It’s a cold day in Minnesota.  Sky and earth are the same shade of alien, unending white.  This is my home now, but for the past few days I’ve been missing Houston, the city I used to call home, more than ever.  Right now, I couldn’t miss it more.  I feel as cold and unearthly as the weather outside, because today I learned that my fellow Rice student, Sam Waters, is gone.

I haven’t seen Sam for quite some time.  As I sit here, different memories flit through my mind, memories from when we were both younger, when we both lived in Texas.  I remember Sam visiting our floor and then singing in the elevator all the way down to the basement, his powerful voice echoing off the walls of the elevator shaft.  I remember giggling with my friend as we listened to him, half amazed at his talent, half laughing at his warm, carefree attitude.

I remember sitting up late drawing the spirit animals of my floor-mates.  I am not an artist, so a lot of the pictures came out … odd, but I taped them up anyway.  One Saturday night, Sam was hanging out in the study lobby, and he looked carefully at the pictures I had drawn.

“Did you draw all of these?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“They’re beautiful,” he said, his face and voice completely sincere.  At the time, I thought he must be crazy to think that my art was anywhere near beautiful.  But now I think I know what he meant; he was admiring the hours of work I’d put into the drawings, how much I cared about my floor-mates to do something like that, even if I was only a slightly creepy, slightly depressed underclassman.

I also remember later on, learning that he was sick, and the surprise I felt the first time I saw him after I got the news.  It was the night of the last party of the year, and I was either on my way to the party or going home when I saw him and his friends in one of the breezeways at Brown.  They were shaving his head, and as I got closer some of the music majors broke into an impromptu barbershop quartet.  I felt the love that all of us had for Sam, keeping us warm despite the cool spring wind.

I always thought of Sam as someone who was superhuman, because he was so talented, so handsome, so strong in faith, mind, and body.  I realize now that wasn’t fair.  Sam was human, just like the rest of us, but he was good despite his imperfections.  I will look up to him always.

My thoughts go out to Sam’s friends and family, and to the entire Rice community.  I miss him so much.  I miss you all so much.



SFTN #2: Bring Me The Horizon, “Can You Feel My Heart”

Band: Bring Me The Horizon
Song: Can You Feel My Heart
Album: Sempiternal (2013)
Genre: Metalcore
Origin: England

When I was in high school, I was a contributor to (and later the editor of) our school’s literary magazine.  During my senior year, I was basically in charge of the club, and it was my job to teach the other three members creative writing.  This didn’t always go very well since there was no age difference between us, and the class often devolved into free writing time – which could really have gone worse, all things considered, so I guess I was lucky.

Towards the beginning of the year, we each contributed three songs that represented us in some way to an iTunes playlist.  I burned CDs and gave each person a copy.  One of the songs submitted was an early Bring Me The Horizon song, “Chelsea Smile.”  It’s been on my iPhone ever since, and never fails to startle me and then make me a bit nostalgic when it comes up on shuffle.

Bring Me The Horizon belongs to the metalcore genre, along with bands like Atreyu, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Chunk! No, Captain Chunk!  Half thrash metal, half hardcore, metalcore lends itself to raw, emotive lyrics.  While I think BMTH is still too heavy to qualify as true “emo” music, I can definitely see the similarity in aesthetics and lyrical content.

BMTH’s early albums, like Suicide Season and Count Your Blessings, are heavy on the blast beats, downtuned guitars, and metal screaming.  Count Your Blessings even has some good death growls.  If Oli Sykes does all of the vocals, he really has impressive range.

In the song at the top of the post, Sykes has turned to strained yet clean vocals, reminiscent of Thirty Seconds to Mars.  The background guitar audible from about 1:15 to 1:30 really improves the experience of the song for me, since it prevents the electronic-sounding … thing? is that the lead guitar? from getting too repetitive.  What’s most interesting is that the lyrics don’t really rhyme, but they work anyway.  This would be less noteworthy if the song weren’t slow enough for one to actually understand the lyrics.  I think the content of the lyrics along with the emotional style of singing helps move the song.

See, you don’t have to rhyme every time you sing.

SFTN #1: Walknut, “Skinfaxi”

Band: Walknut
Song: Skinfaxi
Album: Graveforests and their Shadows (2007)
Genre: Black Metal
Origin: Russia

Our first SFTN and we’re starting off with a black metal song, of course.  SMH.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a metalhead.  I don’t fit any of the stereotypes surrounding metalheads, although I did practice my corpsepaint when I was a wee middle-schooler.  Spotify, bless its heart, recommends me a nice blend of folk, indie, and soundtrack music every week.  That being said, there are some types of metal that I listen to casually.  Black metal is one of them.

