Crimson's "Indiscipline" and Procol Harum's "Conquistador" (Transatlantic's third Procol Harum cover!). Morse handles "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Nights in White Satin," and Stolt sings on ELO's "Can't Get It Out of My Head." Stolt and Morse share the vocals on the Small Faces' "Tin Soldier" and on Yes' "And You and I." The Yes piece gets a little bit of a twist, as the band opens with the booming "Apocalypse" theme, a la the live Yessongs version, rather than with 12-string acoustic. Stolt takes a few tasteful liberties with his vocal lines, and the sublime ending of the song, with his guitar swirling on and on, higher and higher, into a soft fadeout, is a downright spine-tingling moment.

Well. All I can say is that this album was well worth the five-year wait, and I hope we don't have to wait five years for the next serving. Portnoy made a comment in the making-of DVD that with four albums under their belts, Transatlantic doesn't really feel like a side project anymore. Selfishly, I'd love for these guys to stick together full-time and make this their life's work. But Stolt and Trewavas still have commitments to other bands, and Portnoy is involved in several different projects himself. We'll see what happens next. In the meantime, Kaleidoscope will be in heavy rotation around here, and I'm looking forward to seeing these guys next week at the Seattle stop on their tour.

The year is young, but so far, Kaleidoscope is my top album of 2014 -- and I think it will be hard to beat. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

It's Never "Different This Time"

In 2004, I worked as a copy editor for a political journal that traveled to Boston and New York to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions. The writers, naturally, got to go into the convention halls to cover the action, while the rest of us worked in rented office space nearby and had to nab whatever passes were left over if we wanted to check out either convention in person. I got to watch a speech one night at the RNC, but that was it. I think John McCain was speaking. But for some reason, Michael Moore was there -- at the RNC! -- and I remember giving him a thumbs-up as he walked toward an exit directly under my seat. But for the most part, all of us non-writers watched the events from both conventions on TV, like the rest of the country did.

And I still remember walking past the office TV when some guy named Barack Obama got up before the DNC and gave an impassioned speech. He stopped me in my tracks as I listened in. Other co-workers walking by stopped and did the same. As he wrapped up his speech, I remember somebody nearby saying, "Wow, he just knocked it out of the park."

At that time in my life, it never would have occurred to me to even consider voting Democrat -- I was a recovering Republican who'd cast my lot with the Libertarians -- yet I had to agree. It was a great, impassioned, emotional speech. It served its purpose of getting the party loyalists at the convention stirred up -- and in retrospect, it certainly was the first crucial step in Obama's rather rapid ascendance to power over the next few years.

I understand why people were excited about his presidential campaign in 2008. Not only did Americans want to wipe the slate clean after a disastrous eight years of Bush/Cheney, but they heard and saw in Obama the promise of a brighter future. He talked a good game. And in the end, he made history.

But looking back over the past five years, I wonder how many of those same voters who were enraptured with him, who pinned so many of their hopes for better things on him, now feel a sense of disappointment. 

Granted, Obama was never my guy. But as someone who doesn't put party before principle, I often wonder to what extent the party faithful will make excuses for their candidates. It's human nature to do so, I suppose, as people generally don't like to admit they were wrong, and loyalty to the tribe (in this case, a political party or ideology) is a powerful human instinct.

A couple of different things got me thinking about this over the weekend. First, there was an article by David Sirota about Obama's changing stance on health-insurance reform. As most of us political observers know, Obama once supported a single-payer system, only to later deny that he ever did. And according to Sirota, Obama eventually flipped his view so completely that by 2009, he was actively working to silence any discussion of single-payer. And that's how we ultimately ended up with a public-private Frankenstein of a law that benefits insurers and pharmaceuticals while driving up premiums for many Americans who are already scraping to get by. 

The other thing that popped up in the past few days was Obama's speech about "reforming" the NSA. Here I'll just remind you once again that Obama talks a good game. He's good at saying nothing while making you think he just promised you the moon.

I'll let the incomparable Glenn Greenwald administer the takedown:
And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. ... But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of plainly cosmetic "reforms". By design, those proposals will do little more than maintain rigidly in place the very bulk surveillance systems that have sparked such controversy and anger. ...

