Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Edge Of Thorns - Insomnia (2014)

I thoroughly enjoy writing music reviews.  One of the small pleasures in life for me is getting exposure to a whole host of new bands I may otherwise have never heard of, or perhaps overlooked, because I get a review copy of a release.  Sometimes I get albums that go nowhere and feel like a waste of my time, but most of the time I at least enjoy what I get.  Sometimes, however, I get a diamond in the rough, something that I can be truly happy about receiving.  Edge Of Thorns is just such an example.

To be honest, I'd never heard of Edge Of Thorns before, but the name immediately made me think of Savatage.  Indeed, the band's moniker was inspired by the Savatage song/album, so of course, aural comparisons at once begin to take shape.  That's a mistake, however, because Edge Of Thorns really sound very little like the metal heroes they fashioned their name after.  Rather than a mix of American power metal, progressive hard rock and straight up metal, Edge Of Thorns take a different path.  Their sound is steeped in the modern, heavy European power metal sound, and that's a good thing, because the band has a knack for the style.

Right away, I'm enthralled by the guitars.  Longtime (founding?) lead guitarist Dave Brixius, and newcomer Jani Näckel bring the heat, big time.  Jani brings home driving hard riffs that not only hit hard, but are sprinkled with variety throughout.  It's not all chugga chugga stuff, but there are moments where the notes ring out, and other times when rhythmically, she makes things interesting.  Dave's solo work is fiery and blistering, bringing an exciting element to the songs during each solo break.  Some guitarists' solo playing can be too technical, or too basic, but Dave transitions back and forth nicely from song to song between highly melodic playing (such as some of the solo work in "The Seven Sins Of Arthur McGregor"), and all out fret board fireworks.  In all, the guitar sound is chunky and heavy, the way it should be in a band playing this style.  Bass provided by Achim Sinzinger is competent, and though not prominent in the band's sound, provides some necessary weight.  Drummer Joachim Lichter is on-point and provides a nice, meaty drum sound to the album.  He handles mid-tempo and basic beats like a champ, and his double-bass and faster drum work is impressive as well.  He brings a minor sense of dynamics as well, which is always a plus.

Vocally, Dirk Schmitt is a strong addition to the band's sound.  He has a very gritty tone that reminds me a lot of Udo Dirkschneider (ex-Accept), though with a bit less gravel.  Dirk has that sound where it sounds like his epiglottis is reverberating at 100 mph, so it's a "cleaner grit", if you will, than what Udo projects.  Dirk has a powerful voice, good range, and he uses his instrument well on this album.  The one bothersome thing I noticed about his vocals is more of a delivery issue than a problem with his voice.  Any time a word begins with the letter "i", he adds an artificial "r" sound, i.e. when he says "Insomnia" in the title track, or particularly in the last track, "Is This The Way It Is".  It's a minor issue, but as strong as his performance is here, it's a bit distracting to hear him say "Rrrrrinsomnia!" several times in a row during an otherwise great performance.  On the plus side, having fellow German Ralf Scheepers provide guest vocals during "Metal Unity" certainly doesn't hurt matters any.

Having not heard the previous 2 releases, I can't speak to the quality here versus past material, but what I can say is that this is a solid set of songs performed with enthusiasm by a talented bunch of performers.  What I'd really like to hear from the band on their next outing is an even tighter batch of tunes, with even catchier riffs and choruses.  Other than a bit of minor tightening of the vocal attack and a want for slightly more memorable batch of material, there's very little I can fault this album for.  This CD is a testament to the collective talent and drive of the band members, and I commend them for giving us a work as cohesive and consistent throughout.  Recommended.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Game On! - DuckTales Remastered (Wii U)

Image shamelessly stolen from the Capcom Unity YouTube page.

Game Title: DuckTales Remastered
Platforms: Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Released: August 13, 2013
Formats: Digital, Retail/Boxed (console only)
Players: 1
Online Content: N/A

Any time a property is up for a 'remake', things can be dodgy.  How many times has something from the 1980's been remade in the last few years with mixed results?  How about when bands re-record old hits or entire albums?  Often, the results aren't exactly what fans wanted, and sometimes even what the artist had envisioned for the re-record.  When something is remastered, it usually means that the original source material was simply cleaned up and made to look or sound better, sometimes with the occasional tweak or change based on an artist's original vision.  Though "remaster" isn't a term one normally would (or should) apply to a complete remake of a property, but that's what Capcom decided to do with DuckTales Remastered, a completely new, modern take on the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (and Game Boy) platform game.

