Sunday, 21 December 2008

CD Review: Victory Songs, by Ensiferum (2007)


Finland's Ensiferum continue to shine as the leading folk-metal band, with this their third CD delivering an outstandingly uniform songlist full of quality.

While Victory Songs unfortunately does not contain a stand-out track, it also avoids any weak or filler material. Clocking at a perfect 9 tracks and just under 50 minutes, Victory Songs is a collection of well-constructed, thoughtful and melodic heavy metal songs, never straying far from Ensiferum's folk roots but providing enough adventure and variety to remain fresh.

Ensiferum's achievements on this CD are made more remarkable by the fact that between 2004's excellent Iron and Victory Songs in 2007, three-fifths of the band's members changed. Only Meiju Enho and Markus Toivonen survived between the two CDs. But newcomers Petri Lindros, Sami Hinkka and Janne Parviainen slot in seamlessly, and the band sounds, if anything, tighter and more robust. Toivonen (music) and Hinkka (lyrics) do most of the writing on this CD.

The vocals, shared between three band members, are for the most part clean, and the lyrics are decipherable for those who wish to follow the stories of mystic warriors and epic battles.

The best tracks here are opener Ad Victoriam, a typical short but brilliant instrumental; One More Magic Potion, which grows in stature with repeated listens; and the closing title track Victory Songs, which occupies over 10 minutes, and delivers outstanding musical storytelling that transforms time back to the mist-shrouded medieval ages. It is Ensiferum's ability to deliver journeys like these that makes them a welcome addition to the heavy metal landscape.


Band:

Petri Lindroos - Guitars, Vocals
Markus Toivonen - Guitars, Vocals
Sami Hinkka - Bass, Vocals
Meiju Enho - Keyboards
Janne Parviainen - Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Ad Victoriam - 9
2. Blood is the Price of Glory - 8
3. Deathbringer from the Sky - 8 *See Video Below*
4. Ahti - 8
5. One More Magic Potion - 9
6. Wanderer - 8
7. Raised by the Sword - 7
8. The New Dawn - 7
9. Victory Song - 9

Average: 8.11

Recorded and Engineered by Janne Joutsenniemi and Nino Laurenne.
Produced by Janne Joutsenniemi and Ensiferum.
Mixed by Nino Laurenne. Mastered by Mika Jussila.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Sunday, 14 December 2008

CD Review: A Sense of Pupose, by In Fames (2008)


There are several things that Sweden's In Flames do right on A Sense of Purpose, the band's ninth studio CD. For starters, the song Alias is an instant classic, finding and maintaining a driving, memorable mid-tempo groove that can proudly take its place among modern heavy metal masterpieces. The CD delivers a songlist with uniformly good quality and no blatant fillers. Disconnected and I'm the Highway are the other clearly strong tracks.

At the same time, apart from Alias, there is a definite overall sameness to the band's sound, an apparent inability to branch out too far from a dense root. And by insisting on 12 tracks when 8 or 9 would have been sufficient, A Sense of Purpose, especially in its second half, drops a bit into a droning monotone with songs drifting into each other. The band will do well to experiment more often with slightly slower tempos and more defined melodies to better differentiate one song from another. There is a notable attempt here to deliver a thoughtfully slow song in The Chosen Pessimist, but it just glances off-target due to a lack of enough inspiration to carry it through more than 8 minutes.

Anders Friden's clear vocals are welcome but lacking sufficient intonations, and mixed a bit too out in front of the band, allowing the vocals to over-dominate the songs and take away from the often lyrical guitar work going on behind him. The guitars, bass and drums work well together to establish each song, without any one instrument dominating. And certainly In Flames are not in the business of showboating shredding guitar solos, preferring instead to step forward as a unit.

In Flames are not in the same league as Kalmah or Children of Bodom in delivering the defining European heavy metal sound of the times, but they are a more than capable supporting act.


Band:

Bjorn Gelotte - Guitars
Daniel Svensson - Drums
Peter Iwers - Bass Guitar
Jesper Stromblad - Guitars
Anders Friden - Vocals


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Mirror's Truth - 7
2. Disconnected - 8
3. Sleepless Again - 7
4. Alias - 10
5. I'm the Highway - 8
6. Delight and Angers - 8
7. Move Through Me - 7
8. The Chosen Pessimist - 7
9. Sober and Irrelevant - 7
10. Condemned - 7
11. Drenched In Fear - 7
12. March to the Shore - 7

Average: 7.50

Produced by In Flames, Roberto Laghi, and Daniel Bergstrand.
Mixed by Toby Wright. Mastered by Stephen Marcussen.

Movie Review: Volcano: Fire on the Mountain (1997)


A fledgling California ski resort is built on a long-dormant volcano that has not seen an eruption in 200 years, but things are about to change.

As made-for-TV movies go, this one ticks-off all the boxes. Not a single character has more than one dimension. Check. The only geologist in the United States to forecast the eruption is the former boyfriend of the local mountain ranger. Check. The local mayor does not want to cause panic during tourist season and has never seen Jaws. Check. The heartless local entrepreneur is desperate to sign a business deal with a rich investor to develop the resort into something beyond a couple of shacks. Check. The local sheriff's wife is pregnant and about to give birth amidst the chaos. Check. The re-united lovers will cheat death a half-dozen times, including having to walk across a thin log with a raging lava inferno below them. Check. And a local boy will become a man by committing a heroic deed. Check.

The acting is reassuringly wooden, the script (five different story-writers or teleplay authors are listed, which is five too many) appears oblivious to the amount of dripping cheese around the edges, and the directing by Graeme Campbell is devoid of any flair or creativity.

Dan Cortese is the geologist who overnight becomes an expert mountaineer, and Cynthia Gibb is his former and once-again girlfriend mountain ranger. Together they spend a good chunk of the movie trudging through the wilderness, exchanging glib one-liners as they somehow avoid incineration or even dehydration while all the snow around them melts instantaneously as the volcano erupts.

This TV movie passes the time as it touches all the routine bases, but it's not necessarily time well spent.



Book Review: A Most Wanted Man, by John Le Carre (2008)


Issa, a troubled, illegal and mysteriously well-financed immigrant, smuggles his way to Hamburg in Germany from Russia via Turkey, Sweden, and Denmark. He claims to be a Chechen Muslim who wants to become a doctor. He also may have a claim for untold millions of dollars, a dirty fortune held in Tommy Brue`s private investment bank.

Annabel Richter is the idealistic young German non-profit lawyer that Issa turns to for help to get settled in Germany. The intelligence services of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States close-in and inharmoniously attempt to understand the emerging threat. German agent Gunther Bachmann leads these efforts at street level, but he is all too aware that inter-agency conflicts several levels above him may side-swipe his efforts at any instant.

Issa, Richter, Brue and Bachmann form the four points of the square that is the foundation of John Le Carrè`s latest spy story, set in the shadowy world of suspicion, the threat of Islamist terror, competing spy agencies, money laundering, and donations to so-called charities.

In the world that Le Carre creates, there are no good people or bad people, just very troubled people, fighting demons both internal and external. None of the characters are in control of their destiny, much as they would like to believe that they can be. Le Carre's genius is in his drawing of rich textures that bring out fully-dimensioned, emotional characters that become brilliantly familiar to the reader. For example, we don't just get to know Annabel Richter; we get to know her mother, her sister, her brother, and her co-workers, in short passages that colour the background and create a multi-faceted person.