Ultimately, the radical essence of the NSA – a system of suspicion-less spying aimed at hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world – will fully endure even if all of Obama's proposals are adopted. That's because Obama never hid the real purpose of this process. It is, he and his officials repeatedly acknowledged, "to restore public confidence" in the NSA. In other words, the goal isn't to truly reform the agency; it is to deceive people into believing it has been so that they no longer fear it or are angry about it. ...
That, in general, has long been Obama's primary role in our political system and his premiere, defining value to the permanent power factions that run Washington. He prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in meaningful ways. He's not an agent of change but the soothing branding packaging for it.
And that's how he gets away with saying one thing but doing another.
  • It's how he promised as a candidate to protect whistleblowers but as a president has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other administration in U.S. history. In the most egregious examples, Bradley Manning sits in prison, while the perpetrators of the criminal acts he exposed walk free, and Edward Snowden sits in virtual exile in Russia for exposing the depths of the NSA's unconstitutional activity.
  • It's how he said he wasn't "going to scramble jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," but then did just that, forcing down Bolivian President Evo Morales' private jet after leaving Russia, on suspicion that Snowden was on board.
  • It's how, as a candidate, he criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting an individual mandate -- likening it at one point to trying to solve homelessness by forcing people to buy homes -- and then turned around and supported one after getting elected.
  • It's how he laughed at George Stephanopoulos when the latter characterized the mandate's non-compliance penalty as a tax. "I absolutely reject that notion," Obama said. But when the only way the Supreme Court could salvage the mandate was by framing the noncompliance penalty as a tax, you never heard Obama say another word about it.
  • It's how he could campaign on the promise to label GMOs but then appoint a former Monsanto executive, attorney, and lobbyist to be America's food-safety czar. And that was before he signed the Monsanto Protection Act into law.
  • It's how he could criticize George W. Bush's record on civil liberties and human rights, but then keeps Guantanamo open, renews a Patriot Act he once criticized, oversees a "kill list" and signs off on those to be targeted, has ordered the assassination of American citizens (including a 16-year-old boy) with no due process, and has signed into law -- three times now -- an authorization to hold anyone, even Americans, indefinitely without trial or charge. And that's not to mention the ongoing drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, the number of which far exceeds those ordered under Bush, and under which many innocent women and children have been killed.
You're left to sit back and wonder how it came to this. Was he always a villain with a silver tongue? Did power corrupt him? Was he bought by corporate interests? Told to play along by the military-industrial complex?

Well, he has another golden opportunity to prove his integrity to us in light of the ruling that struck down net neutrality -- without which the Internet could end up looking a lot like cable TV, with consumers forced to buy "bundles" for access to the websites they want. Moreover, ISPs could get large companies to pay up for access to a "fast lane," leaving small companies and start-ups either out in the cold, or stuck in a "slow lane" that means they'd take forever to load. You might have to select from data plans, like you do with your phone, and pay for any overages at the end of the month. ISPs could even start blocking access to certain services -- say, a competitor's website, or an activist site or personal blog critical of that ISP.

That's what we're looking at, now that net neutrality is dead.

Obama is said to be a supporter of net neutrality, and a White House spokesman after the ruling stated that he "remains committed to an open internet, where consumers are free to choose the websites they want to visit and the online services they want to use, and where online innovators are allowed to compete on a level playing field based on the quality of their products."

So the question is, will he do anything? Will the rhetoric match the words this time? The court ruling seems to have extended to the FCC a chance to revisit its own classifications in an attempt to salvage net neutrality, but there will be immense political pressure from the ISPs that have wanted net neutrality dead for ages, in pursuit of greater profit.

If, as it seems, Obama caved to corporate pressure when it came to health insurance and GMO labeling, can we trust him to stand up to corporate power when it comes to net neutrality? Can he influence the FCC to do the right thing?

The answer may give us some hope that he retains some semblance of independence, or it could be the final verdict against him. Time will tell.

Of course, he could also grant clemency to Edward Snowden, as The New York Times suggests. That would be an even more courageous accomplishment. But I'm not holding my breath -- especially considering how many people in our government want Snowden dead.

In any event, one thing is clear, and that is that you should never listen to what a politician says. Just watch what he does. That's always been true, of course, but it becomes even more important to remember when you're dealing with a charismatic figure who could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.

And that's why this cycle repeats itself over and over again. People who look to our elected leaders for change will be swayed by a persuasive narrative that uses lots of emotional buzzwords. Voters will fall prey to the promises. They'll vote the new person into office in hopes that this time it will be different. And, of course, it won't be. I see it happening all over again with Elizabeth Warren, the darling of the left. She says all the right things. She's fired up with moral indignation at the state of our nation. And by golly, she's going to bring forth the positive forces of government to do something about it.

