Thursday, June 30, 2011

Performance Management: It's Actually Not a Waste of Time

We're coming up on the start of our performance review cycle here at work where there will be much gnashing of teeth, tearing of garments, soliloquies about the momentous accomplishments achieved, and anxiety over whether or not your boss thinks you did anything worthwhile... or at least to some that can be the mindset associated with the dreaded performance management process. It's quite natural to feel a significant amount of anxiety around this process for more than a few reasons--you are being evaluated by another person, you may or may not be promoted, your pay may change, and you have to attempt to grade yourself without sounding either self-deprecating or over-congratulatory. It doesn't necessarily have to be this way, though.

Many people try to avoid the performance management topic as much as possible and simply trudge through it at the end of the year because they have to. It's not something important, it's not something meaningful, and it's viewed lower on the priorities list than any other task being worked on. I held this mindset when I entered the working world, partially because I felt I was awesome at everything and didn't see the benefits that came out of the process, and partially because I didn't see any tangible benefits outside of my next raise. Of course there weren't going to be any benefits if I didn't take it seriously. Just like any one-way conversation, the person not invested will get nothing out of it. So if you have performance management anxiety or think that it does nothing for you, I may have a few things to offer from my personal experience that can transform performance management from a chore into a tool to get you where you want to be.

Get Invested

Frankly, if you don't have a care in the world about the performance management process your mind is made up that you'll get nothing from it and, more than likely, your manager or coach won't care a whole lot to do more than the bare minimum when rating you.  That doesn't help anyone and actually does make the process a useless waste of everyone's time.  However, even if you don't believe in the process, forcing yourself to get involved achieves two things--it gets your manager to note that you care about your development and, more importantly, it puts your manager on task to invest time and effort into truly evaluating you and your work. Shirking the process or avoiding meetings or tasks associated to it shows that you don't value it, but if you attend, engage, and force a smile (if you have to) it will do wonders for both of you because you'll start to look deeply at your work, your attitude, and your overall contribution, identifying what you are simply amazing at doing and, as a seemingly unfortunate byproduct (it's really not!), what you could improve.

Take the Initiative

This may be one of the toughest things to do when it comes to performance management, but it may also be the most important. Instead of waiting for each of the dreaded meetings you'll have with your manager or coach about "how well you did this year," take the lead and schedule some time with your boss to discuss how you've been doing. To really catch him or her off-guard, go outside of the standard performance management timeline and schedule your own meetings with your manager to discuss how things are going, ideally setting up something that is recurring throughout the course of the year.

By taking a peak at your performance and discussing it on a regular basis, once the year's end rolls around your final ratings from your boss shouldn't come as a huge surprise--you should already have a general idea of where you stand. You can also identify potential weaknesses to strengthen or pitfalls to avoid as the year goes on if you talk about what's happening in your work throughout the year. By doing this, you will also have demonstrable proof (assuming you keep notes) that you were improving, doing what was expected, or going beyond what was asked.  You're not stuck scratching your head at the end of the year trying to remember what you've done. Instead you have the groundwork already laid for your final assessment discussions.

Find Out "What It Takes"

We all want promotions. We all want more pay. We all want more perks. So how do you ensure that you get them? Ask.  It's a pretty simple concept, but it can often be hard to bring up or to get your manager to give you a well articulated answer. However, be direct and find out exactly what you need to do to reach the next level. You might need to initially settle for generalizations since your boss may not have actually thought this through in detail, but if you are both invested in your development, hopefully he or she will give some thought to the topic and have something specific to provide to you in time.

Once you know what you need to do, go do it!  Sounds easy, right? In some cases, sure, it'll be no sweat, but sometimes it may be more difficult. What it takes might be performing certain tasks that you don't have access to yet (like managing personnel... when you don't have any direct reports). If this is the case, explore with your manager how you can be put into situations where you have the opportunity to achieve what it'll take. It might not be something that can happen right away, but always be working to make it happen.


One of the toughest parts of being evaluated is being told what someone thinks you're not doing well or what your weaknesses are. It's easy to get defensive, to shrug off what someone says, or to attack back.  It's much tougher to take in criticisms, reflect on them, and discuss them. Yes, it sucks being told you could do something better, but be honest with yourself--we all have weaknesses and could all use a bit of improvement, so take the chance to do so!

It is important to get specifics about what you could shore up. Generalizations don't help you since you don't know exactly what you could do differently, and it doesn't help your manager since he or she is throwing such a wide net that improvements you may attempt to make slip through the net because it's not what he or she is specifically looking for. Work together to flesh out where you can make improvements, make a plan on how to change, and then execute on that plan.

Be Serious

This should go without saying, but it is possible to make attempts at implementing the above changes without really taking things seriously. If you want to succeed, in most cases, you can't do it completely on your own (if you can--great! I'm jealous!).  You can learn from those who manage you, those who have experience in your field, and those who have been tasked with developing you. You need to have levity when approaching the performance management topic, valuing it as a tool in itself and not just a means to getting your next raise. In the short term if you "game" the system you can get that incremental raise or look a bit better than your co-worker, but from a long-term perspective if you seriously want to grow, develop, mature, and achieve personal goals, you need to take performance management seriously and, as much as it may pain you, go through the full process being fully engaged.

At the end of the day, it's not your manager who decides your future, even though they may control your next bonus or promotion, it is in your own hands.  If you are fine with the way things are and think you're doing great, then this article wasn't really something you need, but if you want to aspire to improve and make performance management matter, I hope that I've been able to provide a little insight into some methods that could help. I can only speak from my personal experience, so take it how you will, but it's proven to be quite helpful in my current career trajectory up to this point.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Prayers for Atheists - Self Titled Album Review

Ok, so I couldn't let that Brokencyde review be the top post... it's just not that good, really. Or positive, for that matter. So let's trek forward to a release that I really, really got behind when it was released. I'm still a big fan of this EP and feel it was one of the more authentic albums of 2009. It also helps that the inspiration for it was the RNC gathering right here in St. Paul. Prayers for Atheists still aren't a very well known band, but they should be. They recently had a new album come out and I stand behind it as well (as we'll see in a future review). Well, I hope this cleanses your palette after the nonsense that was my previous post.  For record keeping's sake, this was originally published on July 15, 2009.

Prayers for Atheists is a new project from Jared Paul, an activist, performer, and musician. Having worked with Raine Maida, Sage Francis, and many others this is his first foray into creating music on his own... well, or at least with the help of only Alan Hague, who does all of the instrumentation on the album. As a little background on this EP, it is probably best to simply read what’s on the inside cover of the album jacket:
In July 2008, Jared Paul was among sever hundred U.S. citizens arrested at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN. While attending a “Take Back Labor Day” concert, the mixed crowd of protesters, local residents, show-goers, journalists and elderly folk found themselves barricaded by hundreds of heavily-armed police. The cops, with guns raised, rushed civilians and forced them to the ground, cinched their wrists, and dragged them off to jail without any cause or explanation.
With the wind of the Patriot Act at their back, these overzealous riot squads used mass arrests during the RNC to smother voices of opposition and the efforts of journalists. Jared, like many others, was charged with “felony riot” and taken to Ramsey County Jail. His charge was then lessened to a misdemeanor, and he was urged to plead guilty to avoid a protracted legal battle. 
We said, “Fuck that.”

This 8 song EP is Jared’s response to the emotions, actions, and atmosphere of that time. Politically charged, angry, and well thought out, this is a fiery EP that should be placed among some of the top tier political albums of our modern musical generation. It may feel somewhat out of date, with the change in political regimes since the events mentioned above, but the general ideals of this album go beyond the assumed screed against the Republican party. And musically, you'll find that Prayers for Atheists is a bastard child of Rage Against the Machine, Sage Francis, and Dead Kennedys.

Covering all kinds of musical bases throughout its run time, the album starts off with an acerbic, post-punk number that recounts the events of Jared’s experience at the RNC. With the attitude of the album well established, the duo completely rips open the album with the minute long, hardcore as hell second track. Scaling it back just a tad, Jared and Alan put together a solid rap-rock offering in the form of "Coathangar 18," which reminds us how much the world needs a modern reincarnation of Rage Against the Machine. Rounding off the first half of the EP is another fierce minute of straight ahead hardcore punk in the form of a tribute to Tom Delay.