Describing a meeting of German intelligence agents, Le Carre opens a paragraph with Bachmann had passed through his anger threshold and entered a state of operational calm. In simple, stunning sentences like this, written with a fluidity that can only emanate from a master storyteller, Le Carre demonstrates how an author becomes one with his characters and is able to concisely convey complex emotional transformations.

At the same time, the world of grey that Le Carre builds, for all its details, remains full of grey, as much of Issa`s background story and motivation remains shrouded in the fog that is typical of intelligence work. Le Carre will bring the characters that his readers may meet at a dinner party to life. Events that transpire in the shadows of torture cells, war zones, and in the presence of Russian mafia bosses are only hinted at with agonizingly vague gestures.

A Most Wanted Man is a dark, engrossing, and memorable novel that brilliantly reflects today's troubled world.





322 pages.

Published in hardcover by Scribner.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Movie Review: Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969)


This second sequel to the original The Magnificent Seven (1960) re-treads the by now tired story of seven loner mercenaries, each with a special skill, getting together to help poor Mexican rebels free their captured leader from a well-defended evil-army fort.

Between 1960 and 1969, the landscape of the Western movie was forever transformed by Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western classics. The new territory led to Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (also 1969). More traditional offerings like Guns of the Magnificent Seven were simply trampled in the stampede towards poetic violence and darkly conflicted heroes.

The leader of the seven is still Chris Adams, originally created by Yul Brynner and played in this sequel by George Kennedy. The significant downgrade in star power pretty much says it all about this sequel, where all the main and supporting talent on both sides of the camera are at best career B-graders. As a rule of thumb, beware any movie where James Whitmore is the second-billed "star". The well-worn music survives from the original, and is one of the better reasons to watch this sequel.

Supporting Chris this time are six mercenaries who bring a lot of luggage along, including both physical and mental frailties. The one-handed quick-draw with a racist attitude of course clashes with the black strong-man in the group. There is the old guy who is good with a knife and who wants to put the violent life behind him and focus on his family, and the fading gun-fighter with a persistent coughing problem. In short, all the characters wander in from other, better movies where they were played by other, better actors.

There are good Mexican villagers who believe in their revolutionary cause, ugly Mexicans who like to drink a lot and pretend that they are rebels, and bad Mexicans who run the army and torture the good Mexican villagers.

The film builds up to the final assault on the army fort, which is a reasonable climax to the film, but is hampered by startling inconsistencies (we just found all this dynamite!) and overly dramatic death scenes that fail to inspire any emotion as the Seven gradually dwindle to a number much less than Seven.

Directed by Paul Wenkos, whose body of work never rose above the mundane, from a colour-by-numbers script by Herman Hoffman, Guns of the Magnificent Seven is a western that mildly entertains but never ventures into challenging territory.



Saturday, 6 December 2008

Book Review: The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)


William Gladwell's The Tipping Point examines the combinations of small individual actions that could lead to massive social change. From the popularity of Hush Puppies shoes to the spread of disease in Baltimore to the dramatic drop in crime in New York, Gladwell traces and identifies the common characteristics of people and events that, although seemingly small in isolation, can result in significant behavioural shifts.

He introduces us to essential characters like Connectors (those few people who have influence over a large social network), Mavens (the keen observers of the latest trends), and Salesman (the unique characters with persuasive powers to close the deal). Gladwell also addresses what he calls the Stickiness Factor (making the necessary but small changes needed to achieve success) and the Power of Context.

The Tipping Point is an enthralling, easy to read book, and Gladwell's writing style is that of the sharp social observer who can compile and simplify information pulled together from a variety of sources.

Which is not to say that the book, the author's first, is not without its faults. Gladwell can repeat concepts to the point of exhaustion, and at times he can certainly get lost in the details. There is a section about the elements of success of children's television shows, particularly Sesame Street, that goes into excruciating details, down to descriptions of individual scenes in specific episodes. Gladwell loses the overall plot in such segments, in a case of an over-examination of individual trees to the detriment of the health of the forest.

But overall there are terrific lessons to be learned from The Tipping Point, the most important being that what matters most is not how much pressure is applied to a certain situation, but where and how this pressure is applied. Often, limited resources applied in just the right combination can have a far greater impact that huge but misdirected effort. It is a lesson well-worth remembering as much in everyday life as in the grand strategic world of international geopolitics.





280 pages, plus Notes and Index.
Published in softcover by Back Bay Books.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Movie Review: Prom Wars (2008)


Back in the early 1980's, a sub-genre of the teenage movie featured nerds and jocks one-upping each other for 90 minutes before the nerds inevitably triumphed and proved that smarts defeat brawn. This built-in bias is understandable since real-life nerds are much more likely than real-life jocks to become movie producers, directors and script-writers. Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and a host of sequels and imitators kept easily amused teens entertained and personified the era.

Someone forgot to tell the makers of the Canadian production Prom Wars that this is 2008. Even the movie's tag-line "Love is a Battlefield", is stuck in decades past. Screenwriter Myles Hainsworth and Director Phil Price dust-off the concept of nerds facing off against jocks (mixed-up with preppies, in this case) from the nearby school, this time set against the framework of a half-baked competition to win the right to take the girls from yet another nearby school to the prom. A cast of relatively unknown young actors, lead by Ricky (Raviv) Ullman and Alia Shawkat, work hard to re-create ancient stereotypes and a positive impression that would hopefully lead to much better roles, to no avail.

The usual assortment of characters is here: the really rich and snobby kid; the cool nerd; the girl-obsessed nerds; the pretty but snooty girl; and the less pretty but smarter girl; the strict headmistress; and the requisite black character.

There is also a lame and unconvincing romance rattling around somewhere among all the heavily recycled ideas.

If Prom Wars had been made twenty years ago, it would have been stale. In 2008, it positively reeks.



Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Movie Review: Get Smart (2008)


It's always quite painful when a movie is desperately trying to be funny, and yet nothing is working. There were maybe two moments in Get Smart that were funny enough to crack a small smile. The rest of the movie is just sad, because watching blatant failure unfold over a long 110 minutes just hurts.

It actually does not matter what the plot is, but here goes, for the record. Intelligence analyst Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell), working for the super-secret agency Control, is pressed into action as a field agent and is teamed up with super Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to thwart the latest dastardly plot by the evil KAOS. If this sounds extremely tired, that's because it is, and unless you bring something new to the table, why exactly is everyone bothering?

So what goes wrong here? Let's start with a script by Tom Astle and Matt Ember that has almost no comedic wit, cleverness or sharpness. Maxwell Smart is somehow both inept and brilliant. Agent 99 is supposed to be the best field agent but yet needs to be saved by the inexperienced Smart more than once. The romance that supposedly develops between Smart and Agent 99 is contrived enough to cause inadvertent puking. And let's add one of the worst collection of bad guys ever assembled: each one has been swiped from another movie. In fact, Get Smart shamelessly rips off an entire parachute scene from James Bond's Moonraker movie. Finally, the movie falls into the infantile trap of believing that Big Scenes with Lots of Action will cover for the complete lack of interesting characters or any semblance of believable plot developments.