Problem is, we heard the same kinds of things from Barack Obama back in 2008. And we see how that's worked out.

Glenn Greenwald's simple suggestion? (Emphasis added.)
As is always the case, those who want genuine changes should not look to politicians, and certainly not to Barack Obama, to wait for it to be gifted. 
I couldn't agree more. If politicians were going to "save" us, they would have done it a long time ago. Instead, they keep making things worse.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to sit back and wonder when people are going to catch on.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Quick Lesson in Mindfulness

A man was rowing his boat upstream on a very misty morning. Suddenly, he saw another boat coming downstream, not trying to avoid him. It was coming straight at him. He shouted, "Be careful! Be careful!" but the boat came right into him, and his boat was almost sunk. The man became very angry, and began to shout at the other person, to give him a piece of his mind. But when he looked closely, he saw that there was no one in the other boat. It turned out that the boat just got loose and went downstream. All his anger vanished, and he laughed and he laughed.
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, from Being Peace

Baby M. and I both have colds, and as I was sitting here feeling miserable, my first reaction was to think about the public places we've been recently -- two of which attract lots of kids -- and then to wonder why inconsiderate parents don't leave their sick children at home. As this is going through my head, my daughter, clinging to Mommy for comfort, reaches down and picks some imaginary "flowers and rainbows" for her mama.

She's not preoccupied with trying to figure out who made her sick and why. The only thing she's doing is sharing her affection, even though I know she feels awful.

I tell you, that kid is the little angel on my shoulder. 

People are going to be inconsiderate whether I complain about it or not. And besides, how do I know somebody deliberately left the house carrying germs? Maybe the other person thought he was over his cold, or she didn't know her kid was coming down with something. We rush to place blame so quickly, don't we? Why not just make the best of the situation, especially when we can't change it?

Moral of the story: If you want to see the world with calmness, clarity, and love, look at it through the eyes of a child.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Adventures in Corporate Exploitation, From the Clear Blue Skies to Your Morning Breakfast Bowl

I'm really trying to be more easygoing this year, but sometimes you just have to speak out.

In this case, a couple of news items unfolded over the weekend that have a connection to the state and region I live in. And they both underscore just how callous and dishonest big corporations can be.

First, the machinists at Boeing voted 51% to 49% to accept a deal from their employer that will keep production of the company's 777X plane in the Puget Sound area. The union's national leadership forced a final vote on the issue, and in the end, workers ended up swallowing a deal that forces them to give up their pensions. Boeing will now switch to a 401(k) plan.

The machinists were essentially backed into a corner. They could give up their pensions, or they could see the 777X work slip away to any of 22 other states that had expressed an interest in taking on the project.

Several workers were reportedly in tears when the final vote count was announced.

"They held a gun to our head and our people were afraid," said union council delegate Lester Mullen after the vote.

"I don't ever want to gamble. I've got a family to take care of," said mechanic Avery Madden.

Boeing knew that's how this would end up. With the threat of extortion hanging over their heads, the machinists chose to pay their bills and clothe their kids. They chose survival.

The workers couldn't win, and Boeing couldn't lose.

Boeing officials, naturally, praised the vote. So did Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who in November signed off on $8.7 billion in tax breaks for Boeing -- essentially a public bribe to keep the 777X work in-state. 

That's $8.7 billion in concessions for a company that saw its stock rise more than 80% last year, announced a $10 billion stock buyback, increased dividends to shareholders by 50% (an outlay of more than $2 billion in itself), and reported $1.16 billion in profits its most recently completed quarter. And did I mention that Boeing's CEO, Jim McNerney, made $21 million last year? That was a 15% raise over the previous year.

All this money rolling around, and Boeing couldn't find room in its budget for pensions? For the people who did all the work and made those profits possible?

The Wall Street Journal, unsurprisingly, took Boeing's side in claiming that the pensions were "unsustainable," in the ongoing fight for companies to remain competitive. In Boeing's case, that means staying competitive against Airbus and Airbus only, because Boeing has a practical monopoly on passenger-jet production in the United States -- and that's not to mention its military contracts.

Just how "unsustainable" were the pensions? The Puget Sound Business Journal cites Peter Arment of brokerage firm Sterne Agee as saying that "the analysts' consensus per-share performance for Boeing in 2013 -- $5 a share -- would be $2 higher were it not for pension obligations."

So we're not talking about a swing between a loss and a gain here. If poor, beleaguered Boeing didn't have to pay out all those pension obligations, it could be taking in $7 in earnings per share instead of "just" $5.


