Monday, December 31, 2007

End Of Year Round Up

It's that time of the year again kids! As in, the end of it. So that means I am morally obligated to present you with a list, culled directly from my arse, of the best music, games and whatnot that have crossed my path in 2007.

Normally I'd start off with a TV section, but I haven't actually had a TV this year and so most I've what I've watched has been old stuff on DVD. However I will make a few quick notes:

Biggest Downturn in Quality:
Dr. Who
This years season started and ended with a bang but went through a long lull in the middle. A sad thing to happen to a show that was my favourite for the previous two years running.

Biggest Upturn in Quality:
This got the biggest downturn in quality award last year, because of the execrable first six episodes of season 3. Fortunately they pulled things right back on track, and it ended up as the best thing going on TV this year.

Best Game

Bioshock is pretty good too, although I don't know when or if I'll get around to finishing it.

Icewind Dale 2 Award For The Best Game I Bought But Will Probably Never Finish:
Final Fantasy XII
I just can't find the time to sit through all those interminable cutscenes, when the reward for doing so is some frustrating, unfun gameplay. But of course, it's still Final Fantasy, so I constantly think about going back to it.

Best Books:
Neil Gaiman - Fragile Things
Stephen Donaldson - Fatal Revenant

Best Movie:

Best Albums:
Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero
Tomahawk – Anonymous
Shining – Halmstad
Wolves in the Throne Room – Two Hunters
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Ire Works
Boris – Rainbow
P J Harvey – White Chalk

A lot of these I only bought recently, so no posts exist for them yet.

The NIN album deserves special mention, because of Trent's savvy use of the ARG to promote the album and enhance it's concept, which nicely captured the zeitgeist of 2007's global situation.

Best Album That Actually Came Out Last Year:
Isis – In The Absence of Truth

Best Album That Actually Came Out Ages Ago, But Is Still Fucking Awesome:
Nightwish – Once

Biggest Disappointment:
Nothing that came out this year really caused me to wail in dismay, but both Radiohead's In Rainbows and Nightwish's Dark Passion Play let me down a little from the high expectations I had for them.

Trent Reznor Award For The Best Album That Was Supposed To Come Out This Year But Didn't:
In a year when Trent released a new album, a new DVD, a remix album and played three concerts in Sydney it would be bit uncharitable to give this award to him again (although technically I still could, for the Closure DVD), so for the first time ever this award will go to someone else:

Opeth – For the new album and the DVD version of The Roundhouse Tapes.

Most Overrated Band:

Within Temptation. It's Evanescence with Kelly Clarkson singing. Why does everyone love this shit?

Worst Song By A Good Musician Who Should Have Known Better:
Tarja Turunen covering Alice Cooper's 'Poison'.
I was going to buy her solo album until I heard this.

Least Convincing 'Former' Junkies:

Velvet Revolver

Runner Up:
Phil Anselmo

Best Concerts:
This year I was genuinely blessed to attend a truly outstanding concert almost every other month. In no particular order, the following concerts all totally blew my mind:
Secret Chiefs 3
Peeping Tom
Nick Cave and Grinderman

Boringist Concert:

Sunn O)))

Best Onstage Bottling:

Jet at the Big Day Out

See you next year everyone. I.e. tomorrow!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Merry Festivus

Happy holidays everyone, don't expect to see much appearing here for the next couple of weeks!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Close To Euphoria

Collide – Live at the El Ray

A friend once remarked to me that while he really liked Placebo's albums, he felt that they didn't generate quite the energy that the songs required on record and that it would be much better to see them live. I agreed but as it turned out, Placebo are a terrible live band with even more lacklustre on stage than on their albums. Collide's albums have always given me a similar feeling of unfulfilled potential so it's not much of a surprise that Collide's live album is disappointingly tepid.

Collide's albums Chasing the Ghost and Some Kind of Strange are very good but they always leave me feeling that despite the musical talent displayed, there's some subtle failure to make the deep emotional connection that defines great music. I hoped that in a live performance they might remedy that deficiency but once again I must sadly note that in fact, performing live only exacerbates the problem.

