Saturday, 28 June 2008

CD Review: Something Wild, by Children of Bodom (1998)


Children of Bodom's first album sets the stage for what most of their career will sound like, which is a compliment for out-of-the-chute maturity, but perhaps also a mild complaint that their later efforts are just more polished, not much different, than what you get on Something Wild.

This is a solid debut, with most of the songs featuring memorable passages, typically when Alexi Laiho stops singing and allows the band to soar in the neo-classical, euro-metal-with-folk-shadings style that defines the CoB's early career. Much like every over Bodom CD, Laiho screams the lyrics in an indecipherable Finnish-accented English that is more entertaining than enlightening. While Bodom's sound and Laiho's lyrics are indelibly linked, it will always remain an interesting question how much better the band would sound with a dedicated vocalist.

Many Bodom songs are characterized by excellent melodies, and equally unfocused, meandering sections where the band appears to be lost in transition. Something Wild is no different, and it's no surprise that the best song on the CD is the one that maximizes the melodies and minimizes the meandering: Lake Bodom stands out as almost uniformly strong from start to finish, driven forward by a hauntingly melodic riff and the excellent interplay between keyboards and guitar, and it remains one of the band's most well-loved songs. In The Shadows and The Nail are also very good, but more inconsistent. Interestingly, the last track before the bonus tracks, Touch Like Angel of Death , already starts to sound like it belongs on future Bodom CDs, with more powerful, distinctive, and confident lead riffs.

The bonus tracks are two covers, both from 1988, and both are handled very well. Bodom manage to infuse their distinctive sound into Slayer's Silent Scream (from South of Heaven) and the Scorpion's Don't Stop At The Top (from Savage Amusement) while maintaining the solid integrity of both songs.


Band:

Alexi Laiho - Vocals, Guitar
Alexander Kuoppala - Guitar
Janne Wirman - Keyboards
Jaska Raatikainen - Drums
Henkka Blacksmith - Bass (5-String)


Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Deadnight Warrior - 7
2. In The Shadows - 8
3. Red Light In My Eyes, Pt. 1 - 7
4. Red Light In My Eyes, Pt. 2 - 7
5. Lake Bodom - 9
6. The Nail - 8
7. Touch Like Angel Of Death - 8

Bonus Tracks:

8. Silent Scream - 8
9. Don't Stop At The Top - 7

Average: 7.67

Produced by Anssi Kippo, Alexi Laiho, Jaska Raatikainen, and Children of Bodom.
Recorded and Mixed by Anssi Kippo.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

CD Review: City of Evil, by Avenged Sevenfold (2005)


The third CD from California's Avenged Sevenfold is a quantum leap forward in maturity and song composition. The CD delivers a uniformly consistent set of melodic heavy metal, with terrific, complex and layered arrangements that do not detract from the pure power of the music.

On vocals, M. Shadows departs for the first time from screaming to actual singing, and does it really well. As a singer he does have similarities with Axl Rose, and along with the overall punk-ethic-but-pure-sound of the CD, there are more than passing similarities here to Appetite for Destruction -- but this is all a good thing. Any band that can capture even a vague resemblance to one of heavy metal's greatest-ever recordings is doing something right. This is probably most evident on the memorable power-ballad Seize the Day, where Shadows is Axl, and Synyster Gates' solo evokes Slash at his most soulful.

Continuing the comparison, Beast and the Harlot is one of the greatest CD openers since Welcome to the Jungle. It sets the stage for a strong songlist on City of Evil, more than 70 minutes that never descend into filler material. Even the slightly weaker tracks have strong redeeming features, like the terrific flamenco-inspired guitar work that concludes Sidewinder.

Gates and Zacky Vengeance deliver memorable guitar work and lead riffs on almost every song, while the rhythm section of Johnny Christ on bass and The Rev on drums provide a strong but unobtrusive foundation. There are multiple harmonies, speed changes, stop-starts, orchestral sounds, and complex melodies melding into each other, all within an envelope of unmistakeably pure heavy metal.

Standout tracks include Bat Country, Trashed and Scattered, and the epic Strength of the World, which opens with a great evocation of Spaghetti Western theme music. City of Evil establishes itself as a cornerstone in the heavy metal sound of the 2000's.


