Friday, November 30, 2007

Whoooooooooaaaaaah Whooooooooooahhhhhh Whooooooaaaaaaaaaah

Various Artists - Forged In Steel

While on a recent music purchasing outing I found myself laden with this free compilation, published by Roadrunner Records. Normally I hiff this stuff in the bin as fast as possible, but my curiosity was stimulated by the chance to actually hear the mediocre mall-metal that the kids are a-hipping and a-hopping to today.

We start out in solid enough territory, with Machine Head's 'Now I Lay Thee Down', a song I have already declared my fondness for on this very blog, and Megadeth's 'Sleepwalker', which doesn't need to be described any further than to say that it's 'a Megadeth song', but definitely a decent listen.

Later on there are a few other bands that I found moderately entertaining. Porcupine Tree, Pain and Daath were all pleasing (the former two reminding me that the genre of industrial metal does still exist), and the last track by Sanctity, which I can't actually remember anything about at all. I guess that means at least that it wasn't terrible.

Most of this shit is pretty dreadful though. At track three we encounter Within Temptation, a band that takes the Evanescence's gimmick, removes even that bands small traces of subtlety and sophistication, and makes up for it with extra shitty rapping.

Things don't get any better from there. Shadows Fall, Behind Crimson Eyes and Stone Sour give me both a belated insight into the dire metalcore that the kids have made popular today and a sense of gratefulness that my aversion to radio and television has thus far mostly spared me from it. To these bands I have only one thing to say: I hope your dad finally gives you that raise in your allowance and gets off your back about succeeding in school. Maybe then you can quit your angsty, crappy kiddy metal metal band and start a better one. Even Killswitch Engage, a band that up until now was my touchstone example of shitty radio friendly metal, come off looking not so bad when compared to these shamelessly commercial appropriations of teenage angst.

Lastly we have a few bands that are just so bad that I can't even be offended by their terribleness, and merely take pleasure in marvelling at just how bad they are. Trivium are a shitty rip off of Dragonforce (or perhaps Manowar) without the decency to inherit their (few) non-sucky elements. Dragonforce themselves also have a song on this disc, which I estimate to be composed of 23% “Whooaaah's” and 76% wank solos, and arranges said elements in such a way to create a song even more gratingly awful than what I've heard of them previously.

As much of a chore as this was to listen to, I'm at least glad to know that by deliberately insulating myself from mainstream pop culture I haven't accidentally missed out on anything truly worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

He's A God Now!

Arch Enemy - Rise of the Tyrant

Arch Enemy have blown me away with great live performances twice in a year now, and I've finally gotten around to getting some of their music on record.

At their heart Arch Enemy are a straightforward kick ass thrash band. Rise of the Tyrant bursts out of the gate ferociously and doesn't let up for the full running time of the album (save for a misguided mellow instrumental towards the end that it would be uncharitable to dwell on). The rhythm section hammers away with an energetic viciousness that more than makes up for the fact that we've all heard this kind of thing done many times before, and the raw, exposed (but polished) production gives it a punkish kind of urgency. The first guitar contrasts the thrash with more restrained, classic rock style leads that tend toward the epic and melancholy. A tasteful touch of choirs and synths is added here and there help to keep things interesting. And of course in true thrash metal tradition there's plenty of wild soloing to be found, which on this album evokes the styles of both Slash from Gunners and Terrance from Suffocation (a pairing which is much more successful than you might expect).

As is the order of the day in metal currently political allegory is all over this album, and unlike so many of their peers Arch Enemy actually know how to do a real allegory. There are few overt statements to be found, just smartly ambiguous references to the scenario of the albums title and an inspired choice of audio sample (from the movie Caligula) to open the title track.

Of course Arch Enemy's true point of difference is vocalist Angela Gossow, a petite blonde capable of grunting out death metal bellows with the best of her male counterparts. Curiously enough her voice on the album sounds less brutal than when I've heard her 'sing' live, but it's still fucking impressive! Her guttural howls may be higher in pitch than is conventional for a death metal band but there is something far eviller about this vocal style when it comes from a woman. A guy doing death metal growling is always on some level engaging in testosterone driven macho posturing, but when a woman is forcing such unholy noises out of herself, there's no question that it's all purely in the service of evil and for the glory of Satan.

