Thursday, September 11, 2014
Christmas music is one of those things that you either love or hate, there's generally no middle ground. Some people, like my boss, can't wait for the day after Thanksgiving, because they can break out the vast array of Christmas-themed CD's and play them to their heart's content without anyone thinking they're strange because of it. Playing those CD's in the middle of June, however, will usually elicit strange looks. But for those who love Christmas music, there are hundreds of albums and compilations to choose from to whet the appetite. For the metal fan, however, there's very little Christmas-themed metal, aside from the occasional single, some Trans-Siberia Orchestra, or the occasional full album of metal by an artist, like Rob Halford's "Winter Songs".
I'm a bit picky when it comes to Christmas music. If I'm in the mood for it, I really like it and enjoy listening to it, even if it's kind of cheesy. But I gravitate toward either classics like Mannheim Steamroller's 1st 2 albums, some good old Bing Crosby, or some of the other Christmas-themed music I grew up with. The idea of hard rock and metal Christmas music is one that I like, but very few bands have done much with the idea, other than a few modern acts like Theocracy or August Burns Red. There have been some attempts at gathering this material together in the past, like the 2002 Sound of the Dead Records' "A Brutal Christmas - The Season In Chaos" compilation. That was a good collection of songs, but this new collection takes things to the next level by further diversifying the mix of genres and bands, as well as offering two full-length, long CD's chock full of fun tunes. We have Metal Blessing Radio to thank for bringing all this goodness together.
This compilation brings together a number of familiar metal Christmas songs, as well as a handful of relatively obscure tracks. In part, a large percentage of the tracks from "A Brutal Christmas" appear here, as well as tracks previously released as free downloads or EP/album tracks like Theocracy, Grave Robber, Paramaecium, Frost Like Ashes, and Deliverance. Then there are some bands/artists I've never heard of, like Derek Close, Jonathan Simpson (who gets to open and close the album), Anschluss Amor, and Forfeit Thee Untrue. Stylistically, this is fairly diverse. We have everything from shredding hard rock/metal like Pastor Brad or Derek Close, to the gothic rock of Leper, the horror punk of Grave Robber, and the grooving sounds of Faithbomb, to the more extreme, such as the doom death metal of Paramaecium, the melodic death metal of Immortal Souls, the brutal death metal sound of Tortured Conscience, the metalcore of Second Thief, or the black metal of Erlosung or Flaskavsae, or the grindcore of The Right Wing Conspiracy. There's some more experimental stuff here as well, like Kekal's awesome take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", Amelioration's "Redirection Christmas", Anschluss Amor's industrial "Christ's Mass", or the always bizarro Frank's Enemy with "Coventry Carol". You certainly won't be bored listening to this release.
One thing I noticed immediately is that the volume level is quite low. That's probably due to the various volume levels these tracks were recorded and mastered at from various sources, so it was a smart decision to "normalize" the songs to a lower volume to accommodate that divergence, and make the listening experience a bit more even across the board. If you want to crank it, just turn he volume up a little higher and jam out. One thing I'd suggest to anyone thinking about assembling a compilation of this type in the future - mix up the tracks a bit more if you have multiple tracks by a single band. It's a bit distracting to hear all 6 Erlosung tracks all in order, even though I know they're all quite short and similarly constructed. It would have been more interesting to hear those songs interspersed throughout the entirety of the compilation. Same goes for Second Thief or Pastor Brad - they only had 2 tracks, but it might have been nice to have 1 of each from both respective bands on each disc, just to help improve the flow and keep things interesting. It's a minor complaint, however. Also, I have to mention the packaging for the limited first edition digipak - it's a quality double-fold digi with nice hard cardstock as its base, and a nice matte finish. The cover artwork, as you can see above, is a nice parody of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, and doesn't overwhelm the original work with changes, just subtly gives it a humorous Christmas theme. The first pressing is hand-numbered, and limited to 300 copies.
