Saturday, 26 February 2011

Architects - The Here And Now

Of all the types of review there are, none is more difficult than that of the "new sound album". It makes the review become less about the quality of the album and more about questions the listener must answer. What is more important, the quality of an album or the duty of fulfilling expectations? Is it right that an album be measured against its predecessors, or that quality, or lack thereof? Because believe me, your opinion of the new Architects release will depend entirely upon your expectations of it going in. There is, simply put, nothing of the band who wrote Ruin in this album. Even the decidedly more metalcore-influenced Hollow Crown was undoubtedly an Architects album. The Here and Now is not. Indeed, it’s very self-awarely so, the album title seeming to specifically reference the band’s desire to have it heard on its own merits, something that would be much easier were it not stuck in the canon of one of the UK’s best young bands.

Architects’ rise to fame has been a hard one. Despite early tours with fashion icons/sometimes-musicians Bring Me The Horizon, their acceptance by the emerging demographic of metal-aware scene kids was much slower than that of their compatriots, despite their exceptionally tight mathcore chops. The loss of original vocalist Matt Johnson and acquisition of the much more charismatic Sam Carter was just in time for the more accomplished Ruin, which introduced to their formula much more experimental territory, retaining the jagged complexity and backing it up with imaginative sensibilities reminiscent of Isis and Cult of Luna. The follow-up, Hollow Crown, had a much lighter feel to it, exploring both the melodic and ambient abilities of the musical section and Carter’s clean singing abilities. They’re particularly notable for each album being different, but up until now they’ve always been defined by a common Architects-ness, sharing common traits; the quick dissonant chords, the sludgy low end and the exemplary instrumental work, as well as some of the most innovative and interesting songwriting in modern metal. This is why it’s going to be very frustrating that this album seems to be such a dividing line in their career. None of those things are especially evident in this album, though they’re there in very small doses. This is an Architects album in name and personnel only, and let’s get one thing straight, I for one never listened to Architects for their smiles. I listened to them because something about their music resonated with me, and whether or not the new album has something of its own to offer, that Special Architects Something simply isn’t there in this album.

Right, shorn of those preconceptions, is The Here and Now good? To be honest, it’s entirely average. Standard. Utterly unable to stand out from all the other alternative albums out there. There’s nothing about it which grabs the listener, no recognizable reason to care about it in the slightest. Maybe this is them being nice to all the other young bands on the global metal scene by not putting out a record that the rest have to work their arses off catching up with. If it weren’t for the Architects name already being established, no-one would be talking about it. Every song is that frustrating okay, without any flair or drama, and the performances and songwriting are without any particular distinction. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s plain, unmemorable and ultimately without any of the gravitas which defined Follow The Water or You’ll Find Safety. For what it’s worth, it’s easily the worst thing Greg Puciato or Andrew Neufield have ever been involved with, poor sods that they are. I’ve repeatedly heard comparisons to Alexisonfire, for its straightforward, driving melodies and harsh vocal-clean vocal alternation, but that comparison is giving far too little credit to the complexity and intelligence that Alexisonfire display in their music. And, to give them credit, at least when Alexisonfire did a new sound album its failure as an Alexisonfire release was balanced out by its genuinely being a great album, justifying its lack of the band’s previous hallmarks with a host of equally well-executed new ideas. Architects now sound like the bands that popped up in the mid- 2000s which were trying so hard to be Alexisonfire, but just didn’t have the musical aptitude. Either way, I think they sound much more like a sub-par and mildly hardcore-influenced 36 Crazyfists, but that’s just me.

As an album, it’s vacuous and lacking impact, but as an Architects release, it stands within a canon of truly brilliant albums which The Here and Now seems to me to fail to live up to. With this established, what worries me is what happens next. This shift seems dramatic, but not prompted by anything other than where the musicians wanted to go, and that sucks because they’re unlikely to want to go back. And while that’s admirable, and something I have tremendous respect for, and fuck it, it’s not like the old albums are going anywhere, and yes, I’ll go to their shows and sing along to the songs I love, but I’m slightly sad that we’re not getting another album by the version of Architects that influenced me as much as they did as songwriters, and that I enjoyed so very much.

P.S. Holy shit, the new Radiohead is amazing, and I have no idea how much more I’ll appreciate it once I’ve had time to properly take it all in.

P.P.S.: The last three weeks or so's 1AAD, and I think a few others I've listened to, have been, in no particular order:
The Decemberists - The King is Dead (Folk-ish Indie)
Isis - In Absence of Truth (Post-Metal)
Dead Hearts - Bitter Verses (Hardcore)
The Middle East - The Recordings of the Middle East (Folk-ish Indie)
Have A Nice Life - Deathconsciousness (Devoted about four days to that one! One of my absolute favourite albums) (Shoegaze/Drone/Post-Punk)
Converge - Jane Doe (Mathcore)
Burial - Untrue (Really arty Dubstep)
Portishead - Dummy (Trip-Hop)
Russian Circles - Geneva (Post-Rock/Instrumental Progressive Rock)
Slayer - Reign In Blood (Thrash Metal)
Immolation - Close To A World Below (Death Metal)
Anaal Nathrakh - Eschaton (Blackened Grindcore)
More Than Life - Love Let Me Go (Hardcore)
Deathspell Omega - Paracletus (Experimental Black Metal)
Opeth - Blackwater Park (Progressive Death Metal)
Orchid - Dance Tonight! Revolution Tomorrow! (Screamo)
Alexisonfire - Watch Out! (Post-Hardcore)

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

1AAD Project - Pig Destroyer's Prowler In The Yard

Okay, here's today's Album of the Day review. This was meant for yesterday, but I had work and got back to late to write anything:

Pig Destroyer - Prowler in the Yard

It puzzles me to this day how a genre as disparate and artistically inclined as grindcore could have such a unified, and such a dull, aesthetic. The colour is green, the lyrical theme is sociopolitical dissatisfaction, the point of reference is almost always Napalm Death. Pig Destroyer offers something different. An American band, perhaps free from the crust punk crutch which overtook the European scene, Pig Destroyer take influence from thrash, grindcore and sludge metal to create a rather more derranged beast.

