Friday, August 11, 2017

Horrors of the 'Unspeakable' Variety

It's here. It's queer. And it's unspeakable.

In advance of the October 31st release of Unspeakable Horror 2: Abominations of Desire (Evil Jester Press, 2017), the new spiffy trailer from the fine folks at Circle of Seven Productions.

Desire – the feeling that accompanies an unsatisfied state.

What happens when human desire twists…bends…warps…mutates?

What happens when that desire is fed…or even starved?

In this sequel to the Bram Stoker Award®-winning anthology, Editor Vince Liaguno assembles a literary pantheon from the LGBT and horror communities to explore the dark underbelly of desire.

From unrequited love and repressed lust to consuming grief and the unquenchable thirst of addiction…from unfathomable sexual undergrounds to unspeakable perversions creeping into everyday suburbia, these abominations of desire will leave you gasping for breath and your taste for terror satiated.

Contributors include: Gemma Files, Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, Lee Thomas, Helen Marshall, David Nickle, Lisa Morton, Norman Prentiss, Greg Herren, Tom Cardamone, Erastes, Marshall Moore, Evan J. Peterson, Chad Helder, Brad Hodson, Michael Hacker, R.B. Payne, Martel Sardina, and Martin Rose.

Praise for Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet (Dark Scribe Press, 2008)

“There are plenty of those to be found in Liaguno and Helder’s collection of 23 tales of queer faeries, psychopaths, ghosts of tormented lovers and hapless victims. What impresses me is the sheer literacy of these stories. There are no cheap shocks or Stephen King-like pop culture regurgitations here; only nasty things that bump and shudder the bed as you read.” – Out In Print

“It was inevitable that the narrowing portals of the publishing industry—in this case, the horror side—would yield a bevy of small presses geared at bringing new fear fiction to readers increasingly starved for quality. While books from such outfits can be a bit of a gamble, there is much to praise in Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet, a sharp, new gay-themed anthology. The 24 entries comprise a sophisticated collection of topnotch tales of terror, most of which could appear in any fright anthology without qualification, and suggest the maturing of ‘gay horror’ into a viable and solid genre indeed.”  – Fangoria Magazine

Friday, July 28, 2017

Why Is Understanding Mandatory?

Over the last few days—against my own better judgment—I've engaged others on a few friends' Facebook timelines on the subject of Trump's transgender ban earlier this week. To say that some of the responses I've gotten are disheartening is an understatement. So much fear (which leads to hatred) of that which we don't understand.

When cornered by logic, some of these respondents went radio silent, others lashed out with that underlying transphobia you knew was there the whole time bubbling under the surface. Some finally acquiesced in frustration to just "not getting the whole thing." And here's the thing: Why do we have to understand something to exhibit kindness and human decency?
I'll readily admit that I don't understand every facet of transgenderism. That's largely because I am not transgender and have therefore not experienced what it feels like to have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from my biologically assigned sex. I likely don't always get the preferred idioms correct or readily identify with every nuance of the transgender experience. But I try to learn by interacting with trans men and women, by reading more on the subject, by listening to the experiences of others. And still I don't understand every aspect of someone who is transgender.

But I don't have to. I can still choose—and make no mistake, it *is* a choice—to be compassionate and kind and to consider the totality of the individual with no judgement or malice. If I feel uncomfortable with some aspect of someone's gender identity or expression, that discomfort is mine and mine alone. It's based on some deep-seeded bias within me and has nothing to do with the other person. I try to push myself through that discomfort or aspect I don't understand and try to expand my try to figure out the reasons and origins of that discomfort. What I don't do is make a trans man or woman feel less than because of any shortcoming of mine. That's cowardly and morally wrong.
All human beings deserve to be loved and to be able to express love. They deserve to be treated with kindness and respect— what we've come to know as basic human decency. I may never know or fully understand what it feels like to be born into the wrong body, but I can treat people who do with empathy and compassion. It takes nothing away from me to do so. I subscribe to the philosophy of inclusive humanism, which embraces the idea that all human beings matter and deserve equal respect and dignity, regardless of geographical region, age, achievement, ability, appearance, ethnicity, religious beliefs, nonreligious beliefs, sex, sexual orientation, or gender.