The other nice thing here is that the proceeds from the sale of these CD's will go to benefit an organization called MPact Events. They will be using the money (100% of it, according to the press release I received) to purchase Christmas gifts for kids via the CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocate) - so these gifts will be going to foster kids who may not get any gifts from their birth parents. Being that my wife and I spent several years doing foster care and have a heart for kids, I'm on board with this, and this worthy cause is dear to our hearts. I was blessed to get a review copy of this compilation, but I would encourage anyone out there who is a metal fan and wants some Christmas-themed metal to jump on this, because it's a good cause, and a great deal. You get 37 tracks of awesome Christmas music for $13 in a stunning digipak that will no doubt become a collectible in the years to come. I'm not one to push my readers into buying stuff, I just try to give my opinion on a band when I review their CD. But this is the exception to the rule - fans of metal should be checking this out post haste, and anyone else looking to support a good cause and/or for a Christmas music curiosity for their collection, go buy a copy from the Metal Blessing Radio website. Highly recommended!
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Death metal has changed quite a bit since its formative years in the mid-late 1980's. What started as a more extreme extension of thrash metal quickly developed into its own form in the early 1990's, and has taken on a number of iterations in subsequent years. The early-mid 90's saw the rise of technical death metal like Gorguts, Atheist, Cynic, and latter-day Pestilence, as well as more brutal death metal like Suffocation or Dying Fetus. Death metal mixed with doom metal became prevalent as well, with acts ranging from My Dying Bride, early Paradise Lost, and early Anathema to Paramaecium and Orphaned Land. The 2000's and beyond have spawned more modern distillations of the death metal sound with ever-improving production values, which sometimes make the music sound more "in your face", but sometimes take away from the raw, unadulterated sound of what death metal was in the beginning.
The last 5 or 6 years has seen a major resurgence in the sound of early death metal, now referred to by most as "old school death metal" or OSDM. A fair number of indie and underground music labels are putting out cassettes and vinyl releases for a number of bands, and many are retreating from over-produced, sterile sounding records to something more raw and organic, recalling the early 1990's where good production was possible, but the raw sound of the music wasn't compromised by the production, mixing, or mastering. Endtime Productions has wisely snapped up UK death metallers Bloodwork, and given the vinyl (and CD) treatment to their full-length debut World Without End. It stands as a shining example of OSDM done right in the modern age.
Right away, I hear many hallmarks of early death metal in the sound. The guitars are downtuned, like most albums from that early period, but not so far that there's no definition in the guitar tone or in the riffing. The guitar sound isn't so deep and sludgy that it forsakes some level of bite; indeed, this record's guitar sound is heavy and has plenty of teeth. There isn't much in the way of solo work on the record, but lots of fast-picked rhythms and segues that really show off the abilities of all 3 guitarists in the band, James, Jeff, and Michael. There are some nice spots, particularly in the title track, where dueling guitar lines are used to great effect to produce a layered sound that works well. Other times, it sounds as though 2 or 3 guitars are playing the same rhythm so as to pummel you into oblivion as you listen. Bass, as provided by relative newcomer Ben, is well played and is prevalent enough in the mix that you feel the rhythms, but can also hear what he is playing, and he chimes in alongside the riffing quite nicely. Drummer Jon Rushforth has quite an impressive number of bands he has provided drumwork for, and he shows considerable skill here on the album, with lots of blast beats, groove-oriented bits, and really solid, accurate rolls and fills. Some death metal drummers sound like they're barely keeping pace with the music, but Jon doesn't miss a beat (sorry, pun intended).
Vocally, the album has a lot going on. Much of the vocal work is a high-pitched, almost rapsy growl that sounds more like black metal than the typical raspy death vocals of Jeff Walker or similar growler. But similar to an early Carcass album, you also have a deeper, more mid-range to low guttural growl that is layered in with the higher-pitched rasp, creating a good contrast. Sometimes the vocals are relatively understandable, other times the layering obscures them enough to where it's difficult to make out the lyrics, but it's not overly distracting. Both sets of growls are quality, though, because there is some inflection and variation throughout. I didn't get a lyric sheet with the review copy, but based on the band's previous material, it's not hard to guess that the lyrics are based on Christianity, and in a couple spots fairly obvious cries to God for help/deliverance.
