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

Sunday, 24 August 2008

CD Review: Ashes of the Wake, by Lamb of God (2004)


Ashes of the Wake is the third studio CD from Lamb of God using their current band name, and their fourth if you count 1998's Burn the Priest when they were displaying more explicitly violent tendencies towards the clergy.

Regardless, Ashes of the Wake is the first CD in which the Virginia quintet fully delivers a complete set of meaningful song structures, with emphasis on recognizable melodies, guitar solos and interesting arrangements.

It is a good evolution for the band, since their two previous efforts As The Palaces Burn (2003) and New American Gospel (2000) demonstrated pure raw power, but not much else. On Ashes of the Wake, several songs are memorable for a lot more than just power and proficient playing. Opener Laid To Rest and second track Hourglass both demonstrate an impressive melodic groove beyond anything on the band's previous CDs, and the general maturing of the band is noticeable throughout the rest of the songlist.

Which is not to say that there aren't some fair to middling tracks on the CD, including One Gun, Break You and What I've Become.

On Ashes of the Wake, Lamb of God's sound is underpinned by a powerful drum foundation delivered by Chris Adler, while brother Willie Adler and Mark Morton share shredding duties on the guitars. Lamb of God is not a band built on terrific solos, relying more on a guitar sound that bridges and transitions instead, but the band does not shy away from solos either. John Campbell's steady bass is apparent without being obtrusive, while Randy Blythe's low to middle-pitched growl delivers the lyrics in a suitably aggressive monotone which is generally incomprehensible.

Lamb of God are among today's leading American bands delivering unpretentious straight-ahead heavy metal, and Ashes of the Wake is a landmark CD for the group, marking its graduation to a new level of sophisticated song-writing.


Band:

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


Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Laid To Rest - 10
2. Hourglass - 9
3. Now You've Got Something To Die For - 8
4. The Faded Line - 8
5. Omerta - 8
6. Blood Of The Scribe - 7
7. One Gun - 6
8. Break You - 7
9. What I've Become - 7
10. Ashes Of The Wake - 8
11. Remorse Is For The Dead - 7

Average: 7.73

Produced by Machine and Lamb of God
Recorded and Mixed by Machine
Engineered by John Agnello and Machine

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

CD Review: Ensiferum, by Ensiferum (2001)


The debut CD from Finnish quartet Ensiferum is a long, 13-track journey that exposes both the band's strengths and weaknesses. Ensiferum are very clear about what they do: folk metal mixing traditional power elements with significant percussion and tunes that can only be set in the middle of a Viking forest with the company of either an army of swordsmen preparing for a battle or a band of merry goblins and elves dancing away. If this sounds strange, it is, and on some tracks it works well.

Five of the songs on the CD achieve a combination of good quality song-writing and effective melody. Windrider is probably the best of the pack, but Hero in a Dream, Token of Time, Treacherous Gods, and Battle Song are also quite good. The weaknesses start to emerge with the CD going on and on; the song list would have survived very nicely had Abandoned, Eternal Wait and Goblins' Dance been jettisoned overboard, and there are still four more tracks that are merely OK or just above average.

Ensiferum try a couple of power ballads (Abandoned and Eternal Wait), but almost by definition, folk metal and power ballads do not mix very well, and the band comes across as quite amateurish on these efforts. Jari Maenpaa's rather limited vocal range is painfully exposed on these tracks; he does much better when mixed-in with the myriad of other percussive sounds on the faster songs.

Ensiferum add an enjoyable streak of colour to today's heavy metal. There is a lot to like about this record, and although none of the tracks soar to greatness, there is enough on this CD to make it worth a listen.

Band:

Jari Maenpaa - Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
Markus Toivonen - Guitar
Jukka-Pekka Miettinen - Bass
Oliver Fokin - Drums

Song list (Ratings out of 10):

1. Intro - no rating (short instrumental)
2. Hero in a Dream - 8
3. Token of Time - 8
4. Guardians of Fate - 7
5. Old Man - 7
6. Little Dreamer - 7
7. Abandoned - 6
8. Windrider - 9
9. Treacherous Gods - 8
10. Eternal Wait - 5
11. Battle Song - 8
12. Goblins' Dance - 6
13. Into Hiding - 7

Average: 7.17

Recorded by Tuomo Valtonen
Mastered by Mika Jussila

Sunday, 10 August 2008

CD Review: Swamplord, by Kalmah (2001)


It really should be not possible for a band to deliver a debut CD of such excellence, but in Swamplord, Kalmah produce an outstanding collection of eight songs that can stand proudly with the best heavy metal ever.

