Monday, June 28, 2010

Music Review - Dream Theater - Train of Thought

This is probably my second favorite Dream Theater album, behind Scenes from a Memory. This album really shows the bands insanely technical side with a flair of heaviness not really seen in their previous albums.

Train of Thought is basically Dream Theaters heavy metal album; tons of double bass and ridiculously technical drums, downtuned guitars, downtuned drums, lighting fast guitar and keyboard solos and songs stretching past 13 minutes in places. This is a fast, heavy and hard-hitting album, but it's not without its terrific catchy melodies, though they do tend to air on the darker side.

James LaBrie, who is one of my all time favorite vocalists sounds perfect here, with some awesome high notes and even some rap influenced vocal lines, which actually sound pretty darn cool. The lyrics, honestly, aren't the best I've ever seen and really lean more towards whining and complaining about life, but heck, they fit the music and are sung really well, so I can suffer through them.

What's so cool about this album is just to hear the band absolutely cut loose on every instrument and just blast at full speed for the whole album. While they've always been technical, this is pure showmanship in every way. From almost death metal sounding instrumental parts in various songs to the quirky solos in the track Endless Sacrifice to the angry buildup and climax of Honor Thy Father to the epic closer In the Name of God, every song is packed to the brim with just insane instrumentation. The instrumental Stream of Consciousness is the high point for all of it, and I'd definitely say that it's the most technical and complex track here.

So in conclusion, Train of Thought is definitely Dream Theaters heaviest, most technical and catchiest album. Heavy guitars, angry vocals and brilliant playing by every band member solidifies Train of Thought as one of my favorite metal albums.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cigar Review - Rocky Patel Java

Rocky Patel Java is another of my go-to cigars. I really have yet to be disappointed by anything Rocky sets his hand to, but he really struck gold with this cigar. This is, to quote the gentleman who sold it to me, "like smoking dessert," and this is probably the best description I've heard for the Java.

Firstly, this is a sleek looking cigar; it's square pressed for an elegant box shape with simple and tasteful labels on both ends. Secondly, this is one of the best tasting cigars I've yet smoked, ever. Before even cutting it and lighting it it gives off a very good coffee/cocoa flavor, and I mean REAL flavor. I would honestly buy these and just chew on them for the flavor, delicious.

Once lit, it burned perfectly and evenly, with strong coffee and cocoa flavors dominating. As I smoked the Java down the flavors became darker and spicier until the final fifth or so the cigar, at which point it became rather bitter and I had to stop smoking it. The smell is terrific, and is one of the only cigars I've smoked that doesn't seem to repel non-cigar smokers away.

The Rocky Patel Java is a fantastic after dinner dessert cigar, with outstanding flavor, burn and smell. I highly recommend the Maduro version, as this has some deeper and more rich textures in the flavor. For any cigar smoker, the Java is a must-smoke.

Rocky Patel Drew Estate Java Maduro
rated 9/10
Brazilian Maduro wrapper with Nicaraguan filler
Lighting method used: 3 torch lighter followed by single torch

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review - All the Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy has fast become one of my favorite authors, and I'm in the process of acquiring/reading as many of his works as I can. Having heard that he had written a Western styled trilogy of books, I went to the library and rented all three. I'll be reviewing each independently and when I finish the trilogy I'll post a brief recap of the whole story.

Cormac McCarthys style is fashioned after the styles of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway (among others), with long sentences, plain descriptions, simple dialogue and a very un-stylized style. This can be somewhat of a turn off, as individual sentences can sometimes run to almost half a page. It's an interesting technique that does take a little getting used too. The lack of punctuation besides the occasional comma, periods and apostrophes is also interesting and really speeds up the reading. I never noticed before how much punctuation can slow you down when reading before reading McCarthy.

