Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Red Sox Bolster Bullpen with Gagne Trade

Just before the major league baseball trade deadline (for non-waiver deals) passed, the Red Sox made a move to bolster their bullpen by acquiring relief ace Eric Gagne from the Rangers. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:

CLEVELAND - Eric Gagne's comeback has landed him a new role on a new team: helping the Red Sox close out the Yankees. Gagne, pitching like his old self following two elbow operations and back surgery, was acquired by Boston for the stretch run on Tuesday from the Texas Rangers, who also unloaded first baseman Mark Teixeira to Atlanta in a seven-player swap.

Once one of baseball's premier closers, Gagne waived the no-trade clause in his contract to join a Boston bullpen that already had two All-Star relievers: closer Jonathan Papelbon and setup man Hideki Okajima.

But the Red Sox, who entered Tuesday leading the AL East by eight games over New York, didn't want to take any chances of blowing their big lead and acquired Gagne to bolster the back end of their bullpen after consecutive implosions last weekend by Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen.

Gagne will serve as Papelbon's primary setup man and will close on days Papelbon needs rest.

"We actually love our bullpen," Boston manager Terry Francona said of his relievers, who have the lowest ERA (2.74) in the majors. "I think it just got a lot better. Papelbon, Okajima and Gagne — these are guys that you don't match up. You just let them pitch really good baseball."

Shortly after acquiring Gagne, Boston announced that reliever Brendan Donnelly will have season-ending surgery on his right elbow.

The Red Sox sent left-hander Kason Gabbard and minor league outfielders David Murphy and Engel Beltre to the Rangers, who were the busiest team in the majors before Tuesday's 4 p.m. EDT non-waiver trade deadline.
Texas also will cover part of what remains on Gagne's contract.

He was guaranteed $2.5 million in additional money by Boston to accept the trade, raising his 2007 earnings to $9.85 million. Gagne already had a $6 million base salary and had earned $1.35 million in performance bonuses. As part of the deal, he agreed to eliminate his remaining performance bonuses, which are based on games finished.

Gagne was on Boston's radar screen last winter before he signing a one-year contract with the Rangers in December after eight successful seasons with the Dodgers. He went 2-0 with a 2.16 ERA and 16 saves for last-place Texas, which began a three-game series in Cleveland 15 1/2 games behind the first-place Los Angeles Angels in the AL West.

The 31-year-old Gagne was a three-time All-Star and won the NL Cy Young Award in 2003 when he saved 55 games for the Dodgers. He had 45 saves in 2004 but was limited to just 14 the following season because of elbow problems that eventually needed surgery. The hard-throwing native of Montreal pitched in only two games last season as he tried to come back from another elbow operation as well as surgery to repair a herniated disk.

From 2002-04, Gagne set a major league record by converting 84 consecutive saves. There were still doubts about his durability, but he has been able to pitch on consecutive days this season, further proof that he's healthy.

The 25-year-old Gabbard went 4-0 with a 3.73 ERA, taking Curt Schilling's spot in the rotation while the right-hander was on the disabled list. Schilling, who was scheduled to make a rehab start on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, could be activated later this week.

Murphy, 26, was batting .280 with nine homers and 47 RBIs in 100 games for Triple-A Pawtucket. Beltre, 18, batted .215 with five homers and 13 RBIs for the Gulf Coast Red Sox.

The Sox had damned well better hope he is healthy. If he is, and if he can remain effective, he will undoubtedly help the team preserve late-inning leads as the season heads into the home stretch. Gagne adds a terrific power arm to a bullpen of Papelbon, Delcarmen, Mike Timlin, Hideki Okajima and Javier Lopez. My guess is that Julian Tavarez will likely resume Gabbard's spot in the rotation if Schilling isn't quite ready to come back, at which point he will be back in the bullpen as the second long man with Kyle Snyder.

As for the departing players, Gabbard will be the one that hurts the most. He seems like he'll be a good major league starter with more experience, and if not for Curt Schilling's trip to the DL he would still be in Triple-A honing his skills. A good lefty starter is tough to part with, but the Sox recently brought up Jon Lester, and he has pitched fairly well in his starts since rejoining the big club. As for Murphy, he is an outfielder who had a couple of cups of coffee with the big club this season and last season, but who never truly figured into any future plans. I've never heard of Beltre, so I assume the same applies for him. We still have a few hours to go until the deadline, so we shall see what else Theo Epstein has up his sleeve.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

CD Review: Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos

The new Dream Theater CD, Systematic Chaos, has been out for about a month now, and here is my review of this latest offering from these progressive metal giants. Song-by-song:

In the Presence of Enemies, Part I (Prelude/Resurrection) – The first song of the CD clocks in at nine minutes, and begins with the meandering explosiveness that is Dream Theater’s signature style. Guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess engage in some tight interplay as bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy do more than just find a groove in which to plant themselves. Vocalist James LaBrie doesn’t appear until the 5:15 mark, which sees the song solidify into a theme on religion and the promises it pretends to hold. It is a strong beginning that ends with a flurry from both Petrucci and Rudess.

