Friday, September 21, 2012

Seventh Avenue - Terium (2008)

Some bands are like wine, cheese, leather products, etc.  They get better with age.  Some bands come bursting out of the chute with a killer debut and it is forever hailed as the best thing they ever did, with each subsequent album failing to meet fan expectations for one reason or another.  Metallica has certainly felt this, as most fans think anything they've done outside their 1st 4 albums isn't worthy to bear the name Metallica, and that the band should have hung it up years ago.  Other bands don't fare quite so poorly, and maintain a good fanbase, but everyone wonders when they're going to top the debut.  Germany's Seventh Avenue, however, is not one of those bands.  This group just got better and better as the years went on.  Starting in 1989, every release by this collective showed improvement in musicianship, vocal prowess and control, songwriting, and overall talent.  Sadly, this 2008 opus will prove to be the last under the Seventh Avenue moniker, as just a few days prior to composing this review, Seventh Avenue as a band has reportedly broken up.  Thankfully, most of the line-up will continue under a different moniker.

As for "Terium", however, this is the way to end a band.  Going out with a bang like this leaves a great lasting impression, and this album certainly accomplishes that.  Aside from the obligatory intro track and with the possible exception of the second ballad toward the end, this album is non-stop power metal majesty, expertly written, executed and delivered.  Where the predecessor "Eternals" was a barrage of super-catchy power metal anthems loosely strung together to form a really good overall album, this opus goes the extra mile by weaving a concept and storyline together along with the overt catchiness and anthemic feel fans have come to expect from this metal collective.  Some may be put off by the album's length (70 minutes is a lot of music for a power metal album), those brave enough to join the band on this journey will be richly rewarded.

The whole idea behind "Terium" is that the titular substance is a mineral (or a drug) found on the planet Kranos.  It gives the user eternal life, but as the adage goes, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely."  People become hopelessly addicted to Terium, and society falls into chaos with moral foundations breaking down, relationships crumbling, procreation slowing because of the newfound eternal life, and the dependence on Terium ruling people's lives.  Though it has more of a 'moral' slant to it, it is reflective of Frank Herbert's Dune series of novels, with the spice drug 'melange' existing only on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune) and giving long-lasting life and mind-altering/expanding effects.  However, rather than a story of a mere mortal becoming a 'supreme being' like Herbert's 'Kwisatz Haderach' character, "Terium" takes a more biblically aligned path of having 'Ratis', son of the creator, coming down to the planet to save the populace from the addiction to the Terium mineral.  So while this concept isn't wholly original, Seventh Avenue can be forgiven that transgression because very few bands borrow from Herbert (Iron Maiden is the only other obvious example I know of), while J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis are endlessly plagiarized by power metal musicians worldwide on a daily basis.  At least their choice of a more science fiction-based storyline is more original than many of their metal brethren.  There's just a hint of Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land as well.  In any event, lyrically this is a strong album that weaves the story well and uses the 'power' of power metal to tell the tale in a catchy, upbeat manner that really sells the story.  Kudos to Herbie Langhans for what he accomplished here, as it successfully uses that Dune influence while injecting enough change in the story to be a unique work.

Musically, this album is a tour de force, and an album that fans of power metal will likely enjoy thoroughly.  While I didn't gel with this upon its release, as I purchased a lot of albums at the same time as this one, I found myself spinning this for several weeks in preparation for this review.  I am still listening to the album as I write this, and am not remotely tired of it yet.  Guitar work is excellent, combining highly melodic playing and speedy riffing with slower passages for atmosphere and to pull a bit of a 'bait and switch' effect, especially in the intro for "Priests and Servants".  Solo work is also excellent, with just the right balance between musicianship and showmanship.  There aren't so many solos here that you feel like you're listening to Dragonforce, but enough to satisfy fans of the style, and they're well executed.  Drumming is excellent, and is varied enough to stand out because of the seemingly effortless switch between groovy mid-paced drumming with tasteful fills and the propulsive double-bass driven rhythms that carry the music at high speed. Bass guitar is actually audible at times here, and is a nice addition to the musical landscape, even dominant at moments where it makes sense, like in the bridge section of "Way To the Stars".  I also like the variety of material, from the more speedy, upbeat numbers to slightly darker, mid-paced stuff, though a great deal of the album relies on a heavy speed emphasis.  The songs are also a bit more technically focused this time around, with "Future's Dawn" being a shining example, and in my opinion, the centerpiece of the album.  Never before has Seventh Avenue sounded this focused, yet still injecting variety and freshness throughout the album to keep it from becoming stale through its 70 minutes.  The only potential misstep on the album is the ballad "Innocence" toward the end, as it strays into Stryper "Honestly" territory a bit, but doggone it if the melody and heartfelt delivery don't draw you in and force you to like the song anyway.  If you don't mind ballads, you may enjoy it, and even if you do, it's still pretty listenable.

I've long said that vocalist Herbie Langhans was a bit of a loose cannon, vocally, on early Seventh Avenue material.  Some metal vocalists can get away with that because they have enough attitude or uniqueness in their delivery or approach to make it work, and make up for their shortcomings.  I never felt that way about Herbie, and the band's music suffered for it.  It wasn't until "Southgate" that I felt like he was beginning to come into his own, though that album had several cringe-worthy moments where I felt like a little more practice in the booth would have done the album good.  Starting with the next album, "Between the Worlds", however, Herbie has been on-point, and his talent developed even further with 2004's "Eternals".  This time around, Herbie is in top form, belting out vocal lines with as much precision as emotion, and giving quite possibly the performance of a lifetime.  He no longer sounds like a young, eager metal vocalist who needs to reign in the enthusiasm enough to gain control of his voice - he HAS control of his voice, perhaps now more than some of his contemporaries.  He has been compared to Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian, and while there is a resemblance, I think his sound is more a reflection of many of the heavy hitters of the genre (Ralf Scheepers is another he is rightfully compared with).  Herbie can now rightfully be placed among the top tier vocalists in the genre, something his years of vocal development and hard work can be attributed to.

If you find the story captivating, the music exciting, and the overall presentation to your liking, you won't have much trouble sitting through 70+ minutes of music on this ride.  If power metal isn't your thing, this will not be the album to convert you unless you're a Herbert devotee looking for a nice segue into the genre.  However, metal fans who enjoy the grandiosity of Rhapsody but wish for less pomp and circumstance and more overt metal will find a lot to love about this release and rightfully so.  The band has turned in a near-masterpiece level work that rivals some of the better power metal concept records out there, even some of Rhapsody's work in the field.  For that, these Germans should be extremely proud, and their legacy should be firmly cemented into the collective consciousness of the power metal genre as a whole.  This album is so good, it borders on being essential to power metal fans, so I'm just going to say that if you are at all a fan of the style, this album is one you want in your collection, without question.  Buy or die.


Deserted Island 500 - "Screams and Whispers" by Anacrusis

For the inaugural post in my "Deserted Island 500" series, I'll pick an album that has been unfairly marginalized by the metal faithful.  My favorite style of metal (by a small margin) is thrash metal, and my tastes often draw the ire of fellow thrashers because I tend to lean toward the more technical and progressive side of thrash versus the more straight-ahead aggressive thrash of Slayer and the Germanic bands (Destruction, Kreator, Sodom, etc).  I also quite like the Bay Area sound, as evidenced by my love for early Metallica, Megadeth, Testament, etc.  But in general, my favorite thrash bands take the basic constructs of the style (speed, aggression, razor-sharp riffs, energy) and inject them with a healthy dose of robust musicianship and musical adeptness.  I like it when thrash metal is more than just loads of energy and great guitar playing, and when they take it to the next level and make it into something even more.

Anacrusis, who hailed from St. Louis, Missouri, was a band that made a successful transition from the aggressive, no-holds-barred thrash of their early days to a much more technical, progressive, and intricate sound at the end of their short lifespan as a band.  Their debut, "Suffering Hour" was an intense affair, treading the same sonic waters as other thrash bands of the day, putting as much aggression and energy into the mix as possible, still retaining the melody and catchiness of the NWOBHM movement thrash was heavily influenced by.  While thrash purists often cite it or its follow-up "Reason" as the band's better output, some laud the more progressive 3rd album "Manic Impressions" as the peak.  While I like "Manic Impressions" a fair bit, I tend to think their final opus to be their best work.  This is due to the variety present and stylistic exploration while still keeping that razor-like guitar tone and the essential components of thrash metal as part of the overall construct.  Kenn Nardi's vocals have improved, his singing ability having been honed over 5 years of touring and recording, as well as his trademark screeching having become quite precise and piercing to nicely compliment his improved singing ability.

