Saturday, 30 April 2011

All System Of A Down CD Reviews

All Ace Black Blog Reviews of System Of A Down CDs are linked below:

System Of A Down (1998): 7.38
Toxicity (2001): 8.36
Steal This Album! (2002): 7.47
Mezmerize (2005): 7.90
Hypnotize (2005): 7.58

Average (all reviewed System Of A Down CDs): 7.74

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Hypnotize, by System Of A Down (2005)

Released 6 months after Mezmerize, Hypnotize contains noticeably less accessible and more strained material. System Of A Down went on a hiatus that lasted for four years after this release, and Hypnotize contains the evidence that the band had reached a creative impasse.

Theatrical anger only goes so far, and System Of A Down came close to perfecting the message on Toxicity and Mezmerize. With no place to go except self-derivation, Hypnotize squeezes the remaining few drops of juice from the formula, including a few excellent songs, but in general there is an undeniable sense of "where to from here" swirling around the music.

Although lacking in perfect hits, Hypnotize does contain some terrific material. Kill Rock 'N Roll showcases the band's development, with magical harmonies blending with elaborate changes of pace, all driven by inspired Malakian guitar work. Holy Mountains is equally impressive but more straightforward, alternating between a loud gothic crunch sound and emotive Tankian vocals.

Hypnotize ends with a suitably melancholy duo. Lonely Day aims for nothing but simple sadness, ironic or not, and hits the target. Soldier Side is a grand finale to the two-album duo, an anti-war song that tones down the band's theatrics and just delivers a killer mood, ending with an effective link-back to the first track intro theme from Mezmerize.

While Dreaming and Tentative are two more good tracks, the band finds itself in dead-ends on songs like U-Fig, Vicinity Of Obscenity, and She's Like Heroin, with some of the music more appropriate for interludes in soon-to-close off-Broadway shows than serious metal albums.

Should System Of A Down return to the recording studio, they have a solid base to build on, but they will need to migrate to a fresh approach and more nuanced messages to remain relevant. The trouble with in-your-face social anger and loud calls for revolution is that eventually the message wears thin, and with global success the messengers inexorably become part of the system.


Daron Malakian - Guitars
Serge Tankian - Vocals
Shavo Odadjian - Bass
John Dolmayan - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Attack - 7
2. Dreaming - 8
3. Kill Rock 'N Roll - 9
4. Hypnotize - 7
5. Stealing Society - 7
6. Tentative - 8
7. U-Fig - 6
8. Holy Mountains - 9
9. Vicinity Of Obscenity - 6
10. She's Like Heroin - 6
11. Lonely Day - 9
12. Soldier Side - 9

Average: 7.58

Produced by Rick Rubin and Daron Malakian.
Mixed by Andy Wallace. Engineered by David Schiffman.
Mastered by Vlado Meller.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: 1984, by Van Halen (1984)

The final Van Halen album with the original line-up, 1984 signs off the band's first phase on a high. Although the pop-happy synthesizer-saturated hit single Jump is testimony to the blandness of broad public and radio taste, there is plenty of other material on 1984 to satisfy more sophisticated listeners.

There is no doubt that the band sounds so much better when Eddie Van Halen abandons his keyboard pretensions and just plays the guitar. All the better tracks on 1984 combine Van Halen's love of fun with some scorching guitar work from Eddie. Panama is undeniably infectious, with Roth's vocals in fine form accompanying Eddie's powerful riffing and solo work. Drop Dead Legs drops the pace with devastating impact, demonstrating that enormous power can be generated from slow moving machinery.

Hot For Teacher, I'll Wait and Girl Gone Bad are three more solid tracks that add substantial weight to the back end of the album. Hot For Teacher and Girl Gone Bad are purely guitar-focused, while I'll Wait is a better synthesizer-based effort.

The album closes with the grease-stained House Of Pain, pulled from the band's older archives and demo tapes, and notable for an ending instrumental segment that is all molten metal.

1984 happily has no throwaway, filler-level tracks, but again clocks in at only just over 30 minutes, Van Halen continuing their tendency to deliver a relatively small amount of music per album.

The tension between Roth and Eddie finally ruptured the band, and Roth headed out to a solo career while Van Halen joined forces with Sammy Hagar for the second phase of their career. The legacy of the original line-up is a mixture of the brilliant and the easily dismissed, but at least the final chapter was a fairly resounding success.


David Lee Roth - Vocals
Edward Van Halen - Guitars
Michael Anthony - Bass
Alex Van Halen - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. 1984 - n/a (short instrumental)
2. Jump - 7
3. Panama - 9
4. Top Jimmy - 7
5. Drop Dead Legs - 9
6. Hot For Teacher - 8
7. I'll Wait - 8
8. Girl Gone Bad - 8
9. House Of Pain - 9 *see below*

Average: 8.13

Produced by Ted Templeman.
Engineered by Donn Landee.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

CD Review: Fair Warning, by Van Halen (1981)

If ever an album needed a to come with a fair warning, Fair Warning is it. It's the fourth studio album in a three year span, and Van Halen's creativity crashes against a solid wall of fatigue and crumples into a sad bundle of nondescript sounds.

Despite the introduction of the synthesizer, the sense of fun is lost, the bouncy melodies are replaced by trudging and tired compositions, the catchy tunes have disappeared, Roth's vocals sound forced, and the overall sense is of a band throwing together a record - any record - from inferior material. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, including two tracks that don't even make it to the two minute mark, Fair Warning is lightweight and transparent.

Two tracks are worth mentioning. Opener Mean Street is the only song that deserves a spot on any of the earlier Van Halen albums. Edgy, dark and crunchy, Mean Street is the farthest Van Halen have strayed from their fun-loving  core, and demonstrates plenty of potential that remains solidly unfulfilled on the rest of the album.

So This Is Love? is the catchiest tune on the CD, a fairly inoffensive effort that, at this stage, the band could have written in a matter of minutes. On the first three albums So This Is Love? would have been almost filler-grade, but on Fair Warning it just about shines.

The rest of the album comes and goes with barely a ripple, songs looking for a purpose and finding none, from a band going through the recoding motions and finding no spark.


David Lee Roth - Vocals
Edward Van Halen - Guitar
Michael Anthony - Bass
Alex Van Halen - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Mean Street - 9
2. "Dirty Movies" - 7
3. Sinner's Swing! - 7
4. Hear About It Later - 7
5. Unchained - 7
6. Push Comes To Shove - 6
7. So This Is Love? - 8
8. Sunday Afternoon In The Park - 7
9. One Foot Out The Door - 6

Average: 7.11

Produced by Ted Templeman.
Engineered by Donn Landee.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Movie Review: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

The 18th James Bond movie adventure maintains the momentum regained by the series re-boot that GoldenEye provided. The action is sustained, the characters dynamic, the humour appropriately dry, and the set-pieces deliver. The package may be familiar, but Tomorrow Never Dies nevertheless provides shiny entertainment with creative touches.

