Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Game On! "Guardian Saga" for iPhone

With all the powerful, fancy technologies available today, gaming has risen from the status of "Slightly less than nerdy" to a very mainstream, acceptable thing to do.  People play Farmville and Bejeweled on their Facebook accounts, Angry Birds on their phones, and Wii Sports with their families.  Where gaming was once a bastion of geekery everywhere, it has become so ubiquitous now that it's becoming harder to remember the time when geeky kids (like myself long ago) gathered around a TV and a Nintendo or Sega console to fend off hordes of demons, take out rival gangs, stomp on walking mushrooms and turtles, and collect golden rings at high speeds through a grassy green area.  Indeed, those halcyon days of childhood gaming bliss are sadly no more.

What we have today is a group of very powerful game consoles that do their best to impress you with realistic graphics, sound that can match the latest blockbuster movie, and gameplay mechanics that are not always easy to pick up when initially sitting down to play.  Now, don't get me wrong: I enjoy the impressive nature of today's games.  I like the faux-realism of a title like inFAMOUS (makes me a want a PS3 real bad!), and a title like L.A. Noir reminds me that we have come so far in the pursuit of realism within gaming.  But, call me crazy, sometimes I long for the simpler days of yore where small sprites that barely resembled the character they were portraying jaunted across the screen in pursuit of the big bad foe and the "action sounds" of a game like Double Dragon sounded more like snapping wafers than snapping necks.

Thankfully, I am not the only one who feels this way, as the Wii Virtual Console service would attest, as well as the string of casual games available on various smartphone platforms.  Not to mention the handheld gaming market is still a place where more retro-styled games can happily exist without being tampered with too much.  So while there have been a number of retro-styled RPG games developed for the smartphone world, none can claim to be as purposefully retro as Guardian Saga for the iPhone.  Indeed, this 8 or 16-bit wonder (developed by 9th Bit Games) is the most retro-styled game I have played so far on the iPhone, and is one of the most enjoyable games I've played on any smartphone platform (yes, even against Angry Birds!).

Guardian Saga is a nice amalgamation of classic RPG gameplay and slightly updated graphics.  Visually, the game resembles 8-bit classic RPG's, with Dragon Warrior being the primary influence.  Graphically, though Dragon Warrior is the main influence, elements of early Final Fantasy titles also creep in, though everything is much more bold and bright.  The graphics are cleaner than an 8-bit title, so they have a more polished 16-bit look to them, though some of the effects (like the fog over the water) are far too clean even for 16 or 32-bit, so obviously some of the graphical power of the iPhone is used.  Fade-in and fade-out effects are nice, and what little animation there is in the game is done nicely, with that touch of old-school feel to it.  The music in the game is reminiscent of 8-bit RPGs as well, and I'm reminded very much of the GameBoy title Final Fantasy Legend (the original), which actually isn't a true Final Fantasy title, but rather the English translation of Makai Toushi Sa·Ga instead.

I've been walking o're the world map, all the live-long day...

Gameplay is very simple, with lots of map crawling, loads of random, turn-based battles, and talking to NPCs in the various towns and locations.  Conversation with most NPCs is pretty dry, though there are a few funny moments (a redneck girl in one town cracked me up) and a handful of characters that will say more than one sentence to you.  Indeed, these aren't the lengthy conversations that recent RPGs give you, but resemble the kinds of things programmers had to sacrifice when they had only so much memory to work with on a game cartridge.  Overall, this game has a nice clean, bright, familiar but enjoyable graphic appeal to it.

All this fog has to be a harbinger of some kind!

Music is nice in that old chip-tune way, though pretty sparse.  Sound effects are also wonderfully retro, though again, sparse.  The world map is actually fairly decent in size for the relatively small scale/scope of the game Guardian Saga actually is.  Control is fantastic, wich a nice NES-styled see-through "control pad" on the screen (lower-left corner) and then a single "action" button when you need to either talk to an NPC or activate something (like switches in the Earth Shrines).  Directional control with this simplistic method is very fluid and works fantastically.  Battle scenes are directed by simply tapping the option you want to choose (Attack, Magic, or Run) and it does just what you tell it to do - simple, elegant, and it just works.

This enemy is called "Bubbles" - sure doesn't look cute and cuddly!

The menu system (accessible by tapping the stats pop-up in the upper-left corner when remaining stationary) is also intuitive, giving clear indication of what you need access to.  Equipment can be swapped out merely by tapping on the existing equipment you want to replace and picking the new out of the list.  Spells are accessible via the Magic screen, and are available via a single tap.  Items and qeuipment are just as easily reached.  The "Quick Save" option is useful if you need to save somewhere outside of a town (you normally save at the local pub, of all places), though it does exit to the main menu when you choose that option.

Yeah, I got your options right here.

So with all this great gameplay and content, what's not to like?  While I applaud the designers for what they've done here, there are a few improvements that could be made.  Firstly, the music and sound effects are incredibly sparse.  There should be more of both, and the music should change based on being in different locales more than just world map music, cave/dungeon music, and "the storyline is advancing via cutscene" music.  The few sound effects are good but there just needs to be more of them.  Also, while the game is easy to pick up and relatively easy to play, there just aren't enough options - a larger world map would be good with more towns and a bit more "easing" into weapon and armor upgrades.  After your first 2 upgrades things start to get really expensive and you have to do a lot of grinding just to build up enough cash to get that sword or armor you want, which is a bit more tedious than it needs to be.  Random battles are always a point of contention with traditional RPG games, and while the battle frequency is nicely balanced, I feel like the battles could be better somehow.  I also feel like the game is a bit short - I'm only about 4 hours or so in to the game and I'm already about to down the 3rd Guardian (out of 4), so it seems like even the shortest early console RPGs had more gameplay than this.  I would really love to see a sequel to this game with a larger map, more music & sounds, more varied areas/landscapes, a longer and more involved story, and more NPC interactions (with more humor).

