Thursday, December 29, 2011

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman Book Review

The World Without UsI've wondered at many points in time what it would be like when humans no longer populate this earth. Usually these thoughts venture into the sci-fi doomsday scenarios that play out in so many bad B-movies, but at times I truly wondered what it would be like, here on Earth, if man suddenly disappeared. As a kid, working in the fields as a farmhand, I saw a piece of garbage half buried in the dirt, maybe a Doritos bag or other plastic sack and think nothing of it... until I was in the same field a year or two later and noticed the exact same piece of garbage--it was still there, 100% intact, after a couple of years of weathering the elements. This was really the first time I realized the human impact on this world will last so much longer than our species ever will.

Weisman runs with the premise of exploring our world after humans were to vacate it and, despite it being a bit dry and clinical at points, it is a fascinating look at how there is really no way to make our impact disappear. What we've created, changed, and destroyed will not instantaneously change back to how nature made it. In fact, certain changes will last for millennium.

Knowing that we've had such an impact made this book a bit depressing to read. Obviously this wasn't the intention or tone of the writing, but as you read about the speculative individual cases, augmented by partial real-world examples, you're left with an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that we, as a species, don't really give much of a care to what we do to this planet in the long run.

I never really considered myself a staunch environmentalist. You won't see me tied to a tree or only using hemp-sewn reusable bags as I shop exclusively at local farmers' markets. I try to do my part by limiting the garbage I create, conserving water when I can, and treating my surroundings with respect... but that's not really what's doing the damage, or that would have the long-lasting impact on nature if we were whisked away tomorrow. No, it's the bigger things--nuclear power plants, the invention of polymers that do not decompose, the transplantation of species to new habitats... there's so much on a macro level that our species has changed it boggles the mind to actually think about it.

What's most disheartening is knowing that, for all intents and purposes, it's already too late to undo or counteract the changes we've made to this planet. When we eventually are not present, nature will have to deal with what our machinations have done to this planet. I think this is the most distressing point the book makes. For as many great achievements we have made as a species, we have made equally as many horrible changes to our planet and home.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Fair to Midland & Dead Letter Circus at the Varsity Theater

Middle of the week shows are rough for a working stiff like myself, but this was a show that even a 9 hour work day and pneumonia wasn't going to keep me away from. Dead Letter Circus and Fair to Midland were a touring combination that seemed perfect, and seeing as that they were playing the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis (a great venue if you get a chance to go) it made it a no brainer to attend.

The show started off on a real down note, however, with Throw the Fight. They were obviously the odd band out in the lineup and it showed. Their brand of basic, cliched radio-rock just didn’t fit in alongside 3 bands that were quite unique in how they approached music. For most of the set I was, frankly, bored and found myself urged to play Bejeweled on my iPhone instead of watching. It’s not that Throw the Fight are bad… they’re just so completely run-of-the-mill that you can see a band like them at any local college bar for free while out drinking with your crew.

Aficionado was a band I had not heard of before the day of the show. I gave a listen to a couple of the songs they had posted online and thought they were listenable from that quick interaction. Their performance was also very much… listenable. It was all a little too melodramatic for me and ended up reminding me a lot of a post-hardcore/indie, Dear Hunter-esque band complete with a flautist and female vocalist to complement the lead male vocalist. A few songs I really got into, but as I said, it was all a bit too art-school for me.

As much as I love Fair to Midland, I’m not afraid to admit that the band I was most looking forward to seeing was Dead Letter Circus. Their album This Is the Warning was one of my top 10 albums of 2010 and I still revisit it constantly. Their set did not disappoint, although it wasn’t without its minor issues, most of which I don’t think were their problem. For the first couple of songs, the mix didn’t feel quite right—the guitars were really low in the mix, the backup vocal mics were basically inaudible, and the general sound was flat. Eventually things evened out, but it was a rough couple of songs to start.
Dead Letter Circus
What was surprising to me was that they played a number of songs from their debut self-titled EP along with cuts from their full length. It was a real treat for a long time fan such as myself to hear them perform “The Mile” and “Lines,” two songs I instantly latched onto the first time I heard them years ago. Couple that with key tracks from This Is the Warning,such as “One Step,” “Next in Line,” and “Cage,” and they had a setlist that didn’t have a weak moment. The performance was tight, and I was especially impressed with the rhythm section. Listening to their recorded work you get a sense that the rhythm section is important to the band, but in a live environment they steal the show on numerous occasions. I think it comes down to the rapid-fire bass lines which, in a few of their songs, actually give the band the sound by which they're recognized. Despite the odd mixing issues at the beginning of the set, Dead Letter Circus put on a heck of a performance.

Before I even start talking about Fair to Midland’s set, you need to know one thing… they are a ball of crazy when they’re on stage. After the long intro to their set they ripped into “Whiskey and Ritalin,” complete with fuzzed out vocals, overly distorted guitars, and driving drums. The band comes across so much “heavier” live than any of their recorded material would lead you to believe they'd sound. Listening to songs like “Golden Parachutes” on Arrows & Anchors, you get a sense that Fair to Midland are on the heavier side of the rock spectrum, but live they would rival most current “scene” metal bands in terms of outright heaviness and aggression. The riffs in their songs translate perfectly into huge, pummeling, audible fists that attack your ears (and body as well) throughout the show. Now… this having been said… you can only imagine the pandemonium and chaos that the songs “Rikki Tikki Tavi” and “Dance of the Manatee” instill. Darroh Sudderth is, quite simply, a man possessed on stage. He never stands still and even though he is all over the place, he doesn’t let it affect his performance. And rest assured, when he lets out the pro-wrestler voice, it’s uncompromisingly awesome.

Fair to Midland
I was extremely impressed by Fair to Midland’s performance, partially because it was so unexpected, and partially because it was simply so damn entertaining. So many bands are content to just play their songs, yell at the crowd, and hop around a bit… but Fair to Midland is the real deal. It’s not often I get to see bands that really give a real performance, so this was a definite treat.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

People Still Go to Stores to Shop?

The last couple of days I've gotten and oddly perverse sense of satisfaction in seeing Best Buy fall on their face yet again, this time by not fulfilling orders placed a month ago and only letting their customers know about it now. No doubt most of the items were Christmas gifts so now people are left in the lurch to scramble for something at the last minute. And with times as tough as they are for many, people have been pinching every last penny that they can so now if they want to get the same item they'll have to pony up extra money and will be forced to buy it at a brick & mortar shop instead of ordering online because, well, there's just not enough time to get stuff shipped out before Christmas. This is going to be a PR nightmare and could be the final straw that pushes people not only away from Best Buy but from the online outlet of other brick & mortar retailers.

I long ago gave up on Best Buy after numerous headaches that they put me through. At times, I thought they were making it their mission to make people's lives as headache-ridden as possible. I also gave up on the whole Black Friday shopping madness that has become so much more ridiculous than I ever would have expected in the last couple of years.

It really baffles me that people will "use" (I hesitate to use the word "waste") so much of their time to line up and wait outside of a store to save a few more bucks on something than if they bought it elsewhere or online, and then they're not always guaranteed to get what they want. And since people are doing everything they can to save a buck the chaos at stores, as seen through too many a YouTube clip, is becoming unmanageable no matter how stores try to curb the nutso environment that minimal savings bring out in people.

Maybe I've started looking at things a little too logically, but my time is worth more than the few dollars I'll save on a bottom-of-the-line LCD TV or some Blurays of movies I've already seen. I'd rather pay the extra few bucks it might cost me to get them non-Black Friday and save myself the insanity of Black Friday shopping.

But what happened with Best Buy this time around wasn't with their in store purchases from Black Friday--it was in regards to their online sales, confirmed online sales to boot. It's not like people ordered something, got a confirmation of the order's completion, and then received a cancellation shortly thereafter--it was a month later. I've had situations where I've bought something online during a crazy sale and got an email after my "purchase" stating they're out of stock or that there were more orders than they could fill. I have no problem with that. This was a month later, though...

...and to kick people in the junk while they're down, many of the items being "cancelled" are readily available for purchase online right now at for their regular price. So it looks even more like a retailer is just trying to screw over their customers, eroding any potential loyalty they may have left.