This, their second album, allowed for Scott Hull (ex-Anal Cunt and central member of Agoraphobic Nosebleed) to really explore his songwriting abilities, and his genius shows through. Despite most tracks being under 2 minutes in length, Hull's sheer playing speed allowing him to pack in great riffs throughout. While not Pig Destroyer's most experimental release - Hull had yet to switch to an 8-string, and Blake Harrison had yet to join as an electronics player - it is probably their best album as far as sheer instrumental albility goes.

Of course, another thing to note is the vocals. J.R. Hayes remains in my eyes the quintessential crazy-person grind vocalist (Though Guy Kozowyk's not doing too badly for himself). His lyrics in particular are warped and Lynch-esque, and capture a prose-like quality with which it tells a fractured story of violence, obsession and insanity.

Easily my favourite grindcore album (Sorry, Exit), this warped and astonishingly well-realised work puts Pig Destroyer up there with Isis and Converge in the upper echelons of the art-metal scene.
Right, after two days of extreme metal, I'm going for something lighter. Next up is The Decemberists' new album The King Is Dead.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

A New Project

Well, it's been a while. I haven't posted in about half a year for a very simple reason - it was only ever any fun writing long diatribes about terrible albums, and I quickly came to find that I couldn't really keep that up without just repeating myself (notice that almost all the negatively reviewed albums were from -core bands). However, this evening I've just come up with a new project to use this blog for.

I don't listen to albums anymore. I don't have the time or the commitment. An 80 GB iPod and - at time of writing - 39.6 days of music wherever I go has left me uninvested in most of my music. Wondering why this is, I looked back to the days before I had the money to buy albums in batches, or the bandwidth to download. I must have spent a good few months appreciating Vol 3. (The Subliminal Verses) or Ascendancy. I listened to those albums all the way through, sometimes over and over, and I built up a relationship with them over time. Do I do that now? Do I fuck.

So I'm imposing a challenge of myself. Each morning, I'm going to pick an Album Of The Day. I have to listen to it twice before listening to any other music. The first time, it has to play from start to finish, missing no tracks, uninterrupted. The second time, I can skip around on the album and repeat songs, but I have to listen to the whole album. After that, I can listen to other music, but I have to have listened to the album one other time before the end of the day. Finally, if at all possible, I have to write a little something about the album by the end of the week. Not a long, drawn out piece like before - though I may do one if the mood strikes me - but something which encourages me to really pay attention to the album. I may add extra rules at a later date.

So here's today's album:

Akercocke - Antichrist.

So Akercocke sound like a band that could only exist as a hypothetical - "What if Opeth were Anaal Nathrakh?" - and certainly it's a hypothetical I would probably dream up. Their latest album (Well, I say latest, this was released in 2007) shows this off with gusto. The foundation of their sound is blackened death metal, but Akercocke pepper their music liberally with elements of progressive rock, electronic music, new wave and even jazz influences. Fortunately, they know what they're doing with both death metal and non-death metal, and this experimental approach leads to some utterly brilliant sections - the opening of Axiom, the telephone-processed bit of The Promise, and the haunting outro Epoch.

However, to talk too much of these sections would be to diminish the brilliance of their extreme metal sections. David Gray's blast beats reach Origin speeds, Matt Wilcock and frontman Jason Mendonca get many opportunities to show off their considerable shredding talents and the bass and electronics section integrate themselves with style and taste. The songwriting on display here is especially praiseworthy - where introducing all these experimental elements could make an album feel scatter-shot, uncommitted and unfulfilling (See: Iwrestledabearonce) here they all compliment each other with a degree of elegance and subtlety too rarely seen in extreme metal.

Despite the aforementioned vow of chastity, I can see this album getting a few more plays in the days and weeks to come.

Right, let's see how long this can keep going.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Regarding Mortal Kombat: Rebirth

As every geek on the internet probably knows by now, Fame director Kevin Tancharoen has created a short proof-of-concept movie for an R-rated reboot of the Mortal Kombat movie franchise. Entitled Mortal Kombat: Rebirth, it supposedly was sent to Warner Brothers to test the water for his vision of what a Mortal Kombat movie should be. In a stroke of genius, it was then released onto the internet so as to allow the geek-o-sphere to pound Warner Brothers with demands that this shit gets made into a movie because it is exactly what we've been asking for this whole time.

Okay, so for those of you who don't know the history, the original Mortal Kombat movie was, for a long time, the best videogame adaptation Hollywood could muster, which is like saying that as far as industrial accidents go, losing a hand in an angle grinder isn't all that bad. It was a PG-13 version of a benchmark gory videogame, and it was still in every respect fucking horrible, but less so than, say, Super Mario Bros. Recently, the Prince of Persia movie ruined this by being, to all intents and purposes, pretty good actually, and apparently this proof of concept aims to match that standard.

It's what we wanted all along, and it looks good.