Part of what I love so much about this album is the guitar tone.  It retains that "icy" tone and texture of "Manic Impressions", but is crunchier in some ways, and has a more piercing quality to it that really compliments the songs well.  In addition, the clean guitar passages are just as haunting as the heavy passages because of the rhythms and riffs used, and the stark production fits this to a tee.  Drum work by Paul Miles is a high point, as I feel like his playing is spot-on for the material, and he never overdoes it, but always adds the right extra textures when needed.  I like the songwriting here best, because I think it represents Kenn's writing abilities so well, and offers what is probably the most memorable set of material he ever wrote under the Anacrusis banner.  Each song has at least one major hook, and these tracks and riffs get stuck in my head long after the music stops playing.  I can't say that about the band's other 3 albums, but this one release certainly stays with me far more than most any other under the "progressive thrash metal" label.  Lyrically, Kenn strikes a chord as well with his anthems of discontentment and disillusionment - we've all felt disconnected from society, loved ones, and life in general once in a while, right?  Those elements, coupled with the pristine production that compliments the songs and the recording just makes for what I consider to be a near-perfect package.

While there's no such thing as a 'perfect' album or release, this comes fairly close to what I would consider perfection based on the style, context, production, songwriting, and overall construction of the material.  I don't spin this constantly, in part because the material is best when it's had time to "breathe" a bit between listens, but every time I do spin this one, it is always affecting and jarring in its delivery.  That's one of the highest compliments I can pay to an album, really.  There are other albums I listen to very frequently because I really enjoy listening to them, or some due to long-time love of the release, but when I can come back to an album months after the last time I listened to it and it sounds fresh and vital each time, that's a special work of art.  This is an essential piece of thrash and progressive metal art, and if you're a fan of either and it's not in your collection, shame on you.

New Post Series - Deserted Island 500!

There's an old question that gets tossed around a lot, regarding the 'one thing' you would take to a deserted island with you if you were banished to such a place.  Now, given that this is a fantasy scenario, folks generally choose either some kind of 'creature comfort' (despite the general lack of electricity on deserted islands), or as is the case with my post, the question arises about which CD or album you would take with you to a deserted island if it was the last one you'd ever be able to listen to.  Given the size of my CD, cassette, digital, and vinyl collection as of this writing (somewhere in the 3000+ items range), there's NO WAY ON EARTH I could possibly narrow it down to one, especially given the diversity of my tastes.  Thus, I have decided that if I had a stereo setup or at the very least a digital music player with proper capacity and unlimited battery life (this IS a fantasy scenario after all, right?), I couldn't narrow the field any smaller than around 500 albums I would consider "essential" to my own existence on said island paradise.

This island comes with satellite TV and free WiFi, right?

As such, I will be penning a series of posts about around 500 albums in my collection I would consider "essential", releases that I wouldn't sell or trade off unless I was in dire straights.  Each of these posts won't be a proper "album review", but more a short treatise on each album and why I consider it part of the list.  This will differ from my "Album of the Moment" series as well, in that each of these releases has had some kind of emotional impact on me, apart from just enjoying them as pieces of art.  Through this process, I hope to better understand my own connection to my music collection, but also to impart some of that knowledge to others to help them see my perspective on some underrated gems and proven classics.  I would love to see a few unknown albums get a bit more exposure through this process for sure.

Back when my CD collection was a mere 600, I sold off about a third of what I had to pay a bill I was desperately behind on in order to save myself the embarrassment of having to fix the problem later with the company I owed money to.  Now that my collection has grown so large, I could afford to be a bit more judicious with what I have, though I generally don't let go of something once I have it.  That's the burden of the collector, really: you buy stuff that sits on a shelf and doesn't see much daylight, but you wouldn't have it any other way.  I do, however, listen to my music collection as much as time allows, and there are a large number of albums I wouldn't want to part with unless I was facing total destitution, especially since some of them are a bit more rare and would cost considerably more than I originally paid to re-acquire them.  In any event, I hope everyone will enjoy this new series and be inspired to consider their own music collections and what they have to offer.

Cinema Fancy - The Avengers!

Hollywood and comic books have long had a strained relationship.  Some big-budget adaptations of the print-and-art medium have been widely accepted, and even hailed as good interpretations (1978's "Superman", 1989's "Batman" and the more recent 2002 "Spiderman" film come to mind), but by and large, movies based upon comic book characters have been a mixed bag.  Some comic fans are hyper-sensitive to the way their favorite characters are portrayed, so if the wrong actor or actress plays a particular hero or villain in a way they see as "wrong", or the characterizations and dialogue don't match what the reader has come to expect from their printed counterpart, the result can often be maddening for those who know the story lines already from the books.  In reverse, however, comic books based on movies are probably a much more forgiven medium, because the framework they start from is comparatively small.  Indeed, basing a long-standing comic book on a 2-hour movie with very little back story is far easier a feat to accomplish than taking a beloved character 20 or 30+ years in the making and try to translate them to the big screen.

How fitting is it, then, that Marvel has taken the steps toward this film as lovingly and accurately as they could have done, albeit with some mistakes?  Rather than jumping in with both feet and hurrying through the story of how each superhero got their powers (Fantastic Four, anyone?), or making a first movie far too long with too much expository dialogue and not enough action to satisfy fans.  Or they could pull a Dune and  confuse everyone by not including enough detail about the characters or their story to truly do them justice in that setting.  So I applaud Marvel for taking much more care in their approach by introducing each main hero or character in a somewhat sequential fashion, even if some of the primary characters were included in other films (such as Black Widow in Iron Man 2).  This approach gives them the ability to build and develop each character as an individual, rather than just a "teammate", and provides the necessary introduction, character development, personality, and overall direction necessary to move them into a setting that requires them all to work together for a common goal.

Before I get into the film's content itself, can I just take a moment and gush about its director?  Hollywood has FINALLY recognized the genius of Joss Whedon.  Who better to direct this movie than he?  No one, I say.  Comic books contain many elements, all of which Whedon is familiar with.  His previous TV experience is invaluable here, not only with the combination of drama, horror, action, comedy, and "high art" storytelling as was evidenced by both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but also in his short-lived, overlooked series Firefly.  Add to that Whedon's expert handling of ensemble casts, and you have someone who is well versed in providing enough screen time for each major protagonist while balancing all the elements you expect from this kind of production.  Whedon has an uncanny knack for undercutting serious situations and dialogue with humor as well, which provides further balance of elements.


The basic premise of the movie is simple: Loki, brother of Thor and self-proclaimed rightful ruler of Asgard, has come to earth seeking the Tesseract, a cube of extraordinary energy and power.  This cube is sought by an alien race known as the Chitauri, who pledge to help Loki conquer and enslave Earth for his own.  Once he gives the Chitauri the Tesseract, they plan to use it to travel to other galaxies and worlds to battle with them.  Loki quickly uses his power to exert mind control over several people within the S.H.I.E.L.D. complex, including a couple key figures, namely Agent Hawkeye, and Dr. Erik Selvig (who you may remember from the Thor film).  With their help, Loki plans to find a way to tap into the Tesseract for his own purposes, either prior to handing it over to the Chitauri, or perhaps as a means of keeping it for himself. Director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), in the meantime, tries to sway the council he reports to into allowing him to re-activate the shelved "Avengers Initiative".  Ignoring their protests and directives not to, he calls upon active agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to help him recruit other superhero types in an effort to build a force potentially capable of combating the threat posed by Loki and the Chitauri.  As would be expected, the plot develops around the gathering of heroes and their assembly (sorry, pun intended).

We're a team, doncha know?

As luck would have it, Captain America is already on board, since his whole purpose in life is fighting for freedom.  Black Widow seeks out Dr. David Banner (aka the Hulk) to persuade him to enlist, while Agent Phil Coulson (who appeared in Iron Man 2 as well) visits Tony Stark to get Iron Man himself onto the team.  Thor happens to show up at the right and wrong time, sparking a conflict with Iron Man and Captain America without even realizing they're on the same side.  Once the pleasantries are out of the way, the team assembles (sorry, gotta stop doing that!) on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier craft to formulate a plan.  While they try and do that, Loki plots against them while they try and sleaze information out of him, all while his plan to escape and take the Helicarrier down is in motion.  During this time, Stark and Banner hack the S.H.I.E.L.D. computers to find out the whole story behind the Tesseract, and though against it at first, Captain America joins in with a little recon to get to the bottom of things.  They discover the research that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been doing to harness the power of the Tesseract, in part to create "weapons of mass destruction" (oh current event political subplots, how we love thee).  Of course, Fury has a plausible explanation for this, and soon the team's concerns become situation-ally irrelevant when Loki busts out and the ship is in danger of falling from the sky.

Though Loki gets away, it quickly becomes obvious that the heroes will have to do some major ego-checking at the door in order to work together, and these are the first building blocks that they use to start actually becoming a team.  This sets in motion a series of events that brings the Avengers to New York, because Loki plans on using Tony's new Stark Tower (or more specifically, it's new self-sustaining power reactor) to power the device he will use to leverage the Tesseract in opening a dimensional portal to let the Chitauri in.  Once the portal is open, epic battles ensue, and the Avengers begin to coordinate their efforts and actually work as a team.  As Chitauri enter the Earth's skies, it's up to the Avengers to hold them off and prevent the imminent destruction of mankind, while simultaneously foiling Loki's plans and finding a way to breach his device and shut off the portal so the Chitauri can be sent packing.

C'mon, Tony, we got this Thor guy on the ropes - let's clean his clock!

