Thursday, January 21, 2010

Music Review - Insomnium - Across the Dark

Insomnium are one of maybe 3 or 4 melodic death metal bands I can listen to without being annoyed after 5 minutes. I've never really thought At the Gates, In Flames or Arch Enemy were that good, to be honest, I've never thought they were anything more than annoying, lame and boring. Irritating high-pitched screeches, lame riffs and just an overall boring feel was something that plagued these bands, but fortunately Insomnium suffers from none of these.

The previous album, Above the Weeping World, was a good blend of dreary acoustics and good solid melodic death metal; however, the death metal was never more than solid (with one or two exceptions) but I LOVED the acoustic sections. Here, on Across the Dark, its reversed. The acoustics take a back seat to some of the best melodic riffs the band have ever written (and I'd say some of the best in the melo-death scene) and while the acoustic sections aren't bad, they aren't really up to par with ATWW nor are they as numerous or as long lasting. As I said before, the melo-death has really been amped up, with some awesome melodic riffs, leads and melodies, and in some cases, soaring keyboards and clean vocals. Both of those are new ground for the band, and while the vocals aren't exactly awe-inspiring, they fit reasonably well and generally compliment the melody of the song at hand.

The extreme vocals are even better than they were on previous albums; deep, powerful, angry, desperate, sorrowful and perfectly executed. Insomniums vocals are second to none in the scene and have just such a force and power behind them that puts the shriekers and screamers that inhabit melodic death metal to shame.

Guitars are handled perfectly; melodic and heavy with some terrific leads and riffs. The production lends a good thick sound to both the guitars and drums, which gives it a powerful and hard hitting feel. Drums are well-played; there's not a lot amazing or jaw-dropping technical feats, but they're played with a fantastic tightness and accuracy.

The lyrics are as well-written as ever, and convey genuine sorrow and emotion without being cliche or cheesy or over the top. I wish they'd delved more into poetry as they did with Drawn To Black from ATTW though; I was slightly disappointed in that. Other than that small gripe though, lyrics are top-notch.

The overall feeling of this album is sadness, nostalgia and dreariness, but every once in a while a ray of sunlight with creep through, however brief. Moments of brutality are woven together with moments of delicate acoustic guitar and piano that make for a truly enjoyable listen; I highly recommend this album to anyone even remotely into heavy music.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Music Review - Blind Guardian - A Night at the Opera

Following the brilliant and (in my mind) genre-defining Nightfall in Middle-Earth, Blind Guardian produced what is possibly one of the (if not the) most overdone, pompous and generally over the top albums of all time, A Night at the Opera. The band really fired on all cylinders with this one, with hundreds of vocal, guitar and keyboard tracks being used to create an enormous and dare I say, epic atmosphere. The result is nothing short of amazing.

Blind Guardian basically took the formula from NIME (huge vocals, prominent keyboards and a focus on atmosphere as opposed to speed and heaviness) as far as it could be taken here . There's nothing frugal about this album at all; if there's singing, its a chorus of hundreds of voices. If a guitar plays, its complicated and leads and huge chords. The production is a big part of this and is definitely a step up from the previous album, and is some of the best production I've heard in a metal album. Every voice and instrument is crystal clear, loud but not obnoxiously loud and perfectly balanced with the other instruments.

The band itself is in top form here. Drums are fast, technical, bombastic and flawlessly played and one of the highlights of the album, full of ultra fast rolls and fast double bass work; I'd go so far as to say this is one of the best drumming jobs in all of metal. Guitars are melodic, fast and layered for a very full sound. Keyboards are used a LOT here, and with amazing results. The orchestration and choir work is second to none, and like the keys there is a ton of both. The choirs were really unleashed on this album, which I love, since the choirs are one of my favorite things about Blind Guardian. As I said before, everything in the mix compliments each other, and makes for a good tight sound.

Every song here is a brilliant piece in its own right, but there's 3tracks in particular that draw my attention. Firstly is the insanely catchy The Soulforged, which could have easily been included on NIME, and is much more of a traditional song with a verse/chorus pattern. One of the catchiest songs Blind Guardian have ever written in my opinion. Secondly is the ballad The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight, a seemingly calm ballad that explodes into a massive arena-rock styled power ballad. Lastly is the 14 minute epic And Then There was Silence, based on the fall of Troy. Every second of this song is absolutely amazing, with constantly changing rhythms, beats and speed; the vocals on this song are simply astounding. Listen to And Then There was Silence and you'll know the true meaning of an "epic" song.

All told, this is probably Blind Guardians most complex and pompous album, and one of my all time favorite albums. Regardless of what styles of music you like, this is an immensely entertaining album that I highly recommend everyone listen to at least once.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Movie Review - The Road

When I went to see this movie with 2 of my friends, their first reaction was to say how depressing this movie was, to which I strongly disagree. This movie is NOT depressing. It is very sad, very bleak and at times quite dark, but it is not depressing. The reason this movie is not depressing is because of two simple things: love and hope. Love, because that is the one thing holding the father and son (hereafter referred to as the Man and the Boy) together as they travel through a gray, dead and violent world. Hope, because that is what continues to push the Man and the Boy along the Road when their journey seems all but doomed.

Directed by John Hillcoat, (who also directed the brilliant "The Proposition,") starring Viggo Mortensen and with music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (who did the music for The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), this film met and exceeded all my expectations, and in my opinion surpassed the book in conveying the emotions felt by the Man and the Boy on their long, lonely and dangerous journey.

Bleak, gray, lifeless landscapes dominate the film; there is next to no color, cheer or happiness to be found here. Violent and cannibalistic bands of marauders roam at will, and this is made extremely clear in one eerie and disturbing sequence in which the Man and Boy narrowly escape from one such bands house. Not all the film is so dark though, and one particularly moving scene where the Man and Boy find a large cache of food and blankets brought a tear to my eye. I've seen very few scenes which have that level of love and emotion portrayed so well.