I know I'm rambling, but it's crap like this that has ultimately pushed me to do all of my shopping nearly exclusively through Amazon. I have yet to be let down price-wise, service-wise, or communication-wise by them. And with Amazon Prime, nearly everything I order arrives 2 days later at my doorstep. I'm amazed that Amazon hasn't put the likes of Best Buy completely out of business by this point.

Anyhow, I guess what I'm trying to say is, "Shame on you, Best Buy. I hope you do your damnedest to make it right with the customers you screwed..." and that I'm ultimately, I'm plugging Amazon because they've been everything that a retailer should be.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

As I Lay Dying: A Decade of Destruction Concert Review

It seems like a ritual at this point—As I Lay Dying stops through Minnesota and I’m there, along with Jared Mehle, who took some amazing photos during the show. As I Lay Dying are one of the few bands that I never miss when they come through the area. So, another year, another As I Lay Dying show, and another great performance to write about. This year they were on tour celebrating their decade of existence and promoting their new “album” Decas. I use quotes since it only has 3 new songs and the rest of the material on the album is covers and remixes, none of which really held my attention, but that’s a conversation for a different place. Coming along with As I Lay Dying were an odd combination of bands—Sylosis, Iwrestledabearonce, The Ghost Inside, and Of Mice & Men.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
Unfortunately, since this was an all ages show that started at 5 pm at First Avenue I didn’t get there in time to see Sylosis. Even more unfortunate was that I did make it in time to see Iwrestledabearonce. I’ve seen a lot of bad performances and terrible bands over the last decade, so it would take a lot for me to really hate on a band, but Iwrestledabearonce easily notched their way into the top five worst bands I’ve ever seen. They’re beyond frustrating because they have talent, but they actively choose not to use it and instead all they do is dick around, play stupid “funny” songs, and utilize the worst aspects of what’s hot in today's trends. They make use of unneeded bass drops, noodle around aimlessly, have a female lead singer who screeches uncontrollably, play portions of covers (notably the Inspector Gadget theme song), and ultimately just screw around. I have a hard time seeing how anyone can give half a shit about this band, but apparently they’ve managed to trick enough kids into thinking they’re somehow worth listening to. Sad.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
Cleansing my palette of the filthy taste Iwrestledabearonce left in it, The Ghost Inside came out and threw down. This is the second time I’ve seen these guys, and they have an amazing amount of energy throughout every song they play. Mixing material from both of their albums, they kept their foot on the throttle for their entire set, doing their best to get a somewhat apathetic crowd moving. It’s captivating seeing a band ooze aggression as they play. If you’re going to play metalcore, a naturally angry and abrasive genre, you should look and play angry. If you don’t know how to do this, go watch The Ghost Inside. They’ve got it nailed.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
Taking the stage right before the main event, Of Mice & Men showed that they had quite a following here in Minnesota, which I didn’t expect at all. Of Mice & Men play a standard Rise Records style of trendy metalcore with clean choruses to sing along to between harsh verses with breakdowns tossed in here and there to show how “heavy” they are. I’m really over the whole Rise sound, but Of Mice & Men executed their take on it adequately and they kept the crowd in it. It’s always a little odd seeing a bunch of 120 pound kids on stage trying to be tough, but they played their roles well enough. There’s nothing that made Of Mice & Men stand out from the myriads of other cookie-cutter metalcore bands out there, either good or bad, so all I can really say is that they did a decent job of playing to their fans in the crowd while keeping everyone else relatively entertained.

Since this was an all ages show and Of Mice & Men took their sweet time getting set up, As I Lay Dying’s set had to be scrunched right into about 55 minutes in order to meet curfew. They took the stage and kicked right into “The Sound of Truth,” getting the crowd riled up and ready. This worked great as an opening song as it combines everything the band does well—aggressive verses, sing-a-long choruses, solid progressions, and a couple of great solos. They then moved into “Upside Down Kingdom,” which is the first time I’ve seen them play this song. Of their entire set, it was the only song that felt a bit out of place. I suppose that it works fine as a follow up to the opening track because of the uptempo pace and breakdowns throughout the verses, but if one song could be axed from their set, this would be it.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
The remainder of their set consisted of an even sampling from their discography—“The Darkest Nights,” “Through Struggle,” and “Confined” (their closer) from Shadows Are Security, “Anodyne Sea”, “Parallels,” and “Condemned” from The Powerless Rise, “Nothing Left” and the title track from An Ocean Between Us, and then the classics “94 Hours” and “Forever” from Frail Words Collapse. They also played “Paralyzed” from Decas, which was fun to hear and is easily the best track on the album. And let’s also not forget the obligatory drum solo that Jordan Mancino performs 3/4 through the set.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
As with every As I Lay Dying show, the entire band has great stage presence and is energetic throughout the show. There’s no denying the talent that each of the band members possesses as their performances are always tight and controlled. All in all they’re at the top of their game… well, except for one weak spot that I tend to notice each time I see them. As great as Tim Lambesis’ vocals are on As I Lay Dying’s albums, I often find that his live vocals don’t quite have the “oomph” or fullness I’d expect. This is a relatively minor complaint, but is something I consistently notice during their performances.

There’s a reason As I Lay Dying have been around for a decade—they’re great at what they do. I have yet to attend one of their concerts and be disappointed, this stop being no exception. They captivated the crowd, had everyone nodding along, and showed why they're one of the top tier talents in the genre. If you get a chance to catch them when they come through your town, it’s definitely worth the money.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Week in the Sun

Before last week's vacation to Mexico, I had a hard time remembering when my last long, relaxing trip was. Turns out it was more than 3 years ago and attached to the end of a work trip to Europe. Before that... it was even longer. So, needless to say, I haven't had a ton of vacations the past half decade. I am very much a creature of habit, so not having vacations usually isn't a big deal for me, but having taken a week to relax in the sun of Playa del Carmen last week... man, it was much needed.

This vacation was actually the long overdue honeymoon of my wife and myself. We didn't get to take it right after our wedding because we were pretty busy at the time with my job being hectic, my wife switching jobs, and us having a lot of other commitments to attend to. As time went on, we thought about honeymooning, but as we saved for it, we instead took the plunge on buying our current home, so that sapped the honeymoon fund and added other tasks for us to do. Nearly two years after being married, however, we finally got around to it. I'm glad that Kristi took the initiative, researched vacations, and got everything organized. All I had to do was pack, hop on the plane, and enjoy. She was the travel organizing machine!

We spent our vacation at the Riu Palace in Playa del Carmen, a bit south of Cancun.  It was an all inclusive resort, which is the best way to do a relaxing vacation. You don't have to worry about budgeting for food, for drinks, for activities, for travel, and for all of the other things that may come up. You pay once, up front, and then you just go, kick back, and enjoy yourself. It really is the best way to go.

Before vacation I was battling a really strong cold & flu, so I was worried about being sick while in Mexico, but just getting to the beach and warm weather helped me kick the majority of whatever I had and let me fight it in the best environment possible--laying out on the beach under a palm tree with a drink in hand. Usually I'm pretty ADHD and can't sit still, but the combination of the laid back environment and having some of my energy sapped to fight off the plague actually set me into the perfect state of being to take in the slowed down, relaxing nature of our trip.

As much as I tend to think I don't need vacations and as much as I complain about the process of traveling, it was definitely a great trip and we had a wonderful time. It was tough coming back to Minnesota where we had snow and below freezing temperatures, but I think it helped me appreciate the climate we were just in even more!

If interested, I've posted the photos from our trip. There's not a ton as we were mostly focused on kicking back, but I couldn't keep from taking at least a few pictures of the great environment we were in.  I wonder if a palm tree will survive in our back yard...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Heeding Musicurious' Call for Submissions!

My friend, Zach, is trying to put together an anthology where writers find a song they have a particular attachment to and write a response of some sort, whether it be the feelings it conjures up, another verse to song, or a direct response (more information on the project is at Zach's site, Musicurious). I didn't have a lot of time, unfortunately, to really think about this, but I did get something to him before his deadline. I'm not happy with it (who really ever is happy with what they write?), but it is what it is.

