Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guinness: Prelude to a Question

My favorite beer is Guinness. This was not the case up until the past year or so, but now it is.

I was never much of a beer drinker in my early twenties. I had (and still have) a pretty strong love for sugar, and bitter flavors just didn't do anything for me at all. Then I moved to Ohio, went back to college at a slightly more-advanced-than-usual age, and I discovered the joys of social drinking. My friends and I would get together at local bars and pubs on a fairly regular basis and we'd talk about movies and coursework and politics and philosophy and whatever else occurred to us, all over a nice steady flow of alcohol. I very quickly discovered that of all alcohol's various forms, beer was the best suited to this task. It comes in a more modest ABV range than other drinks, so one can consume it for extended periods of time without degenerating into a drunken mess or spending a fortune. Its subtle bitterness makes it feel more contemplative and substantial than flashy flavored shots or elaborate mixed drinks. And its wide range of varieties make it a stable drink choice with lots of room for personality in its specifics. I found that a fresh beer every half hour or so kept my thirst quenched, my mellow mood consistent, and my pleasant conversations at their most enjoyable.

Before long, I found myself casting about for a go-to beer. Something that I could depend on finding at whatever establishment I entered. Something that, despite a generally high level of availability, would still reflect a degree of discerning personal preference on my part.

It was around that time that Yuengling expanded from a well-established local operation in eastern Pennsylvania into a regional brand, and suddenly you could find it everywhere. It was mild, sweet, reasonably-priced, widely available, and establishing its status just as I was beginning to get a taste for beer. This proved to make it a perfect match, and very quickly Yuengling lager became my beer of choice.

Then a little over a year ago, I moved back to Nevada. Yuengling is a regional brand, and my new desert home falls well outside the boundaries of that region. Thus, I was forced to move beyond my previously-established preference and explore new territory. As always, there were craft beers and specialty brews both good and bad, but these were not dependable enough for this purpose. There were also all the usual national brands, but Budweiser and Miller and Keystone and Coors all taste like carbonated urine to me so I had no interest in them. I tried Rolling Rock, having heard that it was similar to Yuengling, but I was disappointed to say the least. After some time and some thought, I remembered that on cold winter nights in the cozy confines of a local pub, I had occasionally partaken of (and rather enjoyed) Guinness. It seemed like something of a heavy, warming drink for chilly evenings (which we don't see around here too often), but I decided to give it a try as my regular go-to selection anyway.

As the opening sentence of this post would indicate, the experiment was a success. As I've aged, my ability to handle bolder, more bitter flavors has increased. The strong coffee aspect of the beer's taste used to bother me because I hated coffee in even its more watered-down milk and sugar and chocolate syrup forms. Now I drink coffee black. Yuengling was the right beer for me at the right time, but now is a different time and I have different tastes. Guinness is the right beer for this time. It has shot to number one on my list of both dependable options for any bar and just favorite beers in general. I won't claim it is as finely crafted or expertly balanced as boutique beers, but I don't really care. It is my favorite beer, and for the time being I can't see any reason why that should change.

Now that I've set the stage, I'm going to clarify the title of this post. I had set out to write something very different, but I got sidetracked in the prologue, as it were. The question that the title refers to, and the topic of my next post, is simple: can or bottle?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Five Movies That Should Have Been Great

Not every movie can be great. That's a simple, and one hopes fairly obvious, truth. It's okay, though, because most movies aren't really aiming for greatness anyway. Instead, they provide the backdrop of mediocrity against which the brilliant, inventive work of more talented creators can shine.

There is, however, one infinitely frustrating variety of not-great movie: the movie with real potential for greatness that falls short. As if to twist the knife, the glimmers of scope and originality these films have are usually enough to win them critical praise, despite the fact that they failed to live up to their potential. Today, I'm going to talk about five movies from the past five years  or so that should have been great but failed.

As usual, this is all just my opinion blah blah blah, everyone entitled blah blah, subjective blah personal taste blah no right answer blah blah blah blah blah. You get the picture.

Oh, before I start, I should throw this up just in case:

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

I am going to talk with a frank lack of restraint about each of these five films. If you see a title come up that you don't want spoiled for you, then stop reading immediately. Failure to do so is not my problem.


Alright, with that out of the way, let's get started.

