Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Vandroya - One (2012)

Female-fronted bands have become a "thing", in that they have become quite trendy over the last few years.  With high-profile groups like Evanescence, In This Moment, The Agonist, Lacuna Coil and others in the mainstream, there's no shortage of bands with female lead singers.  In the metal realm it's even more pervasive, with a large number of "gothic rock" or "gothic metal" bands having women as lead singers.  Several bands led the charge in the 1990's, including Nightwish, Lacuna Coil, and The Gathering, and with the combined success of those acts, many more groups started coming out of the woodwork.  Today, the market has been considered by metal fans to have been flooded with such bands, especially in the "gothic metal" scene.  Another growing area has been female-fronted power and progressive metal bands, and that's where Vandroya comes in.

Hailing from Brazil, this quintet has been around a few years, having released a demo in 2005, but only at the end of 2012 have we seen the band's debut album, "One".  Right out of the gate the band impresses with a nice logo, cool cover art (Felipe Machado), and a professional production courtesy of guitarist Marco Lambert and Heros Trench.  The addition of vocalist Daísa Munhoz to the band has made this a band to watch, not just because she is a woman vocalist in a metal band, but because her strong voice and ability makes this more than just "yet another female-fronted band".  Daísa has a natural ability that lends itself nicely to the band's style and material, and it will be interesting to see where they develop from here.

Instrumentally, this is quite competent.  Guitarists Marco Lambert and Rodolfo Pagotto have a solid grasp on melodicism, soloing without it becoming just speedy notes playing over a background, and a good overall sense of song construction.  The guitar sound is appropriate for this amalgamation of traditional heavy metal, power metal, and bits here and there where the music drifts slightly into progressive metal territory.  This approach keeps things interesting, because they don't really exist in any of those spaces entirely, but vacillate between them, which I think they do reasonably well.  It might feel to some as if the band doesn't entirely have an identity yet, but I think it suits them.  Bass by Gee Perlati is solid, never going for flashy runs, but sort of galloping along with the proceedings when speed is the order of the day, and rumbling in the mix when things slow down.  Gee's not doing anything you haven't heard before, but it's solid nonetheless.  Drum work by Otávio Nuñez is fairly good, with interesting bits here and there, nicely timed rolls and solid double-bass playing.  There are times that he reminds me just a bit of Murilo Marc from fellow Brazilian metallers Menahem, with well executed transitions and little pauses here and there to add effect.  There are also some nice keyboard and piano bits here and there, and little flourishes that give the album a bit more depth than just standard metal, which is nice to hear, particularly in "Within Shadows" when the song breaks down nearly halfway through for a minor piano diversion.

Daísa Munhoz has a good voice that is well utilized across this album.  She has a bit of Doro in her approach, in that she brings a bit of drama as well as including a bit of grit in the vocals here and there for some added aggression.  She can really sing, though, and I think she just might be one of the strongest female voices in metal from Brazil.  Of course, the spots where her vocals are double-tracked help that along, but it's apparent during verse sections where she's belting it out, or during slower, more mellow passages when her voice is more subtly applied.  Daísa has talent and she uses it well on the record.  She does kind of overuse certain tropes, i.e. specific wavering voice inflection or short vocal "runs" to highlight the end of a line in a verse or chorus, but that's a forgivable scenario considering the strength of her performance on this debut album.

Ultimately, the album is solid and quite listenable, but fails to catch fire as much as the band would like because the songs themselves aren't quite as distinctive as one would hope.  That's not so much a criticism as it is an observation of the band just getting started and still needing to find their voice.  Using "One" as an album title is either a lazy move, or somewhat pretentious, in that, despite the overall quality of the material, it's not good enough to title the album based simply on a number rather than choosing a title track.  The biggest flaw here is that the catchiest bits are the choruses when Daísa is belting out the notes over melodies that are somewhat memorable.  The rest of the material, while well played and having solid riffing, just doesn't stand out quite enough to stick in my head after I'm done listening.  For heavy metal and power metal in particular, this catchiness is a key element, and the band isn't quite there yet.  In a sea of quality power metal, Vandroya is still a small fish needing to soak in more influences and take more time to develop their songwriting before they'll have a real opus.  As it stands, however, "One" is a good listen and a solid way to start their career, showing that they have the talent and potential to go places if they take the time to develop their songwriting a bit more.  I will give this a tentative recommendation to those seeking quality female-fronted metal, or just looking for something new.  I enjoy listening to this, but I recognize the shortcomings for what they are.  I'd say this is a "try before you buy" release.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Eisley - Currents (2013)

Sometimes it's incredible to think that Eisley has been around as long as they have, considering that in terms of full-length studio albums, this is only their 4th.  Granted, there have been some problems with their former label (well documented elsewhere), and some relationship/marital problems were a roadblock between 2007's "Combinations" and 2011's excellent "The Valley".  True, the band was busy in the interim, with an EP release, touring, and so forth, but personal struggles and issues definitely got in the way.  And in some ways, I'm not sure that a new Eisley album each year would be something I'd want.  Some bands (depending on the depth of their material or the style they play) can release a new CD each year and audiences will eat it up.  But for a group like Eisley, despite the general immediacy of their music, each record requires multiple listens and time to let it "sink in" to truly appreciate what they're doing.

Such is especially the case with the band's most recent output, the appropriately titled "Currents".  The album follows an "ebb and flow" (sorry, couldn't resist) feel that centers around water as a metaphor of life and how it moves and changes.  While "Currents" may not be thematically cohesive enough to call a concept album, it's certainly more dense than previous works and has less immediacy in the material, requiring several listens to begin to understand the album.  Sure, the lead-off title track has a hooky chorus and the band's usual buoyant melodic sense, but the initial tone of the album is darker, even, than "The Valley" and may throw some listeners for a loop if they were expecting "The Valley" mark 2.  Ultimately, I think this works in the album's favor, because repeated listens will reveal the beauty within.

Instrumentally, Eisley is excellent as usual.  Guitar is a bit less a focus than before, as there are more layers and textures present here.  Specifically, the piano takes center stage quite a bit, and adds a lot to the sound of the album at a level that piano and keyboards haven't on previous Eisley releases.  Don't think there isn't some guitar to be found, here, however.  There are some nice bits here and there, between the echoing guitar ring in "Currents" and driving riff in that song's chorus, the clean-yet-dark tone of "Blue Fish", to the more jangly rhythms contained elsewhere, notably in "Millstone" or "Lost Enemies".  Overall, the guitar work here is quality, if a bit understated at times.  Drum work is also good here, with nice dynamics.  When songs need "punch" to them, like in the chorus of "Save My Soul", it's there, but they shrink back when necessary so as not to change the tone of the material.  I also applaud the band (wait for it...) for the use of cheesy hand claps in spots where it doesn't seem to make any sense to do so ("Save My Soul"), yet don't sound out of place while you're listening to them.  Bass sounds good here too, and is well utilized.  There are moments when bass drops out completely to allow the piano, drums, or guitars do their thing, and there are spots where the bass work is pretty minimal so as not to overwhelm the mix, but at other times the bass rhythms are quite complimentary to what's going on elsewhere in the song.  As mentioned before, piano and keyboards are often the dominant force on this record, and that is a bit of a change.  Piano & keyboard work has always been an integral part of the Eisley sound, but here there is just so much more key work that it really does outshine everything else in sheer presence.  Also more prominent here than before is the use of stringed instruments, and often to great effect.

