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Review – Melissa Auf der Maur’s Out of Our Minds

April 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Note: Last year, when the “This Would Be Paradise” EP was released, I reviewed that as well.

In 2004, Melissa Auf der Maur released her first solo album. While being fantastic on a musical front, it was a little… well, we’ll say immature. The lyrics, in particular, have a certain art-school pretension to them. “Surely,” I thought, “someone with as much education and talent as Melissa Auf der Maur can come up with things that don’t sound like they came out of a middle school girl’s diary. If she moved past that, this album would be amazing.” Considering Auf der Maur’s massive bass chops, fantastic voice (her harmonies were the best part of Hole’s Celebrity Skin album), and knack for surrounding herself with other talented musicians, I still stand by that opinion.

Yet now, six years later, I have much the same feeling. Though, thankfully, most of it has filtered out of the music, and into other projects in the same orbit as Out of Our Minds, Auf der Maur’s newest release. The album itself is a mild concept album that fits into a full array of media, including a full-length feature film (which is where most of my feeling that things haven’t changed much comes from) and a graphic novel.

The irony is that since most of that artsy stuff has leeched out into other media, the music that is left is much more focused. The songs are definitely there, and the more questionable lyrics simply seem cryptic here than on the last record, where they just seemed bloated and heavy-handed. Now, that’s not to say that Auf der Maur doesn’t lay it on thick now and then, but overall it’s a much less infuriating experience than the 2004 release, and that’s a great development.

Musically, there’s a lot to be happy about on this album. Melissa’s melodic and rhythmic sensibilities are still as pleasing as on the last album. While this leads to a feeling of familiarity, it’s not boring by any stretch. While the last album was a fairly straightforward rock record, this has more of a prog feel, and there are some other incorporations like electronic drum loops in a few songs, and some pretty interesting instrumentation. There’s some interesting harpsichord-like sounds on “Meet Me on the Dark Side,” and the instrumental “This Would Be Paradise” features what I think is a glockenspiel, or at least a sampled, processed one. The latter also features some tape loops of late Saskatchewan politician Tommy Douglas, who spearheaded the national health care movement in Canada in the 1960s. The inclusion is an obvious reference to the US health care reform, which Auf der Maur wrote in support of several times on her blog. While this is the obvious reference, it’s also a great plea for equality and basic human rights in general.

The album also seems a bit heavier than the last album, and I expect a lot of it comes from playing in her Black Sabbath tribute band Hand of Doom. I wouldn’t say Out of Our Minds sounds particularly doomy, or even sludgy, but it definitely has more weight than its predecessor. Part of that is because Auf der Maur’s bass tones play a much larger part of the mix than previously, but some of it is composition, as well. The title track, for instance, has some rather Mastodon-like moments (not the chorus so much, but most of the rest of it. If Brann Dailor was drumming. Instead, it’s “only” Josh Freese on most songs.)

While a few of the cuts, including the title track, are damn good, the duet with Glenn Danzig(!) is far and away the best song on the record. “Father’s Grave” is a brooding, expansive song, with Danzing singing the part of a gravedigger with whom Auf der Maur seems to build a relationship with. I’m still not sure exactly what the implication is from the story of the song, but honestly, the thing I’m most enthralled by is the performance. Both Danzig (who I don’t follow terribly closely) and Auf der Maur are riffing off each other, and this is well and truly a duet. The chemistry they have is quite evident, the song just builds and builds on itself, and I recommend getting this album even if this is the only song you listen to. It’s that good.

Overall, the album doesn’t particularly drag, and it’s a satisfying length. Clocking in at just under an hour, it’s certainly not as jam-packed as many albums are these days, but its relative brevity does sort of make me wish there were another song or two to make up for the six-years between albums. Though, to be fair, she was also touring, performing in Hand of Doom, traveling, and shooting a movie to go with the project, so I’ll let it slide.

Finally, the full album is up for streaming and purchase at the MAdM website, and is available from most online retailers. Unfortunately I can’t seem to get it locally, and I haven’t settled on whether I want it on vinyl or not. In any case, I whole-heartedly recommend this album.

I think I might give the movie and graphic novel a miss, though.

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Dracula, Illustrated by Ben Templesmith – Review

July 14, 2009 Leave a comment

UPDATE 7/27/2009: I got word today from Mr. Templesmith that the Poe collection I refer to in this article has been canceled. Apparently he did a cover for IDW, but the project never took off. While that makes me sad (I had it all pre-ordered from Previews), he just announced a new project with Ben McCool called Choker, and it, as per usual, looks gorgeous. Ben describes it thusly: “Well, for one thing, it’s sort of like FELL, but with it’s face ripped off and a bad dose of gonorrhea.” This makes me squee in my fanboy heart.