Megalomaniac media tycoon Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) has a simple plan for world domination: create the news and be the first to report on it. He deploys his resources to build a combat stealth warship, and he hires master criminals Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay) and Stamper (Gotz Otto) to do his dirty work. Gupta has in his illegal possession a highly coveted piece of American military hardware that allows him to manipulate satellite signals, and Carver uses this gizmo to trick a British warship into straying into Chinese territorial waters, sparking a bloody international incident that threatens to erupt into World War Three. A side-benefit to Carver's war plan is the decapitation of the Chinese leadership, the installation of a Carver-picked new leader, and securing exclusive Chinese broadcast rights for his media empire.

Both the British and the Chinese intelligence services send in their agents in the form of James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) to foil the plan. Bond is re-acquainted with an old flame called Paris (Teri Hatcher), who is now Mrs. Carver. After Paris pays the ultimate price for betraying her husband, Bond and Lin start to work together to bring down Carver's empire and to fight off the countless goons on Carver's payroll, including the sadistic Stamper. They also need to stop Carver from launching a massive killer missile that the Chinese will blame on the British.

Tomorrow Never Dies does suffer from an overtly cartoonish villain. Jonathan Pryce as Elliot Carver quickly steps into over-the-top histrionic territory, and makes no attempt at cultivating quiet nuance or controlled menace as the evil mastermind. Carver is outright nuts, and he is totally nuts from his first scene. Also blatant is the BMW-obsessed product placement, with the Munich firm supplying both Bond's four-wheel and two-wheel rides.

But the weaknesses are easily outweighed by the strengths of the movie, and Tomorrow Never Dies enjoys some terrific highlights. The pre-credit sequence with Bond spying on a terrorist arms bazaar is gritty and explosive. Bond navigating his BMW by remote control in a multi-level parkade while being chased by bad guys armed with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades is ridiculously fun. And the best sequence features Bond and Lin handcuffed together in Vietnam, having to escape by motorcycle from Carver's henchmen and a killer helicopter.

Roger Spottiswoode directs with a light touch, complemented by brisk but seamless editing work and excellent use of the Bond theme music. Two years after his Bond debut in GoldenEye, Brosnan is fully into his stride as the smooth agent, effortlessly dispatching enemies and seducing ladies. Michelle Yeoh holds her own opposite Brosnan's Bond, matching him in innovative combat and steely-eyed determination.

Tomorrow Never Dies does not stress the intellect, but it does celebrate Bond at his action-packed best in the spy series that never ends.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Movie Review: The Tailor Of Panama (2001)

A disappointing spy film adaptation of a John Le Carre novel, The Tailor Of Panama tries hard to create a steamy stranger in a strange land vibe, but it is undermined by a hollow centre and a premise that is close to ridiculous.

British intelligence agent Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) operates under diplomatic cover, and after flubbing an assignment is reassigned to Panama. Upon arrival he makes contact with Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a tailor peddling high quality suits to the ruling class. Pendel has a shady past and money problems but terrific contacts with both the powerful elite of Panama and the shady opposition. Osnard presses him into service to obtain and reveal sensitive information about future plans for the Panama Canal and an emerging underground revolutionary movement.

But Osnard is playing a dangerous game way beyond the normal confines of diplomatic intelligence gathering. He attempts to charm Pendel's wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) into revealing information that she has access to from her work for the Canal authority, and he keeps the British Embassy staff at bay by seducing Francesca Dean (Catherine McCormack), one of the Ambassador's key assistants. Osnard finally pressures Pendel into revealing plans for upcoming upheaval in the country, setting in motion an international chess game from which only one person will benefit.

Not many characters are likable in The Tailor of Panama, least of all Andy Osnard. Brosnan attempts to bring his ice cool Bond persona into Panama, but in the absence of a suitable villain or a nefarious plot as a counterweight, it's not a fair fight. Taking advantage of less sophisticated locals and run-of-the-mill diplomats may satisfy Osnard's ego, but contributes nothing to an engaging narrative. Rush is more absorbing as the tailor Pendel, but his eagerness to please and the ease with which he is manipulated is unconvincing.

The highly dubious plot developments do not help. Large amounts of international money and military hardware are set in motion based on flimsy and uncorroborated intelligence, and as we now know, only neo-conservatives in the White House with dreams of eternally controlling global oil supplies and avenging assassination plots targeting their daddies can pull that off.

The Tailor Of Panama only has it's setting to fall back on, and director John Boorman tries hard to evoke a seedy Casablanca style mood of foreign intrigue, with Casablanca even being mentioned in one exchange of dialogue. But this is not the 1940's, World War Two isn't raging, Pierce Brosnan is not Humphrey Bogart, and the future of the free world is not at stake. The Tailor Of Panama attempts to put on a power suit, but there is no hiding the intellectual vacuum between its ears.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Movie Review: Fargo (1996)

A blood-soaked black comedy, Fargo is a captivating classic. Joel and Ethan Coen conjure up a mood of dark doom set against a bleak snow-covered landscape, enlivened by unforgettable personalities and rampant "Minnesota nice" behaviour.

In Minneapolis, car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is buried under a mountain of debt and has no apparent legal solutions to dig himself out. In desperation, Jerry meets career criminals Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) in Fargo, North Dakota, supplies them with a car, and hires them to stage the kidnapping of his wife Jean. Jerry intends to get the ransom money from Wade, his rich father-in-law, and then split it with the kidnappers.

While Carl is thoughtful and just wants to get the job done, Gaear is silent and prone to extreme violence. After a clumsy break-in Carl and Gaear do succeed in kidnapping Jean, but on the highway near the town of Brainerd they are stopped by a highway patrol officer. Gaear brutally kills the patrolman and, for good measure, two witnesses who happen to be driving by. A staged hostage-taking is transformed to a triple murder investigation.

Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is the Brainerd chief of police, and seven months pregnant. Her investigations of the highway murders lead her to Jerry's car dealership, and his shifty behaviour doesn't help his cause. With the noose tightening around him, Jerry is desperate to close the ransom deal, but Wade insists on delivering the money, resulting in many more dead bodies. Marge has to quickly follow the trail of violence to put an end to the bloody carnage.

Fargo is a brilliant crime film, one of the finest achievements of the 1990s, and the jewel in the Coen brothers' crown. Working from their own script, the Coens find the dark soul of evil against the chilly white fields of snow, and juxtapose dry humour with unspeakable violence. In the most staid and seemingly content of mid-America environments, the story throws up a desperate husband, a botched hostage taking and heartless killers prone to extreme violence. All that stands between evil running amok and the restoration of some semblance of sanity is a pregnant small town cop..

Although the film opens with the claim that the events portrayed are factual, this is part of the Coens' humour. In fact, the movie is only loosely inspired by a vaguely similar incident that occurred in Connecticut. Equally unhinging is the name Fargo: one scene is set in that city, and the rest of the story takes place across the border in Minnesota.

Fargo draws its radiance from four unforgettable characters. Macy successfully portrays Lundegaard as a man so in over his head that he is uncomfortable in own skin, just one step ahead of total despair. Buscemi creates an almost sympathetic character in Carl, a criminal who can only be described by all who meet him as "kinda funny looking". Violent only when driven over the edge by the apparent ineptitude of others, Carl is dangerously funny and always foul-mouthed.