Hands - "The Helix"

I am not alone.
Would you clear the dust from my eyes?
Would you recognize my voice if I should talk to you?
Oh, I feel so tired.
So wake me up.
I believe your hands hold the sun.
But in the deepest of my mind, I question everything you've done.
Give me rest.
I believe your breath fills my lungs.
But it's a thought that's hard to swallow, I feel ashamed I can't hold on.
Give me rest.
I will take your hand.
Just lead me through the dark.
I will take your hand.
Don't ever let me go.
"Be still and know that I am God."

Rick Gebhardt - "Someday"

In 100 years, I won't be here. 50 years ago, I wasn't here. But right now... right now I'm here. That's a sentiment with a very finite, extremely limited lifespan, at least in regards to my saying it. Death comes for us all--this we all know. We feel it, we deny it, we rationalize it, we ignore it, we fear it, and we try to accept it. Realizing that you have an expiration date... when you first truly swallow that fact... is scarring. You may argue that you lose your innocence the first time you have sex or the first time you willingly do something hurtful or the first time you understand that the world is imperfect, but you truly lose your innocence when you realize you don't get to be here forever. You will die. It's a thought that haunts, that drives, that depresses, and that guides. Seeing someone gasp their last breath sears you. Even surrounded by friends, loved ones, and care-takers, death is faced alone. Or so our rational mind tells us. But if we rationally know this, why do we search for someone to be there with us ethereally? Why do we try to convince ourselves so assuredly that we don't simply end as our body stops? Why does the collective human experience seem to have a spiritual component that defines our existence? Are we simply that deluded, or is there something more beyond the rational? We all will face that moment of truth, alone as we blink out of existence... or with a god of some form as we move on to our next phase of life.

I don't want to face death alone. Who would? I don't want to cease to exist. Who would? I don't want to end. Who would? So... I believe. But I struggle daily to convince myself that I actually do.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

As I Fight For Life...

It's day 5 and there's been a minor setback. I sit here at my desk, simultaneously cold and sweaty, contemplating how long I'll last today. Things are bleak, but there's got to be an end at some point, right?  Maybe we should back up a bit and set the stage. It wasn't always like this. Less than a week ago everything was as normal as could be expected...

After a nice Thanksgiving day with my parents and brothers visiting, I woke up Friday morning feeling a little out of sorts. It's happened before when I gorge on pizza and sweets, so I didn't think anything of it, but it was the start of the war. There's no doubt about that now. My stomach was the first of many battlefields, many of which would see me losing.

...ok, creative writing 101 is done for the day. I had a nice complex war story to tell that would recount my current battle with flu and fever, but it's sapped even my will to write. I'm past the worst of it, I think.  At the moment I'm simply achy, dead tired, and headache-ridden, which is a much smaller subset of symptoms than what I was punished with over the Thanksgiving holiday break.

I honestly thought I was maybe just coming down with a slight cold, until I laid down on our couch late-afternoon on Friday and then didn't really remember much of anything that happened until Saturday morning at 10:30 am when my wife woke me up wondering what had ravaged me. I was disheveled, pale, sweating profusely (my clothes were like sopping wet dish rags), feeling cold, and had a temperature a few degrees higher than normal.

It's weird being in a state where everything feels foggy, memories are only sort of there, and you know you had conversations but don't remember how they went or sometimes what they were even about. It's rare for me to get sick, especially really sick, so this is such an odd feeling. I'm glad I'm out of that fevered state where my body was obviously in the throes of fighting some invader, but the continued grogginess and headache is still annoying (and I still have the occasional sweats).

I mistakenly thought I was well enough to play in my volleyball league last night, even though I needed to take a nap for a couple of hours after work just to have the energy to go.  After the first few points of the game I was soaked with sweat, every muscle felt like it had just been put through a marathon, and my head was foggy.  I'm surprised I made it through the entire game.

So it's another day of pushing through. I know I'm whining about being sick. Everyone gets sick, but it's not something I experience very often so when I do it seems like I usually get the worst of the worst in symptoms. Now I need to go get another pot of coffee, take some more Exedrin, and try to force myself to focus.  Only 8-ish hours to go...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Rick's Discoveries Volume XII

As I look over the contents of this installment of my Discoveries series, there is quite a wide array of genres covered. This is one of the more scattershot lists in some time, containing everything from hip-hop to djent to classical to modern rock to post-hardcore to post-rock. I chalk this up to my being extra ADHD lately, as I constantly needed to mix up genres and try out different bands from across the musical spectrum. You might not enjoy all of these picks, but there should at least be one or two that interest you.

Elitist – Earth

This EP is frustratingly short... but unbelievably promising. It’s 7 tracks, but 3 are instrumental versions of the 3 actual songs, and the intro doesn’t really count. Elitist is extremely appealing because of the way that they are able to blend technical metalcore (a la After the Burial) with electronics and djent leanings (a la Periphery). It should also be noted that Earth is a hefty step up from Elitist’s first EP, Caves, and if they can maintain their meteoric ascent, their next effort will be unstoppable.

I’ve recently fallen in love with the show Community, whose breakout stars (in my opinion) are Danny Pudi and Donald Glover. I also recently found out that Glover has an alternate hip-hop persona in Childish Gambino (I know, I'm late to the game), so I figured I’d check it out, and I am so glad that I did. This is probably one of the most surprising hip-hop albums I’ve heard this year, mostly because of the diversity on display. Glover is all over the place, both musically and lyrically. There’s hints of Mos Def, Kid Cudi, Drake, Kno, and even some Dessa (in the mix of smooth instrumentation and singing between verses) throughout this album. The lyrics are cocky, unsure, pop-culture-laden, aggressive, passionate, and conscientious making for quite a compelling listen. I know I need some more time with this album, but it may be one of the best hip-hop efforts of the year.

Autumn – Cold Comfort

You like The Gathering, right? If so, then go get Cold Comfort. Simple as that. Autumn’s latest is extremely reminiscent of mid-to-late career The Gathering with their liberal use of mid-tempo song structures, strong female vocals (courtesy of Marjan Welman), and progressive rock leanings. That description should tell you exactly whether or not you’re going to be into this album or not. If you are, then you’re also in luck that Autumn has a rich discography of 4 albums prior to this one that you can also explore.

The Dreaming – Puppet

For a not insignificant amount of time, I was completely obsessed with everything Stabbing Westward had written. When they called it quits in 2002 I was very dismayed, but lead singer Christopher Hall is still making music today with his band The Dreaming. After putting out Etched in Blood in 2008, they’re back with Puppet which can best be thought of as a modern rock version of Stabbing Westward. Hall’s vocals are still center stage, but instead of industrialized rock backing him up, The Dreaming are quite content to play modern hard rock with some slight electronic flourishes here and there. This album isn’t treading onto any new ground, but for those looking for good modern rock or that miss Stabbing Westward, it’ll do.

The Even Tide – Inevitable Collapse

Following in the modern hard rock theme, I present to you The Even Tide. Inevitable Collapse is a great mix of modern hard rock combined with the melodic aspects of many current post-hardcore bands. Think of the clean choruses and sung verses of your favorite Rise Records bands (such asDecoder, Sleeping with Sirens, and Emarosa) and instead of going to the metalcore realm of breakdowns and screamed vocals, The Even Tide channel straight up rock similar to Anberlin or 10 Years. It’s a great change of pace from the usual post-hardcore template being used by altogether too many bands nowadays.

Pianos Become the Teeth – The Lack Long After

My initial thought when listening to The Lack Long After was, “Wow, this is like a much more listenable version of Envy with better vocals!” I realize I’m going to get killed by Envy fans for saying that, but I think the comparison is apt. You can also hear pieces of La Dispute and early Thursdaythroughout the album’s strong screamo attack. And, kids, this is what “screamo” actually sounds like, not like all the trendy post-hardcore crap being bandied about nowadays.

Fading Waves – The Sense of Space

This 40 minute EP feels like a fully realized album to me. Fading Waves is a one man band made up solely of Russian Alexey Maximuk. Throughout the course of the five tracks on this EP, you’ll be pushed, pummeled, and caressed by the band’s combination of post-metal and atmospheric post-rock. Yes, this sounds like an overused description and the band does play similarly to Isis, Russian Circles, and Pelican, but after having listened to the slab of boredom that was the most recent Russian Circles effort, The Sense of Space filled the gap it left. And, truth be told, this EP can stand up on its own simply on the strength of the epic track “Destroying the Time,” which is one of the better post-metal tracks I’ve heard this year, complete with a heavy wall of sound, aggressive male growls, and ethereal female vocals. Keep your eyes on this band.