Band:

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


Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Beast and the Harlot - 10 *See Video Below*
2. Burn It Down - 8
3. Blinded in Chains - 8
4. Bat Country - 9
5. Trashed and Scattered - 9
6. Seize the Day - 8
7. Sidewinder - 7
8. The Wicked End - 8
9. Strength of the World - 10
10. Betrayed - 7
11. M.I.A. - 9

Average: 8.45

Produced by Mudrock and Avenged Sevenfold
Mixed by Andy Wallace
Mastered by Eddie Schreyer

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Saturday, 14 June 2008

Book Review: Shake Hands With the Devil (2003), by Romeo Dallaire with Brent Beardsley


Rwanda, 1994. A small United Nations force enters the country presumably to make sure that a recently-signed peace treaty between warring factions gets implemented. Instead, the local militias are busy preparing for a short, brutal, and vicious civil war that will end with the massacre of more than 800,000 civilians, in about 100 days. It is doubtful if the history of civilization has ever witnessed a more intense civilian killing spree.

Romeo Dallaire was the Canadian commander of the under-equipped, under-financed and poorly supported UN force. In addition to witnessing the genocide and being helpless to stop it, he suffered the humiliation of having 10 Belgian soldiers under his command slaughtered as part of the massacres, without being able to intervene. Since 1994, Dallaire has battled severe depression, and agonized over every decision that he took before and during the mission. He lays it all out in this powerful and moving book.

There is no doubt that Dallaire had his heart in the right place, and his eagerness to help establish peace in Rwanda is honest. Unfortunately, his eagerness to take his first high profile command may have also blinded him to the many realities and warning signs around him. The United Nations - and the World - was much more engrossed with events in the former Yugoslavia in the heart of Europe and near the Western democracies, to really care about a small African country with little strategic value. Dallaire's mission, to everyone but himself, always seemed like an afterthought.

Once on the ground in Rwanda, Dallaire describes his various meetings, initiatives and encounters with local leaders in the menacing lead-up to the eruption of violence. His writing style is fluid, artistic, and surprisingly descriptive. In hindsight, it is clear that most of the militia leaders and politicians clearly saw the UN mission as an irritant, an obstacle to be marginalized once the business of civil war started. And civil war was coming. This becomes increasingly clear to Dallaire, and he describes his increasingly frantic attempts to get the UN's attention and to try and beef-up his forces in a futile attempt to stop the catastrophe.

It's all to no avail, and when the machetes are drawn, the blood starts to flow, and the bodies of men, women, and children literally pile up on the roads, in the rivers, and throughout Rwanda's countryside, Dallaire and his men become mere observers and sometimes victims as Rwanda descends into the closest thing to hell on earth. Dallaire's description of the days of genocide is heart-wrenching and soul-destroying, but told with a unique sensitivity and humaneness that may not be expected from a soldier.

A highly recommended book that successfully reveals the inner-workings of UN missions, soldiers in the field, and the deepest, darkest atrocities that humans are capable of.





Paperback published by Vintage Canada, 522 pages.

CD Review: The Crusade, by Trivium (2006)


This is the third CD from Florida's Trivium, and the first time with Matthew Heafy actually singing rather than screaming. Trivium appear to be aiming for a broader mid-market Metal appeal with this effort, but instead disappear into vanilla blandness.

The songs are generally well constructed, well played, and tight-sounding. The band has a clear sound and none of the songs come across as uncertain.

Having said that, the CD offers little when it comes to inspiration, memorable melodies, or solos. It is perhaps telling that the CD title comes from the eight minute long instrumental that closes out the record. Interesting and powerful enough the first few listens, The Crusade (the song) does get tired eventually.

The highlights of the CD are relatively few. Both Entrance of the Conflagration, pompous title not withstanding, and Unrepentant reach some good Iron Maiden-inspired patches with duelling guitar work from Heafy and Colin Beaulieu that the entire album could have done with a lot more of. Contempt Breeds Contamination, another mouthful of a title, is solid.

In the heart of the CD, And Sadness Will Sear, Becoming the Dragon, and To the Rats are good enough without really raising anyone's heartbeat.

The drumming from Travis Smith is consistently powerful throughout, providing a good foundation for the melodic tracks. Trivium pull out the useful but gimmicky technique of switching to a mono-sound for a few strategic seconds on some songs, and generally this works well with the many tempo changes that are typical of the Trivium sound.

