Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back and Looking Forward

The coming of the new year marks, as always, a convenient time to look back and take stock. That is doubly true of this blog, since I started it in early January. Thus the end of each year in general is also the end of another full year of my online ranting and raving. As such, I'd like to take a moment to reflect, and I'd like to talk about where I think (or hope) this blog is going over the next year.

I haven't been in this game as long as a lot of other people, nor have I had a tremendous impact. In the grand scheme of the metal world, or even in the smaller scheme of the online metal community, my role is a minor one. I'm just a guy who, for the past several years, has shared my opinions in a quiet corner of the internet. To my good fortune, a few people have stopped by to listen to what I have to say. In a nutshell, that's it. I've watched this blog evolve over 4 years and 600 posts, I've used it as a dumping ground for my musings, a soap box for my rants, a platform to share the music I love, and a point of contact with like-minded people. But through all of that, this has never really been anything bigger or grander than a guy sharing his opinions with a few people who have decided to listen.

Quite frankly, I'm glad for that. For a while, mostly in 2012, I started to pick up some traction in the metal blogosphere. I was writing guest reviews on a few other sites, I was voraciously consuming new content to digest and review. My view count was up, promo material was streaming in,  and I felt like I could grow this thing into a real, substantial voice in the online metal world. That wore on me, though. I was becoming jaded and cynical toward the music I had once loved, callously dismissing much of it without a second thought. I know this all sounds terribly melodramatic, and perhaps it is, but nevertheless I found it weighing on me. So I took a step back. 2013 saw me retreat from reviewing much new material, as I took a long breather to regain my perspective, and I spent most of my pared-down blogging time on other topics. Outside of the metal blog world, my real life was going through a lot of transitions as well, so it was just a good time in general to step back and reallocate my time.

As 2014 rolled around, I'd begun to recover from the burnout, and my life had settled into enough of a routine to let me start thinking about getting back to writing more reviews. I wanted to take a more balanced approach, though, which I think I've maintained reasonably well. My posting rate didn't rocket back up, instead I averaged about 1 post every 4 days, usually coming in spurts when I felt into it. I increasingly moved away from long-form, overly analytical reviews, instead preferring to post collections of short, concise opinions. And I started to incorporate more of the other music I love, particularly blues, while still recognizing that most of my audience is here for the metal content.

So now that 2015 is coming up, what do I see ahead for the 5th year of Beards Etc?

In large part, I'd like to continue the trends I set for myself over this past year. Moving forward, I expect to write a lot more short reviews. I have all but eliminated articles about albums I disliked, and that will be increasingly true moving forward since I just don't have the the energy or the desire to waste my time on bad music. I'd also like to continue on with some of the regular features I tried to get started over the last year. In particular, I want to revive the "Tuesday is Blues Day" entries, though I can already guarantee that they won't be posted every week. In general, I just want this blog to be a relaxed, casual place to share good music and occasionally talk about other things that interest me. Hopefully, a few people will still want to stick around and listen.

Well, that's it from me for now. I hope you all have a happy New Year, see you in 2015!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 25 Metal Albums of 2014

Here we are at the end of the year, and I am finally prepared to present my picks for the top metal albums of the year. I didn't get to all the material I'd have liked to this year, but I fully listened through somewhere around 100 new albums, in addition to sampling from another 100 or so that just didn't hold my attention long enough to keep me around for their full duration.

After some fiddling with my list of prospects, I found that 25 felt like an appropriate cutoff for my list. It's few enough to still have some meaning, since I had to cut dozens of records I liked, but it's big enough that I got to cover pretty much everything that I felt needed to be on a year-end list. There were a few particular albums by old favorites or exciting newcomers that I really wanted to include but simply couldn't fit, and that's how you know that everything I picked ahead of them had to work to earn its place on the list.

As always, these are just my opinions, yadda yadda disclaimer and so on and so forth. So now, without forther ado, here are my picks for the Top 25 Metal Albums of 2014:



Monday, December 22, 2014

Pre-List List

I hope you are all having a pleasant Christmas season. Personally, I have been enjoying the company of family at my parents' home in Ohio. Those of you who read this blog regularly will have noticed that my output has fallen off toward the end of this year. Don't worry, though, I have been keeping up with at least some new material recently and I haven't forgotten about best-of-the-year-list season. There are a couple new albums I want time to digest before I publish my own list, but I have a somewhat firm draft in place already. I probably won't post it until after Christmas, but by the end of the year I will present my list of the top 25 metal albums of 2014.

[EDIT]

I initially listed 3 "almost metal" albums here that I really liked but didn't think were metal enough to qualify for the list. Then I started compiling my actual list and realized that a couple other names I didn't want to exclude were just as tenuously "metal" as were those names I'd put here on the excluded list. After some thought, I decided not to split hairs and to just let them all be eligible for my top 25 list.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Remembering Dimebag

Ten years ago today, "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, along with three other innocent people, was gunned down on stage in Columbus, Ohio. It was one of the most tragic and senseless events in metal history.

Whether you are a fan of Pantera or not, Dimebag was one of the most influential metal guitarists who ever lived. Personal anecdotal accounts of his life and behaviors, especially with regard to his interactions with fans, indicate that he was a genuinely good human being who understood that he was in a position to affect people's lives. Sadly I never had the opportunity to watch him perform live, but I've enjoyed his work for many years. So here's looking at you, Dime. Rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Melvins - Hold It In

I am rather fond of the Melvins. This Washington-based outfit ought to be familiar to most of you, since the list of bands who can legitimately claim to have inspired both Eyehategod and Nirvana is relatively short. Quirky-ass antics and gimmick records aside (though they can't really be separated, since those are big part of the band's charm) the Melvins discography contains the roots of both sludge and grunge, making them one of the most influential bands in rock and metal in the past few decades, even if they don't often get credited as such by the general public. Today, I'll talk a little about their newest full-length effort, Hold It In.

For my personal taste, Melvins music is at its best when the band hovers in the proto-sludge territory that is the closest thing they have to a musical home base. Fortunately for me, this album largely does just that. There are trippy explorations into other sounds and perky pop-rock elements, and those are able to actually be fun because there's enough of a stylistic anchor in place that you don't have to worry about the band wandering off into the woods, tripping over a log, and falling unconscious half-way through the record. Creativity is never a concern with the Melvins, they have a seemingly endless supply of that, but lack of focus often is a legitimate issue. Thus, when the band is able to strike up a solid equilibrium between convention and exploration, as they do here, it's an absolute joy to hear. There's nothing in particular that sets this album apart as notably different, since as I've said it's closer to home base than many of their records, but the fact that the bands wanders around so much stylistically means that a "normal" Melvins record is not the kind of "boy is this stale" criticism that it would be for most bands.

The best testament to this album I can give is that after buying it, I kept it on repeat in my car stereo for about two weeks and I never got tired of it. I don't think it's going to go down as one of the most brilliant or captivating records of the year, but it was eminently listenable and it kept my attention a lot longer than most albums can.

