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.


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.


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.

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