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Life of Pi (2012)


Directed by the supremely talented and eclectic Ang Lee, Life of Pi  was a film that clearly had a lot of effort put into its creation. The short version of the story is that Pi is telling a writer in the present about his wild adventures stranded on the open sea in a lifeboat with a decreasing number of animals, until it's just him and a tiger named Richard Parker (a name which, presumably, we're supposed to find funny). It is absolutely gorgeous, providing a rare glimpse at the true potential of CGI in crafting a striking fantasy world. What this critically lauded darling and Academy Award winners lacks, though, is everything else. It's all style, no substance. All polish, no car. The dreary, self-important, "Everybody look at how quirky and unique I am! Please pay attention to me! I want to be special!" protagonist Pi gets tiring within a matter of minutes. The ham-handed attempts at metaphor (Oh, the animals represented people the whole time? Wow, that's such a shockingly deep reflection on human regression during survival situations that the movie had better explain it in painstaking detail just in case a five-year-old in the back missed it) and philosophy (Clearly we should all adopt or reject deeply held beliefs on the basis of whether or not they seem scary to think about. That's totally deep and intellectually honest) are juvenile at best. In the end, it was a grand spectacle with a brilliant director and a potentially interesting premise that fell flat on its face due to bland characterization and inexplicably clumsy handling.

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True Grit (2010)


On paper, the Coen Brothers' dark sense of humor and great handling of tough, world-weary law officers on the fringes of civilization in films like No Country for Old Men  and (to a lesser extent) Fargo  seemed to make them the perfect minds to remake one of the most well-known westerns in cinema history. Granted, it's a pretty straight-forward "I'm lookin' fer the man who shot my pa" kind of story, but if anyone could infuse some unique character into the old classic, it would be these guys. And they got Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin on board, so there was no shortage of acting chops in the cast. Well, they did capture a darkly striking view of the western frontier on a visual level, at least. Yet the overall result was a tired, pointless remake that utterly failed to improve upon the original. The screenplay didn't even bother to change things up, choosing to just stick with a more-or-less straight forward retread. Despite how laughably superior Bridges and Damon are to John Wayne and Glen Campbell in terms of acting skill, they both manage to give less convincing and less memorable performances. Bridges captures the stumbling drunken loser side of Rooster Cogburn's character, but he has none of Wayne's gravitas and his incomprehensible growling slur relegates any dialogue he delivers to half-glimpsed background noise. Damon is shockingly even stiffer and less interesting than Campbell was, and the inexplicably universally-praised newcomer Hailee Steinfeld delivers every line like she's a grade-schooler practicing her reading aloud skills. Brolin turns in the best performance of the lot, but he hardly has enough screen time to matter. This could have been John Wayne meets No Country, a darkly powerful western for the ages. Instead, it was just a pretty-looking but ultimately boring remake.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)





I can't even remember the last time I was so bitterly disappointed by a movie. In retrospect, after Guillermo del Toro left the project, dropping directorial duties back in Peter Jackson's lap, this was always going to be a disaster. Jackson had already done his Tolkien epic, which was amazing, but that part of his career was behind him now and he didn't want to do it again. It was evident in the way he kept fishing for other directors to take over the chair, and it was evident in the finished product. Despite the substantially larger budget, everything felt like a cheap knock-off of the original. None of the weight or significance of the previous Jackson trilogy is anywhere to be found, characters are one-dimensional and boring (with the lone exception of Gollum), the looming threat is more like a background nuisance, the world looks and feels fake, the padding needed to drag out a single book for three films really shows, and the over-reliance on fart jokes and horrible slapstick humor to float the "it's a kids movie" notion just serves to make the whole experience feel dumber. I knew not to expect the greatness of the groundbreaking Lord of the Rings, but I never thought Jackson and Co. would phone it in to this extent.