Vocally, there's a bit less emphasis on the DuPree sisters' harmonies, though those are still present.  Instead, there's a bit of a shift toward vocals as an instrument, as there are a lot of non-word based vocalizations that fill in spots where one might expect a bridge, solo, or other song padding.  Being that this is a theme album, it works well in the context of "flowing water" and gives an aural representation of same, so I think it works well overall.  I'm not sure this approach would work as well on a standard album where the songs don't flow (I can't help myself) the way they do here, but I like this approach with the material here.  The individual vocal work is good, too, and there are some interesting melodic things going on, especially in the title track, and "Wicked Child".  I'm not sure this is there most boisterous performance (I still think the songs from "Room Noises" get that honor), but then the album's tone doesn't call for that.  Lyrically, the album tackles personal topics with some degree of metaphor, and touches on the band's faith at times ("Blue Fish" seems to touch on that).  "Save My Soul" is a bit obtuse, much like my favorite Eisley track, "Marvelous Things" from the debut album.  Other tracks, like "Real World", carry a much more universal message of love and the importance of strong relationships.  Some of the references to the "water" theme are quite subtle and don't add much to the overall theme, but that reinforces the fact that this isn't a concept album about water, but merely a batch of songs that sort of follow a thematic arch.  So while this might not be their "deepest" batch of lyrics (okay, I'll stop!), mileage will vary as to how much one is spoken to through them.

As I mentioned above, Eisley albums are not usually immediate affairs.  Their music is pretty instantly likable, but in terms of the songs on this album, I think they're the least instantly catchy batch they've put out so far.  Having said that, I also think this may be the best set of songs on any Eisley album, and I say that recognizing that "The Valley" was a really strong set of songs.  I'm still waiting for the band to repeat "Marvelous Things" with something else that deliciously weird and obtuse, but alas, they haven't done so yet.  In the meantime, they've written what I consider to be their strongest album.  It takes several listens to penetrate and really latch on to, but once you do, you may find yourself in the position I've been in the last several weeks - it doesn't leave your stereo or stray far from your playlist.  It's a rewarding album, and something I hope the band gets some traction from.  Despite the failure of their Kickstarter campaign to help fund the album's tour, I hope they can get out and play as many shows as their schedule allows them to, because this is good material that needs to be heard and appreciated.  How this stuff translates live will be interesting, because it's more involved than previous works.  Either way, they have set the bar high for the follow-up.  Highly recommended.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Privacy is a fallacy, but we still want it.

I could sum up the entirety of my sentiment on the subject of this article with simply it's title alone, but that would be laziness.  Instead, I'll muse a bit on my thoughts on privacy in the 21st century, and despite the grim outlook, I shall attempt to offer a glimmer of hope.  Privacy is something we all desire at some level, because really, the world doesn't need to know every intimate detail of our lives.  Having nothing left to keep private, we are left exposed, unable to shield even the most personal aspects of who we are.  For some, that's not an issue, because they are so outspoken and outward with themselves, that little is left to the imagination.  For others, it's a huge problem, because they are private people and don't wish for details of their life to be on display.

Look, Mom, I'm on the Internet!

Now, that's both an oversimplification of the issue, as well as perhaps a touch of hyperbole, but the simple truth of the matter is that there's very little privacy left in the United States.  Other parts of the world are, perhaps, less prone to invasive scrutiny, but in the US, you have essentially none.  Sure, there are laws like HIPAA, US privacy-related tort laws (i.e. "right to be left alone"), the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Financial Services Modernization Act, and others.  But in the grand scheme of things, personal privacy continues to erode every day.  HIPAA might protect you against your neighbors gossiping about your latest medical mishap, but all they have to do to find out more about you than they might ever want to know is to enter your name in Google and see what they can find.  For most of us, that extends to a few benign references to our name, address, and possibly our home phone (for those that still have one), as well as a Google Maps (or similar service) satellite view of our house from space that updates every few hours.

If you're paranoid about that, imagine what information could be had by digging a little deeper, using more than one search engine, or via social engineering?  You'd be surprised what you can find out by contacting your employer, posing as someone important - ask the right questions, and sound "official" enough, and you can get away with quite a bit.  What about the recent data breaches in the news?  Between Sony's 2011 PlayStation Network fiasco, 3000+ records from the University of Illinois, 47,000+ records leaked from the Florida Department of Education, as well as the Washington State data breach, it's difficult to feel as though any personal information is safe in the modern age.  Indeed, anyone walking down the street could be taking a picture of you with their cell phone and posting it to any number of social networks.

"You could sit at home, and do like absolutely nothing, and your name goes through like 17 computers a day. 1984? Yeah right, man. That's a typo. Orwell is here now. He's livin' large. We have no names, man. No names. We are nameless!" - Cereal Killer, "Hackers"

In these times of increasing paranoia, distrust in the government at large, and growing unrest among US citizens in light of the recent NSA leak, it's easy to believe that indeed Orwell was right and that 1984 is 2013.  While I don't consider myself a conspiracy theorist, I do believe that the reach of the Federal government is FAR greater than it ought to be, and that by shrinking government and getting back to the business of what the Federal government is supposed to be about (i.e. securing & protecting our borders, enforcing laws that affect citizens at a national/federal level, upholding the Constitution, defending human freedoms, etc.), we as citizens would all be much better off.  In the absence of a populace willing to stand up and demand those rights continue to be upheld, what are we left with, other than to face continued demoralization by a government that says one thing and does another?

All is not lost, however.  While conservatives spout "end times" rhetoric as liberties are eroded away, and liberals decry conservatives whenever they speak up trying to defend those rights (like the 2nd Amendment, which has come under attack in recent months), try to remember that there is nothing new under the sun.  Either side will continue to try and encroach up on the other's territory as much as they can, and whenever they feel they've achieved some level of victory on a particular front, will flaunt that as much as they can to show that their specific set of values or idioms are what the American people are truly striving for.  What both sides fail to realize (or heed), strangely enough, is that most Americans aren't looking to propel one platform over another by and large.  Most Americans want to do their thing and be left alone.  None of us want the Federal Government prying into our lives - not because we have anything to hide, but because, at the end of the day, it's nobody's business.  It's not the NSA's business who I'm calling, where I'm going on the Internet, or what I do in my free time outside my professional life.

This basic sentiment of personal freedom continues to permeate social media, despite what the Federal Government would like us to believe.  Twitter, Facebook, and other networks are awash with posts about liberty, freedom, and the greatness of America, or at least the greatness of what America is SUPPOSED to be about.  We may have lost some of that in recent years, but the belief in America is still there and people still cling to that image of America as the leader of the free world.  I still have pride in my country, even if the leadership has been lacking over the last couple decades or so.  People have a fundamental right to privacy that continues to be violated daily, and while some folks bring it upon themselves, most of us just try to conduct ourselves in a way that meets our needs and stays out of the way of other people.

I can't offer a solution, other than to vote differently next time you have the chance.  Election times are always about voting for the lesser of two evils, because let's face it: the adage is true.  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  You think President Obama is the shining beacon of hope he tried to push himself off as in his campaign?  Hardly.  Nor do I think former Presidents Bush or President Clinton are beyond reproach, either.  While I think Ronald Reagan was the last great American President, he wasn't perfect either.  And never forget that the burden of responsibility with the loss of privacy doesn't rest solely on their shoulders, either.  Various elected officials, judges, and intelligence agencies are just as culpable in the race to take away basic privacy.

What I can do is suggest you protect yourself as much as possible.  Don't give out personal information unless it's required, and give only what is minimum necessary.  Stop using big search engines for most of what you're looking for.  Okay, sure, Google Images might be the best place to find a great idea for decorating a cake, but for everything else, try another search engine like IXQuick instead, who is based outside the US and has privacy as its primary aim.  Be cognizant of your phone calls and understand that no cell phone service provider (or land-line provider, for that matter) is exempt from government scrutiny.  Email, text messages, instant messaging - all can be snooped unless this traffic is encrypted, so consider solutions that give you that ability wherever and whenever possible.  Any time you use electronic communication devices, understand that you're sacrificing some level of privacy.

I realize that this is little comfort in light of recent events, but sometimes all we can do is take one step in the direction we wish to go and hope we find our way.  We need to continue to fight (and vote for) our rights to be upheld.  We need to pester our senators and representatives to continue that fight for us in Washington.  We need to make our voices loud and clear in every avenue that we don't want government interfering in our daily lives.  Use social media to speak out about these things in generalities, to show that you want your rights protected, but not give any reasons other than that it's your right.  The more we band together across political and ideological lines to demand our rights be protected, perhaps the better chance we stand for that to actually happen.