According to our friend Wikipedia:

Black metal is an extreme subgenre and subculture of heavy metal music. Common traits include fast tempos, shrieking (sometimes growling or both) vocal style, heavily distorted guitars played with tremolo picking, raw (lo-fi) recording, unconventional song structures and an emphasis on atmosphere.

In other words, it’s not an easily accessible subgenre.

The first wave of black metal occurred in the early to mid-1980’s.  An example of a first-wave black metal band is Candlemass (please look at that video if you have time, it’s gloriously cheesy in the most epic possible way.)  Second-wave black metal grew out of the Norwegian BM scene in the early ’90’s.  In my opinion it was then that black metal musicians and fans began to develop their distinctive aesthetic (corpsepaint, animal blood, Satanic emblems, etc.)  Although certain musicians have since caused the genre to become associated with Satanism and white supremacism/neo-Nazi ideology, there are certainly many black metal bands that fall under neither category.

One of the reasons I was drawn to black metal was because of its powerful emotion.  I’ve always focused more on the music than the lyrics.  Black metal can definitely have ugly lyrics (although in my opinion not as ugly as death metal – but we can talk about that another time), but its music can get so heavy and so ugly that it just makes a complete 180 into something beautiful.  Is it the downtuning?  Who knows.  I don’t even know what downtuning is.

Walknut (val-knut, not wal-nut) is an atmospheric black metal band from Russia. They’ve only released one album, and the song I posted above, Skinfaxi, is the last song on that album.  It’s also instrumental.  I think easing yourself into the lyrics and vocal style of black metal is a completely different process than becoming accustomed to the musical style, so I chose a song with no vocals so you can focus on the music alone.

The quality of the recording is somewhat low, befitting a more traditional black metal aesthetic.  I learned that they are using a drum machine, which makes me a little sad because I would love another drummer to worship, but the overall effect is fitting.  Drum machines always unsettle me as they’re a little too perfect.

The chord progression is simple to follow.  My favorite part of the song starts around 1:56 and ends at 2:30.  I can finally distinguish a bit more of the tremolo picking at the fade-out.  Atmospheric black metal, as its name suggests, focuses on creating a heavy, almost palpable atmosphere, evoking different images in each listener.

And now, in case you needed any more proof that I’m not kvlt, I’m off to clear my head with some Passion Pit.  Sorry, friends 😀


New Year, New Project!

Since TMI Monday and Letters from the Hedge have long since concluded (and wow, what a journey they were; I read back through some old entries last night and was amazed at how much I have matured since 2013) I decided to start a new blogging project.  It’s about music!

I made a couple of resolutions this New Year’s.  Normally I don’t follow through too well on these, but one I actually want to focus on is my resolution to listen to more music this year – and not just the same music over and over again.  I mean, how many times can you listen to Played in Space in a row, really?*

I don’t just want to listen to music I think I’ll like, either.  In 2015, this meant listening to black metal, although to be honest I enjoyed stoner rock and metal more, despite not being a stoner.  I wonder why … (Compare one of my favorite Cream songs, “Politician”, with Witch’s “Seer”.)

This is all to say that for a long time, I’ve wanted and needed a place to talk about music.  I’ve made some attempts before but have never dedicated a whole post to talking about a song or artist in-depth.  I think that blogging about what I’m listening to will force me to continue exploring new artists and genres by keeping me accountable.  (Disclaimer: I have no formal musical training so can’t get too technical in my posts, although this may change as well!)  The posts will be called “SFTN [number]” – SFTN stands for “Songs from the (Frozen) North.”  If I have to move to the Midwest U.S. I’m going to get as much fun out of teasing it as I can.

Here’s to a year of trying new things!





*The answer is fifteen.  Fifteen times.  I ended up singing “Hurricane” in my sleep.

Letters From the Hedge: The Last Letter

When I was a senior in college, I failed organic chemistry.

There, I wrote it.  I, the salutatorian of my high school graduating class, failed sophomore level chemistry.  I didn’t even come close to passing.  Can you imagine what a terrible situation that was?  I was a senior, i.e., I was already done with about 80% of my major.  If I had been a freshman, or even a sophomore, I could have just switched majors.  As it was I had no choice but to soldier on and repeat orgo – not, as so many of my classmates did, to try and replace a C with a B or a B with an A, but to obtain course credit.  F’s, of course, don’t count for anything.

How did I get to such a point?  It took three years of a vicious circle.  I matriculated with clinically diagnosed PTSD and depression.  I chose a difficult university that I was completely unprepared for.  No one told me that the 60 I got on my first gen chem midterm could’ve been salvaged to a B in the course.  I looked at that 60 and saw failure.