The disappointments? Plenty. Album openers Ignition and Detonation are forgettable and too reliant on annoying half-notes and quarter-notes. Incredibly, both Anthem (We Are the Fire) and The Rising echo back to the worst of the simplistic pump-fisting metal anthems from the clueless European bands of the early 1980's. But the real horror arrives with This World Can't Tear Us Apart, a song as cliched as its title, and smelling like a bad sandwich made with old power ballad beef and cheesy lyrics.

In the end, just as the real Crusades failed, Trivium's Crusade also falls short.

Band:

Matthew Kiichi Heafy - Vocals, Guitars
Travis Smith - Drums
Corey Beaulieu - Guitars
Paolo Gregoletto - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Ignition - 6
2. Detonation - 7
3. Entrance of the Conflagration - 8
4. Anthem (We are the Fire) - 4
5. Unrepentant - 7
6. And Sadness Will Sear - 7
7. Becoming the Dragon - 7
8. To the Rats - 7
9. This World Can't Tear Us Apart - 3
10. Tread the Floods - 7
11. Contempt Breeds Contamination - 8
12. The Rising - 5
13. The Crusade - 8

Average: 6.46

Produced by Trivium and Jason Suecof
Engineered by Mark Lewis and Jason Suecof
Mixed by Colin Richardson
Mastered by Ted Jensen

Saturday, 7 June 2008

CD Review: They Will Return, by Kalmah (2002)


They Will Return is the second CD from Finland's Kalmah. Released in 2002, it builds upon the remarkable debut Swamplord (2001), but without eclipsing it.

Kalmah's style continues to demonstrate a deep appreciation for complex, mid-tempo classical-inspired melodic heavy metal compositions, relying heavily on memorable lead guitar riffs supported by excellent keyboards. The ever-present inter-play between Antti Kokko's lead guitar and Pasi Hiltula's keyboard, set against the backdrop of strong melodies, is the signature Kalmah sound, and it is very evident on this CD.

The vocals are a mix between growling and punk-inspired, with a hint at attempted melody. For the most part, the vocals stay away from interfering with the very strong compositons.

As is common with a Kalmah CD, there are no weak tracks: just good songs and great songs. The highlights of They Will Return are Swamphell, Principle Hero, and Kill The Idealist. The best track on the CD is the title track, where the lead guitar delivers a sustained epic sonic assault. The CD ends with a cover of Megadeth's Skin O'My Teeth. While it's good to see Kalmah saluting one of the legendary metal bands, Skin O'My Teeth was never one of my favourite songs, and I could have done without this cover.

It was always going to be impossible to improve upon Swamplord, and They Will Return unsurprisingly does not, but on is own merits it is a solid enough follow-up.


Band:

Timo Lehtinen - Bass
Pasi Hiltula - Keyboards
Antti Kokko - Lead Guitar
Janne Kusmin - Drums
Pekka Kokko - Vocals, Guitar


Song List (ratings out of 10):

Hollow Heart - 8
Swamphell - 9
Principle Hero - 9
Human Fates - 8
They Will Return - 10 *See Audio Clip Below*
Kill The Idealist - 9
The Blind Leader - 8
My Nation - 9
Skin O'My Teeth - 6

Average: 8.44

Recorded by Ahti Kortelainen.
Mastered by Mika Jussila.
Produced by Kalmah and Ahti Kortelainen.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Thursday, 5 June 2008

Book Review: Slash (2007), by Slash with Anthony Bozza


For a few shining years in the late 1980's and early 1990's, Guns'n'Roses were the biggest, baddest, and most dangerous rock'n'roll band in the world. On the back of a grand total of three serious studio albums, "Appetite for Destruction" and "Use Your Illusion I" and "II", the latter two of which were released on the same day, lead guitarist Slash, vocalist Axl Rose, and their band-mates stood on top of the heap. They were all young, uneducated (not one had completed high school), addicted to various drugs and alcohol, ill-equipped to deal with success, and suddenly incredibly wealthy and famous. They proceeded to tear each other down as quickly as they had risen to the top.

This is the story as told by Slash, born Saul Hudson. From his childhood to his current career as leader of the band Velvet Revolver, it's a story of a scrappy, talented, and uncompromising guitarist whose early life was shattered by his parents' divorce. From that point onwards he was destructively addicted to any substance or activity that can possibly be harmful, from alcohol to shoplifting to hard drugs. Effectively homeless and living a shiftless life on the edges of society on the tough streets of Los Angeles, Slash could have easily ended up properly (instead of temporarily) dead on many occassions, and he was lucky not to spend more time in jail than he did. Instead, his discovery of his innate talent for the guitar and his single-minded pursuit of a successful life as a rock'n'roll rebel landed him in the middle of one of the most successful, and short-lived, bands in the world.