Grade: A-


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Top 10 Death Metal Vocalists of All Time

It's been months since I've written a top 10 list, and that just won't do. So here's a list that feels so fundamentally appropriate for this blog that I can barely believe I haven't done it already. First, I'll give you the actual list itself. Then, I'd like to share a few thoughts and/or realizations I had as I wrote this. And so here are (just in my opinion, obviously) the top 10 death metal vocalists of all time:

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#10. Peter Tägtgren (Hypocrisy)

Peter Tägtgren is probably the best overall musician on this list. A guitarist as well as a prolific songwriter and producer, he's played a big role in creating a lot of of Swedish metal. He's most prominent as the core member of Hypocrisy, where he's done some really great work, but what really convinced me of his vocal prowess was his absolutely ferocious delivery on the Bloodbath album Nightmares Made Flesh.




#9. John McEntee (Incantation)

After a slightly bumpy transitional period, Incantation founder and lead guitarist John McEntee eventually took over vocal duties for the band in 2004. It was a good decision, as he proved to deliver a powerful guttural roar to rival anyone in the business. He struck again this year with Dirges of Elysium, one of the best death metal records of 2014.





#8. Karl Sanders (Nile)
Nile are a band that, while solid, have rarely lived up to the promise of their truly awesome premise. That said, Karl Sanders' demonic vocal assault has always been a strong point in the band's favor. His delivery is consistently excellent, but if I were to recommend one Nile album to check out, it would be Black Seeds of Vengeance.





#7. Piotr Paweł "Peter" Wiwczarek (Vader)
Peter has quite possibly the most distinctive sound of any prominent death metal vocalist. His singular, unmistakeable, and highly articulate bellows have been the foundation of Vader's fantastic discography for over two decades. Stunningly for a group with such a long track record, Vader's recent output has been amongst the best in the band's history. Welcome to the Morbid Reich, especially, stands as a modern death metal classic.



#6. John Tardy (Obituary)
Obituary have long occupied a special place for me personally, as they were my first introduction to real old-school, no-frills death metal. Recently I finally got the chance to see them live. They did not disappoint. Even after a quarter of a century, Tardy's disgusting vomiting-blood vocals still stand out as the centerpiece of Obituary's distinctive sound. The band's sophomore effort Cause of Death, a vital classic of the genre, stands as their (and his) greatest work to date.



#5. Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)
Like Tägtgren, Åkerfeldt did what were probably his best death vocals on a Bloodbath record. However, his Opeth vocal work (both growled and clean) has long been truly outstanding as well. Recently, Opeth has moved away from death vocals, and Åkerfeldt has stated that he is no longer capable of delivering the deep, monstrous, strikingly clear roars for which he has become famous. That's sad news, but it does nothing to diminish the extant collection of marvelous vocals he's already recorded. Blackwater Park  was the album that first introduced me to him, and it's a great place to start if you're looking to discover the brilliance of Opeth.


#4. Johan Hegg (Amon Amarth)
Not only is Hegg a powerhouse vocalist, he's one of the best live frontmen in the business. The towering picture of Viking brutality is everything a death metal vocalist should be. His mead-fueled roars are amongst the clearest and most articulate in the genre, his stage-presence is colossal, and his consistency is beyond reproach. Every single Amon Amarth record is good, but for me their pinnacle thus far is 2006's fantastic With Oden on Our Side.


#3. Frank Mullen (Suffocation)
A powerhouse live performer known for his distinctive "hand chops", Mullen is most notable as the father of brutal death vocals. His rabid, violent, gut-wrenching baritone bellows inspired a generation of imitators. Like with every other element of Suffocation's sound, the army of copycats have failed to capture the blend of power, precision, complexity, and animalistic intensity that make Mullen's vocals so great. Suffocation released three great albums in the '90s before going on hiatus. They've been back in action and doing excellent work for years, but those early classics still stand as the highlights of their career. Effigy of the Forgotten  is my personal favorite.


#2. George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher (Cannibal Corpse)
By all rights, Fisher should probably be at the top of this list. He's the absolute prototype of the ideal death metal frontman. On stage and in the studio, Corpsegrinder does everything the way it should be done. Much of Cannibal Corpse's status as the default standard of American death metal is the result of his meaty, powerful delivery and commanding stage presence. Fisher's vocals are especially notable for their sustain, as he is able to hold exceptionally long notes. Much like Vader, Cannibal Corpse's long discography has seen some of its best entries in recent years. Check out this year's A Skeletal Domain  as proof. Oh, and Corpsegrinder is such an avid Horde player in World of Warcraft that Blizzard actually named an orc questgiver after him. Lok'tar Ogar!


#1. Craig Pillard (Incantation)
Many of you may find this an odd choice for top honors. After all, most (probably all) of these other men are more famous, more influential, and more prolific than Pillard. Many of them are great live, while I've never seen him perform. Those factors could have easily pointed me in a different direction. On top of that, I've read some pretty disturbing Nazi-politics-stuff from Pillard, so as a person I think he's got some fucked-up views. However, at the end of the day, I had to ask myself one simple question: who do I think has the best sounding vocals in death metal? The answer to that one is easy. Craig Pillard's deep, guttural, unholy roars are positively monstrous. They're awesome, crushing, earth-shaking thunder from the bowels of Hell. Most recently, he has appeared with his new band Disma. However, he made his bones as the original frontman for Incantation. Their debut, Onward to Golgotha, stands as my single favorite pure death metal album of all time.

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So now that you've seen the list, here are some remarks I'd like to make.

First off, there are some notable exclusions. Angela Gossow (sorry Arch Enemy fans) didn't make the list. I know she's the most prominent female death vocalist ever, but the novelty of being a woman in a sphere dominated by men isn't enough to elevate her to the ranks of the death metal elite. Also, and more significantly, you many notice I didn't include Chuck Schuldiner. Admittedly, leaving the patron saint of death metal off this list may seem unjustifiable. However, I'd like to point out that this list was based on these individuals as vocalists: songwriting and musicianship were not a factor. Those later qualities were what really made Schuldiner great, so by excluding them he slid off the list. There were numerous other people I could have included, too, but in the end 10 is a small enough number that I had to weed out some pretty elite names.

Second, I noticed as I wrote this that my initial selection of names was heavily biased in favor of vocalists I've seen perform live. I think that, more so than for any other member in a band, stage presence really factors into a vocalist's greatness. However, I did try to avoid letting that dominate my judgement. In the end, while I do think the order was affected by live performances, nobody was included or excluded from the top 10 based on them.

Finally, I noticed that while I love old-school Swedish death metal, I never seriously considered any of the vocalists from the "Big 3" of the style. Guitar is really at the core of that sound, even more so than for other varieties of death metal, so most of those vocalists just didn't have the same kind of impact as their American counterparts. Instead, amongst the Swedes, I found myself gravitating toward the more articulate sounds of melodeath frontmen. That may have been partially a result of personal bias, but I really do think those vocalists just have a hugely valuable impact on the sounds of their respective bands.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry

The French black metallers Blut Aus Nord have a good but slightly inconsistent track record going back two decades. Following on the heels of their 777 trilogy, which got pretty mixed responses from their fans, the band have returned to with a third "Memoria Vetusta" record: the third installment of what I understand to be an intended trilogy that has been scattered over most the band's long career.

