Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss (1983)

I recently read the second book of Brian Aldiss's Helliconia trilogy, Helliconia Summer. You should read my review of the first book to get a description of the setting.

Aside from being set on the same planet, the setting and story in this book have very little to do with the first one. It takes place hundreds of years later, and the setting has been completely transformed by the different weather on the planet. The general writing, characterization, and descriptions are just as compelling as in the first one, which is very strongly in its favor. However, it falls far short of the first one for many reasons.

The book starts out strong--but it starts out 2/3 of the way through the story. This would be fine, if it was only one chapter. But instead, there are three chapters before it jumps back in time, and the fourth chapter is presented as a flashback. So, when I started the fifth chapter, I thought it jumped back forward; I was wrong, so needless to say I was confused for the next couple of chapters.

The setting is not nearly as compelling as in Spring, the supposedly extreme heat of the long season being almost forgotten through most of the book. And one of the reasons Spring was so interesting was that the setting changed a great deal during the story, something that doesn't happen in Summer.

After I finally figured out what was happening, things go interesting for a while. But just when it got really good, some deus ex machina rears its ugly head. And finally, the end is unsatisfying.

The Verdict: Still, the story which is told is a good one, and, as I said, the characters are compelling. So, I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


I hate this time of year, because one of my favorite shows keeps getting preempted by basketball, a sport I do not care to watch.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Dillinger Escape Plan: Option Paralysis (2010) Review

Mathcore kings The Dillinger Escape Plan came out with their latest album yesterday, Option Paralysis. Normally I give an album two or three listens before I write my review, so it can be well-considered and thoughtful, but this time I thought I'd try something a little different. I will be writing this during my first listen, so you should get more detail and see my first impressions. I think it will work well on this album, since these guys always have so much going on.

Here we go.

It starts out with a scream on "Farewell, Mona Lisa." After some standard metalcore they go into a weird mathcore section, and the whole track seems laden with weird counterpoint guitars in the Dillinger style. About 1:50 in it mellows out, but remains interesting. At 2:52 they blend the mellow part with some of the heavier stuff, and about 3:20 it seems to be building up to a conclusion. At 3:50 it's still building up, getting gradually heavier, and begins to end about the 5 minute mark.

Here is the video for the song:

"Good Neighbor" is a weird, abrasive track, like I would expect from Dillinger. About the 1 minute mark they go into a really cool riffing section, which gets even cooler about 1:20, and it remains awesome until the end of the track.

Next up is "Gold Teeth on a Bum," which starts out in a style reminiscent of some of Nine Inch Nails' weirder moments, but quickly switches back to Dillinger. The track is mellower than their average, but manages to maintain the oddness of their style and doesn't become soft. It seems like they've learned to combine some of their more melodic moments with the heaviness they're used to, much like the bands of the Gothenburg scene did with death metal. The track fades out at the end.

"Crystal Morning" is some good old standard Dillinger fare, and really starts to get interesting about the 0:30 mark. At 0:40 they go into a breakdown, and follow up with a cool solo in the background. At 1:10 it goes into an even better breakdown. This is a really great track. At 1:30 it softens up a bit and then breaks down again at 1:45. This is what I love about these guys--once you catch the thread of what they're doing, they do something else, always keeping you on your toes.

Next up, "Endless Endings" seems like more standard Dillinger. It goes into a very strange section about 0:30. About 1:40 it goes into a very different kind of section, builds up to a conclusion, and at 2:10 it goes really aggressive.

"Widower" seems to be a piano-only, morose kind of song as it begins. About 1:40 it starts to get more interesting, with drums and guitars poking in with some strange stuff. At 2:20 the piano seems to take the background to a mostly drum-based passage, and the piano takes on a more unusual role. About the 4:00 minute mark it becomes much heavier and more guitar-based, and at 4:30 it goes into one of the most interesting sections on the album so far. It mellows out again about the 5 minute mark before they begin a heavy closing section about 6:05, and then end it abruptly. This song is incredible, and definitely worth a listen:

The following track is "Room Full of Eyes," a more usual (for Dillinger) kind of track. About the 0:50 mark they switch things up into a very cool interplay of guitar and drums. Man, this song is awesome, very weird--almost Psyopus weird. It goes quiet around 2:15 for a few seconds and then goes into another heavy section, but much less weird and more mid-tempo. It gets into a bass section about the 3 minute mark, and then the guitars come back in about 3:30.