Drawing the Endless Shore – Don’t Despair

Looking at the bandcamp page for Drawing the Endless Shore, I see genres such as post-rock, ambient, and trip-hop listed. I’ve had bad experiences when those have been mixed in the past, but Don’t Despair is quite different. There are elements of all three of those genres present, but their compilation together into what constitutes this album is much more than the sum of those parts. Imagine a slightly more mellow God Is an Astronaut if you will, combined with some elements of From Monument to Masses and healthy keyboard usage. What this creates is a laid back, yet engaging, album that traverses a healthy portion of your emotional spectrum.

Heart in Hand – Only Memories

Lately I’ve had a hard time finding metalcore that I truly enjoy. Yes, there are lots of competent bands, but they’re all interchangeable and I have a hard time connecting with them. However, with Heart in Hand I did make that connection. Their ability to take punishing breakdowns and meld them onto a mix of Misery Signals and It Prevails styled metalcore is not exactly unique, but they do it so damn well. There’s also some peppering of melodic hardcore (a la Comeback Kid) throughout the album that keeps the pacing and flow interesting. If you’re still craving solid metalcore, this is a band to check out.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra – The Greatest Video Game Music

Yes, I admit that this seems like an odd pick, but if you’re a video game fan, you’re going to absolutely love this album. Similar to the Video Games Live series put together by Jack Wall, this is an album of video game themes given the classical music treatment, which isn’t anything new, but when you have the London Philharmonic Orchestra performing the songs, the execution is perfect. You get some classics like the Tetris theme, a suite from The Legend of Zelda, the Super Mario Bros theme, and Final Fantasy’s theme, but you’ll also hear some newer video game themes that are equally as engaging and recognizable, such as themes from Halo 3, Uncharted, Angry Birds, Mass Effect, and Bioshock.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Statistically Speaking, These Are My Favorites

Over at Decoy Music there was a lot of discussion around what people's favorite albums of all time were. I mulled it over a bit in my head and couldn't really think of a list of 10 albums that I would have to choose as my all time favorites. My tastes are always changing, I love discovering new music, and honestly I don't think I would choose the same 10 albums tomorrow that I would choose today. So instead of thinking hard about it, I went to visit my profile to see what artists I've listened to the most since I started tracking my habits many years ago. Consider me quite surprised by some of the entries...

1. Nine Inch Nails

I was pretty obsessed with NIN from college onward. Everything that Trent Reznor has put out I've found myself drawn to it, so this isn't too surprising to see NIN in my top 10 of all time, however, it being my #1 entry is a bit surprising since I haven't actively listened to NIN in a couple of years. Apparently I racked up quite a few listens during college and directly after college.

2. In Flames

This really surprised me. I enjoy In Flames, but I've never been overly obsessed with them in any way. I think they may have made it this high because of the number of albums they have. Considering I own their discography and rarely turn them off when they come up on random, it may have been a slow but sure accumulation of listens. What's interesting, at least to me, is that I enjoy their least critically well-received albums the most, so if you look at my individual track listen counts, you may question my ability to judge what a band's good material is.

3. Dream Theater

For a while I was extremely into Dream Theater because I was impressed with their technical abilities. Over time, however, I've found more and more that I don't "like" their music, but appreciate the talent they possess. Listening to a lot of their albums now, I don't find myself engaged by their music, which may explain why I've grown out of this band a bit, but there's no denying how devoted I was to everything this band did for a period of more than a few years. I've simply come to realize there is maybe a bit too much cheese in their music for my current tastes.

4. Katatonia

I honestly expected Katatonia to be #1 on my all time listens list, but they're only at #4 crazily enough. This is a band that I formed an immediate connection to when I first heard them and still am completely engrossed by the majority of their discography. I find myself still queueing up their music whenever I find myself in a melancholic mood and never seem to tire of their music. And, unlike the previous entries, I anxiously anticipate anything that the band may put out in the future.

5. As I Lay Dying

I'm pretty sure AILD have made it this high because I spin each of their albums a million times right after they drop until I get sick of them. I then move on and revisit them mostly when I'm working out since they produce some wonderful weightlifting soundtracks. And, for me, they've yet to put out a bad album so that definitely helps inflate their play count.

6. Porcupine Tree

Of my top 10, this is the band I have the least interest in currently. They're in my top 10 solely based upon an obsession I had with them for about a year where I sought out everything they'd ever written (and there's a LOT of albums in their discography) and listened to it, hoping to eat up every piece of the band's genius... but then I got burnt out on it and realized that a lot of what they wrote was quite boring and uninteresting. Yes, they have some stellar songs and albums I still appreciate, but I find myself lacking any type of engagement when a lot of their stuff comes up on random.

7. Buckethead

He's up here as high as he is based solely upon sheer volume of work. I've been fascinated by all of the various compositions Buckethead has put together over the years (I think I have about 20 albums of his when I check my Buckethead folder), mostly as I listen in awe to his mastery of the guitar. Sure, a lot of his stuff is just technical wizardry, but he also has a number of solid albums with some great songs.

8. Atmosphere

Atmosphere was my first introduction to Minneapolis area hip-hop and has remained my most listened to hip-hop artist. The varied styles on each of Atmosphere's albums has led to my continued fascination with the duo, but I should also note that most of the hip-hop artists in my library owe their placement there to Atmosphere. Before discovering their unique breed of hip-hop I was completely turned off by the genre. Now, I find myself eating up anything I can from Midwest hip-hop artists and conscientious hip-hop groups in general. It's likely that over time, Atmosphere will climb further up this list.

9. Soilwork

At about the same time I discovered In Flames, I discovered Soilwork. Truthfully, I feel like I've listened to Soilwork much more than In Flames, and maybe I have with it not getting tracked, so I find myself more connected to Soilwork.  Similar to In Flames, I find myself liking Soilwork's more accessible works as opposed to their critically acclaimed albums.  I also don't mind queuing up their albums from time to time, so I anticipate many more listens in the future.

10. Demon Hunter

I've listened to every one of their albums too many times to count, most of the time in my car, so those listens didn't get tracked by Even though the bands last couple of albums have been very weak, their first three albums are staples of my metal listening habits. Much like Katatonia, I had an initial connection to what the band wrote and continue to enjoy their music to this day.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Rick's Discoveries Volume XI

As you may have noticed in past articles, and as you’ll definitely see after reading this article, I’ve been fully sucked into the djent genre. I’ve been trying to listen to all of the bands I run across, regardless of genre, but I find myself gravitating towards anything djent related before hitting up other artists. I’m sure that I will eventually sour on the genre, but as it stands the sound is still interesting enough that I am completely on board with the genre. That being said, my Discoveries articles aren’t focused solely on one genre since, given my ADHD tendencies, I can’t listen to one style of music for an entire day. Just be warned that there might be a larger swath of djent coverage in the next few articles. With that having been said, enjoy 10 new albums that I think deserve your attention!

Future of the Party – Future of the Party

Sporting former members of Paulson and Houston Calls, I expected something completely different than what I got. Instead of pop-punk or indie, Future of the Party play synth-laden pop-rock that reminds me a lot of a weird combination of The Static Age (music-wise) and Holy Roman Empire(vocal-wise). The synths take center stage for sure, making this EP a danceable, fun listen, but the songs still have enough gravity to them so that they don’t sound like a pure party band. They’re a serious band, but you can’t help yourself as you start to nod along to each song. There’s a bright future for this band.

Redemption – This Mortal Coil

Progressive metal fans already know and love this band, but they have often criticized Redemption for being nothing more than clones of Dream Theater. That’s been a valid criticism since Redemption are extremely similar to them, especially to those not well versed in progressive metal. This Mortal Coil isn’t going to change that opinion, but it is the band’s strongest album yet. Again, the downfall with this band (similar to Dream Theateras well) is the cheesy lyrics and overall lackluster vocals. However, the band has some stellar riffs on this album, much more so than on past releases. I would kill for an instrumental version of this album, truthfully. And if you were as disappointed by the latest Dream Theater album as I was, this should fill the progressive metal void that you have.