The second half of the album is a little less in your face, but it doesn’t lack in intensity. The slow, hip-hop “Lot’s Wife” is comparable to a subdued, yet more aggressive version of modern Atmosphere. Jared’s work with Sage Francis is also very apparent in the obvious influences lent to this track. The simple drum and bass background gives Jared a wide canvas on which to lay down his lyrics, creating possibly the best song of the album.

“Rows of Steel” picks the pace up slightly, mixing the mellow verses with aggressive choruses. “Bike Song,” however, may be the weakest song on the album as it feels a little too similar to Rage Against the Machine in spots and has some weak transitions, but it is followed by the 6 minute epic "Wrong Horse," which starts with a slow burn into the perfectly metered interplay of Alan’s guitars and Jared’s vocals. With their flow in full effect, the instrumentation pulls back mid-song before working into a fittingly aggressive end.

This may seem like a lot of talk and analysis over a 25 minute EP, but this 25 minute EP is something that needs to be noticed. Rarely is an album as authentic, heartfelt, directed, and interesting as this. In a day and age of making music only in order to appeal to a scene or to get noticed, rarely do artists attempt to be thought-provoking. Prayers for Atheists is an album that should be intently listened to, so please do. It’s only 25 minutes and it’s 25 minutes you’ll be glad you didn't skip out on.

Brokencyde - I'm Not a Fan.. But the Kids Like It! Album Review

For what started out as a joke review that I tossed up on Decoy Music simply to fill a content lull, this review was one of our most visited for the year of 2009. I also ended up cross-posting it to (here) and it turned out to be my most heavily favorite'd review that I'd posted.  I guess it goes to show that instead of honest, thought-out, calculated critiques of music people would rather read glib, quickly cobbled together thoughts created solely to get a chuckle or two.  Maybe I should just cash in on that trend and give up on trying to write anything resembling pseudo-intellectual musings... oh, and for reference, this was published back on July 1, 2009.  And in case it isn't obvious by now... this is probably the most immature, stupid, and purposely offensive thing I've put together for this blog... so far. Consider yourself warned.

Let’s be honest right from the start. Brokencyde don’t make music. They make sounds, mush them together with other sounds that have no relation to each other, then scream or talk over the top pretending that they’re somehow creating a new trailblazing form of music. Don't be fooled, it’s not music. In a year’s time people will look back on this group of tools and the whole “crunk” genre and realize it was a terrible, horrendous fad that should simply be forgotten and never revisited. Since anyone older than 15 and possessing an IQ of at least a few points will recognize how much of an abomination Brokencyde is, the rest of this review is geared towards the few people who may be intrigued by this fugly foursome of fuck-up-ery.

In case you are thinking of listening to Brokencyde or (please God no…) buying I’m Not a Fan… But the Kids Like It!, please look over the list of things below. All of these things are better than Brokencyde. Seriously, all of these things are better for you than listening to Brokencyde.

--Brokencyde is worse than dipping your testicles in battery acid while having an appendectomy without anesthesia.

--Brokencyde is worse than being trapped naked in a pine box with 5 rabid ferrets that have not eaten for days.

--Brokencyde is worse than having your anus surgically sown shut then being forced to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Taco Bell.

--Brokencyde is worse than learning you are adopted… then finding out your biological parents are Carrot Top and Roseanne Arnold… then getting shot in the face.

--Brokencyde is worse than being in a straightjacket while you are intravenously injected with Red Bull and Coke (the kind you snort, not the kind you drink) for 24 hours… and then getting thrown in front of a bus.

--Brokencyde is worse than eating cat crap, throwing it up, and re-eating said vomit, but spiced up with some old man diarrhea splatter... then getting thrown under a lawn mower.

--Brokencyde is worse than being tied to a couch forced to watch Battlefield Earth repeatedly while dogs piss on you… and then getting lit on fire.

--Brokencyde is worse than simultaneously contracting every STD currently known to man… then getting trampled to death by an angry rhino a year later.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Where I Start Talking About Distractions, Get Distracted, And Go Elsewhere

The upper right of my monitor flashes me the latest tweets from the #QA hashtag column I have set up in Tweetdeck. I get back to the VB macro code I was writing. Let's see, how do I merge two sheets content again? Ding! New email. Flipping over to Outlook I quickly respond to a question about an open ticket, file the email away, and return to that macro. Ummm, let's see... I think I put in the merge sheets code... yep, that I did. Now I just need to--Oh, my Winamp notifier! It's finished playing the album I was listening to and is starting over. I better queue up a new batch of songs; some post-rock should make good background music. Ok, now I'm ready to focus on that macro... but I better check Facebook quick, my Chrome icon shows I have two new comments to check out... ahh, much better. Uhh, so, uhh... macro time. Shoot, I forgot what I needed to do after the merge. Where's that requirements document again? Oh yeah, out on our Sharepoint workspace... but while I have my browser open, I should quick check Google Reader...

I know it should almost go without saying that it's hard to get anything done when you're distracted, but whereas I used to have no problem isolating myself on a project or task, it's now becoming harder and harder to do so. I've become conditioned to keep up with everything that's going on as instantly as possible. It's no longer ok to check my email at the end of the day or wait until lunch to scan my twitter feed. Instead of glancing at my Facebook news feed on the bus ride home, I have to be continually notified of what's going on. I, along with more people than I care to imagine, have been conditioned to be hyperactively shifting focus.

If I somehow miss a tweet, I might not know what's going on right now. I have to have the perfect playlist right now in order to truly do good work. I want to feel engaged with my friends right now or I might not be the most interesting, involved person there is. We have become a society focused on the moment--if you're not in it, you're not with it.

This may not be a problem for our personal lives, but it's begun to creep into our professional lives more and more and more as I see tendencies of my personal life permeating my work hours. Being super-engaged with social media and the technology that enables it, assuming it doesn't adversely affect your real-world social skills or become a nuisance to those around you, I see as actually being moderately beneficial. That may be because I grew up on a farm in the middle of the country where I was in a state of semi-isolation outside of school months, but I do see being able to manage a plethora of different social circles, news sources, and entertainment options as a great trait to own... just not necessarily in a work environment.

Even though we see so many entrepreneurial opportunities being seized by smart, young people who are doing seemingly a million things at once, the unfortunate truth is that the rest of us (read: me, at least, and potentially you) will have more normal, everyday jobs where juggling a half million tasks won't be in our job description (although, who knows, maybe it might). Personally, I've let too many distractions enter my working space. It's not something that happened all at once either. It happened slowly over time, as I imagine it does for many people. It started with a couple of applications for notifying me of certain events (new email, stock limit hit) which I thought would be useful and over time I found I had set up notifications for everything under the sun.

These notifications weren't just for personal things, though, which made it hard to see that I was doing myself a disservice by putting more and more distractions in front of me. As I installed Tweetdeck to monitor those I followed, I also had QA related searches being pulled in.  After I installed a Facebook notifier I made sure I had all of my task tracking in Outlook configured to alert me to due dates for all of the little things I entered in.

To complicate matters, I had my personal life and my work life cross-pollinating with one another. I would be friends with co-workers on Facebook and put personal tasks in my work task list. OneNote no longer consisted of just my work notes, but also of some items I needed to remember that weren't work related. I used my personal email address as a secondary testing address... the barriers broke down.

So where does that leave me? Well, probably in a similar situation to many other people. The barriers of work life and personal life are becoming more and more permeable, with things slipping between the two categories with more and more ease. How we navigate these waters will help define the environment we work in, as well as how we approach work. I already see myself thinking about work during "my time" but also take moments at work to do  "me things."  Work is no longer going in to an office or a factory from 8 to 5 with a lunch break in between. Work is more amorphous, especially in technology related fields.