Here's the official video for 'Revolution Begins':

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Milk From The Flower, Blood From The Dawn

The Smashing Pumpkins - Zeitgeist

Billy Corgan's precisely planned and calculated breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins back in 2000 was done in such a way to ensure that there was little question of a reunion at some stage in the future. The only question was when, and who would be invited back. As it happened Billy only held out for a mere seven years (I always imagine him pacing impatiently in the studio... “I wish I could reform the Pumpkins now...”) and the only other original member to return was drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (yes, the same drummer Billy had with him for all of the music he made during the Pumpkin's defunct period). And indeed, Zeitgeist sets off from the exact spot that their last album, Machina, left off from without missing a beat. The powerful, thundering drum fill that kicks off the album and the killer guitar riff (reminiscent of that of 'Bodies') that it dives straight into immediately reassure the listener that the next fifty minutes of music will be cast from a very similar mould to that of Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie. The odds of Zeitgeist surpassing or even equalling those albums were never good so no one should be surprised that it doesn't rank up there with them, and I would certainly not rate it as high as Adore either (of course my fondness for that album is atypical). The good news is that it's much better than the troubled, awkward Machina, and I'm pleasantly surprised to find that Zeitgeist is a worthwhile listen and a genuine return to form.

I have a few minor criticisms of it however. The cover art, portraying the Statue of Liberty half submerged under the waves behind a red, swollen sun, the Grim Reaper as President of the USA, Paris Hilton and other omens of disaster, would imply that the subject matter of the album would be inspired by the concerns of the world at large today, but it turns out to be just another trip down into Billy's navel (the epic album divider 'United States' would appear to be the most likely track to deal with such themes but Billy's whined refrain “What will they do with me?” shows that no matter where he looks for inspiration, he always ends up talking about himself). This approach has served him well in the past, but the fact is that Billy just isn't as miserable and angsty as he used to be and while that's great for him personally it leaves him with the same problem as many of his peers from the early Nineties grunge era who also found that their anguish was their muse, and the music lacks the passion and intensity of his earlier work. Taking a turn to the political and directing his anger at the outside world worked miracles for Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails earlier this year, and I think Billy missed an opportunity by not thinking along similar lines.

My second complaint is that the album is front loaded with it's best tracks. First single 'Tarantula' is found at track five and is a solid song in a very classic Pumpkins vein. The album begins with 'Doomsday Clock' and '7 Shades of Black', which both rock out like motherfuckers, and track three, 'Bleeding the Orchid', is easily my favourite from the album, with a combination of heaviness and Adore-style romanticism that is probably what Machina was supposed to sound like. Unfortunately such promise is unfulfilled as there's nothing later in the album that comes close to equalling those songs (even if none of it is actively bad).

But by and large Billy's talent as a composer and musician remains solid. The songs found here all play it pretty safe - there's no question that you're listening to a Smashing Pumpkins album and yet it would also be impossible to take any given song and place it with confidence as being in the style of any of their earlier albums, as they've developed their sound just enough so that Zeitgeist is not redundant. Jimmy's drums are as powerful as ever and Billy's return as a master of guitar wankery is most welcome. His trademark wild, squeally solos are as impassioned and unique as ever, especially the one that closes out the album on the otherwise mediocre track 'Pomp and Circumstances'.

It's far from their greatest album but Zeitgeist is certainly better than I'd feared it would turn out to be. Here's hoping they tour Australia for this album so that I'll finally get a chance to see the Pumpkins (in one form or another) live.

Holiday Reading

OK, now I've kind of caught up on things again, so blogging should once more be fast and furious!

While I was away, I also got to read some books:

First up was Noam Chomsky's Understanding Power. He's nuts! He's completely myopic! He wildly overstates his case in every paragraph! Some of his 'facts' are incredibly dubious*! By the time I'd finished the first couple of chapters I was totally prepared to give this book a real bashing, yet somehow by the end he'd kind of won me over. He has some pretty smart, convincing explanations for his apparent prejudice and constant America bashing, and even though I disagree with many of his conclusions, I found the worldview he presented thought provoking and indeed a useful model with which to consider political subjects. My thoughts on it really deserve more space than I have in this multi-book extravaganza post, so they will just have to wait until the next time I read something of his.

