With all things considered…

Music reviews, Uncategorized

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Book of Souls, Iron Maiden, Sanctuary, 2015.

 

An Iron Maiden album in the realm of Heavy Metal music is an event. Metalheads and fans of the band await and dissect each subsequent album as they are released. It’s amazing that in 2015 we were lucky enough to witness these titans and pioneers of Metal release all-new music once more, especially given singer Bruce Dickinson’s recent health scare. Iron Maiden doesn’t follow rules, plain and simple.

Book of Souls walks in those same footsteps. It is brave and bold enough to be a double album and take risks like closing the album a 20+ minute piano-focused song. If anything Book of Souls is very ambitious for a band almost forty years in its career obviously not content to rest on it’s laurels. It won’t be for everyone and it certainly doesn’t cater to the Maiden fan who wants The Number of the Beast part II. Iron Maiden is not or never will be about that, and you know what? More power to them. They don’t just play “Greatest Hits” they challenge themselves and do things their own way on their own terms.

This is the band who went on the road supporting A Matter of Life and Death playing that particular album in it’s entirety. They keep challenging themselves and finding reasons to move forward. Now they’ve given us their first double album and their longest song to date proving themselves time and again.

“If Eternity Should Fall” is a fist-pumper and sure to be popular with the crowds. It starts off the album with a bang, great buildup, strong lyrics and excellent melody. One of their best choruses in years. The way they had the demonic and evil vocal effects for the outro was very cool and something they haven’t done before.

I listened to the single “Speed of Light” prior to the album’s release and I wasn’t blown terribly impressed by the song and it’s cowbell. It felt like it was going to be this album’s “El Dorado” and that’s more or less what it ended up being. I’m glad that it’s not one of the better songs.

“The Great Unknown” is the first song on Book of Souls that feels longer as it takes the listener on a journey. It starts on the slower side, gradually build up and goes places. It’s not bad upon listening but it isn’t very memorable.

“The Red And The Black” is the second longest song clocking in at 13:34 featuring some spectacular (although quite long) display of musicianship. Those “woooohoo’s” chants echo shades of “Heaven Can Wait”.

“While The River Runs Deep” is one of the fast-paced songs only slowing down to catch it’s breath during the chorus that unfortunately, cannot keep up with the rest of the song.

Up next we have the title track “Book of Souls” marking the end of disc one. With elements of orchestration and a wonderful vocal melody, this lengthy conceptual piece may be the sleeper hit of the album. As it hits the 6 minutes mark it goes into this whole other dimension that only serves to elevate the song further.

“Shadows of the Valley” is the song that’s been commonly referred to as the “Wasted years sounding one”. Does it sound like “Wasted Years”? In short, no. It borrows the same classic opening melody, albeit much slower before launching to it’s own beat.

“The Man of Sorrows” (nope, nothing to do with the Bruce Dickinson solo track of the same name) is a shinning moment for me with it’s melodic and passionate playing/singing.

“Tears of a Clown” seems slightly out of place here and it interrupts the flow of the album. As much as it tackles a sensitive topic (Robin Williams), I feel it’s one of the weaker moments on Book of Souls.

Of course Book of Souls has everyone wondering and talking about “Empire of The Clouds”, the 22 minutes epic penned by Bruce Dickinson. It starts out with only beautifully played piano, something you’d never expect from the band. This is a big deal. Think about it, Iron Maiden doing piano? Not keyboards, orchestra or arrangements of some kind. We’re talking piano. Guess what? It works—surprising I know— but it does. It’s a long and demanding song, I’ll give you that. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a never-ending song. It goes through such changes and progressions that it keeps the listener engaged.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: I can’t picture too many Iron Maiden fans listening to a 22 minute song very often, much less a piano-driven one. I know I haven’t played it more than 3 times since buying the album. Great for a band like Pink Floyd, not so much for Iron Maiden.

A popular comment regarding this album is how some of its songs sound like a Bruce Dickinson solo album. It’s true, of the four songs he has written l can clearly see 2-3 of them being on a Dickinson solo opus in one way or another, but they don’t feel out of place as they are tailored specifically for Iron Maiden. I was reminded of Balls to Picasso and Accident of Birth, which is not a bad thing.