There's a lot of good things about Live at the El Ray mind. The setlist is a nice greatest hits collection, and they've very skilfully arranged the purely electronic, industrial songs for an analogue rock band format. However maybe it's because the backing electronics enslave them to a click, or maybe it's because vocalist Karin (I refuse to type the cutesy industrial alternate caps spelling) sounds as though she's either extraordinarily nervous or high as a kite, there's definitely a lot lacking in the performance department, and this is a pity because they're so close to being truly great, and maybe all it would take to get them there is just a bit less stiffness.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Just Remember My Face When I See You In Hell

The Power and the Glory – Call Me Armageddon

Listening, at long last, to the final album in the little package of albums that began by getting me into Converge coincidentally comes at a time when I'm getting a little tired of hardcore. There's something about the earnestness and lack of subtlety that makes it less appealing to me than a good metal album.

Having said that I still liked Call Me Armageddon a lot. Once again these guys are a band that have drunk deep from Converge's well of inspiration (Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon even did the cover artwork), but they do it well and with a few twists of their own to add to the style. Most of the tracks on the album are two minute long volcanic explosions of hardcore brutality with guitars thrashing out the grinding, arrhythmic riffs in the style that Converge made popular aside indecipherably screeched vocals, behind which incredibly powerful drums pummel away like a landslide. The whole effect is one of impressively controlled insanity and it comes as a surprise then that when they segue into the occasional mellow song they display admirable restraint and gentleness.

These guys are a great band who have won me over even though this is not what I am usually in the mood for these days and it's a pity that a quick investigation of their myspace page implies that they may now be defunct.

To Die In Battle Divine

Black Dahlia Murder – Nocturnal

Other than my intentional forays into the music of the genre's seminal instigators, I don't think I've listened to a straight up black metal album for quite some time. As with other genres that espouse a deliberately simplified, stripped back form (punk, industrial) the practitioners eventually got bored and expanded or merged their music with other styles. Every black metal album I've heard of recent years is prefixed or suffixed by a qualifier: ambient black metal, blackened thrash, polka metal and so on.

The Black Dahlia Murder's take on the genre is different again. While the drumming and vocals are clearly black metal through and through and the visual aesthetic of the band is also a fit, the production is so clean and slick that Euronymous probably stirred restlessly in his grim, frostbitten grave when Nocturnal went gold (well, more so than usual anyway) and the catchy, melodic guitar hooks are more the kind of thing you'd find in a heavy thrash band (I'm put in mind of Arch Enemy), than the minimal droning riffs of Burzum. And maybe it's just their hair cuts, but somehow I keep getting a bit of an emo vibe from these guys.

Nevertheless if you're not too much of a purist the result is some damn good ear candy. Can you ask any more from a metal album than brutally heavy rhythms, diabolically wild guitar solos and literate but sociopathic lyrics screamed by someone sounding like a demoniac? The Black Dahlia Murder are a perfect example of good pop-metal; the production is high quality and the songs are as catchy and accessible as anything Jack Johnson ever wrote (but with all those boring fifths nice and flattened!) yet the melodies, aesthetic and energy are all genuinely evil. It's good fun stuff and I'm a bit annoyed that I missed my chance to see them play last month while I was overseas (damn you for ruining my holiday Dillinger Escape Plan and Meshuggah!)

Here's 'What A Horrible Night To Have A Curse' from Nocturnal:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nerd Links Day

If your day job involves software at all then you probably want to be reading The Daily WTF, it's fucking hysterical.

But even funnier is Zero Punctuation at The Escapist, easily the best video game reviews I've ever read.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Burn The Spirits Of Cold, That Travel Through My Soul

Opeth – Orchid

And at long last we have finally come to the end of my traversal of Opeth's back catalogue. Orchid is their first album, and my disappointment with their second release Morningrise meant that my expectations were low. Fortunately it turns out that, while Orchid is nowhere near as accomplished as their mid and late period masterpieces, it's still ranks favourably in their oeuvre.

Most of the songs fit into the standard Opeth style. Long compositions formed of baroque death metal riffs alternating with moody acoustic passages. This album differs because there's still some clear roughness to the performances, production and songwriting when compared to later albums, but the passion shines through and delivers a collection of solid, enjoyable metal songs.