The book is remarkably well-written, thoughtful and entertaining. With the help of former Rolling Stones writer Anthony Bozza, Slash comes across as a man with a very high level of self-awareness, fully open about his mistakes, successes, and achievements. The book is full of terrifically entertaining stories and insights, many of them hysterically funny, as well as an assortment of memorable characters that must be typical of the colourful and opportunistic puddle of humanity that collects around any major success story. Late in the book, Slash notices with some bemusement that most of the people who hung around Guns'n'Roses ended up destroyed by drugs or dead.

It is no surprise when Slash reveals part-way through the book that he has always kept a journal. It is otherwise difficult to understand how he can recall the many vivid details of his life through the fog of substance abuse that his brain has pretty much continuously endured.

The self-portrait that Slash presents is that of a strong-willed guitarist who was driven by the need to compose, play, and perform the type of music that he loved. Slash hits some brilliant high-points in the book when describing his discovery of the guitar, and the book is particularly compelling when painting the early creative song-writing, recording, and performance synergy with his Guns'n'Roses band-mates -- it is rare to be able to convey in words the magic of a group of talented individuals creating something special when starting with very little.

The relationship between Slash and Axl Rose comes across as tortured, which undoubtedly it is. Slash uses the words "love / hate", and this is obvious. He conveys at the same time a deep respect and a profound resentment towards Axl, and it is clear that the wounds, anger, and feelings are still raw, after a lot of years. Axl comes across as a deeply complex person who is extremely difficult to deal with, but Slash's continuous addictions must have been as difficult for Axl to tolerate. To his credit, in the many passages dealing with Axl and the break-up of Guns'n'Roses, Slash makes it clear that he is presenting his side of the story, and that Axl's view-point is undoubtedly different and may be as valid.

A minor quibble: this relatively long book could have really used an Index, to help the reader quickly track down many of the numerous characters who re-appear in Slash's life, sometimes hundreds of pages after being intially introduced.

This is a very highly recommended read, for anyone interested in Slash, Guns'n'Roses, or the history of one of rock'n'roll's most colourful chapters.





Published by Harper Collins. 458 pages, with many photos.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Book Review: Perfect Soldiers, by Terry McDermott (2005)


Who exactly were the 19 suicide hijackers who carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?

Los Angeles Times reporter Terry McDermott sets off on a journey to find out the many stories behind one of the biggest stories of our time. This is a book at the human scale: the focus is on the attackers and their individual motives, rather than the overall geopolitical and broader strategic objectives of the attack.

To some extent, McDermott succeeds in delivering a new level of detail and nuance to the lives of some of the key plot members, including Mohamed el-Amir Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Marwan al-Shehhi.

Undertstanding and describing the full reasons for the transformation of seemingly normal young men, suffering through not untypical passages of life, into radicalized religious extremists is an almost impossible tasks. The numerous compounding social and psychological factors that interact to complete the journey to extremism can be described from the outside, and McDermott does this well. Without access to the obviously deceased men themselves, the story from the inside remains shrouded.

McDermott provides insight through the stories of friends and relatives who were close to the hijackers, particularly during their time in Germany. For example Jarrah's girlfriend becomes a perplexed but entangled observer of her man's journey into increasingly erratic behaviour.

The book falls short in discovering the stories of the many lesser known hijackers, particularly those from Saudi Arabia. It appears that McDermott had a lot less access to information and contacts from the Saudi kingdom, and so many of the secondary characters remain just that.

McDermott also spends a lot of time and text re-treading the very well known stories of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (the plot mastermind), Ramzi bin al-Shibh (who desparately tried to join the hijackers and but was repeatedly refused a visa), and Ramzi Yousef (Khaled Sheikh Mohammed's nephew and the mastermind behind the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Centre). McDermott offers very little that is new here, and many of these stories were covered as early as 1999 in Simon Reeve's book "The New Jackals". The 2003 book "Masterminds of Terror" by Fouda and Fielding also covered much of this territory from the inside.

Without being groundbreaking, "Perfect Soldiers" is an important piece of the library for those interested in understanding, as completely as it is possible to understand, the events of September 11, 2001.





Published by Harper Collins, 270 pages.

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