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Django Unchained (2012)



Saying anything bad on the internet about a Quentin Tarantino film is just asking for trouble, but I'm going to do it anyway. Django is one of the clearest examples I can find of a movie that was truly great for 3/4 of its run time, only to piss it away at the end. Despite Jamie Foxx's clearly-designed-to-be-Will-Smith protagonist taking center stage in name, he's overshadowed by DiCaprio's slightly overrated but still quite compelling villain. The two of them combined are dwarfed by Christoph Waltz, whose absurdly good turn as the bounty hunting dentist Dr. Schultz cemented the notion that if he played nothing but supporting Tarantino characters for the rest of his career, he'd retire with more Oscars than Katherine Hepburn. The story is compelling, the action is fun and exciting, the characters are engaging, the acting and dialogue are all great, and the film has style to spare. 90 minutes in, I was sold on the idea that this was a great film. 120 minutes in, I was still on board, but I was ready for the big finale. 165 minutes in, when the closing credits finally rolled, I was pissed off to see it all fall apart so badly. There's a point, where Waltz's character has the opportunity to take his deal with the devil, as it were, and walk away with cash in hand. Instead, he shoots the villain right in the head. Awesome. Henchmen quickly gun him down, and the ensuing massive shootout was the logical conclusion. Django could have killed Samuel Jackson's "Uncle Tom" style character (who was right there), scooped up his captive wife (who was right there), burned down the mansion (which he was in) and rode off into the sunset to the satisfaction of all. Instead, this massive shootout concludes with him being captured, imprisoned, walking around in the desert for thirty fucking minutes, then going back and having an entirely redundant shootout in the same house, where he finally does all the stuff he should have done in the first place. Not only did this drag on way too long, it did so after passing right by the logical climax, and it made us endure an entire final act in which easily the two most compelling characters are already dead. It's still a good movie, but it could have been so much better if it hadn't fumbled at the goal line.

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District 9 (2009)



Of all the movies on this list, Neill Blomkamp's feature length debut is the hardest for me to include, yet it is the most deserving of this blog post's title. It's hard to include because I genuinely like this movie, but it fits the descriptor perfectly because it was one final act away from being one of the greatest sci fi films of all time. The premise, that an alien ship carrying refugee dregs of an advanced society arrives above Johannesburg and the passengers quickly become a hated underclass consigned to slums on the city's outskirts, is excellent. It sets up a powerful look at (among other things) racism, classism, systematic government oppression, the power of bureaucracy to turn people into numbers, and the effort of the oppressed to preserve their own cultural identity. Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, it really sells the idea, making the world feel real and the events of the story seem vital and compelling. Then, in the final act, it evidently decides that a compelling, hard-hitting story and powerful social commentary are way less fun than robot fights and explosions. The film morphs from something wonderful and utterly unique into Transformers, the 14-year-old boys in the crowd rejoice, and those of us previously enthralled by the film's originality and power let out a groan of despair as the greatest sci fi film that never was becomes yet another movie about rockets, robots, and alien plasma guns.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Metal Women

Butcher Babies. Clearly they're all about the music.
I've complained about a lot of female-fronted metal bands. Bands who rely on the sex appeal of their vocalists annoy the crap out of me (and that's true regardless of gender, but in metal it's usually a female vocalist appealing to the largely male metal fan base). Stylistically, Nightwish and their ilk have drawn my ire on plenty of occasions too. In my most recent "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" review where I griped about two more female-fronted bands, I made the remark that I hated seeing shitty music get a ton of attention just because the band producing it had a hot chick in their ranks. Lest ye think I'm just being a misogynist, please note that my issue with this trend is that women are underrepresented enough in metal as it is, and it bothers me that women with actual talent tend to be ignored in favor of the aforementioned "hot chick" bands. That's not to say that beautiful women can't have musical talent, because they most certainly can. In fact, I'd call several of the women I list below quite attractive. The point is that what's important should be the quality of the music, not the way the band members look in skin-tight leather.

In the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, I'd like to present to you a few talented women in metal who I think deserve your attention. This is merely a starting point, and as always I encourage you to hunt further on your own. I just felt somewhat compelled, given my recent grumblings on the topic, to provide some names. These are the ones I've chosen.

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Name: Mallika Sundaramurthy
Band: Abnormality
Role: Vocalist
Genre: Brutal Death Metal
Country: USA

Abnormality may only have one full-length album out, released in 2012, but it's a good record. And the excellent, meaty harsh vocals provided by Mallika Sundaramurthy leave the likes of Alissa White-Gluz so far behind in the dust that it's like comparing a Corvette to a unicycle.

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Name: Uta Plotkin
Band: Witch Mountain
Role: Vocalist
Genre: Stoner Doom Metal
Country: USA

On a lighter note, Uta Plotkin's smokey, soulful vocals dominate the stoner doom output of this Portland-based outfit. She's been with the band for two albums now, and her debut on their 2011 release South of Salem  was one of my favorite albums of the year.