Krig - Decay's Beholder (2013)

How do you follow up your heaviest, tightest, most musically adept album so far in your career?  There are two ways.  First, try and one-up the previous release, and potentially fail, or at worst be criticized as resting on your laurels and not trying something new.  Second, you can go in a different direction and truly try something new, at least within the context of what you are as a band.  Krig has opted for door number two, going from the near-perfect combination of heaviness, melody, brutality, and experimentation of "Narcissistic Mechanism" to the more obtuse "Decay's Beholder".  Don't get me wrong, the band is still heavy - more brutal than they've ever been, in some ways.  But this outing sees the band veering into much more experimental territory, adding some interesting electronics and elements that give them an almost Frank's Enemy sort of vibe, though arguably more well constructed than that band's material showed to be.

The guitar sound on this album is even crunchier and meatier than on "Narcissistic Mechanism", if that's even possible.  While the previous album focused on heaviness married with melodicism, this album is squarely in the brutal camp, though melody is still a vital component.  But the riffs here are meant less to be melodically accessible as on previous efforts, and the emphasis is on both heaviness and experimentation.  There are guitar solos present that don't squeal as much as you'd think they would with the kind of guitar tone and distortion present in the riffs, so obviously the band has found a balance there.  Bass sounds great here - it's heavy and present in the mix, and because of the more experimental nature of the music, there's more going on with it at times.  I felt like there were a few bits that were even "funky" which was a nice touch.  It's nice to hear the bass without having to listen for it, so production-wise this was a good choice.  Drumming is adept as usual, though the overall drum sound is a bit less powerful than everything else.  There's a bit less "thump" than I would like with the bass and toms, though the snare remains sufficiently punchy.  In addition to these basics, there are a number of keyboard effects used throughout that highlight this release's more experimental nature, and I liked the way they're used to accent or augment different spots, and provide a bit of atmosphere in a couple places where the song might be slightly sparse otherwise.  I also really enjoyed the inclusion of the sampled horn section in "Foolish Evildoers III" and the whole vibe, and so far, that's my favorite of the "Foolish Evildoers" tracks they've released so far.

Vocally, Daniel Corpse is still as brutal as ever, with primarily mid-low range growls in the mix.  Occasionally, he'll go for a higher pitched sound in spots to change it up, but he mostly stays in that mid or lower range.  He's not as guttural as, say, Brooke Reeves' earlier material with Impending Doom, but it's still pretty heavy stuff.  This isn't wimpy death metal, by any stretch, and Daniel's vocals echo that with plenty of aggression and emphasis.  Lyrically, the album covers a range of topics, from growing inhumanity in our culture ("Decay's Beholder") to comparing oneself to Jesus' level of servitude ("33"), to the insincere way some people "protect" the environment or support/reject other philosophies ("Drink the Third World").  As with other Krig albums, you're getting somewhat broken English, but the band can be forgiven for that, given their native Portuguese in Brazil.  It's a solid set, despite that minor complaint.

All in all, it's a bit hard to compare this effort with past Krig releases, because it kind of stands on its own.  It would be interesting to hear where the band will chart a course from here, because each previous release sort of led them to what "Narcissistic Mechanism" was.  Rather than resting on those laurels, the band has changed things up and tried something new.  I applaud them for that, and I think the experiment mostly works.  The songs aren't as immediately catchy as the last couple releases, but upon repeated listens, I think you'll find, as I did, that the songs do stick with you, and you'll find yourself in air guitar mode more than once during the album, mimicking the riffs.  I would recommend this to Krig fans especially, with the obvious caution that it doesn't sound like previous releases, and death metal fans in general should enjoy this thoroughly.


Friday, July 12, 2013

My Love Affair With Lightening Force, part 2

Here in Part 2 of "My Love Affair With Lightening Force", I want to focus on a portion of the game that has been a constant companion for me over the last 20+ years: the music.  Over the last few years, the Chiptune music community has grown from a handful of guys and gals writing music based around the Chiptune aesthetic, or some even authentically using NES, Game Boy, Genesis, or other console sound chips to generate new, original music or sometimes remakes or re-imaginings of existing game music.  Some of this music is decidedly "game music" in nature, whether it belongs to a game or not, because it has much the same construction or "feel" to it as many game soundtracks do.  Others are wholly different creations, spanning genres as diverse as classical, metal, synthpop, EBM/techno, industrial, and even factoring into nerdcore hip-hop.  Chiptune artists have begun to gain more widespread appeal, with groups like Anamanaguchi having garnered more media attention than the average obscure band.

During the early stages of computer & video game development, music was often used sparingly to accent certain scenes or situations, often signaling the achievement of a power-up, start or end of a level, indicate a boss encounter, or to let you know you just met a key level objective.  Many early arcade games had little or no music, and many early computer games did the same, because the basic "beeps and boops" of simple PC & game hardware sound chips would grate after a while, or perhaps because there wasn't enough processing power to make music AND sound at the same time successfully.  As computers became more complex, and in turn, gaming hardware followed suit, we began to have simplistic song loops that complemented the game we were playing, often trying to evoke a certain mood or feeling that matched the level, game, or overall theme of what we were playing.  There are certainly some iconic tracks accompanying games, like a chiptune version of the Peter Gunn theme playing in the game Spy Hunter, or the now infamous level 1-1 music for the original Super Mario Bros.

I'm sure the Peter Gunn theme is stuck in your head now.  You're welcome.

During each era, there are music teams and/or composers who stand out on a particular game console as masters of their craft, because either they make really effective use of the console's sound hardware, or because they push that hardware to the limit and make it do things that perhaps even the creators of the hardware didn't even know were possible.  Such was the case with Sunsoft during the heyday of the Nintendo Entertainment System.  One listen to most any of their original soundtracks, and you'd know you were listening to something that had pushed beyond the mere boundaries of what other game companies were doing to take the tunes to that next level.  One listen to the soundtracks for Sunsoft's Batman title, or Journey to Silius, and you'll know what I mean.  Compare those 2 soundtracks to any other on the system, and you know they found a way to push the hardware to new heights, with great success.  More realistic drum sounds, "fuller" instrument sounds, and just a more atmospheric overall feel.

"I'm Batman."  Stage 2 theme.

Definitely a forgotten gem of a game, and game soundtrack!  Title screen theme.

In the Genesis era, while Sega made great use of the sound hardware for its first party titles (Sonic the Hedgehog rings true), it was Techno Soft that developed into one of the masters of the Z80 sound hardware.  This didn't happen all at once, however.  Thunder Force II and III had good soundtracks, but they still relied on some of the same typical "instrument sets" as were utilized by other game makers at the time, while pioneering some of their own.  In fact, despite the similarity in sound and approach between games, the music for Thunder Force II was actually composed by Tomomi Ootani.  He worked with Toshiharu Yamanishi for Thunder Force III, but Thunder Force IV (aka Lightening Force) was primarily done by Toshiharu Yamanishi.  Toshiharu Yamanishi's credits also include the nicely done soundtrack to the Genesis game Elemental Master, a bit of a hidden shmup gem for the console.  He's also worked on soundtracks for several obscure, Japan-only releases for PlayStation and PC.  On the Sega Genesis (or MegaDrive, if you prefer), he found his voice with his compositions for Thunder Force IV.

Toshiharu Yamanishi
This man is a genius.

His soundtrack for LF/TFIV is nothing short of incredible.  It takes the same "bigger" approach that Sunsoft did with the NES and threw out the rule book.  The instrument set has a "fuller" and thicker sound than before, there is actual bass sound, the drum sounds in use are heavy and driving, and the music encompasses several genres of rock, heavy metal, avant-garde, electronic, and more traditional video game balladry or pomp & circumstance.  One listen to the intro music to the game's title screen (a track known as "Lightning Strikes Again"), and it's abundantly clear that this isn't going to be your typical Genesis game soundtrack.  Screaming heavy metal guitars, drum sounds that are more than just thin snare hits and limp bass drum, bass guitar sound that is present in the mix, and a layered sound that belies the fact that it is still mere sound chip-based video game music.  Each subsequent track takes you on a journey through some of the most meticulously composed and arranged music you'll hear in a video game.  While some games work best with spare music and effects, Lightening Force was all about the "bigger, better, more" approach that shoot-em-ups were taking, and the music reflected that perfectly.  Everything you love about a good, high-energy shmup soundtrack was taken to the Nth degree here.

