Shots in the Dark

A new day is upon us.  Again.  Hope springs eternal in Buffalo (at least until the seasons begin), but this year feels different.  I don’t know if it’s the luck of the lottery balls, or the shedding of a few old pieces, or the rise of the kids — something is going to break in favor of the Sabres this year.  It’s about time, dontcha think?

Then again, I feel like I say this every year, so my expectations are low.  Indeed, the point of this post is to make another set of wildly inaccurate predictions for the final standings of the 2018-19 NHL season.  I wasn’t particularly close last year, but that never stops me from trying again.  At least this year, I waited until the preseason was finished — many a game-changing performance or injury is “accounted for” here, so these should be closer to right, right?  Without further ado or opining, here they are:

Like last year, I reset the teams to normal by inverting their PDO number, and a rough estimate of the point effects of man-games lost to injury.  From there, I added a coefficient based on my impression of their offseason moves, and finally a gut fudge factor, wherein I basically ignored everything that came before it and set the team’s points based on how close or far off I thought the previous output point total was.  It’s an extremely effective method, and is sure to be fool proof.

Obviously, hockey is just about entirely random.  Injuries can affect the same team twice in a row; PDO can also remain sky high for just about no reason.  And of course, unproven players can have a massive effect on a team’s fortunes.  When you’ve got a whole roster of unproven guys, you just might go to the Stanley Cup Final against literally all odds.

 

Now, how to justify this?  Let’s go down the list, starting in the East.

I don’t know that the Maple Leafs are truly the best team in the Eastern Conference, but that offensive firepower is scary.  The Lightning follow up closely, and it’s sure to be these two fighting for tops in the Atlantic all year.  The Panthers are a team on the rise, and the efforts of last year’s second half showed they can compete when needed; I have them surpassing an aging Bruins team that didn’t do much this offseason.  Also I want that intra-Florida first round series so bad.  In the Metro, I am going with a dark horse Philadelphia team to win the division.  Praise be to our lord Gritty.  The Capitals’ Stanley Cup hangover will follow them a bit, but they’ll finish second ahead of a Pittsburgh team that, like Boston, seemed to get worse this offseason.  Finally, I’ve heard (and seen) nothing but good things about the Hurricanes’ youngsters this year.  With a new coach and a new outlook, they might just make it into the playoffs after a nine season absence.  I know, I said that last year too…

The non-playoff teams in the East weren’t so tough.  Columbus squeaks out of the picture as UFA troubles cause too much distraction.  The Sabres take a giant leap forward (you know, like I predicted last season), but it’s still not quite enough to get into the wild card.  The Devils don’t have much depth outside of Taylor Hall, so they don’t quite pull off the miracle run again.  The Islanders are a shock to be this high, to be honest, given what they’ve lost, but they’ve also gained a rock solid coach and have the reigning Calder Trophy winner.  The Habs, Rangers, and Red Wings are all rebuilding and have shed some serious talent this summer, so into the basement you go.

And then there’s Ottawa, in a relegation league of their own.  Yikes.

In the West, we’ve got old favorites the Winnipeg Jets taking the conference and the Presidents’ Trophy, followed closely in the race for the latter by the aging but dynamic San Jose Sharks, now featuring Erik Karlsson.  Nashville continues to stay near the top of the league with a wide open Cup window, as does Vegas.  The Golden Knights’ luck wears off a little and they slip a healthy amount, but it’s still enough to finish second in a relatively weak Pacific.  St. Louis roars back into the playoffs after an offseason overhaul, while the Ducks trend backwards due to age and injuries already sustained this preseason.  In the wildcards are two possible surprises: Dallas, whom I’d incorrectly picked to win the west last season, sneaks in on the backs of a new coach and returning Russian talent, and the strengthened Arizona Coyotes break a six year playoff drought by continuing the scoring pace they finished with last year.

By default, the Los Angeles Kings barely miss out, as do the resurgent Avalanche.  Last year was pretty much a miracle for Colorado, and they didn’t do a ton this offseason to make me believe that they’re built to stay.  The Wild never impress me much, so I think their streak is over, out-competed by the Central juggernauts.  Calgary and Edmonton are hard to pin down — they could make it easily in this division, but I just don’t have faith.  Even with Connor McDavid, something is amiss in Oil Country.  Chicago doesn’t look any better on paper than they did during last year’s disastrous season, and Vancouver is missing so many key pieces now with the Sedins retired that it’s not hard to see them finishing last in the West this year.

From a numbers perspective, the average points remain exactly the same (91.548) and the median decreases due to lack of outliers — I don’t think there will be so many <70 and >110 point teams this year, but who knows.  I’ve kept the playoff turnover low this time, with only five new teams making it.  Last year was weird; it should be much more normal this time around.  Maybe.