Carell seems to realize the script is nowhere near good enough for him to play Smart straight and come across as funny, and he is right. There is nothing that any of the cast members can do to rescue this dog, and Hathaway in particular will hopefully have learned to steer away from such stinky material next time she is sent a role for the "sexy super secret agent with a troubled past who falls in love with the bumbling nerd in a laugh-out-loud comedy".

Old famous faces like Alan Arkin, James Caan, Terence Stamp, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (ok, some not so old nor famous) are rattling around in the background of this movie, and hopefully they enjoyed their pay cheques because they will not enjoy having this title on their resume.

Director Peter Segal demonstrates no deft touches, and just hustles the action along as the movie lurches from one set piece to another, stitched together with awkward tin-eared dialogue. He may as well have phoned in his instructions.

Get Smart is a movie that makes you appreciate other movies, you know the ones, where the action scenes are actually exciting and the comedy scenes are actually funny.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Sunday, 23 November 2008

Movie Review: Recount (2008)


Can the world's leading superpower be unhinged by a Presidential election that is too close to call?

The United States had to face this scenario in the 2000 election, when the decision between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore came down to literally a handful of votes in Florida.

Recount, an HBO production, re-examines the events that transpired, starting on election night with Gore first conceding and then dramatically un-conceding the election as the vote counting in Florida tightens to a statistical dead heat. The film then follows the two campaigns as they mobilize for a bare-knuckled, old-fashioned political fight involving public opinion, the press, overwhelmed local county officials, the Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern), the Florida Supreme Court and finally the Supreme Court of the United States.

Bush and Gore are peripheral characters in the movie, mostly appearing as voices over the phone. The story is mainly told from the perspective of Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), the lawyer who ends up leading the Gore team through the legal battles, and former United States Secretary of State James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), who leads the Republican team. Klain and Baker match wits and strategize against each other throughout the 5 weeks of controversy, and only meet at the end of the movie in a symbolic airport encounter.

The film tilts slightly and apologetically in favour of the Democratic party. The Gore team is portrayed as the more sympathetic scrambly bunch, out-gunned and fighting uphill against a slicker, better organized and better financed Republican team fighting on home turf. Florida's Governor is Jeb Bush, the candidate's brother, and Secretary Harris was the Florida campaign co-chair for the Republicans.

The film does an excellent job of recreating the period of uncertainty that prevailed, and of providing an insider's view of the controlled chaos behind the scenes as two massive campaigns maneuver through uncharted waters to try and claim the ultimate political prize. Given that the outcome is well known, director Jay Roach, and the cast of actors, working from a script by Danny Strong, are able to brilliantly inject emotion and drama as the sequence of events unfold, with each new surprise forcing a re-evaluation of strategy.

There are two notables sub-themes that the movie crystallizes: the first is the portrayal of Katherine Harris as an administrator thrust into a history-defining leadership role that is far beyond her capabilities by events that are far out of her control. The second is the examination of an electoral system that is designed to deal well with large numbers where small errors are irrelevant and tolerable. What happens when such a system is forced to deal with very small numbers where every vote becomes important? In both these sub-themes there are good lessons and topics of discussion about leadership and system design that add significant long-term value to the film.

While Recount for the most part recreates real events and portrays real characters, an understandable amount of artistic licence is also exercised. This really only matters to the few individuals who passionately care about extreme accuracy. For the rest of us, the film is a tight and controlled look into one of the most dramatic political events in the history of the United States.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Saturday, 22 November 2008

Movie Review: Swing Vote (2008)


Interesting premise. Horrible execution.

Sometimes, Hollywood just seems to forget what the word "subtle" means, or how powerful it can be to deliver a message with cleverness and gentle prodding. Instead, the brash "in your face" delivery method is unleashed to carpet bomb any trace of soul that tries to poke itself out of the ground.

Swing Vote, directed by Joshua Michael Stern and written by Stern and Jason Richman, has Kevin Costner as the blue collar uneducated beer-loving single dad who is the beneficiary of a computer malfunction and gets to cast his vote again in the US Presidential election. And on his vote rides the outcome of the entire tight election between the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper). Interesting premise, and a clever idea that could have delivered compelling drama, comedy, or both. But in the hands of Stern and Richman, the film is a pure colour-by-crayons disaster that seems to run backwards into every imaginable cul-de-sac.

The international press descends onto Costner's tiny town and creates a media circus that the film overcooks to a charred crisp. Then both the Republicans and the Democrats wade into the mess in an attempt to win his vote, and proceed to immediately chuck overboard all that they stand for in response to every off-handed remark made by Costner's clueless character. So for example, overnight, the Republicans become pro-environment, the Democrats become pro-life, with the two candidates bowing to every whim of their driven campaign managers.

In the middle of the farce is Costner's idealistic, precocious daughter (Madeline Carroll, the only watchable thing in the movie), who despite having two substance-abusing losers as parents is somehow growing up to be the smartest kid in all of New Mexico. And let's not forget to throw in the ambitious local female TV reporter who wants this story to be her stepping stone to national prominence, and her boss the local station executive who works hard to define the word stereotype.

The film must win recognition for strictly limiting every character to one dimension; not avoiding any cliches; and not delivering a single intelligent, memorable or reflective moment.

And if the first 110 minutes were not bad enough, the film out-does itself in the last 10 minutes. All of sudden, Costner gets a brain, and starts to care; a character who could not stop thinking about beer suddenly contrives to deliver a painful monologue about the importance of being a good citizen, working hard, contributing to society, and voting. The two candidates just as suddenly seem to find a conscience, although even this transformation is hopelessly flubbed in the case of the Democrat, who needs a full-face whacking from his wife to rediscover his values (did we mention the lack of subtlety?).

Swing Vote is witless, boring and simply awful, for its entire overblown length.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



Tuesday, 18 November 2008

CD Review: Sacrament, by Lamb of God (2006)


Lamb Of God finally find a vase of melodic groove and thoughtful compositions into which they pour their unique sound of power and fury. The result is a dramatic leap in quality, with Sacrament representing by far their best CD to date.

Sacrament provides a unique triple-header of terrific songs straight from the start. Walk With Me In Hell opens with a thunderous wall of sound that almost feels as if we are joining the song mid-stream, and quickly settles into a powerful groove that sets the scene for the rest of the CD. Again We Rise follows with a simple and catchy guitar riff embellishing a crunching foundation. And then Redneck crashes through any remaining closed doors with a slightly faster tempo but without losing the strong emphasis on melody. The three songs together are a startling combination and re-announcement of the band to the world.

It would be impossible for the rest of the CD to maintain that standard, and it doesn't, although Pathetic almost makes it a quartet of brilliance.

Randall Blythe sounds sharper and more comprehensible than any previous Lamb of God outing, all the better to properly hear the unrelenting stream of foul language on some of the tracks, particularly the memorable ending to Again We Rise and the colourful invitation on Redneck.

The rest of the band effectively harness all their energy and power into a synchronized and cohesive unit, delivering heavy metal that is equally driven by all the instruments and not reliant on too many lead guitar solos.

A bit unfortunately, the CD goes on for longer than needed, and the last couple of tracks are good but not at the same standard as rest of the collection. More Time To Kill and Beating on Death's Door both meander a bit aimlessly.

That quibble aside, Sacrament is strong proof that a band can mature from the instrument bashing that was the hallmark of their early efforts to an entirely higher league of achievement without losing their core identity.

