Sunday, 29 November 2009

CD Review: Let There Be Rock, by AC/DC (1977)


Not far removed from being a bar band, Australia's AC/DC take a few tentative steps towards the big leagues with this set of eight straight-ahead boogie-woogie metal tracks.

While Let There Be Rock, the band's fourth album and the first to achieve international success, was never going to set the world on fire stylistically, or in terms of originality, it does highlight AC/DC as a group that offers unfailing energy and commitment to their brand of simple anthems celebrating life, love and living hard. And when their songs hit the target, they were irresistible.

AC/DC's sound is defined by Angus Young wailing away with simple rock'n'roll riffs on the guitar, and Bon Scott matching him with his wailing high-pitched vocals. The rest of the band members provide good support, but very much in the background. Not a surprise that the international version of the album cover art features Angus in his school boy uniform at the front of the stage, Scott near the camera, and the other band members are rather invisible.

This was the last AC/DC studio album to feature Mark Evans on bass; he was replaced by Cliff Williams who went on to enjoy the band's glory years.

The songwriting and structures are basic in the extreme, something which generally endured throughout AC/DC's career, and which is both AC/DC's appeal and limitation.

Aiming squarely at blue-collar men and their younger brothers, AC/DC connected best with Let There Be Rock, which became one of their earliest big hits, and Whole Lotta Rosie, which is among AC/DC's best compositions and live performance favourites, and which shows just how much can be accomplished with a simple but brilliant guitar riff.

Another two tracks, Overdose and Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be are good, and both ominously foreshadowed Scott's early demise just two years later. Bad Boy Boogie is a showcase for whipping up a crowd with old-school guitar work.

The remaining songs are solid but unspectacular. Suitable to entertain the crowd down at the local pub, but really not much more. Problem Child, disappointingly repeated from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, was a replacement for Crabsody in Blue which appeared on the original Australian release and was deemed too rude for international audiences.

This was the last AC/DC album produced in Australia by Vanda and Young, as it was apparent that the band's success trajectory was going to demand more professional and international attention. The raw, almost live feel of Let There Be Rock is very much suited to the content, and is a farewell to the first phase of their career.

Band:

Malcolm Young: Guitar
Angus Young: Guitar
Bon Scott: Guitar
Phil Rudd: Drums
Mark Evans: Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Go Down - 7
2. Dog Eat Dog - 7
3. Let There Be Rock - 8
4. Bad Boy Boogie - 8
5. Problem Child - 6 (repeat track from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap)
6. Overdose - 9
7. Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be - 9
8. Whole Lotta Rosie -10 *See Video Below*

Average: 8.00

Produced by Vanda and Young.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Movie Review: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)


"You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig." Blondie (Clint Eastwood), talking to Tuco (Eli Wallach).

After the success of A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, Sergio Leone finally gets his hands on the budget of his dreams, and assembles the first western opera to conclude the Dollars trilogy.

Driven by an Ennio Morricone music score featuring the two-note coyote yell that has since become legend, and with every scene a lesson in framing, actor dynamics and fluid camera motion, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is an all-time classic.

It's a sprawling epic about three men chasing after buried gold coins in the midst of the American Civil War. Tuco (Eli Wallach, as the Ugly) is a common bandit with a bounty on his head; Blondie (Clint Eastwood, as the Good, although the term is only relative) is a bounty hunter; and Angeleyes (Lee Van Cleef, as the Bad) is a brutal henchman who is singlemindedly pursuing the buried loot. The three men wage a triangular battle against an unforgiving desert landscape littered with desperate, colourful and disposable secondary characters fully aware that they are bit players in a masterpiece of storytelling.

Tuco and Blondie start out as partners but their relationship quickly deteriorates. They are soon engaged in a deadly personal feud when they stumble onto the clues needed to locate the treasure that Angeleyes is after. Angeleyes is mercilessly abusing or mowing down anyone who gets in the way of the treasure that he craves. The three men, after taking turns to brutalize each other, need to make their way to the cemetery where the gold awaits, while guarding against each other in a deadly game of shifting alliances, with the added inconvenience of avoiding the brutality of the Civil War raging around them.

Leone could now afford a third American actor, and Eli Wallach gives the performance of his life as Tuco. While Eastwood and Van Cleef nail their stoic and tough personas, Wallach takes over the heart of the film as the scrambly, shifty bandit scratching out a form of survival. He is also afforded the only back-story in the movie in a sequence where he meets his brother. Tuco's subsequent description of his relationship with his brother as he rides away with Blondie is the most human moment in the entire trilogy.

The film has two enormous, drawn-out showcase scenes, and both come in the final hour of this 160 minute epic. In the first, Tuco and Blondie stumble upon a stand-off at a bridge between the Union and Confederate armies, and need to resolve the meat-grinding battle that is hindering their progress towards the gold. The second showcase occupies the final 30 minutes, and takes place at the cemetery.

When Tuco arrives at the cemetery to start his search for the all-important grave, Leone conjures up one of the best scenes in the history of movie-making. As Ennio Morricone unspools the magnificent The Ecstasy of Gold theme, Leone's cameras alternate their focus between Tuco sprinting through the cemetery and the whirling multitudes of headstones. The end-result is spine-tingling, hypnotizing and brilliant, all at once.