Some of you may know Blut Aus Nord for their more experimental work, but as a quick glance at the cover will probably tell you, this is not experimental or avant-garde. It's a melodic black metal album heavy on Scandinavian atmosphere, and damn is it ever good.

The guitar work is really the hero here, as the melodious, atmospheric riffs fill the center of the record and dominate the overall sound. The drumming provides a nice sense of drive, but it's a little on the quiet side and is clearly more supplemental than central. The bass, as is common in black metal, isn't really noticeable and may or may not even be present. The vocals, heavily distorted shrieks for the most part, are buried in the mix giving the sense that they are coming from some distant, unseen source. They're the faint echoes of a tortured soul, half heard amidst the howl of the freezing wind through the trees of an isolated pine forest.

The effect of this construction is that all the pieces work to support the central guitar pillar instead of each vying for supremacy. Within the context of the music as a whole, these supporting elements help create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I'd say that this is one of the best black metal albums in a year that has been quite good for black metal. I highly recommend giving this a listen.

Grade: A


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gamergate: What it is

I'm more in tune with gaming news than the average person, but by now I'm guessing that at least some of your have heard of Gamergate. I'm also guessing that the source you heard about it from was not reporting on how it began or what it really was, since larger news outlets tend to cover niche stories from ignorant, uninformed standpoints.

To that end, I've decided to post a quick, easy, 10-point guide to what the Gamergate scandal actually is. I'll leave out the names, since they wouldn't mean anything to most readers anyway, and just give you the bullet-points of what happened. Oh, and before I begin, I should point out how stupid I think it is that we use the "-gate" suffix for every scandal and controversy that comes down the pipe.

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1. A female game developer releases an indie game.

2. Said game gets good reviews.

3. A report surfaces that the developer bargained sex in exchange for some key positive reviews. This claim, made by her ex-husband, is later shown to be unverifiable and probably false.

4. This series of events nonetheless reignites the already ongoing debate about questionable ethics in game reviewing. The initial scandal that a developer may have bartered sexual favors for good reviews is referred to in the gaming press as "Gamergate".

5. A group of feminist gamers argues that this developer was only targeted by these claims because she is female.

6. Some members of the gaming community dismiss this claim, pointing out that the bigger issue is about the ethics of game reviewers who often receive undisclosed benefits in exchange for positive reviews. They push for a general consumer revolt against the current gaming review industry.
 
7. Other members of the gaming community respond instead by attacking both the female developer and said feminists via hate mail, death threats, doxing (releasing the victim's personal information online), and assorted other tactics.

8. Other women in gaming step forward and complain that this illustrates the latent sexism of the gaming community.

9. Those women are similarly targeted by the same types of attacks.

10. Press outlets outside of gaming become aware of this and begin reporting on how these women have come under fire. They start calling the notion that men in gaming focus on attacking women in gaming "Gamergate".

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There, now you know what Gamergate is. So what have we learned?

First, we've seen yet again that virtually no grassroots movement is able to stay on point for long. What began as a very legitimate critique of disclosure rules for gaming reviewers quickly got derailed and turned into something it was never supposed to be.

Second, we're reminded that feminist activists are always ready take over every conversation with complaints of sexism. This can be rather obtrusive, given that there are other subjects that exist and are worth discussing. However, it's hard to get too annoyed at them when:

Third, we're repeatedly shown that there are always men willing to be big enough assholes to validate the feminists' complaints. I mean, come on guys. How hard is it to just not be a dick to women?

Fourth, and finally, we see another example of the fact that non-specialized journalists rarely do an even moderately competent job of reporting on special-interest stories. As usual, they came in late with no knowledge of the topic and wrote virtually useless articles misrepresenting or sensationalizing what little information they actually had. This misleads the public about what is happening, and it gives people the illusion of having an informed opinion on a topic, which they can then spread via word-of-mouth, further obscuring the actual truth of a situation.

Well now I've made my effort to address that flow of misinformation. Hopefully it helps.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Aethera Live Demo

I've reviewed a lot of albums by small, up-and-coming metal bands. Sometimes I've been kind, sometimes I've been a dick, but I've always tried to be fair. Well, part of being fair is learning to take it as well as you can dish it out. To that end, I'm now offering everybody whose music I've ever bashed a chance to bash me right back. Today my band Aethera released our first live demo. We have other demos of unfinished songs and assorted experiments up on our Soundcloud, but this is the first full track played and recorded with a full band. So for those of you interested, this is what we sound like.

"Powershift" demo by Aethera

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Card Magic

I may have mentioned once or twice that I love card magic. Maybe I haven't, in which case: I love card magic. There, now I've said it. I may also have mentioned that my favorite magician is Ricky Jay. If not: my favorite magician is Ricky Jay. There, now I've said that too.

There is a beautiful simplicity to a card trick. Any idiot can stand on a stage in a puffy white shirt, waving their arms theatrically while the crew and assistants handle all the actual work of making that helicopter disappear or whatever. But behind the stage, props, and crew those "magicians" are frequently almost comically devoid of skill. To put it another way, the David Copperfields of the world are to magic what Brittney Spears is to music. A card trick, though, doesn't have all that elaborate polish to disguise a lack of substance. It's a pure demonstration of skill, where a master craftsman demonstrates years of careful practice by doing seemingly impossible things with a simple $3 pack of playing cards. It's an alluring idea that no Las Vegas contract or massive props department would be needed for you or me to be able to do the same thing we just saw: all it takes is lots and lots of practice. I'm part way there myself, but that's another story.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a few videos of the kind of tricks I love.

This is by no means a "best of" list, as anyone with a serious interest in magic will see that I've excluded some really vital names. Nor is it a list of the most influential and important pioneers of card magic. Rather, it's a simple selection of routines from some of my favorite card magicians. Enjoy.

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Bill Malone was the first magician who really captured my imagination. His "Sam the Bellhop" routine almost single-handedly fueled my childhood interest in card magic. Not only is he a skilled sleight of hand artist, he is a supremely entertaining performer with a good sense of humor and a highly engaging personality. His "Devilish Miracle" is a nice display of all these qualities in one concise package.


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Alex Elmsley was a magician perhaps better known to other magicians than to the general public, because he was responsible for something that mostly only magicians know about. Setting that cryptic statement aside, he was a charmingly genteel performer who epitomized the subdued elegance of well-executed card magic. This trick was from his performance in the "Lake Tahoe Sessions".

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 Michael Vincent is an extraordinarily refined sleight of hand performer who has arguably the most pure technical skill of any living card magician. That isn't likely to come across unless you know what you're looking for, but then, that is kind of the point. Unfortunately the video of my favorite routine of his, from the show Penn and Teller: Fool Us, is no longer on YouTube. I found it on another site, though, which I've linked right here.

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Ricky Jay is, as I said earlier, my favorite magician. I enjoy his patter, I'm amazed by his skill, and I deeply appreciate the fact that he's a true scholar of his art. Most magicians take very little time to note the history and innovations of their predecessors, but Jay has spent a lifetime studying, preserving, and honoring their legacies. I respect anyone who has real respect for the history of their chosen art-form, and Ricky Jay epitomizes that quality.