Despite my few qualms with the game design, this is a well constructed adventure that really evokes that feeling of late night Dragon Warrior  or Final Fantasy marathons, which ultimately is what this game appears designed to do.  It takes me back to my childhood where RPGs were somewhat daunting and intimidating (before they really started to interest me), so they make me recall the Friday night sleepovers at my best friend's house, and me staying up late to try Dragon Warrior after he fell asleep, only to be bested by the stupid blobs.  This is a fun adventure that is well worth the $1.99 9th Bit Games is charging for it, even though I snagged my copy free via the FreeAppADay service.  If you have any interest in classic RPG gaming or want to relive the early stages of the genre's heyday, this is the adventure for you.  Highly recommended.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Album of the Moment - Slaughter's "Stick It To Ya"

In the late 1980's, record companies were quick to try and cash-in on the growing trend of "glam metal" bands.  This crop of hard rock and lite-metal bands copied the sleezy 1980's Sunset Strip scene as much as possible, resulting in a somewhat massive glut of bands playing this style of music.  From 1988 until sometime in 1991, MTV was flooded with groups trying to carve out their own small piece of the pie.  Thankfully, with all the bands copping this style during this period, there are plenty of bands worth your time and money.  One such band was Slaughter.

Despite the oversaturation of the market with everything from White Lion and Warrant to Femme Fetale, there are plenty of talented groups who could not only play their instruments sufficiently well, but also write good songs that would stay with you.  Slaughter was one of those bands, at least initially.  While over the years their ability to write a catchy, memorable song faded somewhat, their first couple albums showed a band with great promise, talent, and enough attitude to make up for what they lacked in sheer musical chops.  Slaughter's debut, "Stick It To Ya" is a prime example of why record companies were hopping on this bandwagon left and right.

SITY is blessed with an abundant sense of melody, solid performances, inspired vocal wailing by Mark, and songwriting that has enough panache to do more than just get stuck in your head for a couple days.  Some of these songs ring in my ears for weeks after listening to them, and when I haven't pulled the album out in months I can still hear choruses or get parts of songs stuck in my head.  So while Slaughter might not be at the top of the glam metal heap, they certainly held their own with this album.  Add to that Tim Kelly's fretboard fireworks and you have a recipe for success.

Unfortunately for Slaughter, future albums would suffer from too many songs (The Wild Life), "sameyness" (Fear No Evil), and somewhat stilted direction changes (Revolution), but this album is nearly all magic.  Aside from a couple tracks that get way too corny in the lyrics department ("She Wants More" and "Loaded Gun" come to mind), most of the songs on this release are top-notch.  From the radio-ready ballads "Fly to the Angels" or "You Are the One" to the rocking of album cuts like "Eye to Eye" or "Burnin' Bridges", this set of songs is quite strong and showcases the band's talents on all fronts.  Mark has never sounded better (with the possible exception of the Vinnie Vincent Invasion track "Love Kills"), and the band is tight and vital.  So while I still think other 1990 bands/releases are stronger or have more staying power (see Firehouse's eponymous debut), this remains a highlight of the pre-grunge 1990's rock scene.  Recommended.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Gamut - tonight's playlist!!!

Great tunes in the show tonight as always!  Tune in at 9 PM EST via http://www.untombed.com to listen in!

Tonight's playlist!
Impending Doom - Children of Wrath (Deathcore)
Holy Soldier - The Pain Inside of Me (Commercial Metal/Ballad)
Selfmindead - No Sense (Hardcore)
Servant - Jesus Star (Classic Rock)
Crashdog - Brainfill (Punk)
Beloved - Into Your Arms (Modern Rock/Emo)
The Echoing Green - Redemption (Synthpop)
Starflyer 59 - Something Evil (Alternative Rock)
Antestor - A Sovereign Fortress (Black Metal)
Jetenderpaul - Breaking Candy Hearts (Indie Pop)
Letter 7 - Stand on the Rock (Classic Metal)
Ceremonial Sacred - Blood Storm (Black Metal)
Post Mortum - Burning Tears (Nu-Metal)
Venia (FIN) - A Sigh of Redemption (Female-fronted Power Metal)
Deus Invictus - The Open Sky (Progressive Extreme Metal)
Petra - Disciple (Classic Rock)
Guardian - Send a Message (Hard Rock)
Feast Eternal - Ashes to Dust (Death Metal)
Bloodgood - Stand in the Light (Classic Metal)
Showbread - The Vulture (Raw Rock)
Seraiah - No More Lies (Hard Rock)
Barry McGuire - Face to Face (Classic Rock)
Ruby Joe - Fast Lane Sinner (Rockabilly)
Tefilla - Exorators Chapel (Technical Extreme Metal)
Tourniquet - Acid Head (Progressive Thrash Metal)
Audiovision - The Rock Of My Soul (Power Metal)
Ken Tamplin - Suspicious Eyes (Hard Rock)
Joy Electric - Forever is a Place (Synthpop)
The Last Hope - Consequences of Transgression (Hardcore Punk)
Sacred Warrior - Day Of the Lord (Power Metal)
Step Cousin - God In a Box (Thrash/Groove Metal)
ManufraQture - MasQuerade Ball (Industrial)
Goodnight Star - He's My God (Synthpop)
Dark Lay Still - Angel of Light (Melodic Black Metal)
Flesh Denial - A Soundtrack to the Apocalypse (Grindcore)
Grave Robber - Reanimator (Horror Punk)
Deitiphobia - Clean (Industrial)
Angel 7 - Power of Believe and Love (Black/Power Metal)
Lost Dogs - Be My Hiding Place (Folk/Rock)
As They Sleep - The Unseen (Melodic Death Metal/Deathcore)
Outlander - Guilt (Progressive Hard Rock)
Echoes the Fall - Black and White (Modern Heavy Rock)
Taketh - Not Quite Right (Melodic Death Metal)

Check out the Untombed website @ www.untombed.com !  You can tune in easily via the web-based player on the front page, link to the stream via your regular audio player, read album reviews, get music news, and link up to other great resources, including Divine Metal Distro, your one-stop source for all things Christian rock and metal!  Don't forget, station chat has moved to Untombed.com at the bottom of the site, so make sure you sign up or use a Facebook or Twitter account to sign in and chat w/ me and other listeners during the show!