Forsaken – This is a short (for Dream Theater) song of about five-and-a-half minutes that could be a single except for the fact that commercial radio is a vast wasteland of gutless personalities. The song is a progressive metal power ballad that showcases LaBrie’s vocals soaring over a restrained background. Petrucci fires off a short solo and Rudess supplies plenty of atmosphere with gentle piano and grand orchestral sounds. Myung and Portnoy hold the rhythm down and guide the song throughout.

Constant Motion – This baby is a thumping, stomping monster that more than lives up to its title. LaBrie and mates fire off some aggressive multi-tracked and back-and-forth vocals. About halfway through, Myung and Petrucci slow things down for a few seconds before Petrucci fires off an eastern-tinged solo that leads into Rudess’ spacey keyboard solo. The song then goes back into the original stomp mode through the finish.

The Dark Eternal Night – Begins with a dissonant rhythm from Petrucci and Myung with some mad, pseudo-thrash drumming from Portnoy before LaBrie’s effects-enhanced vocals carve their way into the mix. At about three-and-half minutes the song goes from sinister to a carnival ride that lasts for about three more minutes. This passage is mostly indulgent silliness that includes Rudess providing some piano sounds that are reminiscent of silent movie chase scene themes. It ends with Petrucci taking a blistering solo that seems completely out of place given what just preceded it, though Portnoy does a terrific job of punctuating the changes with his drumming. The song then goes back into dissonant mode and ends with Petrucci slowing down into a heavy, Sabbath-like grove over which he plays some spacey effects as the song fades out. If not for the middle section, this song could be a metal classic.

Repentance – A slow, sad song about regret. This one clocks in at nearly eleven minutes. LaBrie sings the words with longing as the sedate melody guides him. After a semi-acoustic start, Petrucci plays a bluesy electric solo about five minutes into the song before what is apparently the Dream Theater Repentance Choir takes over for about 90 seconds before a time change that brings on wordless vocals, distorted bass and acoustic guitar. Rudess comes in with some underlying keyboards to add to the grim atmosphere. At the nine-and-a-half minute mark, another Repentance Choir member recites some spoken word warnings/wisdom as the song ends.

Prophets of War – This song starts slowly, but the tension builds with some interesting effects with LaBrie’s voice and that are reminiscent of Queen. The spoken word feature comes in here at the four-minute mark. The song seems to be a warning about what we are doing in Iraq.

The Ministry of Lost Souls – This song clocks in at almost fifteen minutes. After a grandiose opening that lasts nearly a minute, a change with Petrucci’s semi-acoustic guitar sets up LaBrie’s longing vocal for a ballad-like ride that lasts more than seven minutes. An abrupt change comes in with some heavy guitars and drums and playful keyboard work. The heaviness escalates with more time changes and keyboard fills and a scary solo. Petrucci fires of a nimble solo of his own as the rythym stays hot. Petrucci and Rudess then play a harmony solo over Portnoy’s frantic drumming as the main theme returns (at nearly the eleven-minute mark) with Petrucci punctuating it with his guitar before things get quiet for a few beats with some soft piano under the vocals befor again coming back to the main melody. Petrucci plays the song out with a crying solo.

In the Presence of Enemies, Part 2 (Heretic/Slaughter of the Damned) – The longest song on the CD at sixteen-and-a-half minutes begins with some quiet piano and vocals with some subtle sonic effects that sound like Petrucci on guitar. Myung perks things up a bit at the two-and-a-half minute mark by adding a heavy bass line to the mix. A minute later Petrucci comes in with a slamming rhythm that signals a change in emphasis that sends LaBrie’s voice into sinister mode. About six minutes in, the tempo picks up to a gallop, almost like Iron Maiden at their best. Three minutes later, a time change comes in with Rudess adding some piano and other keys to the mix for a beat until another quick time change comes in with Petrucci’s guitar and Portnoy’s drums paving the way. They are soon joined by Rudess punctuating the sound with his keyboard effects. At the eleven-minute mark Petrucci plays a chopping solo followed by a solo from Rudess. Petrucci then plays a multi-tracked solo before Rudess takes the tempo down and back to the main melody with his spacey keyboard tones. LaBrie comes back in with his sinister mode vocals as the band winds it with a bang.

I give this effort an A-minus. The chops, as always, are top-notch, and the power, precision and passion shine through to the point where even the more indulgent passages, such as the one cited in Dark Eternal Night seem more like minor inconveniences than true distractions from the music. If you are a Dream Theater follower you probably already own this CD, and if you are new to this band, as a few co-workers of mine were, you might just become converted as they have been after listening to the sounds these guys were able to make. This is a great collection of music, so go out to your local Newbury Comics and purchase a copy. You will not be disappointed!