I mean this in relative terms, of course. It's not going to be The Dark Knight levels of geek-movie brilliance, but it could be a great action movie, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the director. He's a dancer and a dance movie director, so he obviously knows a thing or two about choreography, and he's obviously a fan, because he did this shit on his own buck. Look at the trailer. There's no Bourne shakycam shit. Every blow of a great, brutal, and entertaining fight scene is presented to us pristinely (admittedly with one or two blocking issues). The colour pallates are limited and dark, so as to avoid looking as much like a cartoon as the original Mortal Kombat movie did. As far as direction goes, Kevin Tancharoen seems to be a decent choice.

Secondly, it's dark. It's really fucking dark. It's brutal. And neccesarily so. This has been a bone of contention with many blog posts I've seen, and to be honest, I think it was a wise choice to make it more grounded. Can you imagine how jarring it would have been if, like the first Mortal Kombat movie, or the Street Fighter movie of the same period, it tried to replicate the look of the game, and then added the neccesary gore? It'd look unbearably cheesy, like some cosplayers had gotten some stage blood. This way, the context is more suited to the level of violence the series has always demanded.

Thirdly, it's not afraid to be its own thing. This is not a straight fitting of the game story into a movie, and a fucking good thing it isn't too. In case people forget, Videogames generally have bad writing. With obvious exceptions (I'm thinking The Path and anything Team Ico or Bioware have done), even the good ones are still only generally as good as bad summer blockbusters or bad B-movies. The stories the tell are not great stories - mostly they are just framing devices for the gameplay - and a lot of videogame movies have failed by trying to adapt this. This has taken the game Mortal Kombat, and made a move which takes its central premise - gory fights as a martial arts tournament between over-the top characters - and builds a film around that, making everythig in the movie justify that central premise.

Conversely, unlike, say, Super Mario Bros. or the works of Uwe Boll, it looks as though it's still going to stick to the premise and character designs to the point of recognisability - Baraka, for instance, looks fantastic (minus the dreads - it's not surprising that the actor wouldn't lose them for the sake of a favour job, but give him some money to shear them off and he'll look the part). And fundamentally, he's still Baraka, an animalistic, demonic psychopath with fuckin' blades coming out of his arm - the character straight out of Mortal Kombat II. That he's not actually a demon doesn't really concern me. The story seems like it's actually going to show the Mortal Kombat tournament and there's still space there to introduce the supernatural elements, should it be decided that they work.

The best thing? It's a decent-looking film of a game that wasn't like a film in the first place. As film critic Moviebob said of Prince of Persia, it's not hard to make a film of a game which cribs its notes from every Arabian Nights-style movie in history. Mortal Kombat was fundamentally game-like, with a cast of characters which could only be taken seriously in videogames or cartoons and a setting straight from a bad comic book - and given the geek culture context that videogames based themselves in, this worked for the game, but would not when not in that context - say, in a movie instead. Furthermore, its story was never good. Adapting THIS would have been a fucking disaster, and I'm glad that this director doesn't seem to want to. Instead, he's truly adapting the story - fitting it to a new medium by taking what works in videogames and replacing it with what works in a film.

So yes, I honestly hope that they end up making this movie, because it's as close to the Mortal Kombat movie I want as I'm ever going to get.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Just a quick one...

First off, new stuff will be up shortly. I finally have a modicum of free time as of late, and have about three reviews on the go. I'll try and finish them.

Secondly, I know that for someone my age, who never really listened to his stuff, talking about the death of Ronnie James Dio would be horribly bandwagon-ish, so here's something I'm actually qualified to speak about. Today Isis announced their impending breakup. I guess the whole leaving-college-soon-to-go-to-uni thing has left me with a big thing about things I love ending, but I just wanted to put something down.

I've been listening to Isis for almost a year - give or take a few days. I got into them via the webcomic Questionable Content and, curious about the post-metal genre, I gave a listen to So Did We. I fell instantly in love with it, and it totally changed my understanding of what metal could do artistically.

I never really thought about Isis as one of my favourite bands, but the more I think about it, the higher they are in my estimation - I love them more than Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, Slipknot, Carcass...bands I've been listening to much longer, bands that are the foundation for my metal fandom. Honestly, I wouldn't be as upset if Slayer or Slipknot broke up. I love them, and they have these amazing legacies, but despite being two bands that my love of metal is based on, I don't have the emotional connection to the music those bands made that I do with Isis. What's more, by introducing me to post-rock, and from there, to many other genres, they have opened my eyes to more great music than I can think of. The greatest tragedy of all is that they were never recognised as the geniuses they are, except by a few people. They will be missed by anyone who loved their work. If you haven't listened to them, you owe it to yourself to do so.

That's all the whining I've got.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Videogame Review: Prince of Persia

(Originally written for IGN)
Okay, I'm gonna get this out of the way first; this game is gorgeous. The cell-shaded wonderland that this game conjures is jaw-dropping from the moment you start playing until the moment you finish. The Assassin's Creed engine has shown once again how well it can create sensational graphics, and the art direction is probably the best I've seen all year. The animation is smooth and natural looking, even when performing the most outlandish feats. The soundtrack compliments this perfectly; epic orchestral deluges which create a magnificent atmosphere.

Shame about everything else.

I'm a huge fan of the previous generation of this franchise; the fast, fluid platforming and combat that allowed instant usability but much room for experimentation and the likeable, fleshed out characters. On top of this, the sands of time system allowed challenge in the puzzles themselves and allowed the game to be forgiving yet tense and reliant on skill; I often found myself grasping for the rewind button in games I played afterwards. This Prince of Persia has replaced all of these with idiotic, uninspired gameplay mechanics which actively detract from the game.

