Sunday, 25 October 2009

CD Review: Kingdom of Might, by Woe of Tyrants (2009)


On their major-label debut CD (and second overall), Ohio's Woe of Tyrants deliver a mix of technical and melodic metal that sometimes reaches exquisite heights of brilliance, while just as often wallowing in tuneless mediocrity. And these swings in inspiration often occur on the same track.

Witness the outstanding introduction to Soli Deo Gloria, which then quickly descends into a monotonous bashing; or the magnificent introduction and ending of Break the Fangs of the Wicked, dragged down by a featureless mid-section. Sounding Jerusalem includes a passage that promises a launch into a stratospheric journey, but it quickly lands in a boring thud. The Seven Braids of Samson offers nothing for three and half minutes but finishes with a steel-melting solo that travels from Ohio to Finland at the speed of light.

There are a few tracks on Kingdom of Might that never emerge out of the maniacal franticness, and the worst one is Kingdom of Might (The Eclipse) which achieves exactly nothing at the expense of massive energy.

At the same time, the instrumental track Sons of Thunder is close to brilliant, while Like Jasper and Parnelian does achieve spine-tingling magnificence despite some messiness in the structure and transitions. When Woe of Tyrants are good, they evoke a mouth watering triangular marriage of Iron Maiden's twin-guitar harmonies; Kalmah's lead guitar supremacy and the best of Unearth's metalcore strength. They just don't achieve their highest potential too often.

It is not clear yet if Woe of Tyrants want to be labelled as Christian metal or not, but there certainly are enough clues in the track titles, lyrics, and band member notes in the high-quality CD booklet to suggest strong positive religious tones.

Hopefully the band matures from here and focuses on developing more structured melodies and more coherent tracks, more often.

Band:

Chris Burns - Guitar
Johnny Roberts - Drums
Adam Kohler - Bass
Matt Kincaid - Guitar
Chris Catanzaro - Vocals

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Jesu Juva - n/a (short instrumental)
2. Soli Deo Gloria - 7
3. Break the Fangs of the Wicked - 8
4. Pearls Before Swine - 6
5. Kingdom of Might (The Eclipse) - 5
6. Kingdom of Might (Dawn in the Darkness) - 7
7. Sounding Jerusalem - 7
8. Sons of Thunder - 9
9. The Seven Braids of Samson - 7
10. Like Jasper and Parnelian - 10
11. Golgotha - 6

Average: 7.20

Produced by Woe of Tyrants and Joey Sturgis.
Engineered and Mastered by Joey Sturgis.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Movies: The Worst of All Time

It takes a special combination of horrible writing, wooden acting, uninspired directing, and misplaced intentions to create a truly bad movie. Sometimes, illusions of grandeur or super-inflated egos contribute. In other cases, a total misreading of the public's mood, a misunderstanding of the fans' affection for a star, or a disconnect with the ever-changing cultural landscape, result in a memorable mess. And it always helps to have a runaway, out of control budget.

Here is a brief description of 10 of the all-time worst.

At Long Last Love (1975), directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Stars like Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and Madeline Kahn were somehow convinced by director and writer Bogdanovich that they could sing - live - in this homage to the 1930's style Hollywood musical. Instead, they just embarrassed themselves and delivered one of the clumsiest movie disasters of all time. The poor reaction may have also been prompted by a backlash against the off-screen relationship between Bogdanovich and Shepherd.


Gigli (2003), directed by Martin Brest. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez so over-exposed themselves as a glamour real-life couple, and so over-hyped this on-screen pairing, that the film's failure was both spectacular and well-deserved. The movie cost $54 Million and recouped $4 Million. The story reportedly involved Affleck as a low-level mobster involved in some sort of kidnapping, but the few people who saw the movie were so stupefied by the overall incompetence in front and behind the cameras and the shocking lack of star chemistry to really care.