Book of Souls is undoubtedly and distinguishably an lron Maiden record—and a modern one at that. You have your slow in-your-face rockers, your long intro and outros with gallops in the middle sprinkled with some surprises. I don’t think anyone expected Maiden to come out with a piano ballad or their first double album for that matter. Dickinson remains impressive as he loses nothing with age delivering a splendid performance throughout. All the while unknowingly dealing with tongue cancer!

There is nothing wrong with the performances. The band sounds great and excited about what they play and do. The trio of guitarists is afire and at it again, Harris delivers some terrific bass lines and Nicko is thunderous on drums. I give credit where credit is due, but this time it just feels like more of the same and as if the band has shifted on autopilot. If I can be honest there are only so many times where you can have a 10 minute song with a 2 minute intro and a 2 minute outro and have it sound captivating. I’m getting a little saturated from the process with I feel they’ve exhausted since, oh, about Brave New World. I’m sorry Iron Maiden fans *ducks*.

I think the word “epic” is thrown around to often these days, and it’s what I think the band was aiming for with The Book of Souls. As big as the anticipation was and as dearly as my appreciation and love for Iron Maiden is, I don’t think it’s quite a five star release.

To me, the album suffers from the length of it’s songs, especially when it comes to the intros and outs. We get it Maiden, you like long intros and outs, but on every song? It’s getting to the point where you’re a parody of yourself. After all, this template has been used since Brave New World and started to get tedious around A Matter of Life and Death.

I don’t think it’s as mind-blowing as some would have you believe nor is it an instant classic, but it has merits. This was probably the right album to release at this point in their career, almost forty years on. I applaud the band for attempting a double album and trying something new (“Empire of the Clouds”) and Bruce for his performance given his condition. Worth a try to curious and fresh ears? I say start with one of the classics. Is it an amazing, incredible Iron Maiden record for fans? Not quite, but there are some worthwhile moments, it just doesn’t feel fresh or special anymore. It’s more like a tied and true formula but of course, fans will hail it as an instant classic. 3 stars.

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Sega vs Nintendo a.k.a Console Wars

Book reviews, Game reviews, Uncategorized

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Console Wars, Blake J. Harris, Dey Street Books, 2014.

Coke vs Pepsi. Nike vs Adidas. Jordan vs LeBron. Nintendo vs Sega. Some of the greatest philosophical debates of our time —at least in the context of popular-culture.

I’m not going to take sides on the whole Sega versus Nintendo argument. I enjoyed and played Nintendo and Sega equally as much in the 1990s. That said, gamers of today have Sega to thank for the delightfully violent and blood-filled games that sit on their shelves. Sega targeted a different audience than Nintendo, a cooler, more mature one. Someone’s older teenaged brother perhaps. Looking back, Sega seems to be focused towards feeding the hardcore gamer crowd. They were edgy and something about them was cool in a way Nintendo wasn’t. I was too young to comprehend the whole console wars as it was happening in the ’90s but my fascination with this era of gaming remained. Why all the Sega talk? Because Console Wars focuses on Sega.

Soon to be a motion picture, Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars is largely told from the perspective of former Sega CEO Tom Kalinske. This choice will perhaps raise gamer’s eyebrows but it makes perfect sense. How can a book on a pivotal moment in video game history be seen from one point of view? The short answer is somehow, strangely, it works. Telling the story through Kalinske’s eyes—at least for the most part—creates narrtive and an emotional connection with the reader. Harris could have chosen just as well to tell it from a faceless, corporate point of view or that of an obsessive and enthusiastic fan. Instead, having someone whom the reader can actively live the console wars through works to maximum effect.

To this aspect, a lot of names are thrown and mentioned. Many are recurring and given importance, others get a mention here and there. That’s not to say readers will remember everyone who was mentioned in the book and played a part in the war, they won’t.