No matter what happens, it’s sure to be exciting.  Here’s hoping my predictions are once again wrong!  Let’s go Buffalo!

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Aural Impressions: Nine Inch Nails, Bad Witch

At long last, the trilogy is complete.  Nine Inch Nails, whose return to releases after a several year hiatus back in late 2016 has seen two EPs out in that time, have released the third.  Or, at least, it would appear that way if this latest record Bad Witch were an EP; instead, this 30-minute, 6-track collection is being called an actual album, the first since 2013’s excellent (and long) Hesitation Marks.  A quick glance at the track list, and it appears were in for some profane, angsty music.  We’ll see how well these tracks tie back to the preceding EPs, which had loose ties of their own to each other.  Is this the wrapping up of a true concept trilogy, or the start of something else entirely?  Let’s find out:

  1. Shit Mirror:  Quickly pulsing, noisy bass leads us off here.  The vocals are sunken in the mix.  As the chorus hits, the song widens with the right amount of hair-raising synth and a stomach-churning chord progression, yet the vocals fall even deeper.  For all of its messy charms, this song is fairly smooth through its first half, flowing easily from one extremely different section to another.  A sudden cut into a full second of silence leads to a percussive, chanted bridge, ending the aforementioned smoothness rather abruptly.  As the guitar re-enters, we shift around to a heavy, new riff in a totally different key.  Then the mix starts to swirl and overwhelm in a disorienting conclusion.  Bizarre, but interesting at least.  I really like the first half of this song.  The ending will take some getting used to — it’s not the musicality, but the production that makes me feel slightly physically uncomfortable.  For a three-minute song, it feels awfully short.
  2. Ahead of Ourselves:  This sounds so familiar.  The tight, rapid drum beat combined with the scratches of noise and throbbing bass recall in my mind some video game soundtrack.  Add another distorted, staccato vocal, and I’m thinking about robots.  Blasts of loud noise, screaming vocals, and quick shifts of two bars totalling 12/8 bring us straight back into The Downward Spiral territory, as has been flirted with across each of these latest EPs.  Post-chorus there’s a two note guitar riff to add to the otherwise non-melodic environs.  Like last song, this one also features some production tricks in the second half, as the sounds start to clip and the stereo is widened even further.  And as before, this swiftly paced song ends before it feels like it’s even getting started.
  3. Play the Goddamned Part:  I love bass riffage, and amidst the cacophony of endlessly reverberating percussion, this is awesome.  With droning, wailing synth and a crescendo of brass, this feels almost Radiohead-esque — “The National Anthem,” specifically.  Of course, what Nine Inch Nails instrumental would leave out a creepy, detuned piano?  Not this one.  It goes on like this for awhile, dropping instruments, adding new ones, all to add to this swirling vortex of awesomeness.  There’s a circular piano riff, drum rattles that remind me of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo soundtrack, and even occasional bloops.  It’s a beautiful mess, and by far my favorite of the first three, which is an absolute shock considering it’s an instrumental.  More of this, please.
  4. God Break Down the Door:  More brass and a breakbeat kicking off this song has me immediately in a trip-hop mindset.  The bass continues to wub a la Radiohead (thinking very much of “Ful Stop” this time), but the vocals are floaty and rich with an uncharacteristic vibrato — they’re delivered camly and slowly in contrast to the frantic pace beneath.  It’s very weird.   One continuing feature of this record seems to be a consistent lack of typical song structure, as each track has numerous divergent sections instead of anything resembling a verse/chorus/bridge structure.  This one just blasts along at high speed, carried along by the aforementioned breakbeat.  Twinges of electronics, distortion, and feedback fill out the crowded sonic space above.  As earlier, the low chanted vocals at the song’s climax are widened and brought loud to the point that it sounds like there’s a Trent Reznor on either side of me.  I dig this one, even though it, like a few earlier, feels like it could have kept going for awhile.
  5. I’m Not From This World:  Slow and light, low and pulsing.  Subtle scratching weaves in and out, with a creeping sense of dread.  A brief crescendo cedes into the void, but it just starts back up again after a short lull.  In the distance, a machine shudders to life.  The environment is mechanically lush, a screaming field of cyborgs under a dark grey sky.  There is again quiet before the storm, but again the electronic pulsing is unstoppable.  It grows and multiplies, getting closer and more threatening.  An unnatural trill sends shivers down my spine.  Staccato, crunchy strings signal the end for us, as they fade down with a low pass.  Apologies for the flowery prose, but this is honestly what the song evoked for me.  It’s an instrumental rush, full of edges and turns — a dynamic six-minute epic, to be interpreted as one sees fit.  It’s a curious choice to put a second lengthy instrumental on a six-track “album” and I can’t help but feel there must be more to come soon after Bad Witch.
  6. Over and Out:  But not before we get this, a dance-able, almost funky piece.  The brass is back, joined by a xylophone and an incredible, jaunty bass line.  For the first two minutes, this feels like it could have been the best song on Ghosts I-IV.  Like previous entries on this record, it has its phases and distinct parts.  As it slows down and enters a aura of softly-affected chimes, Trent’s vocals reappear after a long absence, in the same vibrato-laden style as earlier.  And again, it’s weird.  Hiding behind the bass, electronic drums, and bloops, is a steadily wavering feedback, the same kind we’ve heard on probably every Nine Inch Nails record for the last 10 years.  So it’s not entirely foreign.  Once the vocals end, the third act of the song brings us back to the soft chimes, albeit surrounded in a haze of clean synth, where it converges to a single note.  It lingers until it dies out, almost a full minute later.