Stormare's Gaear is nothing but silence, incessant smoking, and brutality. This is a criminal who does not hesitate to kill quickly and at close range, and he does not really care who knows it. It is Gaear who derails Jerry's plan and sets off the avalanche of killings, and none of it seems to bother him. And finally McDormand's Marge slowly takes over as the heart of the film, almost cheerfully overcoming the challenges of her pregnancy to doggedly untangle the web of murders and bring the case to a close, while looking after her marriage and fending off a semi-psychotic suitor.

The Coens direct with elegant understatement, allowing the scenery, the strength of the story, the exceptional characters and Carter Burwell's evocative soundtrack to breathe deep and confidently carry the film forward. Fargo's combination of character-driven comedy and cruelty is movie-making at its best.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Back To The Future (1985)

A bright, cheerful and fast-paced comedy, Back To The Future elevated Michael J. Fox into movie stardom, established Robert Zemeckis as an A-List director of thoughtful comedies, and spawned two sequels. The DeLorean time-travelling car, the Flux Capacitor, and the Doc Brown character have had a long-lasting and fondly-remembered impact on popular culture.

Marty McFly (Fox) is a teenager in the small town of Hill Valley, California, struggling to fit in and embarrassed by his parents. Marty's Dad George (Crispin Glover) is a meek nerd, easily pushed around and insulted by his boss Biff (Thomas Wilson). Marty's Mom Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is conservative and a nag.

Marty's best friend is the local eccentric inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Brown has invented something called the Flux Capacitor, and used it to convert a DeLorean car into a time travel machine. Brown seeks Marty's help to record the maiden journey of the DeLorean, but angry Libyan terrorists show up at the wrong time and force Marty to take refuge in the car and zip back in time to 1955.

It's the year that George and Lorraine met and fell in love. Marty's sudden appearance in Hill Valley of 1955 immediately causes a stir, and he disrupts the events that ignite George and Lorraine's high school romance. In fact, the young Lorraine immediately develops a crush on the cool Marty, ignoring the doofus George, who is already being continuously harassed by the bully Biff. Unless Marty can get his parents to fall in love, his existence will be erased.

Marty also has to seek the help of a young Dr. Brown (although he looks pretty much the same in 1955 and 1985) to travel back to the future, taking advantage of an impeding lighting storm. Marty has a week to frantically find a way to make sure that his parents do indeed fall in love, and in the meantime he takes every opportunity to improve their personalities along the way.

With Steven Spielberg as one of the Executive Producers, Back To The Future strikes the perfect balance between superior quality and self-depreciation. Director Robert Zemeckis directs with brisk pacing, making every scene count and sharply defining the key characters. While the film never aims for more than two dimensions, Fox ensures that Marty is eminently likable, and Lloyd makes Doc Brown, with his wild white hair and perpetually wide eyes, one of the more memorable mad scientists in movie history.

Lea Thompson gets the least showy but most delicate role. The film handles the potentially precarious covetous relationship between the young Lorraine and her teen-aged son with a playfully steady hand, and steers it to an unexpected but in retrospect obvious resolution.

The highlights are many, and include the DeLorean leaving flaming tire marks as it launches into time travel, Marty's skateboard antics, and his over-enthusiastic electric guitar shredding at the high school dance. Back To The Future's formula for success involves poking fun mostly at itself, and the film creates a rich environment with plenty of targets, and hits them all square on the funny bone.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Movie Review: 48 Hrs (1982)

One of Eddie Murphy's earliest hits and one of the original buddy movies, 48 Hrs. provides some edgy entertainment but has a reputation that has perhaps surpassed the actual strengths of the material.

While on highway chain gang duty, convict Albert Ganz (James Remar, most famous for his role as Ajax in The Warriors) shoots two guards and escapes to freedom with the help of an accomplice. Arriving in San Francisco to seek the hidden money from the robbery that landed in him in jail, Ganz is soon cornered by the police in a seedy motel but shoots his way out after disarming burly police officer Jack Cates (Nick Nolte).

With two police officers now dead in addition to the prison guards, Ganz is a most wanted man, and Cates secures the release of Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy), one of Ganz's old accomplices, from jail for 48 hours to help end the killing spree. Jack and Reggie are like oil and water, and while Jack is desperate to catch up with Ganz, Reggie is desperate to get laid during his brief taste of freedom. Eventually the two men earn some mutual respect and close in on Ganz as he closes in on the money.

48 Hrs. has not aged terribly well. The plot was never the point, and it does not get better with time: that the only way to find a vicious and trigger-happy maniac tearing through the city and killing multiple police officers is to seek the help of a criminal who has been languishing in jail for two years defies all logic and the reasonable abilities and motivations of most police forces.

Which leaves us with the buddy dynamics between Nolte's police officer Jack, and Murphy's convict Reggie. It is a foul-mouthed, violence-prone relationship that is surprisingly lacking in wit or sharp laughs. As one of the original buddy movies 48 Hrs. was establishing the template rather than improving upon it, but the lack of ideas in the script is a bit painful, as is the over-dependence on Murphy's antics. Five different writers had a hand in the screenplay, including director Walter Hill, and the lack of a confident, purposeful tone is obvious. 

The scenes that work best allow Murphy to take centre stage, as in the red-neck bar with Reggie pretending to be a cop, but even then, the comedy is contrived, with the support actors waiting on cue to bend over and be the punch line of Murphy's cool jokes.

Nolte brings little that is new to the role of the lone cop doing things his way, with everything from his sour demeanour to his strained relationship with his girlfriend (an under-used Annette O'Toole) to his beat-up car borrowed from countless other movie and television cops.

48 Hrs. makes good use of the San Francisco locations, and the Murphy persona benefits from the freshness of talent being discovered rather than over-exposed. But while it's a movie that remains engaging, with the passage of time 48 Hrs. is looking quite ragged around the edges.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The China Syndrome (1979)

Released 12 days before the nuclear power reactor incident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, The China Syndrome is fiction anticipating fact with chilling accuracy. It is also a well-made and thoughtful thriller, with tight pacing and excellent performances.

Reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are part of a local Los Angeles television crew compiling a documentary series on energy sources. While filming an informational segment at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, they inadvertently witness what looks like a serious incident: after an unexplained shudder, the control room staff, including shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) and co-worker Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) are thrown into no small amount of panic as they deal with faulty valves and stuck gauges, narrowly averting a meltdown.

With another proposed nuclear power plant undergoing high-profile approval hearings, there is a rush to whitewash the incident and bring Ventana back on line. However, Godell is concerned enough to delve into the Ventana safety management procedures and uncovers falsified record keeping. Convinced that the plant will be unsafe if it is restarted, he agrees to share his findings with Wells. But Godell's life is soon in danger, as greater corporate forces move in to silence his whistle-blowing, culminating in a final confrontation between information and cover-up in the Ventana control room.