The book portrays Sega as an underdog and rightfully so. Even if one isn’t a fan of The company or overtly prefers Nintendo, its hard not to root for Sega with each page turned and newly arising conflict. Most serious gamers already know how the console war ends (as well as the eventual downfall of Sega as a hardware manufacturer). It’s a long road to get there and Console Wars does an admirable job of helping the reader relive these moments. From the creation of the blue blur, Sonic the Hedgehog, and his rivalry versus Mario and Nintendo, to the internal struggles at Sega, it’s a journey.

Truth is while the book centers on the console wars, a large part of the book comes down to strategy, advertising and marketing. In that sense, its very good business book. Console Wars delves into tactics, resources used by Nintendo and especially Sega. Some tactics are fairly ridiculous and over-the-top and on occasion, downright slander. How appealing that will be to someone who enjoys video games might vary, unless they enjoy the history of games that is.

In retrospect, it is fascinating to read about Sega’s imminent implosion. In this case the manufacturer tried to push too many different products at once effectively cancelling some of its own revenue and marketing. Too much, too fast, too soon.

Most of Sega’s troubles were caused by… Sega. They stuck it to Nintendo and gained the bigger share of the market only to effectively dismantle its own success through internal conflicts. Therefore Sega’s biggest competition may have very well been itself. For instance, it’s almost comical that Sega of America was given the task of finishing Sega of Japan’s 32X concept, a console SoA didn’t want on the market, in order to let their subsidiary concentrate on the Sega Saturn. It’s interesting how Tom Kalinske wanted to prolong the life of Genesis—a system who was dominating the video game market—only to be met with opposition from his Japanese.

I found a few issues with Console Wars. The book focuses almost entirely on Sega. While Harris really delves into Sega it feels like Nintendo is either ignored or overlooked most of the time unless they are mentioned in the context of rivalry. The book takes a look at the history of Nintendo, it’s relationships with third-party publishers such as EA Sports and Rare, it’s grip on the gaming industry and the development of the Nintendo Power publication. There is Nintendo content. Yet I still can’t help but feel the book is extremely one-sided. Nintendo’s coverage is minimal compared to Sega’s. There are a few recurring names from the Nintendo camp, but it’s only a fraction of the amount devoted Sega employees. Same with promotions, games and events. As such, Console Wars might’ve benefited from an alternate title —one preferably using the words “Tom Kalinske” and “Sega”.

Harris tells the reader in the introduction that he had to recreate dialogue for the story to take shape. The problem is that we’re left with dialogue that is not 100% accurate and some of the quotes and sentences are overemphasized and exaggerated for dramatic effect. The author adds dramatic effects and colourful adjectives that, although movie-ready, are out-of-place. I also wasn’t a fan of the occasional two-page chapters, I felt they took away from continuity.

There are great lessons in Console Wars. A lot of what caused Sega’s eventual fall was due to what happened on the inside. The divisions between Sega of America (SOA) and Sega of Japan (SOJ) most notably. It is clear that a company split into parts without clear focus on one singular goal cannot succeed.

Console Wars looses steam towards the end where it feels slightly rushed at some point after the launch of Sonic 3. Reading transcripts of a Nintendo conference and a play performed by Nintendo employees is about as thrilling as it sounds. There is no definitive ending to the war as we know it in the book: Donkey Kong Country came out for the SNES and sold 7.5 million copies, the Saturn came out and Tom Kalinske leaves Sega. It could’ve benefited from more reflection and insight.

The foreword by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg is both amusing and engaging. They are clearly video game fans and I was surprised to see their names in the book and delighted at how their personalities shone through their words.

Is it worth reading? Yes. It’s insightful and offers a worthwhile look at the events that shook the video game industry between 1990-95. Fans of video games will no doubt find great content but it doesn’t delve as deep into the games as they might hope from this type of book. As previously mentioned, it is very business-oriented. I really enjoyed Console Wars and liked that the book was told from Tom Kalinske’s perspective. It is well researched and provides good information. With the issues I’ve addressed, it lacked a certain closure, was too focused on Sega and the recreated dialogue wasn’t always on point.

Some key/interesting points:

*Tom Kalinske’s career pre-Sega, how he came to be at Sega, his decisions, marketing strategies, advertising, etc.