This is not rocket science, folks. People are different. Some of those differences will be easy to understand and accept; others may prove more difficult based on our biases and preconceptions. Work through them...or at least try to. There are no pitfalls to doing so and an expanded world and worldview are among the many benefits.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Remembering Laura Branigan

Today, I am grateful for the life and career of the late Laura Branigan.

In the late 1970s, several years after attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, Branigan got her first break—touring Europe as a backing vocalist for Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen. Although she signed as a solo artist with Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, in 1979, her first album—SILVER DREAMS—went unreleased despite the first single making a blip on the BILLBOARD dance chart. With music fans tiring of disco and the second British invasion not yet landing ashore in America, Branigan’s booming four-octave voice actually worked against her during those early days at Atlantic, with the label’s A&R folks scrambling to position her as a pop singer. When her nine-track debut album—uninspiringly titled BRANIGAN—was finally released in 1982, the singer’s elusive breakout success would finally come by way of a reworked cover of an Italian love song, “Gloria.” That song would eventually go on to be certified platinum and spend a then-record 36 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number two and landing Branigan her first and only Grammy nomination as a solo artist. For better or for worse, “Gloria” would become the singer’s signature hit.

Subsequent releases proved the singer more than a one-hit wonder. As European synthpop took hold of the decade, more Top 40 hits came with “Solitaire”, “Self Control”, “Spanish Eddie”, and “Shattered Glass.” Unfortunately, Branigan’s career was marked by material that rarely rose to the caliber of her magnificent voice, with a few notable exceptions like “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” (penned by pre-fame Michael Bolton), “Cry Wolf” (which was later covered by Stevie Nicks), and her emotionally raw take on Jennifer Rush’s juggernaut ballad “The Power of Love” (predating Celine Dion’s worldwide smash).

Following the release of her final album, 1993’s OVER MY HEART, Branigan went on hiatus from the music industry to care for her ailing husband, Larry Kruteck, who would eventually die of colon cancer in 1996. Her career never recovered from either the heartbreak of losing her husband or the hiatus, during which grunge became the music du jour and poor management further derailed her career. She was contractually obligated to Atlantic to deliver two new tracks for the 13-track greatest hits compilation THE BEST OF BRANIGAN (1995), and she chose covers of former Lone Justice frontwoman Maria McKee’s “Show Me Heaven” (which had been an international smash from the DAYS OF THUNDER soundtrack) and a high-energy cover of Donna Summer’s disco nugget “Dim All the Lights.” Aided by a fun, drag queen-infused video, the latter would go on to become a moderate Billboard Top 40 Dance hit.

Her prospects for a comeback dimmed again in 2001 when a ten-foot fall from a ladder she was using to hang wisteria outside her lakeside home in Westchester County, New York, resulted in two broken femurs that necessitated rods and pins in both legs and months of intensive physical therapy. Branigan was again dipping her toe back into music with a few newly-recorded tracks—including a dance remake of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” and a haunting cover of the late Eva Cassidy’s “I Know You By Heart”—when she died in her asleep at the Long Island home she shared with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in August of 2004. She was only 52 at the time of her untimely passing, which was attributed to an undiagnosed ventricular brain aneurysm. Her ashes were scattered over the Long Island Sound.

Despite her modest catalog, Branigan has remained one of my all-time favorite female vocalists, largely based on my experiences seeing her perform live. She was truly an artist whose recordings did her extraordinary voice little justice. Between the years of 1984 and 2002, I had the great pleasure of seeing her sixteen times in concert, each time marveling at what a true vocal powerhouse she was. Adding to those musical experiences, I often had the tremendous thrill of meeting her after the show for autographs and photos.