Alternate links to listen to the stream in a separate player (Winamp recommended, though Real Player, VLC, iTunes and others work as well):

Here's the link for Windows Media Player:

Also our stream can now be heard on Nintendo Wii! If you have a Wii, here is what you do:

1.go on the net via your Wii console
2. type "www.Wiihear.com" into your browser address box
3. type "" into the Search box
4. Click the play arrow

It can take 5-10 seconds to load up & buffer, so please be patient when using this feature :)

You can also stream the station via xyzmp3.com on your PSP, PS3, Wii, iPhone, or even your TiVo!  Plus you can stream the show via your Windows Mobile phone with the free GSPlayer application!  Listen in from your Android device via the "A Online Radio" or StreamFurious applications, as well as the new beta version of Winamp for the Android platform!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Best Music You’ve Never Heard = The Hatters

Sometimes a band comes along that is so great they seem to coast right over the top of the music scene and don’t touch down long enough to get noticed beyond a passing glance.  They are incredibly talented musicians and good songwriters, but for whatever reason, the public consciousness just never gets wind of them.  Despite critical acclaim and having connections with other bands that have already garnered some attention, they still don’t catch a break.  They may even tour with a band making waves, which should open doors, but sadly, it never happens.  All of what I’ve just written perfectly describes The Hatters, a forgotten band from New York that should have blown the doors off the music industry, but sadly remains relegated to bargain bins and a few glowing mentions on the Internet.

The Hatters don’t sound like a band from New York, so that may be part of their problem.  Rather, they sound like a band squarely from the South, but not in the Lynyrd Skynyrd sense – think more Allman Brothers.  But that’s not the whole story – no, their sound combines elements of bluesy southern and classic rock, to be sure, but they have a “jam band” quality about them that gives them a more expansive palette to draw from.  Plus they add some of the (then) modern elements that make them relevant for their time, plus their songs and presentation are such that when you hear them, they stick with you.

The Hatters started out as The Mad Hatters somewhere in around 1989, and went through a handful of logos and iterations before the stable line-up of Adam Hirsh, Adam Evans, Billy Jay Stein, Jon Kaplan, and Tommy Kaelin began to make waves among the East Coast rock scene in the early 90’s.  They were signed to Atlantic Records and released a live album called “Live Thunderchicken”.  It’s a risky move, releasing a live album before any studio material comes out, and this too, may have been part of the band’s downfall.  Atlantic must have thought the band was so impressive live that they felt it was appropriate to do so.  I don’t have “Thunderchicken” yet, but by all accounts it’s a stellar recording of the band’s live performances, and some regard it as their best release on account of their “Jam Band” status.  I prefer to think of The Hatters as more a “rootsy” rock band, alongside then contemporaries like Spin Doctors, Blues Traveller, and to some extent, Collective Soul.

I'm not exactly sure what a "thunderchicken" is supposed to be...

Where my Hatters story starts is the band’s proper full-length studio debut, the mouthful-titled “The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord”.  While some may be turned off by the overly long album title and cheesy artwork, I was immediately drawn to it and when I looked at the album sleeve in the used CD store, I immediately thought to myself, “This artwork and album title are so awesome – I have to hear this!”  So I got the cashier to pull the CD out of the drawer and let me listen to a few moments of it in the demo player.  Within 2 or 3 tracks, I was loving what I was hearing, and I knew I had to have it.  I plunked down the money for the disc (along with a couple other releases) and went on home.  In the coming weeks, I spun “Avocado Overlord” countless times, taking it in and enjoying every moment of it as I listened to the band sound so confident with their songwriting, presentation, and just their whole vibe.  There wasn’t anything else out there that sounded quite like The Hatters, despite a number of other bands having a sort of retro-tinged sound that recalled the bluesier side of the 70’s rock scene.

I'm not sure what an Avocado Overlord is either, but it must rule!

I have continued to spin “Avocado Overlord” frequently over the last 12 or 13 years since I first bought the CD.  I nearly bought the follow-up album “You Will Be You” on several occasions, though I was still so enamored with the debut I felt like anything else would be a let-down.  I was partially right, as the band’s 2nd and final studio effort just couldn’t quite compare to the debut.  It’s a fine album on its own, but compared to its predecessor, it doesn’t have the songs, and tries a bit too hard to capture a bit of the commercial flavor some of their peers had, though without losing what made them unique.  They succeeded musically, despite the obvious shift toward a more “alternative” and slightly chunkier guitar sound at times, but at the end of the day, the songs just aren’t as catchy, memorable, or well-written as on the debut.  Some of the lyrics (“The Naked Song” in particular) are also a bit clumsy, which didn’t help.  Despite these issues, “You Will Be You” isn’t what I’d call sophomore slump, it’s just not quite as strong as the debut.

Well of course I'll be me, who else would I try to impersonate?

Having said that, most people probably gloss right over this band’s releases in the bargain bin or the “H” section at their favorite CD store, and I’m guessing their iTunes and Amazon digital sales are abysmal, given the band’s lack of exposure.  This is a true shame, because “Avocado Overlord” in and of itself is one of the greatest under-head rock albums of the 90’s, and the band’s other work deserves to be heard as well.  If you find “Avocado Overlord” in the $2.99 bin and think to yourself, “It can’t be that good…” think again.  If you pass it up, you’ve made a big mistake and you’ll realize that if you then end up picking it up later, because this is some of the finest bluesy rock ‘n roll you’ll ever hear.

Cinema Fancy – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When the original Planet of the Apes remake was announced, I was a bit skeptical.  Not because I’m some great lover of the originals (I’m not), or because of the usual knee-jerk reaction of, “Here we go again, another remake.”  I was skeptical because it was a remake of a classic, famous movie, with Mark Walberg being cast as the main character.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the man has talent, and has turned into a good actor (despite its dubious origins, his performance in “Rock Star” is quite strong).  But it seemed an odd fit, and an odd time to remake the film or try and reboot the revered franchise.  Still, my wife and I went and saw it in the theater, and though it was bereft of a lot of substance, it was an enjoyable popcorn sci-fi flick with enough B-movie fun to keep it interesting.  The ending of the movie set up the possibility of a sequel, but it never materialized, presumably because the movie’s modest showing at the box office and rather lukewarm reviews probably scared away those who would otherwise have backed a second movie.

Fast forward 10 years later, and we have a pseudo-sequel, though in name only.  Rather than continue with the reboot effort from 2001, 20th Century Fox wisely chose to simply “re-reboot” the franchise again.  This time around, the plot is similar to that of the 1972 film “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (the 4th film in the original saga), and based on how the plot plays out, it seems like a logical place to start.