Heaven's Gate (1980), directed by Michael Cimono. One of those movies that got trampled under it's director's ego. In an era where directors considered themselves visionary artistes, Cimono had one good but over bloated film to his name in The Deer Hunter, and proceeded to put together this massively over bloated and certainly not good western that may have had something to do with the Johnson County War. It cost $42 Million and earned back less that $3 Million, and sunk its studio, United Artists. Arriving soon after the Watergate scandal, this film ensured that "Gate" become the added descriptive noun of choice for any man-made scandal.

Howard the Duck (1986), directed by Willard Huyck. Probably the only disaster on the resume of executive producer George Lucas. A lame story about an unfunny duck from another planet (Duckworld) who arrives for an adventure on Earth. Disagreements over whether this should have been a live-action or a cartoon (it would not have mattered), and various production difficulties ballooned the budget to $36 Million, and this disaster grossed no more than $10 Million. The film destroyed the careers of many who worked on it, in front of and behind the camera.

Inchon (1982), directed by Terence Young. This supposed war movie was intended to depict the battle of Incheon during the Korean War. Natural disasters, natural deaths, sheer incompetence, the shady financial involvement of the Unification Church (otherwise known as the Moonies), not to mention the participation of the US Military in the production resulted in a $46 Million disaster that was laughed out of theatres after recovering a paltry $5 Million. Somehow, talented actors such as Sir Laurence Olivier, Jacqueline Bisset, Ben Gazzara, and Toshiro Mifune were among those involved; thankfully, none of their careers suffered permanent damage.



Ishtar (1986), directed by Elaine May. Teaming up Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as two lousy lounge singers who end us in an unanticipated desert adventure must have seemed like a good idea -- in the 1940's. Fans of the 1980's wondered why there was no humour, no charisma, and no trace of how the $30 Million production budget was used. Beatty and Hoffman have enough quality on their resume to be given a pass for this flop.


Moment By Moment (1978), directed by Jane Wagner. After Saturday Night Fever and Grease, John Travolta was the hottest star on the planet. Removing him from singing / dancing roles and teaming him with Lily Tomlin in a Spring / Winter romance quickly put an end to all that, as fans groaned at the insipid plot, witless script, and stultifying boredom. Wagner never directed another movie, Tomlin's career never recovered, and Travolta's career took a dive that required a generation to correct.



Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. Aliens who look exactly like humans hover menacingly in saucers that look exactly like paper plates, and hatch a plot to destroy earth by re-awakening the dead. The zombies then walk around a single cemetery looking for other humans to kill. It all comes to an end with a good old fashioned fist fight. Before his death the once great Bela Lugosi filmed a few scenes apparently for a whole other movie with director Wood, and these somehow got inserted into this gem.

The Postman (1996), directed by Kevin Costner. When it comes to overblown egos, few could compete with Kevin Costner. After the huge success of Dances With Wolves (1990) catapulted him to the A-List, he came up with not one, but two epic post-apocalyptic failures: Waterworld (1995) and The Postman. But while Costner's name saved the horrible Waterworld from financial ruin, there was no saving The Postman: An $18 Million return on an $80 Million budget is the best equivalent to burning money. The plot, by the way, has something to do with a loner hero taking on a future neo-fascist army.

Showgirls (1995), directed by Paul Verhoeven. Overhyped as a sex-and-nudity epic, audiences just laughed at the cliched script (by the pompous Joe Eszterhas) in which every character was borrowed from some other movie and every wooden line of dialogue was recycled and delivered by actors who seemed to take it all seriously. The story has to do with the mysterious girl dancer who lands in Vegas and wants to be a star!


Sunday, 18 October 2009

Movie Review: For A Few Dollars More (1965)


The middle chapter of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, For A Few Dollars More is probably the least celebrated installment, but also ironically the most complete film among the three.

While A Fistful Of Dollars is magnificent in its sparseness and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is magnificently overblown, For A Few Dollars More sets about delivering the most solid character-driven narrative, perfectly meshing Leone's style with another brilliant Morricone score and a fleshed-out story that is now clearly backed by a bigger budget.

There are more locales, more extras, more scenes, more characters and more background than the first installment, without yet veering into the all-out opera territory of the final chapter.