Band:

John Campbell - Bass
Willie Adler - Guitars
D. Randall Blythe - Vocals
Mark Morton - Guitars
Chris Adler - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Walk With Me In Hell - 10 *See Video Below*
2. Again We Rise - 10
3. Redneck - 10
4. Pathetic - 9
5. Foot To The Throat - 8
6. Descending - 7
7. Blacken The Cursed Sun - 8
8. Forgotten (Lost Angels) - 8
9. Requiem - 8
10. More Time To Kill - 7
11. Beating On Death's Door - 7

Average: 8.36

Produced and Mixed by Machine.
Mastered by Brian Gardner.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Saturday, 15 November 2008

CD Review: Above The Weeping World, by Insomnium (2006)


Insomnium's predominant style is to throw up a thick wall of melodic sound with crunchy rhythm guitars, and provide colour in the form of restrained lead guitars and intermittent growly vocals. It's a distinctive approach, but one where the overall sound dominates and memorable tunes or showcase solos are relatively absent. As a result the songs tend to meld into each other and there is not much to remember at the end of the journey.

There is nothing technically wrong with Above The Weeping World, the band's third studio CD. Insomnium deliver a melancholy collection of relatively slow to mid-tempo heavy metal songs with a prevailing mood of persistent darkness drawn straight from the long winters of northern Finland. The compositions are strong and create a steady musical flow. The band is in fine form, with accurate and coordinated delivery. The CD just lacks that defining moment or performance that would have lifted it into orbit.

The stronger tracks are instrumental opener The Gale, which appropriately sets the wet and dark scene, and the closing two tracks, Devoid of Caring and In The Groves of Death, which provide the most interesting melodies and tempo changes, and seal the deal on the gloomy atmosphere. Otherwise, there are no weak tracks, just good and very good songs. Above The Weeping World delivers that most strange kind of heavy metal CD: one that can be played in the background, mostly to create a mood.


Band:

Ville Friman - Guitars
Ville Vanni - Guitars
Markus Hirvonen - Drums
Niilo Sevanen - Vocals, Bass


Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. The Gale - 9
2. Mortal Share - 8 *See Video Below*
3. Drawn To Black - 7
4. Change Of Heart - 8
5. At The Gates Of Sleep - 7
6. The Killjoy - 8
7. Last Statement - 8
8. Devoid Of Caring - 9
9. In The Groves Of Death - 9

Average: 8.11

Recorded and Mixed by Samu Oittinen
Mastered by Minerva Pappi

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Wednesday, 12 November 2008

CD Review: Iron, by Ensiferum (2004)


As an example of how good folk metal can be, it is difficult to find a much better album than Iron by Ensiferum. On just their second studio CD, Finland's masters of the folk metal genre pull all the elements together to deliver a masterful collection of songs that will likely always be held up as a benchmark.

It is clear that producer Flemming Rasmussen, who worked on CDs such as Metallica's Master of Puppets and ...And Justice For All, provided Ensiferum with a professional polish that significantly raises the quality of the material.

Track 9, the appropriately titled LAI LAI HEI (yes, all in CAPS) encapsulates all that is good with the band and the CD. A mixture of slow and fast tempos, a majestically and memorably haunting melody that develops into numerous variations, gradually building to an epic chorus. No matter the sub-genre, melodic heavy metal does not get much better than this.

Most other songs on the CD achieve similar lofty heights. Opener Ferrum Aeternum is a shortish but weighty instrumental that casts Ennio Morricone in metal. Title track Iron introduces a battle-ready anthem that recalls the best of Manowar. Lost In Despair demonstrates the beautiful power that Ensiferum can deliver at a slow tempo -- a terrific sign of maturity. And Into Battle introduces a galloping pace and a good build-up that seems to be content until it explodes into an extended jaw-dropping sonic solo that entirely redefines just how good the song is.

Unfortunately, someone saw fit to throw in the un-listenable Tears into this CD, in a stunningly misguided attempt to introduce smarmy vocals and a lame ballad into the mix. It is a miserable failure, made all the more apparent due to the overwhelmingly good material throughout the rest of the CD.

At least the 2008 re-release version of the CD removes the bad taste by including Track 11 as a Bonus Track, a cover of Metallica's Battery. There is little that anyone can do to reduce the impact of this song, and Ensiferum respectfully give it a faithful and slightly amped-up treatment that hits the spot -- just like the rest of Iron.

Band:

Jari Maenpaa - Vocals, Guitars
Markus Toivonen - Guitars
Oliver Fokin - Drums
Jukka-Pekka Miettinen - Bass
Meijo Enho - Keyboards


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Ferrum Aeternum - 9
2. Iron - 9 *See Audio Clip Below*
3. Sword Chant - 8
4. Mourning Heart - Interlude (no rating, short interlude)
5. Tale of Revenge - 8
6. Lost In Despair - 9
7. Slayer Of Light - 8
8. Into Battle - 9
9. LAI LAI HEI - 10
10. Tears - 4
11. Battery - 10

Average: 8.40

Produced by Ensiferum and Flemming Rasmussen
Mastered by Mika Jussila

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.




Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Book Review: Cockroach, by Rawi Hage (2008)


Life at the edge of society, in the dark fringes that are intentionally overlooked by the majority. The focus of Rawi Hage's second book is immigrants in Montreal, their stories, background and day-to-day struggle to escape the past and survive the present. The book is written in the first person, with the main character -- who remains unnamed, likely very intentionally so -- an immigrant from Lebanon where he witnessed regular brutality. He has lost at least part of his humanity and is now comfortable thinking of himself as part human and part cockroach, and he appears to be most at peace when he imagines himself to be the latter, scurrying through the cracks of society.

Unlike Hage's brilliant DeNiro's Game (2006), where the violence was random and the country was on fire, the violence in Cockroach is much more personal. Our narrator's mother and sister are victims of regular beatings, and he has tried to hang himself in a Montreal park. Several of the immigrants from Iran that we meet in Montreal are escaping personal stories of rape and torture.

Cockroach is not as much story-driven as an excuse to introduce several small portraits of a small circle of immigrants, all shifty, tortured souls trying to keep the past buried while creating a future in a new, strange land. There is Reza the musician, Shohreh the love interest, a cranky Professor spending his days in a cafe recreating fake glories, and the regimented owner of an Iranian restaurant where our narrator finds a job and the book finds a climax. Hage does an excellent job bringing these characters to life against a backdrop of an uncaring, cold environment. The Canadians in the book are all portrayed as out of touch, naive in the true ways of an unkind world, or just plain vacant and self-absorbed.

Most of the background story of the main character is recalled in conversations with Genvieve, his government-assigned therapist trying to find the cause of his attempted suicide. These passages are beautifully written, and present a powerful metaphor of forced communication between two worlds that, at the human level, know little about one another.

Cockroach is not going to challenge the status of DeNiro's Game as one of the best books ever written. But as a follow-up effort, Hage has delivered a suitably entertaining and memorable literary experience.





305 pages.

Published in hardcover by House of Anansi Press.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

CD Review: Are You Dead Yet?, by Children of Bodom (2005)


Few CDs can boast an opening triple-threat of perfect metal songs. On Children of Bodom's fifth studio CD Are You Dead Yet?, they manage the commendable feat of stacking three brilliant songs at the front end to supercharge the rest of the album.

