Sunday, March 30, 2014

Man! Why is the sound so bad at this concert!

A veteran’s insight into live amplified sound.
“Man, that band would have been amazing if it weren’t for the awful sound!” I said as the house lights went up and the band known as Holy Grail, along with what few people constituted their road crew, began hastily clearing their gear away for the next act.
“I know, all I could hear was bass drum,” Matt said, pulling his ear plugs out.
“If you go in the bathroom you can actually hear the guitar,” Ron said, sipping his bass pale ale. It was our last beer of the night before the headliners, Blind Guardian, were set to take to take the stage in a club in Tempe. We had driven some seven hours from Las Vegas to catch them on their American tour, a rarer appearance for the old German power metal band as time went on. On the drive back, I would feel sick, blaming it on that last beer, which I admit tasted a bit funny.
“It’s a pretty awful thing to say that I can’t hear the guitar in a power metal band,” I said. “And the funny thing is, I can see what they were playing; I know it was hard to play.”
“I guess we’ll have to imagine the sound of shredding,” Ron said.
After a short wait, the lights dimmed back down and the intro track started for Blind Guardian, a long orchestral affair. The stage lights went up and – holy crap! – we could hear the guitar. Marcus Siepen and Andre Olbrich played their separate and intricate parts with crystal clarity. The drums rumbled, with the bass drums giving out a perfect, chest-thumping kick. The bass had tone! You could hear the keyboards perfectly balanced on top of the mix. Then Hansi Kursch started singing, and it was crisp and dynamic. The band dropped into a softer section, and I realized I had forgotten to put my ear plugs back in. For anyone who frequents heavy metal shows, you know that such experiences are rare ones.
The whole show was like that. Dynamic and powerful. Soft songs were soft and clear. Loud aggressive tracks chugged forward with clarity. The concert went from being a tolerable experience to a truly great one. What was the cause of this rift? The sound, specifically, the way the sound was run through the P.A. A well-run sound board can mean the difference between hearing nothing with bleeding ears and hearing everything without plugs – from a heavy metal band, no less.
If you want to check out either of these bands and get a perspective on what I’m talking about, here are a few links (I believe these are actually the first songs each of these bands played live):
That concert was a great example of lots of things with live sound. Who is responsible for greatness and failures in that department? The blame usually lands on the “sound guy,” that is, the technician that is managing all the volume levels coming out of the P.A. or house speakers. That’s true for the most part. There’s a lot more to it than just the board though, and the band, along with every piece of equipment that gets toted from gig to gig, is usually responsible for at least part of a failure when it comes to amplified sound. I’d like to talk about some of those reasons.