* “So in northeast Brazil, for example, which is a rather fertile area with plenty of rich land, just it's all owned by plantations, Brazillian medical researchers now identify the population as a new species with about 40 percent the brain size of human beings, a result of generations of profound malnutrition and neglect[...]” Here's the citation.

I also read Lost in Transmission, by Jonathan Harley, which I really enjoyed. It's an autobiography by the former central Asian correspondent for the ABC (Australia's version of the BBC or TVNZ) and details the years of his life spent living in India and Pakistan, reaching a climax when he reports from the front lines of America's invasion of Afghanistan. Despite it's straightforward prose (obviously written by a news reporter) and modestly direct emotional aspect (obviously written by an Aussie) it captured my attention effortlessly. On one hand there's the political and world events portrayed, which provided a surprisingly relevant counterpoint to Chomsky and in one weird moment of synchronicity, the news (reporting Pakistan's General Musharraf declaring martial law) on TV in front of me. On the other hand there's the personal side of the story, which has numerous aspects and narratives (as any honest autobiography would) and introduced me to the concept of 'teen-creep', the state of living one's life with all the lack of responsibility and maturity of a teenager until your late twenties and beyond. Good thing I don't know anyone like that!

And you'll probably be surprised to learn that I didn't realise for over two months after its release that Buffy Season 8: The Long Way Home had been published. For those not in the know/who don't give a fuck, Joss Whedon has format shifted Buffy from TV to comics and this is the first collected instalment. It's a solid enough effort (certainly miles better than season seven) and Joss takes full advantage of the new medium by upping the epic battles, violence and lesbianism. Yet despite such sound artistic development, it doesn't quite scratch the itch. The dialogue is still great and the plot and characters are developed in a satisfying way, but as with most serialised comic collections the pacing feels terrible. Five months worth of comic issues feel filled with about as much content as a one hour episode of the TV show. Nevertheless I'm still stoked to see Joss continuing the story and I am eagerly looking forward to the continuation of the series and the forthcoming resurrection of Angel.

Lastly I also finished off the recent release Fatal Revenant (make sure you pronounce the title the same way George Costanza says 'prognosis negative'!), the latest instalment of Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant fantasy saga. The series has been a favourite of mine since I was a teenager and I'm still loving it even now. It's been a three year wait since the last book and I eagerly devoured this one (only to find that this has merely replaced one cliffhanger with another that I will no doubt have to wait another three years to read the resolution of) and it cemented Donaldon's place in my list of favourite authors. Fatal Revenant was definitely heavy on exposition and low on action, a flaw I am confident will be remedied in the remaining two books in the series, but even the exposition was still absorbing to read. A little more maturity has allowed me to see past the full on angst fest of the main characters in this series to the beauty of their world that Donaldson has created to contrast it. I really must go back and read the original series again. I'm curious as to what I might get out of it this time...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Holiday Viewing

So I got the chance to watch a few movies on the plane while I was away. I'm pretty slack at getting my arse to the actual theatre nowadays so it was good to catch up on a few recent releases that I'd missed.

At the top of the list of movies I'm annoyed at myself for missing was Stardust, based on Neil Gaiman's novel. I loved the book, but adaptations of this type rarely go well and the reviews had been lacklustre so my expectations were low. Fortunately it turned out to pretty damn good. While the movie feels free to deviate wildly from the plot of its source material, it faithfully retains the fairy tale spirit and Gaiman's unique style and mood. Plus it features some stunning visuals, proving that expensive CGI can still look good in the right hands, something I'd begun to doubt in this age of overrendered Spidermans and Fantastic Fours. My only criticism would be Claire Danes, who I found quite annoying and who also managed to be out-foxed by the almost fifty year old Michelle Pfeiffer.