Living Dead Beat is a terrific opener. The song itself has a bouncy keyboard intro before settling into a melodic power groove that chugs along with an irresistable force. For once, Alexi Laiho's guitar and vocals take a bit of a backseat to the rhythm guitar, bass, drums and keyboards that dominate the song.

The title song Are You Dead Yet? is a perfect second act. Laiho jumps to the forefront and sets the pace on the riff-dominated yet bottom-heavy track that slowly builds to the spine-tingling chorus, featuring a spooky yet soulful harmony.

And the third song If You Want Peace...Prepare For War explodes with a straight-ahead fast-pace and a classically memorable chorus / riff combination.

Just in case anyone had any thoughts about the rest of the CD being packed with lesser songs or filler material, along comes the brain-melting In Your Face at track five, which sounds like a barely-in-control locomotive careening down the tracks, emitting classic "incoming!" warnings and something about not caring enough to provide airborne intercourse directed at people who are mean to mothers.

The rest of the CD features tight, well-constructed songs that emphasize the consistent interplay between lead guitar and keyboards that defines Children of Bodom's sound. Laiho's vocals are more controlled than on any previous Bodom CD, the song compositions are extremely focused, and the nine song set is an appreciated and efficient length. It may be that new rhythm guitarist Roope Ukk Latvala helped mature the sound of the band, or it could be that five CDs into their catalogue, Bodom have achieved a new career peak.


Band:

Roope Ukk Latvala - Guitar
Jaska W. Raatikainen - Drums
Alexi "Wildchild" Laiho - Guitar
Henkka T. Blacksmith - Bass
Janne Jameson Warman - Keyboards

Songlist (rating out of 10):

1. Living Dead Beat - 10 *See video below*
2. Are You Dead Yet? - 10
3. If You Want Peace...Prepare For War - 10
4. Punch Me I Bleed - 8
5. In Your Face - 10
6. Next In Line - 8
7. Bastards Of Bodom - 8
8. Trashed, Lost, and Strungout - 8
9. We're Not Gonna Fall - 8

Average: 8.89

Recorded, Produced, and Mixed by Mikko Karmila
Mastered by Mika Jussila

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.


Saturday, 18 October 2008

Book Review: Traffic - Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt (2008)


Tom Vanderbilt's extensive book Traffic explores the world of mobility using the private automobile, from the United States to China, India, and Europe. More broadly, he tries to uncover what driving behavior says about us humans: why do we expose ourselves to the risk of crashes, and how do we justify and rationalize these risks? How does our behaviour as humans vary from city to city and from culture to culture? How are we adapting (or trying to adapt) to speeds, forces, and stimuli that the human brain was never equipped to deal with? And why is it that the more safety is built into roads and cars, the more we find ways to increase our threshold of acceptable risk?

From the causes of congestion to the causes of crashes, the book briskly tours the science of traffic, making stops in areas such as the parts of the brain that are engaged when we apply the brakes, and investigating why high-speed access-controlled highways are the safest roads in North America but the least safe in India.

The subject of traffic can be highly technical. It involves road engineers, car designers, human factors experts, enforcement officers, and no shortage of academics conducting a range of research at universities around the world. Vanderbilt, a writer for Wired, Slate, and The New York Times, is successful in distilling complex concepts into accessible language. His writing style is smooth and breezy, effectively combining summaries of numerous expert interviews with the results of voluminous research findings to present the best available knowledge. He manages to simplify the topic without dismissing its depth and the range of variables that influences every element of traffic, and he has clearly invested considerable effort in researching and pursuing the many dimensions of the topic.

It is not a surprise that while Traffic explains many of the phenomena that we all observe daily on the road, the book also demonstrates that many traffic issues, questions and conundrums are still unexplained and in need of more research. Traffic conditions are inexorably linked with human behaviour, and as long as we are evolving as humans and interacting with each other across different cultures, new challenges will continue to emerge in our neverending quest for optimum traffic efficiency and safety. Vanderbilt deserves high praise for helping to raise the profile of traffic issues in our ever-changing global society.





286 pages, plus Notes and Index.

Published in Canada by Knopf Canada.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

CD Review: Hate Crew Deathroll, by Children of Bodom (2003)


The fourth studio album from Finland's Children of Bodom finally sees the band hitting the bulls-eye of consistency, innovation, and high-quality songs that deliver powerful metal. The band find a sustained groove on opener Needled 24/7 to set up the rest of the CD, and quickly follow-it up with terrific tracks like Chokehold and in particular, the magical Bodom Beach Terror. Rarely have keyboards been integrated as effectively into metal than Janne Warman's work on this track, and then he matches it with the equally superb Triple Corpse Hammerblow. These two songs reveal what Children of Bodom can achieve on tight, controlled, melody-driven compositions.

And the good sounds keep on coming, with Angels Don't Kill and You're Better Off Dead, although the latter is tainted a bit by resorting to the generic fist-pumping "waaw woh oh!" lyric.

The weaker tracks include Sixpounder and Lil' Bloodred Ridin' Hood, but even these songs are above average and do not detract from the overall quality of the CD.

Alexi Laiho's guitar work on Hate Crew Deathroll is his most controlled yet, and while he retains his unique sound, here it is delivered more as an essential part of the band's overall music than the dominating part. His screamed vocals still leave a lot to be desired, but then that's part of what defines Children of Bodom.

Not a masterpiece, but Hate Crew Deathroll is a compact 40 minute set providing further proof that Children of Bodom is one of the leading bands on the heavy metal landscape.

Band:

Jaska W. Raatikainen - Drums
Henkka T. Blacksmith - Bass
Alexi Wildchild Laiho - Guitar and Vocals
Alexander Kuoppala - Guitars
Janne Warman - Keyboards

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Needled 24/7 - 10
2. Sixpounder - 7
3. Chokehold (Cocked'n'Loaded) - 9
4. Bodom Beach Terror - 10
5. Angels Don't Kill - 8
6. Triple Corpse Hammerblow - 10
7. You're Better Off Dead - 8
8. Lil' Bloodred Ridin' Hood - 7
9. Hate Crew Deathroll - 7

Average: 8.44

Produced and Recorded by Anssi Kippo
Mixed by Mikko Karmila
Mastered by Count Jussila

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Sunday, 5 October 2008

Book Review: Under The Bridge - The True Story Of The Murder Of Reena Virk, by Rebecca Godfrey (2005)


The 1997 swarming death of 14 year old Reena Virk in the Victoria suburb of View Royal, British Columbia was a shocking event, shining the spotlight on teenage girl-on-girl violence. Virk was first beaten by a group of young teens, most of whom were girls, and then beaten again by two of the group members and forcibly drowned.

The events and characters involved in this incident are the subject of Under The Bridge. The book traces the events before, during and after the murder, and given the large number of people involved, it is a terrific narrative. Rebecca Godfrey does a masterful job of bringing to life a sub-culture of kids from the wrong side of the tracks, all of them from broken homes of single-parent or divorced families, none of them receiving anything like the necessary home environment to steer them in the right direction. In this vacuum the abandoned young teenagers, girls and boys alike, create their own world of drift, petty crime, fake machismo, threats and violence.

Virk herself was trying hard to belong to this group as she rebelled against her home environment. The local youth, including Warren Glowtaski, Kelly Ellard, Josephine Bell, and Dusty Noble, had the most atrocious family backgrounds, with parents who can be used as perfect examples to press the case for competency tests prior to parenthood.

