Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Flashback Episode

Unable to sleep despite my present state of complete mental exhaustion, tonight I found myself browsing back through some of my old posts. In the process, I got to thinking about how, even for someone like me whose "writing" consists of random crap on a blog hidden away in a corner of the internet, there are certain pieces you look back on fondly and think "That was good stuff. I'm glad I wrote that."

More than that, in some respects this blog has served as a kind of diary from time to time, chronicling the events in my life that were (or seemed to be) important to me at the time. Obviously I don't write all, or even most, of my day-to-day experiences here. I have, however, occasionally touched on some specific things that were important moments in the more recent period of my life.

Well, in the spirit of both of these considerations, I've taken the liberty of collecting together a dozen of my favorite entries from this blog's short and unremarkable past, and organizing them chronologically in this single location. I'm including a link to each original post, and a short remark or explanation of why I picked it. This may be a pointless exercise as far as readers are concerned, but I'm feeling nostalgic and introspective, so I'm putting this together for myself even if nobody else cares.

To the ladies:
This was the second post I published on this blog, but I'd written it prior to that. A desire to post this somewhere online was actually a big part of why this blog came into existence. It's basically a short essay about the men who grow beards, and it may be weird but I remember this post and those fledgling days on Blogger fondly.

My Top 25 Metal Bands
A flawed and ambitious list, I still enjoyed writing this. I like lists, and this was the first big metal one I put on here.

Strange Karma
This was just a post where I related one of those peculiar "butterfly effect" type series of events that happened to me one day. The post is nothing special, but it reminds me of a day that had a strong impact on me.

Death Metal Extravaganza
As part of the fallout from my initial "Top 25" list, I got to thinking about bands I hadn't included, and eventually that devolved into writing about a series of what I felt were underrated death metal bands. After a few such posts I decided to knock the rest out in one big post. I like this one because I got to talk about one of my favorite death metal albums, and because it's the only post where I ever used a star-based rating scale.

Tribal Metal
The post where I talked about Native American folk metal. It's a topic I keep thinking I'd like to return to in a new post at some point, but so far I really haven't.

A Guitar Called "Plan B"
This is another selection that isn't so much about the post itself as the subject matter. It's where I talked about, and showed pictures of, the guitar that my dad and I built starting from rough lumber over the course of one winter. It was a great project, and it was a bonding experience with my dad that I'll never forget.

Album 4 of 12
My favorite entry into my "12 Albums That Changed My Life" series, where I talked about the impact Blackwater Park had on my development as a music listener.

Oh Deer!
Another strange event that happened to me, this time on a late night drive back to my parents' house. It's one of those memories that just lingers in the back of your mind, and when you think about it you can put yourself back there as though it were happening right in front of you.

Internet Hiatus
One of my prouder moments, this was something I felt strongly I needed to do. At times I drift into bad patterns and I forget the lessons this exercise taught me. I also am often far too willing to be complacent and just take the path of least resistance. This manifesto (of sorts), though, stands as a testament to one of the few times where I really stepped up and took control of my own life. I know that sounds awfully dramatic all things considered, but it was a bigger deal psychologically than it probably seems to an outside observer.

My 25 Favorite Metal Songs
On a lighter note, this was another of my attempts at an essentially impossible list, but a list which I still had a lot of fun assembling.

"Great" Metal Albums?
This was the post where I set about destroying my own metal credibility by discussing some of the defining metal classics that I just don't like or don't understand. Beyond my enjoyment of ripping on Mayhem, this post is probably more fundamentally "me" than anything else I've ever written about music.

Swedish Death Metal - Part 1
The first of 5 segments on my auditory tour of Swedish death metal. I really liked the style and concept of that series, and I'd like to do a similar one again at some point, because that was a lot of fun to put together.