I don't like giving away stories and plots in my reviews, so there's no spoilers here. I will touch on a few key points though: firstly, McCarthy is master of dialogue and showing what really makes people tick inside through simple observation. He really and truly is a master at his craft. Simplicity in the modern world is an almost bygone quality, but McCarthy has it down like few others ever have. While not as heartbreaking as his most recent work The Road, lots of emotion can be felt through the sparse and sometimes harsh dialogue. There's also a good amount of philosophizing to be found here, in long and drawn out sentences. Some of it really struck a chord inside me, some of it seemed to be more or less rambling, but all of it at least sounds good. I don't mind rambling about nothing, so long as it is conveyed in an interesting way.

All the Pretty Horses isn't for the faint of heart, despite it's deceptive title. There is a lot of harsh violence depicted in this mid 1900s western novel, and the dialogue between the various thieves, killers, criminals and innocents can be as terse and harsh as the descriptions of the surrounding Mexico/Texas landscape. While nothing to grotesque, those put off by stark looks at violence should be warned.

In conclusion, All the Pretty Horses is another evocative novel from Cormac McCarthy. Bleak, brutal and sparse in every way, I loved this book and am eager to begin the next in the trilogy.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Movie Review - The Book of Eli

This was a potentially interesting take on the post-apocalyptic genre of film, and I was genuinely interested in seeing it. It's concept was something fairly untapped in recent film, and I liked the idea of books being so valuable in the post-apocalyptic world. Unfortunately for me, this movie was somehting of a letdown.

Here's what I liked: The main character, Eli, had a good moral compass. I like that a lot. He prays to God, has good values and refuses to compromise sexually. There's some really cool action sequences, the cinematagrophy is excellent and the acting is good, which is no surprise since its Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. There's some thought provoking material here, and the script is fairly solid.

Here's what I didn't like: The execution is shaky. I wasn't aware Eli was supposed to be blind until some time after I saw the movie, and I don't really think he was. There were scenes that left me puzzled, such as when he gets shot from behind, but nothing happens and he continues walking on. I didn't know if the shot had missed, been deflected, or what. Eli shooting a cat with his bow and arrow, if he was blind, seems really implausible. Did he acquire these skills previously, are they divine or what? That was never answered. There's a sense of "seen it before" through the whole film; the villains are all suitably evil-looking, the main bad guy (Oldman) is a good villain but just seems cliche. Eli is a typical loner, wandering down his road on his God-given quest. Not a bad story, but nothing really innovative. The violence tries far too hard to be shocking, hard hitting and almost...philosophical and ends up being in bad taste more than anything.

There is one scene though, towards the second third of the film if I remember rightly, in which Eli and his companion wander into the home of some very friendly people that turns out to be an almost fatal decision that was brilliantly filmed. Without giving it away, I can say this was a perfect, eerie, unsettling scene that really made me sit up and pay attention. Kudos to the director and crew for filming that scene so well.

It certainly is a good film to look at; the colours are interesting, the camera-work is terrific. I wish that most of the really neat action scenes hadn't been shown in every trailer, as I felt that that they showed all the best parts in the trailers. Timing was also bad here, as The Book of Eli was released within a very short time as The Road, and since both movies have nearly identical plots it really took away from The Book of Eli.

All this isn't to say its a bad film; it just could have been better. Too much time was spent trying to philosophize in a Matrix-esque way, and this took away from the overall movie, I think. Had 20 or 30 minutes cut out of it and some of the weaker segments of philosophical/ethical discussions that take place been cut out, I thank it would have fared a lot better. Overall, this is a plain okay film that isn't terrible, but isn't anything amazing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Music Review - Insomnium - Above the Weeping World

Above the Weeping World is Insomnium's 3rd album, and while not as strong as their newest album Across the Dark, this record is a strong combination of melodic death metal and soft acoustic interludes, some of which border on ambient. While not my personal favorite of theirs, ATTW is definitely a solid album.