Godfrey's writing style is rich, fluid, and street-wise. She gives the kids a voice, and recreates events and encounters with vivid details. For the most part she avoids any hint of smarminess, and instead slowly paints a stark picture that reveals how society pays for the sins of uneducated adults through the actions of their children.

The one minor complaint about Under The Bridge is that it should have included an Index to help the reader keep track of all the characters who populate the story. Otherwise, this book is a painfully essential experience, both for describing the events surrounding Reena Virk's murder and the culture that created the environment that resulted in her death.





Published in paperback by Harper Perennial. 351 pages.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

CD Review: For The Revolution, by Kalmah (2008)


There is no questioning the overall high quality of the songs and the professionalism of the band, but there are some signs on For The Revolution that Kalmah are drifting a bit. There is no outstanding track in this collection. Dead Man's Shadow and Like A Slave come close, but they are lacking a final, polished cutting edge.

In the meantime, three tracks display a lack of freshness that is uncharacteristic of the band. While still far from filler material, Holy Symphony Of War, Wings Of Blackening and Coward offer little that is new to the band's sound. On a couple of songs, most notably Coward, Kalmah experiment with a counter-intuitive descending chorus that starts with low notes and gets lower. There is a reason that this progression is not used often in any kind of music, and that's because it's not pretty.

On the plus side, the band's overall sound continues to mature, with Antti Kokko's lead guitar now more integrated into the songs. The vocals are an interesting mid-range growl that is yet again an evolution from the vocals on Kalmah's previous CDs.

The better songs still deliver the terrific keyboard-driven melodic hooks that are the unmistakable signature of the band. The folk metal melody that is the centrepiece of Dead Man's Shadow is simply brilliant, and is built into the song with ridiculous ease.

The band is to be congratulated for limiting the CD to 9 songs, an approach that pays off in keeping the pace brisk and avoiding drag. The compositions are all appropriately complex without ever being pretentious, and as is typical with the band, every note is measured and executed with mechanical precision -- there are never any vague patches. While not their best work, Kalmah do not have to be at their best to deliver a very good recording.


Band:

Pekka Kokko - Guitar and Vocals
Antti Kokko - Lead Guitar
Janne Kusmin - Drums
Marco Sneck - Keyboards
Lede - Bass

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. For The Revolution - 8
2. Dead Man's Shadow - 9
3. Holy Symphony Of War - 7
4. Wings Of Blackening - 7
5. Ready For Salvation - 8
6. Towards The Sky - 8
7. Outremer - 8
8. Coward - 7
9. Like A Slave - 9

Average: 7.89

Produced by Kalmah
Recorded and Mixed by Ahti Kortelainen
Mastered by Dakan Akesson

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Film Review: Bluff (2007)


Bluff is an engaging piece of film-making from Quebec. In the tradition of weaving several unrelated stories around one inanimate object (famous examples being 1965's The Yellow Rolls Royce and 1998's The Red Violin), Bluff presents an apartment unit that is slated for destruction. At the final walkthrough before the bulldozers move in, the demolition foreman makes a startling discovery inside the apartment, the exact nature of which remains a secret until the film's final few scenes. The foreman is soon joined by the doomed apartment's superintendent, who calls the police to investigate the discovery, and as they wait for the authorities to arrive, we are taken back in time to see the stories of five sets of tenants who previously occupied the apartment.

A young man preparing for a job interview; an infertile couple seeking the help of a friend to get pregnant; an old man who was briefly a boxer and wants to re-live his glory by trading punches with his daughter's latest boyfriend; a couple who are about to celebrate a birthday just as soon they sell a set of horrid paintings to a mysterious buyer; and an aging thief who is staging a final heist in the hopes of enhancing his legacy. The stories are presented through inter-mingled scenes, and while the stories start innocently enough, they all start to head towards a threat of violence or unexpected misfortune, while always maintaining a low-key streak of humour. Meanwhile, back in the present, the construction foreman and the apartment superintendent are also discovering that all is not what it seems.

An ensemble cast of actors does a terrific job of bringing all the characters to life, which is no small achievement given that each actor is effectively creating one sixth of a movie. Co-directors Simon-Olivier Fecteau and Marc-Andre Lavoie manage to quickly introduce us to the unique dynamics of each story, and effectively weave the various threads into compelling vignettes that may or may not be heading to a variety of unwelcome endings.

With a suitably nifty soundtrack, Bluff is proof that a small, low-budget film can provide clever and thoughtful entertainment through tight storytelling, deft acting and efficient directing.



Film Review: Notre Univers Impitoyable (2008)


Two lawyers on the fast-track to success at a private law-firm, Margot and Victor, work as a team and are also a loving couple. When a senior partner drops dead and creates an opening for a new senior position, only one out of Margot and Victor will get the promotion, and the other will have to settle for a supporting role.

Notre Univers Impitoyable (meekly titled What If? in English) cleverly explores both possible scenarios: Margot as the new senior partner, breaking down gender barriers and becoming the new glamour star of the firm, while Victor labours in her shadow. Or Victor as the hard-driving new senior partner, with Margot relegated to serving coffee and caring for the children.

The film consists of inter-cut scenes that alternate between the two possible realities. There are parallels and contrasts between the two, and director Lea Fazer has fun with the interplay. She effectively and seamlessly introduces the switches between the two stories by embedding "what if" questions into the script, as cues for the role reversal scenes that follow. In both story lines, the couple's relationship is rocked by infidelity, feelings of neglect, family versus career conflicts, and questions about true values. A strong common theme emerges between the two stories, addressing the impact on a relationship that is thrown out of a comfortable balance.

Alice Taglioni as Margot and Jocelyn Quivrin as Victor (a real-life couple) are both excellent. They have an obvious chemistry together, and they establish a high degree of empathy for their characters in both story lines. Taglioni and Quivrin effortlessly pull-off three roles, depending on the scene: equals, superiors and subordinates. The film is enriched with many well-rounded supporting characters: Thierry Lhermitte as one of the principles of the firm, who makes the decision about who gets the promotion and then manipulates the consequences to his advantage; Pascale Arbillot as Margot's recently-dumped sister; Scali Delpeyrat as another lawyer at the firm; and Julie Ferrier as the law firm's resident paralegal / mistress.

The film is brisk, helped along by a catchy music score and clever but not pretentious camerawork. An entertaining, thoughtful and well-executed film.



Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Book Review: The Fix, by Declan Hill (2008)


The Fix shines the spotlight on global match-fixing in the world of football. Author Declan Hill tours Asia, Europe and Africa to expose the illegal gambling cartels that make millions by betting on football games and fixing the results accordingly. In countries like Singapore, China, Malaysia, Ghana and various European football capitals, he meets the players, the referees, the club officials, the game administrators, and most intriguingly, the fixers themselves. The Fix makes it clear that at the competitive level, no game, no tournament, no league and no country is immune from match-fixing.

Match fixing is not a new phenomenon, and Hill presents some of the origins of fixing back to the earliest days of the organized game in England. What is new is the internationalization of gambling and match-fixing operations, with the entry into the market of Asian gangs eager to profit from the insatiable gambling habits of the population in southeast Asia, and the ease with which the Internet now allows the placement of large bets at any time on any game anywhere in the world.