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Dai Vernon was almost certainly the 20th century's reigning king of close-up magic. "The Professor" spent his long life perfecting a skill set that made him an idol to magicians around the world. Vernon didn't care much about anything except for perfecting the art of magic, and as a result he became a vitally important figure in shaping and refining many routines that are used today by other performers.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Premature Nostalgia

[This post has a slightly more specific target than just general nostalgia-bashing. Give me a minute to warm up first, though.]

I am well aware of the fact that people of my generation are excessively, annoyingly premature to jump on nostalgia trips. It's true that in one artistic medium, the video game, the '80s and early '90s were actually a really pivotal time that shaped the future of that field. In general, though, there was nothing special about that period of time. Yet a striking proportion of my generation sits around obsessing all over everyone about the "good old days," despite being far to young to have much meaningful context or perspective on our adolescent years. For that matter, shouldn't our late 20s still be part of the good days? I know everybody thinks the world was better back when they were 15, because people are egocentric enough to conflate their own youthful energy and coming-of-age excitement with the pinnacle of human civilization, but can't we at least wait until we're in our 40s like previous generations have before we start getting all obnoxious about it? Maybe it's the way the internet has sped up the world, pushing one generation out of the spotlight before their time. In any case, said trait is extremely annoying. Unfortunately, it's ubiquitous to an extent that renders criticism basically fruitless. I'll still criticize, because that's the way I am, but that's not the main thrust of this post. Instead, I want to take some time to talk about a very specific nostalgia-driven phenomenon that puzzles me to no end.

Cassette tapes are making a comeback.

Just think about that for a minute. One of the worst, least reliable, least convenient, poorest quality formats in audio distribution history is returning to the shelves for no reason other than that people approaching 30 are having their midlife crisis a couple decades too early. I've seen them again and again over the past year or so; brand new cassettes are cropping up on record store shelves. Yikes.

Now, I understand the nostalgic appeal of vinyl. For one thing, it's been around long enough to have some actual historical significance attached to it. For another thing, it was the dominant audio distribution format when most of the formative albums that shaped our musical landscape were released. Hell, we still call albums "records."

Besides that, there are non-nostalgic reasons to buy vinyl records. They have huge covers, so collectors get a much better display of the jacket art. They have a warm, rich sound that (when played through quality stereo equipment) makes for a listening experience you can't get from newer formats. They have room for cool little oddities like a never-ending loop at the end of the record. You could spin them backward and hear the music in reverse. These peculiarities helped shape the mystique around bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin in a way that no modern distribution format can match. And on a really basic level, if you only want to listen to one song on the album, you can just drop the needle in that place and play it instead of having to fast forward for ten minutes.

Of course, for those who don't want to go all-out digital download mode just yet with their music collections, there are also CDs. True, there's nothing terribly nostalgic about a CD, since they're still the dominant physical format. The thing is, they replaced cassettes for a reason. You can skip songs. You have cleaner, clearer audio. You don't ever have to worry about your player eating a CD. You can leave them in your hot car without fear that they'll melt. CDs are vastly more durable and convenient than cassettes, while still giving you a much bigger, nicer cover art display and better audio quality too.

Cassettes, like eight-tracks, are nothing more than an embarrassing byproduct of audio distribution's awkward adolescent phase. They were not some superior product we had back in the day before all these kids born in the late '90s came along with their high-speed internets and cellular telephones. To think otherwise is to succumb to the same kind of collective delusion that leads 28-year-old women to believe that *NSYNC was actually any better/different than One Direction currently are (spoiler alert: they weren't). Cassettes sucked, and the 25-35 crowd needs to stop trying to resurrect shitty technology like that before we complete our premature metamorphosis into crabby old people who sit around ranting about how much better things were back in our day.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Troldhaugen - Obzkure Anekdotez for Maniakal Massez

Troldhaugen are an Australian group who released their second full-length album in August of this year. I'd never heard them before, so I came into this without any expectations or back-story in my mind. All I knew was that Metal Archives calls them Avant-Garde folk metal.

Honestly, that's the best label I could imagine. It's no secret that I like bands who do weird shit, so I absolutely loved this. To make the quickest, most obvious comparison I can think of, Tollhaugen sound a lot like a fusion of Finntroll and Mr. Bungle. Their style, while in carries on that "trollish" vibe throughout, wanders all over the place. One minute you're listening to a power ballad, the next you've got death metal vocals snarling over top of synthesizers and xylophones. The band's energy is through the roof. The range of instrumentation is massive. The musicianship on display is as sharp as it is schizophrenic. The vocals hit on virtually every style you can imagine, though that Finntroll-esque growling speech seems to be the closest thing to home-base for them.

There's really no way to accurately describe in detail everything this band does short of writing a full book, because there's just so much going on in this album. The short version would be this: if you like Mr. Bungle, Sigh, or just hyper-actively energetic weird music, you'll like this. If you prefer more conventional metal, you'll probably be mostly annoyed and confused by it.

So there you have it. Not for everyone, but amazing for those of us who enjoy this kind of thing.

Grade: A


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (#5)

One album I liked.
One album I disliked.
One album I something-elsed.

The Good: Alestorm - Sunset on the Golden Age

Alestorm have always been one of those fun-but-goofy bands built so heavily on their particular schtick that they become almost impossible to judge by the normal standards of a metal band. The whole pirate thing is still here, as it kind of has to be, but this album saw the band take a turn for the more serious. It's a striking, dramatic, and really well executed album that carries way more thrash influnce into their sound than anything they've done in the past. Typically I'd enjoy an Alestorm release while admitting to myself that it's basically stupid. In this case, though, they've released a legitimately good metal album that holds up on its own musical merits. Not only is this an unexpected turn, it's also an indication that the band will still have plenty of life left in them should they choose to move away from their initial premise.


The Bad: Within Temptation - Hydra

I'll admit that this was kind of a lazy pick. For one thing, I already know I don't like Within Temptation. For another thing, this album isn't the kind of bad that makes it fun to attack. Instead, it's just boring. Really really really really really really really really really really boring. Even the cover art is boring. While my track record does sort of indicate a distaste for female-fronted metal bands, a topic I've already explored in far greater detail than I have room for here, the reality is that I'm fine with clean female vocals in metal so long as they are powerful or moving or in some way interesting. You know, the same standards I have for male vocals. These just sound like she, and her bandmates, are sleepwalking through the studio session so they can get this in the can and move on with their lives. That's the opposite of all those potential positive qualities I just named, and so is this album.


The Ugly: Sons of Crom - Riddle of Steel

"The ugly" is kind of a mean term for this slot. In reality, a lot of different types of albums end up in what amounts to my wildcard category. Today, what we have is a perfect example of a mixed-feelings release. On the one hand, I really love the Quorthon-doing-epic-doom sound they clearly seem to be aiming for with this. On the other hand, Quorthon was something of an anomaly: a Bob Dylan of metal whose voice and musicianship, while lending him a unique flavor, feel like handicaps he had to overcome rather than standards to which others should aspire. As a result, channeling that magic can be tricky, and while there are some great moments on this album, the overall results are still pretty shaky. I hope they continue in this vein, because I love the premise. I also sense that there's a lot of potential for this to grow on me, and my undying love for Bathory will undoubtedly compel me to give it multiple chances to do so.