While some casual viewers may think this epic battle scene toward the end is what viewers have been waiting for (and to an extent, they have), the thing that is exciting about this film is how it takes the culmination of all the previous Marvel/Avengers superhero films and brings them together in as logical a fashion as possible.  I like that they included Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts (and not just for 30 seconds on-screen), and though she didn't actually appear in the film, they referenced Natalie Portman's character Dr. Jane Foster (from the Thor film).  This kind of continuity helps tie all the films together into this logical next step, something that I think all fans of the characters can appreciate.  I also like how each character's cultural backgrounds and make-up are part of the picture.  In one scene, Black Widow is warning Captain America about Thor and Loki (since he isn't up to speed yet) and explains that "they're basically gods."  He fires back by saying, "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure He doesn't look like that."  Being that Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) grew up during a time when "God and Country" were primary societal pillars, it makes sense to have this kind of cultural cornerstone present in the film from his perspective.  This attention to detail is evident elsewhere, from the typically egotistic dialog of Tony Stark, to the self-effacing and cautious nature of Dr. David Banner in non-Hulk mode.  In addition, the inter-hero conflicts are done well (and not overdone), and serve to show the "humanity" of each character as much as to help propel the storyline.

The film is not without flaws, however, as nearly any major winner has a few chinks in its armor.  It's no secret that Robert Downey Jr. was paid more for being in The Avengers than any of the rest of the cast, and it shows, as he is given perhaps a bit more screen time than Iron Man needs, despite his excellent portrayal of the character.  In addition, though the film is a bit longer than the average super hero romp, I felt like it could have been a few minutes longer to help bring even more teamwork and story in, though I know that we'll have plenty of time to see further teamwork and additional character development in the next film (kudos to Marvel for signing Whedon on for the second round).  Hawkeye is used well during both his "evil" phase, as well as during his redemptive time in returning to the S.H.I.E.L.D. fold, but I get the feeling he could have been more developed as a character.  The flaws here (at least from my vantage point) are relatively minor, however, and don't hamper the enjoyment of the film.

How did I get lucky enough to look like that Mark Ruffalo guy?

Other than a few minor issues, I feel as though The Avengers is the best ensemble cast superhero film of all time, at least up to the point of its release.  No other film has been able to successfully capture the essence of an entire array of heroes from both their own individual perspectives as well as from the perspective of the team as a whole, with heroes individually laying down their own goals to serve the greater good.  Never before has a film like this been done with such accuracy and completeness.  I don't mean to say this is the be all, end all of multi-hero adventures, but it certainly sets the bar quite high - not only for its own sequel, but for any future "hero team" movies based around established characters.  The Avengers will be a tough act to follow for any comics house looking to do the same thing.  There are small rumblings about the possibility of a Justice League film, given the success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, as well as his up-coming Superman reboot Man of Steel.  My only hope for that series would be if they decide to go ahead, to tread cautiously and follow Whedon's lead, despite the more serious tone of the Christopher Nolan films thus far.  Now my only question becomes, will Spiderman be integrated into the Avengers team at some point?  One can only wonder...

Editorial Comment:
I started writing this review after my second screening of the film, then unwisely shelved it due to getting busy with "life stuff".  Subsequently, during a new review I was writing, I noticed this unfinished draft and decided I had better finish the job and post this review.  Sorry about the lack of timeliness of this post, but I felt it still warranted publishing.

Antidemon - ApocalypseNow (2012)

Death Metal, by its very nature, is not a subtle form of music.  Whereas certain styles of pop, chamber music, folk, etc. can change ever so slightly with the ebb and flow of the song, death metal is more concerned with beating you over the head.  So while the genre has become more expansive and progressive than the originators of the genre may have ever envisioned (including one Mr. Chuck Schuldiner, responsible for some of that progression), it is still a style of music that thrives on immediacy and impact.  Blunt force impact, some might say.  Be that as it may, one can only listen to pummeling death metal assaults so much before either they begin to sound the same, or just don't stand out from the other aural beatings enough to warrant your time and money.  Thankfully for Antidemon, their latest album "ApocalypseNow" doesn't suffer from that one-dimensional nature.

I must admit, though I've heard of Antidemon and have heard snippets of their music, I just haven't bothered to pick up any of their material until this CD came to me, graciously provided by the US promo rep for Rowe Productions (home of the mighty Mortification).  Decidedly old-school in sound and approach, this death metal power trio are unashamed in their love of all things death metal, and in their decision to keep this a relatively stripped down, simple affair.  That doesn't mean this is a boring or "samey" album: far from it.  However, they avoid the use of proggy keys or modern effects simply as window dressing, and they let the songs speak for themselves.  This is actually more basic than fellow Brazillian death metallers KRIG, but then this band has a different overall vibe and sound than their metal brethren, bearing more in common with Bolt Thrower than more modern bands.

Instrumentally, this album is quite solid.  Guitars have a satisfying crunch and "thick" sound to them, but it's not so bass-heavy that it gets muddy - the guitar sound is always crisp and clear.  The guitar sound has the benefit of being recorded with modern equipment so it's loud and "up front", but the tone bears great resemblance to early 90's death metal and extreme thrash, which will be music to the ears of some fans.  Being that front man Batista (aka Carlos Batista) is the bassist, he is audible in the mix (unlike a lot of death metal), though not quite to Steve Rowe levels of clarity and separation.  This band's approach is a bit more brutal than classic Mortification, so necessarily the bass is as much rhythm section as it is an instrument on its own.  His bass work is notable, though, because he doesn't just follow the guitar riffs all the time.  Drumming is pretty good overall, provided by Juliana (Carlos' wife), with plenty of fills, rolls, and double bass work, including some blast beats.  She is a powerful drummer, in the sense that she hits those skins hard and her double-bass drumming sounds authentic - no triggers detected here.

While the tagline used to promote the album has been "Brutal Grind Art from Brazil", I would have to say there's not much grind here.  This is straight up, old-school death metal all the way.  In terms of songwriting, this is a solid album with few frills, though a couple surprises crop up here and there. For example, the blast-beat driven intro to "Fuera Diablo" is intense and makes you think you're in for a complete barn burner, but after a few seconds it goes silent, only to come in again with a lone bass line and much slower instrumentation to follow than what preceded it.  I thought it was a nice touch, an interesting bait and switch.  The other interesting thing about this song is during the respite moments between blasting sections where Carlos and Luis are playing essentially third notes, while Juliana's drumming underneath is all in a quarter note double-bass pattern.  Later tracks like "Abonicacao" also employ some slightly more melodic riffing and slow/fast tempo juxtaposition, as well as some groove which kept things interesting.    Unfortunately, there are no guitar solos to speak of.  Lyrics are biblically based, as one might expect with the name Antidemon, and are primarily in Portuguese, though the booklet offers both English and Portuguese translations, which is a nice addition.  Liner notes are all in English as well.  Packaging is great, with colorful artwork, high quality band photos, easy to read lyrics, and nice graphics throughout.

Now that the pleasantries are covered, let's get a couple minor issues on the table.  First, there are a handful of spots where Juliana's drums don't quite seem to sync up right.  It is most noticeable during the first 2-3 tracks, particularly during the title track where it seems her rhythms are just a hair behind everyone, or during the first couple bars of second track "Infernal", where she's a 16th note too fast after the pause (unless that was intentional).  By the 4th track, most of the drumming is very on point, so I'm not quite sure where the problem lies.  It could very well be a production thing, where the drums just weren't synchronized with the other instruments 100%, which seems likely, since the bulk of the album sees her drumming on point.  It could also be a casualty of the analog recording and mixing process, so this timing issue may be just that the final tracks didn't sync right on the final master.  This is a minor issue to be sure, certainly nothing like the drumming atrocity that is fellow death metallers Clemency or early stuff by Castaway, but is noticeable in the first 2-3 tracks.  Secondly, I think the track order is a bit odd, since the album seems (to me, at least) to get more interesting and varied as the disc goes along.  Having most of your most basic tracks right at the beginning and then adding more variety as the album progresses sounds good in theory, but it makes more sense to me to mix things up and generate interest early, and break up the monotony here and there with a track that does something different in between 2 or 3 real heavy hitters.  This is more about pacing so much as it is about the material itself, but it is worth noting.  Thirdly, and more on a personal note, I just wish this CD was more brutal.  Maybe I've become spoiled by modern death metal and deathcore where CDs just melt your face off from start to finish, while still weaving in lots of melody or keeping things interesting, but other than cranking this thing to 11 to get the full effect, it doesn't satisfy me the same way that other, more intricate or meticulously produced death metal does.

So how does this fare overall?  I think mileage will vary for the listener, in many ways.  If you're a dyed-in-the-wool death metal fan and can't get enough of the style (especially for those favoring traditional death metal), this will practically be a no-brainer, as this is a very solid release that is worth picking up.  Those looking for a bit more variety or depth to their metal will be left wanting a bit, mainly because this is as no-frills as death metal gets.  The lack of solos will be a deciding factor for some, so if you must have solos in your death metal, knock a few points off my score.  If lack of solos isn't a deal-breaker, there's a lot to like here from Carlos' brutal vocals to Luis' very competent guitar riffing, and Juliana's hard-hitting drum work.  Like I said, if you are heavily into death metal, this is a solid release that delivers quality songs and musicianship without hitting you over the head with technicality or layers of production.  If that sounds right up your alley, you might just find a friend in this CD.  Recommended.