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Name: Karen Gilligan
Band: (formerly) Cruachan
Role: Vocalist, Percussionist
Genre: Folk Metal
Country: Ireland

Gilligan is no longer a member of the band, but she has appeared on every Cruachan album save for their 1995 debut. The clean female vocals with harsh male vocals approach has been used to great effect by many bands, but with the arguable exception of Draconian I think Cruachan have done it the best. Her unusual (for metal) vocal approach gives them far more character than most folk metal bands.

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Name: Dr. Mikannibal
Band: Sigh
Role: Vocalist, Saxophonist
Genre: Avant-garde Metal
Country: Japan

Possibly my favorite metal album in the past five years came from the brilliantly creative Japanese outfit Sigh, whose front-woman delivers a wide array of vocal styles and throws in some cool sax work to boot. Oh, and it's not musically relevant, but that "Dr." title isn't just a stage name. She actually has a physics Ph.D.

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Name: Wata
Band: Boris
Role: Vocalist, Guitarist
Genre: Everything
Country: Japan

How can I explain the hyper-prolific Boris? With a career spanning two decades and more than twenty albums, this trio seems to dip and dive and wander into every weird crack and crevice the music world will allow. The best description would be to say that they're the Asian version of the Melvins. Wata has been a part of this powerhouse of weird since the beginning.

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Name: Liz Buckingham
Band: Electric Wizard
Role: Guitarist
Genre: Stoner Doom Metal
Country: UK

She wasn't a part of the original trio, but Liz Buckingham has wielding her guitar in the wizard for over a decade now. Whether one would call the lineup changes that brought her on board as Bagshaw and Greening left an improvement or a downgrade is largely a matter of personal preference, but as a guitarist in one of the world's premiere doom bands, she's played a big role in producing some really excellent material.

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As I said, this is just a sampling of names. At this point, most women in metal are vocalists, which is why vocalists dominated this list, though there are women who fill other roles in metal bands. A few examples: Justine Ethier is the drummer for Blackguard, Anna Murphy (and now Nicole Ansperger) provide folk instrumentation for Eluveitie, and Jill McEntee plays bass in Funerus (she also took over vocal duties on their last album). Unfortunately these women are still in an extreme minority, but hopefully with time more girls will take an interest in being metal musicians. In the mean time, let's pay more attention to women like these who have actual musical talent and less attention to women whose primary skill is looking really good in band photos.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Allegaeon - Elements of the Infinite

Last month, American technical melodeath outfit Allegaeon released their third full-length album, Elements of the Infinite. It was my first exposure to the band.

As some of you may already know, technical death metal is typically not one of my favorite styles. I don't hate it, but I tend only to take it in small doses. Melodic death metal, on the other hand, is an old favorite but it's been going through something of a quality drought in recent years. With those statements in mind, I have to say that the "meh" cover art, bland album name, and even blander band name all had me feeling pretty skeptical about this record. Despite hearing some positive buzz, I came very close to just ignoring it.

That's why we should not judge a book by its cover.

It turns out, this is probably my favorite tech death album since Beyond Creation blew me away with 2011's The Aura. The key, which so many bands seem to miss, is to use all that technical wizardry as the means rather than the end. Songs progress, the album has a natural flow to it, the hyper-proficient drumming drives the music's forward momentum, the plentiful solos are well-constructed and interesting, and the guitar riffs are distinct and engaging. Even the bass comes out to play, prominently rounding out the sound and providing some entertaining flourishes of its own. Probably the least impressive part of the whole record is the vocal work, which is very good in its own right but doesn't really stand out the way the instrumentation all does. I would also be remiss if I didn't point out the tasteful sprinkling of choir singing and orchestral instrumentation that kick things up a notch in the sweeping drama department.

The cool thing about this record, in my opinion, is that this is a somewhat underutilized combination of sub-genres. Basically, technical death metal bands trace their lineage back to Suffocation, where they turned left while the slam bands went right and the brutal death metal bands charged straight forward. The trouble is, most bands never branch out from there, so they end up sounding like wanking, watered-down Suffocation wannabees with about 1/3 the direction and 1/3000 the testicular fortitude. Allegaeon, though, sound more like an amped-up version of Septicflesh cross-bred with early Soilwork. There's really no reason a heavy, technical take on melodeath can't work (in fact I'd say it's a perfect fit) but for some reason I don't seem to see it done very often. Here, it's executed wonderfully. The result is a best-of-both-worlds situation where melody engages the listener but doesn't water down the heaviness, and technicality fuels the material without driving it into a huge pile of spaghetti.

