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.



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