Comics Love - Supermassive Black Hole A* by Ben Chamberlain!

I am a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to comics.  Sure, I've always enjoyed reading "the funny papers", and I have always had a major respect for comic book artists and the artwork they draw, as well as their varying views on the world and how that comes out in their art.  But to be honest, I could never be bothered to pay money to collect comic books, in part because my big hobbies for so many years have been music and video games.  Movies and TV would be next on the list, followed by anything technology.  Now, all those can become expensive hobbies, so when you put all of them together, it becomes a bit overwhelming.  I liken it to a phrase a friend of mine coined in relation to the primarily-women's hobby of crafting and scrap-booking.  He referred to it as "the money-sucking cult".  I can't say I disagree, but then I have sunk literally thousands of dollars into my CD, vinyl album, video game, and DVD collections over the last 15-20 years, so when my wife comes home with some new stamps, crafting paper, jewelry-making supplies and beads, etc. I just sigh and realize that I am just as guilty of indulging my own expensive hobbies.

About 2 years ago, however, I decided to finally "take the plunge" where comics were concerned by purchasing nearly every issue (at the time) of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book series for Season 8.  For the uninitiated, the TV show (my favorite of all time) ended after 7 seasons, but creator Joss Whedon carried it on via the ink and print medium, and because he was involved and it was considered "canon", I felt I could no longer hold off and went for it.  About $70 later I had a large stack of comics that I read through quickly and marveled at the artwork, enjoyed the witty Whedon dialogue, and was impressed by just how accurately this medium could reflect what I had come to love so much about the TV show, minus the moving pictures and audible speech.  After that, I went back and collected as any of the "V" comic books I could find (yes, based on the short-lived "V" TV series from the 80s) as well as the 2nd Krull comic (I have the first one around this house somewhere...) and the first couple issues of the Mega Man comic, as detailed here.  So while I can't consider myself a "hardcore" collector at this point, I must say I'm enjoying this new collection and this medium in general.

Something that has developed over the last several years has been the proliferation of webcomics, a new trend whereby artists either put their comics online for free, or support their art via advertising on their websites, etc.  Most webcomics I've read are the funny kind, reflecting perhaps more crass or open-ended versions of what we read in the daily newspaper.  However, some are more expansive works, challenging the boundaries of what comics are or can be.  This could be either via a complex storyline, something unique with the art, or just the presentation and the way the comic comes across.  Such is the case with a recent discovery I made called Supermassive Black Hole A* (or just A* for short).  This particular work is by an artist I have been heretofore unfamiliar with, named Ben Chamberlain.

Ben takes on the world of science fiction, which is nothing new for comics.  However, the thing I really like about his work here with A* is that Ben blends a sort of mildly retro science fiction aesthetic with a minimalist approach in the art  and dialogue.  The artwork in the series reflects an interesting kind of style that, if I had to describe in one sentence, would be a sort of "Aeon Flux noir".  That's not a fitting description by any stretch, but the characters and figures do have that sort of Aeon Flux, or Heavy Metal motion picture feel about them, with overtly long, lanky figures contrasting with short, stout, stumpy figures with exaggerated features.  It's a fitting design concept, given the storyline that the comic is telling.  The other thing I like is the fact that it's all black and white.  I do like my comics in color whenever possible, but really, A* NEEDS to be devoid of color, because of the story it's telling, the inherent darkness in the plot, and just the overall presentations begs for that approach.  Impressive stuff, and something I look forward to seeing as the work develops.

You only wish you could draw something this cool.

The story thus far is also interesting and engaging.  I won't get too detailed here, so as not to spoil the fun for anyone who might be intrigued at this point, but suffice to say, it will suck you in and leave you wanting more.  Had I discovered the comic when it first debuted, I might have been less prone to checking out each "slide" individually, but going through the first couple chapters, I was drawn in by the art style, engaging characters, and overall presentation.  Once you're into the story quite a ways, it throws you for a complete loop.  What you think you've been reading up to that point in the story, and where you believe the story is headed?  You're completely wrong, unless you have keener observatory skills than I.  That's all I can say without ruining the surprise, but trust me, you won't want me to.  At any rate, the semi-gritty storyline has a sort of quiet, Blade Runner like unease about it that should please fans of science fiction that has more to it than the generic comic book fare.  Ben's description of "hard sci-fi webcomic" is accurate, so be aware that there is coarse language, for those of you squeamish about such things.

As of this writing, the comic is in the 17th episode/chapter, which is not yet complete.  For those wanting to check out the web comic, I would highly encourage they start from the very beginning.  You'll get a better sense of the storyline and get to watch it develop like I did, and you'll also get to see the progression in the quality of the artwork and the level of detail included in the artwork, even within the framework of this somewhat minimalist approach.  It works well, and I think with the continuous improvement in artwork and detail, this webcomic could be a major head-turner in the field.  I look forward to watching this series continue to grow and see how the story plays out.  Unfortunately, this series is so young that there isn't much in the way of merchandise you can buy, though Ben does sell signed sketches and prints.  I am hoping once he has enough of the story compiled he'll do a "trade paperback" style release so we can buy it in print.  You can even get t-shirts, how cool is that?  So what are you waiting for, go read it!?  If you're a fan of science fiction, I think you'll be glad you did.

Mortification - Scribe of the Pentateuch (2012)

Mortification has been a staple of the Christian metal scene since 1990 when the band was formed from a re-grouped iteration of Australian power metal band Lightforce.  Due to the heavier, more European aggressive thrash style they had adoption, they changed the name to reflect the grittier, heavier and more pounding direction they would take.  Ultimately, this led to their highly regarded proto-death metal eponymous debut, and the record largely regarded as the band's magnum opus, the still effective death metal release "Scrolls of the Megilloth".  I still love that album, and while I prefer the more exploratory and progressive follow-up album "Post Momentary Affliction", I get why people still fawn over Scrolls to this day, because 20 years later it's still a great listen.  After PMA and the departure of original drummer Jayson Sherlock, the band went through member and style changes ever couple years/albums, ever evolving from a heavy thrash outfit to a more gritty power metal style, to hybrid power and death metal, to more traditional metal, back to a thrash/death approach, then a bit more experimental with their previous album, ever so wittily titled "The Evil Addiction Destroying Machine".  That album has been largely panned, and while I get why some don't like it, I sort of enjoy the Motorhead-esque punk-metal thing that album has going on.  It had some gaps in songwriting that I felt kept it from being a more top-shelf Mortification release, but it's still a good listen once in a while.

Now as with any big name band, each successive album is always purported to be "heavier than the last" and the fans area always split on whether the latest album is "the best thing they've ever done" or "utter tripe, these guys should hang it up".  This latest EP falls into neither category, and perhaps that is its biggest weakness - it's not strong enough to herald the all-out return to heavy death metal that many fans have been waiting for nearly 20 years, but it's a good enough effort to show that Mortification still has life left in them, despite Steve Rowe's failing health after years of battling with cancer and the toll that has taken on him physically.  It's no secret that Mortification's music has been hit and miss since Steve's battle with cancer started, and while I own and enjoy nearly every album in their discography, there are a couple I rarely spin any more because they just don't measure up to what came before them, or even to some of the more recent material that has shown Steve put out 'workmanlike' albums, full of unremarkable-yet-solid songs.  This is no slight to Steve, as I consider myself a big Mortification fan through thick and thin, and have for the last 20+ years.  I am glad to see Steve trying some new things, even as he retreads past formulas here.

Musically, this is mostly thrash with leanings of the death metal Mortification is known for, along with an undercurrent of doom metal, and the usual classic metal and NWOBHM influences shining through.  But for the most part, this is Steve and company thrashing it up with as much energy as one might expect from a guy whose body has been weakened by disease.  In other words, this is mostly mid-paced thrash with some faster tempos here and there (especially in the first 2-3 tracks) with some frills.  Solo work by Lincoln Bowen is as good as it was in his prior tenure in the band, with lots of little bits here and there, though less full-on ripping solos than might be expected (with the exception of "In Garland Hall").  Riffing is good, with plenty of likable stuff that sounds good, with that edge that "EnVision EnVangeline" had, if not a bit grittier and "dirtier" sounding.  Newcomer Andrew Esnouf does a respectable job on the drums, sounding a bit like a less robotic and slightly more powerful version of former Morty skinsman Keith Bannister.  He has a few spots where he shines and shows that he could develop into a really great drummer if he tightens his attack, puts a little more force behind it, and mixes up the fills and such a bit more.  Steve's bass work is as quality as ever, and he even riffs pretty fast at times, which is nice to hear, given the diminished capacity one might expect to hear.  As always, he is up pretty high in the mix so you don't wonder where his bass is at.  That is one constant in all Mortification albums, really; you can always expect to hear Steve play his bass.