Also of note, I actually finished reading Dracula. The ending is a bit lackluster to me, but overall I enjoyed the book. I’ll have a fun time researching some of the themes when I get bored. All that said, on to the review proper:

There’s a comic book writer named Steve Niles, and chances are if you’re here, you’ve probably heard of him. He wrote a movie about vampires. He shopped it around a lot, tried to get it made, but no one in Hollywood wanted to make a vampire movie. So Niles changed his mind. He hooked up with comic illustrator/storyboard artist Ben Templesmith, and the two of them created one of the most popular horror franchises in comics: 30 Days of Night. The book got extremely popular, due largely to Templesmith’s amazing new visual concept of vampires. Based on that success, they finally got a movie deal, starring Josh Hartnett and produced by Sam Raimi.

Why am I telling you this? Chances are, if you’re here, you already know this. Thing is, Templesmith doesn’t really do vampires anymore. He’s moved on to werewolves and aliens, but rarely, if ever, does vampires anymore. I guess he’s got bloodsucker burnout.

Except.

Except now IDW Publishing, his primary publisher for his creator-owned works, has printed up a spiffy new version of that original vampire novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And, lookee here, Templesmith has provided new original art for the cover, and each chapter. Can’t keep a great idea down. Who better to illustrate one of the best vampire tales of all time than the guy that helped resurrect the pointy-toothed bloodsuckers for a new generation?

For the purposes of berevity, I won’t be reviewing the literary content of the book. It’s 112 years old. Enough words have been written about it that anything I have to add has been already said ad nauseam. Instead, we’ll focus on this presentation of the book: the exterior design, the interior layout, and the interior art.

Exterior Design

The book is a convenient size, at 9×6 inches. I’m personally not a fan of hardcover (I find them difficult to comfortably read curled up in a chair), but at this size, it’s definitely managable. The cover itself is a black satin, with a gloss overlay for the cover art. The text is set in red on the black, in a pleasing, easy-to-read serif font. The title itself has an amusing double serif on a few letters, likely to mimic the fangs of the titular character. A neat touch. The back cover is entirely satin, though this time in full color.

My only issue with the cover is that the satin seems to take a shine pretty easily from even minor wear, giving the book a sort of mottled look. While this is a minor gripe, I feel like it would be difficult to keep the book in somewhat pristine condition without wearing cotton gloves while reading it.

I can’t easily tell how the book is bound. I can’t seem to find stitching. When viewed from the end, the pages seem glued much like perfect binding in a paperback, but grouped together like signatures in a normal hardcover. The closest I can tell is that the book is likely double-fan adehesive-bound, as it seems to lay flat, but I can’t be sure. (I realize this paragraph is a little book-nerdy, but binding style gives a clue to construction quality.)

From most outward appearances, the book is high-quality, and attractive. I imagine that it would look good sitting on a shelf in a store. Furthermore, this, coupled with the [now cancelled] Edgar Allen Poe project of a similar style from Templesmith/IDW, could make a nice piece of coffee table art or a display in a study or den. It just has an aire of a “nice” book.

Interior Design and Editing

This is where I feel a bit let down. While some of the details are quite attractive, like the typographic choices of font and titles (the chapter breaks a quite pleasing), and the interior coloration choices, such as the red for the title page, are quite stylish. Unfortunately, the book’s text feels like it was hastily done with a Microsoft Office template. The headers and footers seem like they come straight off a layout template, with their generic font and medium-gray color. This is furthered by the fact that each paragraph is set apart from the one previous by about half a line. While this practice works on the web, when indentation is introduced, the overall flow is broken up more than necessary. It’s not a rule, but it’s a traditional guideline: Indents or line spaces, but not both.

I’ve noticed more than a few typographic errors, and I’m only about halfway through the book. Missing spaces, misspelled words, unusual apostrophe use, and other things break up the readability of the text, which is rendered in a good, readable serif font. It saddens me that a book that looks so good seems to be run amok with by some bad typography design and questionable editing.

Interior Art

Let’s face it—this is the reason most people will buy the book. And they won’t be disappointed. Templesmith definitely delivers here, and considering most of his art books are comparably priced for a similar amount of art, one is basically getting a full prove novel in addition to their awesome art.

Being a fan of Templesmith’s work for a few years now on works like his own Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse and Warren Ellis’ Fell, I can say that some of the work he presents in this book is easily some of the best work of his career. Some of the more surrealist, atmospheric works even seem to evoke the work of frequent Neil Gaimen and Grant Morrison collaborator Dave McKean.

My only gripe here is that some of the art depicting the character Renfield seems to be associated with the wrong chapters in a couple places, most noticably in chapters eight and eleven. Maybe it was for editorial purposes, but I think it was simply a mistake.

In any case, I direct you to Templesmith’s webpage for examples of his Dracula art (check the thumbnails on the left side of the page).