The plot goes as follows: scientists playing with technologies they don’t fully understand use chimpanzees as the test subjects for a new drug that is supposed to improve mental function as a means of solving deteriorating mental state conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.  In the process, one chimp who receives a particular iteration of the test drug begins to show signs of increased mental capacity, but after a lab accident where the ape appears to “go crazy” the project is scrapped.  It is later discovered that the chimp “went ape” due to the fact that she had just had a baby and was protecting her offspring.  Despite the order from the company’s top dog to put down all the apes after the project failure, the baby ends up the problem (then pet/companion) of head scientist Will Rodman (James Franco).  Will has a stake in the development of the drug because his dad, Charles (played well by John Lithgow), suffers from Alzheimer’s.  Again, despite the order to destroy the experimental drug, Will takes several doses from the lab and uses it on his dad, which at first, gives Charles his mind (and life) back.

I'm not crazy after all!

Everything appears to be going well for Will – he meets a beautiful woman (played by Freida Pinto) who he quickly develops a romantic relationship with, and his dad is himself again with the help of the experimental drug.  He convinces his boss to re-open development of the drug due to the results of his findings with Caesar (the baby chimp he took home).  Things are not as they seem, as is always the case with these stories, and Charles starts to lose his grip on reality again, and when the full-grown chimp Caesar scares the life out of the neighbors and bites off the next-door neighbor’s finger to protect Charles, he is forced to live in a primate facility run by milquetoast John Landon (Brian Cox) until Will can find a way to convince the court to allow Caesar to return home.  During his time in the facility, Caesar pines for home and is at first shunned by the other primates for having clothing and for being the “new guy” in the facility.  The power structure quickly shifts when Caesar learns how to out-smart the other apes and exerts his newfound authority by gaining their trust.  As his stay in the facility lengthens, he becomes disillusioned by it, and visits by Will and Caroline are met with less interest, and eventually he elects to stay in the facility when given the chance to leave when Will comes to pick him up after Charles’ death.

You left me in this dump, you jerk!

Meanwhile, the newly developed version of the retrovirus is found later to be deadly to humans when the primate expert hired by the scientific research firm dies after exposure to the gaseous form of it, and during his health decline he pays a visit to Will (who had since quit his job) to warn him of the effects the drug was having on him.  He sneezes on Will’s neighbor Rodney McKay, er, Mr. Hunsiker (lovable jerk David Hewlett), which sets in motion the events that will trigger widespread transmission of the virus (now airborne) all over the world, since Mr. Hunsiker is an airline pilot.

When Caesar figures out how to escape the confines of the facility he returns home where he steals the latest iteration of the experimental drug out of Will’s refrigerator and uses it to boost the intelligence of all the other primates with the newly developed airborne retrovirus.  This leads to him devising an escape plan for all the residents of the facility, which results in the death of Draco Malfoy, er, Dodge Landon (played by Tom Felton), who works there.  Though this upsets Caesar, he forges ahead with his plan and all the primates escape under his leadership.  They proceed across the golden gate bridge to a large forest where he had previously frolicked before the accident that caused his incarceration.  The police are called out, but Caesar and friends are determined to get to this sanctuary, so they find ways to get around the glut of traffic on the bridge and cause plenty of damage along the way.  Caesar is adamant in his leadership of the others that they not kill humans, though a few casualties always seem to happen.  When the primates do eventually find the forest, their rampage ends, as it appears they are happy just being in their natural environment (or as natural as they are to find in San Francisco, anyway).  Will catches up to them and asks Caesar to come home, and to his shock, Caesar speaks and tells Will that he’s already home.  Will lets Caesar go and live with his new pals in the forest.

"I'm home, Mama.  I mean, Will."

The effects in this movie are really well done – it’s often hard to tell when the primates in the movie are real, and when they are CG, though there are still spots where the CG is obvious.  But as a whole, this movie highlights just how far the technology has come.  James Franco is good as the lead, and delivers a surprisingly emotional performance; one I wasn’t sure he was capable of based solely on his role as Peter Parker’s best friend/nemesis in the recent Spider Man movies.  John Lithgow is great as usual, and does double-duty as the crazy Alzheimer’s patient and Joe Normal when he is on the experimental drug.  Frieda Pinto is lovely, and while the script doesn’t afford her much to work with, she gives a sincere performance.  Felton plays a good American jerk as well as he plays a British one, and Brian Cox can still play a jerk with the best of them.  Of course, David Hewlett is perhaps an even bigger jerk here than he was in Stargate Atlantis, if that’s possible.  Andy Serkis played Caesar, though I’m not sure how much of that was voice-acting and how much actual physical work he did.  I felt like the story was engaging, the plot was believable, given the nature of the previous “Apes” films, and the end of the movie set up nicely the possibility of multiple sequels based upon the transmission of the retrovirus and the possibility that apes all over the world would begin to gain intelligence and rise up against their human captors.

Here’s what I didn’t like.  First, though the movie struck a good balance between caring people and non-caring people contrasted with good apes versus apes in it for only themselves, there was still a bit too much of that air of “animal rights”.  This is highlighted by how the primates are treated by Felton’s character, how Brian Cox’s character doesn’t appear to care about the animals beyond the face-to-face interaction with Will, and how everyone appears to be scared or intimidated by Caesar when he bites off Hensiker’s finger.  Contrast this with Caesar’s insistence that no humans be killed during the escape, and it’s all a bit too “tree hugger” at times.  I think sometimes the Hollywood set tends to forget that animals are animals, and they’d eat you alive if they thought you were their only possibility of a last meal.

Despite this somewhat PC undertone in the film, my wife and I rather enjoyed it and look forward to what the possibility of a sequel might be.  I’d give the film a solid 8 out of 10 for presentation, some action, a well-written script and solid cast, and overall good emotional and character development throughout the story line.  If you’re looking for a late-summer blockbuster, or just a really good sci-fi film that won’t bowl you over with cheese factor, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” just might be your ticket.