*Nintendo making life difficult for software publishers, stores carrying their products and video rental stores.

*Sega taking advantage of Nintendo’s difficult relationships with the above. Making deals with Electronic Arts, publishers and retailers.

*Nintendo essentially shrugging their shoulders at how bad the Super Mario Bros. movie was.

*Sega’s use of marketing and advertising to brand itself as a hip, edgy alternative to Nintendo.

*Sega gaining the lead in the war only to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot.

*Sega of Japan’s constant insistence on wanting to be in charge, going as far as deliberately sabotaging Sega of America’s efforts.

*Nintendo’s stubborn ways, effectively being labelled as a bully by many game publishers. Console Wars almost pushed the notion of Nintendo as a villain in the video game industry.

*Nintendo’s early relationship with Sony leading to the development of Sony’s Playstation.

*Relationships of Sony with Nintendo and Sega and entry into the world of video games.

Entertaining but should have been more -3 1/2*

Movie reviews

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Super Duper Alice Cooper, Banger Films, 2014.

I’ve been following Canadian television and film production company Banger Films and their numerous projects with great interest for years now.  Sam Dunn and his crew have done wonderful work paying tribute to bands like Rush and Iron Maiden, as well as producing cultural relevant films on Metal (Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey is still a favourite, and Global Metal is worth its salt) and two TV series no less in the form of Metal Evolution and Rock Icons aired on VH1.

When Banger Films announced Super Duper Alice Cooper in 2013 I was excited. I’ve been a fan of Alice Cooper —the man and the band— for most of my life and Banger Films had done tremendous work covering subjects I loved up to that point.

I had hopes that Super Duper Alice Cooper would cover Alice’s entire career, but much to my chagrin it did not. Some events and entire decades are glossed over. The documentary ends rather abruptly and would have you believe all Alice Cooper did anything after 1986 was tour. That is not the case. Alice experienced renewed creativity and one his most prolific decade as an artist in the ’00s, he is constantly touring and still records to this day as a solo artist and with side projects (Hollywood Vampires).

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“Welcome to my documentary, I hope you’re gonna like it.”

I get that with a man who had such a long and illustrated career it would have made for a what would’ve surely amounted to overly long documentary project.  I still feel like this documentary was a missed opportunity. For instance, his early 80’s output —as out there and bizarre as they were— are fascinating and musically diverse, yet completely ignored here. Instead they focus on Alice’s personal problems. It would have been nice to hear more about them and ask Alice (even though he doesn’t remember them he can still share thoughts, the man has admitted to hearing genius when he listens to albums like DaDa). Or perhaps why his Lace And Whisky album was such a brilliant album but a complete departure musically.

Banger Films focused more on a Behind The Music approach and the good old shock value factor associated to the Alice Cooper name. For the uninitiated, curious mind or casual fan, Super Duper Alice Cooper is a much more rewarding experience because it paints a portrait of Alice Cooper the man and the band. The die-hard will lament what isn’t in the movie or the fact that we’ve seen or heard this before and that this is the same under a new decor. As such, it seems the filmmakers mostly show the viewer what is on the surface without scratching underneath. Therefore it ends up being a more appealing project to someone who isn’t obsessed with Alice Cooper but very appealing to a casual fan or intrigued viewer.

With that said, what they do cover, what made it in and the presentation are all marvellous. The cinematography is incredible. Some footage and interviews I had never seen and they make for a rare treat providing insights of where Alice Cooper as a band was and who Vincent Furnier was (or at least, becoming). One particular moment during an interview from 1982 shows Furnier as an almost tragic figure, effectively demonstrating his descent in a downward spiral psychologically and physically.

Some of the footage paints very vivid and strong images of the band and Alice. The live footage is great, watching the band play, executions, Alice kissing girls.. There’s a lot of captivating footage and visuals but maybe not as much for the die-hard fans who may have seen (or know) it all already. The bonus interviews that didn’t make the cut are certainly worth watching.