The cinematography is simple, yet very effective. Wide and evocative shots reminiscent of The Proposition sneak in on occasion, but for the most part simplicity reigns, and reigns well. Every single shot is well thought and has a purpose; there's no filler shots here.

Music is absolutely brilliant and the high point of the movie, with very delicate piano dominating. From very sad and somber to more lighthearted to almost bluesy, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis pull off another perfect scoring job. Rarely have I heard a score that so perfectly conveys the emotions that the characters are going through; I cannot praise the music here enough.

The Road is one of the best movies I have seen in a long, long time, and I'll be sorely disappointed if it isn't up for a Best Picture or Best Director award at the Oscars. I highly, highly recommend this movie; by far one of the most moving pictures to be released in some time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Movie Review - Public Enemies

Mediocre is not really a thing that any person, film, song, book or food wants to be. Mediocre, from is defined as "of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate," and I don't know if I've ever seen a movie more worthy of that description. Complete and utter mediocrity is the only way I can describe this film, which is highly disappointing, as the potential for an excellent period gangster piece is clearly visible.

I'll start with the casting first; the only real notable talent here would be Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger with almost...laziness; there's nothing fiery or dashing or charming about Public Enemy #1 here. Christian Bale gives his standard stoic and in my opinion, boring, performance as Melvin Purvis, the guy in charge of catching Dillinger and his gang of bank robbers; again, nothing moving or really provoking in this performance. Sadly, the rest of the cast follows suit, and not a single performance stands out. Character development is next to non-existent, and there were times when someone would be shot or be talking and I wouldn't know who their name was. I actually thought that John Dillinger had died at one point when he had somehow just vanished out the scene at hand with no explanation, only to reappear later randomly. Very poor job on the characters.

The dialogue is weak as well, consisting of grunts, shouts, and a couple of really poor Southern accents. Nothing at all to write home about, the dialogue here is just flat out weak. Every once in a while a snappy line will creep in, but other than that, nothing special at all.

My biggest gripe would be the camera work; the film is dominated by hand-held documentary-styled shots, which is extremely irritating when used poorly and too frequently. There are movies which have made excellent use of this style of camera work, but this looks downright cheap and amateur-ish in parts, and is really a low point for the movie. There are points in the movie where it quite literally looks like your viewing a home movie sent to Americas Funnies Home Videos, and I was extremely disappointed/irritated by this. However, in one gun-battle sequence, the shaky camera work is used to great effect and adds a lot of chaos to the scene; this is an example of using shaky camera work well. For the rest of the movie, it simply makes it look very sloppy. The brief attempts at more graphic violence and brutal treatment of criminals came across as distasteful, and I suspect were only inserted to appeal to fans of more "hardcore" gangster movies, but do nothing to really advance the story. I have no problem with ultra-violence, but this was just done poorly.

I suppose if I had to summarize my thoughts for this movie, it would be that Public Enemies is little more than a 2nd or 3rd rate Untouchables. The film is without direction and cannot decide if it wished to be a mystery/chase/gangster like The Road to Perdition, a vigilante police officer/gangster film like the Untouchables or a more relationship-centered movie; and by reason of trying to spread itself out too much ends up succeeding at none of the above. Public Enemies, as I stated above, is a thoroughly mediocre film, and I can't find any reason to recommend it to anyone.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Movie Review - Inglorious Basterds

"We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won't not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us. And when the German closes their eyes at night and they're tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with."

With that forceful declaration, the tone is set for Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's WWII revenge epic. Packed with savage violence, witty and engaging dialogue and brilliant acting, Inglorious Basterds ranks among the best films Tarantino has ever done and is one of the most entertaining movies to come out in a long time.

The first thing I thought as I watched this film was how toned down the overall intensity was in comparison to his earlier Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, which were much more shocking, violent and fiery in their dialogues. By contrast, Inglorious Basterds is much more laid-back and relaxed in delivery, a style that recalls more of Kill Bill 2 in its slower and quieter moments, but make no mistake: when Quentin Tarantino wants to kick you in the teeth, he will. The moments of violence and intensity, although more scarce, are just as effective as they were in Pulp Fiction, and perhaps by reason of their scarcity occasionally even more so.

The big box office draw was obviously Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, a sadistic and Nazi-hating backwoods American Army officer who delights in killing German foot soldiers. He plays the role to perfection, with obvious enthusiasm for the part. Definitely one of the most fun roles Pitt has ever taken on. Other notable performances are Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, a charming and romantic yet psychopathic SS officer in charge of hunting down Jews hiding in France; Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox, a British officer who assists in the Allied effort to assassinate Hitler and Diane Kruger as Bridget Von Hammersmark, a German actress secretly in league with the Allies; and finally, Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jewish girl determined to avenge the extermination of her family at the hands of Hans Landa. Every role is played to absolute perfection, nothing more can be said.

On a slightly less enthusiastic note, this is probably the first Tarantino movie in which I've been disappointed with the character development. Of all the major characters in the movie, only one is really delved into to show why he is the way he is, Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (played by Til Schweiger). Compared again to the character development of Reservoir Dogs, in which every major character is given full background, Inglorious Basterds is lacking.

That aside, the movie more than makes up for its shortcomings with stellar dialogue sequences and outstanding cinematography, and I really would rank this as one of the top movies of the year. Is it the best movie Quentin Tarantino has ever done? No. That honor goes to Reservoir Dogs, however, Inglorious Basterds is by far one of the most enjoyable and accessible movies he's ever crafted. Two big thumbs up and a hearty recommendation are all I can give for Inglorious Basterds.