Vinyl Confessions - Grave Robber releases

I love vinyl albums.  I love the large-scale artwork, the spinning of the album on the platter, and the sound that emanates from my speakers when a record is playing.  I also love the collect-ability of vinyl and how limited edition releases can enhance an artist or band's discography beyond just standard CD's, digital releases, or even cassettes.  Vinyl is the traditional collector's choice of format, despite the arrival of the 21st century and the Internet Age.  While vinyl never went away (the underground rock, punk and hardcore scenes still thrive on this), the mainstream has now embraced vinyl once again.  The problem with this is that most current mainstream vinyl releases are of the "audiophile" variety, i.e. they are overly expensive 180-gram vinyl that costs 2-3 times as much as either a CD or digital release would cost.  Now, I'm all for high-fidelity audio, but I don't think most folks who listen to Nirvana or Metallica are the proud owners of $5,000+ audio systems with $2,000 turntables that contain diamond styli.  I'm certainly not in that camp, and I suspect I'm not alone by a long shot.

So it is with great joy that a vinyl lover like myself can find great deals on classic albums (via thrift stores or second-hand record shops), as well as when current artists release new music on vinyl, whether those releases are included in the original "run" of an album, or whether they are a special or limited edition situation that happens some time later.  Even more fun is when a band puts out a vinyl release that has that extra something special that makes it either more fun, more collectible, or just more desirable to own.  Hand numbering, free digital downloads included, CD-R copies of the release as a bonus, etc.  These are all great features of a modern vinyl release.  But at the end of the day, the vinyl lover has to be satisfied with the purchase of the vinyl album, since the amount of physical space that record takes up has to be worth sacrificing to own it.


Thankfully, the recently issued triumvirate of Grave Robber albums are worth the space on your shelf.  Kudos to Vinyl Remains for flying the indie vinyl release flag, and for issuing these 3 beauties.  Grave Robber's debut album, "Be Afraid" checks in first with new cover art, as well as a delicious golden see-through vinyl.  The band's 2nd album "Inner Sanctum" is released as well, and despite having the same artwork as the CD release, looks great at that size and sports a snazzy see-through red platter.  And finally, the recent compilation "Exhumed" is here, also with original artwork, but in a wonderful bright green see-through record that ties in nicely with the green logo on the front.  In addition, each release includes a 2-sided semi-gloss print that has artwork and album credits printed on them.

The albums sound great in vinyl form, though I am biased because I already enjoy the music contained therein.  My audio setup I usually use (at my office) isn't high-end by any stretch - I have a table-top "retro" stereo unit w/ a top-side turntable and then have a nice set of Logitech speakers plugged into that with great frequency range and response, and a nice subwoofer included in the package.  So while a bit of the "vinyl hiss" is present due to my somewhat lacking configuration, it still sounds great while it's spinning.  The music comes across sufficiently loud like the original CDs do, with no additional mastering evident.  From a sound perspective, these things don't disappoint.  The see-through colored vinyl albums are a treat, and though most indie vinyl re-issues or special editions are released in either colored see-through or the sort of opaque "tie-dye" style nowadays, I am still giddy like a school boy when I see the bright colored records slide out of the sleeves.  The retro graphics styling on the vinyl center portion is also great, giving it that sort of late 50's, early 60's feel.

Don't they just look tasty?!

Here are the few (minor) negative things.  First, they're not numbered.  Yeah, that's a small quibble, but with the indie vinyl market being a specialized as it is, it's always a treat to have them numbered, even if they're not individually so by hand, but if the sleeve mentions how many copies were pressed.  Secondly, there are no lyrics.  Why include nice semi-gloss printout sheets if you're not going to include the lyrics?  It's true that Grave Robber's lyrics are pretty easy to hear and make out, but I still think including lyrics would have been a nice touch.  Third, there's no download option.  This is also a very small issue, but one that should be noted.  If you're going to purchase the full album in vinyl format, it's a good idea to provide a download of the item.  This doesn't affect me personally, because I already own all 3 of these on CD (the 1st and 3rd of which I own in multiple versions), but for vinyl lovers looking for their fix, in today's world, it's also a good idea to include something they can throw on their chosen media player.  I don't consider the exclusion of the band's cover of "Children of the Grave" to be an issue (available on the CD version of "Inner Sanctum") because the vinyl probably wouldn't have had enough space to include it.

Despite my minor complaints, these are a MUST for Grave Robber fans who are also fans of vinyl.  If you already have these albums in either digital or CD format, and you're not a collector or vinyl fan, they're probably not an essential purchase, especially if you don't own a turntable to play them on.  The exception to that rule is if you're purchasing them again to help support the band, to which I say bravo.  Vinyl needs to stay alive for more than just the collector's market (and nerds like me), and this band is too important not to support.  Their message is important, their approach is unique, and everything about their music is done right.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Album of the Moment - Onmyouza's "Kongo Kyubi"

Those who have read my blog in an earlier post know that I'm an Onmyouza fanboy.  I don't have all their albums yet (due, in part, to the exorbitant prices one pays to import stuff from Japan), but with the 5 albums I own and the DVD I paid through the nose to acquire (legally, of course), it's safe to say I've spent as much on Onmyouza in a short time as I've spent on many American and European acts to acquire a much more complete discography, and in some instances much more.  Be that as it may, my undying love for this band continues as I go through all their albums again and prepare to watch the DVD when I get some time to myself in the evening.

That said, as I've been going back through their last 5 albums again, I finished yesterday and today with their most recent studio album, 2009's "Kongo Kyubi".  I make no bones about the fact that I think the band's 2006 release "Garyotensei" is the black sheep of the Onmyouza discography.  That's partially because I think the album is disjointed, not flowing well from the first half of the album or so to the final "suite".  The first few songs are a bit too "organic" in their approach, which doesn't fully work for a band like this that is steeped in such bombast.  The more overblown, "epic" tracks at the end aren't the band's best either, with some interesting "dialogue" going on (all in Japanese, of course) and a lot of overly emotive vocal work by the incomparable Kuroneko, but it's more style-over-substance than usual with Onmyouza in that instance.  The band has a knack for balancing their over-the-top style and flair with great compositions, catchy melodies and songs, and spot-on performances.  I also think the album was a bit too lop-sided with Matatabi's vocals versus the rest of their discography, which is slanted a bit more in the direction of Kuroneko's vocals.  It's not that I dislike Matatabi's voice, but Kuroneko is the primary vocal attraction, and his performances on "Garyotensei" are lacking compared to the band's other work.