So there you have it. From serious to silly, twelve of my favorite episodes from this little corner of my world.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Cannibal Corpse - Torture

I have long made a habit of calling Cannibal Corpse "Death Metal For Dummies". Partly that's because of their relatively wide fan base of otherwise death metal illiterates. You know: 15-year-olds who think Immolation is just a spell in World of Warcraft. Partly it's because Cannibal Corpse often serve as a kind of gateway band into real death metal, and the fans who worship them eventually move on to other idols within the death metal world. Mostly, though, it's because if I had to play somebody a song by one band to answer the question "what is death metal?", I'd play them Cannibal Corpse.

The more I think about it, though, the more I question my application of that title. It makes them sound simple, basic, and uninteresting. With their newest release "Torture" back in March, Corpsegrinder and company took another big chunk out of such notions. You see, it would be easy for a band of their stature to just sit back and release the same album over and over for a couple decades (I'm looking at you, Obituary). Instead, as time has passed Cannibal Corpse have grown and progressed and, in my opinion at least, become a much more impressive band than they ever were back in the Chris Barnes years. The basics are all still there: the gut-wrenching vocals, the pummeling drums, the meaty guitars, and the pure monstrous spirit of of unfiltered death metal brutality all still pour from every track. But the quality of their musicianship has improved. The vocal hooks are sharper. The guitar riffs are faster and more complex. The tightness with which the band executes their performances is far better. Frankly, they're now a more skilled band producing more interesting material that is surprisingly energetic and much more fun to listen to.

Of course I've been talking in broad strokes, briefly summarizing my opinion of Cannibal Corpse's collective body of work rather than talking specifically about this album. There are two main reasons I've chosen this approach. The first is that I'm making the assumption that most of my readers are familiar with the band and how they sound. As such I've chosen to skip the traditional preliminaries. If that's an inaccurate assumption then I apologize, and hopefully you'll find the next review more to your liking. The second reason is that this is how I look at the new album. In my mind, it's a perfect illustration of the "now" on a "then and now" journey of musical growth which has steadily continued in plain sight for many years. I realize how weird and unhelpful that assessment may well seem to many of you, but I think there are at least a few people out there who understand exactly what I mean.

Grade: A-
Excellent death metal from the masters.

Incidentally, if this review was just too unhelpful for words, please leave me comments to that effect so I'll know to keep things more collected and to-the-point in the future.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Things That Don't Happen

Ever since it came out back in February, I've wanted to do a review of the new Coldworker album Doomsayer's Call. I don't actually know a ton about the band beyond what you can find on the Metal Archives, but something about the album art really intrigued me. Well, I've been unable to get a copy and the list of other things I want to look at keeps piling up, so I'm going to just skip it and instead give you a quick sample from the album.

In other news the quarter is winding to a close, I've been sick the past few days, and my guest review is slated to appear on Full Metal Attorney tomorrow. I'm also hoping to get a new review or two up this weekend, but I'm not going to make any promises.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Dangers of Shaving

Posting that recent photo of my mutton chop sideburns got me thinking about that fact that in recent months I really have abandoned the topic of facial hair on this blog. Well, in the interest of putting some of the beard back in Beards etc, I offer you this short animation from Toonhole.com.

I think the message here is clear: don't shave off your cool facial hair, or you'll turn evil.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Amberian Dawn - Circus Black

Amberian are a female-fronted neoclassical power metal band from Finland. Circus Black is their fourth full-length album since the band's formation in 2006.

Now, I'm going to be very up front about one simple fact right from the start: I rarely like female metal vocals. There are of course several exceptions, but as a general tendency I do not find female singing voices appealing in a metal context.

Now that that's out of the way, I can talk about the actual album. The band's style and image immediately brings to mind an overpowering Nightwish flavor, and I'd say the music pretty much follows suit. All the instrumentation is carried out with skill and precision, and the compositions are quite pretty as metal goes. Backing choral arrangements and dramatic, gothic keyboards fill in a lot of the space in the genrally fairly open mix. The guitar work is very reserved on some tracks, seeming to disappear entirely for far too long, but then in other places it steps into center stage for entire tracks. In both cases, it's played with extraordinary skill but not a great deal of character. The drums and bass serve to enhance the ebb and flow as the music builds to peaks and then settles quietly into valleys. Throughout, the operatic female lead vocals drift and soar over the music.