Lyrically, Steve plays it pretty straight for the most part, toning down his signature sense of cheeseball humor a bit for more straight-forward and serious  topics.  This is probably a good idea, as the previous album's lyrics tended toward the more obtuse (by Steve's standards, anyway), and sometimes his ideas didn't quite come across as clearly as they should have.  Vocally, Steve is in between the toned down death growls he has used here and there from "Triumph of Mercy" on, and the more straight-forward thrash/power metal voice on albums like "EnVision EnVangeline", "Hammer of God" or much of "Relentless".  It's good to hear him sounding a bit more "throaty" than recent albums, because his death growls on "Brain Cleaner" and "Erasing the Goblin" were a bit flat.  He also incorporates some almost black metal sounding stuff on the title track and in spots during "Weapons of Mass Salvation", which is a nice/interesting touch.  Also, this is probably the first time we've heard a layered vocal approach since "Post-Momentary Affliction", which I am glad to hear.  That was an aspect of PMA and Scrolls that I always enjoyed, so it's good he's digging that out of the bag of tricks again.  Something that I must mention is the clean vocals during "In Garland Hall" and "The White Death", because they're a bit strange - they have a bit of a doom vibe to them (hence the earlier comment), and they sound almost like they're just slightly (and I mean slightly) off-key.  Once you hear the songs a few times they make sense and fit well, but the first couple times you spin the CD you might do a double-take wondering whether or not those vocals "fit" the music.  But in the end, they work because Steve has a funny way of adding elements like that which don't add up on paper, but somehow come out sounding fine, if not good.

This is technically an EP, which includes several "bonus" tracks from other Mortification releases in the 2000's, though it only covers from 2002's "Relentless" forward, taking one track from each.  The picks are good overall, though the choice of "Elasticized Outrage" from "The Evil Addiction Destroying Machine" is fitting, if a bit curious.  I might have gone with one of the other tracks, though given the context of the new tracks on this EP, it fits well.  If you already own the other albums, these new tracks won't be any more than just an excuse to play the CD longer, but if not, they're a good introduction to the other material from the band over the last 10 years.  The real meat and potatoes here are the 6 new tracks, and overall they're quality.  They sound good, production-wise, though part of me wishes Steve would go the modern production route a bit more and give the material a bit more "beefy" sound, but I suppose since this is mostly thrash and mid-paced metal in a very classic vein, it makes more sense to give it a more authentic "live" feel.  I enjoyed this CD quite a bit, but that's me as a long-time Mortification fan talking.  If you're unfamiliar with the band, I'd recommend any of their first 5 or 6 albums as a more fitting introduction, if only to hear the band at their absolute peak.  If you gave up on Mortification after they quit playing death metal and have decided to give the thrash iteration of the band a try, this is a good place to start, since it includes not only solid new tracks, but also sample tracks from several other recent albums.  Mileage will vary, even among the Mortification faithful, so I will tentatively give this a hearty recommendation and say approach with caution only if you hate "Christian" metal or can't let go of "Scrolls of the Megilloth" and wish this was "Scrolls 2".  If that's you, I say come into the now - you might enjoy it here.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kekal - 8

"Oh, how the mighty have fallen."  This is a common expression, and one that in metal music circles (or perhaps niche music circles in general) gets used a lot.  Some might speculate that it is used too much.  Fans of some bands or musical styles have little tolerance for change, even though artistry is all about growth and change within the context of one's art.  Having said that, I understand the penchant for fans to decry a new album from an old favorite, especially when the band in question sounds little like the band of old.  Anyone even remotely familiar with rock music will know all about Metallica's "sellout" accusations, and many other groups who pioneered a specific sound or genre are often lambasted when they put out a by-the-numbers album years later that lacks the vitality of their early material.  Fans tend to forget, however, that at 40+ years of age, you can't really recapture the exuberance of youth or even replicate it.  The best you can hope for is for your art to continue to be vital and interesting.

In the case of Kekal, many fans were upset when they shifted in 2002 from the black metal sound they had on their 1st 2 releases to a much more experimental and "avant-garde" sound with their album "The Painful Experience".  They continued that trend with 2003's "1000 Thoughts of Violence" and the 2005 release "Acidity".  By that point, very little evidence of the earlier black metal sound remained.  2007 brought "The Habit of Fire", and then 2008 saw the release of what most thought would be the last Kekal album, "Audible Minority".  The release itself was fraught with contractual and other issues, which led to the cancellation of the planned special edition digipak, and the eventual dissolution of the band.  This was unfortunate, because although "Audible Minority" was not the group's best effort, it was a bold move forward away from the more metallic sounds of earlier records, and into a far more electronic-based sound that was interesting and layered.  I was a bit taken aback the first couple times I listened through "Audible Minority" at first, but found it to be a logical and worthy follow-up to the brilliant "The Habit of Fire" release.

So after "breaking up" in a sense, the Kekal camp went dark for a couple years.  2010 saw information coming to light about a possible new Kekal project, though they weren't a "band" in the classic sense.  Now, Kekal was calling itself an "entity", merely a group of people collaborating and making music together in some fashion.  Sounds fairly pretentious to me, as many "bands" are truly just collaborations, often overseas and via email, etc.  Still, I was excited to hear that the Kekal name and sound would live on.  However, I was hoping that with some downtime and introspection, they would come roaring out of the chute again with an album that would knock my socks off, or at least give me a lot of listening enjoyment like the rest of their discography has.  Sadly, it's not all I was hoping for.

I have no problem with Kekal's continued move into eletronic music territory because they still base a fair bit of the sound in the guitar world, and the layering they use is part of what Kekal has become over the last 10 years, so I'll get that out on the table now.  What has always drawn me to Kekal, since I discovered them post-black metal, is their ability to layer the various elements together to form an interesting and cohesive sound.  Over the last several albums, Kekal has continue to evolve and morph their sound in interesting ways, but with "8", I just don't feel like they're progressing.  Many of the electronic elements feel like re-treads of 1990's industrial music, but not in a particularly exciting way.  I don't have the same joy in listening to these elements as they're presented here that I did when I first heard Nine Inch Nails or Circle of Dust.  Instead, the electronics come across as very rote.  There are some good ideas present, and there is creative use of electronics here and there, as well as some bits that remind me of video game company Taito's "house" band ZUNTATA (in a good way).  Unfortunately, these flashes of brilliance and real interest are not the dominant pieces.  Instead, the CD contains a lot of filler also-ran electro beats and drone-like industrial noise elements that go nowhere.  Rather than building and layering, which is a cornerstone of the techno/EBM and industrial styles, this stuff often sort of meanders aimlessly, never really climaxing into any sort of useful culmination of elements or effective movement.  This is disappointing, because I know Jeff and company are better than this.

The part that makes this particularly frustrating is that the good songs on here are some of Kekal's standout tracks, such as opener "Track One", the interesting "A Linear Passage" with it's 80's Transformers-esque "Soundwave" voice, and the album's de-facto single "Tabula Rasa", which is quite possibly one of the most brilliant things Kekal has ever released.  But promising tracks like "Gestalt Principles of Matter Perception" start great and have real flow to them, but then half-way through drift off into the meandering electronics I mentioned earlier, never truly "going anywhere" but ending unceremoniously and without any real or logical conclusion.  It could be said that Kekal is trying something new and pushing the envelope, but why push the artistic envelope if the song leaves the listener unsatisfied?  The instrumental-only segments also tend to drone on without purpose, again, failing to truly captivate or go anywhere musically.  That's not to say the album fails completely, because there is good material here.  But I feel as though there's not enough strong material to overlook the songs that just don't hold up upon repeated listens.  The distinct sense of atmosphere isn't as strong here either, so with as electronics-focused as this album is, also brings down the overall feel of the release.  "End Unit of the Universe" only serves to highlight this, as it closes the album out with nearly 9 minutes of mostly directionless white noise and distortion.

Anyone into Kekal also knows that Jeff's clean vocals are an acquired taste, but they work perfectly with the sort of "uneasy", almost Voivod-esque weirdness that abounds in their material.  To be fair, Jeff doesn't sound any better or worse here than on any previous Kekal release, but when the material is less exciting, the flaws in his vocal sound and style are more apparent, and there is nothing left to mask his limitations as a vocalist.  That said, he still gives a good overall performance, injecting enough emotion into the material to (at times) help overcome the limitations of the music he's singing along with.  There are moments (like in the aforementioned "Tabula Rasa") where Jeff really sounds great in context with the material, but overall, his limitations as a vocalist are more plainly shown here, which makes the weaker material all the more evident.

I have to say that as much as I was anticipating this release, I feel letdown by the end product.  If they had streamlined this into an EP instead, or perhaps waited and refined the songs a bit more, it could have been a stronger album.  I almost wish that they had picked the 4 or 5 really strong tracks here and maybe waited and added "Futuride" from the follow-up EP, and that would have been a strong 6-song release to announce Kekal's return to recording.  I would have been quite satisfied with that, because it would have presented a much more cohesive release with a better overall sense of direction than what the album ultimately became.  It's a shame, really, because Kekal is, and has been, a near-continuous fountain of creativity and interest.  This album partially sinks under the weight of its own ambition, because they're unable to generate enough interest with the tracks as they're presented to truly sustain the listener through the entire process.  At least, that was my experience.  I must also note that I held off in writing this review for a LONG time, listening to the CD quite a lot and ensuring there was ample time for the material to "sink in" before I just dismissed it outright.  While my initial disappointment has been slightly abated by subsequent spins, this still isn't up to the standards Kekal have set for themselves.  I am confident that Jeff and company can move past this and create something more musically interesting and fulfilling, because this is truly the only misstep in an otherwise blindingly brilliant catalog.  I can only recommend this to the Kekal faithful, or to those who appreciate electronic music so much so as to overlook some rather glaring flaws in its construction.