Branigan also holds a special place in my heart for kickstarting my mid(ish)-life writing career. Following her tragic passing, I had the surreal experience of attending two estate auctions out in Westhampton Beach, both commissioned by her family. At the end of both auctions, I was fortunate to have acquired Branigan’s original marriage certificate, her personal wedding album and invitation, original proof sheets of unpublished photos of the singer, and never used photos from the shoot for her SELF CONTROL album cover, among other mementos. But even with these cherished pieces of the late singer, my heart was broken; this was the first celebrity to whom I had an attachment who had passed away. So, as many writers do, I channeled my grief into a tribute article that editor Steve Cyrkin was kind enough to buy and publish in his magazine, AUTOGRAPH COLLECTOR, a small, specialty-niche publication for enthusiasts of the titular hobby with a respectable national circulation. That led to a lengthy professional association with the magazine and a considerable collection of articles and interviews with celebrities like Meg Tilly, Terri Nunn of Berlin, Martha Davis of The Motels, BAYWATCH actor Michael Bergin, Johnathon Schaech, FALCON CREST’s Jamie Rose, and too many others to count. That gig gave me the confidence to pen my first novel, then edit my first anthology, and the rest—as they say—is history.

Today, on what would have been Branigan’s 65th birthday, I’m left with fond memories of a gracious woman who loved her fans and always took the time to tell them so, a modest musical legacy that only hinted at the talent beneath the glossy productions, and bittersweet thoughts of “what if…”. Most of all, I’m left with deep gratitude that Branigan chose to share her singular voice with the world and that her recordings will ensure that that voice will never be forgotten.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 Albums of 2016

As another year ends, it’s time for another best-of list. 2016 proved an interesting year from which to cull together a ranking of notable albums, with many of my perennial favorites not releasing new music this year. But despite an absence of darling divas like Alison Moyet, Jessie Ware, Annie Lennox, and Lisa Stansfield, and being too soon for new material from favorite fellas like Brandon Flowers, Rob Thomas, and Jimmy Somerville, delayed sophomore releases from promising newcomers from lists past like Sam Smith, and (sadly) the untimely death of still other longtime favorite, George Michael, my ears were graced this year by an eclectic collection of artists – some new, some returning, some charting comebacks – whose albums ran the gamut from pop and EDM to alternative and classic rock.

So, without further prelude, following is my list of top ten albums from the past year.   

#10 – Shura / Nothing’s Real

London singer/songwriter Shura debuted midyear with this polished set of EDM, heavily influenced by mid-to-late 1980s dance-pop. Her ambient synthpop soundscape impressively manages to feel simultaneously retro – calling to mind Madonna, Debbie Gibson, and Janet Jackson at various early career points – and fresh. What sets Nothing’s Real apart from the competition is its authenticity and a painstaking attention to detail. Shura never sets out to mimic the aesthetic of a past musical era – she’s creating quality pop songs with a keen appreciation for their influences while remaining mindful of their place within a modern context. Her uncomplicated lyrical genuineness is complimented by the deeply infectious hooks among the many glorious pop confections here, like the “Holiday”-esque “Indecision”, “Touch”, “Tongue Tied”, “What Happened to Us?”, and the disco-infused title track.

#9 – Pretenders / Alone

Chrissie Hynde, at 65, remains the unapologetic focal point of the classic rock outfit Pretenders and – on the band’s tenth studio album – it’s clear why. Her distinctive voice has become the connective tissue between the band’s ever-changing roster, the one consistent that makes you wonder how – as sole proprietress of the Pretenders franchise – she decides which musical output gets categorized as solo versus band effort. Crediting concerns aside, Alone is a worthy follow-up to Hynde’s 2014 solo album Stockholm. Alternating between gritty toughness and sentimental sweetness, the 12-track effort produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach never forgets that Chrissie Hynde is the Pretenders and plays to her iconoclastic rank among the male-dominated world of rock-and-roll as a fiercely independent woman. Her trademark slurry sultriness remains the vocal equivalent of a swagger, especially on tracks like “I Hate Myself”. Other quintessential Pretenders tracks represented here include: “Gotta Wait”, “Holy Commotion”, “Death Is Not Enough”, and “Never Be Together”.