The China Syndrome sparkles with the understated cleverness of reality. Director James Bridges (who also co-wrote the script) eschews the  use of soundtrack music and never allows any of his characters to take on larger than life heroic proportions. Wells does not hide her vanity and acknowledges that although she is interested in serious stories, career climbing is just as important. Adams is a short-tempered and foul-mouthed idealist, destined to remain on the margins of influence. Even Godell, who could have been the most heroic of characters, falls apart at his critical moment.

The colourful details of life in a television newsroom are a delight, and the film avoids allowing the unfolding story to detract from the eccentricities of daily living, Wells struggling with her pet turtle as she answers the phone being typical of the depth that the film pursues to the end.

Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas (who also produced the movie) provide a large dose of star power, and all three deliver controlled performances, staying within themselves and avoiding diva moments. The performances are key to enliven and maintain interest in what is mostly a talkfest: the brilliance of The China Syndrome lies in uncovering the threat of something horrible potentially happening at the nuclear plant -- nothing drastically wrong ever actually does happen, but lives are nevertheless lost in the battle between revealing and hiding information.

And while the nuclear angle rightfully gets all the attention, The China Syndrome not only predicted the age of nuclear power nightmares, it more tellingly foretold the era of the media cozying up ever closer to corporate interests and forgoing hard stories for soft puff pieces.

The China Syndrome is a richly successful example of one of the most difficult challenges that fictional movies can undertake: provocative investigations of potentially dangerous trends packaged in captivating entertainment.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

CD Review: Mezmerize, by System Of A Down (2005)

System Of A Down deliver a high quality set with Mezmerize, the first of two 2005 records the band released before going on hiatus. After the rushed release of Steal This Album!, the band wisely took a solid two and half years to perfect the proper follow up to Toxicity, and results do not disappoint. Combining their power and passion with some stellar song writing, the band conjure up several excellent tracks.

Opener B.Y.O.B. (which stands for Bring Your Own Bombs) is a terrific anti-war song, wailing against the invasion of Iraq with ridiculously successful sarcasm. Revenga follows with a brilliant display of how harmonics can be applied to heavy metal, Serj Tankian finally adding control to his frequently over-animated vocals.

Radio / Video further demonstrates the band's growth, a terrific simple melody exploding into a furious fireball before morphing into a tantalizing oompah beat with mesmerizing harmonics. Sad Statue is the other stand-out track on the album, System Of a Down finding the path of least of resistance to a factory of thoughtful metal with Daron Malakian's guitar leading the way to more soulful yet angry harmonics.

While Cigaro and This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm On This Song represent unfortunate potholes, Mezmerize is brimming with a sense of maturity, with the songs now longer, more complex, and featuring seamless melodic and pace variations, but without ever losing the band's identity.


Daron Malakian - Guitar
Serj Tankian - Vocals
Shavo Odadjian - Bass
John Dolmayan - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Soldier Side - Intro - n/a (short track)
2. B.Y.O.B. - 10
3. Revenga - 10
4. Cigaro - 6
5. Radio / Video - 9
6. This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm On This Song - 6
7. Violent Pornography - 8
8. Question! - 7
9. Sad Statue - 9
10. Old School Hollywood - 7
11. Lost In Hollywood - 7

Average: 7.90

Produced by Rick Rubin and Daron Malakian.
Mixed by Andy Wallace. Engineered by David Schiffman.
Mastered by Vlado Meller.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Steal This Album!, by System Of A Down (2002)

It was always denied by the band, but Steal This Album! sure does sound a lot like a collection of the tracks that were not good enough for Toxicity. Released one year after the band's breakthrough, and after most of the songs had leaked on-line, Steal This Album!, with faux bootleg packaging, has more in common with the debut self-titled album than the more satisfying Toxicity.

Many of the songs on Steal This Album! represent good ideas, concepts and sounds that fall just short of becoming great album tracks. The potential and creativity are clear, it's just the final coat of professional polish that is often missing. As evidence of an inability to give any idea the full attention that it may deserve, an astounding sixteen tracks clamour for attention on Steal This Album!: only six of them are longer than three minutes, and just one, Mr. Jack, clambers over the four minute mark.

The overall sound remains true to System Of A Down's core strength: crunchy guitar work from Daron Malakian supporting soulful, theatrical and political vocals from Serj Tankian. Shavo Odadjian on bass and John Dolmayan on drums go about their supporting business relatively quietly, rarely attempting to compete with the angry fire and fury of the vocals and guitar.

Highway Song is the one track that would have fit comfortably on Toxicity, the band allowing harmonies to develop and breathe, toning down the overt drama without sacrificing a sharp edge of menace. The rest of the album is rich with interesting minerals waiting to be mined, but most of the extracted rocks are just slightly underweight to be truly memorable.


Daron Malakian - Guitar
Serj Tankian - Vocals
Shavo Odadjian - Bass
John Dolmayan - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Chic 'N' Stu - 8
2. Innervision - 7
3. Bubbles - 7
4. Boom! - 8
5. Nuguns - 7
6. A.D.D. - 7
7. Mr. Jack - 8
8. I-E-A-I-A-I-O - 7
9. 36 - n/a (short track)
10. Pictures - 8
11. Highway Song - 9
12. F**K The System - 6
13. Ego Brain - 8
14. Thetawaves - 7
15. Roulette - 8
16. Streamline - 7

Average: 7.47

Produced by Rick Rubin and Daron Malakian.
Mixed by Andy Wallace.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Women And Children First, by Van Halen (1980)

Making it three albums in two years, Van Halen released Women And Children First one year after Van Halen II. Whether or not they were rushing to cash in on their snowballing success, the first noticeable signs of  malaise are evident.

Recorded in one take and with minimal overdubs, Women And Children First contains just the one outright classic with Fools, and several wasteful moments. Everybody Wants Some, Romeo Delight, Could This Be Magic? and In A Simple Rhyme, or a half the album, is merely good at best. This would prove to be the start of the nasty Van Halen habit of including too much iffy material on relatively short albums.

Was the band shovelling filler or quickly finding the limits of their creativity uncomfortably close to their starting point? Regardless, the end result was an almost unstoppable and continuous degradation in subsequent album quality.

On the positive side, Women And Children First does find Van Halen starting to experiment with some more complex structures, and topics slightly beyond their basic party obsession, without losing their spirit and personality. Fools is the best embodiment of the band getting it right as they march into new territory, a driving, spellbinding Eddie riff blasting off from a soulful start towards all-metal land, Van Halen finding joy in sheer volume and absolute power.

Opener And The Cradle Will Rock... is in the same mould but a just bit calmer and less adventurous. Loss Of Control again celebrates manic riffing, while Take Your Whiskey Home goes in the other direction with intro acoustic guitar work giving way to a bluesy metallic melody.

Women And Children First is a mixed but generally positive experience, and not without plenty of highlights. But the lingering doubt is introduced: once the naive wild partying of youth gets old, does the band that is all about fun have what it takes to forge a serious long-term career?