Conclusion

I picked the book up from Diamond’s Previews catalog, but the book can be had from Amazon for less than twelve bucks. It’s definitely a steal at that price, and at the cover price of US$16.99, it’s still a good deal. Catch this combination of two masters of vampire fiction together. Despite its defects, it’s definitely a attractive, enjoyable volume.

Note: If you have the means, you can catch Templesmith at the San Diego Comic Con July 23rd-26th. If you give him some money, he might even do a sketch for you.

What’s Rick Been Reading?

July 2, 2009 Leave a comment

Quick one today. I’m going to be out til early next week with visiting family, so I’ll give you this to tide you over. It’s our first-ever installment of What’s Rick Been Reading? Because you really want to know.

Rick’s Been Reading The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Tales by HP Lovecraft

Yep. Lovecraft. When I was just a little Rick, in elementary, junior high, and a couple years in senior high, I was a voracious Stephen King fan. I’ve always kind of been off-balance, but that part of me sort of sat on the back burner for a while. I’ve since gotten back into the bizarro world of horror literature, and have slowly absorbed a sizable portion of the work of the guy that created this guy:

Your sanity has a flavor

The Thing on the Doorstep also includes the longer works The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness, which are both really good, and the short story “The Music of Erich Zann”.

I don’t know if I prefer this to its Penguin Classics companion book The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. I like them both pretty well, but this one has fewer first-person stories with irritatingly archaic spelling than The Call of Cthulhu. I think the further along Lovecraft got into his writing, the less reliant he got on “telling” a story, as in first-person, and “presenting” a story, as in third-person. Granted, even in the third-person, he got into the “omniscient narrator” mode a lot, but it was still a step up from story after story of “I cannot tell you how much sanity I may have left!” or “Surely you’ll think I’m mad!” and statements approximating that sentiment.

In any case, I suggest both of these books. Once you get past the archaic spelling, the formulaic pattern of his early stories, and the racism/classism that runs throughout some of the works, they’re really good, creepy stories. There were a few points in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the titular “The Thing on the Doorstep” that I was well-and-truly creeped out.

Rick’s Been Reading Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez

For those who don’t know, Jhonen created this:

He also created Squee’s Big Book of Unspeakable Horrors, but I digress.

Johnny is… well, he’s a homicidal maniac. He’s also the writer and artist for “Happy Noodle Boy”. Jhonen somehow squeezes jabs at goth culture, jabs at high school culture, jabs at southern California, jabs at humanity, jabs at God, jabs at Satan, jabs at parents, and other various jabs at other various groups, bizarre Cthulhu-oid/Lovecraftian monsters, and still has room for profuse swearing. This probably sounds odd coming from the guy that, just last month, told you that PBS’s Martha Speaks is one of the best shows on television, but Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is one of the singular best creations in the history of comics. And this was in the mid-1990s.

The book is comprised, mainly, of the collected seven issues of the original series of JTHM, minus a few “non-necessary” comics (which Vasquez dubbed “Meanwhiles”), and some notes at the end. From what I understand, the “Meanwhiles” are collected into the aforementioned Squee. However, the “Happy Noodle Boy” pieces (which the character of Invader Zim seems almost totally based on) are included. The art is entirely black-and-white, and is extremely detailed. It uses non sequiter writing and art constantly. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly for the ADHD set, but it’s quite intense. I couldn’t read it for more than about half an hour in a single sitting, and neither can my wife. It’s very dense. Very, very dense.

But it’s all worth it. The misanthropy and general philosophy of the book are exceedingly dour and existentialist. Johnny’s loathing of both himself and society could probably be the work of a thesis paper, if it isn’t already. Really, if you’ve got one of those friends that seems like they always want to stab the eyeballs out of some customer service rep at a department store and you have no idea why, this book might help you understand that friend better. If you’re the sort of person that would stab eyeballs out… well, it’s probably for you. You’ll probably giggle with glee. I know I did.

But I laughed my ass off in Pulp Fiction when Marvin got his head blown off, so who am I to be the judge of what’s funny?

Anyway, there you go. This has been What’s Rick Been Reading?

Martha Speaks; or, How Not to Dumb-Down Your Programming

May 18, 2009 Leave a comment

I spend a lot of time on this blog complaining. Like, a lot. Even when I review albums by my favorite bands, I seem to do nothing but disparage them. My reviews of U2, Metallica, or Tool‘s most recent albums are at least as much negative criticism as positive. But today… today I’m going to share with you something I whole-heartedly adore. But more introduction first.

As a stay-at-home dad (please, no jokes about being a house-husband; I deplore the term house-wife just as much), I watch a lot of children’s programming. A lot. Particularly on PBS, because we’re fairly poor and can only afford an internet connection. I’ve noticed there’s some trends in the genre, and the two major ones are:

  • Shows that assume children are idiots, and
  • Shows that assume children have brains.