Leone follows this with the classic triangular showdown between the three men in the middle of the cemetery, unimaginably stretched in time and filled with Leone's trademark tight close-ups.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is a breath-taking conclusion to a magnificent trilogy, and also one of the best films ever made.








All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Saturday, 28 November 2009

CD Review: Blackout, by Scorpions (1982)


With Blackout, Scorpions in 1982 unleashed one of their most powerful albums, and generated, seemingly effortlessly, another fistful of terrific songs that cemented their reputation near the top of the international heavy metal world.

For this one album, Scorpions took what proved to be a temporary break from controversial album covers, allowing fans to focus on the music. And there was a lot to like in the musical content of Blackout.

With lead singer Klause Meine now one of the most recognizable voices on the planet, and the guitar duo of Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs in full harmony with each other, the compact, high-tempo and melody-driven quartet of power-metal songs Blackout, No One Like You, You Give Me All I Need, and Dynamite became world-wide smash hits.

And the band demonstrated its versatility by also spinning out one of heavy metal's most effective power ballads ever in album closer When The Smoke Is Going Down, ensuring that teenagers around the world could awkwardly slow dance to heavy metal. No heavy metal band created power ballads as effectively as Scorpions, and When The Smoke Is Going Down was among their best.

China White, meanwhile, and musically at least, appeared to be the band's attempt to build upon the more experimental sound of the song Animal Magnetism from the previous album.

It's a pity that the supporting tracks on Blackout are nowhere near the required quality to round-out the CD. Can't Live Without You, Now!, and Arizona have their fans, but are really weak compared to what Scorpions were capable of at this stage of their career.

Lyrically, no one was accusing Scorpions of taking on the important issues of the day. The songs are all entirely still centered around the lightweight fare of women, parties and rock'n'roll.

On the plus side, Herman Rarebell's drums are once again happily prominent, providing a solid and energetic foundation to all the tracks. The album was produced by regular Scorpions collaborator Dieter Dierks, and his work along with the band's stable line-up resulted in one of the best sounding Scorpions recordings.

Blackout is one of the albums that is most associated with the sound of the Scorpions, and also most responsible for the band's spectacular success.

Band:

Klaus Meine - Vocals
Rudolf Schenker - Guitars
Matthias Jabs - Guitars
Francis Buchholz - Bass
Herman Rarebell - Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Blackout - 10 *See Video Below*
2. Can't Live Without You - 5
3. No One Like You - 10
4. You Give Me All I Need - 9
5. Now! - 6
6. Dynamite - 9
7. Arizona - 6
8. China White - 7
9. When The Smoke Is Going Down - 10

Average: 8.00

Produced by Dieter Dierks.
Mixed by Gerd Rautenbach.
Mastered by Bob Ludwig and Howie Weinberg.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



CD Review: Animal Magnetism, by Scorpions (1980)


Scorpions produce a strange album, mostly full of near-misses. There is no doubting the polish and professionalism of the music and the delivery on Animal Magnetism, but that killer last 10 percent of inspiration in the song-writing is missing, resulting in a curious lack of satisfaction.

Once again seeking shock publicity through cover art, the original album release had a back cover image that was similar to the front, but with the dog moving a bit further to the right and the woman, seeing what we couldn't, expressing a certain amount of shock. Just like the original front cover of Lovedrive, the original back cover of Animal Magnetism didn't make it onto the CD release -- and it's not easy to find even on the Internet.

The Scorpions line-up settled down with one Schenker brother and Matthias Jabs taking on the critical guitar duties, and delivering powerful, crunchy and basic riffs with reasonable solos. Klaus Meine's voice remains the most valuable instrument, as he screeches his way through the nine-song set. Herman Rarebell's drums are less prominent than on Lovedrive, and that may have something to do with the overall lack of energy in the song-writing. The song topics remain grounded in love, lust, ladies, and the like.

Two songs stand-out from the relatively lacklustre list: Make It Real and Only A Man are both shortish, to-the-point and in-the-groove power metal tracks that added to the Scorpions' marketability across a wide market. The Zoo is a solid, somewhat experimental track that chugs along like an old but strong steam engine. Equally experimental but less successful is the title track Animal Magnetism, which attempts to expand the definition of slow and steady but instead wanders off to snooze land.

As for the rest, the ballads are sleepy, and the up-tempo songs are rather ho-hum. Animal Magnetism is interesting, but not very exciting.

Band:

Klaus Meine - Vocals
Rudolf Schenker - Guitars
Matthias Jabs - Guitars
Francis Buchholz - Bass
Herman Rarebell - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Make It Real - 9
2. Don't Make No Promises (Your Body Can't Keep) - 7
3. Hold Me Tight - 7
4. Twentieth Century Man - 6
5. Lady Starlight - 7
6. Falling In Love - 7
7. Only A Man - 10
8. The Zoo - 8
9. Animal Magnetism - 7

Average: 7.56

Produced by Dieter Dierks.
Mastered by Howie Weinberg.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Lovedrive, by Scorpions (1979)


Germany's Scorpions enter their golden era which saw them achieve world-wide fame with this compact set of eight power heavy metal tracks celebrating the good life. This was the band's sixth studio album, but their first big international hit.