Before I begin, I should tell you that I’ve been performing music most of my life. As an adult, I’ve performed lots of amplified music on many kinds of instruments in far too many venues to even list. Just as much, I’ve been a member of the audience for musicians that I love. I’ve also been “the sound guy” for lots of other gigs, and I have experience as a recording engineer. These days I’m usually not a good choice for those later two due to my hearing loss, but I’ve learned a lot by filling all those different roles.
The Room
The most overlooked, and yet still most important, aspect of any gig is the room in which it is being played. The acoustics of the room, its tendencies to amplify and reflect certain frequencies and its tendencies to dampen others, makes the biggest difference when trying to create an adequate sound environment. Where you are standing as a listener can have a huge impact on your perception of the concert. Stand close, and you may get blasted. Stand in the back, and you may miss something. Or, as in the above example, you stand in the bathroom and hear something inaudible otherwise.
This is why sound booths are usually placed center stage at the back of the venue, where all the tendencies of the room (or outdoor venue, if that is the case) can be more or less heard and accounted for. A good acoustic space will produce similar experiences throughout the room, a poor one will be full of bass traps and hard surfaces, distorting what the audience hears. The amount of people in attendance can affect the sound too, as the human body acts like a big treble dampener when the crowd is packed in. Many times sound checks are done on an empty room, and when the place is packed things can sound very different.
A good technician will be able to make adjustments depending on what the venue is doing on a particular night and what they hear from the band. I’ve met a few bad sound technicians that will refuse to adjust levels in any event, claiming that they’ve already figured out the best levels. These are usually people that work the same venue every night, and though you would think they have the room figured out, every band sounds different and requires some different treatment to sound good coming out of the P.A.
Sometimes, a venue is just an all-around bad choice for a concert, and very little can be done to improve the sound. Stadiums and arenas were built for sports teams, not concerts, so nobody should be surprised at a poor acoustic experience at such venues.
The Band
This is the next big variable. If you are traveling with the same band for weeks, doing the same sets over and over it isn’t such an unknown (though there are always little things that change night to night, like a hoarse singer), but for most gigs you have a sound team that is local, or is at least somewhat different than the night before. Figuring out how to make a band sound good is sometimes a puzzle, but can be accomplished easily with a solid sound check and some adjustments as the night goes on.
The band can also affect the sound outcome negatively in some ways they themselves may not be fully aware of. In the above example, the opening act, Holy Grail, was playing on stage with traditional amplifier rigs. In a heavy metal band this usually consists of very loud half or full stacks (guitar and bass amplifiers with one or two cabs filled with four speakers each) placed next to or behind the drummer, facing out toward the audience. In the old days these were more necessary, as P.A. systems often lacked the power and clarity to handle much more than vocals, and venues were small. Now they are less necessary. This detail is important because, although we in the audience could not hear the guitar players much at all, they likely could hear themselves loud and clear. They were not aware that they sounded bad.
Bands also can ruin their own sound by making demands about their sound from the stage, where they cannot accurately hear the P.A. They can also play differently than they did at the sound check (you would be surprised how much this happens – bands turning up their amps, singing louder, or using their microphones differently). They may also not have an idea of what they want their amplified sound to be like, just assuming that the technician will know what to do. The person at the board might just assume they want everything bass-heavy and loud when what the band wants to be heard is the high-end of the bass and the sound of the hi-hat. The band must communicate what they want.
Lastly, their equipment might not be set up to be easily compatible with their sound system. Direct inputs for bass and keyboards can be distorted without the proper knowledge for patching in, and the microphones for acoustic instruments may be something unfamiliar to the musicians if they did not bring their own. All of these things are the band’s responsibility.
The System
The sound system at a venue can have a big impact on your experience as a listener as well. A sound system might be geared toward a certain type of music that frequents that location, and you may be listening to a different genre. Monitor systems may give the band a different impression of the sound than what comes out of the main speakers. The P.A. may be too big or too small for the genre you are listening to, making a jazz band sound over-loud or too bass-heavy, or making a heavy metal band sound like static. Big subwoofers work for rap, but sound far too boomy for folk music.
The “Sound Guy”
Though it may seem like I spent the last thousand words trying to shift the blame for bad sound away from the technician, ultimately it is their responsibility to run their equipment optimally during a concert.
This failing comes in several varieties.
The union guy. I’ve been to a few shows (and played in a few more) where the technician running sound got the job based on seniority; even non-union venues will often hand jobs to the people who have been around the longest. Needless to say, with age does not necessarily come wisdom, much less skill. I’ve dealt with older techs that are deafer than me, which is really saying something. You can usually tell if this is the case when there is a screeching amount of treble, even from the booth, as those frequencies are typically where most people lose their hearing. This isn’t to say all union guys are deaf or bad at their job (in fact, most are quite good at what they do), just that they are out there and you get them from time to time
The rock/pop show guy. You will find this particular kind of tech running sound at a gig of a different style, say jazz or an acoustic guitar-based group, and generally bringing over habits and assumptions from the other side. Audiences at rock concerts or clubs generally like things really loud, with the bass booming, and rock show guy will give you just that, even if the current act is a jazz trio. If you find yourself plugging your ears at an unplugged concert you usually have this sort of tech. He might also like to pump up the reverb effects for an indoor event, or make acoustic instruments like horns overly dry because he’s used to guitar coming in drowned in reverb from the amp.
The vengeful sound guy. This the tech that gets angry over a band making certain requests, and chooses to exact his revenge by making the show sound awful for everyone present. Any number of small things can set him off, such as a drummer repositioning his mics so that he doesn’t hit them while he plays. If you’ve ever heard a musician declare that you should be nice to the sound guy, chances are they’ve med the vengeful type and fear them.
The sound guy who just doesn’t care. This probably most of your bad sound experiences right here. It’s an opening act. Who cares? Eh, so what if that mic doesn’t work, you can hear the cab from the stage anyway. Hey man, can you watch the board? I’m gonna go get a drink. Just pull back this slider here if you get some feedback. What more can you expect from a PA salesman from Guitar Center that was asked to run sound for his buddy in a local band?
Blind Guardian and Holy Grail- Why Such Difference?
Revisiting the two metal acts I saw with my friends, I can tell you why they sounded so radically different in the same room with the same PA only minutes apart:
1. The Band. Blind guardian is a group of very experienced and legitimately good musicians. They have been touring for nigh on thirty years and understand how to adapt to situations better than their young and still inexperienced openers.
2. Equipment. Blind guardian actually played with no monitors or amplifiers on stage with them. All of the amplification and processing was done off of stage left in well-organized road racks. Isolation cabinets were used to perfect the sound. All five of them used in-ear monitors, which deadened some of the loudness of the drums on stage and allowed them to play with good balance. Holy Grail, by contrast had their cabs on stage, and was using angled monitors to hear themselves.
3. The sound guy. Blind Guardian travelled with their own sound tech who was familiar with how to run their show, but the opening acts that travelled with them had to use in-house sound techs. The person running the board for Holy Grail was likely not as competent or did not understand what the desired sound for a metal band was, as shown by the booming, muddy bass and total lack of guitar in the mix.
There you have it! I hope you have found it informative. Feel free to leave me any more article suggestions.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Discrimination: Rights and Consequences