Now... where was I going with all of this? Oh yeah, distractions are bad! Tying together the themes of the intertwining of work and personal life with the notion that distractions aren't all that bad in your personal life, but can make you less than productive while working, the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome is knowing how and when to turn "on" and "off" our focus. It might not even be possible the more we allow work and life to mingle... but I think I'll work on it... starting now. Tweetdeck, Facebook, and Winamp, prepare to be closed. Excel, prepare to get macro'd!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Deathstars - Night Electric Night Album Review

In my high school and early college years I listened to a LOT of Rammstein. They had a very unique sound that stood out from other metal bands (and it wasn't just that they sung in German). It was because of this unique trait that I latched onto them so heavily. Later on, however, I learned that the genre they were a part of was huge overseas and, as I often do when I discover something I newly enjoy, I gorged on those bands, so much so that I eventually soured on the sound altogether. I gave up on the Rammstein-esque bands up until a couple of years ago when I started to receive some submissions from overseas, one of them being this Deathstars album. I quickly remembered why I gave up on this genre--everything is very, very, very derivative of everything else in the genre. There is such little room for change that I feel like bands don't even try to mix it up, Deathstars included. So I again went back to sparingly listening to the genre. For reference, this was originally published on June 24, 2009.

Remember the late 90s and very early in the new millennium when Rammstein was awesome as hell? I was in high school when Sehnsucht came out, and it floored me when I borrowed it from a friend, so much so I never returned it. German industrial metal by a bunch of crazy-ass pyromaniacs… it was the type of music made for adolescent males! However, their luster eventually faded, and a lot of people realized that most of their music wasn’t really all that interesting. Couple that with the fact that copycat bands such as Megaherz never quite took off, it was clear the genre was mostly a flash in the pan. Today, the novelty of industrial metal simply doesn’t have that much of an appeal, but someone obviously forgot to mention that observation to Deathstars.

The band formed back in 2000 when industrial metal was still cool, but since then the band has done very little to mature other than adding some gothic keyboards here and there, since that’s been huge in Europe for the last decade. Night Electric Night is supposed to be Deathstars’ breakout hit, as it is their first album to have a wide US release, but I just don't see that happening. If this album were to have been hitting store shelves in 1999, I’m sure it would put Deathstars on the US metal map, but as it is now, this fad is beyond worn out.

Nearly every song on Night Electric Night plays out like either a bad Rammstein cover band trying to write their own music or a back closet Rammstein b-side. Not helping their cause is how ridiculous the band comes across in their presentation. On the cover of the album, the band is all decked out in goth gear, complete with white makeup and red lipstick (which they also wear during live performances). Then if you take a look at the band members' names, you’ll notice they have given themselves ridiculous monikers such as Whiplasher, Beast X Electric, and Nightmare Industries. With all of this cheesy imagery, it’s hard to even attempt to take the band seriously.

If you can somehow ignore their image, the lyrics will be what throws you over the edge. I have to believe they wrote these songs in a totally tongue-in-cheek manner because if they’re trying to be serious and menacing, they just aren’t doing it. Take this passage from “The Mark of the Gun” for example: “Well, the D is for Destroy (under the gun) / The E is for Enforce (under the gun) / A is for Absolute (under the gun) / And D is for Darkness / D.E.A.D. (the mark of the gun).” It’s hard to even stomach the majority of the band’s lyrics, even if you try to put them in an ironic light because, even if they were trying to poke fun at the unneeded seriousness of most goth lyrics, it sounds more like they’re channeling The Lonely Island than any of their peers.

One thing the band does right is on display during a few of the slower passages of the album. They manage to use some influences from Within Temptation and their ilk to craft a muted song structure where the keys create a depressing atmosphere and the guitars are moved down in the mix to form a more honestly downtrodden sound. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen very often.

Deathstars are a throwback to an earlier time, which is unfortunate because the time that they remind us of isn’t usually looked back on too nostalgically. It’s going to be hard to get a foothold in today’s metal scene playing with such a dated formula. Industrial metal in general has also fallen out of the limelight in favor of gothic metal and melodic death metal. Night Electric Night is going to have a hard time finding an audience in today’s music scene, simple as that.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Klout: Tool or Game

In the last couple of weeks I recently revived my Twitter account after having completely giving up on the service back in September of 2009. My last tweet at the time: "Twitter: You are a waste of time. I have yet to "get" your purpose. I've stuck with you too long hoping I would. But now, I say good-bye." I still somewhat have the same feelings about Twitter, but do see a few potential purposes for the service. We'll see if I grow back into using it or if I simply get frustrated by it once again. In truth, there were two reasons that I decided to jump back into Twitter--I wanted to see if I could use it to connect with other professionals in my field and, more importantly, I wanted to outrank my wife in Klout.

Before she mentioned the service to me, I had never heard of it, but as I did a few searches and read some articles, I found that it seems to be quite the growing service with aspirations of being able to truly measure your overall online reach, or as I read it, your online popularity.  Still, it seemed like an interesting topic since I had yet to find a true metric for measuring how influential someone is in the social media arena.  You can see how many followers someone has, check out how many Facebook friends (or likes) a person or page has, or check the amount of output that someone creates for either service, but that doesn't necessarily tell you how influential someone is. I could tweet up a storm, and craft a gigantic network of Facebook friends, but would that really make me influential?

Klout wants to answer that question, and I do definitely think that what they're undertaking could be valuable, but the more I think about the service, the more it seems that even though it wants you to view it as a tool, it's more like a game. I don't have to look any further than the reason why I started using Klout--I wanted to outrank my better half. I really didn't care, initially, what my social influence was. I just wanted to win.

But as I started to engage people on Twitter, connect with new contacts, and actually open my LinkedIn account after what feels like forever (side note: does anyone actually use LinkedIn unless they're looking for a job?) I was a bit more curious about how Klout worked, especially after I saw my Klout score drop after having seen it be on a steady rise (keep in mind I've only been using the service for a couple of weeks... yet they already sucked me in... that has to say something).  So I wanted to look into Klout a bit deeper.  How did they decide what my influence was?

Well, unfortunately, just like Google's search algorithm, Klout tells you a bit about what they do to calculate your social influence, but they don't give you the whole picture or insights into their methodology. I guess that makes sense since, just like Google, they wouldn't want you to easily game the system. What stood out at me when glancing over the metrics that they use to figure out your Klout score was that they were actually digging a bit below some of the surface level metrics. It matters how many followers you have, but more importantly it matters how much they interact with you. It matters that you have lots of friends on Facebook, but it matters even more that you receive consistent interaction on your Facebook content from varied sources.

It makes sense to use these measures, and a number of the others that they list, to come up with a social score, but it again feels like a game to me. It's neat to figure out what type of social media archetype I fall under (I'm a "Networker" by the way) and to see how my Klout scores grow (my "True Reach" is trending ever upward!), but does this really tell me anything useful about myself or my social media interaction? I'm not sure... but it makes me want to keep playing the Klout game to see how high of a score I can get!  Maybe that's all they hope to achieve. Since they need Facebook and Twitter (and LinkedIn... I guess) to survive, of course they're going to push you to continue to use those services, and to use them more heavily than you did before.

So I come back to the question I've posed different ways throughout this post: Is Klout useful? After thinking about it, spewing out what I think about the service, and mulling over my usage of the service... I still don't know, but I'm leaning towards a qualified "no".  Through my jaded eyes it feels like trying to get as many yearbook signatures as you can before the end of the year so that you can look at the oodles of scribbled messages and feel like you're popular, even if you didn't really interact with half of those people outside of trying to get their John Hancock.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Eyes Set to Kill - The World Outside Album Review

Surprisingly, I was wrong in my review below. Originally published on May 29, 2009, I thought for sure that this album would end this band. The drama in the band was there, they had a complete lack of compelling songs, the trend they were a part of was (I thought) dying out, there were 3 times as many past band members as current band members, and the record didn't look like it was going to do very well sales-wise... but yet with all of the odds stacked against them, they're still around. It baffles me, but I guess even the worst of bands can stay alive if they want to bad enough.

Let’s just be honest from the get-go: this album is horrible. There’s no valid reason you should even consider buying or listening to The World Outside. It’s simply a mess all around. The songwriting is lazy, the vocals are forced and strained, there is little to engage you, and this has all been done to death in the relatively recent past. This album puts an exclamation point on the downward spiral this band has been on since their inception.