As you can probably guess, I’m a bigger fan of the latter, with the former including things like Barney, Teletubbies, and Thomas the Tank Engine. These are, in my opinion, shows that exist to keep children quiet, to keep them docile and entertained.

Shows of the second type, the ones that assume children have brains, make up a painfully small portion of children’s programming. Sesame Street has long been a leader in this catagory, though I think the introduction of the “Elmo’s World” segment is a step in the wrong direction. Two other shows currently on PBS that follow in this trope are Curious George and Martha Speaks. Martha Speaks, in particular, is the one I’d like to talk to you about.

Martha Speaks is a cartoon show based on a series of children’s books of the same name. The protagonist, a dog named Martha (who I think might be a Corgi), speaks thanks to a freak occurance with a bowl of alphabet soup. The experience is impossible to reproduce in the show; other dogs try the same soup, with no effect. But past this incredibly preposterous premise—which is really no more preposterous than, say, a giant purple dinosaur in a classroom, or an anthropomorphized dump truck—the show works precisely because it lives within its own boundaries.

Note the use of the words “enumerate” and “elucidate” in a show aimed at kids.

Martha’s talking is seen as remarkable, even whimsical, by other cast members, but most people in the show are understanding enough to admit they don’t know everything and can accept bizarre situations. Even when Martha’s talking gets her into trouble or bad situations, most of the time, rational conversation and talking out problems become the focus of the show.

But the primary reason I like Martha Speaks is that Martha is a curious, positive character, and she is always trying to be helpful. She rarely gets in trouble without having good intentions at heart, and that is what makes the show endearing to me on a parental level. I am reminded that my daughter isn’t trying to be malicious when she does something wrong, she just forgets, or she’s trying to learn, or she’s trying to help. As it is with Martha.

From a technical level, the show is well-written. It rarely uses a big or new word without explaining it through natuarl dialogue (“No, ‘recouperate’ means to get better.” “Oh, I thought it was more like ‘Oops, I just recouperated all over the carpet.'”) The voice acting is top-notch, with Martha herself voiced by Tabitha St. Germain, and the rest of the cast culled from the Vancouver-based anime voice-over studio The Ocean Group. Considering the production studio that produces the show is also responsible for Curious George, I’m not surpirsed by the quality of the show, and I understand it’s been picked up for a second season. I can’t wait.

Also, the animation, for appearing to be mainly Flash-based, is surprisingly emotive and accurate for conveying mood, emotion, and the like. I find myself laughing at Martha’s facial expression almost as much the dialogue.

Finally, the reason for my love of the show is because it’s one of the few kids shows that my wife and I can watch after an hour of Family Guy and American Dad on Sunday nights and see a crossover in joke sophistication. People badmouth those two shows a lot, but the humor in them (generally) comes from situation more than individual joke/punchline formula. I’m not saying that Family Guy or American Dad is high-brow humor all the time, but when the shows are on-point, it’s hard to deny that they are the work of someone that knows how to make people laugh. The same can be said of Martha Speaks.

Yes, I just compared a kid’s show to Family Guy. Yes, I just said American Dad can be genius. Stop e-mailing me.

Anyway, when Martha Speaks introduces an episode with a sick little girl, and it spirals out of control to include chimney sweeps, a pizza delivery guy, the police, and the fire department, and the whole thing works, you know it’s the work of someone that knows what they’re doing. And, most importantly, they don’t pull punches. They don’t dumb down the show because they assume children are dolts. That’s a message that should go out to every producer of children’s television: treat your audience with respect and they’ll respect you back.

Really, you could say that for any medium, but television (and, by extention, film) seems the most egregious offender of audience disrespect. It seems like they’re always saying “Here, we know you’re going to watch this anyway, so we’re just going to give you this garbage, and you’re going to like it, because there’s no other choice.” It’s why I don’t even really watch network TV anymore. When TV shows move away from substance and put more emphasis on how the show looks (say, Who Want to be a Millionaire vs. Jeopardy!) then you lose out on the actual potential television has as a mass medium. Rather than enlightening, television has moved to pandering, and that insults viewers.

Even when your viewers are three years old.

U2’s No Line on the Horizon: A Review

March 6, 2009 2 comments

Since my first review on this blog was a review of the then-current U2 release How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb, felt it was only fitting to review the now-current U2 release, No Line on the Horizon. I will follow the format of my Death Magnetic review, with a general album rundown, and then a track-by-track breakdown.

