Knights! Swords! Crystals! Goblets! With more indie-rock bands turning to fantasy imagery in their music videos lately, it can be a truly draining prospect to judge which ones are serious about their wizardly ways and which bands are just superficially glomming onto the trend. Who's got it right?We turned for interpretation to Joe Yull, a 23-year-old fantasy and role-playing expert at Outer Planes Comics and Games in Santa Rosa. I knew Yull was the right man for the job after he displayed knowledge of both the classics (Hawkwind's collaboration with fantasy writer Michael Moorcock) and the trivial (Weezer's shout-out to 12-sided die). On a recent Sunday evening, Yull and I hung out in Outer Planes at one of their Magic: The Gathering gaming tables, sat in front of YouTube and tried to make sense of it all. With experience and skill, Yull deftly separated the dungeon masters from the dolts, and summarily rated each band's role-playing strength on a scale of one to 10.Muse, 'Knights of Cydonia' A tough-looking character with a mustache practices kung fu moves like "Two-Headed Snake" and "Circle of Death" while receiving occasional blessings from a raven and shooting lasers from his revolver. "He's got kung fu, lasers and he's a cowboy," Yull notes approvingly. This looks good so far.
It's hard to tell if the video is inspired by the role-playing game Deadlands, because so much crazy stuff is happening in every frame. "For no reason, he's beating the shit out of people, but you can tell he's not a bad guy," Yull says. "He's got this gun that shoots light, but he's obviously looted it from somewhere, because he's post-apocalyptic."The damsel he's trying to save shows up on a unicorn with some menacing Mongolian dancer and is usurped by an evil dark sheriff who sends her to the hanging gallows. But lo! Our avenging hero blasts through the noose with the laser gun, saves the girl, evades the sheriff's strike and vaporizes his enemy. An epic victory. Rating: 9.5.
Bat for Lashes, 'Prescilla' A girl in some sort of Gypsy get-up hangs out with a posse who appear to have the power to levitate. One guy dents a washing machine with a large boulder, which is kind of badass in a useless way, and though the Gypsy girl takes possession of a dagger, she focuses more attention on her two hairbrushes. Hairbrushes, Yull affirms, never have any special powers. "In fact, based on who usually plays role-playing games," he says, "I doubt hairbrushes ever come up in the context of any of them."After the Gypsy girl almost gets eaten by the set of Pee-Wee's Playhouse and is propositioned by a vacuum cleaner, she can't take it anymore and retreats back into the real world. Retreat, of course, is the ultimate weakness. Yull points out that the name "Priscilla" is found in Edmund Spenser's 16th-century allegorical epic The Faerie Queen, but that's not enough to redeem the hairbrushes and the misplaced rage against a washing machine. Rating: 3.
Yacht, 'Psychic City' What appears like a simple battle between a holy minister and a juniper-wielding pagan soon turns perplexing. The minister, with crucifix nunchucks, gorges himself on communion wafers and wine before commencing to masturbate. The pagan girl spreads some mesmerizing powder and wields a staff of death. The battle turns friendly, however, and the minister and the pagan rip their clothes off under a crescent moon and start licking each other's faces.
"Honestly," Yull recoils, "if I saw any of this going on, I would just leave." This brings up a good point—that the band could easily bamboozle their opponents out of any confrontation. In fact, in most role-playing games, there's a common and powerful spell called confusion. "It's very effective," Yull assures. Rating: 6.
Celebration, 'Evergreen' A girl in a fringe dress collects crystals in a carved wooden box, unsuccessfully balances crystals on some goblets and spreads crystal seeds across the arid desert, growing a crystal groundcover. Yull explains that there's a group of psychic people called Scions in Dungeons and Dragons who use crystals for straight-up New Age weirdness, but the girl and her minions don't seem to be very adept at it.
"OK, so they can beautify the landscape with weird growing crystals," Yull allows. "Interesting. Doesn't really seem to be too useful." However, it's hard to walk on crystals, and no one wants his habitat turned into the Emerald City. Yull points out that the seeded crystals could probably devastate cropland. Overall, they're pretty weak. Rating: 3.5.
Devendra Banhart, 'A Ribbon' In this feeble narrative, a wispy red ribbon floats underwater through coral and fish before communing with the birds. At the video's end, the ribbon flies into a man's mouth, rendering his body aglow. "A ribbon is not that impressive," Yull says. "You can't hurt people with it." Rating: 2.
Built to Spill, 'Conventional Wisdom' In chainmail armor, an elder swordsman trains with his weapons in the sunset. The band members arrive, are assigned horses and train with the master. They, too, adorn the steel helmets and breastplates for the epic jousting battle with the black knight. The duel ends amicably, and all parties shake hands.
This reminds Yull of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a Middle Ages reenactment group which practices combat and chivalry among its "kingdoms" nationwide. Also, the elder swordsman is an Obi Wan-Kenobi figure, Yull says. These are all good things, which triumph even over Yacht's relatively high rating for "Psychic City." "He could probably take down those people who throw confusion at you," Yull surmises. "I don't think he'd be fazed too much by the communion wafers or ejaculate. That might just irritate him." Rating: 7.
Dirty Projectors, 'Stillness Is the Move' OK, so we've got a llama. We've got people wandering around the wilderness with musical instruments. And . . . that's about it. There are some Siberian huskies that the wolfman has tamed and some girls who appear to be either bridesmaids in celebration or sirens attempting to mesmerize the wolfman with the booty.
"He seems to be doing pretty well for himself, by these people's standards, at least," Yull says. "I'm somehow more impressed by these people just given the fact that, according to the video, they seem to be able to actually survive out in the woods." Yull likens them to the Rangers from Lord of the Rings, who kill bears for breakfast and stuff. "He's obviously a ranger. Obviously," says Yull. Rating: 5.
More role-playing insights and comic books galore can be found at Outer Planes Comics & Games. 519 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.546.2000.