#8 – St. Lucia / Matter

Easily the most unabashedly joyful album of the year, St. Lucia’s Matter wears its 80s-era new romanticism influences proudly. The Brooklyn-based pop outfit – fronted by South African singer and musician Jean-Philip Grobler – crafts an irresistibly danceable collection of swirling synthpop filled with a grandiose sense of sunniness in every propulsive keyboard loop. Musical hedonism for the soul. Standout tracks include: “Physical”, “The Winds of Change” and midtempo “Love Somebody”.

#7 – Birdy / Beautiful Lies

It’s hard to believe that Birdy (aka Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde) is already on her third album at the tender age of 20 or that it’s only been five years since the one-time music competition winner released a cover version of Bon Iver's song "Skinny Love" that first introduced the world to her extraordinary talent. On Beautiful Lies, the prodigious wunderkind presents her most accomplished and commercially-accessible effort to date, with a welcome evolution from acoustic covers to alternative pop. While the singer’s signature silky piano ballads are well represented here, it’s her stepping out on a handful of uptempo gems like the anthemic “Wild Horses”, “Lifted”, and the rousing “Keeping Your Head Up” that now put her in league with contemporaries like Lorde and Florence Welch. Gorgeous from start to finish. Standouts include: “Shadow”, “Take My Heart”, and the gorgeous “Silhouette”.

#6 – Grace / FMA (Forgive My Attitude)

This 20-year-old Aussie whose full name is Grace Sewell cements herself as a frontrunner in fill the musical void left by the late Amy Winehouse with this exceptional debut album. Like the UK’s Paloma Faith, Grace has a sultry, full-throttle voice that’s set against a polished set of neo-soul, pop, and R&B, which she also penned. You’ve likely already heard Grace, her superb reworking of the Lesley Gore classic “You Don’t Own Me” featured prominently in the trailer to the film The Suicide Squad. Other standouts include: “Church on Sunday” and the achingly sparse “How to Love Me”.

#5 – Rick Astley / 50

In one of the most surprising and unlikely comebacks of the year, Rick Astley returned to music with an album masterfully executed to showcase his formidable pipes and – as evidenced by the plethora of rousing, hands-in-the-air choruses and spiritual imagery aplenty – a newfound sense of optimism. His baritone is just as rich as it was back in his heyday as the ginger poster boy for the house of Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW), with a seasoned rasp that now lends an emotional texture that was lacking in his earlier days of high-energy synthpop. And after years of being the butt of Internet jokes (rickrolling, anyone?), Astley has had the last laugh: 50 skyrocketed to the top of the UK music chart, earning him his first number-one album in 29 years. Among the many highlights of the album are “This Old House”, “I Like the Sun”, “Pray with Me”, and “Dance”.

#4 – Rebecca Ferguson / Superwoman

This one-time runner-up from the British edition of X Factor creates a deeply autobiographical collection of piano-driven ballads and mid-tempo R&B that showcases her stunningly soulful voice (Think: Macy Gray meets Amy Winehouse). On the British powerhouse’s fourth consecutive top ten studio album (in the UK), personal fortitude and hard-won female empowerment are on tap thematically, while the production is lush and sophisticated. Ferguson’s distinctive jazz-blues voice – put to such solid use on her album of Billie Holiday covers last year – is a raspy delight, capable of soaring effortlessly. The highlights here are lead single “Bones”, a cover of New Zealand artist Ginny Blackmore, the acoustic title track, and “Without a Woman”.