David Lee Roth - Vocals
Edward Van Halen - Guitar
Michael Anthony - Bass
Alex Van Halen - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. And The Cradle Will Rock... - 9
2. Everybody Wants Some!! - 7
3. Fools - 10
4. Romeo Delight - 7
5. Tora! Tora! - n/a (short track)
6. Loss Of Control - 8
7. Take Your Whiskey Home - 8
8. Could This Be Magic? - 7
9. In A Simple Rhyme - 6

Average: 7.75

Produced by Ted Templeman.
Engineered by Donn Landee.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Friday, 22 April 2011

CD Review: Van Halen II, by Van Halen (1979)

Almost exactly a year after releasing their self-titled debut, Van Halen returned with their second studio album, recorded in a matter of days. Van Halen II cemented the group's status as rising superstars of the accessible hard rock wing of heavy metal, with another set of songs about good times, women, and good times with women.

Sticking close to their strengths, Van Halen II is all about the character of David Lee Roth and the wizardry of Edward Van Halen. Roth infuses every track with his infectious brand of uncontrollable fun-loving energy, and whenever he pauses to draws a breath, Eddie fills the void with his magical brand of clean and catchy guitar work. It's a simple formula perfectly suited to the otherwise intellectually challenged lyrics that rotate endlessly around craving and enjoying the good life.

The front end of the album is slowish, Somebody Get Me A Doctor standing out with an edgier riff and a welcome dose of hardened steel. The back end is stacked with the better material. Light Up The Sky takes off meteor-style and streaks unobstructed through the darkness, riding a confident Alex Van Halen beat, complete with a brief drum solo. D.O.A. turn all the way metal with an Eddie riff that takes no prisoners, Roth sounding deeper and finally just a bit more serious. And Beautiful Girls ends the album with the perfect Van Halen track, celebrating what the band is all about on the back of a clever harmony and a contagious spirit that demands to be joined, but only with a smile and a kiss.

Outta Love Again and Women In Love... provide additional depth to the song list, and for guitar affectionados, Eddie throws in an acoustic version of Eruption under the title of Spanish Fly.

Van Halen II succeeds in being a sophomore effort that consolidates the success of the debut. It may not represent any sort of serious progression, but when you are busy having endless fun and dominating the world, evolving is low on the priority list.


David Lee Roth - Vocals
Edward Van Halen - Guitar
Michael Anthony - Bass
Alex Van Halen - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. You're No Good - 7
2. Dance The Night Away - 7
3. Somebody Get Me A Doctor - 9
4. Bottoms Up! - 7
5. Outta Love Again - 8
6. Light Up The Sky - 9
7. Spanish Fly - 7
8. D.O.A. - 10 *see below*
9. Women In Love... - 8
10. Beautiful Girls - 10

Average: 8.20

Produced by Ted Templeman.
Engineered by Donn Landee.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Movie Review: Raging Bull (1980)

The true story of middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull chronicles a life that passes through boxing's glory and agony. Single-minded ambition combined with a dense self-centred personality and an inability to connect with anyone except at the business end of a fist ensured that LaMotta experienced the highs and the lows with equal intensity. Raging Bull is also a career highlight for Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese.

We meet Jake (De Niro) as a young fighter in the early 1940's, as he slowly makes a name for himself in low-level bouts. From a poor Bronx background, Jake has a short temper and suspicious personality that allows him to easily abuse his first wife and maintain only an edgy relationship with his loyal brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Jake has a thunderous punch and the ability to survive terrible beatings without being knocked-down.

His reputation rises with a series of victories, and his personal life seems to take a turn for the better when he courts and marries Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a young beauty from the neighbourhood. Jake believes that he is good enough to earn a title fight, and has the ambition to match his uncompromising fighting style. Never knocked down but with a mixed record, he takes on Sugar Ray Robinson in a series of fights that enhance his standing in the boxing world.

Despite blatantly throwing a fight to appease local crime lords, he eventually becomes world middleweight champion. But even at the top of the world Jake's insane jealousy means that he can trust no one, least of all Vickie and Joey. From the heights of success he has a long way to fall, as his personal life collapses and his career ends with mounting weight problems. He opens and operates a nightclub, but this lands him in jail after he unwittingly allows young girls to prostitute themselves out of his establishment. The story ends in 1964, with Jake establishing a niche for himself as an after-dinner entertainer.

Scorsese directs Raging Bull in brilliant black and white and using almost exclusively mid-range and close-up shots, as he delves deeply and at close quarters into the life and emotions of LaMotta. The movie is about the thin line between the forces that govern spectacular success and stunning failure; and boxing as a perfect metaphor. LaMotta's combative power and determination took him to the top; his inability to relate to others except through the lens of confrontation ensured his undoing. Scorsese makes sure that his cameras are never far from any of the forces, and LaMotta's life is portrayed as equally brutal inside and outside the ring. The graphic scenes of boxing violence are brutally intense, the black and white cinematography enhancing the sweat, blood and agony of close quarters combat between men of monstrous willpower.

De Niro gives one of the performances of his career, convincingly bringing LaMotta to life from a young man to a chastened but unremorseful fallen hero, capturing the right amount of drive and human failings without ever appearing to act. Filled with honest brooding intensity, the performance earned him the Academy Award as Best Actor for 1980. Opposite De Niro's LaMotta, Joey and Vickie are the only other major characters in the film. Joe Pesci became a leading character actor with his performance as Joey, and established the outline of the persona that he would perfect in GoodFellas ten years later, also alongside De Niro and Scorsese. Cathy Moriarty's debut as Vickie is memorable but unfortunately relatively statuesque.

Raging Bull is a timeless classic, the story of man's sometimes desperate struggle to control the potent conflicting forces that lie within, and that can both construct and destroy destiny.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Spartacus (1960)

The story of a slave revolt in Italy in the last century before Christ, Spartacus is a grand Hollywood historical spectacle, filled with a long list of stars and an army of extras. Despite the grandness on display, it is also one of director Stanley Kubrick's most straightforward movies. His future efforts would focus a lot more on the unhinging of society and lot less on straightforward cries for freedom and basic human dignity.

The strong-willed slave and gladiator-in-training Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) inspires the slaves of Italy to revolt and pursue their dream of freedom. As the slaves organize themselves into an army and functioning society and march across the country, large chunks of the movie are occupied with the behind-the-scenes plotting and backstabbing in Rome, as the conniving general Crassus (Laurence Olivier), the sleazy senator Grachuss (Charles Laughton), the emerging military leader Julius Caesar (John Gavin), and the naive commander Glabrus (John Dall) use the slave rebellion to outmaneuver each other in a great power struggle.

As a result, Spartacus has surprisingly few all-out action scenes, as Kubrick attempts to keep the focus on characters and politics. The extras are mostly deployed in grand canvasses portraying the epic journey of the slave army to the Italian shore seeking a naval passage to freedom, and there is only one elaborate battle sequence between the slaves and the Roman legions.

The romance between Spartacus and the slave girl Varinia (an earnest Jean Simmons) also gets plenty of screen time, and helps to humanize the otherwise larger than life character of Spartacus.