The melodic death metal of the album hasn't changed a whole lot since the first release by the band, but this isn't a bad thing at all. There's some real killer guitar work here, especially on the first three songs. While there aren't any blazing solos or wild technical riffing going on, there is still genuine emotion in the melodies played here, which is Insomniums greatest strength. As on every other of their albums, sorrow, nostalgia, anger and even a few glimmers of happiness can be found here, all of which are conveyed in real meaningful ways and avoid sound cheesy or over the top. The vocals contribute a lot to this, with deep powerful roars and growls that really add a lot of feeling to the music. Another big factor is the brilliant use of acoustic guitars, which more than anything here add feeling to the music. Whether used in intros or interludes, the soft acoustic moments are gentle and quite lovely, never out of place and something I really applaud the band for using so well. The pace is slow-to-mid with occasional fast breaks, however these are few and far between and the majority of the album is content to amble along at a mostly slow speed.

The lyrics are another strong point; Insomnium write some of my favorite lyrics of any band. Resembling poetry more than most bands lyrics (and in the 3rd song using an actual poem from Francis William Bourdillion) they are dreary and sorrowful, but like the actual music avoid being cheesy, which is something a lot of artists fail to do.

The highlights of this album for me are the first three songs, the third of which, Drawn to Black, is my favorite off the album and my favorite Insomnium song. The main riff is brilliant, the pace is perfect and the entire song simply works beautifully. There are some slower and duller moments though, particularly towards the end of the album. These are offset by some terrific acoustics though, and don't really take too much away from the album.

Overall, this is a strong effort by a fantastic band. Outstanding use of acoustics combined with mostly engaging melodic death metal make for a good combination, and Insomnium pull it off very well here.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Movie Review - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

When you think of a Western, the first thing to usually pop into your head is a shootout. Shootouts and Westerns go together like Star Wars films and lightsaber duels; they're more or less the focus of both. Also typical of Westerns are bar fights, carriage robberies, Mexican standoffs, horse chases and lassoing. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has none of those. This isn't a Sergio Leone gunslinging epic, in fact guns are only drawn a few brief times in the whole film. This is a film that focuses on acting, cinematagrophy and dialogue to tell an amazing story that just happens to be set in the Old American West.

First off, the acting here is some of the finest I have ever seen. Brad Pitt, as Jesse James gives a performance that is up there with some of the all time greats, going form insane to gentle and back again with an ease that I've rarely seen. This is definitely one of the highlights of his entire career in my mind. Casey Affleck, playing Robert Ford is just as good though, giving something of an eerie and uneasy feel to his character that adds to the entire feel of the movie. While these two are the powerhouses, every single actor/actress here is in top form and leaves nothing to be desired. It's rare that such a large cast does such a brilliant job all around.

Secondly is the cinematagrophy, which is as brilliant as the acting. I've only seen a few movies shot this well and with minimal digital assistance (if any). The colors and lighting are honestly perfect, and coupled with the actual camera-work perfectly set the tone for the whole movie. Real feelings of nostalgia, dreariness and unease are made real simply through the cinematagrophy. 10/10 for every shot being nothing less than beautiful.

Lastly is the dialogue. Dialogue is a big point for me in movies, and this film certainly delivers. While hard to understand some of the soft, southern-accented mutterings, the dialogue here is top notch in every way. Banter between Jesse and Robert Ford turns deadly and back to normal with almost frightening ease. Like the cinematagrophy, every line is carefully crafted to fit perfectly with the scene at hand.

Another element of the movie that is probably my favorite is the score, done by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The music here is beautiful, perfectly and brilliantly capturing the sad, nostalgic feel of the movie and giving a real dreamy quality to the films narration. Comprised of mostly piano and violins, these sad and haunting tunes are another of the pieces that really make this movie so good. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are fantastic artists, and in my opinion this is their best soundtrack they've yet made. Sad, ominous, eerie, the duo does it all here.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is definitely not for those seeking a standard shoot-em-up western.When the violence does emerge though, it is in very brief and intense blasts, sometimes lasting no longer than a gunshot. This movie is long, and very slow; I'd actually say one of the longest and slowest I've seen.  It is also one of the most dreary movies I've seen; there's no cheer or laughter or comic relief to be found here. It can drag on at times, particularly towards the middle of the movie, so viewers beware. However, a combination of some of the best acting and cinematagrophy make this a must see, in my opinion. Devoid of any cliches of the Western genre, this film is one of my favorites and a movie I highly recommend.