As an aside, wouldn't an album named Hydra  have benefited tremendously from cover art like Riddle of Steel's?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Nightbringer - Ego Dominus Tuus

Wow, talk about evolution. A scant six years ago, Nightbringer produced their full-length debut as yet another forgettable and utterly mediocre underground black metal band desperately aping the Norwegians. Last week, the Colorado-based outfit released their fourth album, Ego Dominus Tuus. Obviously I'll need to ruminate on it a little, but my immediate reaction places this as probably one of the year's top three black metal records.

First off, I should explain what this album isn't. It isn't a perfected version of the classic Norwegian black metal formula. It isn't a murky, chilly, lo-fi album. It isn't an all-out assault on the senses. It isn't designed to appeal to kvlt purists. And it isn't dreary, atmospheric indie black metal.

So what is it, then? It's a perfect example of why young black metal bands are better off finding their own identities. There's not another band I can bring readily to mind that this sounds like, to my ears. There are moments and similarities, but this doesn't follow any set formula too closely. The best I can some up with is a combination of Behemoth's black metal side, slow Nile songs, and a healthy dose of Carach Angren all rolled into one oversized slab of black metal. The production is clean, and the overall sound is more polished than I usually want in a black metal album, but for what the band was trying to do here I think it was necessary.

For the most part, the guitar work tends toward the melancholic end of the spectrum, with a lot of melodic, evocative riffs. There are still plenty of hostile, aggressive passages, though. And that is a big strength of the record: it makes use of a relatively broad tonal spectrum. There are a lot of things going on in this album, with frequent changes of tone, pace, and dynamic coming along, often accompanied by assorted complementary backing instruments (largely synthesized on a keyboard, I think, but still quite effective and never overbearing). It all manages to flow together coherently, keeping the music interesting without becoming jarring.

The vocals are wildly varied. Everything from black metal rasps to distant monstrous bellows to ominous spoken word passages to echoing Middle-Eastern chants crops up on this record. As far as I can see, every member but the drummer makes vocal contributions, and the result is a huge, complex blend of sounds and styles that make this one of the most vocally rich and interesting black metal records I've ever encountered.

There seems to be something almost operatic in the composition of some of the music (though not in the vocals), which infuses several songs with a sense of sweeping drama. It never goes too far, though, before some unexpected twist pulls it back down to earth or carries the music off in some other direction. These tactics go a long way toward keeping the album feeling fresh long after most records would have worn out their welcome.

Some trouble does crop up when we get deep into the seventy-minute runtime, though. The ninth track, "Salvation Is the Son of Leviathan (Alabas in Memoriam)" is basically a six-minute interlude that should probably have been trimmed down to less than half that length. At a certain point, I found it detaching me from the music in a way that would work fine as an outro. The trouble is, that wasn't the outro. Instead, it just made me take several minutes to reengage with the music for the twelve-minute finale. It's my only real quibble with this record, but in an otherwise amazingly engaging album, such a misstep stood out enough to be worth noting.

Overall, I thought this was a tremendous release. Yes, it gets off track briefly around the one-hour mark, but it still pulls things together for a strong finish. And the music leading up to that point is some of the best I've heard this year. I can definitely see where this wouldn't appeal to every black metal fan, but for me personally, it was a major winner.

Grade: A-


Monday, October 6, 2014

Huh...

I usually don't get much negative feedback about the things I post on this blog. Truth be told, I don't have a large enough readership to generate a ton of negativity. There's the occasional band who links to a review from their Facebook page and causes a spike in my audience, but otherwise it's a small crowd.

As for what rare hostility I do get, it's usually a result of said band postings. The fans of some group will get pissed because a moron like me doesn't understand why their favored band is amazing. That comes with the territory and is mostly confined to the band's page rather than spilling over here, so I don't really mind.

A little while back, though, I encountered a particularly peculiar response. My August review of the new Stworz album was posted on the band's Facebook, where it was met with scorn and disgust. The funny thing, though, was that I thoroughly enjoyed the album and gave it a good grade. Normally I would move on without a second thought, but the oddity of this situation has prompted me to ponder a little. What exactly was the issue?

I eventually reached some conclusions that, in my own mind at least, made sense. Now, because I am stuck killing time away from home with nothing much to do, I've decided to write a post about it.

The first issue, quite glaringly, was that some of what I said was lost in translation. The band, and their core fanbase, are Polish. As a result of our differing primary languages, I am convinced that some complaints simply came about because the readers didn't totally understand what I was saying. One good example of this is that the majority of critics seemed to think I was calling Stworz a death metal band. They are not death metal at all, but I brought up Vader in the post, when comparing vocals, and I mentioned some ties to a melodeath sensibility. Thus, I think there was just some confusion which came across to those readers as ignorance on my part. I can't do much about other people's grasp of a given language, though, so that's just going to be what it is.

If, however, there are by some chance any of those same individuals reading this post now, then there is one other issue that I can address. I'm fairly certain that I inadvertently insulted the Polish metal scene. In the review, I stated that most Polish metal lived in the shadows of Behemoth and Vader. When I was reading the assorted "this guy is an idiot" comments, I noticed that many of them related to the fact that there are many other great Polish bands and that I am apparently oblivious to the fact that Poland has more than two metal acts.

The truth is, I'm aware of the fact that Poland has other good metal. If I recall correctly, I actually put Poland on my list of the top 10 metal counties in the world a few years ago. Polish fans, though, may be denying a couple truths to themselves.

For one thing, it's true that while there are plenty of talented bands from that nation, to the majority of the metal world, those bands are unknown. If you ask a non-Polish metalhead off the street to name three Polish metal bands, you'll probably hear something like "Well there's Behemoth, obviously. And there's Vader. And . . . uhhh. . . ." If you are obscure outside your home country, you simply don't have the kind of large scale impact on the metal world that those two have. Sorry, but that's the truth.

The other big truth is that, whether you like to admit it or not, a huge number of Polish metal acts do imitate that famous pair. I'm not picking on you, Poland. That's a very common pattern. Norway is full of wannabe Darkthrones. Sweden has given us a thousand clones of Entombed. Successful bands breed imitators, especially on their home turf. The same thing happens in American metal. The only difference is that the size and relative diversity of the US population has lead to a larger number of scenes that each copy specific bands, whereas Poland is smaller and less visible on the world stage so its options for successful native bands to follow are more narrow.

So there you have it. Yes, I know Poland has a healthy, talented metal scene. The simple truth, though, is that a couple of bands have made a huge international impact while most of the others are still far less well known. That's not an insult, that's reality. And that, my fine Polish friends, is what I meant about those colossal twin shadows.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Cannibal Corpse - A Skeletal Domain

Cannibal Corpse, the quintessential American death metal band, don't really require an introduction or explanation. They released their 12th studio album a couple weeks ago, so let's talk about this new record, A Skeletal Domain.