Friday, July 13, 2007

World's Tallest Man Married in China

The world's tallest man, a seven-foot nine-inch man from China, was married yesterday in a traditional Mongolian ceremony. Yahoo News Reuters excerpt:

ERDOS, China (Reuters) - The world's tallest man married a woman two-thirds his size and almost half his age on Thursday in a traditional Mongolian ceremony sponsored by at least 15 companies hoping to cash in on his fame.

Bao Xishun, 56, a 2.36-metre (7-ft, 9-inch) herdsman from China's vast Inner Mongolia region, was carried to his wedding on the back of a mobile yurt pulled by camels at the Genghis Khan Holiday Resort on the grasslands near Erdos city.

Are you shitting me? The Genghis Khan Holiday Resort? And what holidays could they possibly celebrate? Caravan Slaughter Day? Village Burning Week? Still, it could have been worse. Bao could have hailed from the Kazakhstan region and might have had his ceremony at the Attila the Hun Sports Multiplex Casino and Hotel, but only if the affair did not bump up against Captive Enslavement Month.

Hundreds of people, some travelling for hours, turned up to see Bao wed saleswoman Xia Shujuan, a mere 1.68 metres (5 ft 6 inches) tall and just 29 years old.

Bao was confirmed as the world's tallest living man by Guinness World Records last year. He overtook the previous holder, Radhouane Charbib of Tunisia, by just 2 mm.

After a career in the army, where he was recruited for a basketball team, he returned to Inner Mongolia. He now herds livestock and hires himself out for publicity stunts.

In December, Bao saved the lives of two dolphins by reaching deep into their stomachs with his 1.06-metre long arm to pull out pieces of plastic, according to Chinese media.

All kidding aside, I get a lot of this stuff since I am six-foot-six, and most of the women with whom I have been involved have been about a foot shorter than I am. People often ask how I can date such short women, and the answer is that they look shorter than they are simply because I am taller than most men. These women are much closer to the average height than I am, but the contrast is often too much for people to handle without feeling like they must make idiotic comments that they think are wildly original. On occasion I have dated women in the five-ten to six-foot range, but the simple truth is that if height was the only consideration then I'd be waiting a long(er) time between dates.

So good luck to Bao and Xia! And may the snarky comments be few and far between for you.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Water Vapor Detected on Distant Exoplanet

Water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet, one of the many "hot Jupiters" that have been detected in the past few years. Space.com excerpt:

Scientists have found the spectral imprints of water vapor in starlight filtered through the atmosphere of a giant gas planet outside our solar system.

Combined with a study announced earlier this year, the new finding provides strong evidence that extrasolar planets
are as rich in water as the worlds in our solar system, scientists say. The finding is detailed in the July 11 issue of the journal Nature.

Called HD 189733b
, the planet belongs to a class of gas giants called "hot Jupiters," which orbit their stars from a distance closer than Mercury is to our sun. The fiery world is about 15 percent bigger than Jupiter and orbits a sun-like star located 64 light-years away in the constellation of Vulpecula, the Fox. It has an average temperature of 1,340 degrees Fahrenheit (727 degrees Celsius) and zips around its star in just two days.

"We're thrilled to have identified clear signs of water on a planet that is trillions of miles away," said study leader Giovanna Tinetti of the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris in France.

Heather Knutson, an astronomer at Harvard University, called the results "solid evidence" that hot Jupiters contain water. "The detection comes as a relief for theorists who had predicted that water vapor should be a significant component of the atmospheres of hot Jupiters," Knutson wrote in a related Nature article.

In April, astronomer Travis Barman of Lowell Observatory announced he had found evidence
of water vapor in the atmosphere of another hot Jupiter using the Hubble Space Telescope and a technique similar to the one used by Tinetti's team via the Spitzer Space Telescope. However, Barman's results were such that they might have been caused by instrument noise, causing some scientists to be skeptical.

"Spitzer confirms [the Hubble results] by using an entirely different observatory and an entirely different wavelength," said study team member Sean Carey of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. "The two in combination are much stronger," Carey told SPACE.com.

Although water is an essential ingredient for life on Earth, HD 189733b and other hot Jupiters are unlikely to harbor any creatures due to their close proximity to their stars. But the new finding does make it more likely that other types of extrasolar planets also contain water, suggest the scientists.

"Finding water on this planet implies that planets in the universe, possibly rocky ones, could also have water," Carey said.

To say that this finding is important is an understatement. The basic problems with this specific planet aside (proximity to its star, high temperature, excessive mass and graviational pull), the fact that water vapor was detected in such a hostile environment tells us that the possibility of its presence in more suitable environments on smaller, rockier worlds, such as Earth, is a good possibility. I smell a Gliese 581 story update coming!

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

All-Star Break Musings. Red Sox Round-Up.

Tonight, major league baseball plays it's annual All-Star game. This year, it is being played at Lefty O'Doul Stadium in San Francisco, and I will probably watch at least a few innings. All-Star games are terrible wastes of time, and the biggest joke about them is that for the past few seasons the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. This stupid idea was thought up by the idiots who run this fine game after the 2002 debacle in Milwaukee that finished in a 7-7 tie after eleven innings, the end of which showed Omissioner Selig at his best when he threw his hands in the air in frustration when both the AL and NL managers decided that they didn't want to push their pitchers any longer after the bullpens had been emptied. Apparently, it was a crazy idea to pick 30-32 players for each squad, then try to get them into the game.