There has been a great deal of jabs thrown about a bill recently passed by the Arizona state legislature that is intended to protect freedom of religion or enshrine discrimination against gays, depending on your position. The bill, called “SB1062” (or AB 1062, the assembly version) in the typical fashion of laws, is short by most legislative statutes and attempts to expand the state’s definition of free exercise of religion to include economic activities, or more specifically, the denial thereof. Though no specific mention of LGBT categories of persons are made, both proponents and opponents of the law have made mention of it. The law may be found here:

The bill may be partially in reaction to a recent New Mexico supreme court case that upheld a lawsuit against a wedding photographer who refused to photograph a gay wedding, citing religious objections. The law being argued over was the New Mexico Constitution’s Human Rights Act, which extends equal protection of law to those who are not heterosexual. For more information on this case, I suggest checking out an article from last year by Doug Mataconis, and includes many sides to the court’s opinion:

He is somewhat wrong on one claim, which is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was necessary to end private discrimination in the south; the truth is that Jim Crow laws created legal mandates for discrimination on the part of private entities. It was illegal to not discriminate. The Civil Rights Act was a monolithic way of paving over those old racist laws. Undoubtedly, some private discrimination would have continued had the laws been discarded some other way, but the fact remains that the bulk of discrimination occurred through government, not in spite of it.
Elane Photography vs. Vanessa Willcock, along with the Arizona law that is partially in reaction to it, is interesting and contentious across a wide array of rights and legalities. This article will attempt to disassemble some of the ethical, philosophical, and cultural issues that surround it and gay discrimination in general. One issue in particular this is being omitted is the de facto equation that the New Mexico Supreme Court made between the statuses of race and sexual orientation. Just how things are equal or not equal requires a bit more analysis, of perhaps a more controversial nature, than is desirable for this article.