In fact, the soundtrack for Lightening Force has been a favorite of mine since practically the first time I booted the game up.  I was instantly impressed by the music in the game so much that I would sometimes boot it up and go into the hidden options screen (accessible by holding down the A, B or C buttons at or before the Title Screen and hitting Start on the controller) for the sole purpose of listening to the music, it is that good.  Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that after beating the game, you unlock the 10 "Omake" tracks, all tracks composed for the game, but ultimately not used within any level or portion of the game.  I poured over those songs like I did the main soundtrack, because by and large, they were just as good.  Some of the Omake tracks have become just as much favorites as some of the level themes.  It's a shame there wasn't more game to include those songs, but the game is so good as it stands, it's hard to argue with them just being bonus songs.

I'm going to switch into "hyper nerd" mode for a moment, and explain my obsession with the LF/TFIV tunes a bit more in depth.  A year out of high school, I got married, and when I went into the work force shortly thereafter, I got a job with a telemarketing firm.  Initially, I was just calling leads like everyone, but a few months in I worked my way into the IT department.  From there, I advanced whenever and however I could.  Having access to the equipment that I did at that time was a real treat, and I was able to do some pretty cool things.  I began rekindling my love for gaming which had been slightly cooled between college and marriage, and pulled out my beloved Genesis console and hooked it up at home.  Pulling out Lightening Force again and playing it, I remembered what a fantastic soundtrack it was, and how much I wished I could take that soundtrack with me on the go.  Keep in mind, this was in mid-1998, when the graphical Internet was just beginning to really get a foothold, so there were no game music MP3 downloads, no .VGM files for complete soundtracks, nothing.  If I wanted to accomplish that desire, I had to do it myself.  So I moved my Genesis into the home office, connected a cable from the stereo out jack on the face of the Genesis to the Microphone/Input port on my PC's trusty Soundblaster card, and began the arduous task of using GoldWave (STILL fantastic software) to record each song from the game.  As is now standard with .VGM soundtrack rips (and indeed, most finite-length console game music rips), I recorded just over 2 loops of each track and manually programmed a 5-20 second fade-out for each one, depending on the total track length and level of repeat in the main melody line.  It wasn't an exact science, to be sure, but I feel as though my original recordings were well timed.

All those recordings were done to .WAV files, which was quite space consuming on my then-huge 1.5GB hard drive.  In order to burn them to CD, I had to somehow get them to the office.  I didn't have a CD burner yet, because those were quite expensive at first.  We had a single speed, external parallel port model at the office, that had the full tray you would drop the CD into, close the lid, then insert into the drive.  When done, you'd eject the tray, pull it out, open the lid, take out the CD and then label accordingly.  It was a thing of beauty for a guy just starting out in IT.  We didn't have USB thumb drives back then, because half the PCs around were still running Windows 95 and wouldn't even have supported such a thing, so I had to compress the files down to 256KB .MP3 files, copy them onto a pair of 100MB Iomega Zip Disks (remember those?), take them to the office, copy them back to a PC, then convert those .MP3 files back into .WAV files, since that was the only audio format the burner software recognized.  Prior to that conversion, I did a little fiddling with the files, using GoldWave to boost the bass levels a bit, so that I could get a bit more low-end when listening on a stereo system.  Unfortunately, this made the tracks slightly "buzzy", in that the added bass made the bass level just a bit too high, so when the tracks were compressed, then converted back to .WAV files, there was more a bit more noise in the mix than would be preferred.  I still think they sound good, but I'm more acutely aware of such things today as I was then.  Besides, I didn't have much choice at that time, due to limitations of the technology at my disposal.

Iomega 100MB Zip Drive
These babies were awesome for carrying around files larger than would fit on a measly 1.44MB floppy drive.

I used the company's Photoshop 4 license to design and create the CD sleeve artwork, as well as the tray card.  At the time, text with flames was a big thing, so of course, I found a Photoshop Action file to assist with that.  For the tray card, I also wanted to include screenshots of the game from various locations, but there weren't really any image search engines or great scans of most games yet (Google Images was just a glint in the eye!), so I had to make my own.  I downloaded the now-defunct Genecyst emulator for DOS (still a remarkable feat of coding) and proceeded to play through much of the game via keyboard controls in order to get the level screenshots I wanted.  I ended up with great shots from the Air Raid & Daser stages, as well as a shot over the Level 5 battleship, and a nice boss fight shot of Level 6, complete with discharge of the powered-up CRAW.  I didn't have the right software or materials to print a CD label, so I had to make due with just using a fine-tip marker to label the disc itself.  But after designing the sleeve and tray card, I used up A LOT of ink in my Epson printer in order to print them out.  Due to the limitations (at that time) of CD-R technology, I was relegated to a 650MB CD, topping out at 74 minutes of music.  The way I lined out the tracks, I filled that 74 minutes completely, and had to omit "Omake 10", the continue screen music, as well as the standard Ranking Screen theme, and even the Game Over music, and then slightly shorten a couple tracks to make it all fit.  With today's 700MB, 80-minute CD-R discs, I think I *might* be able to make it all fit on one disc.  In any event, it was an exercise in calculation and careful planning to get it all recorded, converted, formatted properly, and laid out in a manner that would allow me to get it onto a blank CD-R disc.  As you can see by the finished product below, a lot of love went into this project.

My Lightening Force music CD complete!
It doesn't look as nice today, but at the time I printed the sleeve & tray card up, I thought it was absolutely fantastic.

Something else you may not be able to tell immediately from the picture (unless you look at it full-resolution) is that I came up with all my own track names.  The Internet was still quite new, and there weren't endless resources regarding video game music yet.  No Video Game Music Database yet, no Galbadia Hotel (no, I'm not linking there!), not even a fully formed VGMusic site yet.  I had no way of knowing, other than watching the game's credits roll, who composed the music in the game, let alone the song titles of each track.  So, without the benefit of a track list, using only the instruction manual & intimate knowledge of the game as my guide, I set about naming all the songs in the game so I could come up with a nice tracklist for the tray card.  I broke each stage into a "suite", and then created 2 suites at the end, 1 for the various endgame music tracks, and 1 for the omake bonus tracks.  Below is a chart (yes, I'm that nerdy) detailing my track titles & order, along side the actual titles, and what stage/area they each correspond to.

My Title Actual Title Stage/Area
Intro to Kha-Oss Lightning Strikes Again Title Screen
Prepare For Battle Tan Tan Ta Ta Ta Tan Options Screen
Decisions, Decisions... Don't Go Off Course Select
Conflict Above the Strite Sea Fighting Back Stage 1A
Testing the Waters What! Stage 1B
Battle of the Stritian Sea Evil Destroyer Stage 1 Boss
Daser Deluge Sand Hell Stage 4A
Desert Assault Where! Stage 4B
Iron Phoenix Strike Out Stage 4 Boss
Target Practice Space Walk Stage 2A
Left In Ruins Danger!! Danger!! Stage 2B
Ruined By the Clawed Wonder Attack Sharply Stage 2 Boss
Intercepting the Fleet The Sky Line Stage 3A
Air-Raid in the Eastern Sky Air Raid Stage 3B
Multi-Faceted Techno Terror Simmer Down Stage 3 Boss
Battleship Battle Ship Stage 5
Indestructable Behemoth Stranger Stage 5 Boss
Knighted With Thunder Neo Weapon Stage 5 Docking
Braving the Waves of Volbados Great Sea Power Stage 6
Frozen Aquatic Menace The Breaker Stage 6 Boss
Entrance to the Bio-Base Sea of Flame Stage 7
Armordillo Rancor Stage 7 Boss
Bio-Infiltration Metal Squad Stage 8
Infestation vs. Electro-Pesticide Phantom Stage 8 Bosss
Heart of Vios Down Right Attack Stage 9
Menacing Mass of Machinery and Mayhem Recalcitrance Stage 9 Boss
Paradox (Cannon In Death Major) The Danger Zone Stage 10
Supercomputer Shutdown War Like Requiem Stage 10 Boss
Reflections of a Shallow Victory Shooting Stars Easy Ending
Still No Impending Danger Silvery Light of the Moon Normal Ending
Almost Overtaken Light of Silence Hard Ending
True Victory Love Dream Maniac Ending
Victory's Theme Stand Up Against Myself Staff Roll
Next To Excellence Remember of Knight of Legend Name Entry
Spoils of War Because You're Number One Name Entry Ace Ranking
Rynex Theme Omake 1 Omake 1
Fight Theme Omake 2 Omake 2
Stukk's Theme Omake 3 Omake 3
Galaxy Federation Theme Omake 4 Omake 4
Kha-Oss Theme Omake 5 Omake 5
Vios Theme Omake 6 Omake 6
Emperor Lohun's Theme Omake 7 Omake 7
Lightening Force Theme Omake 8 Omake 8
Cruise Home Omake 9 Omake 9