Game On! Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992, Gameboy)

Nintendo did something right when they released the original Super Mario Land early in the life of the Game Boy.  While they may have faltered at releasing high quality, timeless Mario titles early in the life of all their consoles (Gamecube, anyone?), no one can fault them for what they brought to the Game Boy at launch.  Curiously, however, it took over 3 years to bring the sequel to market.  Nintendo only allowed 2 years between the first NES Super Mario Bros title and it's pseudo-sequel, Super Mario Bros 2 (the full saga of that game can be seen elsewhere on the web), and it's follow-up, the incomparable Super Mario Bros 3.  But the longest wait for a Mario sequel during the 8-bit era was on the Game Boy, with this title.

Now THAT's a title screen.

So was a 3 and a half year wait worth it?  I would say overwhelmingly yes.  This game is not without its flaws, but it's a quality title that plays well and has a lot to offer.  Where the original game played much like the original Super Mario Bros, but in different worlds and slightly different mechanics, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins plays like a scaled down version of Super Mario World for the SNES, mixed with Super Mario Bros 3.  The game has a large map that stretches out over several areas, with several large "landmarks" that contain their own small game maps with several levels to complete.  Each of these landmarks is a separate "zone" that is based around a specific theme.  The "Mario Zone" plays like you would expect, with traditional Super Mario platforming elements and a variety of enemies, some familiar, and some new.  The "Macro Zone" sees Mario platforming through areas where everything is larger than he is - giant Lego type blocks, giant books, coffee tables that are taller than he is, and more.  The "Tree Zone" has Mario jumping around through trees and hanging leaves in the sky, jumping on large ants and ladybugs, and jumping from one small cloud to another.  In all, there are 6 zones to complete, each corresponding to one of the 6 golden coins you need to open the door to the large castle on the tall hill, inhabited by Wario, a now familiar character that was first introduced by this title.  Each zone has roughly 3-4 stages to complete, and some zones have a middle stage that has more than 1 way to exit the level.  If you find the secret level exit, you are taken to another level outside that stage where you can earn extra coins and complete more of the game, though these side stages aren't necessary to beat the game.

Apparently, Sasaraland has Shark Week too!

Graphically, this game is far and away superior to its predecessor.  Much like SMB2 and SMB3 trounced their predecessor in terms of graphic design and bright colors, SML2 takes Mario from a small sprite to the large, detailed and animated Mario we all know and love.  He shares that same smiley look as he had in SMB3, and appears pleased as punch to be taking on the task before him, as always.  Koopas and Goombas are well done, and the other enemies introduced are well animated too, with that typical 8-bit Super Mario look and feel.  Scenery is nice and recalls some of the SMB2, SMB3 and SMW flavor to it, but because each zone has its own theme, also has much of its own nuance as well.  The bosses, being separate from the typical Koopa motif, are also nicely drawn and animated, having a very cartoonish look about them.

Ring that little bell instead of just going through the door, and
you'll get a chance to score power-ups or 1ups in the bonus game.

Musically, the game takes a page from Super Mario World, in that many of the themes are recycled, in slightly different ways throughout each zone.  The music is done well, overall, with typically bouncy, happy themes reminiscent of other Mario adventures.  And these tunes are catchy too.  Fair warning: some of the songs will be stuck in your head hours after you've turned off the Game Boy.  Sound effects are good, having a familiar Mario vibe to them, but done in a way that the Game Boy sound hardware can handle.  The short ditty that plays just before a boss battle is just spooky enough to put you on your toes, and there's even a spot where the "underground" theme from the first Super Mario Land is recalled in sort of a "remixed" fashion, similar to how the original SMB underground theme was remixed for some underground spots in SMB3.  Overall, the Game Boy sound hardware is utilized well.

That's a lot of territory for Mario to cover...

Gameplay is as you would expect from Nintendo and for a Mario game.  Control is pretty good overall, with a fair bit of precision and responsiveness.  You'll find yourself quite at home with this title if you've played any other Super Mario adventure, and the learning curve is pretty low.  There is one new power-up introduced here, which is the bunny ears.  Collect a carrot, and you'll have bunny ears you can flap by repeatedly pressing the jump button.  This will help you to float over large areas of spikes or pits.  Fireballs are powerful as well - some blocks can be destroyed by them.  You also get the spin jump made famous in Super Mario World, which can also destroy some blocks, and which you'll need to use to clear some spots or on certain enemies.  There is a fair bit of upward platforming, and a lot of left-to-right platforming, but the stages don't have the kind of size and scope of their NES and SNES brethren, as can be expected.  There is more depth with the stages than the first SML, however.

Mario's not digging this level.

So how does this all stack up?  Well, I'd love to say this was the 'perfect' Mario adventure in portable form, but I'd be lying.  There are a few minor annoyances that keep this from being a perfect 10.  Namely, once you've collected all 6 golden coins and you can enter the castle, if you die enough times and lose all your lives, you also lose all 6 coins, which means in order to re-enter the castle again, you have to beat all 6 bosses and re-collect all 6 coins.  Now, I understand that in older Mario games you had to play straight through from beginning to end with no saves, but this game's structure is modeled after Super Mario World with the expansive map, multiple zones and automatic game saves.  Making you re-conquer all 6 bosses again because you couldn't complete the last area is a bit excessive, considering this is a portable game.  In addition, Wario's castle is much harder without the bunny ears through the bulk of the level, so if you don't learn how to perfect each spot in the castle, you'll find yourself replaying several stages just to earn coins to play the slot machine where you can win power-ups so you can win bunny ears again to go back to the castle.  This is more a personal gripe, because the castle itself is somewhat unforgiving, but it's worth mentioning.  And even though I felt a deep satisfaction after beating Wario at the end, I didn't feel as though the reward (the credit roll) was as nice or rewarding as that of this game's predecessor.  Your mileage may vary, so keep in mind, these are somewhat personal issues.  More troublesome is that 4 years after the introduction of the hardware, there's a fair bit of slowdown on the screen when even just 2 or 3 enemies are present at once - couldn't Nintendo have found a way to optimize the code a bit to help alleviate such a thing?  There are more fast-action games on the platform that have less slowdown than this title, so it's definitely disappointing.

All in all, however, this is still the premier Mario title for the original monochrome Game Boy, my personal love for Super Mario Land notwithstanding.  It's an absolute must-own for any Game Boy owner's library, and a must-play for anyone interested in the roots of portable gaming's modern era.  If you haven't picked this one up, it can be had relatively inexpensively.  I've seen listings (cart only) from as low as $3 up to around $15.  I'd recommend not paying any more than that unless you're getting the manual, or a complete copy, as this game sold well (upwards of 11 million worldwide) and is not rare by any stretch.  Don't get bamboozled into paying $20 or more for a dirty, cart-only copy!  But no matter how much or little you pay, this game is one you'll want to have in your Game Boy library.  Essential!


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Game On! "Earth Defense/The Earth Defend" for Sega Genesis

Many are the chronicles of bad games.  Between the myriad websites reviewing games of any kind, to the more specific sites that drill down to a certain console or era of gaming, there's no getting around the fact that every single game console has had its share of truly awful software.  Some games make you feel ashamed of being a gamer after you play them, others just cause you to marvel at what the programmers were thinking when they allowed their names to be stamped on such a pile of garbage.  The Angry Video Game Nerd has made a name for himself purely through playing, reviewing, and endlessly mocking terrible games.  And rightfully so - many of these titles were ones we either spent $3.50 to rent over a weekend (that sadly, we'd never get back), or worse, $40+ to purchase, only to discover that our newly purchased game was actually worth about as much as the rocks in the alleyway behind our house.  Either way, bad games are a part of every gamer's journey.  But truly bad games?  Those are special.

The Sega Genesis was not known for unlicensed titles like the NES was, but it had a handful of games that should have never made it out of the development stage.  I'm not sure if the folks at Realtec thought that they had a real winner on their hands, or if they were just trying to cash in on the shoot-em-up craze of the early 1990's, but whatever the reason, this game just defies all logic and reason as far as design, choices in game mechanics, sound design, graphics, and overall presentation.  First things first: if the box art didn't put you off, consider yourself lucky.  Maybe I'm being harsh, but it looks like a fleshed out version of what some 8th grader might have drawn in 1990 during a boring class.  And while it's reasonably colored and shaded, the perspectives are goofy, the art style overdone (and underdone, really), and it's just very amateurish.  Sure, Realtec tried to keep the two-tone red stripe motif Sega had going by that point (1993), but it doesn't do them any favors alongside that dreadful artwork.  Flip the box over and you're treated to the worst kind of low-rent hyperbole that makes it obvious when adults are trying to pander to "kid sensibilities".  If you're an adolescent in 1993 reading this box, you're not getting excited about this 'awesome' game, you're rolling your eyes at the marketing ploy because you've already been duped during the NES and Master System days - you know what you're getting yourself into and you're not falling for this nonsense.