I. How Far Do Religious Rights Go?

In a practical sense, there are always limits to the practice of religion in a society whether free or politicized. People do not have exceptions to written or common law simply because they can claim to follow a religion that contraindicates the directives of society. Very few people would argue the right to murder or steal by virtue of religious law, and there are plenty of modern examples of the limitation of religious action. Sharia dictates within small Muslim communities in the United States and Europe are examples of these staunch limitations. Philosophically, most of these limitations occur along one lines: the non-aggression principle, which prohibits assaults and theft. Really, the right to practice one’s religion is limited to the voluntary actions you take as part of it.
What is interesting about Elane vs. Willcock is that the argument does not occur along lines of action, for Elane Photography was initiating no force or enacting no theft, but along a line of inaction, the refusal to render services. In this case neither party suffered damages per se, but damages were civil and to society. Elane Photography refused to photograph the gay wedding and gave a reason in a religious objection, which is where most of the focus has been. According to the court, religious rights do not include the right of refusal once you enter the marketplace. I contend that the religious argument confuses and obscures the real argument, which is about economic, not religious, freedom.

II. Voluntary and Involuntary Transactions

The economic liberty at stake with the Elane  case is a fundamental one, which is the right to sell your services to who you desire. This is a right that is not specifically protected in the US constitution, though I argue there are many rights left out of that particular document, and yet you will frequently see signs proclaiming the right (usually inside gas station snack stops). The right to conduct business with who you see fit is a right so fundamental, so sacred, that it is almost never referred to in written law. More than 800 years of common law support this right, and you legally cannot take a person to court for refusing to give you something in a trade that they don’t like. This, as stated above, is the right of refusal, the liberty to refuse to sell your services or property, which are one and the same.
This right might not be specifically stated, but it is inferred in the US constitution via the specific exceptions to the right mentioned in the text. One is imminent domain, when the government forces you to sell your property to them for their use (public use has been a hot issue in the last few years because of the decision of Kelo vs City of New London,  but this article is too brief to deal with the abuse of this government power). In this case, they must pay just compensation, or market value. The other exception in the constitution is the selected services, or the draft, which applies only to males and does not  pay you market value for services you might otherwise be generating if you weren't forced to serve in the armed forces.

III. Thoughtcrime: Motive and Action-Local Moral Reasoning

Elane exhibits apparently another exception to this basic right (from the government’s perspective; neither the draft nor imminent domain is philosophically valid), which is that you cannot refuse to sell your services or property if the motive for doing so is discrimination. Since the motive itself is illegal (thoughtcrime, as Orwell so famously coined), the right of refusal apparently does not apply. If the photography company had refused because they were booked, or didn’t want to accept the pay the bride was offering, or even because they disliked the bride because of her political affiliation, no law would have been violated, and no party would have suffered any damages, real or civil or psychic.
When considering thoughtcrime laws (much like futurecrime), one must first question the moral reasoning that goes into their creation. The separation between thought and action is an important distinction when operating in a physical, logical world. Contemplating murder is not a crime, only murder is, as much because contemplation has no effect on the physical world as because it is impossible to determine the inner thoughts of a human being. Elane  is therefore also interesting because the thoughtcrime involved only exists because the photographer gave an honest and truthful set of reasoning for her refusal to conduct business. Had she chosen to lie, there would be no thoughtcrime, and therefore no damages.
So the end result is a rather odd situation, in which vendors (which is what the photography company was deemed to be) are still able to discriminate against others by refusing to do business, so long as they do not reveal their motivations for doing so.