That Capcom was able to either retain rights, or secure them again for the purpose of this remake, is quite a feat.  Most companies let their licensing rights lapse, and then obtaining those back can often be tricky business.  Thankfully, for Capcom, the DuckTales property was no longer a hot commodity, and they were able to put out this fine remake of the classic original NES title.  I feel compelled to make the distinction that, even though this game is labeled as a 'remaster', it's far more in the 'remake' category.  There are similarities to the original in some of the level design, and the music is the same, albeit redone in a more modern fashion, but this is a brand new game that re-imagines the original in a modern context.

Screenshot shamelessly stolen from NinteodoLife

First and foremost I must mention the fact that unlike the original, this game has a defined story.  Sure, the original gave us a vague notion of a treasure hunt, but then, Scrooge McDuck was always out for treasure.  Anyone who watched the cartoon knew that.  And why is that relevant?  The original voice cast returned to provide voices for the game, save for the voice of Fenton Crackshell, aka Gizmo Duck.  Unfortunately, original voice actor Hamilton Camp passed away in 2005, otherwise I'm assuming they'd have tapped him for the part.  Instead, we get relative newcomer (in context with the original cast) Eric Bauza, who has an impressive voice over resume already.  For anyone who enjoyed the original cartoon and playing the NES (or in my case, Game Boy) game was that small window into "playing" the cartoon, then the new game will be practically a revelation, because the dialogue in the game will take you right back to your childhood and make you truly feel as if you're playing the cartoon.  Bits of voice acting throughout the levels also add to the immersion, with Scrooge occasionally commenting on a gem you find, or making little comments here and there - my favorite among them is when Scrooge says, with full accent in tow, "I dinnae get to be the richest duck in the world by backin' doon!"  In addition to the excellent voice acting, the soundtrack has been re-imaged as well by Jake Kaufman, who said in interviews that he'd been a fan of the cartoon and game.  He did a marvelous job taking the original tunes and simply bringing them into a modern context with full instrumentation and "big" sound, but following the original melodies and templates.  There's an option to hear the original chiptune versions as well, which some will revel in.

The graphics in this game are absolutely beautiful.  If you're going to make a 2-D game in the modern age and not make it "retro" styled with obvious pixel art, THIS is the way to do it right.  Stages have lush backgrounds with lots of detail that look like they've been hand drawn, and the character animations are well done and look like they could have come straight from the cartoon.  Scrooge McDuck looks great as you run and pogo-jump around, climb ladders, swing your cane like a gold club, and more.  The look on his face when you touch an enemy or dangerous piece of scenery is priceless, and really reflects the cartoon animation well.  The stages all echo the original levels, but at a vastly more detailed level, and even the more mundane locations look fantastic.

Screenshot shamelessly stolen from XBLA Fans

The game takes the original's 5 areas and retools them to make the layouts and progression a bit different, as well as making them longer and more challenging.  The game also adds 2 new levels.  There's an intro level that unveils the plot of the Beagle Boys trying to filch Scrooge's gold from his Money Bin, so you get to play through that at the beginning.  Then you can select from any of the main stages via the oversize computer in Scrooge's office.  Once you've completed all areas and found all 5 priceless treasures, you travel to Mt. Vesuvius to confront Magica (and Glomgold, incidentally) for a final showdown.  I actually quite like the layouts of the stages here, as they're fairly linear, but still can be explored quite a bit, and some of them (particularly the icy Himalaya or Transylvania stages) require a bit of searching and sometimes backtracking to complete and find all the treasure.  Rather than the pixel-perfect platforming of the original, with the new art style it becomes more of judging where McDuck is standing relative to the edge of a platform or area to size up the jumps.

The ability to save your progress and not have to replay stages each time you come into the game is a plus, because with the changed layouts and enemy movements, the difficulty has ramped up quite a bit from the original to this remake.  Admittedly, my platforming skills aren't what they were when I played through the original on my Game Boy back in Jr. high school, I had quite a time getting through the game - it was definitely no cakewalk.  There were several stages I tried multiple times to get through, and had to perfect the jumping and pogostick mechanics quite a bit to get through the game.  In particular, the final part of the Mt. Vesuvius stage required some really well-timed jumps and maneuvers.  If you die in that spot and lose all your lives, you'll have to continue from the beginning of the Vesuvius stage, and that's a fair bit of game to have to play through again to complete the game, including the final boss.  It's not a huge complaint, but just something to be aware of.  It definitely still has the "Nintendo hard" feel of an 8-bit platformer.  A minor complaint that I assume plagues all console versions (I only have the Wii U version) is that the cinema/dialogue portions can't be skipped by simply pressing a button.  You have to pause the game, and choose 'Skip cinema' and then it will skip it.  Not a big deal, but for every time Launchpad flies the chopper to a new stage or area, you'll find yourself skipping that sequence a lot.  The same goes for some of the in-level cinemas - once you've seen them once or twice, you'll be skipping through them to get back into the action.