Eyes Set to Kill weren’t always this terrible, though. On When Silence is Broken, the Night is Torn, they showed a tremendous amount of potential and had a few solid melodic metalcore songs that got the band noticed and put them on the map. In fact, for this 9 song EP, they put out 4 singles with music videos to accompany each, and all 4 of the songs were catchy and completely listenable. This EP was going to be their springboard to bigger things, but then their lead vocalist, Lindsey Vogt, left the band, which meant Alexia Rodriguez had to step up as lead vocalist on their next effort. With Reach, the band’s debut album, they re-recorded 3 songs from their EP, reworked some other material from the EP, and wrote some new songs, all of which were very underwhelming. Reach neutered the re-recorded songs and showed the band pushing too much for the mainstream, which now didn’t really view them as the darlings they previously were when they were obscure newcomers.

The World Outside was their chance to right some of the mistakes of Reach. It was a second chance of sorts and they let it slip away, no doubt dooming the band to obscurity or, what’s most likely, a forthcoming breakup of the band. They didn’t help themselves by kicking off the album with one of the weakest songs on the album. “Heights” starts with Brandon Anderson attempting to scream out the first verse, but instead of chills of intimidation, you’ll have chills stemming from how unnatural and forced his vocals sound. They’re very much akin to the butchered, mangled screams of early Vanna. Rodriguez is a passable vocalist, being responsible for all of the melodic vocal leads, but she comes across as nothing more than a slightly older, more mature version of Haley Williams of Paramore fame with less range.

The interplay of the two vocalists is pretty typical in that they either use a back and forth approach or they layer their vocals together. They don’t entertain any interesting or unique vocal approaches, obviously learning nothing from the legions of dual vocalist metalcore bands that have come before them. It would probably have been a better bet to cut out Anderson’s vocals altogether considering how much of a detriment to the band he is. Even so, if they were to drop all of the harsh vocals, Eyes Set to Kill wouldn’t be much more than a slightly heavier version of Vice on Victory that has a couple of piano interludes.

What hurts the most is that it almost feels like the band is forcefully trying to be average. The songwriting is pedestrian at best and simply replays the genre’s stock formulas over and over again. You won’t find an original lead or a truly unique song structure anywhere on The World Outside. The closest the band gets to average comes in the form of some of their choruses. Occasionally, they can craft a catchy chorus that stands out, such as on “The Hollow”, but more often than not they are pretty standard fare as well.

This is all pretty harsh criticism, but it needs to be said. With so many bands making music, there’s no shortage of talent on the horizon, which means a band can’t afford to play it safe or half-ass it when they have a chance to break through. Eyes Set to Kill botched their first attempt to blow up with Reach and were fortunate enough to get another go-round. However, they botched their second chance even worse than their first. The World Outside will most likely be the death of Eyes Set to Kill.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Quality Assurance... How Did I Get Here?

For the last year and a half I've been working in IT quality assurance as a team lead for a small IT organization. To be completely truthful team lead may be a bit misleading right now as our QA team consists solely of me. It's not all that bad, though, since I generally get along with the people on my team (read: voices in my head). Oddly, though, when I look back on my career history and where I thought I was going coming out of college, QA was never a place I thought I'd find myself but somehow... well, it is a good fit for me.

I went to college at St. John's University in Collegeville, MN from 1999 to 2003 and graduated cum laude with majors in both computer science and philosophy, not exactly two majors that you would think go together, but I loved them both... to certain degrees. I came into college extremely focused on my computer science major. I loved technology, had dabbled in BASIC programming (yes, I realize how lame that sounds), and wanted so badly to get through college so that I could get that 6-figure salary working in a cushy office coding at my leisure. Well, that was until the tech bubble had burst and I came to realize programming might not be the thing for me.

As I took more and more of my computer science classes, I found a sharp distinction between those I loved and those I loathed. Anything conceptual I was mesmerized with; anything coding related I slogged through not really enjoying. It was this realization that led me down the path of also pursuing a philosophy degree (it's all about concepts) to augment (or offset... I'm not sure which) what I was doing with getting a computer science degree.

When I dipped my toes into the real world I had an internship for two summers at the same company working on simple coding for a project that didn't appear to be really going anywhere, but it was experience, right?  Being dumped into an environment where there were already thousands of lines of code, various technologies being used, and conventions that I wasn't used to did not bode well for me. I spent altogether too much time poring over the little details of how parts of the application worked, I used up a lot of time experimenting with my code to see what different results I could get by changing small things, and, since this was an internship, I played a lot of office games with the other interns and some of the funner programmers.

I quickly learned that programming for 8-10 hours a day wasn't for me, but I still loved technology and had a natural knack for writing (and could churn stuff out pretty quickly) so as I graduated from college, with the dot-com bubble explosion still looming over the tech industry and my not really being that interested in actual programming, I signed on as a technical writer for the company I had interned with. This was actually a pretty solid fit as I was still in the technology world, but I was focused more on writing. As I crafted a 250+ page opus of a user manual for a relatively established software package (that simply didn't have a manual up to that point), I found myself playing a lot in the application, pushing boundaries, and being a little too OCD about functionality... I was essentially doing black box and usability testing of the application while working on the manual, but didn't realize it.

My next move was to the business team for the same employer, working as a business analyst. Essentially I interacted with the company's clients, the business team, and development to see where changes/upgrades/fixes were needed and then write the corresponding requirements documents and specifications. It was interesting in that I was tasked with creating documents that straddled a very thin line between being understandable by the business yet getting across enough specificity that our developers knew how to implement and code the requirements. I found myself drawn to the more complicated requirements where I was forced to search for every possible scenario that could be encountered and specifying the desired outcome. I was intent on making sure every base was covered. I was, in essence, creating test scenarios and use cases that not only translated to development of the application, but fit nicely into a QA format.

Eventually I moved on to another company, this time as a "technology specialist" (quite the ambiguous title, eh?). My job consisted of a myriad of tasks--application configuration, documentation, training, and performing user acceptance testing of applications our team would be using. I was moving on from dipping my toes in the QA waters to actually stepping in to see how the waters felt. I ended up being meticulous with my testing and kept a number of application releases from seeing their scheduled production go-live dates because of issues I had uncovered, which sucked for getting things deployed on schedule but was great for me as it was pointing me in a direction of something I might have a knack for...

This leads us to last year when I was officially given the reigns of a QA team (consisting solely of myself) and practice (which previously didn't exist). It seemed like a natural progression from the path I was on, but I quickly realized that, hey, I was never actually trained in QA!  No formal training, no tutelage under another QA professional, no involvement in a QA team... everything I knew was from first-hand experience when given the job of "making sure something worked."

It's worked out well so far, though, as I've continued to take everything I've learned, add some gradual maturity to it, figure out what does and doesn't work, and do the best I can. I've started some training through IIST (working towards my CSTP-M certification) to fill the formal training gap that's missing, I'm trying to read more blogs on the topic of QA, and am trying to interact with other QA professionals through social networks. And, since I seem to cover just about every other topic under the sun that I'm interested on this here blog, I might as well write about my experiences. It might just provide to be helpful for other people that have stumbled into the QA world by accident or, at the very least, give seasoned QA professionals something to snicker at!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rick's Discoveries Volume VI

Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen my folder of albums that I had received yet not listened to grow to house well over 200 individual albums. For a while I was having more albums added per day than I could listen to in that day. I needed to weed through what I had on hand. In doing so, I was a bit more judicious about what received full listens from me (usually I always believe in giving a band’s effort at least one complete listen). If a band didn’t grab me in a couple of songs they were either filed away or deleted. If a band did manage to get my attention, it got a full listen. If it managed to somehow elicit multiple listens from me, it made it onto this list! So out of the about 60 albums I tore through, these are the 10 that kept my attention. Enjoy!