I’m not sure exactly what I think about Bad Witch.  It’s super short and feels even more so with its uptempo pacing and oddly structured songs.  There are of course numerous stylistic and musical ties to previous Nine Inch Nails records, but the most striking aspect of Bad Witch is how much outside influence there is.  There are infusions of brass, funk, and soul totally unlike the NIN of old.  While the influence of the two preceding EPs is omnipresent, it feels so much different.  Underneath the wail and maelstrom of the industrial distortion and feedback is a lush palette of new sounds, well integrated and manipulated.  I can’t get enough of the instrumentals — they are perhaps among the best Trent Reznor has created.  That said, and as I mentioned above, this record feels like it’s missing something.  Thirty minutes of music does barely a record make.  After two EPs with not-much-shorter runtimes, I feel obligated to consider this new music a third EP.  I hope there’s more here — I like where these new sounds could take Nine Inch Nails moving forward.

Aural Impressions: Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney Barnett is one of those musical acts that basically dropped on me from heaven one day.  A simple coincidence led to an interest piqued, and one album listen later, and I was hooked.  Just two years ago, I sat outside enjoying the late spring sun to her optimstic, laid-back, yet energetic stylings and I haven’t let that feeling go since.  Hell, the catchy, escalating narrative of “Avant Gardener,” from her second EP, inspired me to get out of the house and do yard work.   As soon as she announced a show in town last year, I didn’t think twice about snagging tickets, even if they were fairly expensive.  I caught Courtney Barnett in Oakland with Kurt Vile and the Sea Lice in the fall, and then again in San Francisco earlier this month in the first real show of her latest tour.  To begin this show, she played through the entirety of her newest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel.  Ironically, I couldn’t really get a feel for the album live, as the sound at stage front was somewhat difficult to make out — the venue had opened only a day earlier and I don’t think the room was quite tuned yet.  However, I recall very much liking several of the new songs, especially the closing tracks of the record.  Whether or not my live impressions hold up will be determined — right now:

  1. Hopefulessness:  Detuned and grim, this is a dark start for a second record.  I adore the guitar riff though — it’s grungy and resonant.  A stark contrast to the jounce of “Elevator Operator,” this song is mute, claustrophobic, and trance-inducing, with an extremely slow crescendo adding stiff percussion and transient production effects like synth pads and, ultimately screeching feedback.  A spacey guitar solo struggles to stand out in the cacophony by the end, but that only adds to the tight, closed-off feeling we started with.  And I’m pretty sure that’s a tea-kettle whistling there at the end.  This is a great opener for what aims to be a fairly different album than we’ve heard from Courtney before.
  2. City Looks Pretty:  A burst of energy after a slow climb, we’re back in that Sometimes I Sit… area of liveliness.  The song pushes forward on the back of a steady guitar-drum mix, sprinkled with blasts of distorted guitar and climbing bass riffs.  The chorus is so uplifting musically that I can see the sun coming out in my mind’s eye.  At the midpoint, we take an abrupt turn into 3/4 time at half speed, with the drum instrumentation being reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and playing alongside, the same sort of bluesy clean guitar riffs and solos that had been prominently featured on Courtney’s first album.  This song is pretty fantastic as is, but honestly it could have been longer.  That second half could have lingered for a few minutes more and I would have loved it.
  3. Charity:  There’s something supremely nostalgic buried in that syncopated chord progression, whilst I find that pre-chorus riff screaming of a Sleater-Kinney-style polyphonic-guitar riot grrrl sound, if only for a moment.  Courtney’s singing is a bit subdued given how lively and bright the music is, but that’s kind of her thing, isn’t it?  Musically, it’s fairly simple, although the chords take a few neat unexpected twists and turns throughout the boilerplate sequences, specifically during the choruses; those changes create incredibly satisfying transition points between stanzas and verses.  This might be my early favorite for the album; I can see myself putting this on repeat for a while.
  4. Need A Little Time:  With a slowly strummed minor-key guitar and little to no flourishes in production, this feels a little bit enervating in the wake of the last few rockers.  It reminds me a bit of the feel of the first EP and its stripped-down pieces, though; it’s rough around the edges, for better or worse.  Twice during this plodding affair, we’re treating to rockin’ solos, the first one shattering the first half din, whilst the second, a repetition at a lower octave, finishes off the song suddenly.  While okay, this song doesn’t really have a hook that would bring me back to it over and over, unfortunately.
  5. Nameless, Faceless The opening single from the record, this was a bit of a different sound to bring us into this new era.  A crunchy, dissonantly descending guitar riff leads into a lightly upbeat ballad with sarcastic lyrics pointedly directed at every angry young man who chooses to take out their frustrations on women.  The chorus features vocals sunken deep into the mix, which get raspier and more strained as the choruses repeat, especially when performed live.  It’s a rather simple, repetitive song that harkens back to that early ’90s grunge sound that’s been flirted with a few times so far on this album.  It’s not a bad lead-off single, but it’s not my favorite either.  It does have the propensity to get stuck in my head though, so it’s got that going for it.
  6. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch:  As the title implies, this short interlude is ferocious.  It’s noisy and conflicted, flipping between crashing chords, slimy guitars, and disjointed solos.  Basically, the twisted sequel to “Pedestrian at Best,” or if Courtney Barnett did a less energetic interpretation of Sleater-Kinney’s “Surface Envy.”  A killer track, for sure.
  7. Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack of Self Confidence:  Now this sounds like it came straight from her early works — the staccato dual chord that kicks it off, echoing the beginning of her song “David,” is all it takes for me to put myself back in that space.  The upbeat jumpy guitar through the verses is basically the sound of her debut album, so this song is an updated remix of the general Courtney Barnett essence.  Given the title, I wonder if that was a conscious choice.  Joining Courtney on this track are Kim Deal from the Pixies and her sister Kelley, providing layered backing vocals through the mantric choruses.   This one is also short, but sweet.  I like it.
  8. Help Your Self:  Groovy!  Solo drums lead off here, into a thick, undulating, multi-tracked guitar and bass riff.  Is that a cowbell I hear?  Vocals are clean and upfront in the mix.  The lead guitar, as has been common all record, treads into Carrie Brownstein territory once again.  Toward the end, it bursts into a shrieking, fuzzy solo, featuring the kind of clashing scales that are common on The Woods, while also reminding me a bit of latter-day Muse, if that’s possible.
  9. Walkin’ On Eggshells:  As I mentioned up top, this begins the set of two songs that I recall most liking at the show.  More than any other on the record, this captures the feel of her first EPs.  Backing vocals from the guys in the band make their first noticeable appearance on this album, along with a piano in accompaniment.  There’s a slight twang  in her guitar, creating an intentionally unpolished feeling.  Drums on the quarters during the chorus are classic Courtney.  I was right to have liked this song live — it’s chill, lovely, and an easy favorite.
  10. Sunday Roast:  According to Courtney at the show, she wrote this song when she was very young.  It, like the preceding track, is chill, but in an extremely polished, nebulous way.  The wide, floating reverb, heavy bass, and tom-laden drums immediately bring The National to mind; it’s melancholic with purpose.  I find myself liking the first half mainly because of my affinity for The National, but Courtney’s vocals too excel in this environment — this just makes me want the two to collaborate now.  As the second chorus comes in, the foggy shroud is blown wide open.  In its place are an extremely optimistic verse and happy guitars.  It’s a decently strong conclusion, even if I far preferred the first half of the track, and also considering that it fades out in the end.  As a whole, it’s solid.

It didn’t really take a lot for this new album to grow on me.  I had gone in with lowered expectations — I caught some mixed reviews before release, and the first three songs put out didn’t necessarily grab me the right way.  That said, the remaining tracks that fill out the album are pretty wonderful.  It works much better as a whole, and boy, if I could go back in time and see her again, having heard the album first, I would have appreciated it way the hell more.  What’s not so good is okay, and what’s good is great — despite some extra melancholy and ferocity compared to previous records, there’s still a ton of sunny vibes here to get me through the summer.