Scorpions where clearly looking for publicity by pushing the boundaries of their album cover art, and this being 1979, they succeeded in attracting all sorts of publicity with the strange image of a back seat couple with something weird involving gum happening to the woman's breast. The CD release years later ditched the image altogether in favour of a blue scorpion, but the original artwork remains strongly associated with this set of songs.

The last Scorpions album to feature Michael Schenker, who by this time was venturing into his many other projects, Lovedrive has the advantage of three guitarists propelling the music: both Schenker brothers and Matthias Jabs. The songs are perfectly suited to the strength of the band: crunchy guitars leading from the front, Klaus Meine's unique shrieky vocals, and the energetic Herman Rarebell bashing away at the drum set.

The instrumental Coast to Coast and title track Lovedrive are the pick of the songs. Coast to Coast succeeds in evoking a breezy continental road trip, while Lovedrive gallops on the back of a sing-along chorus powered by simple but effective guitar work.

But Lovedrive also includes not one, not two, but three soulful power ballads. In an eight-track set, this is a high ratio, but Scorpions made this sub-genre their own, and made heavy metal much more accessible to a female audience. Almost Somewhere and Is There Anybody There? are good, while Holiday is quite excellent.

Can't Get Enough is throw-away filler material, but there was more than enough excellent music on Lovedrive to establish Scorpions as one of the world's premier metal bands entering the 1980's.

Band:

Klaus Meine - Vocals
Rudolf Schenker - Guitars
Michael Schenker - Guitars
Matthias Jabs - Guitars
Francis Buchholz - Bass
Herman Rarebell - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Loving You Sunday Morning - 7
2. Another Piece of Meat - 8
3. Always Somewhere - 8
4. Coast to Coast - 10
5. Can't Get Enough - 5
6. Is There Anybody There? - 8
7. Lovedrive - 10 *See Video Below*
8. Holiday - 10

Average: 8.25

Produced by Dieter Dierks.
Mastered by Howie Weinberg.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.




Thursday, 26 November 2009

CD Review: Countdown to Extinction, by Megadeth (1992)


Two classic tracks surrounded by so much scrap metal? Unfortunately, that may be the best way to describe Countdown to Extinction. Dave Mustaine swings his bat artistically, delivers two grand slam home runs, and about seven strike-outs.

The production values of this CD should be highlighted. Mustaine produced with Max Norman, who also engineered and mixed the album, and together they achieved a clarity and sharpness of sound that is rarely matched. Every note of every instrument is vivid, at any volume.

Content wise, there are few heavy metal albums that are this uneven. Usually bands are at an understandable stage of evolution in each CD -- good, bad, or ugly. But here Megadeth combine two brilliant peaks with a barren valley of the blah.

The good first: Symphony of Destruction is a chugging lyrical masterpiece of heavy metal, with Mustaine unusually restrained on the guitar and controlled on vocals. It's one of the rare occasions where Megadeth functions as a band rather than as a pyrotechnical showpiece, and it's brilliant. Equally terrific is the title track Countdown to Extinction: more ominous, with a memorable, alarmist guitar riff announcing the extinction of species.

A couple of other songs are worth a spin: This Was My Life and Captive Honour demonstrate spirit, power and good innovation. Captive Honour deserves special mention for the booming and energetic drum work that provides backing for the jury section.

The rest? Some tracks are plain miserable: Architecture of Aggression, Psychotron, and Ashes in Your Mouth deliver combinations of the annoying, the monotonous, and the simplistic. Others are plain boring: Foreclosure of a Dream may be trying to say something important, but the audience is sleeping. And some tracks are just plain: High Speed Dirt has all the creativity expected from a high school band.

Mustaine deserves credit for taking on issues of social and personal relevance, and certainly the lyrics and thoughts are several grades above the typical heavy metal fare. But ultimately, it's all about the music, and there are too many music fails on this album.

Countdown to Extinction is a CD packed full of the mediocre, the boring, the indifferent, and the uninspired, but nevertheless a CD that should be treasured for providing the world of heavy metal with two all-time classics.

Band:

Dave Mustaine: Guitars, Vocals
Marty Friedman: Guitar
Nick Menza: Drums
David Ellefson: Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Skin O' My Teeth - 7
2. Symphony of Destruction - 10
3. Architecture of Aggression - 5
4. Foreclosure of a Dream - 6
5. Sweating Bullets - 7
6. This Was My Life - 8
7. Countdown to Extinction - 10
8. High Speed Dirt - 7
9. Psychotron - 6
10. Captive Honour - 8
11. Ashes in Your Mouth - 6

Average: 7.27

Produced by Dave Mustaine and Max Norman.
Engineered and Mixed by Max Norman.