The "cure" for this was to "Make It Count!" This meant assigning meaning to the game in the form of the aforementioned World Series home-field advantage for whichever league wins the game. How about doing the sensible thing and assigning that advantage to the team with the best record?

Let's look at last year's standings: In the AL the Yankees, 97-65, won the East. The Twins, 96-66, won the Central. The A's 93-69, won the West. The Tigers, 95-67, won the Wild Card. Now, normally, you'd have the best record matched against the worst, 1-4 and 2-3, but for some reason, the Wild Card cannot play a team in it's own division in the first round. Why? Who knows? So instead of a Yankees-A's, Twins-Tigers matchup we had Yankees-Tigers, which the Tigers won, and the Twins-A's, which the A's won. That led to the ALCS Tigers-A's matchup that the Tigers won to advance to the World Series.

The NL ended up with a similarly silly mess, compounded by the fact that the Padres and Dodgers ended the season with identical 88-74 records. The Padres were awarded the West due to their 13-5 head-to head record against the Dodgers who were awarded the Wild Card. The Mets, 97-65, won the East, and the Cardinals, 83-78, won a weak Central. Again, you'd think that the first round matchups would have been Mets-Cardinals, Padres-Dodgers, but nooo! The matchups ended up being Mets-Dodgers, Padres-Cardinals. Here, the Mets beat the Dodgers and the Cardinals beat the Padres, so the NLCS was a Mets-Cardinals matchup that the Cardinals won to advance to the World Series.

The 2006 World Series was a joke, so let's not get into that in detail. Simple math should have dictated that the Tigers, with their 95-67 regular season record, (7-1 for the first two rounds of playoffs) should have earned home field advantage over the Cardinals and their 83-78 regular season record (7-4 for the first two rounds of playoffs). By coincidence, the All-Star game in Pittsburgh's PNC Park (which is a beautiful stadium) went the AL's way as they beat the NL 3-2, but can we count on such coincidences continuing to repeat?

Now, we see players in the All-Star game stay in the game for most of the playing time, and some players never get into the game at all. Maybe the "honor" of having been selected to the team is enough for most, but it would sure as hell piss me off if I were part of such a roster but didn't get to play. These guys are supposed to be the best (a point that is open to debate when you consider the many ways All-Stars are chosen, but that isn't the debate here), so let them all play!

Now, on to the Red Sox...

The team has the best record in baseball (53-34) and leads the AL East by ten games over the Yankees and Blue Jays, who are each one game under .500. Are we looking at a 100-win season? Probably not. 95 is a more likely figure. To do that, the Sox have to go 42-33 the rest of the way. The Yanks need to go 53-24 to reach 95 wins, while the Jays must go 52-23. The division appears to be safe, but one never knows (as this past weekend's sweep at the hands of the Tigers in Detroit shows). Let's review the team, position-by-position:

First baseman Kevin Youkilis has been terrific. He has been more aggressive at the plate this season than last season, which has led to him having produced more runs at this stage of the year than he did at this time last year. And he is still exhibiting good discipline at the plate. He is also playing a fine defensive first base. Trouble is, he missed the last Detroit series and part of the previous Devil Rays series with a quadricep pull. He needs to be healthy in the second half as his bat has become a reliable weapon.

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia has proven my early predictions about him to be wrong, and I couldn't be happier about that. After six weeks of getting the bat knocked out of his hands, he has rebounded, and is now hitting .318. He has done so well that manager Terry Francona has moved him from the 8-9 spot to the two spot lately. He is also playing great defense, exhibiting good range and a strong arm.

Third baseman Mike Lowell has been terrific, and is an All-Star. He is the team co-leader in homers with Papi (14) and the leader in RBI (63). How many of us thought THAT would have been the case back on Opening Day. He is, despite an awful start with the glove, playing good defense lately, and he remains a cornerstone of this lineup.

Shortstop Julio Lugo has had a terrible season at bat. He is hitting .197 with a .270 on-base percentage, something Terry Francona finally woke up and corrected by dropping Lugo to ninth in the order. Somehow, Lugo is among the league leaders in steals with 22, and has only been caught twice. Imagine what those numbers would be if he'd merely operated at his career norm coming into the season of .340 OBP. In the field, he started well, but has seemed shaky of late. Ironically, he hit well in the final game of the Detroit series. Go figure.

Left fielder Manny Ramirez is an All-Star despite having an off-year. His production rates are down all across the board. He is, however, capable of getting hot and carrying the team for a solid month. His defense has been typical Manny--underrated with the occasional adventure.