It's no wonder Ralph Nader wrote an open letter to McNerney, decrying the company's "cruel downward pressure on your machinists" and accusing Boeing of being "one of the major corporate welfare kings in America."

Sure, the 777X work will now stay in the region, but at what cost? Workers' retirements have been sacrificed on the altar of corporate profits and shareholder value. Boeing, meanwhile, gives up nothing, and its stock continues to rise.

Conrad Irwin, Wikimedia Commons.
In the meantime, a story came out over the weekend that General Mills is taking the GMOs out of Cheerios. News outlets generally spun the announcement as an act of bowing to public pressure over GMOs, even though this move is little more than an empty PR stunt by General Mills. The oats in Cheerios weren't genetically modified to begin with, so the only thing changing will be the sourcing of the sugar and corn starch. Furthermore, other flavors of Cheerios still won't be GMO-free; this affects only the original variety of the cereal.

But General Mills wants you to think this was a noble act of self-sacrifice. Spokesman Mike Siemienas proclaimed: "There is broad consensus that food containing GMOs is safe, but we decided to move forward with this in response to consumer demand." (Emphasis mine.)

No, they didn't. Otherwise, they wouldn't have poured more than half a million dollars into the campaign to oppose GMO labeling here in Washington last November.

You'd think some journalist, somewhere, would have picked up this part of the story. It seems rather important in understanding the big picture. But I haven't seen it reported anywhere -- which I think says a lot about the state of the news media these days. Sometimes you have to look beyond the press release and question the official story. That's part of what journalists are supposed to do.

As I mentioned in a previous post, we Washingtonians voted on an initiative that would have required labeling of genetically modified foods sold within our state. The initiative had broad initial support -- until massive agribusiness interests and food conglomerates began pouring millions of dollars into a relentless disinformation campaign, saturating mailboxes and the airwaves with falsehoods that were designed to scare people into voting against the initiative -- and, by extension, protect the bottom lines of the companies funding the "No" campaign. No one has ever spent as much money on an initiative campaign in state history. And thanks to their efforts, the initiative died, in the same way these same companies killed California's attempt at a labeling law. 

So who was behind the nearly $22 million in donations to "No on 522"? Pretty much the names you'd expect: Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Bayer CropScience, BASF Plant Science, Dow Agrosciences ... and a food-industry trade group called the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The GMA outspent all of the other donors, but no one in Washington knew which of its member companies were donating to the campaign, because the GMA was essentially laundering their contributions, to shield them from public criticism. That was a violation of state campaign finance law, and Washington's attorney general sued. It was only then, under legal duress, that the GMA relented and released the names of its donors.

Among them? General Mills, maker of Cheerios, at $598,819. Only Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle USA spent more among the GMA's donors to defeat 522.

So let's call the Cheerios "news" what it really is: a smokescreen. An attempt to disarm GMO critics by making it appear as if one of the big food producers is taking its consumers' wishes to heart, when it's doing nothing of the sort.

As the Seattle Times opined following the November election, the goal of the GMA and its "No on 522" partners was simple: "Stop a movement, opposed by big business, in Washington. Don't let it spread to other states. Money is no object."

And lest anyone think these corporate powers were content to stop at crushing Washingtonians' right to know what was in their food, documents filed with the attorney general's office following the forced disclosure revealed that the end goal of the GMA is to secure a federal ban on GMO labeling. Meanwhile, following the 522 defeat, the GMA was also busy lobbying the FDA to use the word "natural" on foods containing GMOs. Mind you, "natural" means nothing, in terms of the contents of your food. The only purpose of using the word "natural" on GMO foods would be to confuse consumers into thinking they're buying organic or non-GMO products.

This is the level of deception the GMA is willing to employ. They will apparently stop at nothing to squelch GMO labeling initiatives, all while trying to deceive the public about the content of the foods they sell.

And this, again, is a group that includes General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, which personally spent more than half a million dollars to stop GMO labeling in Washington.

Still believe General Mills is making Cheerios GMO-free out of the goodness of its heart, or in response to public concern over GMOs?

For the corporate giants that control our wages, what we consume, and how most of our elected leaders vote, money is no object. And as companies like Boeing remind us, their primary motivation is to amass even more money, even if it's at the expense of ordinary working-class citizens just trying to get by and provide for their families and their retirements.

The rich get richer, on the backs of all of us, as the income gap widens to record proportions and wealth continues to concentrate itself into fewer and fewer hands.

When is enough going to be enough?