Two tracks stand out for special mention. 'Silhouette' is a short piece for solo piano, featuring some very impressive playing by original drummer Anders Nordin, a type of song that they've never done since and which caused me to remark sadly that there's not enough real piano in metal (a wish that was fulfilled in a most satisfying manner recently by the new Dillinger Escape Plan album, but more on that later). Secondly 'Under The Weeping Moon' stands out as one of the best songs they've ever done, most notably for it's moody ambient breakdown in the middle.

Opeth's artful compositional wizardry has always been the first thing that comes to mind when I justify my love for them, but even back in 92 when those skills were still being developed they excel all the same because of their excellent sense of mood. Despite all Akerfeldt's talk of 'evilness' the music as a whole, even the heaviest parts, is laden with a romantic melancholy for which the brutal death metal image is just a façade. The fusion of the genre with such an antithetical feeling is something that no other band I've heard has pulled off. And when you combine that with the writing genius that Akerfeldt later developed, why you have a series of albums made of pure win and metal!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sing! My Angel Of Music!

Nightwish – End of an Era

As previously mentioned on this blog, the band Nightwish underwent a drama filled change of lead woman a couple of years back, and in true ghoulish twenty first century media fashion they have documented it on DVD. We don't quite get to see the look on Tarja's face and the tears in her eyes when she realises she's been ditched, but they've recorded their last concert with her (she was fired immediately afterwards) and included a documentary of the last few weeks of the tour, complete with ominous title cards saying 'X days until Helsinki concert...' and full of retroactively ironic statements by Tarja about her perceived future with the band.

The documentary is a little weird for that reason but fortunately the concert footage is fantastic, despite the best efforts of an obviously demented director whose passion for ill advised post production effects (overlayed flames, slo mo, etc.) is remarkable in it's lameness. Fortunately the performance still shines through. In fact, this DVD makes me incredibly sad that when I see Nightwish in February Tarja won't be with them. I'm sure the new singer will do fine but I very much doubt that she'll generate the same stage presence as Tarja displays here.

Nightwish's stage show is full of spectacle: Rammstein style pyrotechnics, huge video screens and all the over emoting of metal and opera combined, but even that is overwhelmed by the power of their music, which rocks and stomps it's way into the category of unbelievable awesomeness and beyond. Highlights include the old school singles 'Wishmaster' and 'Ever Dream' as well as 'The Siren' and their cover of Pink Floyd's 'High Hopes' (both of which I posted as videos in my review of Once). Perhaps best of all their version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Phantom of the Opera', which confirms my long held suspicion that that song was always supposed to be done metal.

I think this disc would probably make a great drinking game. Drink every time one of the other band members visibly snobs Tarja onstage, drink for every shot of a teenybopper goth chick crying in the audience, drink every time Tarja changes outfits and I'm sure the astute viewer could think of more.

Here's 'Phantom of the Opera':

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

1001 Albums Number 16

Billie Holiday – Lady In Satin

This is another one that I've been looking forward to. Even though I'm unfamiliar with Billie Holiday's music she's (in)famous enough to have caught my attention more than a few times in the past.

Although she's considered a jazz singer this album had far more in common with Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours than say Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk. In fact on the two albums Holiday and Sinatra perform three of the same songs.

The arrangements are very similar to what is found on Sinatra's albums - sad, swooning strings submissively complement the vocals while other jazz instrumentation quietly keeps restrained time in the background. And, just like with the Sinatra albums, I found these arrangements to be dead boring. Fortunately this isn't as much of a disaster on Lady in Satin as it was for old Frank, as the album is easily redeemed by Holiday's voice.

Where Sinatra cooed pathetically with less convincing pathos than Bumblebee Man from The Simpsons, Holiday's distinctive singing contains genuine depth and the sadness that a life of abuse and drug addiction had given her is inescapable. While I may turn my nose up at many aspects of this album that I normally judge music on (songwriting, originality), it would be incredibly heartless for anyone to not appreciate something so honestly soulful...

Friday, December 07, 2007

There Will Be Cake!

Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Portal

It's taken a long time but Valve have finally released the next episode of Half-Life, more than a year after the last one. It's a pretty sorry attempt at an episodic release scheme but when the results are this detailed and polished it's hard to complain that they've been taking their time to get it right.

