Monday, 29 June 2009

Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

In this remake of the 1974 film that epitomized the emerging hot, overbearing, urban and pessimistic style of the 1970's, a group of hijackers led by "Ryder" ( John Travolta) takes over a New York subway car in the middle of an underground tunnel, and demands a ransom of $10 Million to be delivered in one hour. Otherwise, one passenger will be shot every minute.

Ryder establishes contact with Garber (Denzel Washington) a subway authority dispatcher with a troubled past of his own. As the clock ticks towards the deadline, the relationship between Ryder and Garber forms the core of the film, as all around them there is panic. The New York Mayor (James Gandolfini) and his entourage wade in; a professional negotiator (John Turtorro) has to work around Ryder's insistence of only talking to Garber; the SWAT teams have to deal with an unhinged hijacker who is not afraid to pull the trigger; and the police have to escort $10 million in cash across town, using a high-speed convoy through busy New York traffic.

This latter plot element is an extremely contrived addition to the movie, apparently for the sole purpose of satisfying director Tony Scott's desire for a high speed chase scene, complete with multiple crashes and cars flying off overpasses. As the mayor says halfway through, echoing the question in every viewer's mind, "couldn't they have used a helicopter?"

In keeping with modern times, this version of The Taking of Pelham 123 has a generally positive message about New York, and gently celebrates the city's services, workers, and emergency responders. It's an interesting but not unwelcome departure from the original, celebrating how far the city's image has been improved.

The two old pros Travolta and Washington both deliver polished performances, working from a script by Brian Helgeland. Travolta has the more maniacal role with not inappropriate frequent and sharp mood swings. Washington is remarkably cool throughout, in the process straining a bit at the credibility envelope of the skills under pressure that can be expected from a city employee.

The 2009 edition of The Taking of Pelham 123 is unlikely to be fondly remembered 35 years from now, like the original is. At the same time, it is a star-driven slick and entertaining hijack caper that can be enjoyed on its own merits.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

CD Review: Pitch Black Effects, by Callenish Circle (2005)

There are not many heavy metal bands from Holland. Callenish Circle had a go at a career for about 10 years from the mid-1990's to the mid 2000's, but after only fair to middling success, they called it a day in early 2007. Pitch Black Effects was their final CD, and probably a good indication of the band's talent and limitations.

All the ingredients are there: a reasonable twin guitar sound, good growl vocals, a dense but unobtrusive foundation of bass and drums, and a dedication to energetic melody-based metal.
But the necessary spices and seasonings that are needed to propel a band towards more widespread success are missing -- the songs are mostly forgettable, repetitive, and sound-a-like, there are a few too many synth-driven trickeries, the solos are tame, and overall the CD provides an impression of a band trying hard but straining and only hitting the peripheries of all the important targets.

This Day You Regret points to the promise of the band: a hard-hitting, fast melody driven by a memorable staccato guitar assault. Sweet Cyanide also hints at the strengths of the band, with a complex and lyrical melody that combines speed changes with lively delivery.

Unfortunately there is little else that awakens the CD from the doldrums. The rest of the song list is a combination of uninspired and unambitious, and mostly just thumps along with unmemorable tunes in search of a purpose. Guess Again dips into particularly poor levels of mediocrity.

Given the band's clear effort, this is all somewhat sad, and it is surely both appropriate and suitable that the career ends on a short melancholy instrumental titled Pitch Black. Crank up This Day You Regret and remember Callenish Circle at their best.


Pat Savelkoul - Vocals
Ron Tijssen - Guitars
Gav Harte - Drums
Muuk Dietern - Guitars
Maurice Brouwers - Bass

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. This Day You Regret - 9
2. Ignorant - 6
3. Behind Lines - 6
4. Schwarzes Licht - 6
5. Sweet Cyanide - 8
6. Blind - 7
7. Guess Again - 5
8. Self-Inflicted - 6
9. As You Speak - 7
10. Pitch Black - n/a (short instrumental)

Average: 6.67

Produced and Recorded by Gail Liebling.
Mixed by Tue Madsen, Gail Liebling and Ronny Tijssen.
Mastered by Peter Neuber.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Movie Review: Terminator Salvation (2009)

The good guys are very macho, the bad guys are very macho, the women are very macho, and the machines are (of course) very macho. In the post-apocalyptic Terminator vision, those who do not drip machismo will be dropped dead and abandoned among the carnage of broken buildings, broken cars, and just plain broken civilization.

The fourth episode of this franchise that started all the way back in 1984, Salvation takes us for the first time into the future that was only hinted at in previous episodes.

The year is 2018, and human soldiers lead by John Connor (a macho Christian Bale) are fighting the war for the survival of the human race against the SkyNet machines that launched Judgement Day on the planet. A mysterious stranger called Marcus (a very macho Sam Worthington) drops into the battle, and we know from the movie's opening sequence that Marcus was a death row inmate who donated his body to science back in 2003.