The more depressed I got, the less energy I had.  The less energy I had, the worse I did in class.  The worse I did in class, the less motivation I had to try.  I grew completely discouraged.  My sadness sunk its claws deeper.

It would be tempting to blame my poor performance in school on external forces.  Deep down, though, I know I have no excuse.  I could have done so much better, but I didn’t act fast enough, and that’s how I found myself sobbing in my organic chemistry professor’s office in March of 2013, having had my third panic attack in as many midterms.

At my school, orgo midterms are two hours long.  For two hours, I stared at that exam.  I cried.  I went to the bathroom to splash water on my face and ended up sitting on the toilet and crying.  I pulled down my hair and dug my nails into my scalp willing myself, begging myself, to remember something, anything, but I kept coming up blank.  At the end of the two hours, I looked about as terrible as I have ever looked.  I gave my professor the poor pitiful midterm and then she took me to Coffeehouse and bought me a chai latte.

It was around that point, when I formally declared my major, that I decided things had to change.  They did – slowly.  I dug my heels in and refused to let my GPA drop any lower.  I found myself a good doctor and an even better counselor.  I got involved with theatre and with running some of the committees in my dorm.  And yes, I was terrible at both of those things, but the point was I refused to stay still.  I knew that the second I slowed down, my bad thoughts and behaviors would catch up with me again.

They did of course, in the autumn of 2014, when I failed orgo II.  That one semester was like a condensed version of my whole time in college, where I kept getting abysmally low exam scores and being too ashamed to ask for help.  The only plus to that semester was that I hated chemistry so much that I spent much more time and effort on my other science course, immunology, which I had actually chosen to take and which I loved dearly.

At this point, some of you may be wondering why I didn’t just major in English, for God’s sake, because looking at my transcript I obviously did much better in English than in my own major.  I took 27 hours of English classes, which would almost have been enough to give me a double major had they been the right courses.  But I wasn’t interested enough in English as a discipline; I just wanted to learn to write poetry.  Narrow-minded?  Probably.  Stubborn?  Hell yes.

I love biology.  I really do.  That’s why I chose to stick it out.  And that’s why, despite my awful grades as an underclassman, I made no grade lower than a B in any of my upper-level electives.  Yes, I did fail orgo II, and yes, it did take me all four years to grasp the concept of PCR (*hangs head in shame*), but I also got to listen to my biochemistry professor tell us about the proper type of fat to use in making cookies.  I learned far too much about Marburgvirus.  I isolated my first bacterial culture (Serratia marcescensmy baby), and I even got to hook electrodes to the leg muscle of an undead frog.  Alongside all of that, I still got to work on my poetry.

This past semester I ditched theatre and sports and focused every last brain cell I could on orgo.  I wrote 240 pages of notes and spent 12 TA sessions working on literally hundreds of multistep problems, and I walked into that final – my last ever – with a caramel frappuccino in my hand and determination in my soul.  Halfway through the three-hour exam, as I took my bathroom break, I looked at myself in the mirror and could not believe that I was looking at the same person who had cried so terribly and uncontrollably in orgo I.  Somewhere in that 2.5 years, I had become someone who was really worthy of a B.A. from Rice.

When I was an underclassman, I believed I had let everyone down: my high school teachers, my family, my professors, and especially myself.  Right now, looking at the “Approved to Graduate” status on my student record, I don’t believe I’ve let anyone down at all.


[December 31]

When I was eighteen and thought the world was infinite
I boarded a flight to Mexico.
As the plane rose and swayed towards the western coast
I looked out over the vast glittering darkness
and imagined deserts, valleys. I wondered what would happen
were the plane to crash – if we would land in a mountain range
with a name I could neither pronounce nor remember,
if we would wander the wilderness for days, weeks, months,
even. It was a long flight. I slept, awoke
to hold my stomach, slept again. I thought at the time
that there was nothing to be more afraid of
than that lightless expanse of land.

I know now that I was wrong. That there is much more to fear
in smaller spaces. That the sour taste of terror pairs well
with the silence of an exam room. I learned that bus rides are
dangerous, and so are dance floors, and so, in a different way,
is the narrow distance between two given people.

Once we begin traveling we cannot stop, and that’s the worst
confinement, the relentless push forward, past people whose faces blur
first in memories, then, later, in dreams.
We dip low over the curves of the earth,
cradled warmly in our cars, our apartments,
our machines, and we forget the wonder and near relief
of not knowing. The world is not infinite, not anymore,
but at least it is big enough.