There's not much to say about this instalment that I didn't say about the first episode, as the developers have found a winning formula and with fair reason see no reason to deviate from it. Expect lots of frenzied battles in a wide variety of locales, a spot of logical puzzle solving, and plenty of biffing stuff about with your gravity gun, just like in its predecessors.

While the Half-Life Episodes series has not thus far introduced much in the way of new gameplay, I am very pleased with their main contribution to gamedom: the use of actual real believable characters who look and act like like actual human beings, instead of ridiculous action movie clichés. For once I actually gave a shit about what might happen to the supporting cast during the cutscenes, which is something that I don't recall ever feeling while playing a game before (there were a few games that came close (some of the Final Fantasies, Planescape Torment) but the mechanics of gameplay always ensured that nothing permanent would happen to any of your party members. Yeah, I'm not one of those people who cried when Aeris died. She was pretty boring really...)

Fortunately for the long-windedness of this post the new episode was released in a package with a unique new game, Portal. Using the same engine and gameplay as Half-Life, and loosely set in the same fictional world, the game puts you in control of a sketchily defined character trapped in some kind of research facility and forced to complete a series of puzzles using a gun that creates portals that you can use to teleport from one place to another.

It's a short, clever puzzle game, with a smart but simple plot that is revealed a little at a time as you explore. Definitely worth noting is the game's weird, perverse humour. The player is guided by a sinister, omnipresent observer who's gentle, upbeat manner is belied by the dangerous situations that it's forcing you into (“We regret to inform you that our last statement was an outright falsehood. We promise to always tell you the truth in the future.”) and the game as a whole has a general atmosphere of gleefully sarcastic whimsy that I, and apparently almost everyone else expressing their opinion on the internet at the moment, find delightfully refreshing.

It's great to see a successful, established game developer doing something like this. A short, smart, cheap game that doesn't wear out it's welcome fills a much neglected niche in a market dominated by huge, expensive blockbusters. Also, any game that features the vocal talents of Mike Patton as a gibbering ball of hate is already made of win and awesome.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

When Does Ellen Come On?


So I watched the first half dozen episodes of the new TV show Reaper, a decision made irrationally and almost involuntarily based on early reviews comparing it to Buffy. It certainly had a great premise: on his 21st birthday our protagonist, a boring young man named Sam, finds out that his parents promised his soul to Satan before he was born. Now that he's reached the age of majority, he must work off his parent's debt by becoming the Devil's bounty hunter - catching and returning souls that have escaped from hell.

Unfortunately Reaper, at least in the first few episodes, fails completely to capitalise on such a great premise, instead quickly finding a generic formula and falling into a dull routine. This would be tolerable if the writing and acting were sharp enough to keep it entertaining but sadly the show also suffers from a fatal lack of wit. The characters are unbelievably generic, the attempt at a wacky sidekick (a guy who acts out a pretty straight impersonation of Jack Black) might have helped if his wackiness contained a trace of genuine humour, and the less said about the others... well there is nothing to say about them because they're so boring and two dimensional. But the nail in the coffin for the show was the romance, in which Sam pines for his workmate Andi, which over the course of a mere six episodes became so offensively inane that I had no choice but to cancel my bittorrents in disgust.

Sam spends a decent percentage of each episode trying to gauge Andi's feelings for him and/or smooth over the latest misunderstanding that has arisen between them because of his secret other life. At no time does Andi evince any hint of a personality or an opinion of her own, merely making puppy dog eyes when Sam breaks a date with her after work and remaining a blank cipher, both to her suitor and to the viewer, as to what she's really thinking or feeling. If I saw someone behaving this way in the real world I would shake my head and cluck disapprovingly at her cruel and manipulative toying with this poor sap who's quite obviously infatuated with her, but of course that's not what the writers intend us to see. Andi is a perfect example of this peculiar American TV/ Hollywood creation, the artificial love interest: a character (invariably a woman) who exists only to stand in as an example of chaste virtue, and to be used by a primary character to learn a valuable lesson about honesty, or some other fatuous homily. Aside from the obvious crimes against characterisation that this approach entails, it's offensive for two more reasons. Firstly the creepy crypto-chauvinism it implies (the perfect woman is completely passive and virginal), not to mention the numerous opportunities it provides for the writers to massage conservative America's madonna/whore complex (contrast Andi with the women Satan sends to tempt Sam with, who (gasp) have tattoos and make the first move in trying to kiss him). And secondly because of the nauseatingly Disney moral of twue wuv that it's expressing.