Center fielder Coco Crisp has been terrific with the glove. He has made a dozen genuine highlight reel catches, and came oh-so close to catching Pudge Rodriguez's game-winning gapper in the last of the 13th on Saturday night. At the plate, he is coming along nicely after a slow start. He is the OTHER Red Sox threat to steal (16 in 21 tries).

Right fielder JD Drew has been terrible. The guy has not hit worth a damn except for about a weeks worth of games in Interleague play (another dumb idea by the idiots who run the major leagues). He is getting out in front of everything, and has become a lunger at the plate. His defense has been decent, but they are paying him to produce about twice as many runs as he has given the team to this point.

Catcher Jason Varitek is a hard worker. There is no question about that. The pitchers love his game-calling skills, and he has been better at throwing opposing base stealers out lately. However, he is also one of the most frustrating hitters on this team. He goes through stretches in which he pounds the ball, then suddenly falls apart and begins to swing at every off-speed piece of shit slider in the dirt. At 35, I wonder if Terry should sit him TWICE a week and give Doug Mirabelli another pitcher to catch. Still, Doug is 36 and has one swing. But as long as Tim Wakefield is pitching, Doug will have a job.

Designated Hitter Papi Ortiz has been a mystery. He has "just" 14 homers, but is second in the AL in doubles with 29, and third in walks with 60. He is hitting .314 so he can still hit. I think Jerry Remy hit it on the head when he observed that Papi appears to be trying to pull the ball too much to right field. Papi is a devastating hitter who has used the left field wall at Fenway to his advantage all through his Sox career. He simply needs to get that swing back (I know, easier said than done). The good news is that he has plenty of time to find the magic again.

Bench: Alex Cora has been terrific. He has played second and short, and played them well. He has also hit better than expected (.278 BA and a team-leading 5 triples). Wily Mo Pena. Where to start? The holes in his swing, the holes in his glove or the holes in his baserunning? Sure, he launches a 480-500 foot homer about once a month, but is that worth all the negatives in his game? Eric Hinske is not a good major league player anymore, which is a sad thing to acknowledge for a man who was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2002 with the Blue Jays. His bat is slow, and he isn't a finished defensive player at any position. Recent callup Jeff Bailey played some first base over the weekend and got his first major league homer. That was the good news. The bad news is that he has been in the minors for ten years. Jacoby Ellsbury, who was recently sent back down to AAA, electrified the team with his speed during the week he spent in the bigs, and he will be back. I've already talked about Doug Mirabelli.

On the pitching side of things, the team has an AL second-best 3.76 ERA. The starting pitchers have been pretty good. All-Star Josh Beckett has been terrific with an AL-leading 12 wins and just two losses with a 3.44 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 102 innings. Daisuke has 10 wins, a 3.84 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 119 2/3 innings. Tim Wakefield is 9-8 with a 4.39 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings. Julian Tavarez is 5-7 with an ERA of 4.97 after his last horrendous start. AAA callup Kason Gabbard is 2-0 with a 4.87 ERA in four starts. That is the starting rotation as of this moment. The missing piece is Curt Schilling who is currently on the disabled list. He was 6-4 with an ERA of 4.20 and 71 strikeouts in 92 innings when he went down. Since his near no-hitter in Oakland on June 7th, he was pounded by the Rockies at Fenway, and by the Braves in Atlanta. Both his velocity AND location seemed to be off in those starts. At age 40, can he come back and be something close to a dominant pitcher again?

The bullpen has also been pretty good. All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon has 20 saves, an ERA of 1.93 and 46 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings, which is just ridiculous. Fellow All-Star Hideki Okajima has been the find of the year. He has given up four (4) runs and just 24 hits in 43 1/3 innings for an 0.83 ERA. He has 37 strikeouts, has four saves and has become the primary setup man for Papelbon. Lefty sidewinder Javier Lopez has been good, as has Kyle Synder in long relief. Veteran Mike Timlin has been pitching very well since his return from the disabled list a few weeks ago, which is good since both Brendan Donnelly and Joel Piniero have landed on the DL themselves. Manny Delcarmen has returned from AAA to give the Sox another power arm in the late innings, and he is pitching with more command and confidence than in his previous stints.

Keys to maintaining the pace: Manny and Papi getting back to their familiar power production. JD Drew waking up from his three-month nap. Kevin Youkilis getting healthy. Julio Lugo remembering how to hit. Terry Francona finding a good option to bat in front of Papi and Manny. The team is leading the AL in OBP with a .358 mark despite the down years from Manny and Drew, who are traditionally high OBP guys (and still are, just not at their usual standards).

On the pitching side, they need Schilling to return and be good. Failing that, they will likely try to trade for a starter, as I cannot see them trusting a stretch drive to Kason Gabbard or Jon Lester in the rotation. Beckett, Daisuke and Wake simply have to continue to pitch as they have been pitching. Papelbon and Okajima must continue to dominate hitters they way they have thus far, and the non-closer types like Lopez, Timlin, Delcarmen and Snyder must continue to provide what they have brought to the table thus far.