Open the box and you'll see another bad sign: the cartridge is too small for the spot it sits in.  Yeah, it sorta stays in place, but when the box is obviously for a standard size Genesis cart, and you have a short stumpy version of what Electronic Arts was doing with Genny carts, you know corners were cut.  Realtec obviously bought some stock cart boxes and completely discounted the fact that the game cart they were producing was not the right size for the case they intended to put it in.  I realize this is a minor point when looking at the overall picture, but it's just another in a multitude of sins committed here in the name of gaming.  Slide your vision to the left from the cartridge compartment to the manual, and you'll see an even bigger atrocity.  The game is no longer called 'Earth Defense', but now the manual says it's 'The Earth Defend'.  THE EARTH DEFEND?  Could it be any more obvious that this is the product of some cheap, Taiwanese backroom operation?  In addition, the plane depicted on the manual is different than that on the cart and box art, and suddenly we've switched from a drab, lifeless color palette to bright vibrant colors, and from crude hand-drawn art to what appears to be digital art done on a computer of some sort.  The nail in the coffin is the fact that the manual is TOO LARGE to fit in the vertical space provided by the box.  Yes, it's about a half-inch too tall, so instead of making a couple design tweaks and re-printing, Realtec simply left the manuals "as-is" and squished them into the box.  Disgraceful.  And here's the best part: I haven't even got to the game itself yet!

Stylin' boxart, dude!

Uh, Houston, we have a problem...

I love this manual.  It's so bad.

So if you're brave enough to put the cartridge in your system, as I was some 10 years ago when I bought this abomination, you're treated to a super-cheesy intro with overly simplistic music, a giant plane on the screen that gets WAY too much screen time, a horribly under-cooked musical bit, and a very underwhelming overall first impression.  If this was on an NES, I'd be impressed, but I've been enjoying Lightening Force, Elemental Master, and other top-shelf Genesis shooters for years, so this falls short of expectations right away.  However, not being a first impressions guy, I forge ahead.  The title screen once again shows the plane as depicted on the manual (not the box/cart), and says 'The Earth Defend' with some Kanji characters above it, clearly indicating that this was pretty much a straight conversion with no frills.  The title screen's theme is probably the most catchy tune in the whole game, and that's another bad sign.  Feeling brave, I pressed Start, only to be greeted by a large map screen showing me my first destination.  Of course, the map is not indicative of my ship's trajectory or path like that of Ghosts 'n Goblins or something similar.  No, this map is purely utilitarian, to show me that my ship is actually flying somewhere, not just randomly blasting stuff along an aimless flight path.  Thanks for clearing that up, Realtec, I thought I might be mowing down civilians or taking out everything in my path, but now I know that I have specific targets.

At least they're asking 'Please', right?

Dude, have you ever seen an intro so cool?  I didn't think so.

If my first impressions were underwhelming, then my second impressions are downright tepid.  Control is reasonably tight, but with goofy enemy attack patterns and relatively cramped area to work in, tight control is not exactly a saving grace.  The music playing in the background is banal, and never grabs your attention long enough to do anything but make you glad it's not grabbing your attention.  Graphics are 'serviceable', but little more, as the pixelated, less than interesting scenery scrolls by in the background, content to be nothing more than a backdrop for the shoot-em-up action going on.  No parallax scrolling, no layers or even effects going on?  By 1993, this should have been a requirement to make a quality shmup on the Genesis, but Realtec threw the rule book out the window.  Your pea shooter is sufficiently under-powered when you get it, like many early weapons, but you quickly discover that the only road to success is to either choose the 'wave' weapon due to its forward fire and relatively destructive power, or to be brave and go for the 3-way shot, which is pathetically weak until it's powered up about 2 or 3 times.  If you die, you lose that weapon and go back to the pea shooter, and usually it happens when you need it most.

Apologies to the random gaming site I took this snapshot from.
Graphically, I think Fire Shark had a leg up on this game 3 years earlier...

Nearly indestructible enemies are present in the first level as well, in the form of these armored soldier suits that look like they were left over from M.U.S.H.A. or maybe Robo Aleste.  Powering up several times will allow you to take them out, but don't count on being able to do so enough in the first level, let alone keep those power-ups.  Add to this, the aforementioned goofy attack patterns, and the fact that sometimes the enemies and bullets filling the screen make maneuvering more than a challenge.  This is common in shmups, to be sure, but this game just doesn't execute it well, as tight spaces and inescapable situations are far too common.  On top of that, the Genesis is somehow pushed to the limit by the number of simultaneous on-screen sprites, which means that slowdown abounds.  This is often helpful in some games, giving you a bit more reaction time to move into a safe area, but here it just means you watch your death more slowly and painfully.

Apologies to Sega-16 for this screenshot thievery.

Bosses in the game are a joke as well - with your pea shooter they take forever.  If you're powered up 2-3 levels it's not quite so bad, but the best option is to use the special attack, which basically puts up a 'fire forcefield' around the ship and allows you to move around for several seconds unharmed.  It doesn't appear that this forcefield does much damage however, so the best way to down bosses with this tactic is to get up 'in their face'.  This exposes another major flaw of the game: the fire rate of the ship.  Your ship's fire rate, based on the strength of any non-popcorn enemies, is woefully slow, and even though Realtec included autofire, they didn't make it fast enough to make you feel like you're gaining much.  Using a joystick with a variable turbo/autofire control can help this, but out of the gate it's not very balanced.  The real flaw, however, is that your ship fires faster as you approach the top of the screen.  I've seen this in many shooters, though generally the rate of fire coincides with both the proximity to the top of the screen AS WELL AS the proximity to incoming enemies.  This can be a very helpful tool when enemies are bearing down on you, or when you can kamikaze attack a boss to get more shots in.  However, when the fire rate increases ONLY when you approach the top of the screen, it makes boss fights more frustrating/annoying than they need to be, especially if you have no forcefield activations left.

Music and sound are just as laughable.  Despite the fact that there are 4 different weapon types, the shot sound is the EXACT SAME THING for all of them.  What is this, 1985?  Adding insult to injury is the fact that it's a high-pitched annoying sound as well, rather than something satisfying to hear when shots are fired like you might expect from a good Genesis shmup.  All the music is so basic, and the tunes are highly repetitive.  That's okay when the tracks are good and you enjoy getting them stuck in your head, but these songs just aren't well composed, nor are they catchy or memorable in any way.  They're totally forgettable.  The sound effects otherwise are basic - explosions sound like crumpling of cardboard, your ship doesn't blow up in a blaze of glory but in a tinny little pop, and sound otherwise is incredibly sparse.  Graphically, if you haven't figured out by the screenshots already, it's a pretty boring affair.  Bright colors don't count for much when the scenery isn't interesting, and when you fly over mountains and plateaus in level 2 that are as pixelated as they come, you know you're playing something that should have been a launch title, not a game released during the apex of the console.  Your plane has exactly three frames of animation - left turn, right turn, and head-on.  Not much development effort for the actual character sprite, despite the fact that it's so huge that the hitbox is massive.

This game just reeks of poor design, under-developed ideas, low production values, no proper translation of the game's title and manual before hitting the Western market, and the list goes on.  When you add it all up, it equals a frustrating game that isn't much fun.  There's fun to be had when playing with another person in the "Let's play this terrible game so we can laugh at it and see how far we get" kind of Saturday afternoon mode.  However, I've only ever seen fit to subject one person to this mess, and he was a willing participant in the aforementioned methodology.  However, I'm hoping that I won't have to do so again, and that my review is enough of a warning sign to ward off those who might be looking to pick up a shooter they don't have in their collection.  If you're looking for a copy merely to own as a curiosity, knock yourself out.  If you actually want to play it, I pray that shmup fans everywhere will be strong enough with the force to avoid this steaming pile known as Earth Defense.  I mean...The Earth Defend.  I mean...nevermind.  (Waves hand).  This is not the game you're looking for...


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Gamut - tonight's playlist!!!

No premiers or giveaways this week, but a great lineup of tunes! Tune in at 9 PM EST and listen in via !