First off, the platforming, while the strongest point of the game, is flawed on a few very basic levels. Firstly, the nimbleness and speed of the original prince's freerunning is usurped by leaden wall-scrambling and repetitive tasks which become dull after not much time. The new prince's parkour stuff is controled solely by the jump button, and the lack of a freerun button grates; the game misinterprets your commands sometimes, which, while uncommon, can sour your opinion of it given the life-or-death situations this occurs in.

Well, I say "life-or-death", but that's a slight misstatement. You cannot die in this game. You see, at all times you're accompanied by Elika, an obligatorily busty mage/sidekick/annoyingly-forced-feeling love interest who saves you whenever you're in a potentially deadly situation and transports you back to the last safe place. An obvious attempt to recreate the brilliant sands of time rewind function of the original trilogy, this system couldn't have missed the point more if they'd actively tried. Whereas the rewind allowed you to correct mistakes as they happened, never breaking flow and allowing for quick resuming of gameplay should you misstep, the new system drags you back to the beginning of the section and forces you to do what you just did again. Considering that some sections can be very challenging to finish, relying on a painfully unforgiving game engine, that "again" often becomes "again and again and again and again and again". In a game where instant death is this close at all times, this means that the pace of the game remains sluggish and dull.

Speaking of sluggish and dull, remember when you first powered up the largely-underrated PoP: Warrior Within and found that the awkward combat of PoP: Sands of Time had been replaced with a slick, fun and at-all-times badass system which flatters the player's every button press with sheer awesomeness? Me too. Unfortunately Ubisoft don't, and have instead put in place a hugely frustrating mess of a combat system which never fails to infuriate. Fighting in this game is entirely based on duels. Or rather, on quick-time events. You see, the block button in this game seems to be less about defense and more about holding your sword differently if you think it looks cooler. All the enemies have unblockable moves which they use with gleeful frequency, relying on the kind of reflex test which punish the player whenever possible. And since you don't have a health bar, whether you are hit by a blockable attack or block it will still merely result in slight knock-back, all in all making you wonder why they bothered with blocking at all when they could have been dealing with the animation issues. The Prince is robbed of all his agility and speed during these fights, choosing instead to either plod around like a retarded tortoise or utilise an evading system which doesn't actually evade attacks.

To top it off, all enemies, including horribly overused bosses, initially use the same tactics and to an extent the same moves, resulting in total monotony. When one boss started to use a DIFFERENT TACTIC, where they'd go into a stance where only one type of attack is effective, I almost cheered. Then they all started using it. And it would have become dull too, until they changed the one-attack to the Elika attack. You see, Elika is also used in combat by lobbing her at the enemy, or at least can be. I never did if I could avoid it. The attack has a delay while she leaps onto your shoulders, and this should, for the sake of balance, be okay, were she a ranged weapon, as a launched attack bloody well should be. She's not; in fact despite being able to fly, she is incredibly fussy about how far away you have to be from the enemy to use her. This means that that delay, when used in a close-range attack, makes her damn near useless. To top it all off, she can be attacked while attacking, which disables her for a while (read: about fifteen seconds, more if you're too far away, and this feature retains the truly mystifying definition of "too far away"). In a boss fight where this is a compulsory attack, the term "dick move" feels somewhat inadequate.

And the motivation for enduring this crap should be the story. The generic, predictable story; evil force spreads across land, generic grizzled badass takes it upon himself to somehow stop it. Even the "twist" is about as unexpected as gravity. The characters are terrible; Elika in particular is utterly schizophrenic; bitchy (possibly meant to be seen as a strong female character, which reveals so much about Ubisoft's idea of independant women) at first, then without warning flirty and vulnerable is a way so shoehorned in for the sake of romance that it's painful. The prince himself is best described as an utter dick, without the redeeming qualities of the equally arrogant original prince. The bosses are the only ones with character, character which remains agonizingly unexplored. The voice acting is jarringly done by none-more-yank americans, something which blighted Assassin's Creed despite only one character possessing it; here they ALL do, which, when combined with the horrible performances and terrible writing, throws you out of the experience every time a character opens his or her mouth.

I appreciate that I've compared this too much to the old games - it's still bad on its own merits - but it is very obviously trying to be PoP: Sands of Time. The "corruption" takes the place of the Sands, the visuals try to be like it, and Elika is like a completely unlikeable Farah. They even give you unlockable skins to make the main characters resemble SoT Prince and Farah, which felt a little like demanding that a new girlfriend gets the same haircut and clothes as your ex. They're claiming to have moved away from the originals, but don't have the guts to follow through with it.

This is a bad game. Not really bad, but below average in a way that a big-budget game has no right to be.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Defeater - Lost Ground EP

Christ, any hardcore reviews I post on here are going to be fucking predictable. Last December I posted how Dead Swans' last release is the best UK hardcore album ever, as well as how that's not much of a statement. You see, I can count the notable UK hardcore bands on fingers alone, and I'd be hard pushed to use more than one hand. Fuck, the only reason Public Disturbance are notable is because two of their members would go on to be in Lostprophets. The UK has practically no hardcore punk lineage - sure, bands like The Ruts provided inspiration to the liked of Black Flag and Minor Threat, but there's no real trace of the sound that would go on to define American punk for years. So let's make a bigger statement: the best US hardcore band of the last ten years is Defeater.