Screenshot shamelessly stolen from Wii U Daily

The special features are nice, but are a touch hit & miss.  The ability to swim around in the money pit is cool, but it loses its appeal within a few seconds.  How many of us dreamed of diving into Scrooge's money bin and swimming around through all the cash and gold like he does?  Sadly, it's a VERY limited experience, and feels very tacked on.  On the plus side, with all the cash you earn my collecting gems and treasures throughout the game, you can unlock bonus content like concept artwork, sprites, character or location designs and sketches, and more.  If you get enough of the first category of art unlocked, you can start unlocking the next category until you get to the end.  Once you've unlocked enough, you can get some video, which is nice.  Of course, in order to get enough cash to unlock everything, you'll have to play through some of the stages more than once, which you can do once you've completed the game and downed the final boss.  The ability to choose the 8-bit tunes is nice, even though Jake Kaufman's score is great, so that's a welcome addition, but I kind of wish that Capcom and WayForward (who handled the design) would have included a way to unlock the original game.  That would have been a killer feature, and it seems odd that they didn't include that.

All things considered, this is a really nice update or the original game, and a real treat for fans like myself.  If you're a modern gamer, this title might be worth the budget price to get an idea of what a good platform game is in the modern era.  If you were never a fan of the show or the original game, this may not be the game for you, but as a fan of both, I thoroughly enjoyed myself while playing this, despite the slightly steep jump in difficulty.  If you are at all a fan of the cartoon or the original game, I recommend checking this game out, because it is the closest thing available of any game I think I've ever played to truly capturing the spirit and fun of the cartoon it's based upon, while also offering a solid, fun, and highly replayable gaming experience.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Morning Dwell - Morning Dwell (2014)

As previous reviews have indicated, the metal sub-genre known as Power Metal is hopelessly overcrowded.  Making an impression among the glut of bands is difficult.  You either need to grab folks by the throat and knock their socks off, or do something that is interesting enough to warrant their time.  In the case of a band blatantly aping their influences, they need to bring their "A" game in order to have any hope of being seen as anything other than just a copycat.  In the case of Sweden's Morning Dwell, one can say that they at least make a good go of it.

Reading through the band's bio, it's apparent that at least the man behind the group, Petter Hjerpe, has had a reasonably legitimate power metal education, having purchased Hammerfall's seminal "Legacy of Kings" album, then discovering (through his father), the wondrous "Keep of the Seven Keys: Part 2" by Helloween (on vinyl, no less!).  And as you listen to the album, you'll hear Petter's Helloween fetish in all its glory (or lack thereof, depending on your take).  The album gains credibility when you find that drummer Alfred Fridhagen (Golden Resurrection, ReinXeed) is on board, along with production from CJ Grimmark (Narnia), and artwork by Andreas Marshall.  With a formula of Helloween-worship with talented players sounds like a winning combination, at least on paper.  How does it translate on disc?  Read on!

For a band trying to ape the Helloween sound, Morning Dwell sounds about like one would expect.  The guitars have some level of crunch, but they're relatively smooth as well, with a balanced amount of grit coupled with slick production.  Michel Barréra and Ulf Zetterman do a good job with the axe work here, cranking out reasonably good riffs and solos that follow in the Helloween tradition, but lacking some of the fire that made the "Keepers" albums so special.  Still, they play well, and get the job done.  Bass is present and audible, though Martin Erneström generally just keeps pace with the guitar in terms of what he's playing.  He is solid and in the pocket, and provides a nice underpinning for the guitar.  I do like that there's a real separation of guitar and bass, which isn't always the case with modern metal production.  And of course, drumming by Alfred Fridhagen is spot on, with his usual skill and energy.