There are 2 distinct qualities at work here that keep me coming back to this release. First and foremost, the album has some level of variety in the songwriting. There are the usual blast-fest songs that go at full speed throughout, but there are moments of real atmosphere (like the outro of "Shadow Aspect"), as well as slower-paced moments interspersed throughout that give the songs additional flavor. Also, there are spots where some real groove is present, which keeps the album from veering too far into brutal death metal territory, and help it identify with some early death metal pioneers like Obituary, while surpassing them with a heavier, more brutal overall sound. Secondly, the album is short and sweet. Despite the variety present, there's only so much aural pounding one can take before an album wears out its welcome, and this release is long enough to feel like you've been sufficiently been kicked in the teeth when it's done, but not beaten to a pulp and feeling like you need to chase it with something far less heavy or insane. It's well balanced, well produced, and well constructed overall. It's also a major improvement over the band's earlier material. I had previously heard the "Insufficient Flesh" EP, and this sounds like a whole new band, in a good way. While that EP had the typical markings of a demo-quality band in the studio for the first time, this sounds like a group of seasoned professionals, staking their claim on the metal landscape and putting out a quality album with no filler. Hats off to Endtime Productions for scoring this release, as well as for making it available on vinyl. The vinyl has made its way to my short-list, and that says something, especially given the limited income I have to purchase music with these days. Highly recommended for the death metal enthusiast.
I've mentioned it here on my blog before, but I was never a comic book kid. I always thought they were cool, and would sometimes go stand in the magazine aisle at the grocery store and read through X-Men or Superman comics on occasion, to gawk at the artwork, and to see what I was maybe missing by not being a comics devotee. But as a kid, my energies were focused almost solely into computer & video gaming. As such, while I was a casual fan of Spiderman, X-Men, Superman, and Batman, I never delved into those universes any further than what I was getting on TV, in movies, and through video games. The origins of those characters didn't matter as much to me as the idea of them.
Fast forward about 20+ years, and as an adult, my favorite TV show comes to an end. After 7 seasons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends its run on television. Though saddened by its end on TV, it was a logical place to stop, and I was satisfied with the end. A couple years later, when I heard that the story-lines would continue via comic books, I became intrigued. During a business trip about 3 years ago, I purchased a whole stack of comics for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 run, and the rest is history. That started by interest in comic books, and I've been collecting ever since. However, I've not delved into many of the major characters or mythologies, because some of them have histories so long and complex, it's hard to know where to start. A friend, and major DC/Batman fan suggested that I start with Batman (another character I have much interest in) by getting the short Venom trade paperback because it is the immediate predecessor to the rather epic Knightfall series, which birthed the whole "Bane breaks Batman's back" mythos.
I have this edition of Batman Venom - creepy!
Despite my lack of comic book knowledge and general story familiarity with much of the known comic book universe, I do have interest in many of the characters. I watched, and enjoyed the X-Men cartoon from the 90's, I have played numerous comic book character video games (and own a fair number of them as well), and have seen and enjoyed most every Marvel or DC comic character-based movie made in the last 10-15 years. So, while I don't feel as connected to these universes as some might be, I have an appreciation for the mythologies that have been built over the last 50-60 years or so. Having said that, I'd not even heard of the Guardians Of The Galaxy characters or comic prior to reading an announcement about the (then) up-coming film. I was intrigued, so I patiently waited for my opportunity to see the film and judge it on its own merits. I was careful to not delve into that universe much prior to seeing the movie so I could let it inform me about the cast of characters.
For the uninitiated (much like myself), I'll give a brief synopsis of the film's story. Young Peter Quill is a boy losing his mother to cancer in 1988. Unfortunately, he spurns his mother's affections at the time of her death, due to his own fears and sense of loss. Right after she dies and he freaks out, he is taken out of her hospital room and subsequently runs outside and cries. Within seconds, he is captured by aliens. The film immediately jumps 26 years into the future, and Peter Quill is a self-described 'legendary space outlaw' going by the alias Star-Lord. He is attempting to steal an item of great value (an ancient orb) so he can hock it on the rare antiquities market. He is briefly taken into custody by a small band of men, but escapes and returns to the planet Xandar to sell the item, only to be turned down by The Broker when he discovers that the item was also being pursued by the Kree zealot Ronin. After this encounter, he runs into Gamora, who is attempting to get the orb for herself, under the guise of stealing it for Ronin. As she and Quill trade blows over the orb, Rocket and Groot (a robotic-ally enhanced raccoon, and a walking tree/plant) attempt to capture Quill for the rather large bounty on his head. As one can imagine, hilarity ensues.