Now, keep in mind, the main purpose for this chart is to preserve my own work.  I don't expect anyone else to care about it, really, but since the Photoshop files for this stuff are probably long gone and I can't easily re-create them without going through all the steps again, part of what I'm trying to do here is to just save this for my own posterity.  Plus it gave me a chance to see a couple gross errors in my track listing.  I had the tracks for the Daser, Air Raid and the Ruins stages switched around and they were labeled wrong on my custom tray card, so that's something I would want to fix.  In addition, I noticed that for "Omake 7", I had a typo resulting in the title showing up as "Eperor" instead of "Emperor".  I'm generally meticulous enough to avoid such things, but mistakes like that happen, and it's good that I'm finally catching some of that.  Not because I can do anything about it now, but because I'm picky about such things and I have some teensy sense of closure this way.  It also factors in to my decision to possibly tackle this project again, with the key differences being that I'll try & fit all songs onto the one CD, I won't enhance or change the tracks in any way prior to them being burned to CD, no compression will take place prior to the CD burn, and the sleeve & tray card prints will be done via my personal color laser printer, probably on a heavier card stock for a more durable, long-lasting and professional look.  If I do that, I will probably make the finished product available for download in various parts, probably a combination of high-res .PNG or GiMP formatted graphics and then FLAC files for the audio.  My big decision will be whether to use the "official" track names, or keep my own and augment them with a few new ones.  I really like some of the original names, such as "Recalcitrance", "War Like Requiem", "Sand Hell", "Because You're Number One", and especially "Stand Up Against Myself" - awesome stuff.

So with all of my blubbering on about how excellent the music is, and all my nostalgia for the CD project that took so much love and effort, I think it's about time I stop talking about it and just share.  Below, I'll be linking to a couple things.  First, a YouTube video that contains a nice play-through and the entire soundtrack to the game straight through, in a nice sequential order.  In addition, I'm going to link to the soundtrack download via Project2612, a great website which offers downloads of Sega Genesis/Megadrive rips in .VGM format, the current recognized king of Sega Genesis (and other consoles) music formats.  VGM way outperforms the older .GYM specification in nearly every aspect, but keep in mind that Genesis sound emulation isn't 100% accurate.  It's so close that you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference, but it's not 1:1 sound.  For a really authentic experience, the way to do it is to get the cart yourself and experience it firsthand.

Project2612 page to download of the Thunder Force IV soundtrack

Stay tuned for part 3, where I gush about the game's graphics!

Ratt - Infestation (2010)

After 1992's "Detonator" album, I suspect most of the music industry left Ratt for dead.  I consider that a shame, because while most decry "Detonator" as an also-ran album of faceless hard rock, I still feel 20 years later like it was a good record, and one of the stronger releases in the band's catalog.  I still get songs from that stuck in my head all these years later, and that's a testament to the quality of the material.  The band has been very "on again, off again" since then, releasing a b-sides compilation and just 2 albums in the years that followed.  I can't comment on the 1999 self-titled release, since I don't yet own a copy and haven't heard it, but for a band that was generally thought of as irrelevant 20 years prior, this is a good effort.

It seems that the group has somehow been able to put aside some of the past grievances and legal wrangling, and record a good album.  Granted, this is only 3/5 of the original line-up, with late guitarist Robbin Crosby being replaced by Carlos Cavazo (also of Quiet Riot) and bass duties handled by Robbie Crane (Vince Neil Band, among others) rather than original bassist Juan Croucier.  Having said that, this still feels like a Ratt record, at least in the context of a post-Nirvana rock world, and in some ways feeling like a logical follow-up to what they did 20 years prior with "Detonator".  While the band may have stated in interviews that they were going for something vaguely in the neighborhood of "Out of the Cellar" and "Invasion Of Your Privacy" in sound, what they ended up with is a muscular, bluesy rock record that sounds like "Detonator" with more muscle and less filler.  I'd consider that a success on any front.

The guitar sound here is good, with DeMartini and Cavazo getting a crunchy tone that has some emphasis behind it, but without so much overdrive that it makes you think this is going to be a heavier affair than it is.  This is a rock record, make no mistake about that.  Listeners should have no illusions that this is "glam metal" or anything of the sort, because the band hasn't truly worn that mantle for quite some time.  Guitar solos sound great too, with nice tone and with enough power behind them that they come across as genuine, not just tacked on as fan service.  There is some dual-solo work similar to what the band did early on, which is a nice treat.  Bass by Crane is good, with a nice heavy bass sound rumbling underneath it all, following the melody lines and keeping the music sounding more "full".  Drum work by Bobby Blotzer is always quality, and this is no exception.  Granted, much of his time is spent keeping a beat, but he's rock solid as usual, and when he does do fills and little bits here and there, his tasteful playing never overshadowing the rest of the band, but acting as a perfect compliment.  Overall, the instrumentation on the record sounds great, and has a modern edge to it without sounding like they're trying to be modern.

Vocally, Stephen Pearcy sounds pretty good.  I had seen Ratt live sometime in 1999 while they were touring on the self-titled record, and I thought he sounded pretty decent, considering his raspy style can easily wreck a person's vocal chords.  He has had vocal issues over the years, though nowhere near as severe as Cinderella's Tom Keifer, so hearing him in good form is nice at this stage of the game.  Of course, Stephen's vocal shortcomings are pretty obvious, and he's definitely a one-trick pony.  But he sounds like he's in shape on the album, with some nice screams where he reaches for the sky without the vocal acrobatics that typified the band's earliest material.  Stephen manages to be as melodic as he can and that comes across well here.  Lyrically, if you've heard a Ratt record before, you know what you're getting.  This is "sleaze rock" through and through, so don't expect any political commentary, poetic musings on life and living, or anything too deep.

There are a couple tracks that could be considered filler, but when the songs are as strong as they are here with performances that both reek of professionalism and smack of enthusiasm, it's hard to fault a band on their first effort back in over 10 years.  Ratt has never been a "ballad" band, and "Take Me Home" shows that they never perfected the craft, but it's still quite listenable and enjoyable enough for what it is.  Sure, it's no "One Step Away", but it's a good tune for what it is.  Overall, this is a solid set of songs with enough hooks and quality performance to keep Ratt fans coming back.  And at the end of the day, isn't that all Stephen and the boys can hope for?  Recommended for Ratt fans who enjoy the bluesier, more hard rock end of the spectrum, and classic hard rock fans in general.


"The Pathology of Morbid Curiosity" or, Gore Metal and where do you draw the line at "art"?

In the mid 1980's, the "satanic" extreme thrash of bands like Slayer and Possessed metamorphosed into a more extreme form of metal that took the intensity of thrash and upped the ante, creating a darker, heavier, and more dense sound that came to be known as Death Metal.  While some early Death Metal bands took the occult-themed and/or anti-Christian imagery and amplified it (Deicide & Morbid Angel are early examples), others took a more "horror movie" approach, using campy zombie lyrics and images of gore to shock listeners.  The majority of these early bands have a cartoony approach, making the lyrics less shocking when read and understood in context.  Others appeared to take the gore approach much more seriously, with imagery (album art, primarily) and lyrics so blatantly gory and brutal, the uninitiated might question the sanity of the bands, which meant that the bands accomplished one of their goals - to shock & offend.