After the remarkable and unexpected success of A Fistful Of Dollars in Europe, Leone rapidly pulled For A Few Dollars More together. He convinced Clint Eastwood to sign-up for the sequel and reprise his role as the Man With No Name, even though the first film had not even been released in the US. With more budget at his disposal, Leone was also able to afford another American actor, and Lee Van Cleef got the role of Colonel Mortimer.

The plot sees Eastwood and Van Cleef as two bounty hunters who eventually team up to take down the gang of the vicious bandit El Indio (another perfect Gian Maria Volonte villain). There are bank robberies, gun-fights, exotic guns, and a terrific hat-shooting duel. There are memorable secondary characters, like Klaus Kinski as a massively haunch-backed member of El Indio's gang. The film reaches a climax with a final showdown that is almost triangular, and that sows the seed for the magnificent finale that Leone conjured up for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The final post-climax math puzzle that is resolved by The Man With No Name is a terrific cherry on top of the icing on the cake, perfectly capturing the spirit of the trilogy.

For A Few Dollars More makes use of flashbacks and a simple but haunting tune (in this case played by a pocket watch), both tools that Leone would develop to chilling perfection in Once Upon A Time in the West.

For A Few Dollars More is the meat in the sandwich of the Dollars trilogy, not the most visible part of the meal, but certainly an essential component of the experience.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


CD Review: A New Disease Is Born, by Nightrage (2007)



On A New Disease Is Born, melodic death metal band Nightrage demonstrate above-average song writing and a strong tendency towards relatively short, compact and tightly delivered tracks. While the music is effective, it gets predictable and is sometimes in danger of drifting from effectively simple to plainly simplistic.

Nightrage is an interesting band, since Greece traditionally is not the birthplace of too many well-known metal bands. Founding member Marios Iliopoulos has relocated to Sweden, and with a revolving door of band members, it remains to be seen where the band will evolve to. After the recording of A New Disease Is Born, all the band members except Iliopoulos left to pursue other projects.

The strength of A New Disease Is Born lies in the melodies that underpin each of the tracks. While none are groundbreaking, all are powerful enough to carry a good song, often with lyrical or folk metal shadings but without ever losing the power emphasis. As a result, there are no poor tracks on the CD, and band is to be commended for maintaining uniform quality over 12 tracks. At the same time, the melodies are often poorly developed, and the CD fails to deliver a stand-out flagship tune, although opener Spiral comes close, with vocals that peel the paint and a thick, unstoppable groove.

The vocals delivered by Jimmie Strimell mix a deep growl with a relatively high-pitched clean sound on almost every song. The drumming is solid, but with some unnecessary use of the double bass, while the bass guitar is very much in the far background.

While the guitar work by Alex Svenningson is sharp, the CD definitely suffers badly from the complete absence of any memorable guitar solos. Either the band is intentionally steering away from solos, or soloing is simply not in Svenningson's repertoire; either way, the result is like a well-cooked dish that is lacking a key ingredient.

An interesting and definitely enjoyable curiosity, even though it fails to ever truly soar.

Band:

Jimmie Strimell - Vocals
Marios Iliopoulos - Guitars
Alex Svenningson - Drums
Henric Carlsson - Bass

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Spiral - 9
2. Reconcile - 8
3. Death-Like Silence - 7
4. A Condemned Club - 8
5. Scars - 8
6. De-Fame - 8
7. Scathing - 7
8. Surge of Pity - 7
9. Encircle - 8
10. Drone - 8
11. Spiritual Impulse - 7
12. A New Disease Is Born - 7

Average: 7.67

Engineered, Mixed, and Mastered by Jacob Hansen.
Produced by Jacob Hansen and Marios Iliopoulos.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Film Review: We Loved Each Other So Much (2003)


The Lebanese Civil War erupted in 1975, and lasted for 15 years. Approximately 200,000 lives were lost in the conflict, which pitted the Lebanese against each other with a large dose of foreign intervention.

When the conflict ended, deep societal scars took hold, and exist until today.