As one can already tell from the movie trailers and previews, these 4 colorful characters get captured by the Nova Corps (GotG's own intergalactic police force), and are sent to a prison colony to serve time for being so doggone disruptive. There, they meet Drax, who attempts to kill Gamora due to her affiliation with Ronan, a fanatical Kree who killed Drax's wife and daughter. Quill talks Drax out of it, however, and ultimately, the 5 team up temporarily to attempt a prison break so they can escape and take the Orb to Gamora's buyer for a giant fortune. As the story progresses, the characters poke at one another verbally, occasionally scrap over minor issues, but ultimately, form a loose bond that strengthens as they go through various situations with one another that require them to rely upon one another, despite any misgivings they have in doing so. Without spoiling the whole story, the characters eventually decide to team up in a more official capacity to stop Ronan from committing genocide against the Xandarians by using the Infinity Stone that was encased in the Orb that Quill originally stole, which was stolen from him by Gamora's "sister" Nebula (on loan to Ronin from universal overlord Thanos). If that sounds complicated, it's really not - I'm just boiling it down to keep from revealing the entire plot.
What do you mean, you don't dance?
The common thread between all the recent Marvel universe movies is that they've all had heart. Even the entries in the series that have taken some flack (particularly Iron Man 2 and 3) are still fun affairs, in part because they continue the story and character development of the hero(s) and surrounding cast, but also because they have all had a certain amount of heart. They have all been made with the understanding that they can't compile months worth of comic book story arcs into a single 2+ hour film, and simplify things enough so that those of us who haven't followed those plot lines can still get in on the action. As well, they've all been done in such a way that they don't take themselves entirely seriously, so there's a playful feel to them as well. That has helped to elevate the films from the schlock of the early-mid 90's comic book movie flops like Captain America or The Punisher, but also saved them from the imbalance that caused franchises like Batman to go from great heights (the first Tim Burton-directed film) to utter tripe (Batman and Robin, an utter disaster of a movie). It has been a smart move through the entire canon of recent Marvel movies to inject them with enough humor to undercut the seriousness of the events unfolding to a point where each "episode" doesn't feel overwrought like a SyFy Original Movie often does.
In particular, Guardians of the Galaxy uses humor more than the previous films, but it does so to its advantage. It's not a big stretch to think of Captain America getting buff due to a super serum, or even the Hulk getting his powers in a similar fashion through science. It's a far greater stretch to think of a team of aliens and a human being the baddest dudes in the galaxy and taking on an enemy far more menacing than what a group of misfits should be able to. Anyone watching the film should know that while the individual members of the team have skills and training to prepare them for many things, the obstacle before them is so large that it seems insurmountable. The film's humor helps to diffuse some of the feelings that the task at hand may be too large, without ignoring that fact. The scene where Quill talks his fellow shipmates into taking on Ronan with him, even though there was little hope of them succeeding, and maximum probability of death, is a prime example of this balance. Those few moments are serious with an underpinning of humor, and despite the finality of what they're resigning themselves to, Rocket ends the scene with humor to level the mood out. Save for the movie's opening scenes, the entire movie strikes a good balance between moderate doom & gloom, and humorous dialogue and situations to help temper the movie's overall feel.
Ronan is a lot like the Power Glove....he's so bad.
As for the acting in the film, I felt everyone did a good job. I'm already a fan of the 2 "primary" characters' actors, in Peter Quill's Chris Pratt (of Parks & Recreation fame), and Gamora, portrayed by the current queen of science fiction, Zoe Saldana. Pratt is his usual comical self, and transitions into an action role well enough, especially in this context. Saldana continues to show her range, from the emotional, warrior-like Neytiri (Avatar) to the stalwart, strong Uhura in the recent Star Trek reboot films, to Gamora, who is somewhere in between. Bradley Cooper shines as Rocket, and Vin Diesel is surprisingly effective as Groot, despite limited vocabulary and few opportunities to actually speak, he brings a warmth to the character one wouldn't expect. Dave Bautista works well as Drax the Destroyer also, because he doesn't have to show a large amount of range - the fact that, as Rocket says, his race is completely literal and incapable of understanding the nuance of metaphor. This works in Bautista's favor, because he can simply play it straight. He does, however, use that to comedic effect in a few instances, and his large presence on screen does give the character additional weight. Lee Pace is convincing as Ronan, Benicio del Toro is good as The Collector, Michael Rooker is good as always, and the list goes on. Some performances were understated, most likely due to the nature of the character and/or the small amount of lines or screen time, but I wasn't disappointed with anyone's performances overall.