IV. Market Forces and Social Consequences

One of the most overlooked aspects of freedom is the constant incentive businesses and individuals have to suppress prejudice. This runs contrary to the mistaken belief that freedom in the market causes greater discrimination against minorities and other marginal groups. Businesses generally exist to make money, and they generally do so by serving as many people as possible for as high a price as the market will allow.
Wedding photographers have a natural incentive not to discriminate against couples who do not fit their ideal, because they are getting paid to do so. To refuse to do business for any arbitrary prejudice is to take a loss. The same applies to the employment of minority or marginalized individuals. To limit one’s talent pool for arbitrary reasons is to damage the business by increasing costs or decreasing productivity. The incentive is to dampen one’s prejudices – to sacrifice them on the altar of increased profits and business health.
Adding to this suppression are the social consequences for outright bigotry, which can include social stigma, isolation, and the refusal of service to the discriminator. As far as non-violent action goes, social consequences for unwanted behavior are some of the most effective. The photographer in Elane  might very well suffer these through her refusal to serve a gay couple. There may be individuals still interested in the service, but may experience social pressure from their own wedding guests not to use the services of someone they consider a bigot. These social interaction eventually translate into negative economic consequences as well.
This creates what I believe to be the typical person as he acts in the marketplace, who has certain prejudices against certain types of people but does not express these because it is better for his business and personal life to serve all.

V. Conclusion: But They’re Still a Bigot!

Ultimately, the mental states and internal prejudices of people are not alterable directly. No amount of force on the part of government or individuals will get people to stop thinking what they are thinking, short of perhaps the final act of 1984. If somebody has hate in their heart, yet treats everybody with respect outwardly, are they evil? Actions are what matters, not thought. Actions are right or wrong, not will. From Orwell’s 1984:

Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Nostalgia Chronicles, Part 1: Berserk


For me, nostalgia is always an interesting phenomenon, like the sudden influx of déjà vu and yet clear and tangible. My memories, when I slip into them rather than merely draw upon them for some piece of information, are akin to a waking dream. I can see myself where I was, smell the smells around me, and even feel part of the emotions that I felt when the memory was made. When I am overcome with the images and words of the past, I call it nostalgia. It’s an intense experience, and can create feelings undulating between extreme pain and extreme pleasure, depending on the memory.

I know that for many people memory is not like this, and I am also aware of the limitations of all memory, how the brain edits on the fly to exclude the unimportant bits. When I remember something particularly happy – a moment of joy with friends, for instance – I know that the circumstances surrounding it may not have been so happy. As a matter of fact, when I think of such things, I often take a step back in my mind and remember that overall timeframe of that memory was filled with misery. Perhaps that heightens the emotion of the moment, and island of happiness in a sea of trouble is all the more memorable.

Similarly, sometimes I have a rush of memory for something very painful: an embarrassing moment, a moment of heartbreak or doubt, or a failure. These moments may be surrounding by happiness, but shine out darkly because of their bright background, intensifying the memory process and the pain of recollection. I have to be careful letting myself be overcome with such recollections, for even though the experience was in the past, the way my memory works causes the all the emotions, the pain and disappointment and embarrassment, to become very real in the present.

Like a flashback, Nostalgia is triggered by odd thing. Smells and tastes that I associate with a time period or place, or more often, music and books that take me back to the period where I first heard or read them.

With that in mind, I thought I’d start a series here, dubbed the nostalgia chronicles, of some particularly powerful memories and what they mean to me. Most of these center around certain things like art, games, and entertainment, since these are the things that usually trigger the feelings, but more than few of them are just odd moments.

Nostalgia Chronicles, Part 1: Berserk

Berserk started its life as a manga (a type of Japanese graphic novel) penned by Kentaro Miura, but my first experiences with it were with its televised anime adaptation, and later experiences occurred during several life eras with both the manga and repeat viewings of the anime.

I. Mid 2005

The young man who was rapidly becoming my best friend (Matt Wellman, the man of infinite jest) moved into a house nearby me with another friend of mine named Ryan (I was graduating from Fresno State and still lived in North Fresno with my parents), which increased the frequency of our hang-outs enormously. We were writing metal, drinking Moosehead, and generally having a good time most nights. I walked into Matt’s bedroom one day to see him watching a very imaginative, as well as horrific, anime on his computer.

