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.


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.


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.

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