First things first, Cannibal Corpse don't release bad albums. Like several other veteran death metal outfits, consistency has been a major hallmark of their career. Unlike many of those bands, though, if there was a weak time in Cannibal Corpse's history, it was their earliest albums. In their early days, the band took a heavy but perhaps overly simplistic approach, and original vocalist Chris Barnes was not terribly impressive. There are those who may argue this, but in my opinion Corpsegrinder has always been easily the better frontman, and the band has been much better off with him. Additionally, the band's general level of musicianship has continued to improve over the years, taking their original core identity and building on it bit by bit.

It should come as no surprise, given everything I've just said, that I liked this album. Sure, it's not exactly revolutionary. It is, however, a pitch-perfect example of Florida death metal, presented by one of the scene's most significant acts. As always, Fisher's  ferocious vocal delivery is spot-on, the songs are just catchy enough to balance out the heaviness, and every instrument plays its part. The drumming is relentless, the crunchy riffs get your head banging, the bass fleshes out the bottom end, and the rabid soloing just enhances the powerful chaos of the material.

The closest thing to a complaint I could lodge, which is pretty much par for the course with any band this well-established, is that there's nothing terribly original about this album. It sounds pretty much the same as their previous release. There's nothing wrong with that, Torture  was a good album, but it does prevent this from really jumping out and grabbing me the way some other recent records have.

This is not the best death metal album I've heard this year. It may not even be in the top 5. It's a rock solid record, though, with more than enough meat to satisfy hungry fans of the genre and of the band.

Grade: B+


Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (#4) BRUTAL EDITION

I haven't done one of these in a few months, and I think we're about due. 

Today on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly we're going to look at three new brutal death metal albums. This tends to be one of those sub-genres that's a little bit samey, so the bad entries are usually not terrible and the good entries are rarely amazing. That's certainly true here, as none of these are anywhere near the best or worst I've heard this year.

The Good: Hour of Penance - Regicide
The previous Hour of Penance album back in 2012 was one of my favorite brutal death metal albums of the past few years, so I had high hopes coming into this one. While I don't think Regicide  packs quite as much punch as its predecessor, this is still a good album. It's heavy, well-rounded, and surprisingly catchy. The bass presence lends some dimension to the bottom end, and the guitar leads are surprisingly well-formulated. This is in no way groundbreaking stuff, but it's an enjoyable listen.





The Bad: Internal Bleeding - Imperium
Internal Bleeding were part of the original brutal death metal scene that emerged out of New York in the early '90s. They never got the same level of acclaim as their contemporaries in Suffocation, for the crushingly simple reason that they were never anywhere close to as good. They still deserve a modicum of historical respect, but that only goes so far. Just yesterday (maybe the day before, if I wait to post this) they released their first album in ten years. It's . . . not good. The vocals, which might work in a thrashier old-school Florida death metal band, just sound weak here against the musical assault. The obnoxious drum tone sounds like somebody knocking on a wooden table, the riffs are boring and samey, the songs are mind-numbingly repetitive, and overall this was just unpleasant in all the wrong ways.





The Ugly: Origin - Omnipresent
This isn't so much ugly as it is bland. Origin have always been tremendously skilled musicians, and that's still true. They have been more interesting at times, but on this album they fall into that oh-so-common trap of being technical and heavy just for the sake of being technical and heavy. Nothing about this made me want to turn it off, but nothing made me care either. The entire album, like the cover art, is a tangled mess of details that is too cluttered for anything to stand out and grab your attention. It's just a shame that such a talented band haven't put their abilities to better use.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sabermetrics

If you are a baseball fan or analyst who puts much stock in advanced sabermetrics (and/or the moneyball principle), this post is probably going to piss you off a little bit. It's partly inspired by a series of recent conversations on the topic, and it's really inspired by the 1-game playoff exit of the Oakland A's.

Now, for those of you who don't follow baseball too closely and who have never seen the (quite enjoyable) movie Moneyball, the A's GM Billy Beane has become the posterboy champion of sabermetrics in Major League Baseball. His tactic of crafting teams that focus on OBP and play the odds has taken the A's from a basketcase to a perennially competitive team, all without leaning too heavily on the franchise budget, so on the surface it seems hard to criticize his approach. I'm going to, though, for the simple reason that while the film (and therefore a lot of public perception) tries to treat him like a revolutionary hero getting crapped on by the establishment, the reality is that this season we saw yet again exactly why his method doesn't really work.

When I said the A's were competitive, I wasn't lying . . . but I was excluding a pretty big asterisk. The A's are competitive in the regular season. Their recent regular season records bear out the fact that 162 games is a big enough sample size to reward playing the averages. However, their stunning lack of playoff success in that same time points to a problem with how these teams are structured.

The problem is twofold. Firstly, while 162 is a lot of games, a playoff series is obviously a much smaller sample. In such a limited number of games, the important thing is to have a team that can handle individual, high-pressure situations. This is about managing as much as anything else, so I'll come back to it. The second problem, closely related to the first, is that sabermetricians tend to treat players as random number generators. They aren't computer programs, though: they are human beings with human strengths and weaknesses that come heavily into play, especially in the tense, high-stakes world of playoff baseball.

So, for that first problem, what's the difference between playing for 100 wins and playing for 1? Well, in the former case, individual errors of judgement may cause your total results to be less efficient, so playing by the book can be a good approach. Players with high OBP will provide a lot of opportunities over time to score runs. Left-handed pitchers will do better on average against left-handed hitters than will their right-handed counterparts. Making the statistically correct play will, over the course of a large sample size, work out in your favor more often than it fails. Given that the best record in baseball this year (which belonged to the Angels) came with 64 losses, obviously it's okay to have these things backfire and cost you the game occasionally. In the playoffs, though, you don't get the luxury of cold streaks and frequent losses. Every game matters, and you have to be aware of the value each at-bat and management decision brings. In the playoffs, a high OBP may not matter if the player never gets on base at a critical time. Sac bunts, the ability to go opposite-field on an outside pitch, the ability to make contact in a hit-and-run, and countless other factors can win or lose the game. Pulling out a pitcher who is in a groove so that you can match lefty vs lefty can have disastrous consequences. The team needs to be composed of players and a manager who all understand the nuances of these very specific situations and are able to react accordingly. The 60/40 success rate of simply playing the numbers isn't good enough.

How about that second problem? Well, I think it explains itself, but allow me to elaborate anyway. A random number generator simply provides numbers without any outside factors impacting it. You can follow trends in those numbers, and some people like to pretend that those trends are all that matters: essentially they think that if you put a lot of guys on base then you increase your odds of scoring. It works over a season, but come playoff time, if a GM puts together a team like that they are probably going to fail. Players aren't interchangeable parts of a machine. They are part of a group of people who have actual human relationships with one another. They have good days and bad days, friends, illnesses, roadblocks, and epiphanies. Team chemistry will effect how players feed off each other in rally situations. Mental toughness will effect how a player handles high-stress at-bats. Situational awareness can be the difference between a runner in scoring position and an out. Playoff experience, leadership ability, dedication, determination, positivity . . . the list of beneficial character traits a player might bring to the table can far outweigh their statistical contributions when the team is under the gun. Trying to suck the humanity of out baseball and turn it into a collection of graphs and numbers would be fine for video-game baseball, but in real life it misses the big picture.