Obscura – Omnivium

In 2009 Obscura put out the rock-solid tech-death offering Cosmogenesis (which more than makes up for the garbage that was Retribution). Two years later we now have Omnivium and Obscura have become even more of a progressive tech-death band. Don’t let the tag “progressive” throw you, though. This band could still run laps around The Faceless and Brain Drill when they need to, but what truly separates them from their peers is the infusion of progressive structures and playing styles into the tech-death format. It’s almost like you took pieces of Cynic and Opeth and found a way to have them make sense within the tech-death realm. A perfect example of this combination would be the almost nearly instrumental track “A Transcendental Serenade.” I don’t listen to a lot of tech-death because it often feels unnecessarily cold and mechanical, but Obscura have found a way to keep my interest, mostly by making sure that they’re creating actual songs, not just compositions that allow band members to wank off their instruments as much as possible.

Dirge – Elysian Magnetic Fields

Dirge have been around in some fashion or another since 1994, but Elysian Magnetic Fields is my first encounter with them, and after this encounter I will definitely start tracking down some of their past works. Utilizing lengthy tracks and sludge/post-metal builds and structures, Dirge will remind you of bands such as Zatokrev, Cult of Luna, and, of course, Neurosis (but not as much as you’d think). This album is a solid slab of heavy sludge metal with just enough atmosphere here and there to keep things from sounding too similar throughout. Dirge know how to create a dark, heavy sound that will slowly but surely tear you down… which is a good thing, right?

The Interbeing – Edge of the Obscure

I feel like I’ve been waiting for this album for a remarkably long time. Ever since I listened to Perceptual Confusion in 2008 I have anticipated hearing a full length from The Interbeing. Now that Edge of the Obscure is here, I am relatively satisfied. Relatively because they only bring 6 new songs to this album (they reuse the 4 tracks from their EP, albeit rerecorded). Still, this is some very solid melodic death metal in the vein of Disarmunia Mundi, Mnemic, and Scar Symmetry. The easiest way to figure out what you’ll think of this album is to look at your reaction to reading the listing of the three previous bands. If that got you interested, you’ll love this. If you rolled your eyes, then just stay away.

Paul Wardingham – Assimilate Regenerate

In reading up on this album, I’ve seen it described multiple times as sounding like an instrumental version of Scar Symmetry… well, yeah, that pretty much does sum it up. There are more guitar solos, some djent leanings, and slightly more focus on flow (since the songs don’t have to cater to interacting with vocals), but in the end if you like Scar Symmetry or Periphery or Chimp Spanner or any of the brethren of those bands, you’re going to downright love this album. Even with the heavy focus on lead guitar throughout many of the tracks, the supporting portions of the songs are extremely well fleshed out and provide a thick, layered background that actually gives the guitar work more weight. This is a phenomenal progressive metal album.

Skrillex – Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites

I am pretty sure many of you are reflexively cringing at my inclusion of Skrillex, the alter ego of Sonny Moore (who you no doubt know from his time with From First to Last). Moore’s electropop solo work under his own name was complete and utter garbage, so I’m not even sure why I gave Skrillex a chance, but I did. Skrillex has a bit of his electropop inklings still hanging around, but the majority of his work under this moniker involves combining house, dubstep, and EBM with cut up samples, rap remixes, and crazy breakbeats. It’s a very unique combination that I haven’t previously encountered and I have fallen in love with it. Dub and house aficionados are quick to hate on Skrillex, but I think that Moore has found his calling and I’m now hooked.

Parabelle – These Electric Pages Have Been Unplugged

Remember when it was a big deal to do MTV Unplugged or to put out an “unplugged” album? When rock bands took the opportunity to strip down their songs to an acoustic framework, people went nuts. Now it’s not such a big deal, but that shouldn’t change the fact that when it is well done it is still worth noting. Parabelle, which is former Evans Blue singer Kevin Matisyn’s new band, take songs from their two albums (as well as someEvans Blue songs from when Matisyn was with them) and give them an acoustic makeover. This works phenomenally well since many of their songs already had a structure and style that would easily lend them to acoustic arrangements. And when you toss some added help from Jasmine Virginia on 4 of the 10 tracks, it gets even better. This is an all around solid acoustic effort from a more than competent, underappreciated modern rock band.

This will be easy for you. Enjoy Caspian? How about Explosions in the Sky? And maybe some Mogwai? If you answered even a “sort of” to any of those questions, this will be a band to give a look. Hailing from Germany, Administration Shock Him (odd name, I know) have the traits of their influences firmly ingrained into their playing style. They have a hard time breaking away from sounding like their influences, but if they dig the aforementioned bands, or post-rock in general, then it simply means you will feel right at home with this album. I know I did. It was a comforting feeling, really, like getting together with old friends to reminisce about “the good ol’ days” and catch up.

The Book of Knots – Garden of Fainting Stars

Consider me a big fan of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. With that said, I really enjoyed the latest Sleepytime release, Garden of Fainting Stars where they added a female vocalist that sounds a bit like Julie Christmas and used more audio clips. Wait… sorry, this isn’t actually Sleepytime. My bad. It’s The Book of Knots, but you could easily be mistaken. The Book of Knots shares so many avant-garde musical traits with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum that it would be impossible not to make the direct comparison, especially since the darkly enchanting vocals of The Book of Knots come courtesy of Carla Kihlstedt of Sleepytime. Ok… so I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but rest assured, if you are an avant-garde, experimental rock fan this was custom crafted for you.

Voyager – Hypersleep

Isis will be a band that always has a place in my album collection. As time passes, I have come to appreciate and love all of the albums of their career and, as much as I rail against copycat bands, I would love to have more Isis clones around. Voyager isn’t strictly an Isis clone, but they do share a lot of similarities to a mix of early and mid career Isis. Voyager don’t stick to simply copying their main influence, however, as they add a bit of a sludgier bend to many tracks, almost eliciting some Mastodon or Neurosis comparisons, and the vocals are much more raw than Aaron Turner’s. This combination comes together extremely well to create a gem of an album.

I’ve been up and down about this band since hearing their self titled album a couple of years ago. Their self titled album didn’t necessarily grab me, but it was competent math-rock that showed a band possessing some talent. With Gangs I’m in the same position… sort of… I continue to recognize the talents of the band, and I actually find myself getting into some of the songs on this album (especially the heavy “Search:Party:Animal”), but there are still moments where the displays of virtuosity in playing ability tend to trump good songwriting. That criticism being said, for math-rock fans (which I’m only sort of one) this will be a very appealing album. There are plenty of stylistic shifts, exquisitely played sections, and flair-filled moments to sink your teeth into.

Yes, I realize there are no volumes I through V on this blog. I'll be posting them as I get through re-posting my content from Decoy Music over the last couple of years that I had taken off from blogging.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I See Stars - 3D Album Review

For a while most of the Decoy staff were only writing album reviews for bands they liked and releases that they knew would be good. No one wanted to cover the albums that might end up being not so good or, potentially, suck pretty heavily. In order to attempt to balance out Decoy's overwhelming positive bent, I took it upon myself to review many of the "lesser" albums that came our way. This is the first in a series of reviews that ended up ripping bands apart (and for good reason... they suck). So, please enjoy this little nugget of negativity from May 19, 2009.

Damn you, Enter Shikari, damn you! By mixing metalcore with trance, synths, and dance beats you set the stage for hundreds of horrible knock-offs and poser scene bands that only want to try out the latest trend. And I’m not altogether sure, but I think we might even be able to pin some of the blame for moron-core bands like Brokencyde and Dot Dot Curve on you as well. Now, I’m not saying that Enter Shikari are altogether horrible, in fact I kind of rather like them, but they did give rise to many of the current synthcore bands like Sky Eats Airplane and Attack Attack. The sub-genre itself isn’t inherently bad, as no genre can be bad in and of itself (except maybe that crunk crap masquerading as music), but the genre will be known and judged by who gets big and popularizes it. In this case, when bands like I See Stars are getting pushed as purveyors of the genre, it’s definitely in trouble.