Now, given my long-standing love-in with This Is Hell, those words seem weird to me, but I've given it a lot of thought, and honestly, fuck This Is Hell. Fuck The Hope Conspiracy. Again, fucking blasphemy. It feels good. Let's do this again. Fuck Comeback Kid.

Wait. Stop.

No. Fuck Comeback Kid. Comeback Kid are great, but Defeater? Defeater are never going to be remembered as one of the great alternative bands ever, but they will be better than nine out of ten of them. Defeater don't have promise, because having promise implies that Defeater are not quite there yet. Well I fucking well hope they are, because the other bands in the USHC scene deserve at least a little bit of a chance to catch up.

The thing which sets Defeater apart are - and once again, I feel bad for bringing something as um-music-related up - the lyrics. You see, Defeater are storytellers. Their albums are concept albums, but not in the traditional '70s arena rock sense. Hardcore lyrics have always told stories - and make no mistake, the tales in Defeater's work may not be their stories, but they are someone's. Lost Ground tells of an African American man who, in memory of a mother who died at 42 and a father who was a soldier, joins up to the army to fight in World War II. He is wounded, and his friends all killed. Wracked with survivor's guilt, he returns hope to a world with no place for him. He becomes destitute and alcoholic, and dies alone. Every lyric is heartbreaking, every line is a tragedy in and of itself - the tale will stay with you. If any vocal mode was created to get across the anger, dejection, sorrow and injustice of such a tragic story, it's the roar of a hardcore vocalist.

And the emotion that this story lends the band shows. The real skill of the lyrics is in the details; the parallel drawn between the patriarchal machismo of traditional Americana and patriotism with the harsh reality of war that American culture tries so hard to hide is the order of the day for the first few songs, with the rest linking the contrast between the American military ideal - the soldier fighting heroically for his country - with the American military reality - lower-class young men wounded and traumatised or worse, crippled physically and emotionally for life, their lives ending destitute. Defeater's unique efforts in their lyric writing give their songs meaning beyond being mosh fodder, but make them the ones who tell the tales that need to be told, even if people don't want to hear them.

But beyond the vocals, Defeater excel equally. There are about four different drumbeats in hardcore which everyone uses, so listening to them can become wearing, but holy shit Defeater's drummer actually does new things with hardcore drums. The guitars, likewise, display musical range and dynamicism which far outstrips every one of Defeater's contemporaries. There is light and shade in their music, there are harsh, brutal pummelings that segue out of tense, muted and stunningly musically dynamic rest sections and back in again. The riffs constantly have a rough, vicious beauty to them, where the heartbreaking melodies of the guitars are born from violent, distorted riffing and the thunderous crashing drums. The bass is superlative, providing a grounded, central groove over which every other element of the music is overlaid. And what's more, the music tells the story too. The first track "The Red, White and Blues matches the protagonist's fear and inner tension with hyperactive hardcore at its best, and contrasts it with the simpler, more emotive sections which revolve around his memories of his mother and his idolisation of the father he has to hear about from his mom. on the final track, the story of the protagonist's last days of life spent busking on the streets, blues solos embelish the tale, evoking the frustration and sorrow of the African American community which drove them to create the genre, and a painful image of an old black beggar playing these solos on an ancient acoustic guitar on the streets of New York City. This is how you write music - and Defeater are operating on an entirely different intellectual level to their contemporaries.

Honestly, I don't think it's too late to call it. This is better than Anaal Nathrakh's In the Constellation of the Black Widow. This poky little EP from a band no-one's really heard of was and is the best record of 2009. This was and is the best hardcore record of the last ten years. Defeater are never going to get the praise they deserve, so they're going to have to settle for this; their Lost Ground EP is my favourite hardcore release ever.

Winds of Plague - Decimate The Weak

I don't even know why I review metalcore and deathcore anymore. I'm probably never going to review Architects, so essentially anything else in metalcore is shadows and dust, signifying nothing except that Sturgeon's Law might finally be applicable to metal, but fuck it, there must be some bands out there who can do the genre right - As I Lay Dying's template defining, Between the Buried and Me's utter fucking lunacy, Devil Sold His Soul's damn-near-everything.

Deathcore, similarly, has some bands which actually stick by the very simple starting template and do it well, but they're all from the period where deathcore was only just starting, since every band made since consists almost entirely of creatively dead scene kids. You want a checklist of potentially good deathcore? Here we go. Did they form in 2006 or earlier? [  ] Do they routinely wear merch from "proper" death metal bands? [  ] Do they actually sound like they've been influenced by first-wave metalcore and death metal, as opposed to second-wave metalcore and other deathcore bands? [  ] Do they, god forbid, actually introduce an innovative element? [   ] And all of these boxes are ticked by Winds of Plague. Perhaps Decimate the Weak will interest me.

"Decimate" is one of those words which is very rarely used correctly, like "disinterested" (which means "unbiased" or "without vested interest") or "crescendo" (It's the BUILD UP PEOPLE, NOT THE CLIMAX ITSELF). It's like how people who want to seem more cultured than they are think that "star-crossed lovers" means something other than "utterly doomed, totally fucked-by-fate lovers". Basically everyone takes it to mean "Destroy", "maim" or "obliterate", but what it actually means - and I've only ever seen Doctor Who use it correctly - is "to destroy one tenth of something". This is ironic for me, because it was only during the first tenth of this album that I thought I might like it, because up to that point, it was actually pretty good. Forget deathcore, this is symphonic, epic metalcore. The prominent keyboards (handled MUCH better than Abigail Williams' keyboard sections) built a bombastic atmosphere counterbalanced by the midrange screams of...ugh...Johnny Plague. The guitars break from metalcore convention by actually having leads and solos. Take note metalcore kiddies; leads and solos are AWESOME. USE THEM. If you're not talented enough to do so, you're in the wrong game. The melodic work is great, with the instruments playing off of one another ease, working in perfectly locked harmony. And, my god, how refreshing is it to hear a metalcore band who doesn't sound exactly like At The Gates? The first proper song reaches the quarter mark, and the song softens, and then stops.