In 2003, about 13 years after most of the shooting stopped, Dutch Director Jack Janssen took his documentary cameras to Lebanon and conducted interviews with Lebanese survivors of the war. In We Loved Each Other So Much, he captures a vivid cross-section of society: former fighters who were on opposite sides of the front lines; civilians who were caught in the cross-fire; members of the country's cultural community; an Armenian photographer; and two generations of Palestinian refugees.

The common thread that the film captures is the music of the Lebanese diva Fairuz. A brilliant singer with searing emotion in her voice, and famous throughout the Arab word before, during and after the Civil War, Fairuz did not leave Lebanon during the war, nor did she ever take sides; she simply survived the conflict along with her fellow civilians, and kept recording and performing whenever she could.

She became a symbol of hope and endurance -- ironically, for all sides of the conflict.

As the country disintegrated and Lebanon made the journey from the Switzerland of the Middle East to the world's most notorious hell hole, lives were destroyed, massacres were unleashed, buildings collapsed, society tore itself apart...and the music of Fairuz played on, often lamenting the misery unfolding around it or providing a diversion from it.

Janssen's cameras capture the full emotions of the war that the music of Fairuz unlocks in the Lebanese survivors. The interviewees gradually reveal themselves to be a range of victims and survivors, all with tender emotional wounds just below the surface. Many suffered personal losses and direct encounters with death. One former fighter sees little hope and lives in despair. Others have patched up their lives and carry on with hope for the future but a wary eye on the past. The songs of Fairuz bring back memories of life's milestones, often wrapped in the pain and suffering of a savage conflict.

We Loved Each Other So Much is a well-crafted testimony to the raw emotional power of music, and to the talent of Fairuz. It is also a stark and tragic human recounting of the consequences of war, and while the film focuses on Lebanon, similar wasteful tragedies unfold daily around the world.








All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

CD Review: A Celebration of Guilt, by Arsis (2004)


It should be impossible for two men to produce so much sound, but the first CD from Virginia's Arsis demonstrates that it only takes two people to create a LOT of noise.

Arsis started as more or less a one-man project, with James Malone responsible for vocals and all instruments except the drums, and writing all songs and the music on A Celebration of Guilt. The CD booklet does not credit any help from a Producer or Engineer (Wikipedia lists Steve Carr and Bob Garske as Producers), so Malone likely had a big hand in these duties as well. Michael Van Dyne delivers drumming duties.

While the effort is appreciated and there is no questioning the dedication to technical heavy metal, A Celebration of Guilt is pronounced guilty of a few crimes. There is a sameness to the songs from start to finish, and the drums are both too fast and too tinny throughout.

Most of the songs suffer from a severe lack of cohesion. While interesting short tunes and melodies drift in and out, and require repeated listens to identify themselves, the overwhelming mark left behind is that of incessant and uncoordinated noise, which primarily consists of heat, fury, speed and quantity rather than quality song-writing.

A special mention to some of the song titles that aim to compete with many of the titles in Trivium's catalogue for the "wildly weird and wonderful words" category. The Sadistic Motives Behind Bereavement Letters certainly stands out in terms of a heavy metal song title, and for being the one track on the CD that almost hangs together and survives the noise assault with a meaningfully sustained tune from start to end. Almost.

Whenever Malone scrubs off some speed and simplifies his compositions, which happens intermittently and often for seconds at a time, he reveals a capability and talent that could be channeled into much more interesting directions. But on this first CD, Arsis can only be described as frantically running off in all directions at once, and hence getting nowhere, but getting there real fast.

Band:

James Malone Guitars, Bass, Vocals
Michael Van Dyne: Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. The Face of My Innocence - 7
2. Maddening Disdain - 7
3. Seven Whispers Fell Silent - 7
4. Return - 7
5. Worship Depraved - 6
6. Carnal Ways to Recreate the Heart - 7
7. Dust and Guilt - 7
8. Elegant and Perverse - 6
9. The Sadistic Motives Behind Bereavement Letters - 8
10. Looking to Nothing - 7
11. Wholly Night - 7

Average: 6.91

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Film Review: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)