You would need to be very new to the Terminator concept not to suspect that some re-incarnation of Marcus has been sent through time, this time forwards, probably with some ill intentions towards Connor.

The overall battle between humans and machines then becomes the backdrop to the evolving tension between John and Marcus, with the usual complications thrown in such as major disagreements between Connor and his submarine-dwelling commanders, and a bond that develops between Marcus and one of Connor's soldiers, female (but still macho) pilot Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood).

Bloodgood has probably the most interesting character and performance on display, but unfortunately she fades away due to neglect from the final third of the movie.

Terminator Salvation does only a few things, but it does them well. Director McG ensures that things blow up with big bangs. The war equipment looks authentically grimy, and the set-design is quite brilliant. Those familiar with the computer game Fallout 3 will instantly recognize the striking similarities in the look and feel of the movie.

Terminator Salvation does not pay too much attention to characterizations or any attempts at developing much of a emotional centre of gravity. The characters remain for the most part cardboard cut-outs with dialogue lines inspired by comic books, or previous movies. Michael Ironside as the overall leader of the resistance mails in a performance -- and dialogue -- that he has mass-produced a good dozen times in much worse productions. And there is even a mute long-haired kid here who seems to have time-warped straight in from the set of Mad Max 2 (1981).

Taken as almost a straight-ahead war story with a bit of routine human drama tossed in, Terminator Salvation certainly delivers, but do expect a bit of a hollow spot where the soul of the movie usually resides.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 19 June 2009

CD Review: Wrath, by Lamb of God (2009)

After the melody-heavy Sacrament (2006), Lamb of God take a trip back to some of their roots on Wrath.

While the band sounds as polished and corporate-produced as they come, the song structures go back to the unrefined and more simplistic jungle feel of As The Palaces Burn, New American Gospel, and Ashes of the Wake. For some fans this is probably a good thing, but for those who like more to their songs that straight-ahead energy, Wrath is quite the let-down.

In the overall context of the CD, instrumental opener The Passing and second track In Your Words belong more to Sacrament. In Your Words is by far the best thing on Wrath, with an imaginative and memorable staccato guitar theme that evokes an impending crushing attack.

But the songwriting quality unfortunately and immediately takes a noticeable dip through the monotonous Set to Fail and Contractor, and the weak Fake Messiah and Grace, all of which resemble paint-by-numbers and none of which offer anything remotely memorable.

All the remaining tracks are only a bit better: lots of energy, a general lack of imagination and a failure to do much with some reasonable hooks. Final track Reclamation at least breaks the monotony and introduces a slower more deliberate tempo compared to the rest of the CD, but even it cannot rise from the overall drabness.

There is no faulting the tightness of the band, the cleanliness of the sound, and Randy Blythe's dominant vocals. It's just the songwriting that regresses away from the promise of the band's previous progression.


Chris Adler: Drums
John Campbell: Bass
Mark Morton: Guitars
Willie Adler: Guitars
Randy Blythe: Vocals

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. The Passing - 8
2. In Your Words - 9
3. Set to Fail - 7
4. Contractor - 7
5. Fake Messiah - 6
6. Grace - 6
7. Broken Hands - 7
8. Dead Seeds - 7
9. Everything To Nothing - 7
10. Choke Sermon - 7
11. Reclamation - 7

Average: 7.09

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by Josh Wilbur
Engineered by Dave Holdredge and Paul Suarez
Mastered by Brian Gardner

Wrath at the Ace Black Store.
The Ace Black Blog CD Review No. 33.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Book Review: Ghost - Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, by Fred Burton (2008)

Fred Burton was a counterterrorism agent at the State Department Diplomatic Security Service, tasked with protecting US diplomats and embassies around the world. In Ghost, he takes us on a fast-paced tour of life in what he calls the Dark World of spying and counter-spying, international terrorist attacks, and multitudes of threats both real and false.

It is an eye opening look at the inner workings of United States counterterrorism. Focusing on the period from 1986 to 1995, Burton evolves from a beat cop in the Washington DC area breaking up knife fights among aimless youth to a grizzled veteran of the Dark World, investigating the downing of the plane of the President of Pakistan in the desolate desert, and helping to plan the capture of Ramzi Yousef.

He debriefs American hostages released from Beirut, skirts at the periphery of the Iran-Contra scandal, attempts to infiltrate Hezbollah, and deals with the fallout from the shadowy war waged between Libya and the US, which culminated in the downing of Pan Am 103. On the home front he also has to thwart home-grown threats against State Department officials.

Burton reveals the evolution of international counterterrorism at the State Department, from a tiny underfunded group to a large organization, always having to navigate around the egos and turf of other intelligence agencies.

But perhaps the books' most powerful contribution is in revealing the life of the agent at the human level, the constant traveling at a moment's notice, the detachment from family, the endless, fraying tension about when and where the next crisis will hit and what the next phone call will bring. Burton is an excellent writer with a good eye for detail, and Ghost is a powerful personal journey through his emotions.