U2 have never been a group of guys to be subtle. Or at least, they rarely are. Bombast and excess have been used to their fullest extent on their albums, for different reasons, for pretty much their whole career. Bono’s voice doesn’t really do intimate. The Edge’s guitar work is a constant focus. Larry Mullin, Jr’s drumming and Adam Clayton’s bass playing are the grooving, driving, rock-n-roll part of the band. In the 80s, this bombast lent itself to the heart-on-their-sleeves activism and political stance. In the 90s, the excess skewed the band toward irony and self-parody. Now, in this current version of the U2 sound, the layers of produced-by-committee, overworked arrangements try to work toward the “Okay, we admit it, we’re the greatest band in the world” mentality of the 2000s.

But really, for a band that’s always been so bent on changing their sound–from Larry Mullin’s desire to not be a punk band to Bono’s wishes to go away and dream it all up again, to The Edge’s futuristic techno-punk guitar explosions–this outing sounds about as much like U2 as one could expect. Rather than channeling their early-80s sound, No Line is a revisting of their 90s forays into techno and pop, more akin to Zooropa than to The Unforgettable Fire. Unfortunately, many of the problems with those 90s albums are present in this new disc. The desire to pile on effects, sequencing, and ambience gets in the way of some really solid songwriting.

Make no mistake, this album is good. Very good. If I were inclined to rank the albums I’d likely put this one as fourth in their catalog, after The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby!, and Pop. I don’t think there’s a single “bad” track on the album, and that’s saying something. But there are some particular flaws in each song, which I’ll get to in a bit. (I’ll give you a hint: most of the complaints involve the phrase “there’s too much.”) And I think the second half, starting with “Get on Your Boots”, is very, very good.

Right now the band is in the midst of a week-long stint on The Late Show with David Letterman. I’ve never liked watching U2 on a small stage because Bono’s stage antics and giant personality don’t really serve the small screen (despite my 42-inch plasma…) very well. And really, I think that’s the problem with this album. While constantly pushing themselves to excel, the band tips over into excess this time, and I just don’t understand why. Maybe it’s to make sure no one confuses them with Coldplay?

Track-By-Track

“No Line on the Horizon”
On the first track of the album–the title track, no less, which seems odd–we are almost assaulted with piles of Eno-inspired synth pads. Edge alternates between the shimmery echo of his 80s sound and the dirty funky sound of the 90s sound, and for the most part this works. Unfortunately for Mullin and Clayton, the rhythm section is ultimately the problem. The song is entirely too busy to make it sound open and airy and as free as, say, The Joshua Tree.

“Magnificent”
There’s too much Bono. The song begins with some really great sequencing, and the rhythm tracks kick in, and then Bono screws up the whole thing with an admittedly half-assed disco syncopation that grates badly against the chorus. I think this song is what “Discotheque” would have been if it weren’t so campy and fun. This is not campy, nor fun. But I think it’s because the song sounds tired, not because the song is bad. I’m waiting for the live version on this one. With the amount of sequencing the band uses live, I think the song will really come into its own on the road.

“Moment of Surrender”
There’s too much Eno. The pads, the vocal harmonies, the drum sequencing, the whole thing sounds more like a leftover Eno project than a U2 song. A more sparse arrangement would lend itself much better, and the chorus would be able to really be something transcendent, instead of merely above-average.

“Unknown Caller”
This was the first time on the album that I was really hooked. The way the song builds is really impressive, from the mellow intro to The Edge’s backing vocals, to The Edge’s shimmering guitar. Even the Coldplay-imitated “wooh oh oh oh oh” vocal hooks are pretty good. The chorus chants are definite Eno influences. But I think most of this song is The Edge’s work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like I said to my wife (who is a thousand times the U2 fan that I am), this album is essentially the world catching up to The Edge’s ahead-of-his time guitar work. Also: I really like the simple solo on this song. No effects, no gimmicks, just a really good solo. Nice one, Mr. The Edge.

“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”
If there’s ever been a waste of a fucking great song title, this is it. Even when they played this on Letterman, it seemed like the band wasn’t exactly happy with this song. Except, oddly, Larry Mullin, Jr., who rarely smiles. The chorus is a certifiable hook and the middle eight is good enough, though, so I expect it will probably be in the live set for a while. I don’t know, it could be good, but I think this is probably this album’s “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” Bono may acknowledge his downfalls in this song, but I think he could have just left this one off the album and no one would care.

“Get on Your Boots”
If this song had some dirtier guitar work and Rob Zombie singing on it, it would have been on Hellbilly Deluxe. If you listen to it in that frame of mind, it’s an entirely different song. Not better, mind. Just different. Mr. Zombie, if you’re reading this: please cover this song. I will buy the album it’s on. And anyone who thinks this song is a bizarro throwaway song? That’s the point. Enjoy it for what it is.

“Stand Up Comedy”
This song is pretty much “The Fly” from Achtung Baby. That’s a good thing. “Stop helping God/Across the road/Like a little old lady” is probably one of the best lyrics that ever came from Bono’s pen. “Stand up to the rockstars” he says. Well… okay. If he’s letting me.