Tonight's playlist!
Sympathy - Occupy (Death Metal)
Angel 7 - Everyhting That Is Necessary... (Black/Power/Thrash Metal Hybrid)
Prodigal - Easy Street (New Wave/Rock)
Nailed - Hell To Pay (Groove Metal)
The Choir - Flowing Over Me (Alternative Rock)
Rez - Attention (Female-fronted Hard Rock)
Screams of Chaos - Universal Chaos (Industrial Death Metal)
Kashee Opeiah - Similar to a Fairy Tale (Metalcore)
Pax 217 - Move on This (Rapcore)
Earth From Above - Salvage (Deathcore)
PK Mitchell - Oh, How I Love Jesus (Hard Rock/Metal)
Thresher - One Way Out (Thrash Metal)
The Deal - Hang 'Em High (Punk)
First Strike - Money (Classic Metal/Hard Rock)
Loudflower - Always Tomorrow (Alternative Rock)
Deitiphobia - Dancing Messiah (Industrial)
Thieves & Liars (Hard Rock)
Through Solace - Almost (Metalcore)
The Seventy Sevens - Outskirts (Alternative Rock)
Darkwater - Into the Cold (Progressive Metal)
Servant - Water Grave (Classic Rock)
Majestic Vanguard - Take Me Home (Power Metal)
Mortification - Extradiefor (Thrash Metal)
Admonish - Journey Into Afterlife (Melodic Black/Death Metal)
The Sacrificed - Regeneration (Power Metal)
Believer - Shadow of Death (Technical Thrash Metal)
Encryptor - Vomit Congretation (Death Metal)
Stryper - Everything (Melodic Metal/Hard Rock)
The Right Wing Conspiracy - Mental Block (Grindcore)
System Breakdown - A Little More of Everything (Metal)
Life In Your Way - Buried Idols (Melodic Metalcore)
The Way - A Cowboy's Dream (Jesus Rock)
Siloam - My Pal Judas (Commercial Metal)
Kosmos Express - Emotional (Alternative Rock)
Exegesis - Desde el Infierno (Symphonic Black Metal)
Fluffy - Life Through Death (Punk)
Arnion - Fall Like Rain (Thrash Metal)
Neon Cross - Heartbreaker (Classic Metal)
Besieged - Written Promises (Metalcore)

Don't forget to visit during the show to login for station chat (you can sign in with your Twitter or Facebook account!) and chat with me and other listeners during the show!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cinema Fancy - The Hunger Games

I'm not much of a reader, I'll be honest.  I read a LOT at work, being in Information Technology, and much of it is dry research.  So when I read outside of the office, it's often just articles on the internet or blog posts about my hobbies, much like the stuff I write for this site.  As such, it's not in my nature to go after novels, regardless of how engaging their storyline might be, because casual or recreational reading is just not something that interests me.  I feel no shame in this, it's just not my speed.  I'm more of a comic book guy.  But there are books I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, and there are times I wish I had more motivation to read.  As much as my wife and I have enjoyed the Harry Potter series of movies, there are times when I wish I had read the novels to get an idea of where they differed from the movies.  When I saw the three Lord of the Rings films, I was tempted to go back and re-read the books.  And though I know the 1985 Dune film took MANY liberties (I still love it!), I have read and enjoyed the first novel immensely.  Still, I'd generally much rather watch the "Cliff's Notes" version of the novel in the movie and get the general synopsis and essential story points where I can.


Okay, so it's bordering on trendy at this point to talk about this movie.  I get it.  And no, I'm not trying to get in on the trend, but I was really intrigued by the movie's premise, based on what I had heard about with the books, and the fact that it seemed like a fleshed out version of a short story I read during high school about a "lottery" where someone's name was drawn at random out of the village and eliminated because it was a custom, not just because of a hunger issue or some political ploy.  In any event, the concept itself was interesting enough for me to warrant wanting to go see the movie, at the very least.  With that in mind, my wife and I, along with a couple friends, went to see the movie a week or so ago and I've had time to ruminate on it.

Without going into too much detail or over-simplifying the plot, the story centers around what is essentially a post-World War III country that is made up of what was North America and several large territories or districts.  Each of these districts seem to be made up of a very polarized class-based society where there's a very large divide between the "haves" and "have nots" of the day.  The "haves" want for very little with their lavish clothing and hairstyles, and overabundance of food and amenities.  The "have nots" are left doing all the more menial tasks such as coal mining.  They also end up having to hunt for their food sometimes, as they are often without much food.  This is where we discover the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as she is hunting for food for her family due to an absent father and mother who can't function too well on her own.

"The Hunger Games" ares an annual occurrence whereby one male and one female child from each district is chosen at random to participate in a savage contest that pits the youths against one another until only one youth remains alive.  It is a game of fear that allows the "haves" to more easily subjugate the "have nots".  Poor districts (like the one Katniss is from) have kids thrown into the contest primarily as fodder, while richer districts have kids that train for the games all their lives and essentially volunteer for service in the games as a way to honor their district.  Katniss is the first to volunteer from her poverty-stricken district, but only because her younger sister was the one chosen to be in the games.  Thankfully for Katniss, her prowess with the bow and arrow gives her an advantage over just the average kid.

I'm pretty handy with this thing, so don't cross me!

There are a lot of socio-political undertones and overtones in the film.  I think the agenda is largely a left-wing approach that shows the kind of overly classed society that happens when the scales are tipped to far in favor of the upper class, thereby eliminating the middle class and creating the huge divide we see in the film.  I don't necessarily think that the left-wing political agenda works here, however, because it is precisely the more conservative, free-market economy approach that will keep this kind of society from forming.  Socialism, by its very nature, cannot succeed long term without total subjugation of its citizens, because eliminating the drive to succeed will ultimately stifle scientific, engineering, and other advances because the incentive to do so is gone for all but the most ardent, curious, and philanthropic of minds.  That said, this kind of socio-economic fallout would be expected following a major World War, though 74 years after the fact it's a bit hard to believe that there's still THIS much poverty rampant.

Politics aside, the storyline is almost tailor made to cause controversy and get dinner table conversations going.  How can a society, 70+ years after reconstruction following a Third World War, continue to participate in this kind of savagery?  That is the inevitable question that many moviegoers will be asking themselves, and for good reason.  Aren't we, as a society, above all that?  But then, this is not our society.  This is a different world born from different circumstances.  So you help control the lower class people by striking fear in the hearts of parents and children alike by continuing to punish them in this manner.  Why strive to succeed in a district where there's no money, because you can't rise above the poverty line.  Not to mention your kid might be whisked away to die some day in the games.  Life becomes more about pure survival than about relishing any real joy in it.

I was a bit surprised at how disaffected I was about the kids being killed.  Perhaps its because I went in knowing that, perhaps its because it was kids killing each other in a contest they knew they had no choice but to participate in, or perhaps it's because I am less affected by it than I might have been had I been 20 years younger.  The first time I saw The Terminator and watched Arnold smoke those 2 teenagers after appearing on Earth just so he could steal their clothes...well, let's just say I was shocked and a bit incensed.  Why would someone depict that in a movie?  It was only years later that I truly understood the perspective, and so it is that understanding that likely fuels this.  Not that kids dying doesn't affect me; it does.  But I think what affected me more than that is how nonchalant everyone else in the movie was about it, save for the main characters.  Notice how carefully things were planned for Katniss - she only directly killed a couple fellow youths when she was in immediate danger and her life was threatened.  The girl she killed indirectly by dropping the wasp nest down to the ground from the tree-tops wouldn't have happened if the girl wasn't actually allergic to the wasp stings, though Katniss knew that was a risk.  Most of the other kids killed heartlessly, because those that didn't die in the initial run were from the more affluent districts and were kids who had been training for the games their whole lives.  But what strikes me about Katniss and her District 12 accomplice is that they bend the rules as much as they can - never intentionally killing other kids just to win the contest, but actively avoiding conflict until absolutely necessary.  When Katniss honored District 11 by giving the girl Rue a posthumous send-off with flowers and a sign of respect for the cameras, it invoked the kind of outrage and outcry that moviegoers had probably been hoping for, even though the short-lived "revolution" that happens within District 11 is quashed ever so quickly by the police state's forces.

Peace out, homie.

Visually, the movie is at once lavish and understated.  I love the contrast between the impoverished districts and those flowing with riches.  I also love the contrasts between the clean, stylized environments of the district where the games are held and the outdoor locales where the games take place.  I also like how the movie sort of subtly recalls the outlandish, over-the-top fashion sense of Luc Besson's The Fifth  Element, one of my all-time favorite science fiction films.  In some ways, The Hunger Games as a storyline owes a debt to the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Running Man, whether the connection was intentional or purely accidental.  The casting choice was also smart, with a number of unknown names and a handful of actors still toiling in obscurity.  Wes Bentley is enjoyable as the game director, and newcomer Lenny Kravitz (yes, THAT Lenny Kravitz) is understated but plausible as the "celebrity stylist" hired to help make Katniss and her district partner more attractive to game supporters.  Elizabeth Banks is somewhat brilliant as the District 12 Hunger Games spokeswoman - she is gleefully overwrought and excessive, and a beautiful woman is transformed with make-up, hair and clothes (as well as character flaws) into somewhat of an ugly person.

Perhaps the thing that makes the movie so intriguing when it's all said and done, is that it gives us a glimpse into one of the possible futures we face if our world continues toward the path of turmoil, and affords us a unique opportunity to peer into the proverbial magic mirror to see what's to come.  Does this mean we'll have a highly divided class-based society and sacrifice children for the sake of government?  I can't say these things are outside the realm of possibility, given that human nature is more selfish than selfless, and in times where there's very little to go around, the greed of those who have all they need further exemplifies the destitution of those who don't.  As one who hasn't read the book series, I will be very curious to know what they're going to do with the next movie.  With this film having one of the best opening weekends of nearly any film in history, and with it still being a big deal weeks after its release, there's very little chance that a sequel isn't already in the planning stages, if not in the works.  I look very forward to what's coming next in this franchise, because this movie has sparked as much self-reflection in me as both Inception and Limitless - and that's a good thing.