That was a pun about noodling.

Sorry.

My point is, this is a very good record, and that's coming from somebody who is presently a bit disillusioned with melodeath and who rarely gives tech death albums high marks.

Grade: A

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Goatwhore - Constricting Rage of the Merciless

A couple weeks ago, the 6th full-length Goatwhore release hit the shelves.

Goatwhore have, over the past decade, established one of the most well-rounded resumes in extreme metal. They're part death, part black, and part thrash without ever committing to one over the others, and somehow, they've managed to keep most fans of all three sub-genres happy. They're consistent without getting boring. They have melody without being wimpy. They have underground street cred, but they're accessible to metalcore fans.

For me, the band's balancing act between all these factors is perhaps more impressive than the music itself. This is a good record, like all Goatwhore records, but like all Goatwhore records I get the feeling that being good at a lot of things comes at the expense of ever being really great at any one thing.

That said, if you know the band (which most metalheads do, by now) then you pretty much know what to expect. There are no surprises here, as the harsh vocals, driving riffs, intense delivery, and rounded approach are all back in full play yet again. There were a couple places where I felt more of a -core sensibility coloring the music, but it was never enough of a departure to be really distracting.

All in all, it's another very strong release from a very strong band.

Grade: B+


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#2)

Today's post is about the blues, but in a less direct fashion than last week's.

What do When the Levee Breaks, Dazed and Confused, and Whole Lotta Love have in common? If your answer was "Led Zeppelin didn't write any of them, but they pretended to" then you win a gold star. I could dedicate whole chapters to this topic, but I'll keep it relatively short and to-the-point: Zep were notorious plagiarists, and while they stole from musicians in several styles, their blues idols took the brunt of this musical theft. Sometimes songs were copied almost exactly. In some cases, the songs were altered considerably. In other cases, lyrics lifted from one song might be set to music copied from another. Or a few songs might all be strung together into one longer medley. In nearly all cases, though, the common thread was that the original artists were not given credit by the band.

I love Led Zeppelin's music as much as the next guy, but this is a striking example of the infamous '50s and '60s pattern of rock artists profiteering off the work of pioneering blues artists. Taking inspiration is great, but while guys like Eric Clapton openly champion their musical heroes, other artists engaged in far shadier behaviors. It bothers me, since I like to see credit given where credit is due. In that spirit, today I'd like to share a few old blues tunes that may seem a bit familiar.





There are tons of examples, in various forms, so now that I've posted a few of the original songs in their entirety, here is just one of many Zeppelin plagiarism samplers available on Youtube. Enjoy!


Monday, July 21, 2014

Monty Python is an Ex-Comedy Troupe

Yesterday, I sat in a third-full theater in Las Vegas, watching the live screening of Monty Python's (supposedly) final performance. It was an emotional experience for me. Despite the fact that Python made their name well before I was born, I have long felt a very deep attachment to the group. I know I'm not alone in this, as the array of comedy stars who cite them as a primary source of inspiration is so long it would be easier to list all the comedians not influenced by Python. Those of you who have seen my favorite movies list will know that I count Holy Grail and Life of Brian amongst my favorite films of all time. Those of you who have glimpsed my television watching habits will know that I have re-watched every episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus so many times I've lost count.

Be it documentaries, autobiographies, performances, interviews, card games, even their own brand of beer: if it has the Monty Python label I am likely to hunt it down and consume it. I even have a massive book with the complete screenplay for every episode of the show. When people claim, as Weird Al once did in song-form, that they can recite Holy Grail, I get annoyed. This is not because I want to keep Python all to myself or any such nonsense; I get annoyed because I can point out every mistake they're making and tell you what the line was actually supposed to be.

Basically, you could call me a fan.