“Fez – Being Born”
A great segue track. Containing samples from other tracks on the album (as well as from other sources, I assume), it serves as a great bridge between the wacky middle tracks and the more serious work of the final tracks. At once The Joshua Tree and Bjork’s “All is Full of Love”, this song is where I’d like to see the band go on the next album, if there is one. Which I expect.

“White as Snow”
There’s too much other stuff. Half the song could be just Bono and some guitar. No synth, no piano, just voice and guitar. Think about it: U2’s best songs (“With or Without You”, “Running to Stand Still”, “MLK”, “Bad”, “One”) are incredibly sparse. As this should be. More than it is, anyway. Unfair to Larry and Adam, sure, but the amount of good rhythm work elsewhere should more than make up for this one. I mean, they let The Edge have “Numb” on Zooropa. And there’s too much backing vocal work. One other harmony track, guys. That’s plenty.

“Breathe”
Another mostly-segue intro. The only thing I dislike about this song is the syncopated piano bit in the chorus. I suspect this was Eno’s doing again, but I can’t be sure. Bono channels Bob Dylan in the verses and well… Bono in the choruses. Maybe Chris Martin? Have we gotten to the point that Coldplay and U2 are creating a feeback loop? Coldplay does U2 who in turn do Coldplay? How ass-backwards is that? Having said that, this song is fantastic, aside from that weird piano thing.

“Cedars of Lebanon”
I honestly don’t know what to think about this track. It left me feeling… weird. It’s the first time in a long time I truly had a visceral reaction to a song. I can’t tell if it’s about an actual specific person, I can’t tell if the style of the song is an homage. But this song is the most perfectly balanced of all the tracks on the album. And then, just like that, it ends. Abruptly. There is talk that it might be a reference to the Cedar Revolution (in Lebanon–go fig!) but it might also be a reference to the book of Psalms, many of which David supposedly wrote while in the wilderness. I have no idea what the song actually means, it might just be about a journalist covering the Revolution. Or a soldier in the conflict. Or… I could just listen to the song and appreciate how friggin’ amazing it is.

Conclusion

So there it is. Just about every thought that crapped out of my head after listening to No Line on the Horizon a few times. Unlike some other albums I’ve reviewed, I think this an obvious good album. Not without flaws, but damn good. Thanks for sticking with me.

A Gift of Irony: The Vertigo Tarot

December 4, 2008 1 comment

I’d like to talk to you a bit about irony.

Now, by this time you should have had it beaten into you that irony is not like it’s explained in Alanis Morisette’s song “Ironic” from Jagged Little Pill. A series of hilarious conincidences are not irony. No, irony is something much deeper than that. Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” That is, you expect one thing, you get another, that’s irony. (I guess from that definition, the “rain on your wedding day” is kind of ironic.) But there’s also this one, also from Merriam-Webster: “an event or result marked by such incongruity.” It’s for this definition that I have an example.

Since I’m moving to Indiana in the next couple of weeks, my family had its Christmas gathering early to mitigate people’s complaints of “We’ll never see you ever again!” So my brother and I got each other our gifts. My gift to him: Watchmen. He’s never read it and is getting into comics, so there’s really no reason to not get him something he’d buy anyway. But his gift to me? The Vertigo Tarot. For Christmas. Irony, checking in.

Now, I’m not surprised by this gift at all, because when I first saw this new printing of The Vertigo Tarot, I squee’d in joy and declared, “WANT!” I’m a bit of a fanboy when it comes to wacky occult things illustrated by Dave McKean. And really, that was all I wanted it for. I wanted to drool over super-cool art. The fact that it had a forward by Neil Gaiman (McKean’s sometime-collaborator) and was based on characters from DC Comics’ Vertigo line made it even cooler. And I still really have no idea who Rachel Pollack is, but apparently she’s kind of a big deal in the comics and sci fi worlds.

So I crack it open, and the first thing I’m overwhelmed by is the smell. It has one of those ink-and-paper smells that one associates with good glossy work (not unlike the Avatar Press smell). My wife’s initial reaction, before even opening the book or looking at the cards, was “Oooo… it smells good. That’s a start.” Getting into the package itself, though, is probably more what you’re looking for.

First, the box is quite stylish for just being a box. The texture of the printing is almost satiny, and the interior box seems sturdy. The book is set in the interior box, with the deck itself packaged behind in a faux velvet bag. So far, so good. The packaging looks good and looks like it will probably stand up well.