Then a pig-squeal adorned breakdown begins.

And we were doing so well.

If I remember correctly, when I first heard that bit I actually shouted "WHAT THE FUCK?" at my computer screen. Seriously, I've never heard such an out of place, unneeded breakdown EVER. I don't mind breakdowns, but I didn't want the song I liked to stop like that, let alone turn into the song it now was.

The rest of the album was soured for me. This band is superb when it's doing its power-metalcore thing, and its integration of keyboards into their sound is superb - and indeed, exactly how it should be done. It is, however, far too eager to jump at the opportunity to abandon that for the sake of doing what all their contemporaries are doing - dull breakdowns. Sometimes, and I have to stress sometimes, the keyboards save the breakdowns from utter monotony, which is a credit to how good they are, but they're the only thing doing anything interesting on this album.

That's not to say that the other elements are bad. The guitars are fantastic when they're not content to just chug, and have some superb riffs and leads in there. The opening riff of "Decimate the Weak" (the song) is almost Nile-esque. But they're dull! The drums are exemplary deathcore drumming, but that's part of the problem - they're an utterly standard example of deathcore drumming. They're dull! And the bass? I'm amazed they even have a bassist. I actually want to hear a remaster of this were the bass guitar is removed. I doubt anyone would ever be able to tell. I wish more people would have the guts Pig Destroyer do and just get rid of a bassist if you're not going to use one.

This is by no means terrible - I've heard worse deathcore. There are some REALLY good parts here, but their willingness to abandon those parts is just frustrating, and that frustration with them overshadows their good elements. Pick it up if you have the patience I don't and you could have a lot of fun with this album - but I can't do any more pig squeals and chugging.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Comic review: Phonogram/Suburban Glamour

                On with my journey to experiment with reviews of non-music mediums. It may not be more fun for you, but it is for me, so it's going to keep happening. Enjoy!

                Okay, so something I've been getting back into these days is comics. I was never really out of the comic-buying habit, what with my warped and depraved love of Hellblazer and the fact that I re-read Watchmen every few months, but this wave of comic-love has brought my enjoyment of the medium up to an all-time high. I'm reading Batman from 1986 back up to present day, because if there's one thing I know about current writer Grant Morrison, it's that if I don't know every twist and turn the narrative has taken since the Crisis on Infinite Earths he'll bend my comprehension of the plot over a rail and show me just how welcome I am in his continuity porn kingdom. I've also gotten kind of into independent comics, which all started with the Scott Pilgrim series, the standard for indie comics. Long story short, it's utterly brilliant and it's led me up an avenue of non-traditional comics. And this had me end up with Phonogram.

                Now, I run a blog in which I discuss videogames and horror movies and complain about music, so it's safe to say that I am inescapably awesome. However, this was not always the case. In my first few years of secondary school, my friends and I would hang out in the library, chatting, relaxing, and reading Official Playstation 2 Magazine, which - for some reason - the library had a subscription to. Pretty much the only thing that stuck with me of this magazine was the cartoons in the back, Save Point, which where brilliant. It was wonderfully written, illustrated in a style I always admired, and always containing at least one hot punk girl, which probably explains my long-running kink for alt-chicks. Fast-forward four or five years, and I've long since stopped buying OP2M, and though my friends and I still hang out in the library a lot, we're all infinitely prettier. My absolute writing hero is a man called Kieron Gillen, long time contributor to PC Gamer, creator of superb PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun and, it just so happens, sometimes crazy-talented comic book writer. As I got more into comics, I had a look at his.

                One series stood out amongst his contributions to Marvel Comics which, as an avowed DC, I was never going to read. It was called Phonogram, published by Image Comics with an illustrator called Jamie McKelvie, based around the idea of music and magic being analogous - you can see why it would appeal to me. The first issue of the first volume is available online, and, curious, I had a read. It was sublime: wonderfully written, illustrated in a warmly familiar style and containing just the right amount of hot punk girls. I'd like to say that realisation slowly dawned upon me, but being kind of a slow fuck at times, I only realised having poked around Gillen's website and explicitly being told; this duo was the exact same one who made Save Point, the comic strip I remembered after all these years. I'd grown up with Phonogram. I just hadn't realised it.

                An aside - Image Comics, for those of you not in the know (I'm assuming all of you) was formed in the early 90s by, amongst others, an illustrator called Todd MacFarlane. With its flagship title, Spawn, it spearheaded the grim 'n' gritty revolution of that decade, where the industry as a whole tried as hard as possible to appeal to teen boys. Everything was EXTREME and EDGY and TOTALLY RADICAL without even pretence to emotional or thematic depth. Fuck, DC even made a whole new imprint, Vertigo, just so people like Brian Azzarello, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman didn't get any intelligence in the SUPER AWESOME image the main imprint was working so hard to cultivate. This decade is the reason no-one buys comics anymore. Good stuff WAS made in this era - the Knightfall saga of the Batman mythos got me into comics, and of course most of The Sandman was made here, but for the most part, this was a hyping up and dumbing down of a medium which still hasn't commercially recovered, even though artistically it's pretty much back on par. Image Comics have been an in-joke amongst comic fans entirely for this era, synonymous with vacuous insubstantiality. So you see why it's weird to have such a smart, culturally aware series on here.