The band's formula is simple: tremendous melodies tied to strong riffs and pure power. The unique sound is delivered through the layering of Antti Kokko's lead guitar, who effectively plays continuous independent lead melodies for the entire length of most songs without ever getting pretentious, on top of the mammoth foundation of bass, keyboards, drums and rhythm guitar that the other four members deliver with ridiculous ease.

Pekka Kokko's vocals are mostly a medium-pitched growl, mixed fairly to the rear, and supplement the music without ever interfering with it.

The band's musicianship and instrument control is stunning: there are never any moments of uncertainty in any of the songs, even when the arrangements get complex and speed changes are introduced. The style of music is strongly classically-infused metal, where controlled speed, melody, and artistic arrangements meet in perfect harmony.

It is rare enough for a debut CD to include one great song. On Swamplord, three of the songs gain immediate entry into the all-time Hall of Fame: Opener Evil In You, Hades, and CD closer Using the Word. Evil In You quickly gets into a jaw-dropping groove that is an epic combination of complex arrangements with a simple melody, and it ranks up there as one of the greatest CD openers ever. Hades introduces an incredibly soulful, emotive lead guitar riff in combination with a powerful yet controlled melody. And finally Using the Word confirms the brilliance of the CD by closing it out with a seemingly effortless lead guitar-in-story-telling mode, evoking a grand landscape.

The other five songs? They are simply great, and would stand out on any other CD. On Swamplord, great becomes normal. Kalmah earn respect for limiting this CD to eight songs, the correct length for most epic heavy metal CDs, and not cramming it with filler and inferior material.

Kalmah are one of the best heavy metal bands of this era. It's now up to the music world to catch on.

Band:

Altti Vetelainen - Bass
Pasi Hiltula - Keyboards
Antti Kokko - Lead Guitar
Petri Sankala - Drums
Pekka Kokko - Vocals, Guitar

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Evil In You - 10 *See audio link below*
2. Withering Away - 9
3. Heritance of Berija - 9
4. Black Roija - 9
5. Dance of the Water - 8
6. Hades - 10
7. Alteration - 9
8. Using the Word - 10

Average: 9.25

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

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Saturday, 9 August 2008

Film Review: Rock Star (2001)


In 1991, Rob Halford, the lead singer for leading British heavy metal group Judas Priest, left the band. Halford, who soon revealed himself as a homosexual, was eventually replaced by an unknown named Tim "Ripper" Owens, who was the lead singer for a Priest "tribute" band called British Steel. One of the nicknames of Judas Priest was "Metal Gods", after their song on the album British Steel.

The movie Rock Star is loosely based on these events. During the making of the movie there was a fallout between the film's producers and Judas Priest that prevented the movie from being explicitly linked with the band, so Rock Star claims to be a work of fiction, but the parallels with real life remain clear. The movie's working title was "Metal God". The British heavy metal band in the movie is Steel Dragon, and their lead singer quits the band and reveals himself to be a homosexual. Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Cole, the unknown Pittsburgh-based lead singer of a tribute band, who is plucked from obscurity to become the new lead singer of Steel Dragon, the most famous heavy metal band in the world. However, the movie is set in the 1980's, at the peak of heavy metal's popularity, and about a decade prior to the story that inspired it.

There are few good serious movies set against a heavy metal backdrop. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is a terrific movie, but it unfortunately established an expectation that heavy metal can only be treated as a joke, and not a subject for a serious narrative. Rock Star is therefore a welcome achievement. It provides a terrific peek into the world of heavy metal super stardom, set against an interesting story made more fascinating by its connections to reality. The true top-of-the-music-heap sex, drugs and rock'n'roll life that is vividly described in books like Slash (2008) comes to life on the screen, and Wahlberg does a terrific job as the wide-eyed neophyte who is dropped into a world that he always dreamed of, but that is wilder than he could ever have imagined.

In supporting roles, the film has real-life heavy metal musicians like guitarist Zakk Wylde, drummer Jason Bonham, and members of Slaughter and Dokken adding a layer of authenticity to the proceedings. Jennifer Aniston is Wahlberg's grounded manager / girlfriend, and her performance lifts her character out of the routine and into a full member of the plot.

Director Stephen Herek keeps the story moving briskly, and does an excellent job of conveying the electricity of massive live heavy metal concerts, the sweatiness of smaller performances in less glamorous surroundings, and the excessive lifestyle that accompanies the biggest music bands in the world.