But there is a reason that I made it through six whole episodes, and that's because Reaper does have one genuinely great redeeming feature in the person of Satan as played by Ray Wise (who of course we all remember as Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks). Appearing as a distinguished, tanned, well dressed older man, Wise steals every scene with his delicate balancing of the character's cheerful, friendly outer persona and his true nature as the malevolent manifestation of all evil. He is also apparently the only character which brings out any trace of wit in the writers. Sadly he (and the concept) are not enough to redeem the show. I've since shifted my attention to Pushing Daisies, which has it's own problems, but pleases me much more on a moral and philosophical level.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

As Your Attorney, Your Friend, And Your Brother… I Strongly Suggest That You Get Yourself A Better Lawyer

Twin Peaks Season 2 Part 1

It's taken a long time but finally the second season of Twin Peaks is out on DVD, and as it happens there's good reason that no one's too excited about it. The first season was a mere eight episodes, all of them taut with tension and mood. It was buoyed along by a mystery driven plot which, while it couldn't be expected to really go anywhere (this is a David Lynch project after all), kept things moving and interesting. The show's best qualities were its moody setting, colourful characters and infrequent but brilliant black humour.

Sadly things rapidly declined in the second season. The plot threads began to wander and the weird gimmicky characters outlasted their welcome. That said there are still many high points to be found, the unique mood of the peculiarly Lynchian isolated mountain town, where the surrounding forest is home to supernatural creatures both wonderous and diabolical, is still showcased frequently. The season's midpoint climax episode (the unmasking and capture of Laura Palmer's killer) is riveting watching, and scattered elsewhere through the season are many brilliant scenes, most memorably this one, probably the creepiest thing I've ever seen on TV (although I'm not sure how well it will come across in a grainy out of context youtube video):

Sadly, I doubt I will bother to get the second part of season two. With no central plot thread remaining after the mystery was solved the story devolved into pointless wandering. But it's still remarkable to see just how much influence this series had on those that followed it, which ranged from The X-Files to Lost and include many others. These shows are quite clearly the direct successors to this one in atmosphere, style and in their deliberately cruel manipulation of their audiences with mysteries that are never truly meant to be solved (I swear they even reuse half the music from Twin Peaks in Lost).

1001 Albums – Numbers 14 and 15

So we've got a couple of these to catch up on. First up is Little Richard and his literally titled album Here's Little Richard. The style of music is early rock and roll with a swinging boogie feel, but the main focus of the songs is Little Richard's distinctive wailing voice. He's a great performer and there's no denying the energy and showmanship he exudes, but the arrangements that he's put in tend to be predictable and lifeless. Sure, it's hard not to enjoy 'Tutti Frutti', but the rest of the album drags more than a little, save for when the sax gets a chance to blast out a wild, impassioned solo, or when Little Richard gets to unleash a few of his trademark howls.

Next up is Tito Puente's Dance Mania. I generally disapprove of listening to dance music without doing any actual dancing, but in the interests of science I did my best to give this album a chance anyway. The dance in this particular instance is of the latin variety, encompassing subgenres such as cha cha and mambo, and numerous others that I won't even try to pretend I can name. Like all dance music it suffers from an excess of faked enthusiasm, especially in the vocals, when listened to at home on headphones rather than in its intended setting (a busy social environment supplied with psychoactive substances). Nevertheless once I got past that and really paid attention I was impressed by the musicianship, especially of the jazz style horns. There's actually a lot more going on here musically than my initial sneering dismissal of it as Ricky Martin's drunk, abusive parent, and it's certainly not possible to listen to without tapping your foot. In fact, maybe I should try starting latin dance lessons again...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Random Metal Article of the Day

An article about Californian black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room at Slate. I like to see semi-obscure, interesting bands like this profiled in the mainstream media.

And yes, they are a pretty awesome band. I haven't gotten around to getting their album yet, on account of the options for doing so being slim. In this age of digital downloads mail order feels like a waste of time, and I haven't seen their stuff in the local stores either. I should have spent more time in music stores while I was overseas...

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Random Meme of the Day

This blog am much good English having!

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