               The first volume of Phonogram, Rue Britannia, introduces us to our first Phonomancer, David Kohl. A charismatic, commanding vagabond, he makes music his power, using it for whatever he wants. He's a phonomancer - a magician who draws power from songs. Put on a mission from the Feminine Principle, he discovers that events of the past are changing, altering the future, and it all revolves around the long-dead Britannia, the spirit of Britpop. The actual text itself is a sprawling, Hellblazer-esque journey through Britain's musical landscape, constantly writhing with allusion and metaphor, with Kohl trying to stop what is happening to Britannia before his musical identity, rooted in the life and death of Britpop, disappears completely, taking with it his phonomancy.

                Of course, the more interesting element is the subtext - the function of every part of this magical side is analogous to the way music affects people. A "phantom" of a past era can be revisited by getting suited and booted in the style, turning on era-music, and tuning out, slipping into memories of the time. Musical revivals become literal revivals of dead genre deities, attempting to rewrite history to give old music new legs, allowing nostalgia to make people young again. This is music and magic as metaphysics, with the effects of music on the mind changing the world around it. Gillen writes in a manner that intertwines these two layers inextricably, creating a narrative which requires full comprehension of both. No other comic, no matter how sophisticated, has managed this synthesis quite this well. The constant referencing of real-life bands (to the point where a glossary is needed, and supplied with biting commentary from the creators themselves) creates a silent soundtrack for the comic, weaving constant strands of allusion through lyrical themes, contextual cues and recurring references. The idea of music-as-magic is explored on the magic side perfectly.

                The second volume, The Singles Club, changes this tack entirely. Set over a single night at an indie club, we're introduced to a near-entirely new cast (David Kohl, his femme fatale friend, and his Chas Chandler copy, Kid-With-Knife, return) and the events of the evening examine them as characters, again, using music as an interface for strange goings on. The "magic" is more casual here - not even explicitly magical, even - but the point here is on the relationships between people and the music they love. Each issue tells the night's story from a different perspective, and this is utilised wonderfully. The best use of this? A single line, brutally cruel in the first issue, heartbreaking in the next. You’ll see what I mean.

                The artwork is astonishing. The first volume is black and white, but the stunning art of Jamie McKelvie brings it to life nonetheless. It hangs out on the iconic corner of the Scott McCloud realistic-artistic-iconic triangle, and this suits it perfectly. The lack of painstaking detail allows the crisp, stripped-down art style to express astonishing emotion – Kieron Gillen may be the writer, but Jamie McKelvie can tell stories without a single word. The characters are so expressive and so alive with feeling and action that even in the second volume, where a character may only feature in two or three issues, they have such astonishingly deep characterisation that it's all the time they need. The character design is brilliant too, making each character unique while still making them seem like real people. The events of the night give insight into the workings of their minds which display a rich understanding of why people love music, and every element of the comics production, be it the writing, the art or the superlative colouring (only The Singles Club is in colour) converges on this point. Phonogram is a truly brilliant comic.

Once I had read this (I have still yet to read the final chapter of The Singles Club) I found that McKelvie had written and drawn his own comic, Suburban Glamour. Naturally, I had to give it a read. The verdict? Less brilliant. The story revolves around a seventeen year-old rock chick called Astrid, who's quickly outgrowing her midlands hometown. As her discontent with her hometown grows, her childhood friends reappear. They bring with them a supernatural world, and a conflict to which Astrid is connected. If anything, this comic is a stunningly well done insight into the teenage mind, which makes it slightly irrelevant to me, who, being a teenager, can do that by hanging out with my friends for a half hour, but it's brilliantly portrayed. Every character is relatable, every element of the "normal" situations is familiar, and the spirit of both modern teens and adolescence in general is captured perfectly.

Unfortunately, the supernatural side of it, and the "main" story this brings, is much less well-developed, vastly less intelligent than the rest of the story warrants, and a total injustice to the world it sets up. It fits the idea of the story, sure, but the when the subtext and the text aren't just interwoven, but are the same thing, something's gone wrong. The plot ends up ending without any real climax, but merely trundling along like a filler strip in a longer-running comic before simply stopping without actually having gone anywhere (only having 4 issues is no excuse considering that The Dark Knight Returns had the same amount of space and helped revolutionise comics). This may be intentional, given the subject matter, but the comic feels too small, like the seeds of something much bigger have been planted, but haven't grown, and end without any real revelation or point gotten across. The art and design of the comic is as gorgeous as ever, but it lacks the tight direction that Gillen's scripts gave Phonogram, and as such lacks much of the weight it carried before. All this said, it was okay purely for the bits in-between the main story arc, which will be both relatable to teens and insightful to adults. Also, Astrid is added to my list of alt-chick comic book crushes along with Death from The Sandman and Nico Minoru of Runaways. Go her.