Fit For a King – Descendants

It seems like it has been a few articles now since I’ve had a good metalcore band to recommend. No longer! Fit For a King blend together metalcore traits that could be found on releases from the likes of Gwen Stacy, Impending Doom, A Plea For Purging, or Memphis May Fire. There are destructively heavy movements, stretches of melodic vocals, space-y instrumentation, and aggression to spare. I think what I like best about this album is it doesn’t stray into the deathcore tropes so many metalcore bands are falling into nowadays. This will make for a great weight-lifting soundtrack.

ForTiorI – Triton

Well, this will be the djent entry for this Discoveries article. I originally stumbled upon this guy (yep, this is another one-man djent band) because he did a cover of a Skrillex track. It was novel enough that I wanted to check out anything else he’d done, and he packed a lot into this album as it is around 90 minutes in length (in the digital age, you’re not confined to 80 minute albums any more), treading over all of the usual djent bases. Truth be told, the majority of the tracks are pretty basic djent, exploring all of the usual territory, but it’s executed quite well and kept me interested through most of the run time (it did drag at times… but it is 90 minutes long).

Spiralmountain – Blacksand

Ok… maybe I’ll have two djent entries. Spiralmountain, much like ForTiorI, stick to the usual djent template, but there is still a lot to like. Some songs are given space to utilize ambiance in structuring movements, while others are more focused on being industrialized jackhammers. It’s this variety that keeps the album from getting to boring or same-y feeling. If you are getting burnt out on instrumental djent, however, this isn’t going to do anything to bring you back into the fold. I’m still eating up every band trying the genre on for size, so you’ll probably see at least a few more djent entries in coming articles.

Friend For a Foe – Source of Isolation

How about a third djent-y album? This isn’t a straight up djent album, but it does have a few djent-ish moments here and there. The closest comparisons I can think of for Friend For a Foe would probably be to After the Burial or Born of Osiris but with a healthy dose of clean vocals to offset the well placed harsh vocals and some Periphery styled passages. Friend For a Foe might not be quite as technical as the aforementioned bands, but they have the same technical and mechanical approach, and they also manage to make stellar use of clean vocals and TesseracT like mellower sections. All in all, this band shows a ton of promise and could easily be a breakout artist if given the right push.

Jo Blankenburg – Vendetta

I’m again confronted with the same conundrum I was when trying to describe Thomas Bergersen… is there a genre of “movie trailer music”? All of the tracks on Vendetta are perfectly constructed to fit as 2-3 minute musical movements that could underscore any emotionally charged film trailer. The music doesn’t require a visual accompaniment to appreciate, however, so don’t think that’s what I’m driving at, but you can almost visualize what a trailer would look like set to each song on this album. The music is epic in scope, grandiosely composed, and is larger than life. Listening toVendetta as you go about your day can make everything you do seem life-altering and supremely important… even if it’s only brushing your teeth or making dinner.

Camo & Krooked – Cross the Line

And here’s your dubstep entry for this Discoveries article! I wasn’t very impressed by Camo & Krooked’s first album, Above & Beyond, but Cross the Line adds a lot to what they established on their previous album. This effort isn’t filled with epic drops or crazy wobbles, but they do keep it filthy. There’s a lot of drum n bass influence, along with some house and jungle, but for the majority of the album, you get some high quality dubstep that’s focused on solid song structuring instead of drops and wobbles which, let’s be honest, is getting a bit old.

Marionette ID – Alluvion

I’m not sure who I’m reminded of as I listen to Alluvion, but I’m constantly struck by the fact that this sounds so familiar… and so good. There’s pieces of Moving Mountains, hints of Engine Down, and maybe some Oddzar at times. It’s all quite an interesting combination of genres as there’s indie, post-rock, alt metal, and post-metal swirled around together with each other. Marionette ID effortlessly shift between the various genres they employ, keeping things engaging throughout the 7 tracks on this album, all of which are above the 5 minute mark.

Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

I feel like it has been a couple of articles since I’ve featured a hip-hop discovery, so here to rectify that is the full length debut from Kendrick Lamar.Section.80 gives you a glimpse into the dark, despairing world of the downtrodden and listless. Lamar uses his intriguing flow and lyric style to illustrate a number of dark topics, often times treading upon usual hip-hop topics such as drug use, banging chicks, and living the hard life, but instead of glorifying these topics or rapping about them simply to mention them, he brings them up in ways to show that in the darker, bleaker world he is writing from these are hazards of the day and things you slip into because there is nothing else for you. Despite some catchy choruses and upbeat sounding beats, this is actually a very dark conscious hip-hop record, so don’t expect a lot of bangers, but instead nimble explorations of modern ghetto life.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Blindside - With Shivering Hearts We Wait Album Review

This is the last of my un-blogged reviews that I wrote for Decoy Music. I haven't had a chance to write another full review since this one was published as I have focused more on my Discoveries article series, which allows me to cover more bands and expose them to people who otherwise might not have heard of them. It's nice to be able to cover bands that you know and that are established, since exploring their history, changes, and new directions is compelling, but I would much rather get out the word on bands or artists who haven't yet been discovered by the majority of people who visit Decoy Music or read this blog. Anyhow, this was originally published on May 10, 2011.

It’s been well over a decade since I discovered Blindside’s self titled album in high school. Blindside and A Thought Crushed My Mind were staples of my discman as I exited high school and entered college. I would spend countless hours in the gym listening to a combination of Project 86’s self titled album, Chevelle’s Point #1, P.O.D.'s The Fundamental Elements of Southtown, and Blindside’s A Thought Crushed My Mind. They were the fuel that kept me going day in and day out. Since I already had a strong affinity for Blindside, when Silence hit I loved it before I even listened to it, and after listening to it, I embraced it as the minor masterpiece it was in the post-hardcore genre. But then things started to fall apart… About a Burning Fire had a few stellar tracks, but for the most part I was heartbroken by it. Blindside had changed again, which wasn’t unexpected considering the changes they had gone through from album to album up to that point, but the changes weren’t where I had hoped the band would go. Knowing everyone makes mistakes and deserves a second chance, I gave them another one when The Great Depression came out the next year. That was a mistake. Gone was everything I had loved about the band. Gone was the connection I had made to them. Gone was everything I recognized. We had finally, tragically, grown so far apart that I packed up my Blindside CDs and moved on. I guess we had a good run while it lasted.

But now, just like running into a long forgotten ex-girlfriend unexpectedly, Blindside has resurfaced with With Shivering Hearts We Wait. It’s been six years and things have obviously changed for both of us, but why not try to get reacquainted? Enough time has passed so that it’s not awkward to see each other and just talk. As we discuss how our lives have been over a couple of coffees, I notice that Blindside took the time we’ve been apart to look at their full musical history. They talk a lot about how they had explored so much territory and all of it was essential for their growth, but in listening to With Shivering Hearts We Wait, it seems to me that instead of focusing on what their true identity was, they’ve tried to concoct an identity that is a melding of everything they’ve previously been at one time or another… well, minus the early anger and immaturity that we all grow out of. I had hoped that all of their explorations and experimenting would help them pick out their true voice, but instead it seems like they’ve forced themselves to be what everyone wants them to be, trying to please everyone, which only leaves them frazzled and disorganized at times.

Just like an ex-girlfriend, I also see some glimmers of what I used to love. “There Must Be Something in the Water” could easily have come from Blindside’s Silence days and “My Heart Escapes” is a beautiful example of some of the relatable lyricism that I remember so fondly. It makes me yearn for what we shared over 8 years ago, but there’s no going back to that time. And just like an ex, for every glimpse into the past, every nostalgic yearning, and every unearthed memory, there are sharp reminders of what drove us apart digging into my side the more we try to reconnect.

It’s unfortunate that Blindside are still casually experimenting with unneeded keyboard usage, and their love for indie rock and Muse hasn’t gone away, so parts of our time together as we share With Shivering Hearts We Wait are obviously tainted. I try not to make any visible cringing because I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but I have to tell them that the indie rock influences just don’t quite fit them, and they shouldn’t force it… but maybe this is who they really want to be.

