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I’m a fan of the “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language” known as xkcd, and one of the recurring “hero” characters in it is Cory Doctorow, author and founder of former magazine and current blog Boing Boing.  I was perusing some of the older xkcd comics, most of which I’d already seen, and came across one of the references to Doctorow and decided to wikipedia him.  Turns out he’s a pretty interesting person, and a well-read and respected fiction author.  He’s really into comics and science fiction, as well as personal privacy, intellectual property right laws, and a host of other “nerdy” subjects, many of which interest me as well.  I then read about his latest novel, Little Brother, and some of the critical acclaim it had received.  It piqued my interest, so I looked into it more.  Turns out that Doctorow publishes all his books under the Creative Commons license, which is essentially a more flexible alternative to Copyrighting your work.  Creative Commons has been a great success online, along with GNU free documentation and other “share-friendly” licensing methods, and has many sites dedicated to works published under its “some rights reserved” protections.  The beauty of Creative Commons is that it preserves the content creator’s rights to profit from and retain ownership of their work (be it musical, literary, photographic, etc.) while recognizing that allowing the public to freely keep, share, and (optionally) modify artistic work can be a tremendous boon to their success.  To make a long story short, by being published under CC, Doctorow’s books like Little Brother are freely available, and he has a wide variety of text and ebook formats available for free, anonymous download on the book’s website.  If you’d like to know more about why an artist would choose to freely give away their works, read Doctorow’s explanation at the beginning of the book.

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I love music. I’m also pretty open to listening to different genres, with a few exceptions (those being nearly everything that makes it to a pop hits radio station). My favorite type of music overall is definitely rock, but I also enjoy listening to metal, jazz, Latin, classical, big band and even a bit of country from time to time. Today, however, I’d like to write about one of my favorite sub-genres: symphonic rock/metal (which often overlaps with goth metal).

Chances are you haven’t heard most of these albums, and may not have even had the joy of hearing this type of music before, so I highly recommend you start. For $6/$9 per month (depending on whether you pay annual or monthly), you can listen to most of these full albums with Yahoo Music Unlimited (a service I highly recommend… almost as good as a Napster subscription and cheaper). Here are my my top five albums in this genre:

  1. “Once” by Nightwish (2004)
    Nightwish is a Finnish metal band popular in Europe and in my opinion epitomizes the symphonic metal genre better than probably any other band. “Once” is probably their best album to date, and was their last with classically-trained opera singer Tarja Turunen. I could mention the best songs on the album, but they’re all too consistently good to single any out (although “Nemo” is a good place to start). With rocking drums, beautiful vocals, crunchy guitars, nice keyboard, and a full orchestra and choir, this album is nothing short of a masterpiece. Nightwish’s latest release, “Dark Passion Play,” is also good, but not as consistently excellent as “Once.” Thanks to my friend Daniel for introducing me to Nightwish several years ago.
  2. “Heart of Everything” by Within Temptation (2007)
    Although perhaps not as classically-influenced as Nightwish, Within Temptation (of the Netherlands) also features a fantastic female vocalist combined with symphonic metal. Their beautiful lead singer Sharon Den Adel has an amazing range and is the main reason to check out the band. But that’s not to say the rest of the band doesn’t rock. They definitely do, and this is one of my favorite bands to crank up and rock out to while the house is empty ;-) . “Heart of Everything” is their latest and arguably best album, although the earlier “The Silent Force” is also excellent.
  3. “Beethoven’s Last Night” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra (2000)
    Although more classically-influenced rock than symphonic metal, TSO is best known for their awesome rocked-out Christmas-themed albums. They combine excellent rock arrangements with very talented singers and poetic lyrics to create some truly powerful albums that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. They also put on an amazing live show, as I was fortunate to experience last Christmas. But while their Christmas albums are their best known and in some ways best, their sole non-Christmas album “Beethoven’s Last Night” is a wonderfully original fictionalized account of Beethoven’s last night on earth in the form of a rock opera. Part original songs, part reworked classics, BLN is a really cool album to listen through (in order) while paying special attention to the lyrics.
  4. “The East Village Opera Company” by The East Village Opera Company (2005)
    A band I just discovered, EVOC is rock band meets opera company (with a string section) that breathes new life into the opera genre. No, it’s not the same thing as a true opera, but their singers are very skilled and capable of powerfully belting out opera classics such as “La Donna e Mobile,” “Habanera,” and “Flower Duet.” For me, it’s a perfect mixture of classical beauty with upbeat and sometimes groovy rock. And a more approachable version of opera for those like me who find the “real stuff” a tad boring.
  5. “Classified” by Bond (2004)
    Ok, so Bond is probably the least “classical” of all these bands since they have a very “pop” sound which I would normally stay far away from. But I think they deserve to be included in this list because all four members of the band are classically-trained string musicians who perform upbeat and fun versions of everything from James Bond songs to classical pieces to original arrangements. Don’t be scared of their pop girl band exterior. These ladies can play.

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Here at Texas A&M, the student organization responsible for bringing a bit of culture our way is MSC Opas. The few shows I’ve attended in the past have been most enjoyable. The Irish Tenors concert last November was particularly fantastic. Last night’s East Village Opera Company performance was no exception.

Since I procrastinated about finding someone to go with (being single has its drawbacks), I didn’t find someone to give my second ticket to until 45 minutes before the show. But thankfully, a friend of mine was interested in going on short notice so the ticket wasn’t wasted. And he knows more about opera than I do, so it was interesting to hear his perspective on this opera company meets rock band.

Indeed, if you’ve never heard this mixture before, you’re really missing out. Although last night was the first time I had heard true opera performed in a rock fashion, it’s not the first time I’ve had the joy of listening to amazing opera singers against the backdrop of crunchy guitars and bombastic drums. Finnish gothic/orchestral metal band Nightwish featured a female opera singer until recently, and their stuff sounds amazing. Less opera-influenced but similarly enjoyable rock bands are Within Temptation and Trans-Siberian Orchestra (best known for their excellent Christmas albums, but which also did a great Beethoven-themed album). So, since I was already a big fan of this sort of band, I was interested to see what EVOC was all about. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything quite as polished as the aforementioned bands since I hadn’t heard of EVOC before, but half-way through the show I was glad to see I was wrong.

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