As with all the Marvel movies thus far, the animation and special effects are outstanding here. The space locales are believable and varied, from the rock planet where Quill finds the Orb, to the Knowhere outpost and its almost post-apocalyptic feel and lush nebula-like appearance from the outside. I have a soft spot for practical effects and make-up, so I'm glad to see that at least the costumes and make-up weren't totally CGI-based, but had some basis in actual construction and implementation. Ronan's ship was an ominous, impressive craft, and was a good fit for the character. By contrast, Quill's ship, the Milano, is a stylish and elegant craft, appearing much more nimble and maneuverable. The Nova Corps craft was an interesting design as well, one which shows true later in the film. All the sets were interesting, and the variety of humanoid-based alien species was reasonable for a film this size and scope.
One example of breathtaking scenery in the film.
I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy enough to go see it twice in the space of 2 or 3 weeks, and I may go see it again at a 2nd run theater if I get the opportunity. It reminded me a lot of the other Marvel films, but not to the point where it felt like a retread. Being that this is a motley crew of bandits and ne'er-do-well types, it was good that we weren't asked to believe that this band of 5 twits was supposed to take on Ronan, his entire security force on his ship, AND the entire fleet of attack vessels that spawned from his giant warship in the same manner that the Avengers took on the whole Chitauri fleet in their film debut. The fact that the Guardians had the help of the Ravagers and also the entire Nova Corps fleet is a sign that perhaps future GotG plot lines will potentially see them teaming up with either or both camps, or perhaps other allies is a good thing. The audience would be hard-pressed to buy that this small contingent is taking on Thanos or some other other-worldly menace all by themselves. It did feel slightly rushed that the 5 characters go from practically wanting to kill one another to being friends in such a short time, but such is the nature of film.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give the film is that, like The LEGO Movie, it gave me a child-like sense of fun watching it, and has made me want to go back and revisit many of my childhood and early adulthood favorites. Movies like the original Star Wars trilogy, Tron, Krull, Dune, Karate Kid and its sequel, The Last Starfighter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original live-action film, not the Michael Bay train wreck), and even The Fifth Element. These are movies that I've watched countless times, and practically know by heart. Guardians of the Galaxy, like The Avengers, is a movie I can see myself coming back to multiple times and enjoying thoroughly each time. Regardless as to whether it offers more each time I see it, it's a feel-good scifi romp that has interesting characters, relatable story elements, and good pacing, not to mention a fun and memorable soundtrack. All of those elements will keep me coming back to the film, and it will be at the top of my "to buy" list when it's released on Blu Ray. If you are at all a fan of Marvel movies, science fiction/fantasy, action movies, or just really well done ensemble cast films, you should go see Guardians of the Galaxy at least once, because it's a rollicking good time. Highly recommended.
**NOTE TO PARENTS**
I would NOT recommend parents take their small children to this film. I saw some small kids at the theater both times I went, and cringed both times. Sure, it's more light-hearted and less intense/serious than other films of its type, and these are comic book characters that kids can read about, but there's a difference between what is illustrated on the page and that illustration "coming to life" on screen. There's enough colorful language in the film to justify not taking small kids, but the amount of violence (stylized and sterilized, though it is) in the film makes it more intense and pronounced even than the original Star Wars films. Add Quill's "Jackson Pollock painting" bit and some of the other innuendo, and there's enough adult content here for me to say safely that young kids shouldn't probably be seeing this film. Yes, the MPAA is sometimes very arbitrary in their ratings, and the validity of the PG-13 rating has been debated hotly for some time, but this is a prime example where I think it fits and is correctly applied. As long as your child understands that what they're seeing is fake and aren't prone to acting out what they see on screen, I'd say 10-12 and up should not be a major problem for most families.
"I am Groot....again!"