"Chinese Whispers" starts out with some Pink Floyd-like weirdness, until about 0:25 where it gets into a hopping kind of beat. It starts breaking down about the 1 minute mark, and then goes into a section which blends the psychedelic weirdness with the mathcore stuff. Another breakdown comes about the 2 minute mark, and then goes into some really staccato stuff. About the 3 minute mark it goes into some quiet stuff, and then goes into a really great conclusion about the 3:15 mark, again really blending the melodic stuff with the mathcore in an innovative way. It seems they've shed the pop-punk that was present on Ire Works, but learned how to use it in their music instead of jumping back and forth between the mathcore and the pop-punk..

"I Wouldn't If You Didn't" comes next, and seems to be very heavy, very unusual, regular Dillinger kind of stuff. It goes really nuts about 1:20, and gets into some weird guitar solo stuff with some pianos peeking in, then mellows out with some more piano. About 2:20 it goes into a cool section, piano and drum-based with guitar counterpoint. At 2:50 they start moving into the conclusion, and a little after the 3 minute mark it goes really heavy again, and then closes on a scream.

Finally, "Parasitic Twins" is next, which starts out on a Dillinger-meets-Dimmu Borgir kind of tone, again with some hints of NIN. It really reminds me how much Greg Puciato sounds like Trent Reznor. This track has some weird drumming on it. About 2:20 the guitars get really cool for a while, then the song mellows out again for a while. Is that a cello? The piano is definitely present on this one again. About 3:25 it goes into a really cool and unusual passage--even for these guys. A guitar solo breaks in about the 4 minute mark, keeping the dramatic but soft background, and then the album fades out.

The Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars, easily. Now, this is just my first impression, but I think The Dillinger Escape Plan has somehow managed to evolve by leaps and bounds yet again--something they have managed to do on at least three albums in a row now. This is definitely a great album, and probably the best metal album so far this year. It may manage to hold onto that title until the end of the year, although it looks like they will have to contend with Necrophagist, Nevermore, Dimmu Borgir, Soilwork, Volbeat, Death Angel, Cradle of Filth, Enslaved, and Danzig, who may have gotten his act back together in the last six years. Or at least I hope they'll have to contend with all those names as expected.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Eluveitie: Everything Remains As It Never Was (2010)

I picked up Eluveitie's latest, Everything Remains As It Never Was, and even though it's no Slania, it's still a great album.

These Swiss have what I consider the best approach to the folk metal genre of anyone out there: They combine the pipes and strings with melodic death metal. It's a perfect fit, never sounding gimmicky or awkward, but instead blending perfectly into a cohesive style.

The album both starts and ends on mellow acoustic tracks, and has a good distribution of good and great songs in between. As I said, the album is great, but it seems to be lacking that spark the band had two years ago. At its root, it seems the only problem is they haven't stepped out of their comfort zone, even having recorded the all-acoustic Evocation I: The Arcane Dominion a year earlier. Maybe the members need to explore other musical pursuits for a while and then come back--that strategy often works. They have recorded a new album in each of the last three years, and appear to be planning to release another one next year, so they may be burned out.

The Verdict: Despite their failure to innovate (beyond what they've done on previous albums), I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. The best tracks are the title track and "Quoth the Raven."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss (1982)

I recently read Helliconia Spring, part of the Helliconia Trilogy by Brian Aldiss. While the book did not win any of the major awards, it was in the running for the Nebula.

The story takes place mostly on the planet Helliconia, which orbits a rather weak sun, Batalix, which provides little heat and light. Batalix in turn orbits Freyr, a much larger and hotter sun. The orbit of Batalix around Freyr (a "Great Year") takes about 2500 Earth years, and at some points Batalix and Helliconia are closer to Freyr than others. Consequently, the climate of the planet undergoes stark change from centuries of extreme cold to centuries of extreme heat.