While there is nothing wrong with the material here from a purely technical standpoint, I do have some personal issues with it. For one thing the overly clean and precise instrumentation, shimmering vocals, and crystal clear production are completely devoid of any traces of grit. This music doesn't just sound clean, it sounds downright sterile. The guitar often crosses the line over into wankery (like on the track "Rivalry Between Good and Evil"), so fans of Petrucci and Malmsteen should enjoy it, but many listeners will probably just find it annoying. And the vocals, ugh, the vocals. Yes, they're pretty. Yes, she can clearly sing. But again, I really dislike flowery operatic vocals in my metal. And, as well performed as they are, they have relatively little variety and they show scant signs of any genuine passion. The singing, like the rest of their sound, all just feels very superficially pretty.

Grade: C+
If you're a big Nightwish fan you'll probably like this. It's definitely not my cup of tea, though. In my opinion, it's so devoid of personality that it feels like the metal equivalent of a Celine Dion concert.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reverence - The Asthenic Ascension

Reverence are a French experimental industrial black metal band that formed in the late 1990s and started releasing material a few years later. This is their fourth full-length album, and it came out last month.

When I put this on, I had the feeling I really wasn't going to like it. The first track seemed so passively uninteresting that I barely even noticed when it finished. It had simply lost my attention and faded into the background. I was afraid the entire album would have this effect, but fortunately things picked up as it went. One thing that didn't really change, though, was the weirdly mellow and soothing sound of the guitar. The riffs were often sharp and fast, but in many other places they took on a slower, more melodic sound and the tone remained surprisingly smooth and reverb-heavy regardless of the pace. This contrasted distinctly with he vocals, which were belched out in a harsh, distorted snarl and stood out as clearly the most hostile element in the music. There were also some chants and even clean vocals sprinkled around that provided some vocal variety. The drumming joined the two at the mid point, fast and precise with an aggressive edge that stopped just short of an outright pummeling. The bass is basically hidden in the background, but that's not particularly surprising.

Throughout the record, the band seems to shift between three primary sounds. In one, the riffs are very tight and fast, clinging together in a frigid black metal wall. The drumming in these places blazes away in typical black metal speed demon style, and the overall effect is definitely most in line with their evident black metal roots. In the second sound, there is a good deal more space. The guitar plays slower, ringing metallic notes over top of scattered drum fills and the odd patch of vocals. This sound is more eerie and mechanical, like an abandoned factory. I might even go so far as to call it doom at times. The third sound is almost symphonic in nature, with choral background strains and a tendency toward less extreme vocals. In these places, an occasional soaring guitar solo would emerge and carry the song forward into its next transition. Despite the fact that many of the tracks started out sounding very similar, the constant fluid transitions between these different general sounds helped keep things continually interesting.

There are some dull patches here and there on this record, places were the band seems to be killing time in between different more interesting segments. This may be an intentional way of maintaining a certain pace, though it feels like many of the tracks could be strengthened with some light editing cuts. The total album length is nearly 53 minutes with several tracks over 7 minutes long, and I think that if it were to clock in somewhere closer to 45 minutes it would be much tighter and more effective. With that said, I don't have any other major complaints, and the overall effect of the album is quite good.

Grade: B
An interesting take on industrial black metal that verges on doom in some places. Could stand to be tightened up, but is nonetheless an enjoyable listen.

Monday, May 14, 2012

How to Spot a Bad Critic

As those of you who read this blog somewhat regularly are aware, I review albums. Sometimes those reviews are very negative and critical. I try to be as accurate as possible and provide useful information about how I reacted to the material, not so much to justify my own opinions or to provide input to the bands themselves (whom I generally assume don't know or care what I have to say about their work), but rather to aid my fellow music fans in their searches for music that will be of interest to them. It's true that my reviews have gotten back to the bands in several cases, and it's pleasant to think that my meager assessment might have some tiny effect on their future recordings, but I doubt it. Whether I'm aiming at influencing the artists themselves or not, though, there are still good ways to be constructive in writing a review, and there are very nonconstructive ways to go about doing it too.

