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.