Two less powerful but more memorable characters steal several scenes in the movie: Peter Ustinov won an academy award for his turn as Betiatus, a slave dealer and gladiator trainer who finds himself having to draw on his substantial shrewdness to survive as he is sucked into the political battle in Rome. Tony Curtis wanders into the movie as Antoninus, a slave boy who escapes his master Crassus and joins the rebellion, becoming a trusted advisor to Spartacus. A restored seduction scene, with master Crassus in the bath leading his slave Antoninus towards a homosexual relationship by talking about oysters and snails, is a sneaky attempt at censor evasion.

The narrative eventually narrows down to a battle of wits between Crassus and Spartacus, and with the weight of the Roman Empire's military might on the side of Crassus, the outcome is never in doubt. Spartacus needs to be satisfied with his men's enormous displays of loyalty, culminating in the "I am Spartacus!" classic scene, and a more hopeful future for the next generation.

With star actors in fine form, visually appealing elaborate sets, and the sweep of history, Spartacus overcomes it's more wooden moments and provides a frequently enthralling experience.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: First Knight (1995)

Yest another interpretation of the King Arthur legend, First Knight is Arthur-light.

Featuring a mildly nauseating relationship between Sean Connery's King Arthur and Julia Ormond's Guinevere, Arthur is a full 35 years older than his great love, and to no surprise, there is no passion but lots of ick between Connery and Ormond. This Guinevere is much more interested in Lancelot, played by a long-haired Richard Gere as a dashing, carefree, personal-freedom loving expert swordsman. Director Richard Zucker works hard to generate some sparks between Ormond and Gere, and ultimately some passion emerges, but it's all at the level of superficial infatuation driven by Hollywood heroics.

Christopher Cross as the evil Prince Malagant pops up at appropriate moments to snarl his way through the movie as the designated bad guy, dressed all in black to make the point, and while he thinks he's after control of Camelot, what he is really doing is placing Guinevere in a succession of damsel-in-distress situations from which Lancelot can heroically rescue her to move their love story along.

Prince Malagant has split from King Arthur and is seeking to establish his own dominion by all means necessary. While the wise old Arthur is all about shared democracy and doing good for the people, the young and aggressive Malagant is only about hard-nosed leadership delivered by the sword, aimed initially at the heart of Leonesse, the territory ruled by Guinevere. Lancelot cares only for his personal freedom and not much else, but finds himself helping Arthur and lusting after Guinevere. And yes, it all sounds remarkably like Obi Wan, Darth Vader, Princess Leia and Han Solo transplanted to medieval England.

Gere makes no attempt at a British accent, but he and Connery are never less than watchable, and their presence gives William Nicholson's average script enough weight to be tolerable. Without the megawatt stars, First Knight would have been conclusively third rate.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

CD Review: System Of A Down, by System Of A Down (1998)

System Of A Down's debut is all political rage and fury, the back of the CD featuring a manifesto for a revolution, warning of the impending collapse of the system and the need to clench fists, etc., etc. All good fodder for impressionable young minds as they rush to buy the music that will ensure their heroes become very much part of the system.

But what about the music? System Of A Down is filled with a lot of tinkering, a lot of swearing, and a lot of songs with one-word titles, most of them short enough, at under three minutes, to support a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Serj Tankian delivers his vocals somewhere between a Broadway theatre stage and a Milan opera house, an approach that sets the band apart in any sub-genre of metal. Daron Malakian finds a lot of crunch, a lot of soul, and a lot of creativity in his guitar, a combination that would quickly propel him into the front ranks of metal guitarists.

Here and there, fragments of good ideas emerge and these would mature and grow into a much better product on Toxicity. Sugar manages to nurture a searing little guitar melody into a classic, the best indicator of what System Of A Down will be evolving into. Spiders takes its time, controls the pace and discovers a new world of power within calmness that the band would exploit with great success in the future. Peephole discovers a spooky carnival theme that evokes a muddy field filled with crusty performers escaping a miserable past and with the promise of better futures long behind them. And deep into the songlist, P.L.U.C.K. has fun with what passes as straightforward metal in the hands of System Of A Down, John Dolmayan giving his drum set a fearsome beating.

System Of A Down is an album full of promise and creative ideas, and almost equally full of naivete, scattered thinking and half-baked concepts. Better days ahead.


Daron Malakian - Guitars
Serj Tankian - Vocals
Shavo Odadjian - Bass
John Dolmayan - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Suite-Pee - 8
2. Know - 7
3. Sugar - 10
4. Suggestions - 7
5. Spiders - 9
6. Ddevil - 6
7. Soil - 7
8. War? - 6
9. Mind - 7
10. Peephole - 8
11. CUBErt - 6
12. Darts - 7
13. P.L.U.C.K. - 8

Average: 7.38

Produced by Rick Rubin with System Of A Down.
Mixed by D. Sardy.  Engineered by Sylvia Massy.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Friday, 15 April 2011

CD Review: Renegades, by Rage Against The Machine (2000)

Released after Zack De La Rocha had already left the band but featuring his vocals, Renegades is the final studio album from Rage Against The Machine. Consisting entirely of covers, the album is as uneven as the song selection.

Paying homage to a multitude of genres from rock to punk to hip hop, and with 12 tracks covering artists as diverse as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, MC5, Devo and The Stooges among others, Renegades is a hit and miss affair, frequently alternating between brilliance and mediocrity.

When Rage Against The Machine hit the target, which on Renegades is often, the results are irresistible. Kick Out The Jams (MC5), Renegades Of Funk (Afrika Bambaataa), I'm Housin' (hip hop group EPMD), How I Could Just Kill A Man (Latino hip hop group Cypress Hill) and Maggie's Farm (Dylan) are all brilliantly infused with Rage Against The Machine's unique combination of innovative guitar work and mightily angry vocals. It's impossible not to move to the beat of Renegades Of Funk. How I Could Just Kill A Man enjoys the benefits of the pure arrogance of De La Rocha's vocals bolted onto Morello's seductive riff, while Maggie's Farm rides a monstrously fat bass line dripping with deliciously unhealthy juices.

But when Renegades falters, it's not pretty. Pistol Grip Pump (hip hop group Volume 10), Beautiful World (Devo), In My Eyes (punk band Minor Threat) and The Ghost Of Tom Joad (Springsteen) are either poor songs to begin with, or just not a good fit for Rage Against The Machine's brand of nu-metal.

Ultimately there are more successes than failures on Renegade, and the album stands as an appropriate final monument to a band that was never short on guts and rarely afraid of innovative experimentation.


Zack De La Rocha - Vocals
Tom Morello - Guitar
Tim Commerford - Bass
Brad Wilk - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Microphone Fiend - 8
2. Pistol Grip Pump - 6
3. Kick Out The Jams - 10
4. Renegades Of Funk - 10
5. Beautiful World - 6
6. I'm Housin' - 10
7. In My Eyes - 6
8. How I Could Just Kill A Man - 10
9. The Ghost Of Tom Joad - 6
10. Down On The Street - 8
11. Street Fighting Man - 7
12. Maggie's Farm - 10 *see below*

Average: 8.08

also included on the CD:

13. Live version of Kick Out The Jams
14. Live version of How I Could Just Kill A Man

Produced by Rick Rubin.
Engineered by Jim Scott and David Schiffman.
Mixed by Rich Costey. Mastered by Vlado Meller.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Endgame, by Megadeth (2009)

A full 24 years after their debut, Megadeth release their 12th studio album, and it's a record that carries heavily the scars of a quarter century. Having cycled through the initial stage of all-out aggressive thrash followed by a mellower, more thoughtful mid-age period, Endgame finds Megadeth searching for a late career identity and finding precious little to cling to.