Countdown to Extinction at the Ace Black Store.
The Ace Black Blog CD Review No. 51.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Book Review: 1984, by George Orwell (1949)


1984 presents a chilling vision of a future where an oppressive, totalitarian regime not only controls the actions of its citizens, the ruling Party also controls individual thought and ruthlessly subjugates its citizens for the sole purpose of keeping itself in power for eternity.

Writing in 1948, George Orwell used communist China and the USSR as his starting point, and imagined the extreme limits of the concept: if everyone is already working for the ruling Party, what else can the Party do to extend its influence? He found the answer in the concept of a regime that controls its people not only economically, but also literally controls intellect and emotions. Every aspect of society and culture, including language, history, pro-creation, literature and war, are all manufactured and manipulated for the purpose of consolidating and expanding the power of the Party.

Winston Smith is a citizen of Oceania, one of three remaining continental powers on earth. Smith is a member of the Outer Party, and works in the Ministry of Truth, fabricating history. Smith's misfortune is that his mind is not totally under the control of the Party, and he questions the deteriorating condition of humanity as the Party grows in power. His wandering mind leads him to acts of rebellion, all punishable by death, such as keeping a diary, having an illicit affair with a co-worker, and seeking out the Brotherhood, a fabled resistance movement that may or may not be real.

But 1984 is not a story of heroics, and Smith knows early on that he is doomed. The final third of the book deals with his capture and re-education by the Party.

Orwell, who wrote the book while sick and died soon after completing it, delivers a gripping book in which, remarkably, not much actually happens. Most of the book is a description through Smith's eyes of the society around him, combined with the continuous narrative inside Smith's head as he struggles with his utter lack of acceptance of his miserable surroundings, while everyone else perceives everything to be perfectly normal.

There are only two other main characters in the book. Julia is the young co-worker who has an affair with Smith. While Smith's struggle with the Party is intellectual, Julia cares much less about society as a whole and is only striving to thrive under the radar. While Julia dominates the middle third of the book, the final third belongs to O'Brien, the Inner Party member who represents the voice of the regime, and who is tasked with bringing Smith back to "sanity".

1984 predicted various aspects of the future to a remarkable level of accuracy. Even modern-day democracies suffer from dramatically increased state-surveillance of citizens; lying politicians who contradict their own past promises; state sponsored propaganda or "spin" that has no purpose except to serve the party in power; and aspects of thought-police in the form of what we call political correctness.

The book also introduced timeless images and concepts: Big Brother is Watching You, the telescreen; doublethink; and Newspeak are some of the enduring influences. The book spawned the term Orwellian in reference to the worst instincts of governments to control citizens.

1984 is a book that is certainly gloomy and depressing, but at the same time, it serves as a lesson on the depths to which humanity can sink, and provides a source of comparative optimism given that most citizens of the world have so far avoided the worst that Orwell imagined.





311 pages plus Appendix.
Published in softcover by Penguin.

1984 at the Ace Black Store.
Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 24.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

CD Review: The Number of the Beast, by Iron Maiden (1982)


Iron Maiden returned in 1982 with their third studio album in three years, now emerging as one of the best bands in the resurgent heavy metal genre. For the compact set of eight tracks on The Number of the Beast, Bruce Dickinson took over vocal duties, and with his operatic range, natural showmanship and athletic swordsman moves, Maiden finally had the frontman presence to complement the band.

With Martin Birch behind the controls pushing the band towards new standards of perfection, Maiden very unapologetically stepped right into the inflammatory topic of the devil with the album title, cover art and flagship song, and joyfully pushed the buttons of all who pretended to be shocked. Maiden rode the crest of publicity all the way to the top of the metal mountain, and became heroes to a whole generation of fans discovering the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

In some ways, this album is beyond criticism. The actual content is much less important than the impact that The Number of the Beast had. Suddenly, metal was in. It was dangerous, it was cool, and Maiden were leading the charge. And this was not the metal of Aerosmith and AC/DC, all about sex, love, women and parties -- no, this was metal about Satan, whores, prisons, and death. Enter this arena if you dare, and the new fans of metal - rebels looking for a cause - entered in droves.

While The Number of the Beast is the album that made Maiden widely famous, it is not their best work. Run to the Hills and Hallowed Be Thy Name are spectacular classics, but the rest of the set is very good, not necessarily great. Invaders is among the weaker of Maiden's album openers and Children of the Damned does plod in parts. Gangland is merely average, and the band regretted including it on the album.

The Prisoner, 22, Acacia Avenue and the title track are excellent, but not as brilliant as their fame suggests.

Run to the Hills and Hallowed Be Thy Name, however, are standout tracks that fully deserve their fame and stature as metal epics. While Run to the Hills is one of the best drum-driven metal anthems ever, Hallowed Be Thy Name is one of Maiden's most spectacular and career-defining moments, perfectly capturing Steve Harris' brilliantly epic song writing, featuring one of his best melodies, and showcasing the emotive Maiden guitar sound in all its glory. The guitar riffs on Hallowed Be Thy Name cause a recognizable tingle in the spine, a sensation that comes only in acknowledgment of greatness.