#3 – Selah Sue / Reason

Selah Sue (real name Sanne Putseys) is a Belgian singer-songwriter and music festival darling whose gravelly voice and real-deal musical sincerity have made her a known commodity in her native country, France, and Netherlands. If there is any justice, the twenty-seven-year-old will carve out a niche for herself outside those geographical borders with Reason, her long-awaited sophomore effort following 2011’s eponymous debut. There’s a chill urban sensibility to the collection that – when coupled with the singer’s powerhouse pipes and guttural delivery – hits the listener with an emotional depth that takes you off-guard. There’s an appealing fusion of soul, trip hop, reggae, and EDM to the album that somehow manages to establish cohesion despite its variant stylings. Standout tracks include “Fear Nothing”, “Alive”, “Right Where I Want You”, and “Alone”.

#2 – Robbie Williams / The Heavy Entertainment Show

There’s likely no modern pop star quite as entertaining or attention-deficit as the UK’s Robbie Williams. New album releases from the one-time boy band crooner and tabloid bad-boy are never predictable, and his latest (and 11th studio album) The Heavy Entertainment Show is no exception. This brilliantly eclectic 16-track collection is easily the year’s best pop album, boasting a superbly-crafted grab bag of pure pop confections that are at once instantly accessible without losing any of Williams’ penchant for musical bombast and lyrical chutzpah, evidenced here on tracks like “Party Like a Russian” and the hysterically catchy “Motherfucker” – both of which return Williams to the cocky-crass ringmaster shtick of earlier efforts. The gem here is “David’s Song”, a gut-wrenching weeper co-written by Jewel and Kara DioGuardi, that’s a tribute to Williams’ long-time manager and mentor David Enthoven who died of cancer last August at age 72. Other highlights include: The Killers-penned “Mixed Signals”, “Love My Life”, “Time on Earth”, “Sensitive”, and “Pretty Woman”.  

#1 – Garbage / Strange Little Birds
The sixth studio album by this deservedly revered Scottish-American alternative rock outfit fronted by the wildly magnetic Shirley Manson boasts a superlative collection of atmospheric electro-rock – jagged and ferocious in spots, contemplative and minimalist in others. After twenty-two years, Garbage somehow recycles and reinvents its signature confluence of 90s-grunge and trip-hop electronica, permeating Strange Little Birds with a refreshing confidence and maturity. Lyrically, the band’s trademark gothic romanticism remains largely intact, with healthy doses of angst and misery layered within sonic walls of industrial textures and distorted guitar scratches. Highlights of Strange Little Birds include “Empty”, “Night Drive Loneliness”, “Sometimes”, and “So We Can Stay Alive”.

Interested in how 2016 stacked up against 2015? Check out last year's favorites here.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Resolve: 2017 Edition