Tonight I read this new blog post by the creator of the very successful webcomic Goblins. It came from the artist's point of view, and it was focused on the idea of how an content creator of any variety can tell which critics to listen to and which critics to ignore. In particular, it discussed negative reviews and criticisms. In the post, he gave a list of 14 ways to spot poor critics. Most of the items on the list I've seen many many times in reviews on Amazon, Youtube, Metal Archives, etc. On really bad days I may even have strayed onto the fringes of a couple myself, though I think I've avoided any flagrant fouls. I found the post interesting to consider as a sort of constructive criticism of giving constructive criticism, and for anyone thinking about writing reviews (or for people already frequently writing them) I think it is worth looking at as a handy checklist of bad habits to avoid. If you see yourself or your reviews in there, it might be time to think about retooling your approach to writing critical reviews.

Excuses and Sideburns

I'd originally hoped to get another album review up last week, but that didn't end up happening. Instead, I was out of town for several days. I also had to do some wrestling with my landlord when I got back, though that's been resolved semi-satisfactorily, and I also just finished writing another guest review for Full Metal Attorney which will probably appear over there some time later this month. It's been a long, stressful day and I'm glad it's finally winding down to a close.

So yeah, that's why I didn't put up another album review over these past several days. As compensation for the delay, I present you with this photo of the new look I'm currently test-driving. After all, this is a blog named after facial hair, and it's been a while since mine last made an appearance.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Wodensthrone - Curse

Wodensthrone are a British black metal outfit who formed in 2005. At least the Metal Archives categorize them that way, though I think the classification may be somewhat incomplete. Last month they released this, their second full-length album, following their 2009 debut "Loss". The group, as their name implies, draw their lyrical themes largely from Norse mythology. Other branches of old Germanic culture work their way in as well, though, particularly those which played a role in ancient Britain. They claim to have spiritual practices and beliefs linked to these old pagan systems, so in contrast with many Viking-esque bands they take their subject matter at least somewhat seriously.

The music itself falls into that that black hole of ambiguity that lies on the highly debatable boundaries between black, pagan, and Viking metal. Rather than simply lying there in the middle ground, though, it drifts from one to the next. Some tracks, like "The Storm" seem to fully qualify as outright black metal, while others like the lengthy closer "The Name of the Wind" seem more like pagan metal, featuring a somewhat progressive edge. There are even some places that seem to briefly approach melodeath. These shifts do a good deal to keep the album interesting, as their sound never settles into a rut.

Throughout, the guitar riffs are very effective: cold and often slightly haunting. They are not, however, confined to the slicing thinness of Norwegian black metal. The keyboards are, for the most part, employed tastefully and effectively. It's easy to go overboard in that department, so it's nice that they've managed to keep a healthy balance. The drums stand out as having a very full tone for an album in the black metal sphere, and they are played with variety and skill befitting the style and tempo shifts that occur over the course of the record. The vocals are likewise highly adaptable and effective, with hoarse black metal shrieks in one track and meaty, mid-range death growls in the next. Some background effects like howling winds, in addition to simulated traditional instruments, are used to solid effect in different places as well. The production is good, leaving a little grit and fuzz but allowing the instruments to be clearly audible with the unsurprising exception of the bass.

This is a long album, clocking in at over an hour despite having only eight tracks (seven if you exclude the thirty-nine-second intro). It should come as no surprise, then, that the tracks generally don't move at a terribly hurried pace. There are energetic passages, but for the most part the music is more about maintaining a particular mood than about pummeling the listener. This might make the album feel a bit too slow for some, though personally I find great pleasure in allowing the songs to unfold.