Band:

Clive Burr - Drums
Dave Murray - Guitar
Bruce Dickinson - Vocals
Steve Harris - Bass
Adrian Smith - Guitar

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Invaders - 7
2. Children of the Damned - 8
3. The Prisoner - 8
4. 22, Acacia Avenue - 8
5. The Number of the Beast - 8
6. Run to the Hills - 10
7. Gangland - 6
8. Hallowed Be Thy Name - 10 *See Video Below*

Average: 8.13

Produced and Engineered by Martin Birch.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Thursday, 19 November 2009

CD Review: Highway to Hell, by AC/DC (1979)


As a final statement from vocalist Bon Scott before he overdosed, Highway to Hell the album and Highway to Hell the song could hardly be any more appropriate. Squealing his way through the 10 tracks of the CD, running through a non-stop narrative about partying, girls, sex, and the threat of violence, combining passion with anguish in his vocals and often reaching feverish emotional peaks towards the end of the songs, Scott lived the life he wanted and reached the end of his highway quickly.

As for the CD itself, it can neatly be divided into two parts: the first 5 tracks are all among the most entertaining meat-and-potatoes rock'n'roll heavy metal tracks of the late 1970's: Crunchy riffs, classic yet simple melodies, simpler lyrics, basic and beefy. Angus Young's rocking, blues- inspired metal guitar drives the music forward at the expense of all others; and only Scott's anguished high pitch is able to compete. For all their impact, the drums and bass are effectively anonymous. Given what Angus can do with a guitar, none of this is a bad thing.

Highway to Hell is only the most famous of the anthems at the front end of this album. Girls Got Rhythm, Walk All Over You, Touch Too Much and Beating Around The Bush all became an essential part of the soundtrack accompanying teen life.

In contrast, four of the final five tracks barely register above the level of filler material. Repetitive, relatively uninspired, and generally forgettable. But the band do pull a rabbit out of the hat right at the end with the slow, deliberate, and powerful Night Prowler -- a reminder that AC/DC do have more than one gear. It's an excellent end to the CD, and an appropriate finale from Scott.

Band:

Angus Young - Guitar
Malcolm Young - Guitar
Bon Scott - Vocals
Phil Rudd - Drums
Cliff Williams - Bass


Songlist (rating out of 10):

1. Highway to Hell - 10
2. Girls Got Rhythm - 8
3. Walk All Over You - 9
4. Touch Too Much - 9
5. Beating Around The Bush - 8
6. Shot Down In Flames - 7
7. Get It Hot - 6
8. If You Want Blood (You've Got It) - 6
9. Love Hungry Man - 6
10. Night Prowler - 10.

Average: 7.90

Produced by Robert John "Mutt" Lange.
Engineered by Mark Dearney. Mixed by Tony Platt.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Killers, by Iron Maiden (1981)


Adrian Smith replaces Dennis Stratton on guitar, and Maiden unleash a set of 11 songs to quickly build on the growing underground momentum generated by their self-titled debut a year earlier.

More importantly, Martin Birch joins the band as Producer, a relationship that quickly became instrumental to the band's success.

Killers is in several ways unique among Maiden's early, career-defining CDs. The number of songs is highest among all their early CDs; the tracks are all generally short in length; and a couple of them fall noticeably short in quality.

It is interesting that two of the three stand-out tracks on Killers are instrumentals: The Ides of March and Genghis Khan. The Ides of March, usually a short-enough instrumental to be ignored, is such a perfect definition of heavy metal that it is far more important than its length would suggest. It is also a brilliant display of controlled and thunderous drumming, courtesy of Clive Burr, married to the soaring lead guitars of Smith and Dave Murray. And Genghis Khan, perhaps more than any other track in the early Maiden catalogue, demonstrates what the band's dual-guitar sound meant.

Wrathchild is the other brilliant track on Killers, a perfect follow-on from Ides and in its own right a driving, fast-tempo, guitar-powered anthem.

The rest of the songlist includes several solid tracks. Although none of them succeed in hitting the bull's eye, Another Life, Killers, Purgatory and Drifter are the equivalent of the essential below-ground foundation that Maiden's career was built on. In these songs are found the many dueling guitar harmonies and unique tones that forever defined the Maiden sound.

Several other tracks simply fail to click altogether, specifically the manic Murders in the Rue Morgue and the plain boring Prodigal Son.

Killers sounds noticeably more polished and better produced than Iron Maiden; and Di'Anno's vocals, on his last Maiden studio album, are less punky, more operatic and at the same time more strained. He would be replaced by Bruce Dickinson for the next outing.

Band:

Clive Burr - Drums
Dave Murray - Guitar
Paul Di'Anno - Vocals
Steve Harris - Bass
Adrian Smith - Guitar

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Ides of March - 10
2. Wrathchild - 10
3. Murders in the Rue Morgue - 6
4. Another Life - 8
5. Genghis Khan - 10
6. Innocent Exile - 7
7. Killers - 8 *see below*
8. Twilight Zone - 7
9. Prodigal Son - 6
10. Purgatory - 8
11. Drifter - 8

Average: 8.00

Produced by Martin Birch.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.