Who wouldn't want to hear this lovely lady sing?!

So why all that treatise when this post is about "Kongo Kyubi"?  Well, in many ways, this album is much like "Garyotensei", in that it's a bit atypical for the band.  "Mugen Houyou" (in my opinion) is the band's pinnacle, and most of their strongest work has echoed that album's pacing, structure, and flow.  Witness 2007's "Maou Taiten" and 2008's "Chimimouryou" (a strong contender for my 2nd favorite Onmyouza release) as evidence of that.  So a year after the band's strongest album in 4 years, they release a disc that at times echoes their 2006 "black sheep" album.  "Kongo Kyubi" sees the band trying some new things, like the interesting melodic approach in "Baku", as well as some slightly more poppy bits throughout the album.  Don't worry - there's plenty of crunchy metal here, but with fantastic singles like the highly melodic "Aoki Dokugan" it's hard to fault the band for this approach.  They also return to the "suite" concept at the end of the album, with the "Kumikyoku Kyuubi" trilogy, but rather than the overblown and overwrought material of "Garyotensei", this material is more succinct, more focused, and far more engaging overall.  I think the band recalls some of the more "happy" melodic metal of their past as well, because a couple tracks remind me of their early single "Mezame".

In any event, this is an album not to be missed, either by fans of the band or melodic metal fans in general.  I know the band is working on new material, as they've released a single since this album was released, and from what I understand another album is in the works.  I look forward to new material, and while this may not be the way I would end things if they don't keep moving forward, it's certainly not a band swansong if that was the case.  I suspect they're still alive and well, just taking a bit more time with their next album than they have in previous years.  Regardless, "Kongo Kyubi" comes recommended.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Japan FTW! Chobits!

Anime and manga are uniquely tied together.  This is something that, in Japan, is evident by the quick succession with which anime gets turned into manga, and vice verse.  Across the water in America, Hollywood rushes (these days) to cash in on comic book heroes by turning those Intellectual Properties into money-making blockbusters, usually to the delight of casual fans, while hardcore fans are left wondering why someone who didn't understand or fully respect the source material was given the chance to tarnish that IP's reputation.  Saturday-morning cartoon iterations of popular comic books often miss the boat as well, despite occasionally making enough of their own spin on the characters (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being a good example) that they turn out to be a quality product of their own.  Still, we in the US often get the short end of the stick where it pertains to seeing our favorite multi-color print characters on either the small or large screens.

But as I said, in Japan, it seems they have a much more succinct vision of how these things are supposed to work.  Manga isn't just "comic books" over in Japan: it's a giant industry.  There are plenty of manga written and designed for the pre-teen and teen set, to be sure, but the range of manga is across the spectrum, from the cutesy Hello Kitty to very graphic depictions of violence and adult themes, along with a whole range of hentai (pornographic manga).  The anime world is very much the same, as there is a lot of crossover between the two, so the entire spectrum of tastes are catered to.  For every dead-serious anime like Gundam Wing, there is something like The Slayers that doesn't take itself entirely seriously and has plenty of fan service to please specific genre aficionados.

The real trick is getting a film, OVA, or series to translate well (and accurately) to the page, and the same is true for translating manga to celluloid.  Often with American media, a comic book will not often translate well to either cartoon, straight-to-video/DVD adaptation, or live-action movie because the original creator either isn't involved, has no say over the direction his/her IP takes in other media, or is just plain ignored when making suggestions or trying to help direct how their characters are brought to life.  There are exceptions (the Harry Potter series of films seem to please most fans of the novels, despite some changes), but the end result is often mixed.  Sometimes that is the case with Japanese media as well, though there are times when it is purposeful from the creator/author because they either desire a divergent story line, or sometimes they implement their own revisionist history.

So for fans of either an anime made into manga and the reverse, it's always a treat when those involved can translate one medium into another successfully and be relatively true to the story and characters.  Chobits is a great example of this, from what I've observed thus far.  I must readily admit I haven't yet read the manga series, though my wife owns the 2-volume graphic novel set. But we've been watching the Chobits anime series via the Netflix instant service (LOVE IT!), and my wife is telling me it's pretty faithful to the manga, right down to the dialogue being word-for-word in many instances.

For the uninitiated, Chobits is a story about Hideki Motosuwa, an 18-year old boy who is trying to get into college but has been rejected from the university he applied to.  As such, he moves to Tokyo to attend a prep school that will get him ready for the entrance exam he'll need to pass (and score high enough on) so he can reapply to a college.  As a farm boy Hideki is naive and awkward in the big city, so quirkiness like talking to himself (which provides the narration for the anime) and his social anxiety around females in general make him stand out like a bit of a sore thumb.  Add to that his complete lack of knowledge about technology, and he has some learning and adapting to do.  Specifically, he only knows of (but has never owned or used) "Persocoms", personal computers that are designed to look like people (usually beautiful young women).  He wants one, but they are very expensive and he can't afford one.  Fast forward a day or two in Tokyo and he stumbles across one laying in the trash not far from his apartment building.  He picks up the Persocom and takes it back to his apartment, not realizing he dropped a vital information disk when leaving the scene.

The Persocom, who you come to know as "Chi" (because that's all she says at first) is an adorable long-haired blonde "girl" who immediately develops an attachment to her new owner, and thus the story develops with Hideki learning whatever he can about Persocoms, and with Chi learning as much as she can.  Through the first couple episodes, Hideki discovers Chi is a famed "Chobits" Persocom, a series of custom-made units that have greater capabilities than standard Persocoms and have some ability to develop their own identity, like a sentient being.

"Hideki, welcome home!"

Hideki sees Chi as much as a person as he would any actual young lady, so this presents some rather hilarious and awkward scenarios as he learns how to interact with her, and as he tries to get clothing for her - indeed, the sequence where he tries for days on end to go into the store to purchase a pair of underwear for Chi so she can appear more modest is quite the knee-slapper.  Hideki's inexperience with the opposite sex is further illustrated by his interactions with Yumi, his boss' daughter (who appears to like Hideki and isn't the least bit shy with him) and Chitose, the pretty young apartment manager for his building.  So in many ways, despite coming from a farm background, it's easy for geeky and/or nerdy kids to identify with Hideki because he just doesn't have that social "gene" that gives him a more innate ability to interact with people.  His apartment neighbor, by contrast, is more typically nerdy, having his own mobile Persocom named Sumomo (endlessly cute!), though being much more comfortable in his own skin and able to talk to the opposite sex without second-guessing himself all the time.