Next I finally got to watch
The Simpsons Movie. As much as I loved the show in its heyday, it's recent deterioration left me without much compulsion to catch the big screen version. I'm not sorry I saw it, thankfully it isn't the worthless mockery of a once great comedy that I feared, but I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Sure it's worth a few laughs, particularly near the beginning but despite all the winks and nods to fans there's no denying that the writers lost their spirit a long time ago. Plus, I can't believe they killed Dr. Nick for no reason! Why choose to off one of their best characters (and one that has been around since nearly the beginning), and not one of the lame later additions that have mysteriously hung round for years (Like the “yeeeesss” guy. Does anyone think that shit is funny?)

Next I gave Knocked Up a try. Freaks and Geeks gives Buffy a run for its money as the best thing ever to appear on television, and Judd Apatow has made a decent career in Hollywood following the demise of that show so I had high expectations for his new(ish) film. Nevertheless, I couldn't make it through half an hour of this movie. My hatred for the characters (all of them, I couldn't decide if I loathed the snobby rich girls or the gross slobby guys more) grew so extreme that I had to calm down by watching Transformers. The gentle sounds of explosions and cheesy generic rock soundtracks washed away my misanthropic anger and sent me off to sleep before the movie was half over.

Later on I ended up watching Daywatch, an almost incomprehensible Russian sci-fi movie. Despite the ridiculous plot and overwrought acting I neither fell asleep nor turned it off in disgust before the end so on some level at least it must count as a success.

I also caught 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later. The first film was a perfect example of someone taking a timeworn genre (in this case the zombie film featuring political allegory) and creating something completely new from it without deviating from the established trappings of the style. I loved the first both as an action film and for its unpleasant but affecting insights into human nature. The next film was still quite watchable but lacked all the things that made the first film so good, despite the addition of many scenes of famous parts of London getting blown up and/or attacked by zombies.

Unfortunately my nineteen hour flight back to Australia was movieless, thanks to Qantas' shitty entertainment system being on the blink the whole time. At least that meant that I got through half of Moby Dick.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I'm Back

Cornelius J. Ferryweather III may have beaten me in the end (but only with the help of his team of black hearted rogues and their gigantic fog machine that bested me in the exotic port city of Dubai!) but the important thing is to reflect on the lessons that we learned along the way. The many uplifting and enlightening experiences that I had on my journey included:
  • Getting grifted by an Indian magician in Singapore airport.
  • Being woken up by soldiers armed with automatic rifles in Singapore airport.
  • Getting grifted by dodgy electronics salesmen in New York.
  • Getting lost in the projects on Staten Island.
  • Getting grifted by strippers in Times Square.
  • Getting detained by immigration in the UK.
  • Enduring the stunning ineptitude of the Emirates ground staff in London.
  • Sitting next to Mr. Elbows McCoughsalot for twelve hours flying from London to Singapore.

But I built a lot of character!

Saturday, November 03, 2007


"The Sugababes!" I snarl, slamming my rum and coke down on the bar.

"You simply cannot be more mistaken," says Cornelius J. Ferryweather III with a sneer, "Britney Spears' The Blackening will undoubtedly be the feel good party album of the summer."

"THE SUGABABES!" I roar, lurching unsteadily to my feet and knocking over my barstool as I do so. The bartender tells me that I need to leave, and that he's not going to ask again.

"On lead single 'Gimme Gimme Gimme' Britney channels her recent troubles into fresh artistic expression," Cornelius J. Ferryweather III states in his refined accent, "infusing her trademark bubblegum pop with a mature, earthy sexuality..."

He continues on but I am not listening. I can see the bouncers making their way to the bar, and I know that I do not have much time. "I foresee only one way to settle this...", I interrupt. "I propose a race around the world!!"

"Very well, I accept!" returns Cornelius J. Ferryweather III. "I have no doubt that my zeppelin, The August Queen Victoria, shall see me back in Sydney while you are still struggling across the Sahara in your solar powered hovercraft!"

I have no chance to reply, as I am now being carried out the door. I know not how I shall beat him, nor what perils I may face along the way, but I am steadfast in my conviction that I shall triumph in this race... AROUND THE WORLD!!!!