Monday, 16 November 2009

CD Review: Back In Black, by AC/DC (1980)


So what is a band on the verge of superstardom to do when their lead singer goes and dies from a drug overdose? To heck with superstardom -- Australia's AC/DC replaced the deceased Bon Scott with Brian Johnson and simply achieved immortality with Back In Black, one of the best and most influential heavy metal albums of all time.

According to Wikipedia, it is also the second best selling album of all time (more than 45 million sold world-wide, second only to Thriller), and the best selling album by a band ever.

Scott's raspy gravel throat must have seemed irreplaceable, but Johnson stepped into his shoes with remarkable ease and immediately gelled with the band's sound. Johnson's vocals and Angus Young's guitar were made for each other, and the result is a set of 10 songs that entered into heavy metal folklore. The CD features at least four classic tracks that became unmistakable anthems worldwide: Hells Bells, Back In Black, You Shook Me All Night Long, and Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution. Thirty years on, there are few corners on the globe where these songs aren't instantly recognized and celebrated. The title track, in particular, is a defining moment in the history of heavy metal.

Not that the other tracks on the CD don't deliver -- barely concealed sex epics like Givin' the Dog a Bone and Let Me Put My Love Into You celebrate the adolescent party life and remain favourites for the many members of the early 1980's generation who never grew up. Overall, Back In Black is one of the very few CDs in any genre where almost every track is to some extent famous.

Part of the credit goes to producer John "Mutt" Lange, here relatively early in a career that would later help catapult Def Leppard and then Shania Twain into the stratosphere of global hyperstardom.

AC/DC's heavy boogie-woogie metal sound is not the height of sophistication, and that is the band's charm and their magic. Simple melodies and structures, few notes, shrill but confident vocals and straightforward rock'n'roll guitar work are combined to epic effect. Back In Black's lesson is that less is more, and a band that perfects its strengths and avoids pretensions can leave behind a massive legacy.

Band:

Brian Johnson - Vocals
Cliff William - Bass
Angus Young - Guitar
Malcolm Young - Guitar
Phil Rudd - Drums

Songlist (rating out of 10):

1. Hells Bells - 10
2. Shoot to Thrill - 9
3. What Do You Do For Money Honey - 7
4. Givin' the Dog a Bone - 8
5. Let Me Put My Love Into You - 9
6. Back In Black - 10 *See video below*
7. You Shook Me All Night Long - 10
8. Have a Drink on Me - 9
9. Shake a Leg - 7
10. Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution - 10

Average: 8.90

Produced by Robert John "Mutt" Lange.
Engineered by Tony Platt. Mixed by Brad Samuelsohn.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.


Saturday, 14 November 2009

Movie Review: Zombieland (2009)


A movie that is not pretending to be anything other than a hip comedy-horror-zombie adventure had better deliver good characters at the centre of the action or else risk being nothing but a satire: Zombieland aces this test with four terrific characters in Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), portraying survivors of the zombie apocalypse who need to also survive each other.

So Mad Cow disease makes the jump and creates Mad Humans, with almost everyone transformed into manic flesh-devouring zombies. These zombies are not the undead -- they are fast, hungry, ugly and just a bloody mess. They are also thankfully easy to kill. The surviving humans who have not yet been infected can use a variety of weapons, from shotguns to banjos (you gotta see the movie to appreciate this) to avoid becoming zombie meals.

Columbus is the nerd type who survived the apocalypse mostly because he enjoys the company of his computer more than the company of people. He is making his was to Columbus, Ohio (hence the name), to check on his parents. Along the way he teams up with Tallahassee, the tough urban-cowboy type who was told by his mother a long time ago that he will eventually be good at something. That something turned out to be killing zombies, a task he accepts with a worrisome relish.

Columbus and Tallahassee eventually encounter Wichita and Little Rock, sassy street-smart sisters who are making their way to California's Pacific Playland, which is rumoured to be zombie-free. The girls twice dupe the guys before the group gels and the foursome team up on their journey west.

The movie quickly settles into a terrifically enjoyable, character-driven road movie, with frequent zombie-killing interludes, and achieves just the right balance between wry comedy and hard-edged action. The four actors play their roles to perfection, with a sparkly smile behind their eyes. They are briefly joined by Bill Murray in a cameo as himself, when the group take refuge in his Beverly Hills mansion.

Eisenberg as Columbus provides the level-headed perspective on the unhinged world, while Harrelson as Tallahassee is very close to being suitably unhinged himself. This is a career-defining Harrelson performance that will long be remembered.

Stone as the tough Wichita nails the dark elder sister who becomes the eventual target of Columbus' affection. Breslin as the younger sister manages the difficult task of portraying the capable 12-year old without the nausea-inducing wise-cracking-smarter-than-she-looks stereotype.

In addition to the four lead performers, director Ruben Fleischer deserves a lot of credit for perfectly pacing the movie and drawing out the strengths of each of the characters. The editing is thankfully coherent and avoids epilepsy-inducing micro-cuts. The music, including crunchy heavy metal from the likes of Metallica, perfectly accompanies the action.