The second half of the season begins with an eleven game homestand that will see the Sox welcome the Blue Jays, Royals and White Sox to Fenway Park. I just hope none of our guys (or anyone besides A-Rod) gets hurt in tonight's exhibition game.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Remembering Sabine Dunser (1977-2006)

Today marks the sad anniversary of the passing away of Elis vocalist Sabine Dunser. After having completed her tracks for the band's latest release, Griefshire, Sabine collapsed during rehearsals and died of a brain hemorrhage.

I've been following this band from Liechtenstein since their 2003 release, God's Silence, Devil's Temptation. The combination of crunching guitars, symphonic string arrangements and Sabine's exquisite voice made the band an up and coming force in the world of goth/metal. Their 2004 release, Dark Clouds in a Perfect Sky did nothing to hurt their chances at stardom.

Elis is one of several bands that are heavy metal bands that play with a classical feel, and which are fronted by female vocalists who sing with operatic tones. I blame my colleague Stew from the UK for my obession with these acts. He introduced me to Nightwish several years ago and I have not looked back. From there it was After Forever, Within Temptation, The Gathering, Theater of Tragedy, Leaves Eyes, Tristania and Sirenia to name but a few. So Stew, if you get a chance to read this, thanks a million mate!

Griefshire was actually released back in the fall in Europe, and sometime later here in the States. How much later? Odin only knows, since I had been unable to track down a copy either at my local Newbury Comics or on these Internets until about a month ago. What follows is a belated review, and a tribute to Sabine.

The opening track, Tales From Heaven Or Hell is a solid, slamming track with a crunchy hook laid down by guitarists Pete Streit and Christian Gruber. Drummer Max Naescher is like a machine gun as he and bassist Tom Saxer pound the rhythm into the ground during the song's heavier moments. Sabine's voice soars over this sonic cacophony to set the tone for the CD.

Die Stadt is one of two tracks Sabine sings in German (a familiar theme on the previous releases). It starts off with a slow piano/string sound before the guitars come charging in. Sabine guides the song with her voice. I wish I understood the words, but I don't so I just have to go with how her multi-tracked voice soars majestically over the instruments.

Show Me The Way is a catchy song that begins with a solid bass line. Striet and Gruber weave tight harmonies that guide the song, which features a passage with Sabine singing a capella for one part of the chorus. The song deals with the main theme of the CD, namely that of self-realization and inner strength.

Brothers starts slowly and builds to a slow rocker with a riff that Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi would be proud to play as Sabine tells the story of brothers on a mystical journey.

Seit Dem Inbeginn Der Zeit is the other song Sabine sings in German. It starts with quiet guitar over a string piece as Sabine's vocals come in to balance the quiet parts and the slow, heavy guitar riffs before the tempo picks up for a couple of short guitar solos. The tempo remains as Sabine sings over the riffs, strings and some quiet piano. The song ends slowly as the string arrangement plays out.

Remember the Promise starts out fast and heavy and speeds up. Tom and Max drive the rhythm as Streit and Gruber torch the sonic landscape with some heavy riffs and nimble, almost eastern sounding solos. Sabine delivers the vocals with a frantic urgency, ably assisted by the vocal choir as the song maintains the quick pace.

Phoenix From the Ashes starts with a gentle string arrangement that is quickly covered by heavy guitar riffs as Sabine starts to sing. But that was a false start as this song picks up where the previous one left off. The rhythm of the main melody is relentless, but provides some room for the strings and piano as Sabine sings the choruses. Streit comes in with a bright guitar solo tinged with the old wah-wah pedal before the main melody returns to guide the song to its end.

How Long is a gentle piano ballad that features some heavenly singing from Sabine. Streit and Gruber play short guitar solos that do not overwhelm the light atmosphere.

Innocent Hearts starts with soaring guitar harmonies that go into a crunching rhythm. Sabine uses the lower range of her voice in the verses and the up-front parts of the choruses, while her background vocals soar above everything. The song then turns into a dirge, punctuated by a slurring guitar solo before the vocal choir comes in and the song gets back to the main melody.

Forgotten Love starts as another gentle piano ballad with a quiet string arrangement over which Sabine sings a sad vocal about lost love.

The Burning gets back to heavy mode with a hammering riff and bassist Saxer's low growls. Max gets into machine gun mode on drums as Sabine and the choir guide the song until the chaotic middle which contains some dissonant riffs to balance Sabine's crying vocal delivery. The song then slows a bit with some guitar harmonies before the chaos returns. Then it is back to the hammers and growls versus Sabine and the choir before the song ends on a sudden, positive note. All that in four minutes and forty seconds!

A New Decade starts slowly with some gentle piano interspersed with heavy guitar riffs and a tight harmony. Sabine then enters, alternately using both the lower and higher ends of her range as she weaves the words around Saxer's heavy bass lines and the guitar riffs, which culminate in a harmony solo before the song settles back into the main groove.