The book does a good job explaining the problem. The reasons and motivations behind match-fixing are presented from all perspectives. The methods of match-fixing, both on and off the field, are also revealed and explained in detail. Real-world examples are presented, drawn from interviews, court transcripts, and police interrogation reports. The currency of match-fixing, namely money, sex, and violence, as well as the code of conduct among the fixers, are all revealed.

Hill is foremost an investigative journalist, and he does not hesitate to describe his personal experiences tracking down the principle characters and his witnessing of fixed games unfold in real time. At the same time Hill is a fan of football, and he shares the pain that he feels is caused by the slimy underbelly of the game, and his frustration with the lack of serious action to tackle the problem, or at least control it.

In terms of writing skills, the book leaves a lot to be desired. The first two Parts of the book, titled Asia: The Storm Clouds and Europe: A Normal Way of Business, are very choppily written, and Hill demonstrates an amateurish style that jumps from place to place, from year to year, and from incident to incident, often within a few paragraphs. He self-interrupts his own narrative, and provides little depth or colour. The third Part of the book, titled World Cup is much better. Hill seems to hit his stride, and conveys genuine emotion and much greater depth. The book does finish on a high, ironically in the slums of Kenya, as The Fix links the best and worst of the world -- and the world of football -- in the touching story of a girls' football team.

The Fix is a book that will, for better or for worse, change the way that we watch football, and the next time we see a poor defensive play result in a goal, it will be fair to wonder if somewhere in the world, a gang lord is smiling as his fix unfolds according to plan.





314 pages, plus Notes, Bibliography, and Index

Hardcover published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart

Friday, 26 September 2008

CD Review: Waking The Fallen, by Avenged Sevenfold (2003)


The second Avenged Sevenfold CD sees the band maturing nicely and taking on long, complex and for the most part successful compositions. There is more singing and less screaming from M. Shadows, and overall the band sounds more polished and controlled and less like a garage-band done good. It's easy to see why the band landed their deal with Warner Bros. after this CD.

Unholy Confessions and Chapter Four, effectively the two CD openers, set the stage for the songlist and are powerful expressions of Avenged Sevenfold's evolving sound. Both songs feature numerous speed changes and melody transitions with an unmistakable metal ethic. The rest of the CD never raises to the same heights, but it's all interesting and adventurous, with mixes of classical harmonies, acoustic guitar, and modern power ballads.

Waking The Fallen is also a coming-of-age for The Rev as an accomplished heavy metal drummer. His terrific but controlled pounding runs throughout the CD, and strengthens the foundation of all the tracks. Elsewhere, this is the first CD with a full contribution from lead guitarist Synyster Gates, and with Johnny Christ replacing Dameon Ash on Bass, the line-up that would produce the epic City of Evil is in place.

To be picky, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing -- Waking The Fallen has 12 tracks and other than the short intro, the shortest track is 4:43 and the longest is 8:58. It takes a lot of stamina to listen through in one sitting, and tighter editing of some songs and of the songlist would have been welcome. Specifically, the weak and meandering Desecrate Through Reverence should have been left on the studio floor. The other complaint is the absence of one killer, memorable track on the CD. It is a good average that the band achieves, but unfortunately without the one perfect song.

Just a word about the CD cover art, which is among the lamest ever produced for a heavy metal recording. So lame that it was covered up with a black sleeve featuring nothing more than the Avenged Sevenfold flying skull logo. Just as well.

Band:

M. Shadows - Vocals
Zacky Vengeance - Guitar
Synyster Gates - Lead Guitar
Johnny Christ - Bass
The Rev - Drums


Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Waking The Fallen (no rating, short intro)
2. Unholy Confessions - 9
3. Chapter Four - 9
4. Remenissions - 8
5. Desecrate Through Reverence - 6
6. Eternal Rest - 8
7. Second Heartbeat - 7
8. Radiant Eclipse - 7
9. I Won't See You Tonight Part 1 - 8
10. I Won't See You Tonight Part 2 - 8
11. Claivoyant Disease - 8
12. And All Things Will End - 8

Average: 7.82

Produced by Mudrock and Fred Archambault.
Recorded by The Gatekeepers. Mixed by The Mud.
Mastered by Tom Baker.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

CD Review: Sounding The Seventh Trumpet, by Avenged Sevenfold (2001)


Avenged Sevenfold's debut CD is an interesting mix of relatively unsophisticated, raw heavy metal talent, combined with some surprisingly complex song arrangements. On the better tracks, the band demonstrate outstanding potential and a level of ambitious innovation that is relatively unique. They play with grand melodies and effective pace changes that most new bands would not venture near. This is all the more impressive given that at the time of recording, the members of Avenged Sevenfold were 18 years old.

The vocals of M. Shadows are one of the distinctive features of the band's sound. On most tracks, he alternates screaming with singing in a brave style that may alienate many. When it works, it is terrific, and on the magnificent Darkness Surrounding, Shadows ends the song by overlaying his screaming and singing voices on the same lyrics -- the result is powerfully hypnotic.

Lips of Deceit is another stand-out track, introducing a memorable staccato lead guitar hook early in the song. The band's relative inexperience shows in their failure to the return to the hook later in the song, but that is a minor quibble.

The other band members do their job effectively and without any fuss or grandstanding. The guitar of Zacky Vengeance generally drives the songs forward without much emphasis on solos (Synyster Gates appears only on the opening track). The Reverend on drums and Dameon Ash on bass provide a strong foundation for all the tracks but for the most part remain respectfully in the background.

The long song list consisting of 13 tracks and about 55 minutes of music is remarkably consistent and generally devoid of fillers. Sounding the Seventh Trumpet is a strong entry onto the heavy metal stage, and a CD full of promise.


Band:

M. Shadows - Vocals
Zacky Vengeance - Guitar
Synyster Gates - Guitar
The Reverend Tholomew Plague - Drums
Dameon Ash - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10)

1. To End The Rapture - (no rating, short intro)
2. Turn The Other Way - 7
3. Darkness Surrounding - 10
4. The Art Of Subconscious Illusion - 8
5. We Come Out At Night - 7
6. Lips Of Deceit - 9
7. Warmness On The Soul - 8
8. An Epic Of Time Wasted - 8
9. Breaking Their Hold - 6
10. Forgotten Faces - 8
11. Thick And Thin - 8
12. Streets - 7
13. Shattered By Broken Dreams - 7

Average: 7.75

Produced, Engineered and Mixed by Donnell Cameron and Avenged Sevenfold
Mastered by Ramon Breton and Avenged Sevenfold

Friday, 5 September 2008

Book Review: Deception - Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark (2007)



Deception is one of the most important books of our times. Well written, extensively researched, and exceptionally informative, it works brilliantly at several levels.

As an examination of Pakistan, the book effectively ends any myths of that country being a democracy, even when there is an apparently democratically-elected leader. The military is the one and only dominant power in Pakistan, and everything - and everyone - is controlled by the will of the Generals, some of them visible to the public, but most of them playing the power game from behind the shadows.

As an expose of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, both its development and transformation into an export business to countries like Iran, Libya and others, Deception presents a gripping narrative. It is both a terrific personal tale of A.Q. Khan, Pakistan's Father of the Bomb, and a story of a fragile nation deciding to define itself through military might in order to keep up with the neighbours (India got the bomb first), and then transforming its military knowledge into economic benefit through exports to any willing buyer.