Phonogram's intelligent, rich narrative and superlative presentation makes it possibly my favourite comic in recent years, and makes both volumes an essential read to any comic fans. Suburban Glamour was equally sharp in its appearance, but lacks both the substance and the simple fun to match up to it. Still, McKelvie can be forgiven seeing how awesome he is as an artist, and Gillen remains on the pedestal I've put him on over the years.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Annotations of an Autopsy - II: The Reign of Darkness

If anyone asked me for advice on how to write reviews, my first action would be to ask them why the fucking hell they were asking me, a nobody with a free blog who peddles mostly self-depreciating jokes about his own misanthropy, but assuming they fanned my ego the necessary amount, I'd tell them "If you review something that you've already made your mind up on, your review is going to suck and stay sucky." This is why the vast majority of people who review on Encyclopaedia Metallum are such utter fuckscoffs - they knew what they were going to say about Parkway Burns The Prada-wearing Prom Queen or whatever other generic metalcore band, or about Frostbitten Grimkvlt and their black metal buddies before they started writing - something largely along the lines of "Booo, they're just like all the other metalcore bands I hate!" and "Yay, they're just like all the other black metal bands I love!" respectively.

This is why I don't review death metal. You see, I fucking love death metal, and the fact is that the template for mainstream death metal is so vividly refined that it's hard to make it sound anything other than good, though God only knows some bands have tried. I could write a review for the new Immolation and the new Nile, and they'd both read similarly - these are bands I already love, doing what they do best. There's no actual development here, and that's okay because what they do, they take pretty much to its inevitable conclusion. So lets see a death metal band that I DO have something new to talk about.

My favourite gig I ever went to was in a tiny venue in Brighton, attended by about 40 people, where me and a few of my friends saw three of the rising stars of British extreme metal - Viatrophy (R.I.P), Trigger the Bloodshed, and Annotations of an Autopsy. To call this gig "intimate" was an understatement - the front row of the crowd was ME. I actually ended up apologising to the bands on behalf of Sussex for such a shitty turnout because I felt kind of bad for them. However it did rule. The bands didn't half-ass it at all, and, upon meeting them, it turned out they were all lovely guys. I'm saying this as, I suppose, some kind of wierd full disclosure things, because I want you to know that I already liked Annotations of an Autopsy. A friend and I have matching t-shirts we got when we pre-ordered our copies of their debut. However, while what they were doing before - sludgy slam-influenced deathcore, which figured out that the only way to stop breakdowns interrupting the pace of the song was to keep the song at a low tempo anyway - was all very well and good, their sudden change in a traditional death metal direction shouldn't come as a surprise - not least because given that Job For A Cowboy, Trigger the Bloodshed, The Faceless and Through the Eyes of the Dead have all made the same move, you'd have to be pretty slow on the uptake not to at least weigh up the odds. One unfortunate symptom of this is the loss of their awesome ultra-distorted logo in favour of one that looks like it was potato-printed, and keep in mind that these motherfuckers brought this kind of logo back in. An upside is the involvement of ERIK FUCKING RUTAN as the mixer, who has quickly become the no. 1 name in death metal production, overtaking...well, Tue Masden or Colin Richardson, I guess, though there hasn't really been a decent big-name DM producer since Scott Burns quit, but whatever.

Anyway, the new sound is quite something. Considering the sludge influence they one had, it's not surprising that AoaA's tempos on this album, II: The Reign of Darkness, are very varied, and this is something that they're very good at - they can even keep tempo down while playing quickly, which is saying something. This is mostly thanks to superlative drummer Lyn Jeffs, who has buggered off to not-nearly-as-good slamcore band Ingested since this came out, whose drumming is the driving force behind AoaA's music. He keeps the pace of the songs reined in with force, and the whole CD hinges on his performance. Fortunately, he's awesome. Blasts are never overused, fills gel seamlessly with the standard rhythm-keeping beats, and his double-bass drumming is superb - damn near mechanical in its accuracy, though the drums themselves sound clicky enough to betray the use of triggers, which detracts from his man-points somewhat. This is a guy who knows exactly how his bands need his drumming to sound, and he pulls it off fantastically.

The guitars are also great. They're usually going fast, even during slow sections, and give a way a great deal of technical ability, especially during the tastefully used soloing sections. The riffs themselves have a superb sense of melody, never sinking to the death metal cop out of falling back on atonality. They always feel like they're developing, and changing the course of every song. There is a strong atmospheric feel to this album as well, which comes from the melodic elements and gives the album an intense character. It's the same doomy feel as their debut Before the Throne of Infection had, but without the obvious doom influence of that record, and it works very well. The breakdowns are much less metalcore-inspired this time round, but every so often falling back into the old reliance on the bass drop, which they still at least do better than a lot of bands. The vocals are higher and less gurgled than before, which is to say that they're now as low and gurgled as a regular death metal vocalist, and there's no trace of the unremarkable slam death rumble that vocalist Steve Regan adopted the first time round.

All this said, Annotations of an Autopsy never have a defining moment here, a particular riff or section which captures the imagination - there's not really a need, since their signature song, Sludge City, has more of this than most bands manage in a career. There is one thing to be said for deathcore that death metal finds much harder to do - memorable moments, like a decent chorus or breakdown. There are moments on this album which stand out, but nothing that grabs you and refuses to let go. For all its re-imagined sophistication, AoaA had, in their dramatic, slow riffs, unparalelled use of gang vocals and sludgy breakdowns, real punch-the-air moments which were unequivocably AoaA moments which defined them and placed them in the hearts of extreme metal fans. They come close - the solo in opener In Snakes I Bathe is the kind of solo they did so well on the last album's Years of Disgust. But no-one remembers the solo in Years of Disgust. They remember the big fuckoff breakdown after it, and I can't help but think that this album is lacking in that kind of memorability.

Nonetheless, while it won't set the world on fire, it is a great contemporary death metal release from a band who show a lot of promise when they're not aching with their desire to be another band. At times, that band takes the helm, and it's them you'll want to listen to.