Truthfully, it was great to spend some time with Blindside again, catching up on what they’ve been up to, hearing some of the new things they’ve put together, but I don’t think I’ll plan on seeing them again. We say we should get together in the future, have dinner, keep in touch... We exchange numbers, making sure to complete this ritual of faking that things haven’t changed. We wish each other well, but I think we both know that the spark we used to share isn’t there anymore. We’ll always have the memories, and it was nice to be reminded of what we have shared, but the Blindside of today isn’t the Blindside I originally fell in love with.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Black Summer by Warren Ellis Review

Black Summer
Warren Ellis... sometimes you have to remember that one cool scene or nifty idea isn't enough for an entire story. I was hooked by the opening scene of a superhero killing the president, justifying it in his own twisted way. However, from there it goes down the standard path of, "Team of special soldiers were created, they've gone off the rails, now they need to be taken out." We've seen this plot played out in hundreds of different ways and this isn't that much different.

The majority of the book is spent not so much on plot but on allowing Juan José Ryp to meticulously illustrate huge panels of massive carnage. Gore has never been so eloquently depicted! Despite this attention to detail, it is not an excuse to shortchange plot and character development.

I will spare you from diving into spoiler territory since this isn't an altogether bad read if you're an Ellis fan, but the final plot "twist" is telegraphed so strongly early in the story that you are completely aware that everything you'll read will simply be getting you to that point. And once you reach the climax... if you're like me, you'll feel slightly let down. Yes, it's the only logical conclusion to the story, but it lacks the grand scale that Ellis I felt was trying for throughout the book.

Black Summer could have easily been improved by taking a few of the giant splash pages of violence and using them to develop the characters a bit further, dig into their psychological state, and explore some of the moral topic touched upon briefly throughout. That, and don't telegraph the ending so much!

View all my reviews at Goodreads

Monday, October 24, 2011

Prayers for Atheists - New Hymns for an Old War Album Review

Every now and again a band will reach out to me with genuine interest in being reviewed or covered. When it happens, it is definitely a treat since most of the submissions and emails I get are from PR companies and labels that are ferrying off albums to any publication to cover them. Their press sheets and emails so desperately want to appear genuine, but it's almost always a ruse. But when you run into an artist that you can actively email back and forth with, who knows your publication, and asks for valid criticism... it's so refreshing. Prayers for Atheists were one of those artists and they were as genuine as could be in both my interactions with them and in their music. This review was originally published on April 5, 2011.

In 2009 Prayers for Atheists put out what I saw as one of the best EPs of the year with their self titled effort. It had moments of conscientious hip-hop, old-school flavored hardcore, and even some rap-rock elements. The topping on the cake was that there was a genuine sense of meaning and passion underlying every song. The 8 tracks on that EP were a huge debut from a great new artist bursting into the underground scene.

The inspiration for Prayers for Atheists’ debut EP was the Republican National Convention held in July of 2008. At that time, hate for a governmental regime that supported war, torture, and an obfuscation of policy was at the forefront of political movements. Since then, times have definitely changed—we now have a democrat for a president, the conservative movement and the Tea Party are gaining momentum in a response to government spending, the economy remains in shambles for the middle and lower class, and we are seeing political change throughout the Middle East. There’s a lot to be angry about, but there isn’t a single source to direct your hate towards like there was when George Bush was president. The United States seems to be a cauldron of unrest and anger that is desperate to find something to rage against, but there are simply too many sources of localized evil cropping up all over. Scott Walker is busy attempting to land a killing blow to Wisconsin’s unions. Dick Fuld and numerous c-suite bankers are laughing their asses off at pulling one over on the American people as they had their bad decisions completely subsidized on the backs of taxpayers. Barack Obama is waffling left and right on promises he made only a couple of scant years ago. And there is no shortage of seemingly corrupt local figures in communities throughout the nation. It’s exasperating just to think about it all. This wealth of evil is fuel for Prayers for Atheists’ fire, but the lack of a singular source of malice not only has affected the mindset of our nation, but I believe it may have lead to the feel of this record in comparison to the band's previous EP.

Unlike their EP, there are no strict hip-hop jams on this album. Instead Prayers for Atheists have focused exclusively on crafting anger fueled, late 80s inspired hardcore punk tracks interspersed amongst Rage Against the Machine flavored rap-core songs. Since there is such a divide between the two styles of songs on New Hymns for an Old War, I think it is prudent to look at the band in two different lights, one for each approach.

When cranking out decidedly retro hardcore tracks, such as “Ramsey County Blues,” you can hear the influences from past greats such as Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and TSOL. The songs are balls out, straight-ahead hardcore punk and wouldn’t feel out of place if played between tracks from the aforementioned bands influencing Prayers for Atheists. From the raw production to the raspy vocals to the simple, rapid playing, it all screams classic polipunk and hardcore, which is so damn refreshing in an age of autotune and over-production where every band sounds glisteningly clean and glossy that you wonder if they actually played the songs on their albums.

Then there’s the other half of the record where Prayers for Atheists play a brand of music decidedly influenced by more modern bands (relatively speaking) such as Downset, Danko Jones, and Rage Against the Machine. Yes, the production is still raw and the band is still as pissed as ever, but you have songs that break out of the hardcore punk mold and take on a more decidedly rap-core sound. Don’t get any ideas that this is some Limp Bizkit bullshit, though. No, instead it is a straight up infusion of rap, hardcore, rock, and even some melodically sung choruses. A great example of this amalgamation of styles is the one-two punch of “Guns Up” and “Flies on the Water,” two tracks that capture all of the disparate elements of the band. Another track of interest, simply because it doesn’t fit either of the previously described molds very well, is “Keep Left.” There’s a reason I mentioned Danko Jones earlier in this paragraph… this track is as close to a classic Jones track as you can get without breaking out We Sweat Blood.

Genuine music is hard to find nowadays when it seems like so many bands just care about Facebook likes, Twitter followers, and other measurements of how popular they are. When you play exclusively for popularity, you sacrifice your voice in favor of appealing to those you want to so desperately like you. Prayers for Atheists don’t seem to care about this, but instead they want to get their message out and do so in their own way, whether you like it or not. Thankfully, if you do cherish music with a message, even though it may sometimes be muddied, that was made by people who truly believe in what they’re doing, then you will fall head over heels in love with New Hymns for an Old War.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Is Being Thin Enough?

My brother and I often spar over which is the better platform--Android or iOS. He is a solid Android supporter while I tend to lean in the iOS direction (possibly because I'm an iPad and iPhone owner). I think both really have their merits and place and, really, if I wasn't entrenched in the iOS world, I don't think I'd be opposed to an Android device. The thought of re-buying all of my apps, though, keeps me away. But that's another topic altogether. What I'm leading into is talking about Motorola's Droid RAZR.

Feature comparisons
This smartphone really feels like Motorola is trying to recapture their glory days of when the original RAZR phone was the most dominant phone on the market. Making a thin phone was a great idea with the RAZR, but simply making a smartphone "thin" and not doing much else I don't think will cut it in today's smartphone market, especially when you compare its vital statistics to those of other similar smartphones (see the diagram to the right from Gizmodo).

When the iPhone 4S was announced, I was a tad let down as there wasn't anything truly revolutionary announced (although, Siri could be...), but there were some great improvements. From what I've seen and read about the camera, it's simply amazing and takes phenomenal pictures better than most point-and-shoot digital cameras.  Siri seems like it has the potential to be revolutionary if it can really do everything it is touted to be able to. Controlling your phone and executing tasks almost exclusively by voice control... that could be wicked awesome.  But, in the end, the 4S was really a beefed up 4.

With the RAZR, I'm having a hard time finding anything to point out about it other than "it's thin."  And you'll pay a premium for that thinness. With contract you'll shell out $300 for it instead of the usual $200 for an equivalent Android handset or an iPhone. You'd think that the extra $100 would get you something more, but instead you're paying extra for having less phone in your pocket, which I didn't think was really a problem in the first place, especially when you consider most Android phones tend towards being larger as that's what people want--more screen real estate.