He let me see the final episode before we went out for more beer (our main activity on a week night). The show made no sense to me and seemed to take place in hell, but intrigued me, probably as a result. Later on, he bought the anime on DVD, and I would come over and watch it with him, sometimes along with Ryan and Gary (the other roommate, who would also become a good chum of mine). In Fresno fashion it was usually hot and muggy inside the house, with Ryan’s dog Jacka constantly panting as she lay on the floor. I remember sitting in Ryan’s chair, feeling the sweat on the back of my calves stick to the reclining pad. That was how we watched it, between parties and music.

I remember first reading the graphic novels after moving into my first apartment, which was a tenement by some standards. I found myself sitting in a brown leather chair, given to me by my friend Darryl, who had in turn claimed it from our mutual employer Patrick. It had several tears on the back from moving, but I enjoyed it as a comfortable reading place, lit by an old jade lamp that belonged to my grandparents. My roommate and I liked to keep the apartment very cold, and remember how much I liked the slick, cool leather on my skin after coming indoors from the heat of Fresno, which, if you have never been there, is substantial and persists from March into early November.

Our apartment was a smattering of things, with a beat-up sectional couch (later replaced by a set of free furniture that looked like it belonged in the waiting room of a dentist from the 1980s), my small tube TV sat upon a tall stand Jabriel (my roommate) and I made literally out of garbage we found on the back porch upon our move in. Draped black curtains hid the contraptions, which was made out of a few wooden boxes and a large piece of plywood, and also served to house our DVD collection. The dark brown carpet, the color chosen as much to hide stains as show its age, I reckoned, always felt a little stiff on the feet.

Even though the apartment was not the nicest, it was ours, and it at least was not painfully small. My own bedroom was large enough that I could put my leather chair in it, leaving the other chair (a funny pink affair Jabriel and I had nabbed from the curb) in the living room. Once or month a so a new English translation of Berserk would come out, and I would head down to Winco and buy a can of “Green Dragon Energy Drink,” a bargain-bin caffeinated beverage from Hong Kong (I think), park myself in my chair, and read the next installment of Berserk, in all its gory glory.

II. Berserk: Violent Paragons.

Berserk is a strange fantasy story, taking place in a world similar to medieval Europe, without magic (except for demons) or guns (though there are cannons from time to time). The central characters are Guts (Gatzu), and his best friend and nemesis, Griffith, who leads the band of mercenaries that fill out the cast. The anime chronicles the rise and subsequent fall of Griffith and his band of the hawk, from mercenary band to exalted champions of the kingdom, to criminals as Griffith’s tragic flaw takes effect.

What was most compelling to me was not the plot, though that was sound, but the characters. In Japanese fashion, the characters involved are not complex, flawed, and redeemable characters that achieve growth as the story goes on, which would be more typical of a western story. Instead, they are paragons; not paragons of virtue, but paragons of their immutable selves, virtuous or viscous. The progress of the story is about the fulfilling of nature, and this informs the central conflict, which is between destiny and will, and the relation between the two.

Guts is a paragon of who he is: the berserker; the struggler; the man who rebels against destiny; the man who cares nothing for life; the man who pursues his own will, even if he does not understand what it is. Guts was born literally from a corpse, his mother hanging dead from a tree, and so signifies an exclusion from the laws of destiny. He alone can act outside of destiny and be free-willed, for he is already dead. He values his life little, preferring battle and slaughter to pleasure, constantly risking his life for outcomes which seem to be meaningless to others. It is, as they cannot understand, the fulfillment of his nature.

Griffith is a paragon of the opposite: the planner; the schemer; the man whose will is destiny itself; the man with ambition. For him, all means serve his ends. He sacrifices his soldiers, his fortunes, and even sells his own body in prostitution to fund his desperate dream. Ultimately, Guts is his only equal, which means they must become enemies.

He seems blessed by destiny in a way that guts is not. He achieved victory on the battlefield over and over, often with the use of Guts, who he forces into service after a showdown – a showdown in which Guts would not submit, even at the expense of his body. Somehow though, Guts and Griffith become friends, as Guts rises to second in command of the Band of the Hawk, Griffith’s army.