Python came into my life at just the right age, too. I was old enough to feel like I understood it, but young enough that I really didn't. It was able to help inform my identity, as our interests always do, but as my own formal education advanced I was able to grow into it, constantly uncovering new layers. I could keep going back, year after year, and see a little deeper. Characters, sketches, and even entire themes took on the nature of old familiar friends. Over time I laughed less, but I appreciated
more. And as I developed this increasingly intimate understanding of their work, I found that I felt connected to these men, however fictitiously, in their own rights. In Graham Chapman, I found a brilliant, passionate, troubled man who died before his time yet with his short life truly moved me. In John Cleese, I saw a towering comedic master with an attitude that admirably cut straight through the crap. In Terry Jones, there was the sparkling genius that understood a bigger picture than others could comprehend. Terry Gilliam tapped into my anarchic fire, calling forth for freedom. Michael Palin, the soft-spoken friend to everyone, showed me that a gentle and caring soul can still have a sharp wit and a sharp tongue. And Eric Idol, along with his musical sensibilities, brought an inspiring grasp of the true range of capabilities to be found in our beloved English language. As individuals, they each intrigue and inspire me to this day (though admittedly some more so than others). As a group, their relationships to one another became almost as interesting as they were individually. Creatively, their complementary personalities and skills formed a fascinating web of originality, brilliance, humor, and truth.

Even though their best work all came before I was alive, and even though I've never found myself
sitting around waiting for new Python episodes or a new Python movie, the group was still out there and alive. In that sense, this felt like the end of a magnificent chapter. The old shows and movies will
be there to delight, entertain, provoke, and influence long after they have passed on and long after I have as well. But I was part of a momentous event. I sang "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" along with everyone in the theater, the hundreds of thousands of viewers around the world watching at that same moment, and the Pythons themselves. I sat and watched, clapping with a great smile on my face, as Monty Python took their final bow, knowing that for that exact moment I was joining in with like-minded people across the globe in one unified gesture of appreciation for the men who had brought so much thought and joy into our lives. And as the closing credits rolled, the theater emptied until only I remained. With a grin on my face and a nod to the heavens, I gave my silent salute to Graham Chapman. Then, still smiling and full of warmth, I took one last look across the empty theater as I said goodbye and thank-you to Monty Python.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Black Metal 3 for 1

A couple weeks ago I sat down and listened through three new black metal albums in direct succession. Only after nearly finishing the third did I happen to discover via Metal Archives that all three of them are in fact one-man projects. That fact, combined with the way I heard them and the way they covered such a broad spectrum in terms of both geography and style, pretty much ensured that I would write about them together in a single post. So here we go.

First up, Moloch released a new album in February, entitled Verw├╝stung. This Ukranian project seems to have something of a reputation for trying really hard to be more kvlt than it actually is. A quick look confirmed that most Moloch albums (which come out at a pretty rapid rate) have been limited to small quantities in the 100-1000 range, with at least one being made available exclusively on cassette. I love the band's name thanks to my fascination with silent films (it's an ancient mythological figure, but I first became familiar with the name from the Moloch machine used in Cabiria and later imitated in Metropolis). That may be a superficial detail, but it made me want to like this. And I do like it, to an extent. The rabid, animalistic vocals are the clear highlight of the music, and the drumming is nice and punchy without having that irritating (and all too common in black metal) clicking sound. The overall atmosphere is, if not outright cold and hostile, at least cool and unfriendly. That atmosphere, like the rest of the album, is mostly let down by the guitar. The riffs are somewhat generic, and the guitar tone is too warm and rock'n'roll-esque to properly maintain a truly cold feeling or to fit the excessively kvlt schtick that the band somewhat annoyingly tries to maintain. I get the impression, as I often do with bands who produce new material at such a rapid rate, that perhaps Moloch does not take the time to really get the material right before slamming it out and moving on to the next thing. Overall this was a reasonably solid listen, but there is better material out there on which to spend your time.

Next, we have Funereal Prescence, from New York, with the March release of The Archer Takes Aim. This is more of a sprawling, atmospheric endeavor. One reviewer caught my eye by calling it a "Guilt-Free Burzum" though honestly I don't think I hear what he's hearing. Its four tracks average twelve minutes apiece, which may be the basis for the aforementioned claim, but to me this type of thing always prompts the immediate question "are the song lengths warranted?" Nothing in all of music is so satisfying as a truly great long song, but here I found myself feeling that the tracks might have been better off each being split apart into two or three separate songs. That's not imperative, since if you listen straight through then the track lengths are not really a big deal and the album itself isn't overly long, but I think it would be a beneficial move. Still, the general ebb and flow of the music is mostly well-handled. A few sections start to drag a bit, though, and the scattered use of clean vocals is somewhat suspect. Taken together, I see indications that this project has a strong need for the kind of editorial input a one-man band is unlikely to ever receive. This project has released only one EP and this full-length, though, and there is a lot of promise in the material this record presents. If you have a sufficiently long attention span then you may enjoy this. More importantly, if these bumps can be smoothed out then I think Funereal Presence could be a project with a bright future.