In effect, the book tells the story of the end of the era of nuclear non-proliferation. Someday in the future, a nuclear weapon is going to be detonated very unexpectedly, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the entire world . This book tells the story of how this future event came to be.

But the real story that this book has to tell is about the United States foreign policy, from the Carter era of the late 1970's to the George W. Bush era of the mid-2000's. The revelations about the inner-workings of US foreign policy towards Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Iraq, and other countries are simply stunning. The book shines a strong light on the blatant hypocrisy, grand lies, cover-ups, and mistakes committed by successive administrations, generally in pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of easily foreseeable long-term strategic disasters. Anyone who still believes a single word uttered publicly by a US leader when it comes to foreign policy should pull up a chair and read this book. And quickly.

Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark currently work for the Guardian newspaper, and previously worked for the Sunday Times of London. The depth of their research is combined with a strong narrative style that is several notches above the typical level of books written by journalists. The book is brimming with a multitude of essential characters -- the authors do a masterful job of keeping all the names and roles clearly defined.

At 449 pages, this is not a quick read. But it is one of those essential books that is instantly recognizable as both a unique chronicle of the recent past and a priceless guide to the near future.





449 pages, plus Notes and Index.

Published in hard-cover by Walker and Company.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Movie Review: First Blood (1982)


There was a time when action movies could deliver entertainment without resorting to a cartoonish computer-generated special-effects laden climax every 10 minutes. First Blood is a reminder that an action movie can be remarkably low key in its setting and character development, and yet deliver a strong punch when based on a message inspired by real events and memorable personalities.

Sylvester Stallone, when he was famous but not yet a joke, is John Rambo, a Vietnam war veteran back in the US who is devastated to find out at the beginning of the film that the sole other combat survivor from his Special Forces unit has succumbed to cancer.

In a representation of the poor welcome home afforded to most Vietnam vets, Rambo is treated badly by the Sheriff (Brian Dennehy, who puts in an excellent but slightly exaggerated performance) and police force of a small local northwest town. The maltreatment triggers the soldier to revert back to war mode in the surrounding hills and forests (the movie is filmed in and around the town of Hope, British Columbia), and soon the war expands to include the clueless local contingent of the National Guard, who are as over-matched as the police, and Rambo gradually draws the conflict back to a final showdown within the town.

Richard Crenna arrives as Rambo's field commander and mentor, and as the police and National Guard are scurrying around pretending to know something about warfare in the forest, Crenna delivers the classic line to Dennehy: "I don't think you understand. I didn't come to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him."

First Blood is part of Hollywood's thoughtful post-Vietnam war examination of the conflict, an era that resulted in large scale epics like Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), as well as smaller scale films like Coming Home (1978) and Platoon (1986).

Stallone would subsequently achieve stratospheric commercial success with Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), which while undeniably entertaining, unfortunately sacrificed nuance in favour of a jingoism.

In First Blood, Rambo is a hero who feels pain both emotional and physical, bleeds, has to tend to his wounds, tries to stop the conflict before it escalates, and spares the life of most of his enemies. Directed by Ted Kotcheff and running an efficient 96 minutes, First Blood delivers its message with uncommon integrity.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Film Review: Gunfight At The OK Corral (1957)


Burt Lancaster is lawman Wyatt Earp, Kirk Douglas is gunfighter / gambler / dentist Doc Holliday, and together they forge an unlikely alliance to clean up lawlessness in Tombstone.

Gunfight At The OK Corral is based on true events and real characters, but of course the Hollywood treatment is lathered on in great quantities to create fiction and fact at least in equal doses. In reality the actual Gunfight took a matter of seconds. In the movie, it is a solid 10 minute battle, but no one is questioning the entertainment value of what is on the screen.

Directed by John Sturges, this is a classic western that arrived relatively late in the glory days of the genre. While it mostly adheres to the more old fashioned white hats / black hats western scripts, where good and evil were clearly defined, the film introduces some welcome shadings of moral ambiguity. These mostly revolve around Doc Holliday, by far the most interesting of the main characters and made more so by Douglas' shifty performance. Holliday is a man one step ahead of death, and it's coming at him both from the disease eating away at him, and from the next gunslinger to challenge him. In the meantime he focuses on gambling, drinking, womanizing and finding the thin path that will keep him alive one more day.

In contrast Lancaster's Wyatt Earp is for the most part the prototypical and somewhat boring lawman with a strong moral compass who believes in the righteousness of his actions, and is presented in the film as representative of the type of leader who transitioned the West from rampant lawlessness to a more civilized era.

That Earp forges some sort of friendship with Holliday morally weakens the lawman but strengthens his firepower. And when the bullets start flying in the excellent but historically inaccurate final showdown, firepower is definitely the way to go.

To the film's credit, Earp also has to make a decision to transform the dispute with the cattle rustlers into a personal family feud rather than follow due legal process. This is as far as a 1950's film will go towards sullying the hero. In reality, after the OK Corral showdown, Earp became an uncontrollable law unto himself, and embarked on an almost mythical quest to clean up the West without concerning himself too much with the nuances of the law, events that are more fully explored in the movie Tombstone (1993).

Sturges does a fine job steering the film to its climax, introducing more characters, events, and locations than the typical western of the era. At just over two hours in length, the events and characters are given relaxed room to breathe and develop, but in general, the action stays within the relatively strict boundaries of the 1950's western.

A final word about the music by Dimitri Tiomkin: while conforming to the expectations of the genre at the time, it introduces definite stylistic echoes that can be found in Ennio Morricone's classic Spaghetti Western themes that started to emerge within five years.



Saturday, 30 August 2008

CD Review: As The Palaces Burn, by Lamb of God (2003)


As The Palaces Burn finds Lamb of God caught between two worlds. Behind them is the world of mindless headbanging and instrument mashing that resembles primates discovering instruments in an abandoned warehouse and experimenting with them with all the finesse of jungle law. This is the world that produces such nonsense as Purified, Boot Scraper, A Devil In God's Country, and Blood Junkie, half a CD's worth of tripe that should have never been committed to any form of recording.

Ahead of them is the world of power infused with masterful melodies, and the discovery that music means more than thumping away. This is the world that produces Ruin, the classic CD opener, and other strong tracks like As The Palaces Burn, 11th Hour, and For Your Malice. Fortunately, the next CDs, namely Ashes Of The Wake and Sacrament, showed that the band veered very much into the more mature melodic metal territory, without losing their dangerously powerful sound.

All this leaves As The Palaces Burn as a very dis-jointed listen, capturing the band in mid-transition, and likely to be equally half-loved and half-hated.

Band:

Willie Adler: Lead and Rhythm Guitars
Chris Adler: Drums
Randy Blythe: Vocals
John Campbell: Bass
Mark Morton: Lead and Rhythm Guitars

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Ruin - 10
2. As The Palaces Burn - 8
3. Purified - 5
4. 11th Hour - 9
5. For Your Malice - 8
6. Boot Scraper - 4
7. A Devil In God's Country - 5
8. In Defence Of Our Good Name - 7
9. Blood Junkie - 5
10. Vigil -8

Average: 6.90

Engineered by Devin Townsend
Produced by Devin Townsend and Lamb of God
Mixed by Shaun Thingvold and Lamb of God
Mastered by Louie Teran

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