The planet is populated by both humans and some wampa-like creatures called phagors, along with several species of subhumans and both plants and animals of remarkable biologies necessitated by the harshly varying conditions of the planet. Aldiss went so far in exploring his premise that he even considered the microbiology of the planet.

Helliconia Spring begins in extreme cold, following a character who moves from a nomadic and extremely difficult solitary lifestyle, to living in an underground society, to finally joining an established surface settlement and becoming their leader. He is the most interesting character in the book, his experiences making him a uniquely capable person.

Sadly, the book drops him about a third of the way through and picks up several generations later. But at least it picks up on another interesting character. The settlement soon experiences the onset of the spring of the Great Year, the ensuing changes in their environment and the creatures inhabiting it, and new challenges brought on by these developments. This arc of the book has many, many characters, but Aldiss somehow manages to present each of them as unique, and I don't ever recall being confused about who was whom. Most of these characters are by necessity flat characters, but enough of them are developed well so as to make them seem human.

I do have two complaints about the book, but very minor ones. First, Aldiss included some history of Earth and a space station orbiting and observing the planet, but the people of Earth and the space station do not affect the events of the story. I am, however, already in the middle of the second book, Helliconia Summer, and am beginning to see that they do affect events later in the series--so this fault is forgiven completely. Second, I found two contradictions in the book. Earlier in the book, a creature called a "stungebag" is characterized as "proverbially difficult to kill," as in, they have a saying something like, "It was tougher than killing a stungebag." Later in the book, they are characterized as easy to kill. The other contradiction is that earlier in the book a phagor would only use his horns as a weapon on another phagor and never a human, but that turns out to be untrue as well. However, the contradictions did not affect the story other than being a minor annoyance.

The Verdict: The characters are compelling, the setting is scientifically plausible (as far as I can tell) and very interesting, and the plot is complex, being driven by independent forces of both people and climate. Despite the very minor problems, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spelling Bee

Fourteen years ago today, I won the Pierce County spelling bee, held at Zion Lutheran Church and School in Plainview, Nebraska. Look at that little nerd there. Isn't he cute? I'm referring, of course, to the nerdy little bee on the top of the trophy, not me . . . . Anyway, I think my name is probably still on a plaque at my old school.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Top 50 Albums of the Last Decade: Recap

Now that I've concluded my list of The Top 50 Metal Albums of the 2000's, I thought I'd provide a bit of a summary. It really was a great decade for metal, seeing the increasing cross-genre mutations as well as the development of new genres.

I suppose many of you are wondering why I didn't call it the top 30 metal albums of the last decade. The explanation that I want you to add your picks is only part of the story. I also thought people would search for a top 50 list a lot more than a top 30 list. I suppose I could have called it the top 100 metal albums of the decade, or the 75 best metal albums of the 2000s, or the top 40 metal albums of the last 10 years. And now people Googling any of those will find this, eventually.

For those who like to keep score, here are the points based on band home country:

Denmark: 3
Finland: 1
France: 2
Germany: 2
Norway: 1
Sweden: 7
U.S.A.: 14

For me, it's not surprising that Sweden, Denmark, and the U.S. are so well-represented on the list. You would expect most of it to come from Scandinavia and the U.S. What is surprising is that France made the list at all--let alone twice. If you would have predicted two great metal bands to come out of France ten years ago, I would have laughed at you. I'm also a bit surprised Finland and Norway didn't have stronger showings. I'm not sure whether that means the U.S. is overrepresented, or if Sweden is, or if both are, but it is puzzling.