The book is nicely laid out. Unfortunately, it is a reprint (and, I assume, reduction) of the original 1995 hardcover printing. So the typography is rendered extremely small. I have 20/15 vision and it was still something I had to read at exceedingly close distance. I am certainly no tarot expert, but I found most of Pollack’s writing to be interesting, at the very least. Some of the more Vertigo-specific artwork (especially the Major Arcana) seemed to read a little too much into what characters they used for what cards and why, and how that character fits into tarot lore. I could have done without that. All in all Pollack’s interpretation of McKean’s art seemed alright, but McKean’s very abstract art is difficult to classify. Much of the final work was done with a computer, and McKean’s fascination with it is palpable; early computer-assisted graphics work flows through this deck like water from a spilled cup.

The cards are… well, they look fantastic. The glossy art is crisp, and they are definitely asthetically pleasing. I’m not sure, though, how much they’ll be able to stand up to actual use. DC Direct claims the cards are thicker than the old cards, but I would be sure to wash my hands before using the cards to avoid oils and fingerprints. Also, the cut of the cards is alright, but all of them have a very definite perforation cut. I would have liked a die-cut card significantly more. The backs are designed in such a way that it’s difficult to tell, at a glance, whether the card is correctly- or reverse-oriented. I think this adds quite a bit to the actual experience of “reading” the cards. Again, though I worry how they’ll hold up to repeated use.

The deck, like all tarot decks, is split into the 22 cards of Major Arcana (or Trumps) and the 56 Minor Arcana cards (Ace through 10 and 4 court cards per suit.) The Major Arcana is where most of the “Vertigo” comes from, as they depict different characters such as John Constantine, Swamp Thing, and various Sandman characters. The Minor Arcana is where McKean really goes abstract, though. My personal favorites are the Pentacles cards (also called ‘coins’ or ‘disks’ in other tarot decks.) The art McKean gives them is fantastic. My brother really liked the Swords suit. Standout Major Arcana pieces are The Emperor–based on The Geek–and The Chariot. But really, I could name any and all of the Major Arcana… they’re all that good. McKean really outdid himself on some of these.

DC Direct lists the retail at US$29.99. My local store marked it up some, to US$39.99, but I still feel that it was worth it. At the very least I’ll have a conversation piece. I may just start collecting decks, as I’ve heard people are wont to do. I don’t know. But I know that my brother certainly got his money’s worth on this gift, and I’ll enjoy looking through it–and squinting to read the book–for years to come.

NOTE: A full visual spoiler of the deck is available here.

Metallica’s Death Magnetic – A Review

September 29, 2008 Leave a comment

Well, here it is. I’ve been waiting patiently for this album to come out. And now here it is. I’ve been thinking about how I’d do this review for a while, and I think I’ll do a track-by-track review, because frankly, too many reviews don’t actually review the music on an album. Before I get to that though, I’d like to address the album as a whole. That way those of you who are to impatient to actually read the whole thing will get the “typical” album review. (Note: I have been a Metallica fan since I was in junior high. I attempt to take the positive bias out of this review and call it for what it is. Let’s face it: some parts of the album are just bad.)

This album is not the second-coming of Master of Puppets. If anything, I think it’s a combination of …And Justice for All and ReLoad. Which leaves it living in an interesting place in the Metallica catalog, and certainly in metal in general. Metallica have never really been victims of trends. Say what you will about Load and ReLoad being attempts to go alternative. Say what you will about St. Anger trying to be nu-metal and gritty. But really, nothing out there sounds like a Metallica album. So with Death Magnetic, Metallica take on something they haven’t attempted since about 1988: themselves.

Let’s face it: every metal band out there owes something,–directly or indirectl–to Metallica, just as they owe Black Sabbath, Diamond Head, and Motorhead before them. So when you have what can be regarded as the Bible of Metal in the first four albums, a breakthrough rock record in the black album, and a few assorted groove/blues rock albums, what do you really do? Eventually you just throw it all together. This album is Now Metallica trying to coexist with Then Metallica. They bring the Then in with the general riffage, and to a point, the song structures. They bring the Now with a few of the riffs, bassist Rob Trujillo’s funkier bass style, James Hetfield’s newer, more personal and spontaneous lyrics, and the production values. If you like the old stuff but want it to sound fresher, this is probably the album.

However, it definitely has some low spots. The production is definitely better than St. Anger, but the mix is painful to listen to after a while. Hetfield’s vocals and the snare drum are too loud. There is too much midrange in the guitars. The mix is way, way too hot, giving the album a very ugly digital clipping, noticeable even at low levels. And there’s still a couple Bob Rock-inspired vocal deliveries, especially on “All Nightmare Long” (i.e., “OU-TAAAAAAAAH”). James’ grammar seems to have descended to a level of pre-high school junior high kids. (“What don’t kill ya make ya more strong”? Please.)

I don’t think any of these are deal-breakers. People on Blabbermouth.net seem to be raising a stink about the production quality, but to me it’s just a nuisance. But the return of Kirk Hammett’s guitar solos, speed riffing, and even the occasional tasteful double kick drum is a great thing in my opinion. I highly recommend this album if you’re a fan that felt betrayed by the 1990s-era Metallica. While not an exact “return to form,” Death Magnetic is definitely a step in the right direction. I think if they keep on Rick Rubin as a producer they could definitely go on to make some more classic metal albums.