Finally, the Scottish band Saor released its second album, Aura, in June. Clearly occupying the folk end of the black metal spectrum, if somebody told me this was pagan metal rather than black metal, I'd have a hard time mounting a convincing argument (other than that Viking/pagan/folk metal are all essentially rooted in black metal). Whatever. In that neck of the woods, there are usually three basic sounds a band can adopt: either they're charging bravely into the epic glory of battle, drunkenly celebrating their victory in a warm tavern back home, or wandering solemnly through the vast empty landscape as they reflect on the ancient deeds of those long-dead warriors. This is the third kind, which in general is probably my favorite. The music has everything this type of record needs, from melancholic beauty to grand scope, and it's extremely well-executed. A broad range of acoustic folk instrumentation is woven into the mix, and unlike the record I discussed a moment ago, here the robust track lengths feel justified. My only real gripe is that the vocals, perhaps in an attempt to make them into more of an atmospheric instrument, are dripping in an absurd amount of reverb. On the chanted choral sections this is fine, but it makes the sparsely-employed harsh vocals sound a bit like someone gurgling underwater at the far end of a very large cave. Still, for fans of this style I think it's one of the strongest pagan/folk metal releases of the year, and it was easily my favorite out of these three records.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#1)

That's right, I'm starting another new feature which may or may not continue. The title ought to make the basic idea pretty self-evident, but allow me to elaborate anyway.

Basically, the reason for the general lack of metal reviews so far this month is that for the past couple weeks a good 90% of the music I've listened to has been blues. Now I have actually checked out some new metal albums, and those reviews are forthcoming, but mostly I've found myself focused on blues music. I don't want to take over my blog, though, because I realize that most of the reason people read this at all is because they want to see an opinion on new metal releases. I have therefore decided on a compromise. The rest of the week, this is a metal blog (along with the assorted beard, alcohol, and random other posts I've always made) but on Tuesdays it's a blues blog. I may talk about an album, a frequently covered song, a particular scene or movement or sub-genre, or I may profile a particular artist. It all depends on my mood that day. As far as possible, though, I'd like to try to make a blues-related post every Tuesday.

For my first Blues Day post, I'd like to talk briefly about Lee Conley Bradley (pictured above) who is better known by his stage name Big Bill Broonzy. He's an intriguingly multifaceted figure in blues history, beginning his career in the deep south in the 1920s and ending up in Chicago in the 1950s. On the way, he went from a struggling country blues singer recording primitive tracks not too different from the Delta blues of Charlie Patton or Robert Johnson, to a financially successful artist who recorded with prominent folk musicians and toured Europe.

Over the course of his career, Broonzy recorded hundreds of song, both original and traditional, and many of his recordings would eventually become the basis for hit blues and rock covers. Below, I'll link a few of the most notable examples. I should note that he was not necessarily the original recording artist for these tracks, but he was a major figure in popularizing them. These are only a small sample of his work, which I strongly encourage budding blues enthusiasts to explore further on their own.





Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Beardliest Blues Man

Metal, as I have frequently noted, is known for the hairiness of its practitioners. That works out well, considering that beardliness falls right behind metalness on the list of topics I typically cover on this blog. However, as some of you will know from previous posts and comments I've made, I also have a deep and abiding love for the blues. Sadly, the same levels of bearded excellence are not to be found in that musical medium. Obviously there are a lot of perfectly valid social reasons for that, but the fact remains that there is a definite scarcity of beards in old blues music. The typical image of an old Delta-blues man generally involves a clean-shaven face and an old-fashioned suit to accompany the weathered acoustic guitar with which he made his living.