Yes the shredding guitar solos are still there, but they seem to drop in as solos for the sake of solos with minimal integration into the song structure. The melodies are either weak or forgettable, and the song complexity has regressed back to earlier, more juvenile days. The writing mostly sounds a bit desperate and derivative, Dave Mustaine attempting to pump water from an almost dry well of creativity.

Some good moments survive. Dialectic Chaos is an energetic enough instrumental opener. 44 Minutes, chronicling the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout, is among the more inspired and well-textured tracks. Bodies has a shamefully weak front two minutes, saved by an attractive melancholy instrumental back-end that deserves a much better overall package.

The best part of the CD occurs late, with The Hardest Part Of Letting Go...Sealed With A Kiss registering appreciated thoughtfulness and Head Crusher delivering exactly what it says on the tin, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. How The Story Ends arrives almost at closing time and serves as a reminder of where Megadeth should have been focusing Endgame all along: it's a mid-tempo, exquisitely structured song that take its time to build a head of steam propelling a strong melody, with solos and manic riffing that enhance the story rather than interrupt it.

The talent has always been there, but putting together the complete package at the right time has always been Megadeth's greatest challenge. Caught without the naive aggressiveness of youth and abandoned by the maturity of experience, Endgame stumbles across the finish line, well behind the pack.


Dave Mustaine - Vocals, Guitars
Chris Broderick - Guitars
James Lomenzo - Bass
Shawn Drover - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Dialectic Chaos - 8
2. This Day We Fight! - 7
3. 44 Minutes - 8
4. 1,320' - 6
5. Bite The Hand - 7
6. Bodies - 8
7. Endgame - 6
8. The Hardest Part Of Letting Go...Sealed With A Kiss - 8
9. Head Crusher - 8
10. How The Story Ends - 10
11. The Right To Go Insane - 6

Average: 7.45

Produced by Andy Sneap and Dave Mustaine.
Engineered and Mastered bu Andy Sneap.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

CD Review: The Battle Of Los Angeles, by Rage Against The Machine (1999)

The third studio album by Rage Against The Machine, and their last to feature original material, The Battle Of Los Angeles finds the band in fine form. Perhaps the most metal of the band's albums, at its best The Battle Of Los Angeles perfectly demonstrates how rap vocals and metal music can enhance each other.

Tom Morello continues his never ending quest for innovative guitar sounds, but he makes sure to bring plenty of straightforward crunch to tracks like Testify and Guerrilla Radio. Most of the songs have a well-intentioned musical purpose in addition to a political message, and notable contributions from Brad Wilk's drums and Tim Commerford's bass.

Testify and Guerrilla Radio open the CD with a potent double punch, both benefiting from De La Rocha in fine form with his barely controlled angry delivery, and Morello mainly focussing on simple, driving melodies layered on top of crashing drum work by Wilk. Morello claims the spotlight on Sleep Now In The Fire, leading from the front with a groovy, sleazy riff that dismissively dominates the song even when it takes a break.

The interesting material continues: Maria slows the pace down with a more gimmicky guitar sound creating more vibe than music; War Within A Breath closes the album with a controlled construction site cacophony. And Morello's annoyingly enjoyable high-pitched alarm-clock tune from Ashes In The Fall deserves a mention, although it's a pity that the rest of the song does little with it.

The Battle Of Los Angeles is filled with interesting skirmishes and memorable assaults, and it's a satisfying final chapter for Rage Against The Machine's sadly short career creating original music.


Zack De La Rocha - Vocals
Tom Morello - Guitars
Tim Commerford (credited as Y.tim.K.) - Bass
Brad Wilk - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Testify - 10
2. Guerrilla Radio - 10
3. Calm Like A Bomb - 7
4. Mic Check - 7
5. Sleep Now In The Fire - 10
6. Born Of A Broken Man - 7
7. Born As Ghosts - 6
8. Maria - 8
9. Voice Of The Voiceless - 7
10. New Millennium Homes - 7
11. Ashes In The Fall - 7
12. War Within A Breath - 8

Average: 7.83

Produced and Mixed by Brendan O'Brien. Recorded by Nick DiDia.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Friday, 8 April 2011

CD Review: Cryptic Writings, by Megadeth (1997)

Twelve years and seven albums into their career, Megadeth find a bumpy middle-age groove on Cryptic Writings. There is a clear smoothness and clarity to the material, and four of the dozen tracks on the album are among Megadeth's best and most mature compositions. There are also quite a few duds which knock back the CD's reputation.

The last studio album to feature Nick Menza on drums, and the last time that the band's most stable line-up recorded together, Cryptic Writings contains some gems, and the album wastes no time introducing the first one. Menza kicks-off the CD and Trust with a brooding drum beat, an appropriate opening for a most sophisticated and satisfying song, featuring a melody brimming with a laid back confidence.

Towards the back-end, three songs sparkle. A Secret Place takes a terrific risk with another complex structure demonstrating how far Mustaine has traveled as a songwriter. She-Wolf is a formidable tribute to Iron Maiden, with the final minute dedicated to an amazing Maidenesque harmony that salutes Eddy in his mid-eighties glory. But the absolute best is saved for last, FFF (which stands for Fight For Freedom) fairly exploding from the atom of an insuppressibly fast Menza beat to support a hypnotic, hooked-up guitar riff that still manages a large dose of soul.

The Disintegrators is another stand-out track, a throwback to old-school Megadeth with a modern paint-job: all speed, incessant riffing, and over-amped power, but the vocals are now welcome contributions rather than afterthoughts.

Unfortunately tracks like Mastermind, Sin and Have Cool, Will Travel degrade the quality and should have  been dropped entirely from the album, Megadeth once again having trouble separating the highly worthy from the relatively worthless.

Cryptic Writings is a significant contribution to the Megadeth catalogue, and while the valleys are awkward, the peaks ensure that the journey is worthwhile.


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

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Trust - 10
2. Almost Honest - 7
3. Use The Man - 7
4. Mastermind - 5
5. The Disintegrators - 9
6. I'll Get Even - 8
7. Sin - 6
8. A Secret Place - 10
9. Have Cool, Will Travel - 6
10. She-Wolf - 10
11. Vortex - 7
12. FFF - 10

Average: 7.92

Produced by Dann Huff. Co-Produced by Dave Mustaine
Recorded and Mixed by Jeff Balding. Mastered by Bob Ludwig.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Evil Empire, by Rage Against The Machine (1996)

A case of one song dominating an entire album, Bulls On Parade shines with such intensity that a long shadow is cast over almost everything else on Evil Empire, the second album by Rage Against The Machine.