The book is presented as a chronological personal story, which means that we get the slice of the international event that Burton himself witnessed and participated in, and there is no neat start nor end-point to most of the conflicts that he experiences -- a very appropriate look into the immense Dark World.

The one shortcoming of the book is Burton's utter lack of demonstrated understanding of the motivations of the enemies that he fights. He presents an ultra-simplistic "us is good, them is bad" scenario that perhaps served him well in his career, but a failure to discuss why the enemy fights does not make for a nuanced exploration of the roots of the simmering conflicts.

Ghost is an enjoyable personal and international story, well written and gripping both in its real action and true emotion.

272 pages. No Index.

Published in hardcover by Random House.

Ghost at the Ace Black Store.
Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 21.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

CD Review: The March, by Unearth (2008)

And on their fourth CD, it all comes together for Unearth, the heavy metal quintet from Winthrop, Massachusetts.

The March is a quite brilliant 10-song set that finally combines mature and confident melody-driven song-writing with the indisputable power that Unearth always possessed. The band settles on a mid to fast-tempo pace and expand their wings with frequent tempo changes delivered with clean and smooth transitions.

Trevor Phipps' vocals remain the focal sound of the band, but on The March, the guitars of Buz McGrath and Ken Susi explode into welcome prominence. Every song features memorable and melodic guitar-dominated intro or solo work, and often both. Two mind-melting tracks, Crow Killer and We Are Not Anonymous, are prime examples of Unearth's guitars joining the vocals in leading the band's assault from the front. The drums of Derek Kerswill and the bass of John Maggard lay the thick foundation upon which the soaring songs are built.

There are many other stand-out tracks: My Will Be Done opens the CD with a powerful statement of intent. Title track The March aims for a bottom-end sound of tank-like power, while Cutman takes a turn into guitar story-telling themes.

As a melody, The Chosen is probably one of the weaker track, but it turns out to be just one big set-up for a magnificent Maiden-inspired guitar showcase that kicks in at the 2 minute mark and goes on for 50 seconds. Letting Go is a bit plodding, but CD closer Truth Or Consequence re-establishes the overall tempo and mood with an overdose of chugging power.

The CD is produced by Adam Dutkiewicz, guitarist with Killswitch Engage, and he delivers just the right amount of polish and raw energy.

With The March, Unearth join the front-row of today's heavy metal bands.


Trevor Phipps - Vocals
Buz McGrath - Guitar
Ken Susi - Guitar
John "Slo" Maggard - Bass
Derek Kerswill - Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. My Will Be Done - 10 *See video below*
2. Hail The Shrine - 8
3. Crow Killer - 10
4. Grave Of Opportunity - 9
5. We Are Not Anonymous - 10
6. The March - 8
7. Cutman - 9
8. The Chosen - 7
9. Letting Go - 7
10. Truth Or Consequence - 8

Average: 8.60

Produced by Adam Dutkiewicz.
Mixed by Andy Sneap.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Friday, 5 June 2009

CD Review: This Age Of Silence, by Anterior (2007)

One of the most impressive metal CD debuts of all time, Anterior's This Age Of Silence ranks up there with Iron Maiden's self-titled debut and Kalmah's Swamplord as jaw-dropping examples of a band exploding onto the scene and just slaying their surroundings.

This Age Of Silence features a tight set of seven tracks (and two short instrumentals), characterized by a dynamic twin-guitar sound that defines the evolution (finally!) of what Maiden started. The guitar solo of Human Hive is the strapping young offspring of Maiden's sound.

That Anterior can bolt impressive twin-guitar driven melodies onto complex arrangements, tempo changes, and a death metal sound, is simply astounding for a debut effort. The band establish a perfect medium-fast tempo as their base-line, but they demonstrate remarkable courage and maturity by frequently dropping the tempo for key song sections. The tempo and melody transitions are perfect.

The Welsh band sounds confident, and the songwriting (by Leon Kemp) and delivery are what can be expected from a veteran act in their prime.

Standout tracks include The Silent Divide, Dead Divine, and Human Hive. But all the tracks feature terrific melodies and massive integrated solos. The epic Seraph, meanwhile, re-defines what modern heavy metal solos could sound like.

One mild criticism is the fading-out of some tracks rather than sharply ending them -- something to work on. The CD's production quality, while OK, is not great -- there is a lack of sharpness to the sound that does not seem to be intentional.

Anterior have set a high standard for themselves, and for that alone, they should be applauded.


Luke Davies - Vocals, Guitar
Leon Kemp - Lead Guitar
James Britton - Bass
Ross Andrews - Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Ghosts of Dawn - n/a (short intro)
2. The Silent Divide - 10
3. Dead Divine - 9
4. Days of Deliverance - 7
5. Human Hive - 8
6. Stir of Echoes - n/a (short instrumental)
7. Scar City - 9
8. Seraph - 10 *See audio clip below*
9. This Age of Silence - 8

Average: 8.71

Produced and Mixed by Tim Hamill and Anterior.
Engineered by Tim Hamill. Mastered by Brad Vance.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

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