The storytelling is vivid and effective, mostly done by Cooper himself along with some guests and people who contributed (featuring Bob Ezrin and Iggy Pop among others). Even though we may know the story of the Alice Cooper band it never gets old hearing it from those who lived it. It’s great to hear former members of the classic AC band, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith, but a shame that Michael Bruce didn’t make it in. They don’t get a lot of air time but it was nice to have their voices heard at least.

Most fans seem to absolutely love Super Duper Alice Cooper while a few seem to think it’s lacking or doesn’t tell them anything they don’t already know. It think it falls short of being the definitive Cooper documentary. One can assume that had Banger Films had more screen time (or a second disc) this could’ve been it.

The documentary itself makes for great viewing and is very enjoyable. Between the presentation of audio, visuals and animations (who reminded me of History of the Eagles and served to enhance the product), Super Duper Alice Cooper  brought the story of Alice Cooper to life. I can’t deny that even though I enjoyed the documentary, I anticipated more. This time Banger Films went for a more traditional approach to filmmaking and used a lot of footage and voice overs and ultimately it makes it less effective than their previous work. As much as I love Banger Films and Alice Cooper I’m giving Super Duper Alice Cooper a 3.5/5. Worth the price of admission but don’t expect the world.

They did it again— Horror inspired Goth-rock with a misunderstood romantic flavour

Music reviews, Uncategorized

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Universal Monsters, The 69 Eyes, Nuclear Blast America, 2016.

The 69 Eyes are back it again. With their last two albums, Back In Blood and X, the band seems to have found a balance in both sound and style that works quite while for them. On Universal Monsters however, the Helsinki Vampires take a step back and take a slightly more vintage approach that harkens back to a sound reminiscent of the Paris Kills days.

If anything, the album title cover are very indicative of Universal Monsters’ musical direction: good old horror inspired goth-rock— with a a misunderstood romantic flavour, it’s what the 69 Eyes does best.

“Dolce Vita” is vintage 69 Eyes complete with the slow, dark, ominous goth-rock ambiance and feel of old. This should have been the first choice of single.

I wasn’t overjoyed by the first single “Jet Fighter Plane”. It sounded like something from X which isn’t bad in itself but felt a little political. It’s a good song but perhaps not single-worthy.

“Blackbird Pie” is with some choice acoustic guitars in certain places (intro, breakdown) that complement the song surprisingly well. One of the finest songs on Universal Monsters. Jyrki’s voice just like this song is memorable and haunting. A monster of a song.

“Lady Darkness” is a moody piece that would be fit for a classic Universal monster movie. The song even sounds black and white. It’s as melodic as it is delightful.

“Miss Pastis” is the weakest song in my opinion. It has a punk edge to it but a very weak “Salut, sa va, miss Pastis” chorus sang in French. I like the accompanying French-sounding elements, but l didn’t too care much for the fake accents.

“Shallow Graves” is a ghostly number featuring a menacing riff, rather upbeat with strong gang vocals.

“Jerusalem” features beautiful musical arrangements and a passionate vocal delivery. Melancholic with an interesting progression.

“Stiv & Johnny” has a decidedly punk flavour to it. From the riffs to the drum beat this one screams punk yet it also features elements that are completely different and it works to great effect when everything is put together.

“Never” is perhaps the catchiest song on Universal Monster with it’s doomy chorus and a lifted-from-a-movie instrumentation. This is one made for the repeat button.

“Blue” is a soft, slow gothic prose. Very poetic.

“Rock And Roll Junkie” is a satisfying song but l was surprised to see it close the album. To me, it’s a very fun and upbeat song that l would put for track number 2 or 3. Doesn’t take away that it’s a good song, very rock’n’roll like it’s title implies.

Universal Monsters sees The 69 Eye displays different musical flavours and styles in the context of Goth-Rock/Metal—with stunning results. This feels like a natural direction for the band. The Helsinki Vampires are expanding their sound while going a bit retro and keeping their edge and personality.

Jerky 69’s voice is as deep and pleasant as ever, guitars sound wonderful, the rhythm section is tight and the array of instruments and accompanying background music used enhance Universal Monsters. I’m not disappointed and neither will you be 4.5/5 stars.