Now, having a go at Billy Beane is fun and all, but since I'm already kind of on the subject, I'd like to redirect slightly and talk about two particular advanced sabermetrics which I absolutely loathe. Don't get me wrong, I have no issue with collecting this data, it's more the application in baseball analysis that I hate, but I'll explain that in a minute.

WAR. Wins Above Replacement is the current best-attempt at a single, universal stat that can express a player's value in one easy to see figure. I can see the appeal of such a notion, but I have some pretty big problems with it, too. Obviously, a lot of my issue here falls right back into the paragraph I wrote a minute ago about reducing human players to bar graphs, so I'm not going to repeat all that. Instead, I'm going to pick on three other issues I have with WAR. One is that its methods of calculation are highly suspect. If you simply take WAR at face value, you end up with some really strange results where painfully obviously inferior players end up with higher numbers on the basis of falling into a good spot in the lineup or playing a certain position. Those positional bonuses are particularly ludicrous, as they often reward or punish players to a disproportionate degree depending upon the position they play. Second, I strongly dislike the notion that this poorly-calibrated catch-all stat has become the new standard for discussing a player's real-world value. I wouldn't mind it simply coming up in the discussion like any other stat, but it receives far too much weight in my opinion, especially considering how sketchy its actual results can be. Third, and this is mostly semantic but it still bugs the shit out of me, the name for this stat is horrible. Other stats have names that realistically reflect what they are counting: strikeouts, home runs, hits, etc. This pretends like it counts the number of wins a player contributes over a mid-level replacement in the same position, but it does nothing of the sort. It is a rough calculation of overall value, not an actual reflection of how a player's presence effects their team's final record. For example, Andrew McCutchen's WAR this year was 6.4. It's a respectable figure as WAR goes, but it's in no way related to his impact on the team's record. He is the sole star the Pirates have, responsible for practically carrying his team to the playoffs for two consecutive seasons and providing the spark and figurehead around which his team has rallied. To pretend that his absence from the lineup, field, dugout, and clubhouse would cost the otherwise hapless Pirates a mere 6 games is beyond ludicrous. So yeah, WAR as a statistic is poorly formulated, overvalued, and misrepresentative. I'm not opposed to the concept as a point of statistical interest, but right now in its current state, WAR is a disaster.

BABIP. Batting Average on Balls In Play is probably the dumbest statistic in all of baseball. It's not dumb because of the numbers themselves: they tell an interesting story. It's dumb because of the way baseball analysts with a better understanding of spreadsheets than gameplay treat it. I have lost count of the number of articles I've read where some player (let's say Miguel Cabrera, since advanced sabermetricians seem to hate him for some reason) is accused of being more lucky than good because his BABIP is higher than the league average. This approach comes from the wildly misguided notion that all a batter can control is whether or not they make contact with the ball and that everything after putting it in play is a crapshoot. Well if you agree with that, I'd like you to do a little homework assignment for me. Go watch some gameplay footage and look at 40 or 50 Cabrera at-bats. Then do the same thing for, say, Elvis Andrus. Then come back here and tell me with a straight face that you honestly think Cabrera has a higher BABIP just because he's lucky. If you can do that, I'm sorry, but you are probably an idiot. When one player routinely crushes line-drives into the outfield and another player's hitting mostly consists of pop-ups and dribbling ground balls, of course the former will have a higher BABIP. It's not luck, it's the fact that he hits the ball a lot fucking harder. Of course, there will always be an element of luck, where a well-hit ball is practically gift-wrapped for the center fielder or a bloop single drops into shallow left just beyond the reach of the diving shortstop. By and large, though, players who hit the ball harder and cleaner tend to have a higher BABIP, yet it's often treated like it should come as some horrible asterisk on their season figures. The same basic thing affects pitchers who are good at inducing ground ball outs, as their low opposing BABIP figures are often stupidly held against them. So again, the stat itself is just fine and even kind of interesting, but its application is frequently beyond moronic.

There you have it: my long, semi-directionless rant against Billy Beane, moneyball, and advanced sabermetricians. I'm not saying there's no place in baseball for these things. What I am saying is that, like the New York Yankees, for me their biggest purpose is to be the villain in a game I love.

Jesper vs New In Flames

I've stated many times that in my mind, Jesper's departure signaled the end of the In Flames I knew. Even before he left, he had been reduced from the core songwriter to a disinterested bit player, and the last time I saw them live with him in the lineup, my brother turned to me during the show and said "he's not going to be in the band much longer." It was obvious how little he cared, how utterly uninvested he was in their new sound, and how distant his creative vision was from that of the rest of the band.

Well, while his departure was officially tied to his problems with alcohol, it seems that he has now gone on record validating my take on the matter. This article provides the relevant details.


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#9)

The Blues Brothers  is widely considered to be one of the greatest blues movies ever made. With its great comedic delivery, unforgettable imagery, and host of talented featured musicians I'm inclined to agree. Blues Brothers 2000, on the other hand, is often seen as one of the dumbest and most painfully unnecessary sequels ever made. I don't feel quite as much animosity toward the latter as many people do, but I will say that it is a generally weak film that mostly rehashes old jokes in less effective ways.

There is one thing from Blues Brothers 2000, though, that I absolutely love. That would be Dr. John's gritty, drawling, cajun-flavored cover of Donovan's psychedelic pop/rock song "Season of the Witch." Dr. John has always been a bit hit-or-miss in my estimation, and on this soundtrack gem I hear everything I like about him at his best.

So here's to silver linings.


Overkill - White Devil Armory

Since their 2010 return to form, no old-school thrash band has been as rock solid as Overkill. This summer, they released their newest album White Devil Armory.

This music sounds like it's about as old as I am, but nobody came into this expecting innovation. Thrash in general is, to a certain extent, predicated on a lack of progress since when thrash progresses (both stylistically and historically) the result is generally either death or black metal with some thrash roots rather than thrash proper. That's fine, though. All a good thrash album really needs to be effective is good guitar work and intense delivery, both of which Overkill deliver in spades.

Cool riffing, effective lead work, snarling high-pitched vocals, overall tight musicianship, relentlessly headbanging groove, and a sense of balls-to-the-wall rocking out energy all mark this album as a perfect example of thrash done right. The drum beat is propulsive, and even the bass gets some interesting sections. There's really nothing much to say about it beyond that, since it covers very familiar territory and it has no discernible flaws. Basically, it's just a really enjoyable album that anyone with an interest in '80s thrash should thoroughly enjoy.

Grade: A-


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#8)

Robert Johnson is the most legendary figure in early blues history. Entire books could be (and have been) written about both the man himself and, perhaps more importantly, the myths surrounding him. Such a complex topic as Robert Johnson's place in blues history would be nearly impossible to do justice to in a single short article, so instead I'm going to link those interested with a more in-depth view. Enjoy.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Belhaven Scottish Ale

The venerable Belhaven Brewery Company from Scotland should be a familiar name to most reasonably informed beer drinkers. While I knew the name, though, prior to this evening I had never actually tried any of their products. For a first test, I opted for something fairly safe.