Together, Guts and Griffith raise their army to the level of regular soldiers in the kingdom of Midland, and Griffith is even raised to the peerage, becoming a noble and gaining an opportunity to marry into wealth and power. Griffith destroys his opponents in the nobility as well, even using Guts as a brutal assassin, an event that has a profound emotional impact on Guts as he is forced to kill the young son of the target. Indeed, it seems as if all of Griffith’s wild ambitions, seeming to be driven by destiny itself, are coming to fruition, and Griffith will marry the princess and inherit the crown.

The story turns when Guts overhears a conversation in which Griffith describes the Band of the Hawk as “not truly his friends,” because none of them have their own dreams. Guts, hearing this, decides he has fulfilled what he said he would for Griffith, seeing an end to the war, and decides to leave, despite the protests of his other friends in the army. This realization causes Guts to want to leave his friends, leading to another duel between Guts and Griffith, who wishes to keep Guts for his own purposes. Unlike their first meeting, Griffith cannot overcome the skill and strength of Guts. Guts cuts Griffith’s sword in half, ending the duel, and walks away, without ever turning to look back.

This moment encapsulates the conflict, held at bay through most of the first story arc, between will and destiny. Griffith, having been defeated, suffers a mental break; his unwavering belief in himself and his destiny is shattered through the actions of Guts, who, ironically, opposes Guts in order to achieve what he viewed as true equality and friendship. This also sets up Guts’s role through the rest of the manga, which is as an opponent of destiny, the sole actor capable of destroying it. Griffith, in anguish, visits the princess and sleeps with her (in the manga it is closer to rape). He is caught and spends much of the rest of the arc being slowly tortured as a prisoner of the king. His destiny has, in effect, been destroyed by Guts’s free action.

This is ended with Guts’s return and heroic rescue of the broken Griffith, who on the escape journey attempts suicide and unknowingly fulfills the contracts of his destiny with the Godhand, a cabal of demonic gods who take Guts and the remaining members of the Band of the Hawk as sacrifices for Griffith’s ascendancy to their ranks. Griffith does this willingly, and his friends are devoured by demons. Only Guts has the power to resist and survive, and in final horror, Griffith rapes Caska, a woman Guts has fallen in love with, in front of the eyes of his friend turned nemesis. Guts cuts off his own arm in attempt to free himself and intervene, and is in turn saved again by deus ex machina in the form of the skull knight, a mysterious immortal being who represents rebellion against destiny.

The first story arc draws to a close in one of the most brutal ways possible. Guts and Caska are left with “the brand,” a bleeding wound which will draw demons to them as long as they live, and so Guts must begin his own quest, to destroy his friend and overcome destiny, represented in the very brand that tortures him.

III. Final Thoughts

These themes had a big effect on me as a 21 year old, and even today they have significant meaning as I feel like most of the periods of my life have been defined by struggle. When I first started watching, I was struggling to find the next step of my academic career as a musician with substantial hearing loss. I read the manga in my first apartment, struggling to meet rent and progress through graduate school. I watched the series again when I lived in Las Vegas, struggling to finish my first screenplay and arrange the next phase of my life. The idea of suffering through, and overcoming, struggle was a close experience to my heart.

I also admired the characters within it. Guts was cold, single minded, and unrelenting when wielding his sword in the present. I felt like that a lot of the time, and still do: obsessive, driving, lost in the sound of my strings as I played or my keys as I type this very sentence. I had no plans; I just did and did and did, day after day, and built myself a life out of it. When that life was swept away, I found I, like Guts, had very little to carry away with me.

Very few other examples of manga or anime pack quite as much punch as Berserk, both in artistic effect and storytelling. Very few evoke as much nostalgia, though I’m sure there will be other examples to come. The best quote I can remember is this, which has stuck with me for quite a long time:

Man takes up the sword to shield the small wound in his heart sustained in some far off time beyond memory.

Man wields the sword so he can die happy in some far of time beyond perception.