Here is the score by record label:

Century Media: 2
Elektra: 1
Epic: 1
Firebox: 1
InsideOut: 1
Ipecac: 1
Listenable: 1
Metal Blade: 4
Metal Mind: 1
Music for Nations: 1
Nuclear Blast: 5
Rebel Monster: 1
Relapse: 5
Roadrunner: 2
Season of Mist: 1
Warner Bros.: 2

It's definitely no surprise that Nuclear Blast and Relapse dominate, being the two finest independent metal labels around. Metal Blade would have been my guess for third-best showing as well. I'm also unsurprised by the fact there was a moderate showing by the major labels, since they tend to pick up some of the greats. So, truly, no surprises whatsoever when you look at it by record label.

And, here is the score by primary genre (which is often open to interpretation):

Black metal: 1
Death metal: 8
Doom metal: 2
Groove metal: 1
Pure heavy metal: 3
Metalcore: 1
Nu-metal: 2
Post-metal: 1
Progressive metal: 5
Sludge metal: 2
Symphonic metal: 1
Thrash metal: 3

Death metal clearly dominates. I would expect this, because it's such a rich genre with many subgenres. If you want to break it down further, 2 are melodic death and 4 are technical death, the latter of which may be a bit over-represented. What is notably absent from the list is power metal, which is not one of my favorites (although I do like some of it), and this is why I invite you to add your picks in the comments to each post. I definitely think black metal is underrepresented as well, and after I realized this I started picking up a lot more of it--so the next time I come up with a list, it should be much better represented.

Check out the whole list and add your favorites here.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007)

I recently watched Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, a film which is most definitely for fans of the T.V. series and not for anyone else.

It is an amusing movie, with one of the nonsensical plots the series is known for, centering around a futuristic exercise machine threatens the city and the world. Prophesies are provided by the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future, who plots with the Plutonians against the Aqua Teens. Carl, Dr. Weird, Steve, MC Pee Pants, and the Mooninites also feature prominently in the movie, and you also get a glimpse into the origin of the Aqua Teens, which of course makes no sense at all.

Aside from the humor, the movie also features a little bit of good music, notably an appearance by the amazing Mastodon (also as food, like the Aqua Teens), who perform "Cut you Up With a Linoleum Knife." The Wikipedia article describes it this way:
The movie begins with a song by an animated quartet consisting of a bag of popcorn, a hot dog, a chocolate Popsicle and a cup of soda encouraging viewers, in a parody of the 1953 short film Let's All Go to the Lobby, to buy food from the concession stand, only to be interrupted by heavy metal band Mastodon—with Troy Sanders animated as a gum drop, Bill Kelliher as a pretzel, Brent Hinds as a box of Ice Caps, and Brann Dailor as a box of nachos—who warn the audience that bad movie etiquette will result in severe bodily harm or death.

In all, I have to give it only 2 out of 5 stars, and the reason is this kind of humor works well only in 15 minute increments, not over the course of nearly an hour and a half.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Top 50 Albums of the Last Decade: 2009

Once again, the ground rules: each band can only be on the list once. Each year is allotted five albums, i.e., 5 for 2000, 5 for 2001, and so on. I do not attempt to rank them from 1 to 50, or even 1 to 5 within a year, because they are all excellent. Ranking them would be a pointless endeavor.

Also, instead of filling out all 50 slots, I actually have only picked 3 for each year, because, as I learned with my last top X list, I don't know everything about metal (though I do know a lot more than I did then). I probably am unaware of at least two other great metal albums in each of these years, and I want to encourage you to add the rest by commenting.

Now, the moment you've all been waiting for, the top list for 2009.

Artillery: When Death Comes

Danish thrash metal veterans Artillery showed nothing but pure genius on this, their first new album in ten years. Allmusic's Phil Freeman has this to say:
On this disc, the band's core -- the guitar-playing Stytzer brothers, Michael and Morten -- remain, but longtime vocalist Flemming Rönsdorf has been replaced by Søren Nico Adamsen, a change that had some of the band's longtime fans worried. Fortunately, he's a terrific addition to the group, a mid-range singer (neither a growler nor a Rob Halford-esque shrieker) who may remind some of former Anthrax vocalist Joey Belladonna, especially when the group's thrash riffing becomes particularly '80s-esque. Which it does quite a bit. Artillery is not a band that's changed with the times -- they're still doing exactly what they did at the beginning of their career. . . . One of the best things about When Death Comes, though, is the powerful production and mixing; every instrument is clear and thunderous, especially Peter Thorslund's bass. This is a quality disc recommended to any metalhead, not just thrash diehards.
I think he puts it pretty well. Top tracks include the title track, "10,000 Devils," and "The End."