Another new year is upon us. This one seems to hold particular significance coming off the tumultuous year that was 2016. From the veritable circus sideshow leading up to and in the days following our nation’s historic Presidential election to the seemingly endless roll call of notable deaths, 2016 isn’t likely to be remembered as either the gentlest or kindest of years. Civility seemed to wane considerably, fear seemed to take hold of minds and hearts, and both reason and rationalism were unceremoniously tossed out the proverbial window in favor of emotionally-charged rhetoric often devoid of sense or sensibility. Facts became inconvenient and people became firmly rooted in personal convictions informed by fake news sites, heavily-biased media sources reflecting their own political affiliation, and outright conspiracy theories that took on lives of their own across social media platforms.
Some of the consequences of such a game-changing year seem permanent and intractable as we flip the calendar this morning. Minds of all shapes and varieties closed over the course of 2016, and it’ll likely take great mental crowbars to pry them open again.
Amid such a challenging landscape, personal New Year’s resolutions take on a new sense of urgency. After all, when the world seems to be spiraling out of control, we look to gain some semblance of solid footing – to compensate for what we can’t control in the world around us by seeking change within ourselves and our own insular worlds.
With that preamble, the stage is set for my own New Year’s resolutions. But instead of creating an ordered list this year, I’m taking a more holistic approach to formulating my personal pledges and promises. I’m going to approach 2017 with a desire to improve myself mind, body, and soul – with each resolution directly tied to one of those broader spheres of holistic well-being.
I. Mind
I’ve got two resolutions to improve my mind. First – and I’ve already started this post-election – is that I’m going to limit my news sources. As of now, I’m focusing on NPR, the BBC, and (to a lesser extent) the NEW YORK TIMES. I’ll keep my mind open to exploring other news sources with reputations for fair and unbiased reporting, but I’m going to try and consider news sources whose percentages of unbiased versus biased are higher. This will be a tough one because headlines are seductive, especially when one speaks to a personal perspective. I categorically reject this trend of fake news and recognize that it’s intellectually lazy and dishonest to cite and circulate such.
Second, I’m resolved to decrease my television viewing this year and give that time over to more reading. To this end, I’ve made a list of all the shows I currently watch and re-assessed which ones I look forward to and watch for enjoyment versus those I watch out of habit. Gone are: EMPIRE, ARROW, THE FLASH, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, SUPERGIRL, QUANTICO, and DIVORCE. That gives me back six and a half hours of time per week that will be spent with my head buried in books and other endeavors outlined below instead of lazily watching the boob tube.  
II. Body
This is an easy one – and likely one shared by many. When I hit the age of 40, I resolved to take better care of my body. By my mid-forties, I weighed less than I did in high school and was in the best shape of my life, a faithful gym rat and dedicated weight watcher. Then old habits insidiously crept back in. Apathy and laziness took over and most of those hard-won bodily gains fell by the wayside. I’m not going to spend much time analyzing and Monday morning quarterbacking on the why’s of this backslide – the mind can be either a powerful ally or foe, and if I could figure out the trick to engaging one while rejecting the other permanently, I’d be a millionaire. Instead, I’m going to forgive myself the failing and look forward to the challenge of achieving physical fitness all over again. Building on past successes in this area and what works for me, I’m not going to overshoot the goals here: I resolve to lose 50 pounds by the end of 2017 and to move more. Simple, to the point.
III. Soul (Spirit)
There are a trio resolutions making up my 2017 focus on my spiritual well-being.
The first is to make a concentrated effort to return to my writing. I’ve always struggled with the balance between passion and practicality in my life. I’m blessed-cursed to have a chosen vocation in the healthcare industry that I’m passionate about – one that brings me immense personal satisfaction that meets many of those higher self-actualization hierarchal needs that Maslow famously theorized about while providing the practicality of a generous financial compensation. I term this both a blessing and a curse because I’m also passionate about writing and the creativity that comes with world-building through the written word, which also brings me tremendous personal satisfaction. If my day job in healthcare only provided the financial security and not the personal satisfaction, it might be easier to pursue my writing with more zeal. So, for me, it boils down to consciously making the time to do both. With some of the time gained as part of my “mind” efforts above, I resolve to sit my (hopefully shrinking) ass down in front of the computer and start flexing those creative muscles again.
My second “soul” resolution is to concentrate more on my good fortune in life and myriad blessings. To that end, fulfilling this one is relatively easy and boils down to establishing a daily habit. Each day, I’m going to post something I’m grateful for to my Facebook wall. Easy-peasy. Some days the gratitude may be more profound than others, but the point of this exercise is to increase my level of self-awareness and recognize that blessings need not be momentous to be appreciated.
Lastly, I’m going to try to permanently capture more of what I experience in this grand life of mine. Photography has long been an interest so I’m pledging to take more pictures…to see life through a slightly different lens. It’s another creative outlet in which I’ve dabbled in the past and I’d like to expand both my knowledge and experience. Maybe a class is in my future, or more likely just bringing my camera along for more rides. Either way, I’m going to try to look at life in pictures…and see life reflected back in those pictures.
Wishing all my friends and readers every happiness, success, and personal satisfaction imaginable in the coming year. Regardless of what resolutions you make this January 1st, remember – above all else – to be kinder to yourself in 2017.