There are so many things wrong with this band and album that it puzzles me to no end that some songs are actually listenable despite their handicaps. I See Stars are not doing anything new. They’re simply mashing up the most popular pieces of trendy bands into their own squishy bowl of musical porridge. The album starts off innocently enough with “Project Wakeup”, a very routine Saosin rip-off, and it is quite the rip-off. The guitar lines feel directly stolen from Saosin and vocalist Devin Oliver is an uncanny doppelganger of Cove Reber. The only part of the song that diverges from the Saosin formula is some added keys at the end of the song and a couple of bad screams. Throughout the album you will swear that every sung line is Oliver doing his best Reber impersonation. Their voices are simply that similar and, it should also be noted, that a comparison to Reber is not exactly a compliment, but I suppose it’s not too horrible of a slam either.

The screamed vocals, on the other hand, are pretty atrocious. They feel very forced and hollow. A good scream needs to have some weight and depth to it where all of Oliver’s are hard to swallow. He is only 16, but even at that age he should be able to hear that screaming is not his strong suit. In fact, the band could have gotten along fine without using any harsh vocals since the majority of the songs are very upbeat and pop-core focused. It’s like they felt obligated to toss in some breakdowns and screams since that’s what everyone is doing nowadays.

What is most troubling about nearly every track on 3D, however, is that the keyboards, which dominate certain sections of songs, are completely unnecessary and fail to add anything worthwhile to the band's formula. Whereas The Devil Wears Prada or In Fear and Faith use keys to accentuate certain passages or perform transitions, I See Stars have absolutely no concept of how to utilize keys or what a good transition is. They more often than not force the keyboards into the songs or try to find a way to write a keyboard section into the mix. Take, for example, “I am Jack’s Smirking Revenge” where you have a keyboard intro that suddenly quits one minute in as the guitars and screams start. There is no transition—the keys stop and the breakdown starts. Then, as soon as the screaming is finished, the band jumps into a poppy, bouncy bridge that is unrelated in every way to the first two movements of the song. The bridge then cuts off as the band rips into a guitar focused chunk of metalcore before it is then tossed aside for a pop-rock finish. Honestly, this entire song is a sonic mess and encapsulates the youth of the band and their lack of knowledgeable songwriting.

However, it’s very obvious that this band is going to fit in perfectly with all of the other scene darlings such as A Skylit Drive and A Day to Remember since they manage to force yet another unwanted marriage of metalcore with pop sensibilities, which is all the rage right now. Some songs are listenable, such as “The Big Bad Wolf,” where the band sticks to their Saosin worshipping, and the opening track, “Project Wakeup”. But on the flip side there are some giant mistakes, such as “Sing This!” which is a quasi-dance-hop song with a guest appearance by Bizzy Bone of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. This song is a flaming, exploding train wreck of awful and it’s baffling that it was even included on the album.

I See Stars just don’t cut it. They have a hard time crafting a coherent song, can’t focus on what they want to accomplish, they try to cram too many trends into their music, and they simply made some poor choices on choosing the contents for their debut album. They probably could put together something decent if they really wanted to, but it’s pretty apparent they are more interested in short term success by fitting into the current popular scene than creating anything of artistic, lasting value.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why Can't Twitter and Facebook Just Get Along?

Despite my overwhelming detesting of Twitter on a conceptual basis, I've come to realize that even though I cannot truly fathom a good reason why people are actually using it, people are. Because of this, and because I'm competing against my wife to see who has a higher Klout score, I've decided to raise from the dead, Lazarus style, my old Twitter account. I already use Facebook more than I probably should so I thought I could simply set things up so that whatever I posted to Facebook would go to Twitter.  Boy, I sure didn't know what I was in for.

To start, there's no way to directly publish to Twitter your Facebook statuses and links. There are numerous ways, including a pretty rock solid Twitter Facebook app, to import tweets into Facebook, but going the other way appeared to not be possible. However, I was not ready to give up. I was bound and determined to find a way to publish statuses and links only once and have them go to Twitter. Also, I wanted to to keep Facebook as my primary way of interacting with people and Twitter as simply something where my content got pushed to. I don't plan on following Twitter users that much because most of what comes through Twitter is garbage anyways (I blame the ridiculous 140 character limit--people who like to use full words and sentences just can't get much in that small of a space).

I started my adventure by trying to find a tool or automated solution to grab my Facebook statuses and push them over to Twitter. Facebook used to have all kinds of RSS feeds at your disposal, but now they seemed to have made them inaccessible unless you do some sleuthing to uncover what your status feed is. This post tells you how to get it.  This leads me to my first head-scratching moment. Why the heck doesn't Facebook want you using RSS feeds any more? My guess is they don't want you exporting your content to other applications or places so that you are stuck inside of their walled garden. So, now I have a feed for my status updates (note: this doesn't, unfortunately, include posted links, pictures, or uploads... just your plain text status updates.)

To get the RSS feed to publish to Twitter, I use Twitterfeed. It lets you take just about any RSS feed you can find and use it to post the contents of the feed to Twitter, Facebook, or other social services.  Once you enter in your Facebook RSS feed, you'll need to make a quick tweak to how Twitterfeed parses the feed for posting to Twitter. In the Advanced Settings section, make sure that the Post Content is set to "description only" (as shown below). If you leave it as "title only" you'll end up having every tweet prefixed with your name and if you leave it as "title & description" you'll be double posting your content. Also make sure the "Post Link" checkbox is deselected.

So this takes care of getting my Facebook status updates turned into tweets. But I also have a blog (that you're reading) and I want to make sure that when I post a new blog post it automatically gets tweeted and posted to Facebook. To do this, I used Twitterfeed for tweeting and RSS Graffiti for posting to my Facebook wall. Let's start with Twitterfeed and using it to publish my blog posts.

First, get your blog's RSS or atom feed.  Then create another feed in Twitterfeed and input your blog's RSS feed URL. Then in the Advanced Settings section you'll want to set the Post Content to "title only" (at least if you're using a blogger site). This makes the content of your tweet the title of your blog post. If you choose "description only" it will start pulling from the beginning of your actual post and if you leave it "title and description" it will use your post title and the description combined. And, I'm guessing, most post's contents won't fit in the 140 character limit of a tweet, especially since you need to save some room for the URL. Since you want to link to your post, make sure the "Post Link" checkbox is selected and (if you have a account) input your details. Make sure to also have your Post Sorting done by pubDate and, lastly, if you want to prefix your tweet with anything use the "Post Prefix" field (I prefer to prefix all blog tweets with "New Blog Post:").

This gets your blog posts to Twitter, but what about Facebook? Thankfully RSS Graffiti is dead simple to use. Just authorize the application, input your blog's feed, leave the default settings as-is, and you should be ready to go. You can customize the frequency of how often it checks your feed or if you want to use a account or how many posts it can post at once. None of those are essential to making the application work, though.

So now we have to figure out how to tie links I want to share between both Facebook and Twitter. This proved to be harder than I thought since Facebook apparently no longer has feeds for shared links or content. So, I instead decided I would simply share links to a source that would feed Facebook via Twitterfeed (that will then be tweeted through the Facebook status feed Twitterfeed is already using to tweet). For this, I chose delicious (now that it's back from the dead). Since I use Chrome, I simply had to install the delicious chrome extension and remember to make use of it instead of my previous "share to Facebook" bookmarklet. Once I had that in place, I could get an RSS feed of my links.

I took this RSS feed and again created another feed in Twitterfeed (this is turning out to be quite the tool!). This time around, under the Advanced Settings I set up it so that the Post Content was "description only" and that the "Post Link" checkbox was checked (since you want to link to the link you're sharing). I chose the "description only" option for the Post Content because I want the tweet and Facebook status sent to be my comments about the link, not the title of the link. If you would rather have the title of the link be what is sent, use "title only" since the title in this feed is the link's title. If you want both the link's title and your comments, select "title and description".

Now when I want to share a link to both Twitter and Facebook I click the chrome extension and, as shown in the screenshot below, I just add into the Notes field what I want to show up as Facebook status and, slightly later, as a tweet. Once I adjusted to sharing links in this manner, it was a perfect way of sending links to both platforms.