The initial impression one might get of the series is that Hideki is a hopelessly hormonal (read: horny) teenage boy who has an obsession with the opposite sex (and a strong desire to check out Internet porn he's heard so much about), the story is much more tasteful and endearing than that description would lead one to believe.  As the story develops, you find out that Hideki's perception of Chi as a person plays strongly into their developing relationship as he teaches her and she learns more about herself and her role in his life and her own path.  So while the proto-typical sex-obsessed teenager character is there, Hideki is much more a gentleman than the series may initially suggest, and this more gallant characterization makes him a likable guy, both in spite of and due to his social awkwardness and generic teenage proclivities.  Hideki really is a nice guy, and this fact goes a long way to making him an endearing character.

While I haven't worked my way through the whole series yet, my impression thus far is that this is a well written, well animated, and well produced series.  The bouncy, happy theme song is insanely catchy and easily gets stuck in your head, and the little ditty that plays at the beginning of each episode as it's starting also rings in your ears long after the episode is over.  The positive themes of relationship and love are ever present, and the characters are almost instantly likable, which helped pull me in within just a few minutes of the first episode.  Overall, I find this to be an enjoyable series, and once I'm finished watching the series, I do plan on going back and reading through the manga because I do want to see the few differences and am interested in seeing the origination of this story line.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Gamut - tonight's playlist!!!

Great tunes in the show tonight including a few requests AND a couple Gamut premiers!  Tune in at 9 PM EST via http://www.untombed.com to listen in!

Tonight's playlist!
Deuteronomium - Lost Indeed (Melodic Death Metal)
Zaxas - Last Chance Believer (Power Metal)
Arch of Thorns - In the Darkest Depths (Black Meatl)
Grave Robber - Rigor Mortis (Horror Punk)
Call to Preserve - Validation (Hardcore)
Sympathy - Enslaved By Depravity (Technical Death Metal)
Jetenderpaul - Her Baroque Syntax (Indie Pop)
Sincerely Paul - Crime of Persecution (New Wave/Gothic Rock)
Venia (US) - Genlteman (Hardcore)
Apostisy - And Thus It Was and Forever Will Be (Melodic Death/Black Metal)
Lucid - Decision (Groove Metal)
Wish For Eden - Green (Grunge)
Ruby Joe - Last Chance Johnny (Rockabilly)
Crossforce - Rockin' Til the Final Day (Classic Metal) - The Gamut Premier!
POD - On Fire (Rapcore) - The Gamut Premier!
Majestic Vanguard - The Great Eternity (Power Metal)
Monolith - Across the Baltic (Symphonic Extreme Metal)
Saint - The Blade (Classic Metal)
Stavesacre - Suffocate Me (Modern Heavy Rock)
In Grief - Weak (Progressive Extreme Metal)
Orphan Project - Reach (Progressive Hard Rock)
Underoath - Emergency Broadcast :: The End Is Near (Metalcore/Screamo)
Arnion - Whitened Graves (Thrash Metal)
Crimson Moonlight - Path of Pain (Black Metal)
Project 86 - Stalemate (Modern Heavy Rock)
A Hope For Home - Post Tenebras Lux (Progressive Hardcore)
Theocracy - Martyr (Progressive Power Metal)
The Rex Carroll Band - Working Man's Blues (Bluesy Hard Rock)
The Echoing Green - Tonight (Synthpop)
Seventh Angel - No Longer a Child (Thrash Metal)
Omar Domkus - Looking Darkly Through a Mirror (Jazz/Alternative)
Outlander - Moonchildren (Progressive Hard Rock)
The Blue Letter - We'll Cut the Trees Down and Name Our Streets After Them (Progressive Post-Hardcore)
World Against World - Deserted Concern For the Irrefutable (Crust Punk/Hardcore)
Woe of Tyrants - Soli Deo Gloria (Melodic Death Metal)
SinBreed - Book Of Life (Power Metal)
The Right Wing Conspiracy - Stepped On Your Toes (Grindcore)

Check out the Untombed website @ www.untombed.com !  You can tune in easily via the web-based player on the front page, link to the stream via your regular audio player, read album reviews, get music news, and link up to other great resources, including Divine Metal Distro, your one-stop source for all things Christian rock and metal!  Don't forget, station chat has moved to Untombed.com at the bottom of the site, so make sure you sign up or use a Facebook or Twitter account to sign in and chat w/ me and other listeners during the show!

Alternate links to listen to the stream in a separate player (Winamp recommended, though Real Player, VLC, iTunes and others work as well):

Here's the link for Windows Media Player:

Also our stream can now be heard on Nintendo Wii! If you have a Wii, here is what you do:

1.go on the net via your Wii console
2. type "www.Wiihear.com" into your browser address box
3. type "" into the Search box
4. Click the play arrow

It can take 5-10 seconds to load up & buffer, so please be patient when using this feature :)

You can also stream the station via xyzmp3.com on your PSP, PS3, Wii, iPhone, or even your TiVo!  Plus you can stream the show via your Windows Mobile phone with the free GSPlayer application!  Listen in from your Android device via the "A Online Radio" or StreamFurious applications, as well as the new beta version of Winamp for the Android platform!

Japan FTW! Onmyouza!

The threat we are facing is serious.  It's no longer merely Godzilla.  Japanese music, animation, and culture have invaded America!  Okay, so that's a bit dramatic, but during the last 25 years or so, Japanese culture and entertainment has slowly crept into the collective consciousness of the Western world.  During the 1980's there were Japanese culture flirtations in the form of the Robotech anime and some Japanese rock/metal (namely X and Loudness), though those have remained largely niche.  The mid-1990's saw a much more dramatic influx of Japanese culture with more widespread distribution (thanks to companies like Manga and Bandai Entertainment) of Japanese anime, which then brought to attention of Western fans the phenomenon of Asian pop idols in the form of J-Pop music.  This was everything from the goofiest, corniest J-Pop known to man included in some of the more off-beat anime, to more life-like J-Pop like that of "CHAM!" in the Perfect Blue anime film (Satoshi Kon, FTW!).