Belhaven Scottish Ale pours a gorgeous deep red with off-white head. It really is an exceptionally pretty beer. I understand this can be found in nitro cans, with a creamy head that lasts forever, but from the bottle I found the head and lacing didn't stick around very long.

As is typical for this style, the overall flavor was balanced and mellow with an unremarkable 5.2% ABV and very mild hops. The initial taste was slightly fruity. Finished clean with a hint of smokey caramel aftertaste. I've heard other people describe this brew as "nutty" but I didn't really pick up on that myself.

Overall, I'd say that this was a pleasant, very drinkable beer. Like the object of my previous review, this one is more of an accessible session-with-friends drink than anything terribly bold or challenging, but there's nothing wrong with that. I did notice a slight filmy feeling on my tongue after I'd finished, which may or may not be attributable to the beer, but that's really my only complaint.

Tuesday is Blues Day (#7)

Have you ever wondered how the first blues song ever recorded sounds? Probably not, because if you did you'd have Googled it and found the answer pretty quickly. However, even if you did do that, you may not have had any context for how that song fit into blues history, so I'm going to give you a little bit of context now.

The origins of the blues are shrouded in mystery. That's a melodramatic way of saying that because of the oppressed and illiterate state of the genre's progenitors, there's really no concrete documentation of the earliest blues music. Music historians argue anywhere from the 1840s to the 1890s as the starting point of the style, with increasingly blurred lines in the early periods between the gospel and assorted traditional folk music that blues grew out of and blues itself. The term didn't come into use in print until the early years of the 20th century, when sheet music with "blues" in the song titles first emerged. Around that same time, anthropological documentation of black folk music in rural southern areas first began to take hold as an area of academic interest.

These early blues songs were primarily vocal, such that they could be sung while working. Largely improvised instrumentation worked its way into these songs, since proper musical instruments were often hard to come by for these individuals. Additionally, homemade versions of traditional African instruments were still prominent in those early years. Eventually a few standardized instruments, especially the guitar, settled into central roles in the music. Blues musicians had played guitars for years, but in the early part of the 20th century, blues singers still performed with a wildly mixed bag of other instrumentation as well.

With the Perry Bradford song "Crazy Blues," 1920 saw Mamie Smith become the first black singer to record a track. This recording, like most of the very earliest blues records, had a female vocalist backed by a jazz band with a prominent horn section. Largely, this was because the then-recent rise of New Orleans jazz had become something of a phenomenon, capturing the attention of white audiences to a degree previously unheard of in black music. These early recordings could easily be called jazz rather than blues, and it was not until the late 1920s that what we now recognize as the traditional blues sound began to find its way into recording studios. Nonetheless, this song stands out as an important milestone in blues history.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale

It's time for a quick beer review.

Today I tried a brown ale made by Tommyknocker Brewery from Colorado. Their "Maple Nut Brown" is a mellow ale that pours a rich, dark, slightly reddish brown with minimal head. It has a mild, rich, nutty flavor profile with a sweet aftertaste from the maple syrup used in the brewing process.

I'm not a big fan of overly hoppy beers. Thus, I'm happy with the fact that this brew has a modest 20 IBU, since there's enough substance to the malt that this low hop level leaves the overall flavor sitting comfortably on the sweet side of the scale. At a modest 4.5% ABV, there is also minimal alcoholic bite. The result is a very accessible, highly sessionable beer that likely won't appeal to those seeking strength and/or bitterness from a craft beer. This isn't likely to knock the socks off of any craft beer connoisseurs out there, but for the casual drinker who just wants something pleasantly flavored that they can enjoy with their friends, this is an excellent option.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Flames - Siren Charms

Oh boy...

Like many In Flames fans, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the band's more recent output. I actually came to know the band initially through Come Clarity  and worked backwards from there, so unlike some of their more old-school fans, I don't write off everything they released after 2000. I must say, though, that I do vastly prefer their older material. Additionally, I'm a firm believer that what little still existed of the band's core spirit walked out the door with Jesper Strömblad.

Now, I'd like to make it clear that I really want to like their new material. I have no problem with a band evolving over time, and I dont begrudge the current lineup their success. Some of you may recall that I actually had some positive things to say about their last release, though in retrospect that was mostly a product of the preview tracks I'd heard pushing the bar so low that I wound up being pleasantly surprised on my first full listen.

No such luck this time around. It would be easy to say that this is their new sound, so you know what to expect going in, and that's partly true. I'm willing to accept that Whoracle  isn't going to happen again: that's just not who the band are anymore, and that's fine. But even if I treat modern In Flames as a whole new band to be judged by a separate standard, this would still be the worst album they've ever released. At best, it's bland but basically tolerable. At its worst, it's so whiney and grating that I found myself actively hating several songs.

I could write an exhaustive essay on all the failings of this record and what I think the reasons are that the band has been reduced to producing this dreck, but in the end I just don't have the heart to extensively tear into a band that has given me so much listening pleasure for so many years. Instead I'm going to be happy for their success, wish them well on their journey, and go listen to something else.

Grade: D

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sólstafir - Ótta

Sólstafir are an Icelandic band who recently released their 5th full-length album, Ótta.

It's funny how something that annoys the shit out of me coming from one band can really appeal to me coming from a different source. Earlier this year I tore into the new Alcest record for being a dreary, boring piece of shit. Primarily, the band's continued push into shoegaze territory had, in my opinion, stripped them down to nothing but directionless jangling. Yet here I sit, listening to a one-time Viking metal band that has just produced a slow-paced post-metal album that leans almost as heavily on shoegaze as Alcest currently do, and I love it.

So am I just being erratic or hypocritical, simply because I (consciously or not) want to like Sólstafir better than Alcest? I won't deny the possibility, but I don't think that's what is going on in this case. Rather, there are some key differences between these albums that I think matter a hell of a lot more than the general stylistic shift toward post-metal.

First, Sólstafir haven't forgotten who they are. Tasteful splashes of acoustic folk instrumentation ranging from violin to what sounds like a banjo still tie them back to their traditional roots. The Icelandic-language vocals establish that link even more firmly, demonstrating that while the band's general style has evolved, their soul remains uncompromised. To me, that is important.

Second, those vocals I just mentioned are delivered with such passion and sincerity that I can't help but feel drawn to them. The mystery of what he's actually saying only adds to the intrigue, causing the vocal performance to take on an almost mystical quality while remaining deeply human and sincerely compelling.

Third and finally, while Ótta  is a generally slow album, it still has energy and a sense of direction. The quiet passages feel beautiful and contemplative, and the music rises and falls, with active passages that build to crescendos before rolling back down into gentle valleys. The gorgeous piano plays perfectly into this flow, playing a truly vital roll rather than existing as window-dressing. It's okay that the music is mostly very mellow, because while Alcest was just quiet for a lack of anything to say, this is quiet because sometimes a soft word is the strongest. Music doesn't have to be heavy and aggressive to be engaging, as long as it's purposeful and passionate: a truth which this record demonstrates wonderfully.

I'm not totally convinced that this is really classifiable as metal rather than some form of alternative post-rock. Whatever you want to call it, though, I think it's wonderful.

Grade: A