This covers just about all of the content that I want to be able to share across Twitter and Facebook. The only thing that it leaves out is sharing photos. I could use Flickr and then use Twitterfeed to make updates about when I have new photos, but Flickr is limiting and that doesn't get the photos into Facebook where I can tag friends. Ideally, I want to be able to post photos to Facebook and then have some type of tool to tweet about it, but for the time being I'll simply have to do a separate tweet if I want to let people know I have photos up on Facebook.

I know this seems like a pretty convoluted process, but now that I've got it figured out it's not all that bad and definitely is much better than remembering to post about things in multiple systems. I blog once. I make a status update once. I share a link once. Yet it goes to both systems... as long as I follow my scheme. If you have a more or less convoluted way of doing things, I'm all ears!

Monday, June 20, 2011

God Forbid - Earthsblood Album Review

In the past year to year and a half, I have almost completely stopped listening to traditionally styled metal bands. God Forbid were an American styled metal band that I used to enjoy, but now when they come up on random I almost always hit the skip button. I'm not sure why I've seemingly outgrown this sub-genre of heavy music, but there really isn't much of a draw there for me any more. This was originally published on April 21, 2009. 

God Forbid have been around for what seems like forever, running in the same circles as Machine Head, Killswitch Engage, and Shadows Fall, but never quite blowing up to the same extent as their peers. Having been together for over a decade and never having a lineup change prior to guitarist Doc Coyle leaving earlier this year (he’s been replaced by former Darkest Hour guitarist Kris Norris), you’d think that the band would have everything down to a science and would by now have enough experience to put together an album that would finally push them to the top of the American metal scene. If that was their goal, they didn’t quite succeed with Earthsblood.

Reject the Sickness and Determination, God Forbid’s first two albums, allowed the band to get a feel for each other, work out some of their kinks, and grow as a band before releasing Gone Forever in 2004. This album was arguably their best and most cohesive. It took the raw aggression of their early years, focused it, and unleashed it to the metal world. On IV: Constitution of Treason, however, it felt like the band took a step to the side or even a small step backwards. The songs on IV were more maturely written, but the decision to delve into using melodic vocals was a big mistake. Byron Davis simply doesn’t have a voice suited for clean singing. They seemed to keep the clean singing in check for most of the album, but it did ruin a few songs. On Earthsblood, instead of shying away from the weak melodic vocals experimented with on IV, they stuck with them which, in the process, mars what could have become their best album.

On Earthsblood God Forbid had managed to create a wonderful mixture of American metal song structures infused with metalcore elements. Musically, this is the culmination of the last decade of the band’s musical career. The combination of traditional metal leads, gripping solos, and hardcore breakdowns sounds so naturally blended throughout the album. When looking at it from an exclusively instrumentation point of view, the album is amazing, but as mentioned before the vocals hold the album back from achieving the greatness it is striving for.

After the senseless intro, the album gets off to an amazing start with the three-pack of “The Rain”, “Empire of the Gun”, and “War of Attrition”. The first two of the bunch are perfect representations of the lean, mean, heavy machine that God Forbid has become… except for a couple of vocal miscues. “War of Attrition” is by far one of the heaviest tracks of the album, eschewing any guitar solos and any melodic vocals, instead focusing on sheer brutality. Imagine a more metal version of Unearth, if you will. However, right after this strong set of songs, the band slows it down with “The New Clear”.

“The New Clear” is a perfect example of where God Forbid went awry on Earthsblood. The first minute and a half of the song is made up of noodling melodic guitars and weakly sung clean vocals. The remainder of the song injects some heaviness here and there, but the majority of the song is a nearly seven minute snoozefest. Yes, there is a killer middle minute to the song and a competent solo, but otherwise the song is a complete misfire.

“Walk Alone”, “Bat the Angeles”, “Earthsblood”, and “Gaia” round out the end of the album in a somewhat weak fashion. All four of the songs, which are also four of the five longest on the album, have chunks where the band tends to wander off or dive into some subpar stretches that were obviously created to fit with Davis’ clean vocal approach. For every killer solo or massive instrumental buildup, there is at least one off-putting vocal performance. For example, about seven minutes into “Earthsblood” there is a completely unforgivable clean vocal patch that detracts from the stellar solo that preceded it.

It is really unfortunate that Earthsblood turned out how it did. There is so much potential oozing from this band that you just wish they could have a do-over on this one. If they killed the clean vocals, cut a little bit of the fat, and let their aggression show full-force, there would be no complaints anyone could level against them. Earthsblood is still a very solid effort from God Forbid and is probably the second best album in their long career, but it’s still missing some pieces.

March into Paris - Shield the Dilemma Album Review

For a brief period of time I was obsessed with female fronted rock bands--indie bands, metal bands, hardcore bands, rock bands--it didn't matter what type of music it was, I wanted to hear every band that had a female vocalist. I'm not sure what drove this obsession, but I did quickly grow out of it. I do still love a few female fronted bands and artists (Holy Roman Empire, Lacuna Coil, Julie Christmas, Tori Amos...), but don't necessarily have to hear every one. March Into Paris were an ok band, but as I revisited their EP I wasn't quite as impressed. The below review was originally published on April 16th, 2009.

Admit it, as much as everyone wished that the post-hardcore genre stuck to being a boys-only club, having a female presence every now and again isn’t all that bad. However, it’s easy to see how “serious” music fans (ie: hipsters and snobs) can get upset by the proliferation of crappy indie and rock bands strapping a female vocalist onto their boring, mediocre playing. It seems like since Paramore broke through to the scene mainstream, there has been a dearth of talented rock bands with female leads. It seems like for every Holy Roman Empire there are five versions of Eyes Set to Kill and Vice on Victory clogging up music sites and label rosters. Fortunately, if you dig through the garbage, you’ll occasionally run across a band like March into Paris.

The first thing you’ll notice on Shield the Dilemma are the vocals of Jennifer Valdez. Valdez has a very natural sounding (read: non-autotuned) and commanding voice that is also both oddly sensual and vulnerable. It is very reminiscent of Skin from Skunk Anansie but somewhat more restrained. Valdez and Skin both exude a sensuous tone in their singing, but it is even more evident with Valdez as she draws out her words and extends syllables to increase the moodiness of each song.

Valdez and the rest of the band have a great interplay throughout Shield the Dilemma. Combining some of the intricate playing style of modern indie bands with moments of post-hardcore and post-rock, Valdez has a very unique canvas on which to paint her vocal stylings. It’s interesting to hear the synthesizing of influences into the various songs on this EP. For example, “Moons in Twilight” has a very distinct post-rock drumming approach coupled with guitar crescendos using post-hardcore tones. On the other hand, “Along for the Ride” shows the band at their closest to jumping into truly epic, booming, smart, hard rock songwriting. The tempo is mid-paced, the vocals soaring, and the song has a ready-to-explode energetic tone throughout. The variation between songs is noticeable, but the band also manages to maintain their own identity throughout, which is something most bands have a hard time with.

Over the course of the six tracks on this EP, March into Paris show that they have what it takes to be a musical force. There are only a few rough edges that need to be polished, such as a few moments where Valdez pushes her voice just a little too far and a couple of underwhelming transitions, but once they have smoothed them out, there is no reason why the band shouldn’t be extremely successful and lauded by their peers.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Pack Rat No More

In December of last year, my wife and I decided we wanted to move. We didn't necessarily need to--nothing was forcing a move--but with the housing market where it is we wanted to find a place where we could happily raise a family and, ideally, not have to move from for the remainder of our adult lives. Partially because we wanted a home that would always be home and, I'm sure, partially because moving sucks.

As we packed to move from our old house to our new house, it became apparent to me that I kept altogether too much crap. I'm not a hoarder by any means, but I do tend to hold on to things despite trying not to.  Mostly what I do hold on to comes in the form of collections. So even though I am no hoarder, I am a collector. Some of these collections don't take up too much space. For example, my baseball card collection can be stored in one rubbermaid tub. That's not really a big deal. However, my music and DVD and comic book collections... well, those took up a ton of space. And you really learn how much space something takes up when you have to move it.

After having moved all of my junk from one house to another, I have made it my goal to get rid of just about anything I don't actively use, need, like, or are interested in. After evaluating all of my collections in this manner, there really isn't much I want to keep. I'm also starting to realize the value that open, de-cluttered space holds.