The Anime industry in America (in particular) has blossomed over the last decade and a half as a result of this, and the advent of the Internet has only increased this and made anime more prevalent.  No longer is it just Pokemon or DragonBall Z (blech!), but with SyFy channel's "Ani-Monday" and Cartoon Network often having more sophisticated and wide-ranging anime (everything from Gundam Wing to InuYasha to Trigun and beyond) of varying genres and styles. Landmark anime films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell have become well-respected by many serious film buffs, and anime on the whole is taken more seriously by Western culture in general.

Other Japanese cultural aspects have taken longer to "catch on", like cosplay, Japanese films (now becoming a legitimate niche in America), and in particular, Japanese music.  Apart from a handful of Japanese artists or bands, Asian music in general just hasn't caught on, likely due to the giant domination of the American "music" machine dictating to us what music we like and want to hear.  While that machine has served its purpose and has indeed brought some good music to the masses, I am not one to simply eat what's fed to me unless I have no other choice.  I prefer to pick my own meals when I have any opportunity to do so.

Being the nerd that I am, I probably exist in the nether space between being "up" on Japanese music and not.  I'm not sure if that means I'm either not hip enough, or perhaps too hip to be into bands like Sigh, Dir en grey, or Versailles yet.  But for all of the Japanese bands I have yet to discover, I have taken to one that I feel is the is the pinnacle of what Japanese music is and should be when it comes to talent and creativity.  Onmyouza (also sometimes spelled as Onmyo-za or Onmyosza) is a band that is lumped in with the "Visual Kei" or "Visual Style" movement, and that much is valid, but they're so much more than just a band dressing up in traditional Japanese garb with long hair and androgynous looks.

My wife says they ALL look like girls, but I know better :)

Onmyouza is a highly talented, overtly creative and prolific heavy metal machine.  Since the band's inception in the late 90's, they've recorded 9 full-length studio albums and 1 EP, released 8 concert videos/DVDs, participated in a split video project with 3 other bands, and released 16 singles, along with 2 live albums, a singles/hits compilation, and a boxed set containing the bulk of the recorded works that also includes 2 b-sides CDs and a DVD with all their music videos.  DO WANT!!!  Unfortunately, King Records either hasn't pursued or sufficiently found distribution in the West for niche product like this, so importing is rather expensive.  My collection of the band's last 5 albums and the Wagashikabane Wo Koeteyuke 
DVD was quite a chunk of change to purchase over a year ago.  CDs that would normally cost $15 USD at any store in America are suddenly nearly twice that to import, and the DVD was a staggering $54 USD to import!

"Sweet Dreams" was written by the Eurythmics before this boxset came out, so we'll let them slide (this once) for not mentioning it.

By contrast, here's my meager sampling:
Yes, you should all be jealous of my small, but prestigious collection!

Onmyouza released their 1st album in 1999, and in the 10 years following they have recorded a string of successful albums (commercially AND artistically).  Their concerts, while not as big a production as KISS, are a sight to behold, as evidenced by the DVD I have, as well as videos you can find on YouTube of the many other concerts they've filmed.  One of my dreams, assuming I can afford to do so before they hang it up, is to travel to Japan and see them live in concert.  I'm not sure if I'll fulfill that dream, but I hope that financial concerns won't prevent me from at least trying.  Of course, that's not the only reason to visit Tokyo, but for me it's certainly a priority reason.

So what's all the fuss about Onmyouza, you may say?  Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up:
  1. Onmyouza has a female lead singer.  Now before anyone cries foul and says, "But so does Nightwish/Seraphim/Lunatica/" let me say that few vocalists can compare to the likes of the lovely and talented Kuroneko.  She is a powerful singer with great range and versatility, a great sense of dynamics, and fabulous control over her instrument.  Watching the DVD and other live concert footage of the band, it's apparent that when performing live, she is so on-point vocally that it's almost scary.
  2. The band breathes much-needed life into the genre of traditional metal by bringing in some Japanese melodic sensibility and traditional melodies, by utilizing both female vocals and male vocals (bassist and band leader Matatabi handles most of this), by throwing in some occasional gruff/growl vocals for effect, and by having such a sense of drama about their whole presentation that it just takes it to the next level.
  3. While I'm the first guy that will say it doesn't matter what you wear on stage if you play well and captivate the audience with your songs, that doesn't apply to Onmouza because they make their whole "Visual Kei" look/feel an integral element to their music and visual appeal.  Not that Japanese guys with long hair that look like women in their photoshoots is particularly "appealing", but then the band takes its look from dress and style that was popular in Japan quite a long time ago, well before music of their kind was even a thought.  And they don't go over-the-top with their look, either.  It's clean, specific, and generally consistent from one performance to the next.
  4. Let's not forget the songs!  This is a band that not only has full command of their instruments, but they also have studied years of heavy metal and understand what it takes to write good songs.  They are hooky, both musically and vocally (quite a feat, considering I don't know a lick of Japanese and I find myself stumbling on the words singing along), and they take the best elements of the bands they emulate (Iron Maiden and Judas Priest are two chief influences) while throwing plenty of their own flavor in for good measure.  In addition, their range is impressive, from fun, swingin' songs that are very "up" to dark, brooding pieces that ooze drama.
I've been singing the praises of this band for the last 2 years but it seems like no one is listening.  Why, I have no idea, as this amazing group is just too good to go unnoticed and unappreciated by the metal masses.  I know I'm not the band's only fan in the US, because I've read album reviews and comments by others, but they simply don't have enough of a following here in the states.  Some metal band (Iron Maiden perhaps?) needs to take this band out for a full US tour and really blow the doors off the American metalhead populace, because I think if folks knew what they were missing, they'd flip out and realize that Japan has been hiding this goldmine of awesomeness in their country far too long.  I shall end this post the only way I can think how - with music videos that shows the band at their best. Watch and learn, people.

"Nemuri" from "Mugen Hoyou"

"Basilisk" from an anime soundtrack

"Kokui no Tennyo" from "Maou Taiten"

"Aoki Dokugan" from "Kongo Kyubi"

"Konpeki no Soujin", a sequel to "Aoki Dokugan"

"Kumikyoku Yoshitsune- Raise Kaikou" from "Garyotensei"