People Of The Sun sneaks in at the front end with an enjoyably buzzy and energetic opener, but then the bulls are let loose on the parade, and a new mark of metal greatness is notched. Mid-tempo and wielding enormous power, Bulls On Parade combines Tom Morello's endless guitar tricks with a massive bass line, thunderous drums and Zack De La Rocha's intense but controlled vocals to create a classic. The nu-metal genre never had a better moment.

The rest of the album, while rarely disappointing, understandably struggles to make much of an impact, Snakecharmer briefly perking up proceedings by unleashing a stripped down, power-hungry, bass-heavy monster. Otherwise there are a few too many fiddly guitar frolics, too much of De La Rocha spitting his political diatribes into the microphone, and not enough catchy material.

The empire may be evil, but it's those bulls rampaging through the parade that we remember best.


Zack De La Rocha - Vocals
Tom Morello - Guitars
Tim Commerford (credited as Tim Bob) - Bass
Brad Wilk - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. People Of The Sun - 9
2. Bulls On Parade - 10
3. Vietnow - 7
4. Revolver - 7
5. Snakecharmer - 8
6. Tire Me - 7
7. Down Rodeo - 7
8. Without A Face - 7
9. Wind Below - 6
10. Roll Right - 7
11. Year Of Tha Boomerang - 7

Average: 7.45

Produced by Brendan O'Brien. Mixed by Andy Wallace.
Recorded by Nick Dida. Mastered by Bob Ludwig.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Movie Review: Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

A sequel that stays tight to the course charted by the original, Resident Evil: Apocalypse picks up the futuristic story of the zombie infection caused by the T-Virus as it spreads through Raccoon City.

Alice (Milla Jovovich) emerges from a hospital facility run by the Umbrella corporation, where she has been kept sedated and injected with managed doses of the virus to change her DNA and turn her into a more proficient fighting machine. Alice finds chaos on the streets of Raccoon City: the virus is spreading uncontrollably and most of the population is infected. The zombies have taken over the streets. In response, Umbrella seals the city, leaving Alice and other survivors trapped along with the remnants of military teams who were trying to help quell the outbreak.

Alice teams up with disgraced former police officer Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), and a few military types and other survivors. Alice is contacted by Umbrella scientist Dr. Ashford, the T-Virus creator who has been extracted out of Raccoon City but needs help to rescue his trapped daughter Angela. In return for saving Angela, Ashford will help Alice find a way out of the carnage. Finding and rescuing Angela means killing many more zombies, infected dogs, and other evil beings, and matters are complicated when Umbrella unleashes a heavily armed Nemesis monster (another T-Virus related experiment) to add to the chaos, along with plans to nuke the city.

Moving the action from the artificial Hive underground facility to the urban environment provides Apocalypse with less of a designed video game feel, but also makes it indistinguishable from most other zombies-on-the-loose movies. To compensate, Apocalypse benefits from adding Guillory as the ultra-cool and seriously deadly Jill Valentine. The tandem of Guillory and Jovovich manage to simultaneously celebrate women as the main zombie-killing heroines, and entrench the credentials of the Resident Evil series as a young male adult fantasy.

Wrapped in a polished-enough package, Apocalypse delivers exactly what it promises: mild entertainment in the form of mindless zombie killing action, adding little that is new but not leaving out any of the admittedly limited elements demanded by the genre.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Resident Evil (2002)

A futuristic zombie movie based on a video game series, Resident Evil contains plenty of action, some mild shocks, numerous extras doing the zombie walk, and buckets of inoffensive special effects.

It's the future, and The Umbrella corporation is the world's largest and most dangerous corporation. In an underground weapons research facility called the Hive, the lethal and highly infectious chemical agent known as the T-Virus is released by an intruder. The 500 researchers at the facility are infected and killed, but the virus provides enough of a kick to keep the dead moving and seeking blood -- chemical zombies of sorts. The central computer that runs the Hive, nicknamed the Red Queen, shuts down the place to avoid the infection spreading to the surface, where residents of the large Raccoon City metropolis are unaware that the Hive even exists below them.

An Umbrella military team is sent into the Hive to clean up the mess, and they take with them Alice (Milla Jovovich), head of the Hive's security but suffering from amnesia. They are soon engaged in running battles with hordes of hungry zombies, deranged dogs, and even more dangerous large pink creatures with long tongues. To make matters worse the Red Queen does not appreciate the intrusion and activates her defence systems. The military team is decimated; Alice fights for survival and gradually uncovers her role in the conspiracy that resulted in the bloody mess.

Video games rarely translate well to the big screen, since games are built for active player engagement while movies are a much more passive experience. Resident Evil adds just enough plot and characterization to hold itself together as a movie, and director Paul W. S. Anderson throws massive amounts of mayhem and some humour at the screen to cover up the lack of substance. Milla Jovovich fulfills her function as eye candy in the form of an action doll, but casting an actress with limited range as a character suffering from amnesia is just asking for an overdose of blank stares. Michelle Rodriguez as a member of the military team is a much more animated and engaging zombie ass-kicker.

Resident Evil does not pretend to be anything other than a pseudo-science evil corporation zombie movie targeted at a young male audience. It achieves its objectives, but the bar is set quite low.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

CD Review: Youthanasia, by Megadeth (1994)

Megadeth slow down the pace, scrub off their manic edge, aim for a higher quality average and more consistent songwriting, and tackle weighty issues. As a result Youthanasia is a mature album that yields dependable results rather than stunning peaks and disastrous valleys.

With Dave Mustaine turning his life around (God receives the first Special Thanks in the CD booklet) and making the decision that a longer career (and a longer life) will require some evolution, Youthanasia is a clear attempt at finding a new sound for Megadeth. Completely gone are the out-of-control guitar solos, crazed but incoherent song segments, and break-neck speed. Instead, mid-pace melodies dominate, harmonies are woven in at every opportunity, and the songwriting is complex and sometimes intricate. All the vocals are articulate, and the lyrics examine dense topics including the meaning of life, the consequences of actions, death, and incest.

What is lost is that killer track that causes the world to stop and gasp. Youthanasia achieves a lot of small victories, but no massive triumph.

The excellent tracks include Addicted To Chaos, with Nick Menza's exuberant drum introducing a sure-footed melody; The Killing Road, driven by a more straightforward riff, and the grandiose Blood Of Heroes, celebrating Megadeth's survival with the most ambitious and most satisfying song structure on the album. But Mustaine has the most celebratory fun with closer Victory, cramming 23 Megadeth song titles into the lyrics while the fastest but also most soulful melody on the album chugs away.

Youthanasia has a solid metal core, but none of the nuggets cause a magnificent sparkle.


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

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Reckoning Day - 7
2. Train Of Consequences - 7
3. Addicted To Chaos - 9
4. A Tout Le Monde - 8
5. Elysian Fields - 8
6. The Killing Road - 9
7. Blood Of Heroes - 9
8. Family Tree - 8
9. Youthanasia - 6
10. I Thought I Knew It All - 8
11. Black Curtains - 6
12. Victory - 9

Average: 7.83

Produced and Mixed by Max Norman and Dave Mustaine.
Mastered by Bob Ludwig.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

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