The movie is brave enough and good enough to pull off a running gag relating to Columbus' numbered "rules of survival" for Zombieland. Everytime he introduces us to a rule, it appears as text on the screen, and everytime the rule is put into action, it is also re-displayed on the screen. It's an audacious moviemaking stunt, and it works.

The move thankfully does not shy away from blood, gore, and foul language -- this is not a sanitized family-friendly comedy. The hard edges of the zombie apocalypse are up-front and are gruesome -- which all serves to enhance the impact of the characters and the comedy when they take centre stage.

It all ends with a massive and hyper-enjoyable zombie-killing extravaganza at Pacific Playland, complete with a large clown. It's a fittingly insane ending to a highly engaging movie.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Book Review: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John C. Maxwell (2007, tenth anniversary edition)


While John Maxwell is one the gurus on the topic of leadership, he approaches the topic purely descriptively. He is excellent at outlining what it takes to be a good leader: the actions, habits, and attitudes that separate leaders from others. He is good at painting broad-brush pictures of what success looks like, and equally brings to life examples of failure.

The laws come with entertaining titles like The Law of the Lid and The Law of the Big Mo, and are vividly brought to life in straightforward language and with plenty of examples. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership is an enjoyable read, but it is filling in the same way that fast food is momentarily satisfying but not really nutritious. There is no arguing with the laws that Maxwell presents, but at the same time the 21 concepts along with the endless sub-lists of do's and dont's within each law add up to one very long shopping list with no real insight of how any of it can be achieved.

Each chapter does end with superficial questions prompting the reader to further examine the law, but these usually require the creation of more....lists.

Maxwell steers clear of delving with any depth into the core behaviours that need to be individually examined and fine-tuned in order for effective transformations to occur. Concepts related to empathy, self-awareness, and social and emotional intelligence are simply absent from the book.

Instead, we get endless examples from the often-trodden lives of the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Ghandi. Great leaders all, but with absolutely nothing in common with most readers of this book. In this 10th anniversary edition, there is an attempt to introduce more modern examples, and so we get to read a lot about...George W. Bush and Condi Rice. Not exactly inspirations to most of us. These examples betray the book as a newspaper-headline description of leadership rather than being based on any academic research or true understanding of human behaviour drivers.

The person we read the most about is Maxwell himself. He presents numerous episodes from his life as a church leader, and his mistakes and successes in delivering various projects for his congregations. It is clear that Maxwell had a natural talent for leadership from an early age, and therein lies the problem -- a lot of what it takes to be a leader comes naturally to Maxwell, and he is good at describing it. His strength is in attempting to inspire through stories, but certainly not in analyzing the specific self-improvement attitudes, actions, and emotional controls that are needed to achieve transformational change.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership contains a lot of good information, and a lot of it may be useful to absolute novices to the topic, but whether or not it is actually helpful as a guide to improving leadership skills is highly debatable.





269 pages plus Appendices.
Published in hardcover by Thomas Nelson.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership at the Ace Black Store.
Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 23.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

CD Review: Iron Maiden, by Iron Maiden (1980)


There are few heavy metal CDs that have had a greater impact than Iron Maiden's debut. Rising out of the ashes of the punk movement in England, Maiden toiled in obscurity for five years before exploding out of east London in 1980 and ushering in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with a raw, energetic and stunning set of nine songs.

Barely produced (no producer was credited on the album), and recorded by the band in a matter of days, Iron Maiden overnight redefined what the sound of heavy metal can be. Using Black Sabbath as a foundation, Maiden added duelling twin guitars, sharp in-song melody and tempo changes, a thunderous drum sound, and a prominent bass guitar: a suite of remarkable innovations that entered the DNA of heavy metal and changed the music forever.

The album introduced the Eddie character as Iron Maiden's mascot, and the artwork of Derek Riggs -- two more major and long-lasting influences on the metal cultural landscape.

The songwriting, masterminded by Steve Harris, broke new ground: an emphasis on combining compact melodies with complex structures, and a mix combining short tracks with long, epic compositions, all underpinned by driving guitar solos that somehow combined insane speed with magnificent control and emotion.

Paul Di'Anno's vocals are unquestionably punk-inspired -- suitable for the era and forever associated with these songs, but Harris was in search of an operatic sound and eventually replaced Di'Anno with Bruce Dickinson. This CD is also the only Maiden record to feature guitarist Dennis Stratton. Although the band would go on to superstardom with Adrian Smith, Stratton's contribution to this CD was outstanding.

The entire album is a highlight, but special mentions must go to the ominous Prowler that so perfectly opened Maiden's recording career; the epic Phantom of the Opera that invented the heavy metal opera sub-genre; the thunderous drums that defined Running Free as the anthem for the new heavy metal generation; and the simply majestic Iron Maiden - never has a band before or since written a more appropriate self-titled track, recognizable for ever as Maiden from the opening note.

Iron Maiden is one of the foundation rocks of heavy metal, a raw CD that is most excellent and most influential.