Grade: A-
Very good, very interesting Viking/pagan/black metal with excellent handling of mood and fluid changes in tempo.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Saint Vitus - Lillie: F-65

At the end of last month, the doom legends Saint Vitus released their first studio album in 17 years, Lillie: F-65. They've got Scott "Wino" Weinrich taking back over on vocals from Scott Reagers. Both men have long histories with the band, but I've personally always preferred Wino, so I'm glad to see him back for this.

It's difficult, when a band hasn't released any new material in nearly two decades, to properly calibrate one's expectations. It seems obvious that the group's glory days are behind them, and that anything new they offer us now will be hard pressed to enter into the musical canon alongside their classic material. Beyond that, though, it's impossible to say. The new work could be strong, recalling the band's former glory, but it could also be an absolute train wreck. In this case, I'm inclined to say this is the former.

Saint Vitus have, in my opinion, been pretty successful in recapturing the sound and feel of their late-80s recordings. The guitar riffs are stylistically right out of their classic doom works, and the crazily distorted guitar solos still pop out of the tracks from time to time. The drumming is still reserved yet effective. Wino's vocals sound as good as ever, but that's not terribly surprising since he's never really stopped producing records over the years since his departure from the band. All in all, it's a very solid record that captures what any Saint Vitus fan would hope for in a come-back album.

Naturally this does mean a few other things as well. At this point, nothing the album does even approaches breaking new ground. The songs are new, but they all sound like something we've heard from the band before. Of course nobody hopes that an old favorite will reunite to produce something experimental and strange, and that severely limits where a new record by an old group can really go. So that leaves us with an album that satisfies expectations, but which doesn't bring any surprises or innovations to the table.

Grade: B+
Rock solid old-school doom straight from the masters. If you like old Saint Vitus you'll like this, if you don't then you won't.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Avengers

So, last night I went to the midnight opening of The Avengers because I'm a nerd and I like that sort of thing. Turns out it was a bigger event than I had expected, the theater had it playing on 10 screens and had started seating people hours in advance. I guess in retrospect I should had expected this, since Marvel has been building to this movie since Iron Man came out four years ago.

Anyway, the movie was a ton of fun. It got a surprising number of laughs, the action looked great, and it didn't feel nearly as long as it actually is. Going in, the movie had three major assets it could employ, and it used them all.

The first was the interplay between characters. This isn't a team that all come from the same environment and have a sort of joint identity the way the X-Men do. Rather, it's a team of individuals from very different settings who typically function independently and have their own unique identities. They are all accustomed to being the star, and now they're sharing the stage. This created the potential for some entertaining banter and conflicts which the filmmakers (I guess mostly Joss Whedon) wisely capitalized on as fully as possible.

The second was a luxury few movies enjoy: freedom from exposition. Four of the six team members have already had at least one movie of their own, and even the lesser-known pair of Black Widow and Hawkeye have made appearances elsewhere. Because all the characters with superhuman powers have already had their origins and characters explored independently, there was no need to burn time on any of that here. The result was that the movie could get to the interesting stuff without having to spend an hour following around some pre-super individual just so we could get to know them.

The third, which is ways is more a condition than an outright advantage, was that nobody expected the movie to take itself too seriously. Christopher Nolan has turned the Batman films into dark, brooding, psychosocial commentaries that give intellectuals and film critics something weighty to discuss. Meanwhile, Iron Man showboats, Hulk smashes, and Thor runs around with a big hammer being a comic book Viking. Whedon could have been pretentious and tried to appeal to the intellectual crowd, but he knew that this movie was supposed to be the big, campy payoff at the end of a long trail of breadcrumbs, so instead he gave the audience what it came there for. I know that makes it sound empty, or maybe even stupid, and I don't really want to give that impression. This was no Transformers 2. That said, it wisely focused its cleverness on the interactions between the characters, since that's really where the greatest potential for entertainment was to be found.

All in all, I loved it. I'm not going to make any claims that it was a "great film" or anything, but I think I had more fun watching it than any other superhero movie I've seen.