The rest of the phone's stats don't lead me to think much of it either. The screen's resolution is slightly better than other Android phones, but still doesn't match the Retina display of an iPhone. The dual core processor and 1 GB of RAM equals other phones (yes, the iPhone's specs are lesser, but iOS is tightly integrated with the hardware so you get more out of lesser hardware). Storage is the standard 16 GB. The cameras are pretty standard in comparison to their Android peers and don't appear like they'll match the iPhone 4S. It only has an accelerometer.  It lacks the gyroscope, compass, and magnetometer that equivalent phones have. And they didn't add NFC which newer Android phones will have.

Really, there's very little that's compelling in any way. Yes, it will get Ice Cream Sandwich in the winter, but other Android phones will have it before then. The only differentiating factor this phone has is that it is smaller and I don't think that it will be enough this time around. Motorola is trying to re-use old ideas instead of coming up with new ones and it's going to hurt them in the long run. They had a hit with the original Droid phones, but now they've been eclipsed by Samsung and HTC. Consider me wholeheartedly unimpressed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rick's Discoveries Volume X

Calling this article a “Discoveries” article feels a bit odd this time around as 6 of the 10 albums covered here are from bands that I’ve had previous exposure to (and actually own their previous work), but even though they’re not “new” bands, I think they warrant attention. They’re all great releases and in most cases the back catalogues of each of these bands should also get a bit of your attention. So let’s consider this a Discoveries article with extra bonus material if you feel so inclined to look at each of the artist’s previous efforts.

Blueneck – Repetitions

This is Blueneck’s third album and, although their first two never grabbed me, this one is slathered in brooding, dark, atmospheric soundscapes. Taking the post-rock template, Blueneck keeps it mellow, but deceptively dark and melancholic. The interplay of the confessional and restrained vocals with the organic musical accompaniment pulls on your emotions, tugging you further and further downward into the band’s dark, yet hopeful, workspace.

Arch / Matheos – Sympathetic Resonance

John Arch and Jim Matheos are probably most well known in prog circles as being members of the great Fates Warning. On this project, they don’t distance themselves from the progressive metal genre, but instead embrace it and go for the gold, with 3 of the 6 songs on this album each clocking in at over 10 minutes in length. Arch keeps his vocals in check, not using his oft-disliked screeching (thank goodness), which lets you focus on the underlying music. His vocals aren’t bad, but they’re simply window dressing on the compositions and guitar work of Matheos. Check this out if you’re a fan of Dream Theater or Symphony X as you will not be disappointed.

Voyager – The Meaning of I

Continuing on the progressive metal track, Voyager offers up their latest power metal influenced progressive metal album. Although, truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot of power metal aspects to this album outside of the vocals and the occasional song galloping. This is much more of a combination of Dream Theater (sorry, they’re just a go-to reference for most prog) mixed with Mercenary and Fear Factory than a Nightwishinspired effort. What gives Voyager a unique flavor is the very well placed and utilized keyboards. They don’t hog the spotlight, they aren’t cheesy, and they aren’t superfluous. No, instead they add just the right ingredient to the band’s progressive mix.

Every Discoveries article needs at least on djent band, right? It’s such a growing genre that there are a lot of underground artists working hard to find their way in this new-ish genre (yes, I know Meshuggah has been doing this for a while now). Shades of Black fall into the instrumental section of the djent genre, but they pepper the djent template with some double-bass rolls, pseudo-breakdowns, and some eastern influences. It’s these extra flairs that make Shades of Black more than just another regular, industrialized djent band.

Dead By April – Incomparable

Go ahead and poke fun now. Everyone did when I included these guys in my top 10 a couple of years ago. Dead By April are pop music, through and through, even though they are “melodic death metal.” Every song is focused on creating a catchy hook, every keyboard line tries to worm its way into your brain, and every riff is meant to stick with you even if you don’t want it to. If there were ever a definition of what pop-metal sounds like, it would be Dead By April. I unabashedly and unironically love this band and this album because it is one of the catchiest releases I’ve heard yet this year.

Cliff Martinez – Contagion soundtrack

When I went to see Contagion, one of the standout aspects of the film was the score. Similar to Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’s score for The Social Network, Martinez uses an industrialized and stylish approach for Contagion’s score. It provides a great backdrop for many of the montage scenes that take place throughout the film. Listening to the album without the accompanying images had me worried it wouldn’t hold up, but the themes of the score shine on their own. If you enjoyed the score for The Social Network or Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts album, this will be a great addition to your music collection.

After 2009’s amazing Beyond the Legend, I’ve been anxiously awaiting any new material from Memories of a Dead Man. Even though it is not another full length, Maze is an EP that is definitely worth your attention if for nothing more than the opening two tracks, both being epic post-hardcore tracks, complete with brooding build-ups, explosive cathartic outbursts, and a rough edge that most post-hardcore bands nowadays eschew. And to make the track “Spoken Yet Never Heard” even better, it contains vocals from Rosetta’s Mike Armine. Each of the tracks has guest vocals from different bands, giving each song a bit of a different feel, making this EP extremely diverse. It only makes me even more anxious for more material from this extremely underrated band.

Lydia – Paint It Golden

If you were part of the Decoy Music community back in 2008, you’ll remember Lydia. It seems like they were all the rage and loved by everyone… but then they dropped off the radar, released an EP in 2010, and seemingly fell into oblivion… until they resurfaced with Paint It Golden. Admittedly, Lydia fall outside the bounds of what I usually listen to, but their indie/dream-pop combination is extremely easy on the ears and quite heart-warming to listen to. The melancholic and wistful lilt of the music combined with the emotive vocals makes it all seem quite ethereal in nature.

MuteMath – Odd Soul

Let’s take another trip back into Decoy Music history—back to 2006 when MuteMath’s self-titled album was cracking top 10 lists and getting tons of love. They were taking the then-popular indie rock sound and adding well-placed electronics and atmospherics to it, making for something unique. Their follow-up, Armistice, wasn’t as well received since it felt like they were simply trying to be Coldplay, but Odd Soul shows them returning to the sound they started out with, but adding a ton of maturity. Combining blues, alternative, pop, and some electronics into their indie rock template freshens up what has become a very boring genre.

Omega Massif – Karpatia

This album is massive. Omega Massif have been playing sludge/doom/post-metal for 6 years and are on album number three with Karpatia. They had an epic release with 2007’s Geisterstadt, so the bar was set pretty high for this effort, especially having waited four years for it to get to us. Omega Massif might have reached the same level of greatness as their last album, even surpassing it ever so slightly. This band likes to mix theirCult of Luna-esque sludge together with the drive and thickness of early Pelican and the fullness of The Ocean’s sound. Bringing these elements together is what gives this album such a large, thick, meaty sound.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wells Fargo IRA Transfer Bug

Apparently my real world job in quality assurance has bled over into my everyday life as I managed to uncover a pretty frustrating issue with Wells Fargo's banking and brokerage website. Before I note the bug, let's set the stage and background...

I have my personal checking, business checking/savings, taxable brokerage, IRA, Roth IRA, and a mortgage with Wells Fargo, so I have a significant amount of involvement with their financial offerings. For a couple years I've had an automatic monthly transfer set up to take a set amount of money from my personal checking and contribute it to my Roth IRA. At the beginning of the summer I wanted to change that contribution amount, so I went through their website to update the contribution amount. Everything went swimmingly... or so I thought.

This last month as I was checking my statements closer, I noticed that for the last few months there were TWO transfers from my checking to my Roth IRA, one for the old amount and one for the new amount. This would explain why my personal checking felt like it was getting pinched. I wasn't wasting more money on Papa Murphys and comic books, but instead Wells Fargo was transferring more than twice what they should. I tried to rectify this by going into my online account to see what was up. Apparently the "change" to the contribution amount just created another monthly transfer and left the previous one in place. That appears to be DEFECT #1.

This quickly led into DEFECT #2. As I attempted to cancel one of the two automatic monthly transfers, I was given a dreaded red error message saying the website is incapable of handling the request. Thinking it might be a browser thing, I switched from Chrome to IE with the same results. Time to call them up.

I called the phone number that was in the error message only to find DEFECT #3--the phone number directs you to a support number for a department that can't actually help with the issue. I had to get transferred to another department and after I made my way through a couple of representatives I was finally able to talk to someone senior to help me through my problem.