It is remarkable how much of an impact this film had on the history of movie-making. A Fistful of Dollars:
  • launched the career of Clint Eastwood, who went on to become one of Hollywood's all-time great stars and directors;
  • was the first cornerstone of the celebrated Dollars trilogy, followed by For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly;
  • launched the career of Sergio Leone, which in addition to the Dollars trilogy, included two stunning classics: Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America.
  • launched the Spaghetti Western sub-genre that thrived for about a decade, and which in turn allowed American westerns to re-emerge with dark classics like The Wild Bunch, Silverado and The Unforgiven;
  • launched the career of Ennio Morricone, as one of the most recognizable and most influential composer of movie music;
  • established several stylistic film-making signatures, from tight focus shots on the eyes to dramatically staged operatic duels filmed from unique and dynamic angles;
  • and introduced to the Western genre the persona and image of the stylized anti-hero with few words, a person whose only virtue is that he is - perhaps - a bit less evil than all else that surrounds him.
All this from a movie filmed in the Spanish desert on a shoestring budget by an Italian director who could not communicate with his one English-speaking grade B TV actor, with a supporting cast of Italians and Germans, and based on a forgotten Japanese film called Yojimbo.

The Man with No Name, an expert gunslinger, arrives on a mule to the small town of San Miguel along the Mexico / US border. The town is dominated by two families vying for control of the cross-border smuggling trade: the Baxters control the weapons smuggling business; the Rojos control the alcohol smuggling business; and the two families are busy trying to kill each other. The coffin-maker understandably operates the only thriving business in town.

"There is money to be made in a place like this", proclaims the Man with No Name, and he proceeds to alternately offer his services to the two families, getting rich as he plays them off against each other. Eventually the war between the families escalates to the point where the Rojos brutally wipe out the Baxters, and the Man with No Name faces off against Ramon, the leader of the Rojos, in a duel to the death.

A Fistful of Dollars is a compelling study in how the parts of a film can add up to several times its face-value. The Man with No Name, with his poncho, ever-present cigarillo, and cynical soft-spoken style, dominates the film to the point where the plot does not really matter -- only this character's next step is relevant. The colourful Rojos, with Gian Maria Volonte terrific as Ramon, are evil in the most brutally cartoonish manner. The feminine interest, in the form of Ramon's mistress Marisol (played by Marianne Koch, who says about five words in the entire film), is suitably a vague victim in this savage borderland.

And above it all, Leone allows frequent set-pieces to become the memorable masterpieces of the movie, all driven by Morricone's mesmerizing music: the initial gun-fight with the Baxter cowboys; the overblown massacre by the river; the cemetery shoot-out; the prisoner exchange scene; the Rojos destroying the Baxters; and the final show-down. In these scenes Leone is driving the narrative forward while discovering, demonstrating, and playing with all of the classic elements that would re-emerge, with better polish and sharper edges, in his future movies.

A Fistful of Dollars is a classic movie, and an example that ground-shaking, history-altering films sometimes arrive in the the most unexpected packages.







All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

CD Review: God to the Illfated, by Devian (2008)


God to the Illfated is an excellent second CD from Sweden's Devian, and delivers songs that place a high priority on strong lyrical melodies. Surprisingly for a band with a limited catalogue, complex structures with pleasingly seamless transitions are common throughout, and there are no weak or filler tracks.

Although five band members of Devian are listed in the God to the Illfated 2009 CD booklet, bassist Roberth Karlsson is missing from the prominent band photo, having apparently left the band after recording this CD. The 2009 Century Media release in North America with two bonus tracks comes one year after the original 2008 European release.

When Devian click, and they do often, it is because of the twin guitar work of Joinus and Tomas Neilson. On most songs, they achieve a tight, high-energy sound that perfectly supports the growl of vocalist Legion. The drums of Emil Dragutinovic are solid but mostly unspectacular, and certainly not showy.

The speed of most of the tracks is suitably moderate to emphasize mature, classical-inspired harmonies that evolve throughout each song, although some songs like the title track pick up the pace and tilt the guitar work towards Slayer-inspired territory, while always keeping the melody at the forefront.