Fascination with death is nothing new.  Morbid Curiosity is perhaps best defined as a curiosity, fascination, preoccupation, or intense interest in death.  Wikipedia has a good paragraph on the subject, though that only just scratches the surface.  This topic has been the subject of some metal songs (thrash bands Detritus and Heathen tackled it at one point), and death as a whole has been a near-constant theme in the more extreme metal genres, Death Metal in particular.  Death is a recurring theme in nearly all media.  Stories and books for generations have centered on death, or stories that are built around some kind of murder.  Indeed, murder mysteries are often New York Times best-sellers.  TV has had plenty of murder mysteries, from Perry Mason to Murder She Wrote, or more modern hit shows like CSI or the Law & Order suite of shows.

Yes, I hear the "bong bong!" noise in my head too.

From the small screen to the silver screen, death in a myriad of forms is a central theme.  From the routine murder mysteries to powerful films about overcoming the aftermath of death (i.e. people and families moving on after the death of a loved one), to horror films where plenty of on-screen death occurs.  Going on up from there are the overt slasher films where killing sprees and high body counts are the norm.  Folks who think Friday the 13th is distasteful or far too preoccupied with death obviously haven't seen Cannibal Campout or other, similar horror/gore films.  And for every B-movie/horror fan who revels in the over-the-top slasher films, there is usually a point at which those fans draw the line as to what they will watch.  These lines can be totally arbitrary, or sometimes they can be clearly defined, stemming from some deeper moral center or even just what they personally can stomach.

I remember hearing an interview with Alice Cooper where he was commenting on a tour with Rob Zombie.  Metal fans know Rob as the frontman and chief architect of the now-defunct band White Zombie, the comically silly "horror metal" band whose mostly benign "horror" lyrics were a parody of b-movie horror films, a tradition which Rob carried into his solo career.  Alice said something to the effect that Rob "gets it" with regard to horror films, that horror movies are actually comedy.  If you're balking at that statement, think in context - most b-horror movies are overly acted, "chills and thrills" cinema experiences that shock or scare the average person.  But for someone who understands that horror movies are just that, movies, it's easy to see where Alice (aka Vincent Furnier) is coming from.  While death is a fact of life, gory death by some sadistic killer in a maniacal way is far less common than dying in a car wreck or a home accident.  Much like the fear of flying, and the connected fear of dying in a plane crash, the fear of being eaten alive by a zombie, buried alive by some fiendish killer, or attacked in one's sleep by an otherworldly being can be as exhilarating as it is scary.

C'mon, I'm a big teddy bear!

In the world of extreme metal, this preoccupation with death, horror and gore is pervasive.  One might even say it's too pervasive.  Early death metal bands were shocking when they wrote lyrics about zombies hacking up corpses and eating them, but how is that different than the mainstream horror movies of the time?  In today's world, horror movies have splintered in two, somewhat distinct directions.  The mainstream horror films are generally more in the "thriller" genre, using sudden loud noises, various camera and lighting tricks, and other methods to keep the suspense of the film going until the end.  On the other end are the more independent films, from the ultra-campy gore of the Troma Studios films to even more unsavory offerings (depending on your viewpoint) from other independent studios, reprising the "slasher film" genre of the 1980's and offering the audience more death, gore, blood, guts and entrails than you can shake a stick at.  This more independent film approach is the tack used by goregrind and gore metal bands as their primary lyrical approach.

The salient question, then, is simply this: where or how do we draw the line?  Is there any societal value in extreme goregrind or gore metal with lyrics about snacking on the entrails of your victim while sodomizing a corpse?  What entertainment value can be gleaned from music whose lyrics are rife with pseudo-first-person accounts of hacking up a village full of people and then pleasuring oneself among the wreckage?  Before arbitrarily answering those questions one way or the other, consider the context within which these works are contained and understand their place among society as a whole.  If you're deeply offended by the thought of a zombie creature molesting corpses, you may need to adjust your priorities.  Perhaps the plight of homeless war veterans roaming city streets isn't offensive enough to take precedence.  If listening to unintelligible lyrics about a mass murderer hacking his victims into pieces gets you riled up, consider for a moment the thousands upon thousands of starving children in foreign countries who haven't asked for that life, but have been handed that existence because of the mistakes of their parents and the generations before them.  When you put these things into context, it suddenly makes the overly silly and "shocking" nature of such lyrics seem trivial by comparison.

That's not to say that artistic responsibility isn't valid - it most certainly is.  I would say it's nearly as important as artistic integrity.  Writing songs about such death, gore and destruction can be a positive thing if they're cathartic and give the composer some level of peace through that process.  But gore for gore's sake is no art at all - it's just lip service to fans of the genre, in the same way that making hip hop music just to get rich, or Japanese anime dedicated solely to "fan service" is devoid of any real artistic merit.  There's nothing wrong with getting paid, but when that's your primary motivation, you've crossed the line into mere commercialism.  Now in the rather niche world of gore metal, "getting paid" means you might make enough on a gig to pay for your gas money and you're footing the bill yourself for the recording of your CD, so money isn't really a motivator.  But recognition from ones peers and the listening audience is such a motivator, and if that's the reason your talents are being directed in this manner, I would simply caution those to be mindful of what they're putting down in paper and in the studio.  Use the gore and horror as commentary for the failures of society and mankind in general.  Allegory of that kind is far more chilling and effective than simply "shock comedy", and will make a bigger long-term impact than just trying to one-up a fellow band.

In the end, I choose to weigh in on this topic only to prompt discussion and critical thought.  I'm not sure there's a "right" or "wrong" answer here.  Ultimately such genres are niche enough to fly under the radar of much of society, and that's generally the point.  Only those who understand such lyrics in their proper context are going to get a kick out of such things.  Like anything, they can be seductive to weak individuals who can't separate the lyrics from reality.  I would caution writers of gore metal or goregrind to simply be cognizant of their audience, and to strive to make their lyrics allegorical of something greater or larger than the small world they've constructed.  After all, are you saying something important in a subtle way through a complete lack of subtlety, or are you saying nothing at all as loud as you can?

Golden Resurrection - One Voice For the Kingdom (2013)

I can admit when I'm wrong.  I'm a big enough man to recognize when I've made a mistake and need to take responsibility for it.  The consequences are sometimes unpleasant, but I've found it's better to take your lumps and move forward than to try and string things along until they end up worse.  Sometimes one has to take a bruise to one's pride as well, which isn't fun, but builds character.  Thankfully, what I'm admitting to being wrong about is the direction of Golden Resurrection's last album.  In my review for it, I said I felt like the mid-paced approach suited them and was a good direction for them to go in as opposed to the speedier, more neo-classical approach of the debut.  Well, I was wrong.

While I stand by my review otherwise, and think that "Man With a Mission" is a solid album, I'm glad that Golden Resurrection has elected to go back to a speedier approach with "One Voice For the Kingdom".  This latest release has what I feel is potentially the strongest set of songs the band has released thus far, and has begun to solidify what could be the Golden Resurrection sound - a mix of neo-classical metal, European power metal, and traditional metal with a knack for melody, keyboards to spare, and catchy hooks.  I also like that the focus, vocally, has shifted more toward Christian Liljegren's direction.  Don't get me wrong, I like Tommy ReinXeed's vocals, and I think he uses them perfectly in his main band, ReinXeed.  But this project "feels" like a Christen Liljegren band, so his vocals as the focus are part of the attraction.