Track by Track

“That Was Just Your Life”
Am I the only one that thinks the intro to this song was cribbed from some lost Type O Negative demo? Other than that, this song is a typical Metallica album starter, in the vein of “Battery” and “Blackend”. The chorus riff sounds akin to the chunkier riffs of the black album, while the verse riff is very Puppets-era. The lyrics, unfortunately, are the soft spot. Since the initial spawning of St. Anger, a lot of sub-par lyrics have crept into James Hetfield’s songwriting. And the delivery is equally bad. James is not Tom Araya from Slayer.

“The End of the Line”
I think this is the most forgettable song on the album. Sounds like a St. Anger reject. It takes a ReLoad-type riff and goes too far with it. The speedier riffing during the verse would sound much better as more of a scooped sound, with less midrange. The solo is okay, though, and there’s a really unusual sound at the end of it. I think it’s from the string fretting on the pickup, but I might be wrong. The harmonized guitar parts are similar to those on Ride the Lightning. The breakdown is probably the best part of the song. Reminded me of “Astronomy” on Garage, Inc.

“Broken, Beat & Scarred”
I have a theory that this song started with a Lars Ulrich/Rob Trujillo bass-n-drum groove. I think the message of this song is good. The grammer, however, is AWFUL. Solo, again, is good. Lots of whammy bar antics. The key and meter changes really evoke memories of …And Justice for All (the album, not the song.)

“The Day that Never Comes”
Many have theorized that this song is an allusion to James’ childhood, where I don’t really see the connection. Sure, the lyric sheet clearly reads “the son will shine,” but I think there’s more going on than “My dad hit my mom.” I think that a lot of relationships could be described in this song: mother-son, husband-wife, couple-outsider, etc. I actually think this is a bigger song than most people let it be.

Musically, it’s one half “Fade to Black” and one half “One”. Also, I think the bridge riff is probably one of the best riffs Metallica has ever committed to tape. Straight from …And Justice for All.

“All Nightmare Long”
The clear best song on the album. Rolling Stone said that, with it’s riffs of the old Metallica and the hooks of the ’90s Metallica, it may very well be the best Metallica song ever. It’s already one of my favorites. The best part? When the full band comes in during the intro riff. It goes from being large and expansive to very narrow and confining. The only real complaint I have is the aforementioned Bob Rock-isms in the vocal performance.

“Cyanide”
This song would be 200% better without the drum-n-bass breaks. Cut out about six measures and you’ve got a much better, more cohesive song. Try that live, guys. I realize that some of it is probably a concession to prove that there’s bass on the album, but I know it’s there, guys. You don’t have to show him off.

“The Unforgiven III”
Seriously? I mean, really? Musically there’s very little allusion to the previous installments. Lyrically, the song is absolutely abysmal, with the whole “treasure hunting” allegory, and the further grammatical butchery. (“How come it’s got so cold?” Seriously, James, add a syllable or change the lyric.) Musically it’s got a few neat things going on. I like the rolling guitar bit, I like the melody. But the lyrics and the solo that reminds me of the abortion of a solo that Kirk tried putting on the original Unforgiven (ever seen A Year and a Half in the Life of…?) add up to a song whose positives don’t overcome its negatives.

“The Judas Kiss”
Number two on the album. The riff is completely …And Justice for All-era, with some serious Load/ReLoad-era lyrics going on. The chorus is catchy as hell, too. The solo is probably the best missing link between Kirk’s blues-based work on Load and the modal stuff of the earlier albums. I think there’s one too many verses.

“Suicide and Redemption”
Obviously built out of a rehearsal room jam. The riff is neat, some of the solo work is okay, but not as strong as “The Call of Ktulu” from Ride the Lightning, “Orion” from Master of Puppets, or “To Live is To Die” from …And Justice for All. I don’t even think it’s as good as “My Friend of Misery” could have been, had it been lyric-less. (Note: “My Friend of Misery” was former bassist Jason Newsted’s main contribution to the black album. He intended for it to be an instrumental.) It just doesn’t really go anywhere, although the brick-walled mix might have something to do with the lack of dynamicism.

“My Apocalypse”
Again, the thrashy closer. Not as kinetic as “Dyer’s Eve”. More melodic than “Damage, Inc.” Probably has Lars Ulrich’s best drumming on the album. But honestly, I think the best closer they’ll ever do is ReLoad‘s “Fixxxer”. “My Apocalypse” definitely doesn’t feel as final as that.

Overall album rank out of the catalog, I’d say number four, after Justice, Puppets, and Load. But I’ve got a really weird taste in Metallica, so… take that how you want.