While the front-end of the CD is strong, the back-end is nothing short of spectacular. The highlights are many. From the opening set of songs, the mid-tempo Assailant features a quite brilliant and menacing guitar riff that demonstrates what can be achieved when perfect simplicity is married to inspiration.

South of Halo is an epic driven by a soaring melody and galloping guitar work that evokes a thrilling union of Kalmah and Iron Maiden, and for once the drums thunder to the front on a crunching segment that pulverizes concrete. When the Vultures Have Left is almost equally as well structured, while the final two bonus tracks, Reap the Storm and Raison D'etre, are pure melodic guitar showcases, emphasizing rapid staccato riffs that lock into magical grooves.

When it's all said and done, God to the Illfated muscles its way forwards on the list of all-time best heavy metal CDs -- quite the achievement from a relatively unknown Swedish outfit.

Band:

Legion - Vocals
Joinus - Guitars
Tomas Nilsson - Guitars
Roberth Karlsson - Bass
Emil Dragutinovic - Drums


Songlist (Rating out of 10):

1. Mask of Virtue - 8
2. Assailant - 9 *See Video Below*
3. The Unspoken - 7
4. Saintbleeder - 8
5. I'm the Pariah - 7
6. God to the Illfated - 8
7. Summerdeath - 8
8. South of Halo - 10
9. Awaiting Doom - 8
10. When the Vultures Have Left - 9
11. Reap the Storm - 9
12. Raison D'etre - 9

Average: 8.33

Engineered by Rickard Kottelin and Peter Tagtgren.
Mixed by Peter Tagtgren. Mastered by Peter In de Betou.
Produced by Devian.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Theatre Review: Billy Elliott - The Musical, at the Imperial Theatre (New York)

Billy Elliott is a rousing musical play set in a small mining town in northern England. It is a simple story about an 11 year old boy from a tough union community, where boys are supposed to like boxing and grow up to be miners, discovering his love of dance. The story draws its endless energy from several rich societal and personal conflicts.

The inspired background to the play is Britain's bitter miner's strike of the mid-eighties, triggered when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched an ambitious but divisive re-engineering and privatization of the entire coal mining industry.

In Billy Elliott, the unionized miners are the victims, fighting for traditional workers' rights, the survival of their community, and their traditional way of life. Thatcher is very much the culprit, and is represented primarily by the riot police forces, squaring off against the miners with increasing frequency and heavy-handedness.

At the human scale, Billy Elliott also establishes and develops several conflicts that are just as intriguing. Billy's miner Dad (wonderfully played by Gregory Jbara) is understandably not comfortable with Billy's attraction to dance, and gets further torn between needing to support his son financially while remaining loyal to the union. Billy's hot-headed brother Tony is quick to get involved in the violence of the strike, creating tension with both his father and his brother.

At the core of the play is Billy's relationship with dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (a terrific Haydn Gwynne), which starts slowly and evolves deeply without ever descending into corny cliches. Both characters are allowed to breathe from the oxygen of reality, and to be brave without undue heroism.

There are still other rich relationships involving characters such as Michael, Billy's best friend who is discovering strong feminine tendencies, and Debbie, Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter. And finally, there is the emotionally devastating relationship between Billy and his deceased mother.

Billy Elliott, directed by Stephen Daldry, with music by Elton John, lyrics by Lee Hall and choreography by Peter Darling, achieves its success by combining all the high notes about following your dream, overcoming adversity, and being true to yourself, with terrific characters anchored by Billy's likeable 11 year old boy waking up to the variety of opportunities and conflicts that the world has to offer.

The energetic and original musical numbers, featuring individual and ensemble singing and a variety of dancing styles, are often nothing short of brilliant, and many achieve terrific emotional highs. The set design (by Ian MacNeil) and lighting are simple and perfectly effective.

Billy Elliott has won a large number of awards both in England, where it started on the West End, and on Broadway, where it dominated the 2009 Tony Awards. It deservedly enters the ranks of musical plays that will remain highly and justifiably popular and likely on tour for decades.
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