If you've heard the band's debut, or even "Man With a Mission", you know what you're getting here in terms of instrumentation.  Guitar work by Tommy is as strong as ever, with more of the faster-paced playing and speedy riffs he has become known for with ReinXeed.  His penchant for neo-classical playing comes through in several spots, from the intro to "The Temple Will Remain" & the bit in "Spirit War" where he echoes a classical piece, to the instrumental "Heavenly Melodies".  The guitar sound is just about perfect for the music as well, with a very "clean" distorted sound, if that makes sense.  There's not so much distortion in the guitar tone that it feels too heavy, but this is obviously metal music through and through.  And as always, Tommy's guitar solos are excellent, balancing fret board pyrotechnics with melody and some degree of soul, especially on the album's closing instrumental, "Moore Lord" (another reference to the late Gary Moore, perhaps?).  Bass work by Stefan is solid, and is nicely placed in the mix.  Bass is present and audible, you can hear what it's doing and where it's going, and it adds weight without dominating the proceedings.  Drum work by Alfred Fridhagen is excellent, and the drum production is pretty good.  A punchy snare drum sound accompanies thick and full bass drums & toms, and cymbals ring out when necessary, though they do lack a bit of emphasis during moments when a bit more cymbal would make sense.  Keyboard & Hammond organ work by Svenne Jansson is solid, adding that touch of faux-symphonic sound when fitting, and providing an extra melodic layer in the background much of the time.  The eponymous track even has some nice interplay between keyboard and guitar, trading licks/solos and propelling the song forward.

Vocally, Christian Liljegren is in fine form.  I still believe his most impassioned and strongest performances have been with Divinefire, but honestly, what he's doing here is a close second.  He brings some of the grit he employs with Divinefire while maintaining a clean, melodic sound through much of the record.  I also believe that Christian gets better with age.  Some of his earliest neo-classical and power metal material suffered from  vocal control problems, but over time Christian has really come into his own, having developed the ability to control his instrument much more effectively.  He has also increased his range, or at least flexed his vocal chords enough to utilize the upper range and give us those high-pitched wails.  Christian's voice is much of the draw of Golden Resurrection because it's fairly unique and distinctive, so if you like it, you'll appreciate what he's doing here.  Lyrically, this record is no different than what the band has already done, though a couple of the songs might be slightly less overt than what came on the previous record.  If lyrics based upon Christianity turn you off, these won't win you over.  If you enjoy such things, you'll be edified despite Christian's somewhat limited abilities as a lyricist.  This isn't poetry, but it's not Reader's Digest, either.  The lyrics are appropriate for what the band is trying to communicate.

With everything coming together so nicely on the album, there are a couple minor complaints.  I enjoy "Heavenly Melodies" and "Moore Lord" quite a bit, but honestly, 2 instrumental tracks is a bit much for an album with only 8 vocal tracks.  Perhaps the band is trying not to overstay their welcome in your CD or MP3 player, which is good, but I would maybe have included either 1 less instrumental, or perhaps added an additional vocal track in between them so it didn't seem like instrumental work was dominating the second half of the album.  Be that as it may, I would hope the band would play "Heavenly Melodies" during concerts to give Christian a breath-break and showcase Tommy's skills.  Also, I agree with a couple of the other reviews I've read that the title track is a bit weak and disappointing.  It's not bad, per se, it's just not title track material in the same way that the title tracks for the 1st 2 albums were.  It's just a bit nondescript and less memorable than much of the rest of the material.  Overall, however, this is a contender for the band's strongest release, and certainly worthy of the name they've made for themselves.  Recommended.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Pylon - The Harrowing of Hell deluxe edition (2013)

Doom metal is one style that I've not taken to as much as other traditional styles of metal.  I'm a big lover of thrash, progressive, power, & death metal, as well as a fair bit of NWOBHM, classic metal, and even a lot of "glam metal", if you will.  But for some reason, though I enjoy listening to doom, it's not a style I've invested a lot of money or time into.  I own a handful of doom albums, most notably the 1st 3 Forsaken albums (vinyl re-issues), but otherwise my collection remains largely devoid of good doom metal.  I really dig bands like Solitude Aeturnus, early stuff by Trouble ("Psalm 9" is a MONSTER record), Candlemass, and so forth, but generally when it comes time to part with my hard-earned money, I opt for something a bit faster, more energetic, or more "immediate" in terms of getting more of that instant audio gratification.

As such, my knowledge of the band Pylon comes only from hearing of them over the last few years, seeing mention of a new release here and there, and briefly checking out samples, but never investing any money into any albums.  I've been concentrating more on a combination of building my vinyl collection, as well as keeping up with newer releases from bands I follow closely, and regaining a number of albums I sold off years ago in a music purge, or at least those that I miss and wanted to have in the collection again.  As this is my first true Pylon listening experience, I hope I can be forgiven an unfamiliarity with their previous efforts.  As it stands, this is a band I think I could get into.

"The Harrowing of Hell" has an interesting sound to it, because it combines the darker, slower doom of bands like Candlemass with a more traditional doom vibe and presentation, like Trouble.  So you get something that is mostly slow and plodding, with occasional energetic bursts, with a production that belies the heaviness of the material by not pounding the listener over the head with a real "thick" guitar or bass sound, and a drum sound that is somewhat understated.  At first blush, it sounds like an album that might have been recorded some 20 years before its time, and perhaps that's what the band was going for.  This is classic doom in sound and approach, so the production values match that.  Apart from the layering of a few elements here and there, like piano/keyboard, & the obvious chorus effect on the vocals, most of this sounds like it could have been recorded "live in the studio" with very little doctoring on the back end.

As I said, the guitar sound on this album is a bit "thin", though it rings out with sufficient reverb and tone to get the job done.  Andy La Morte & Matt Brand do a good job of creating that slow atmosphere with the right repetition in the riffs, melodic solos where fitting, and the occasional mini-jam to break up the monotony and add a bit more interest to the songs.  Bass by Jan Thomas is quite good, and I felt myself listening more intently to the bass riffs more than the guitar riffs in some cases, because the bass sometimes is more complex or has more "movement" than the guitar riffs.  This makes things a bit more interesting at times, and creates a nice interplay that gives the songs more weight.  Bass sounds good here as well, with a fair bit of presence in the recoring.  Drum work by Andrea Tinner is good, though the production has the drumming back in the mix a bit too far.  As many opportunities as the louder cymbal/bass drum or cymbal/snare hits had to create more impact, they are squandered due to the drums sounding a bit too weak in the mix.  In the end, it still works, because the more spare drum sound doesn't mean they're inaudible, but I feel like they didn't quite get enough room in the mix to shine.

Vocally, Matt Brand is a bit of a mixed bag.  His style fits the music, with a gritty delivery that has a fair bit of natural wail to it.  There are times when I think he's being a bit too "loose" with his singing and needs to tighten up his vocals, but I know that a bit more loose approach fits the doom metal aesthetic quite well, so that's more a personal contention rather than a direct criticism.  His vocal delivery can verge on monotonous at times, and there really isn't much he's doing here that stands out all that much, other than noting the emotion in his voice.  Otherwise, I'd say it's a fine performance that gets the job done without wowing the listener.  Lyrically, much of what you'll get is right from the Bible, most specifically, "Psalm 139 A" and "Psalm 139 B".  Other songs are indicative of biblical themes, but from a more personal perspective.  Religion and specifically, biblical themes, are common in doom metal, so if you're used to that you'll be right at home here.  The band's cover of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" obviously culls from a different perspective.

I rather enjoyed their take on "Paranoid" and found it to be a refreshing approach.  Black Sabbath is not only credited with basically inventing Heavy Metal in general, but also as the chief influence of most bands that fall under the doom metal moniker.  "Paranoid" being the short, frenzied rocker that it is, takes on an interesting, slightly more twisted air when slowed down to the level it is in this interpretation.  It evokes images of a more deliberate, sinister presence than the more manic, lightly psychotic person depicted via the original version.  For the deluxe edition, 2 bonus tracks are added that weren't available on the original vinyl version, that being "Golden Voice" and also "Lines".  The 2 additional tracks have improved production over the original tracks, and showcase a tougher, "meatier" sound that I think fits the band a bit better than the more hollow, distant production that the rest of the release bears.