The movie features a few original songs, but mostly the soundtrack is composed of top heavy metal tunes from the 1980's that almost serve as narration, providing commentary on the unfolding story.

Rock Star ends with a wistful echo of the rapid downfall of stadium heavy metal and the emergence of grunge that occurred between 1989 and 1991. This adds a fine denouement to an enjoyable movie forged in metal.



Monday, 4 August 2008

Book Review: 34 Days - Israel, Hezbollah And The War In Lebanon, by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff (2008)


The September 2006 chapter of the Middle East war was triggered after the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid in July. Israel's unanticipated, disproportionate, and poorly planned response meant that 34 days later, 1,100 Lebanese were killed (the majority civilians), another 3,600 were injured, 10,000 homes were destroyed, and a further 95,000 damaged.

Hezbollah launched 4,000 rockets at Israel, resulting in 42 civilian casualties, and a further 119 Israeli soldiers died in combat.

And the kidnapped soldiers remained in Hezbollah's hands, until the prisoner-exchange deal brokered in the summer of 2008.

This is also a book about small, naive men (and a few women) with large egos, applying 17th century solutions to 21st century problems, and happy to sacrifice the lives of soldiers and civilians to serve their own political and power-hungry objectives.

The stories that Harel and Issacharoff focus on revolve around the war exposing two truths: First, the inexperienced, weak and incompetent Israeli leadership, personified by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. And second, the level of incompetence that the Israeli army has been reduced to, as lack of training and budget cut-backs take their toll.

The authors spend a lot of time and effort establishing the sequence of faulty decision-making by Olmert, Peretz and Halutz, and uncovering the reasons behind this incompetence. This is likely the book's strongest point.

While the authors trace back the failures of the military back to Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, they miss the overall strategic arch of Israel's military evolution. It is recognized that Israel's finest military hour was 1967. The 1973 Yom Kippur war exposed significant deficiencies, and the 1982 "first" war in Lebanon, and subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon to the year 2000, was the first time that that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) failed strategically. The 2006 war was confirmation that traditional armies can win every battlefield encounter, and yet strategically fail miserably against a determined opponent using guerrilla tactics and backed by a local population. See Vietnam, 1975, for when that lesson should have been learned by those who choose to pay attention.

By writing this book less than two years after the end of the war, it is not a surprise that Harel and Issacharoff, two journalists with Ha'aretz, focus on tactical details, in particular events at meetings (lots of meetings), phone calls, draft documents (lots of draft documents), telephone calls, and conversations in hallways. This may all be of historical value to some egg-headed researchers; as a narrative it fails miserably. The authors mix very clumsy battlefield descriptions with the minutia of who said what to whom, when, and where and then overlay the mess with their personal critique of everything -- battlefield tactics, political decisions, and military commands.

Maybe a lot got lost in the translation, but the book's writing style is very pedestrian, and the authors are very clearly journalists, not yet in control of the requirements of assembling a book.

Harel
and Isaacharoff would do well to read, or re-read, Howard Blum's The Eve of Destruction (2003) on the Yom Kippur war, for an example on how a highly compelling book can be woven out of wartime events.

As a simple example, literally hundreds of names of Israeli politicians, army commanders, soldiers, and even journalists are thrown at the reader, often with no introduction other than position or rank, and just as quickly most characters are abandoned within paragraphs or pages. It's as if the authors felt compelled to introduce every extra who participated in the war, with the result that the important characters and events get lost in muddle. And to add to the confusion, at some of the most critical passages, the authors switch to using some characters' first names after having referred to them by their surnames for several prior pages.

In terms of balance, the authors are clearly much more familiar with events in Israel than in Lebanon, and they had access to very few research sources outside of Israel. But to their credit, they at least make an attempt to portray events in Lebanon. They do however, slip into one-sided terminology on more than one occasion, most infuriatingly in this passage on page 95, describing an early draft of what eventually became the United Nations resolution that ended the war:

Most of the principles in the document, which was formulated two days after the war erupted, appeared in another version - Security Council Resolution 1701 - that was passed four weeks and 100 deaths later.

Clearly, the deaths of more than 1,000 people in Lebanon during these four weeks therefore meant very little to Harel and Issacharoff.

For those with interest in Middle East events, 34 Days is a must-read, but, unfortunately, not a good read.