Eryn Non Dae: Hydra Lernaia

These guys are so completely unknown, as I write this, that they don't even have a Wikipedia article, so you may have to check their web site to learn more. The music is difficult to categorize: It's sort of a progressive post-deathcore, evoking comparisons to the likes of Meshuggah, Neurosis, and Eryn Non Dae's countrymen Gojira. It's an extremely bass-heavy, brutal, and experimental album, both original and excellent. Metal Blade found something extremely special with this group. This is what the label's web site has to say about the album:
As per its mythological definition - the mythical nine-headed serpent, slain by Hercules, that grew two heads in place of each one that was cut off, unless the wound was cauterized - Hydra Lernaia explores nine human feelings as many-sided problems that present new difficulties each time one aspect of them seems to be solved or overcome. Each song is a feeling; each feeling is an incurable disease that tortures the heart of man.
My favorite tracks include "Existence Asleep" and "Pure."

Baroness: Blue Record

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, the 2000's saw the rise of sludge metal, due in no small part to the success of Mastodon. And after Mastodon, fellow progressive sludge metal band Baroness is the band on everyone's short list. At times they sound like Black Sabbath, at other times Thin Lizzy, and still at others Mastodon, but always with their own unique take and in a coherent style. Coherence throughout the album is something that's often thrown by the wayside in the days of single-song downloads, but these guys haven't forgotten how to make a true album. The numerous interludes help the whole thing flow together, often incorporating elements from the prior song which are then followed up in the next, until finally the last track (a reworking of the first track) brings the whole thing to a thoughtful and fully-explored ending. While some groups get a lot of hype without deserving it, Baroness has earned the hype. See especially "Swollen and Halo," a psychedelic metal triumph.

That just about does it for the list--except, as I noted, I've only picked 30 out of the top 50 metal albums for the decade. Be sure to add your picks for the remaining two in the comments to each decade. You can see the whole list by clicking here. I will follow up next Friday with a recap.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Star Trek and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

In recent weeks, I've watched both G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Star Trek. Both of them are 2009 sci-fi/action films, and both are revivals/updates of successful franchises. And my thoughts on both of them are very similar, so I'll review them together.

Both films do an excellent job of updating the franchises to present them to a wider audience. And they've avoided the worst pitfalls of the absolutely terrible Transformers (a 1 star movie), i.e., neither one of these films puts a lot of goofy crap into it, and neither one stars Shia LaBeouf. The action in these movies is interesting, and the characters are at least somewhat believable.

However, they both suffer from one major pitfall: They both do too much to court long-time fans of the franchises. I understand this is good business. But they simply cram way too much of their respective mythologies into too short a time frame. Why couldn't they take a cue from the re-started Batman franchise, and let the movie itself come before the expectations of fans? In that franchise, they are allowing the mythology to gradually re-develop, the way it developed in the first place. The technique was successful there, among new and existing fans, so there's no reason it couldn't have worked on these two movies.

Now, on to the movies individually. I've been a fan of the G.I. Joe franchise since a very young age. The movie was a little less believable, and I didn't much care for the main characters Duke and Ripcord, although I liked the other characters. I wish they would have kept all of the love triangle crap out of it, too. But it was still entertaining, and since I'm a fan of the franchise, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and a 3 out of 5 star rating.

As for Star Trek, I'm not really a big fan of the franchise, although most of the movies have been pretty good (as opposed to the T.V. series). The Kirk character was a little over-the-top, but I suppose that could be ascribed to his youth. I was very impressed with the way they "rebooted" the franchise, discarding continuity problems without discarding continuity itself. It is definitely a better movie than Rise, so I give it 4 out of 5 stars.