The final track is Heaven and Hell, a cover of the Black Sabbath song from that group's classic 1980 release. Streit and Gruber churn out the familiar riffs with just a couple of tweaks. A string arrangement flows over the riffs as Sabine's multi-tracked voice lights up Ronnie James Dio's sinister lyrics. Wisely, neither Streit nor Gruber attempt to outdo the original Iommi guitar solo, either in tone or length. Instead they play it quick and clean before the song speeds up with Max and Tom holding the rhythm together as Sabine does an absolutely flawless job with her vocal delivery.

This is a terrific collection of songs. The band's performances were tight and to the point. Saxer and Naescher kept the tempo heavy but true. Guitarists Streit and Gruber churned out dozens of riffs and a handful of good solos, but managed to channel them into the songs in a positive manner. Sabine pushed herself to a new level, both lyrically and vocally. Her tone altenated between menacing and heavenly, depending upon what she had to do for each part of the songs. Producer Alexander Krull (Atrocity, Leaves Eyes), who produced the previous Elis CDs, outdid himself here as he pulled out all the stops with his interweaving of vocal choirs and string arrangements with the metallic riffs of the main musicians.

Elis has chosen to continue, and has picked former Dreams of Sanity vocalist Sandra Schleret to replace Sabine. Good luck to Sandra, and to Elis. This band has a lot of potential and I look forward to hearing how they move forward.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Romney Gives Thumbs Up to Libby Sentence Commutation

Former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney (R-Doubletalking Hypocrite), weighed in today with his opinion that Preznit Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby was a really cool thing to do. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who as Massachusetts governor refused to pardon an Iraq war veteran's BB-gun conviction, on Tuesday called President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence "reasonable."

Defending Bush, Romney said at a campaign stop that "the president looked very carefully at the setting" before deciding to commute the 2 1/2-year sentence of Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, who was convicted in the CIA leak case.

That quote: "the president looked very carefully at the setting" is as big a joke as you could come up with, even if you weren't trying to be funny about this case. This president has never looked carefully at a goddamned thing since he stole his way into power -- especially the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001 titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US."

The prosecutor in the case "went after somebody even when he knew no crime had been committed," Romney said. "Given that fact, isn't it reasonable for a commutation of a portion of the sentence to be made?"

If no crime was committed, then why did the jury convict Libby? Mitt, are you stupid, or just a partisan hack?

As governor, Romney twice rejected a pardon for Anthony Circosta, who at age 13 was convicted of assault for shooting another boy in the arm with a BB gun — a shot that didn't break the skin. Circosta worked his way through college, joined the Army National Guard and led a platoon of 20 soldiers in Iraq's deadly Sunni triangle. In 2005, as he was serving in Iraq, he sought a pardon to fulfill his dream of becoming a police officer.

In his presidential bid, Romney often proudly points out that he was the first governor in modern Massachusetts history to deny every request for a pardon or commutation during his four years in office. He says he refused pardons because he didn't want to overturn a jury. During the four years Romney was in office, 100 requests for commutations and 172 requests for pardons were filed in the state. All were denied.

Case One: Anthony Circosta, as a kid, shot another kid, non-fatally (and apparently non-traumatically), and as a result carries an assault conviction that seems not to have slowed him down as he got an education, and serves this country as a soldier in Iraq. Mitt Romney, a governor who can pardon such convictions, chose not to do so.

Case Two: Scooter Libby, likely acting as a hatchet man for the Preznit and the Vice Preznit, commits the crime of exposing the identity of a covert asset, lies about it, and is convicted and sentenced to prison. Preznit Bush commutes the 30-month sentence as "too harsh", and is mulling over the possibility of a full pardon (which he will, as sure as I am typing this, receive). Mitt Romney believes this to be a sensible act.

Let's recap: Mitt Romney, exhibiting the Preznit's laziness, brags about not having ever pardoned anyone while he served as governor, and cites among his reasons for never having done so as his desire to not overturn the verdicts of juries. Preznit Bush commuted the sentence of a man who, on his behalf, put this nation at risk by exposing the identity of a covert asset and lied about it, and was convicted and sentenced for having done so. The Preznit overturned the verdict of the jury in this case, something Mitt Romney supposedly never wanted to do himself, but is happy that the Preznit has done so in this case. Mitt, besides being completely useless as a leader, you are the very definition of a hypocrite.

The sad thing for you (which is the good thing for the rest if us) is that the man for whom you so loudly cheer does not give a flying coitus about you and your chances to be the next Preznit. Another news flash Mitt: Neither do his supporters, many of whom will be helping your primary opponents sling mud at you in your doomed to failure attempt to gain the White House. Have fun on the campaign trail!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Preznit Commutes Libby Sentence

Just when you think that the Bush administration can sink no lower into the criminal swamp than it already has, they amaze with their ability to find a deeper pit of muck in which to crawl to protect their criminal arses. The Preznit just commuted Scooter Libby's prison sentence. The one that required him to serve 30 months for lying about the shit he pulled as Deadeye Dick Cheney's hit man in the Valerie Plame/Joseph Wilson case. Sickening Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:

WASHINGTON - President Bush spared former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby from a 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case Monday, stepping into a criminal case with heavy political overtones on grounds that the sentence was just too harsh.