They advised me that you cannot cancel ongoing transfers to an IRA online. You have to come into a branch, sign a form, and then they can stop it. This seemed a bit ridiculous since I could create contributions online without needing to fill out a form. When I asked about this, the representative stated that actually, no, their systems since January of this year are incapable of allowing you to make or change contributions to IRA transfers. After I walked him through what I did and what I still had access to we noted that, as I had suspected, we found DEFECT #4.

After a bit of arguing about why it is somewhat dumb for me to come in and sign a form so they could key in the cancellation of future transfers that have yet to occur when I'd already given them more personal identifying information over the phone than I would on a form, all of my automatic transfers were canceled. For the immediate future I'll just make one-time manual transfers to my Roth IRA since it seems like Wells Fargo's online transfer system doesn't have all the kinks worked out of it after merging in Wachovia's system.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

(hed) p.e. - Truth Rising Album Review

How many second chances is to many? Most would argue, any more than one. (hed) p.e. is a band that I'm pretty certain I gave a few too many second chances to. After seeing them live during my college years and playing their early efforts incessantly, I wanted so badly to think that the band, after releasing horrible album after horrible album would eventually return to the form that I remembered. It hasn't happened yet and I am quite sure it never will. This review was me giving them, I hope, their last second chance. This was originally published on December 7, 2010. 

Every album that this band puts out continues to amaze me for one gigantic reason—I can’t believe people still buy anything they put out. After their 2003 album Blackout, which was pretty good for what it was (a rap-metal, nu-metal combo), they put out 4 albums in a row that were all simply unlistenable. You can really chalk that up to Wes Geer leaving the band and taking all of the band's talent with him. Once he left the fold, what was left was Jahred Shane trying to continue on as, essentially, a new band, which led to bad songwriting, cringe-worthy lyrics, simplistic song structures, reckless stabs at experimentation, and an overwhelming aura of suck. (hed) pe tragically turned into a joke band but didn’t realize that they were the punchline.

With their streak of badness in full effect with last year’s New World Orphans, I fully expected Truth Rising to be a continuation of their desperate attempt to somehow regain any of the popularity they had in the early 2000s. Needless to say my expectations were low, so when I didn’t immediately loathe the album, I had to think hard about whether my expectations were somehow just that low or if (hed) pe had improved in the last year. On one hand, the band seems to have actually tried to write some good songs, but on the other hand there are also some truly horrendous tracks.

Just to be clear, there are many things that are really, really easy to hate about this album. The biggest that you’ll notice just from glancing at the track list is the sheer number of tracks, but there aren’t nearly as many songs as there are tracks. The band employs 8 intro/outro tracks to “set the stage” for songs, but the only thing they do is annoy the hell out of you and break apart any flow the album has. Then you have the token misogynistic rap tracks, such as “Takeover” and “Murder,” that dare you to keep from hitting the skip button. It’s hard to imagine a grown man in his 30s writing such juvenile and putrid lyrics. Lastly, there are some punk-infused metal tracks that feel very forced and just as out of place as the rap tracks, but not nearly as terrible to listen to. They’re moderately tolerable, actually, except for when you listen to the lyrics, but that’s really a general problem this band has had their entire career. However, it is somewhat frightening how much worse their lyrics have gotten with each new album.

That’s a lot of really terrible downsides to an album, so any upside is going to need to be extremely redeeming for the album to warrant your time. Unfortunately, even though (hed) pe have grown, they haven’t grown enough to truly be worth devoting your ears to. Knowing that, though, there are some tracks that you should give a listen or two. “Forward Go!” is catchy as hell, balancing on a fine line between the heavier end of radio-friendly metal and non-radio friendly aggro metal. There’s a perfect blend of aggression, vitriol, and catchiness on this track that, if the band could do similar things on other tracks, they’d meteor back into relevancy. “Stand Up” is also notable, and not just because Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust makes an appearance. It is another well put together metal track that has the band sounding both energetic and in command.

It’s frustrating to see a band continue down a path of mediocrity and irrelevance, especially when they have glimmers of brightness and talent. These moments are so few and far between, though, that you at times wonder if they are more the product of luck than of talent, but on the off chance it is talent shining through, we can continue to hope for better things, but the smart money would be to bet on continued unlistenable output.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Look Back at Our Vows

Over the weekend, I attended the wedding of a co-worker and friend of my wife which was amazing in many ways, most notably that it was an outdoor wedding in Minnesota in October... the same weekend which last year saw us fighting snow. However, it was a beautiful 80+ degree day with plenty of sun and a bit of a breeze. It's not often you see that in Minnesota in October! It was a great day for a wedding indeed.

Since this was a wedding for one of my wife's friends, I didn't know a lot of people there, so it left me a lot of time during the service, after, and at the reception to take in the ceremony and reflect a bit on my own wedding day. It's hard to believe that come January, which is only a few months away, we'll be celebrating anniversary #2. It doesn't feel quite like 2 years have passed, but soon they will have gone by. Looking back, the days we've shared since our wedding have, as we guessed, given us many ups and downs. The concept of knowing that there will be highs and lows in our relationship was something we were aware of as we came into our marriage, which I think has been truly beneficial. We didn't look at everything through rose-colored glasses, setting our expectations at perfection, which I feel many people do. We were, and are, realistic with hints of optimism (or at least that's how I like to look at it).

Thinking back, and re-reading our vows, I'm refreshed by the combination of serious gravity and light-hearted goodness that we used to express our vows to each other. Our vows embody quite well our personalities and the approach that we take to living together.  Anyways... I thought it was nice to muse about this topic during the wedding this weekend, and it gave me an excuse to dig out the sheets of paper we had our vows written on and type them up in case we somehow manage to lose them... well, lost mine, I guess. Kristi was smart enough to type hers up and save them whereas I just scribbled it all down on a piece of notepad paper and had it crumpled up in my suit pocket.

My vows to Kristi:
Kristi, today is a day on which we make many commitments to one another. As a symbol and demonstration of my commitment to you, I would like to make a series of promises.

First, I promise to cultivate, nurture, and grow the love that we share, helping it to be ever expanding. However, I cannot promise that some of the growth won't go straight to my belly.

I promise to value every moment we spend together, no matter how trivial or how monumental. I will let no moment be taken for granted. However, I cannot promise that my memory won't occasionally fail me.

I promise to support you at all times, whenever you need someone to lean on, to listen, to give you a pick-me-up, or just to snuggle with. However, I cannot promise that I'll know how to fix everything, even though I like to think that I can.

I promise to laugh, to joke around, to smile, to enjoy life, and to appreciate puns. However, I can't promise that you'll always find me funny.

I promise to be, and am looking forward to the day that I can be, a caring, loving, and involved father, cherishing every moment our family will share together. However, I cannot promise that I will always act more mature than our children.

Lastly, I promise to love you completely, deeply, and unconditionally. There are no exceptions to this promise. No howevers. No buts. No footnotes. No crossed fingers. No special circumstances.

Kristi, I promise to continually love you, today and throughout all of our tomorrows.

Kristi's vows to me:

I was once told that love is defined as the total and complete commitment to the betterment of another person. That's stuck with me over the years, as I've tried to work out in my head how loving someone translates to changing that person. But that's not it. It's not about telling you how to wear your hair or getting you to hang something other than Batman posters on the walls. It's not about getting me to stop biting my nails or learning to cook with real food rather than heating up pizza in the over... though, let's be real, it is our favorite.

Instead, I've come to understand the sentiment as about the importance of supporting you as you grow in life. Today is just one moment on our journey together, and we have a long adventure ahead! In the years to come, you'll face some of the happiest days and some of the most challenging days in your life, and those experiences will mold you and shape you into the husband, and someday father, that you want to be. And my commitment today is to be by your side along the way, loving you and supporting you as best I can.

And I know you'll do the same for me. One of my favorite things about our relationship is that from day one, I've felt completely at home with you. You challenge me to be the better person that I want to be, but you've never challenged who I am as a person. I'm excited to take this big step with you. I promise to walk with you, support you, enjoy the journey with you, and love you every step of the way.