I've listened to this release all the way through a number of times now, and while I enjoy it each time, I can't say the songs are overly memorable or stick with me much past each listen.  The anguished vocal wail of "You Have Been Warned" tends to play back in my head for a while, and the relatively familiar words of Psalm 139 tend to linger on after listening, but these tracks aren't playing in my head for a while after listening.  "Returnal Etern" (one assumes a play on the words "Eternal Return") is a solid track with some interesting stuff going on, but despite the overall quality present here, the material itself just doesn't stick with me as much as I'd hoped.  I've experienced that with other doom metal too, however, so mileage will vary.  Ultimately, if you're a fan of slow doom metal and want more for your collection, you could do a whole lot worse than this CD re-issue.  If you're not into this style, this release is unlikely to convert you.  Recommended for doom diehards, everyone else should probably consider this a "try before you buy" scenario.


My Love Affair With Lightening Force, part 1

You beautiful Engrish, you.

In the summer of 1992, I was the proud owner of a brand new Sega Genesis console, complete with Sonic the Hedgehog pack-in cartridge.  I had previously played Sonic, and indeed a Sega Genesis, via a casual friend from school.  He was the guy that lived with his grandparents and seemed to have a limitless supply of new cool stuff to show off to the other guys in school.  So when the Sega Genesis came out and was the "next big thing" in video games in our little corner of the world, he was the first one in town to have one, and we were all lined up at his house to watch in awe as he booted up Altered Beast with its then-awesome graphics, sound, and presentation.  Those huge characters!  The beyond-awesome transformation screen completely with cheesy/cool fire effect!  Those big bosses!  It was magical.  And even though hindsight tells us differently, Last Battle was even impressive those first few times we played it.  I was witnessing the beginning of something incredible.

Thankfully, this wasn't indicative of the future of gaming.  Except the blood part.

Fast forward a year or so later, and this same guy had come home with a new game that was highly anticipated: Sonic the Hedgehog.  Once again, we all lined up to play, and when I finally got my chance at the control pad, I was awestruck at the incredible graphics, fun music, great level design, and simple but effective mechanics.  By the time I had played long enough to get through the Green Hill Zone and reached the Marble Zone, I was sold on the game.  Once I saw the Labyrinth Zone and how much variety there was in the game, I absolutely knew I just HAD to have the game, and a Sega Genesis system to play it on.  My mission was clear: attain a Genesis console by any and all means necessary, within my Jr. High kid's allowance limits.  Unfortunately, that meant waiting until I had nearly graduated, if I was to go at that pace.  Thus, I made the difficult choice to sell my Game Boy system I had bought just 3 years earlier, along with all my carts, to earn enough money to go in half-way with my younger brother to purchase the Genesis console, along with a used TV to play it on.  My parents never allowed me to purchase or own the NES console, because they said I would monopolize the TV, and they were right.  By the time the Genesis came into the picture, my parents at least told me I could get a TV to play it on, since my brother and I could purchase this stuff together.

I spent weeks pouring over Sonic the Hedgehog, playing until I had mastered each level and got through the game all the way.  I then went back and played through again while gathering all of the Chaos Emeralds and perfecting my technique.  After that, my younger brother, a friend, and myself all played the first couple levels doing "speed trials", seeing who could complete the first couple stages the fastest.  I held the record for Green Hill Zone stage 1, at just 30 seconds.  I don't know that I've ever been able to complete it that fast since, but it sure was a rush zooming through tubes, around loops, and spinning through the air propelling toward the end of the level.

Run, blue hedgehog, run!

So why all this talk about Sonic the Hedgehog?  What about Lightening Force?  I'm getting to that, gentle reader, but I feel it's necessary to set up my history with the Genesis console, and just how much it meant to me as a young lad to finally have my own, having only played at friend's houses for years.  Point being, I spent an awful lot of time on Sonic.  I also clocked a lot of hours on the puzzle game Columns.  I played Quackshot starring Donald Duck a lot, and dumped a heap of time into Decap Attack too.  I played Strider a ton until I finished it, then set it aside and didn't touch it again for some 10 years.  I (mistakenly) sold Fantasia and Toki after finishing them.  But I don't think I spent more time on the Sega Genesis with ANY game outside of Lightening Force.

I had read positive reviews for Thunder Force II and Thunder Force III, but hadn't actually had the pleasure of playing them.  Matter of fact, I hadn't even had the joy of playing a Sega Genesis shoot-em-up yet, because I didn't own any, and no one I knew that had a Genesis had one at that point.  Guys were too busy with Sonic the Hedgehog to invest time in yet another scrolling shooter.  But when I saw Lightening Force (known as Thunder Force IV outside of the US) on the shelf at Kay Bee Toys, despite the humorously misspelled name, I knew that was a game I had to have.  It was a similar reaction to the box art, screenshots, and description as my first reaction to the Genesis when I played it, or Sonic when I first laid eyes on the game.  I was filled with a complete wonderment and desire to jump right in and play.  So a few months after I bought my Genesis, I plunked down the $40 I had been saving up to buy a new game and took it home, anticipating what an incredible game it was going to be.  I had made my mind up already that it was going to be great.

Say what you will about "Western" box art, but I think this is just as effective as the Japanese artwork at communicating just what's in store.

Thankfully, when I actually got it home and plugged it into my console, it was just as magical as I had hoped.  My clunky old 19 inch tube TV crackled with incredible music and vibrant colors, and I was wowed at the parallax scrolling, fast moving game play (Blast Processing!), interesting locales, and intuitive weapon system.  I was struck at the Mega Man-like ability to choose the order of the first four stages, which lent an element of strategy and planning that I hadn't previously seen in a shooter.  I was immediately sucked-in when my ship suddenly went underwater in the Strite stage, presumably to face off against the giant battleship, only to discover that was but a ruse.  I was thrilled with the giant Blade weapon, and awed by the powerful Rail Gun.  When I made it to the Ruins level, I was impressed with the Hunter weapon, a truly useful homing weapon that made things easier, but still no cakewalk.  This was the shooter I had waited all my gaming life for.  Gradius had entertained me, and R-Type 2 had impressed my socks off in the arcade (my local bowling alley!), but this...THIS was the game that all those previous shoot-em-ups had teased me about, the game that would be the culmination of all that had come before it.  At least in my 15-year old mind, it would.

The thing to understand about Lightening Force is that, it was the penultimate scrolling shooter game on the Genesis, and rivaled even the Super NES for sheer quality.  The SNES port of Gradius III was plagued by slowdown.  Super R-Type wasn't quite the conversion of R-Type 2 many had hoped for, and was just a slow game overall.  Axelay was impressive, but the 2.5D overhead perspective of some stages was confusing and it was difficult to judge the perspective.  And other than Mode 7 effects, it didn't offer anything more impressive than what Lightening Force was already doing.  And the ill-fated Thunder Spirits, a SNES port of the arcade conversion of Thunder Force III (aka Thunder Force AC), was a mediocre translation of Thunder Force III that was actually inferior in many ways to the Genesis original.  That doesn't mean these games are inherently *bad* by any stretch, but compared to Lightening Force in terms of all it has to offer, all it can do, and all the entertainment value it brings, they just don't add up.  I feel the same way about the rest of the shmup library on the Genesis as well - there are plenty of gems like Gaiares, M.U.S.H.A., Robo-Aleste, Android Assault, and the Japan-only releases of Gleylancer and Eliminate Down, but I still believe Lightening Force stands tall above the rest due to its sheer quality and execution.

So now that you've read an entire novella of me gushing about the game, how about reading some more on the subject?  Because I'm far too emotionally connected to this title to do a proper, objective review, I'm simply going to break it down into various components and talk about the game at length.  I'll do a whole part on the music, as that was highly influential for me, and talk about some of my obsessiveness over same.  I'll do an entire section on the graphics, and may delve a bit into the technical details that prove why this game was head and shoulders above the competition for the Genesis.  I plan on writing a portion on the game play and level design, because I think it bears exploring more specifically.  I will also likely write a piece musing about my memories of playing, beating the game, discovering the "omake" music tracks, the "99 lives" trick, and more.  I realize that is a lot of content to write about a single game, but I feel like this game often gets skipped over when people talk about the best games the Sega Genesis has to offer, and that's a shame, because it's an absolute gem.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series!