Band:

Steve Harris - Bass
Paul Di'Anno - Vocals
Dave Murray - Guitar
Dennis Stratton - Guitar
Clive Burr - Drums

Songlist (rating out of 10):

1. Prowler - 9
2. Remember Tomorrow - 8
3. Running Free - 9
4. Phantom of the Opera - 10
5. Transylvania - 9
6. Strange World - 7
7. Sanctuary - 8
8. Charlotte the Harlot - 8
9. Iron Maiden - 10 *See video below*

Average: 8.67

Produced by Will Malone.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.


Saturday, 7 November 2009

CD Review: Romulus, by Ex Deo (2009)


Ex Deo is the side-project of Canadian vocalist Maurizio Iacono, otherwise known for his work with the band Kataklysm. Romulus, the band's first CD, is all about battles, gods, warriors, swords, gladiators, and the glory of Rome. The CD offers the sounds of galloping horses, marching armies, and spoken words as warriors beseech the gods for help. In short, it's Manowar updated (but only a bit) for the year 2009.

Ex Deo do effectively transport us to a medieval war environment with solid mid-tempo melodies, shadings of folk metal, and thoughtful structures, but the CD also generally keeps us on the plateau hearing the battle from a relatively safe distance. The music provides an effective impression of the distant rumble of battle, but rarely takes us close to where the swords are glinting and limbs flying. While always interesting and professionally delivered, rarely do the songs soar into memorable tunes and melodies that evoke true glory.

This allows Legio XIII to stand out as the most impressive track on the CD, with the band spreading their wings and delivering a powerful, brooding groove-driven battle song with a slightly faster tempo, and featuring a satisfying, if not stunning, guitar solo.

Romulus is one of those recordings that may have sounded better with the help of an independent producer. As it is, there is a lack of spark and a sense of slight dullness about the music that adds to the overall battle-gloomy mood. The bass, in particular, is missing in action as a distinct sound.

But let's celebrate a beefy, crunchy and well-constructed CD that avoids any histrionics, and gets on with the job of churning out warrior-ready metal.

Band:

J.F. Dagenais - Guitar
Sephane Barbe - Guitar
Maxime Duhamel - Drums
Francois Mongrain - Bass
Jonathan Leduc - Keyboards
Maurizio Iacono - Vocals


Songlist (rating out of 10):

1. Romulus - 8
2. Storm the Gates of Alesia - 7
3. Cry Havoc - 7
4. In Her Dark Embrace - 8
5. Invictus - 7

6. The Final War (Battle of Actium) - 8
7. Legio XIII - 9
8. Blood Courage and the Gods That Walk the Earth - 7
9. Cruor Nostri Abbas - 7

10. Surrender the Sun - 7
11. The Pantheon (Jupiter's Reign) - 7


Average: 7.45


Produced by Maurizio Iacono and J.F. Dagenais.
Engineered and Mixed by J.F. Dagenais.
Mastered by James Murphy.


Romulus at the Ace Black Store.
The Ace Black Blog CD Review No. 45.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

CD Review: Character, by Dark Tranquillity (2005)


There isn't much that is wrong with Character, the 7th CD from Sweden's Dark Tranquillity. The problem is, there isn't much on the CD that gets the blood to stir, either.

For the most part, Character delivers well-played, professional, serviceable, mid-tempo metal driven by large chords on the keyboards and the growly vocals of Mikael Stanne. There is a polish about the song writing and the delivery that comes from a band that is confident and comfortable in its sound, but there is also the distinct smell that hints at a lack of innovation and a scarcity of new ideas.

Seven CDs and a 12 year recording career can be a long time. On Character, Dark Tranquillity's melodies are adequate but mostly forgettable. The guitar work is barely on the interesting side of bland, and lacks any adventure. And the drums and bass just fade into the background.

In fact, almost the entire CD melds into one long song that has all the emotional impact of relatively bland wall-paper. If modern day heavy metal has the equivalent of elevator music, it may sound like this. The heavy metal world moves along rapidly, and while Dark Tranquillity were among the main contributors to Sweden's heavy metal success in the 1990's, their music now sounds predominantly stagnant.

The solid opener The New Build soon gives way to a series of soundalike songs, but right in the heart of the CD, Dark Tranquillity stumble onto some spirited grooves on the trio of Lost to Apathy, Mind Matters and One Thought, and these three tracks hint at what the band can still deliver when they break free of their comfort zone. Unfortunately, Character soon drowns right back into a sea of sameness that can best be described as...tranquil.


Band:

Mikael Stanne - Vocals
Martin Henriksson - Guitars
Niklas Sundin - Guitars
Michael Nicklasson - Bass
Anders Jivarp - Drums
Martin Brandstrom - Electronics


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The New Build - 8
2. Through Smudged Lenses - 7
3. Out of Nothing - 7
4. The Endless Feed - 7
5. Lost to Apathy - 8
6. Mind Matters - 9
7. One Thought - 8
8. Dry Run - 7
9. Am I 1? - 7
10. Senses Tied - 7
11. My Negation - 7

Average: 7.45

Mixed by Fredrik Nordstrom. Produced by Dark Tranquillity.
Mastered by Peter In de Betou.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

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