Hardcover published in the US by Palgrave MacMillan. 261 pages, plus Notes and Index.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Film Review: Wall.E (2008)


The latest film from the minds at Pixar aims at some big, broad, messages, suitably amplified to penetrate young minds and the minds of their possibly denser parents: Don't Trash the Planet! Take Care of Nature and Nature Will Take Care of You! Avoid Junk Food! Teamwork Rocks! Love Conquers All!. It's all very topical, and the audience takes these messages in, nods knowingly, and fails to make the connection that they arrived at the Cineplex in a needlessly oversized SUV, are junking the floor with sticky pop and fake-butter smudged popcorn, while drinking water out of plastic bottles. We cheer the film's message; but we don't necessarily really get it.

The genius of the movie is in its delivery. The story is told with almost no dialogue, and using the latest in computer animation technology. Wall.E is a small trash compacting unit left behind on Earth to clean up the mess after all the humans took refuge on space ships because the planet was overtaken by garbage. The clean-up was supposed to take 5 years; instead, 700 years have passed. The humans have adapted to life on robot-controlled spaceships by taking obesity to new levels. They can't walk anymore, and are transported everywhere on cool looking motorized chairs. They communicate through virtual reality screens, and have their every food and drink need delivered instantaneously by endlessly scurrying robots. In short, "comfortably numb" has finally been defined for the human race.

Back on Earth, Wall.E is one of the last remaining robots getting on with the job, and he's developed some very human, almost nauseatingly cute emotions and intelligence, not to mention a friendship with a fellow-surviving cockroach (they will, apparently, survive anything). Onto Earth descends Eve, a shiny new and powerful robot programmed to look for signs of growing life (but apparently not cockroaches). Wall.E is smitten. Eve finds a growing plant. The humans can come home. But there are evil-doers trying to foil the happy ending, and Wall.E and Eve have to team-up with some rogue robots to save the day.

The ending of this film is telegraphed about half-way through, and except for the very young, the audience has to grin and watch the very expected events unfold for the last 45 minutes. It is not too tedious, but it gets close.

There is no doubting the artistry and talent behind this film, and Pixar deliver another extremely high quality product. But a bit less messaging, and a bit more originality in avoiding the obvious, would have been appreciated.



CD Review: The End of Heartache, by Killswitch Engage (2004)


This third studio album was the breakthrough CD for Massachusetts' heavy metal quintet Killswitch Engage. Although the CD has a lot going for it, it also lacks maturity and consistency. The potential is clear; but the package is not quite ready yet.

The word that comes to mind about The End of Heartache is bloated. 12 songs, two of them unnecessary short instrumentals, and another three songs that are just average, and bordering on annoying. This leaves seven above-average and strong tracks, and in the days before bands felt compelled to issue long CDs, these seven songs would have produced a killer CD.

The band's style is straightforward metalcore, with vocals to the front, and not too much reliance on guitar solos. Melodies and song composition and structure are hit-and-miss; too many songs meander in the noisy wilderness with no rescue in sight. Others achieve a cool groove and deliver the goods. There are no classical shadings, but the slower songs and song sections indicate a healthy respect for a variety of tempos.

In the heart of the songlist, Rose of Sharyn, Breathe Life and The End of Heartache can stand proudly with the better metal of the decade. And the CD ends with a flourish, both Wasted Sacrifice and Hope Is... delivering memorable riffs and strong melodies. On these tracks, the band sounds focused, purposeful and tight, full of promise and potential to leap to the next league of successful heavy metal band. It is unfortunate that the CD is weighed down by weak tracks like openers A Bid Farewell and Take This Oath, and fillers Declaration and World Ablaze.

It may do the band some good to work with an outside producer who may be much more likely to take the knife out and cut the fat. On this CD guitarist / vocalist Adam Dutkiewicz is also performing producing and engineering duties, which means that there is no outside voice providing unbiased advice, and it shows.


Band:

Mike D'Antonio - Bass
Justin Foley - Drums
Adam Dutkiewicz - Guitars, Vocals
Howard Jones - Vocals
Joel Stroetzel - Guitar


Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. A Bid Farewell - 7
2. Take This Oath - 7
3. When Darkness Falls - 6
4. Rose of Sharyn - 8
5. Inhale - no rating (short instrumental)
6. Breathe Life - 9
7. The End of Heartache - 8
8. Declaration - 6
9. World Ablaze - 6
10. And Embers Rise - no rating (short instrumental)
11. Wasted Sacrifice - 8
12. Hope Is... - 8

Average: 7.30

Produced and Engineered by Adam Dutkiewicz
Mixed and Mastered by Andy Sneap

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