Petter Hjerpe is a relatively new vocalist, as outlined in the band's bio, so don't expect to hear the next power metal wunderkind when listening to the album.  He's relatively solid, with some minor range issues.  He also has what I'll call a minor "transition" issue, where when he's sliding from one note to another, his voice squeaks a bit, not unlike puberty.  This generally happens only at the top of his register, and it's not all the time, so it's somewhat forgivable, but it's still a noticeable flaw.  It's interesting to note that Petter had some vocal coaching by producer Frippe Eliasson.  Again, this is another reason the minor issues with vocals can be seen as less of a detriment to the album's impact.

The more troublesome aspect of the album is that the songs just aren't that memorable.  They contain all the elements one would expect, and they're fun to listen to while the album's playing, but other than the chorus of "Unlock All the Doors", or perhaps bits of "The Pirate Song", none of the material sticks around in my head after the album is done playing.  It's not inherently poorly written, per se, but the hooks just aren't strong enough to keep me engaged beyond the listening experience.  That, combined with the vocal issues I mentioned, will keep this release from blowing up the way the band might want it to.  Still, with as much Helloween worship as is going on here, and the fact that there's plenty of potential on display, Doolittle Group may have scored a minor coup by signing the band, because with time, writing, and touring, they can only get better.  They don't have a "Keeper" album here (sorry, pun intended), but it's a solid, inoffensive slab of power metal that is at least enjoyable to listen to.  Recommended for Helloween nuts and absolute power metal devotees; all others try before you buy.


Pylon - Homo Homini Lupus (2014)

Pylon has made a name for themselves in the Doom Metal space over the last several years.  Beginning in 2004 with "Natural Songbirth", the band's 5 full-length releases and 2 splits (one with the mighty My Silent Wake), Pylon come to 2014 with their 6th LP, "Homo Homini Lupus".  That's Latin, loosely translated as "man is a wolf to [his fellow] man", which I would have to agree with.  Man is oft a cruel beast, and as people we are frequently self-centered, narcissistic, and tend to ignore the feelings and needs of others, if it conflicts with our own interests.  I have to admit I'm as guilty as the next person of such behavior, and it makes me reflect on my life when I think about what kind of impact I'm having on the world.

I reviewed Pylon's last release, "The Harrowing of Hell" last year, and found it to be a solid, if somewhat uninspired release.  Pylon has made some changes to their line-up and sound, and I think those are for the better, because "Homo Homini Lupus" is a quality album that I think reflects the kind of growth a band should see when they really put the effort into writing material from one album to the next.  One of the things that "The Harrowing" needed desperately was stronger songs.  "Homo Homini Lupus" rectifies this quite a bit by having a nice mix of material, and more interesting and catchy songs.

On the instrumental front, the guitars sound a LOT better here than they did on the previous release.  The CD release of "Harrowing" had a couple bonus tracks that hinted at the improved sound, and here it's even better.  Gone is the tinny, thin tone, and in its place is a thick, warm, crunchy tone that is far more befitting of the doom metal here.  The guitar production is improved all around, as clean tones sound much better as well, so kudos to whomever produced the album, because it sounds so much better.  Bass is nicely placed in the mix, with a full sound that rumbles and provides a lot of low end.  It doesn't get lost in the mix, and while not blazing a unique path within the music, at least sounds great throughout.  Drum work is pretty good as well, keeping time with the shifting tempos from song to song.  The cymbals are a touch buried in the mix, but the bass and snare drum sounds are all punchy at the right level.

Vocally, the addition of Jordan Cutajar from Nomad Son was the right move.  Matt Brand was a serviceable vocalist, but this change really gives them a leg up, because Jordan sounds at home here as much as he does with Nomad Son.  His strong voice and raspy, emotive tone are a welcome addition to the Pylon sound, especially with the improved production.  Jordan's inflections, passionate delivery, and attitude all come through, which gives the material that much more weight.  The addition of some Hebrew and Latin in the lyrics also spices things up.

I like the material on this album a lot more than on its predecessor.  Firstly, the songs shift tempos more and the moods change throughout, which keeps things fresh and interesting.  The choice of Slayer's "South of Heaven" is also a great one, as I think the band brings their own little element to the song and do it justice.  In addition, the songs themselves are just stronger than the previous release, because they don't get old on repeat listens, and when I go back to the album after not having listened to it for a few days, I immediately know where I'm at with each song and find myself smiling and bobbing my head with the groove.  Overall, this is a quality album that, while relatively short (just shy of 37 minutes if you don't count the cover), is a marked improvement over the previous release.  If you've not checked out Pylon before, do yourself a favor and jump on the bandwagon now, because this album shows they've got the chops and songs.  Fans should eat this up, and doom fans in general should enjoy this fairly thoroughly.  Recommended.