Bush's move came hours after a federal appeals panel ruled Libby could not delay his prison term in the CIA leak case. That meant Libby was likely to have to report to prison soon and put new pressure on the president, who had been sidestepping calls by Libby's allies to pardon the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

So now it looks like the Preznit and the Vice Preznit no longer have to worry about Libby airing the dirty laundry on appeal. What this action lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in arrogance. Read on...

"I respect the jury's verdict," Bush said in a statement. "But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison."

What is this? George Orwell's 1984? You respect the jury's verdict so much that you are erasing it?!? UGH. Oh, wait! In other news: Up is Down! Water is Dry! Horseshit smells so sweet you can use it as an air freshener for your living room!

Bush left intact a $250,000 fine and two years probation for Libby, and Bush said his action still "leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby."

Really? As if your supporters aren't going to come up with that cool quarter-mil. Christ, the oil reveune you are stealing from Iraq can cover that amount in twenty minutes.

Libby was convicted in March of lying to authorities and obstructing the investigation into the 2003 leak of CIA operative's identity. He was the highest-ranking White House official ordered to prison since the Iran-Contra affair.

Reaction was harsh from Democrats.
"As Independence Day nears, we are reminded that one of the principles our forefathers fought for was equal justice under the law. This commutation completely tramples on that principle," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said through a spokesman.

Harsh. Not hardly. Great sentiment though, Chuck. So, are you or your fellow Democrats going to DO anything about it other than talk?

Bush said Cheney's former aide was not getting off free. "The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged," Bush said. "His wife and young children have also suffered immensely. He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect. The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant and private citizen will be long-lasting."

Will these "consequences" have as long-lasting an effect as the weakening of our nation's intelligence gathering abilities due to the actions of this now free convicted felon?

A spokeswoman for Cheney said simply, "The vice president supports the president's decision."

Right. More like Cheney MADE the fucking decision.

Bush's statement made no mention of the term "pardon," and he made clear that he was not willing to wipe away all penalties for Libby. The president noted Libby supporters' argument that the punishment did not fit the crime for a "first-time offender with years of exceptional public service."

NPR ran a short piece on the possibility that the Preznit might pardon Libby. I figured that such a course of action was a foregone conclusion, given the fact that Poppy pardoned most of his fellow Iran-Contra criminals in his last shameful act before leaving office. Too bad the Democrats didn't have the balls to follow Bartcop's advice and challenge the Preznit NOT to pardon Libby under any circumstances.

Yet, he added, "Others point out that a jury of citizens weighed all the evidence and listened to all the testimony and found Mr. Libby guilty of perjury and obstructing justice. They argue, correctly, that our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth. And if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable." Bush then stripped away the prison time.

So much for your bullshit Campaign 2000 pledge to run the most ethical White House ever. And what about your pledge to find and punish the leaker(s)? Looks like that was just a bunch of bullshit too. Big fucking surprise...

The leak case has hung over the White House for years. After CIA operative Valerie Plame's name appeared in a 2003 syndicated newspaper column, Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald questioned top administration officials, including Bush and Cheney, about their possible roles.

Nobody was ever charged with the leak, including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage or White House political adviser Karl Rove, who provided the information for the original article. Prosecutors said Libby obstructed the investigation by lying about how he learned about Plame and whom he told.

Plame believes Libby and other White House officials conspired to leak her identity to reporters in 2003 as retribution against her husband, Joseph Wilson, who criticized what he said was the administration's misleading use of prewar intelligence on Iraq.

Attorney William Jeffress said he had spoken to Libby briefly by phone and "I'm happy at least that Scooter will be spared any prison time. The prison sentence was imminent but obviously the conviction itself is a heavy blow to Scooter."

Again, is it as big a blow as the damage his lies have done to this nation's ability to gather and assess intelligence?

This is truly a travesty. Obviously is administration cares little about appearances. Hell, they've been committing their crimes out in plain sight for all to see ever since they stole their way into power. These actions have become second nature to them.

So now what? How the hell do we reconcile this action with Martha Stewart having to go to jail? Or by Tommy Chong having to go to jail? I'll take Mr. Schumer's lead and up the ante: Not only does this action trample the notion of justice for all for which our forefathers fought, it makes a mockery of the very ideals we as a nation claim to uphold. How can we truly claim the moral high ground when a petty little man like George W. Bush behaves like a feudal lord or a petty tyrant whose notions of right and wrong are seemingly decided on a whim, especially when those notions fly in the face of legislative or judicial action?

This man is not a patriot. His Vice-President is not a patriot. Scooter Libby is not a patriot. Neither are scum like Alberto Gonzalez, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz. To call these men patriots is a grave insult to the real patriots of this nation's past and present. We would all do well to remember that this Wednesday as we celebrate this nation's 231st birthday.