There are, however, some exceptions to this norm. The most impressively bearded of all the old blues masters was, in my humble opinion, Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks. So today (for no particular reason other than that I'm in the right frame of mind after spending the evening drinking coffee, stroking my beard, playing guitar, and listening to a string of great old blues songs) I'd like to take a moment to honor the king of the bearded blues, Sam Chatmon.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Septicflesh - Titan

Greek symphonic melodic death metal (or whatever you choose to label them) band Septicflesh released their 9th full-length album last month. Septicflesh have quietly become one of my favorite metal bands over the past couple of years despite falling into more of a goth arena than I usually like, so I was eagerly awaiting this record for quite a while.

The result was mostly satisfactory. The symphonic, almost operatic orchestration is as interesting and engaging as ever, the guitar riffs are surprisingly simplistic but their bluntness creates a reasonably effective contrast against the orchestra. The vocals are solid with a mix of growls, cleans, and effects-laden otherness. The drumming is interesting, and the bass is audible (sad that for a metal album, simple audibility is essentially a compliment when talking about the bass). The production is top-notch, providing plenty of room for individual instruments to move around in and plenty of clarity to allow each element to stand out on its own.

Basically, all the ingredients are here, so if you like Septicflesh you'll like this record. It does seem, though, to be missing something I can't quite put my finger on for some reason. Even though I like them, I have to admit that Septicflesh have always been a band that's more about style than substance. That has worked fine for them, but it does mean I can rule out certain possible issues. I'm not, for example, talking about any suddenly absent visceral drive or philosophical underpinnings or anything, since the band never really had those. I think the problem is in the guitar, since in addition to being simplistic the guitar is also somewhat sparse, which means that in general there just isn't as much core action in the compositions as we've seen on previous albums.

Anyway, don't let my complaints deter you too much. It was still a good album. It falls short of its immediate predecessor, so to a new listener I'd suggest that album (The Great Mass) in lieu of this one, but for anybody who already knows the band and likes them, Titan  is a solid purchase.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (#3)

Before I start today's post, I'd like to take a moment to note that Eli Wallach, who starred as Tuco in the movie from which this segment takes its name, recently passed away at the age of 98. He had a good long run, but I was nonetheless deeply saddened to hear the news of his passing.

On that somber note, let's take a look at three new albums.

The Good: Corpsessed - Abysmal Thresholds
After a few years of releasing EPs, this Finnish death metal outfit produced their full-length debut early this year. It's a dark, heavy, ugly slab of everything I like about death metal. Admittedly its churning riffs, monstrously guttural roars, and murky production are all ripped straight from the Incantation playbook to an arguably excessive degree. It all sounds great, though, so I don't mind at all. Besides, they throw in a few splashes of their own personality to keep it all from sounding like an outright clone. The ominous atmospheric intro, for example, sets the stage well while also separating them from their obvious core influence. I'm not going to sit and catalog the differences, though, because that's not really important. The music is what's important. And in terms of the music itself, it's ugly, it's evil, and it's awesome.


The Bad: Lacuna Coil - Broken Crown Halo
I hate Lacuna Coil, and I have for years. I've got friends who really like them, though, so I'm continually willing to give them new opportunities to sell themselves to me. This year's release is just another in a string of examples of why I hate this band. Setting aside the fact that I'm not even sure if this counts as metal at all anymore, the overwhelming feeling I had while listening to this was that it was basically just a really shitty version of Evanescence. I continue to think the band has almost entirely succeeded on the back of having a hot chick in the group (which always saddens me, because it's a superficial reason to like a band, and because with women already underrepresented in metal it sucks to see legitimately talented women swept under the rug while the hot chicks in crappy bands become the face of women in extreme music). That's an issue for another time, though. All that matters right now is that this album is weak, poppy, and annoying.


The Ugly: Arch Enemy - War Eternal
Speaking of hot chicks, Arch Enemy recently acquired Alissa White-Gluz from The Agonist to replace the patron saint of female death metal vocalists, Angela Gossow. The big question on this album was whether White-Gluz could adequately fill those shoes, and to her credit she actually did reasonably well. I wouldn't go so far as to call her vocals great, but they were adequate. The trouble is that the same can be said for pretty much everything on this album. The entire band produced yet another in a series of perfectly listenable but essentially unremarkable melodeath albums. There were some compelling moments, some good leads and catchy riffs, and the vocals had plenty of energy. Overall, though, the album tended toward the mediocre and the forgettable.