So one of the first tasks I undertook upon moving was filtering though my DVD collection. I successfully condensed it down to movies that my wife and I absolutely adore and plan on actually watching again. We don't need to hold onto things just for the sake of having them. Our collection of movies now takes up only a small corner of a closet in our entertainment room. It's quite liberating to not have to manage so many items that, in reality, are just taking up space. Truth be told, we pretty much use Netflix and Hulu Plus for 95% of all of our TV and movie watching so owning physical copies of things doesn't do us much good.

With our DVD collection whittled down, I moved on to my music collection which was much, much, much larger in size. As of today I have successfully sorted all of my music. I'm keeping approximately 200 CDs that have sentimental value and that I know I will always enjoy listening to. I gave away about 200 to my niece who enjoys much of the same music as I do.  I have another couple hundred that I'll be sending out to staffers at Decoy Music for the work they've done over the year. And finally, the bulk of my collection I have put up on Right now, I currently have 810 albums listed for sale. And that's after having sold about 100 albums in the last few months.

When I add of this up, I somehow had nearly 2,000 CDs. If that isn't overkill, I don't know what is. Thankfully a subset of those albums were submissions for Decoy Music that I didn't have to purchase, but let's be honest, I know I've bought probably 1,000 CDs (maybe more) in the last decade. That averages out to around 100 CDs a year (skew that number a lot higher in my college years and a low lower in the last couple).  It boggles my mind when I start looking at the numbers (and my collection in box stacked upon box stacked upon box).  It feels great to start cleaning out and with every CD I sell, I'll feel even more liberated.

The next project, which is already underway, is cleaning out my comic book collection. It's not going to be pretty... mostly because my comic collection dwarfs my CD and DVD collections. God help me...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Thick as Blood - Embrace Album Review

For a while I would say that about half of all of the music submissions I received at Decoy Music were for hardcore bands of some fashion or another. It got to be a bit monotonous listening to the same type of band over and over again so I became quite jaded quite quickly. As such, I was a little more harsh when reviewing hardcore bands at that time simply because I was sick of them. I listened to some tracks off of this album this last week and I stand by my statements that Thick As Blood mostly rip off other artists, but this album might not have been quite as awful as I made it out to be. This was originally published on April 8, 2009.

Hey pit monkeys, are you ready for your next favorite ground-pounding soundtrack? You better be, because it’s here. Thick as Blood’s sophomore effort, Embrace, takes the hardcore sound they used on Moment of Truth and whittles it down to the absolute basic necessities needed to get a pit swirling and kids spin-kicking themselves out of their camo cargo shorts.

The sad part about the above paragraph is that it really shouldn't be taken as a compliment. Embrace feels like a complete retread of ideas already used up by bands such as Bury Your Dead, Terror, and pre-Venom & Tears Throwdown. The pace throughout the entire album stays almost completely constant, only shifting into slower gears here and there to set up breakdowns or to get into an actual breakdown. If you had to classify Thick as Blood’s sound, you’d best describe it with the sub-genre classification of “breakdown-core”.

Every song, except the pointless intro track and the interlude “Horizons,” is between 2:22 and 2:51 in length, exclusively uses barked hardcore vocals, has at least 2 breakdowns, and eschews any attempt to mix up the beat-down formula they use. This might not be that big of a deal in some cases, but as was mentioned before, Embrace sounds like a complete rip-off of Bury Your Dead and Throwdown. Everything from the vocal styling to the songwriting screams out second generation clone.

If you’re willing to look the other way and pretend that Thick as Blood are somehow doing something new and interesting, there are a couple of great fist-pumping anthems that should help you toss up a few extra pounds in the weight room. The title track shows the band at their most cohesive and has an intensity that is somewhat palpable. “Open Water”, the shortest song on the album, is also one of the more interesting tracks because of a few moments where the guitars sound just a tad more menacing than anywhere else.

Eulogy Recordings is, if nothing else, a consist label that again shows they cater to a very specific audience. Embrace will provide hardcore enthusiasts with a new version of many old ideas, and will present them in a polished, well-produced format. Unfortunately, too many of us have been around in the hardcore scene for too long and have heard all of this before, many times over.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Pandora: Busted IPO... or Long Term Opportunity?

Pandora didn't quite have the legs that LinkedIn did after their IPO, did it? Within a day of its IPO Pandora is now trading under its public offering price. Most analysts have been skeptical of Pandora (and of most tech IPOs) because they're not yet profitable, they don't have a solid moat, the barrier to entry in their industry is small, and they're a tech company struggling to make it in this Web 2.0 environment.

A lot of people see this company tanking in the future, and I can respect most of the reasoning presented, but part of me sees Pandora leading a shift in the music consumption patterns of people. We all know that the CD business is on its way out. Record labels have been slow to adapt to a digital world and have lost a lot of power and the ability to control what people are exposed to. Yes, we still have the mega-stars like Lady Gaga and U2, but there's now a seeming infinite amount of options for music to fit your very specific personal tastes.

No longer are you relegated to picking a radio station that plays music that sort of fits into the realm of music you listen to. No longer are you forced to pay for the ability to have a more tightly curated set of stations to listen to (a la satellite radio).  Instead you simply have to head to Pandora or to get personalized radio stations based upon an artist you're interested in or a specific genre of music. And if your mood changes, you just flip to a new genre station.

I think that this ability to quickly get to a type of music will be appealing to casual listeners, especially if Pandora can get more penetration into mobile devices, cars, and stereo components.  If they can emulate the Netflix approach and get their service on every device imaginable, they can turn themselves into THE source for customizable internet radio.

Yes, there are competitors from some big players like Apple with their iCloud and Amazon with their digital locker for music, but I don't see either of them as true competitors. Those services are for people that still buy specific music, listen to specific artists, and want a pre-defined music selection to choose from at any time. iCloud and Amazon's services will fill that niche. Pandora, however, will appeal to more casual music listeners that still crave some amount of choice.

To make a further comparison between Pandora and Netflix, look at Netflix's "competitors" -- Amazon and iTunes. Again, I don't see them as real competitors. Amazon and iTunes are great for purchasing or renting specific titles while Netflix simply provides you access to a load of content for various tastes and you can take what is given you to fill that craving at a specific time. Pandora presents you with something to fill your craving for a certain genre, but might not give you specifically what you want. To get specific items, you use iTunes or Amazon. If anything, they are complementing services.

I think Pandora is a risky short term play for sure, but as a long term play, I think they have quite an advantage that they can use to truly capitalize on the shifting consumption patterns of music listeners. I might be throwing money into the flames, but even after their busted IPO, I've put a small position in Pandora in the hopes that, as a longer term play, the company can become the Netflix of music.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Bigger Lights - Fiction Fever Album Review

Remember when pop-punk was all the rage? It seemed like if you wanted to get big, all you had to do was make a moderately catchy album with cheesy lyrics and the music buying teenage populace would rush out to buy whatever you were pushing. Thankfully, those days appear to be gone, but I think part of that is because pop-punk has simply been supplanted by trendy pop-metalcore. It's a rough world nowadays and kids want some edge in what they listen to. I never got into the pop-punk genre much, at least the modern incarnation of the genre. I still love classic pop-punk from the 90's as put out by all of the Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords bands. The review below was originally published on March 18, 2009.

Who would have ever thought that a pop-punk band would get their name from a Shakespeare play (The Tempest, to be exact)? It seems somewhat counter to the fun-loving, laid-back nature of the genre, but the odds are that your average pop-punk fan would never know where The Bigger Lights’ name came from (or maybe even who Shakespeare is) unless they were digging through the band's bio online.

Signed to pop-rock, pop-punk powerhouse label Doghouse Records, The Brighter Lights have joined the company of already established acts such as The All-American Rejects, Say Anything, and Jet Lag Gemini. The only label that might have been even more fitting for The Brighter Lights is Fueled By Ramen. Fiction Fever is an unabashedly paint-by-numbers pop-punk release, complete with hand claps, oohs & ahhs, crooning adolescent vocal melodies, and whispered backing vocals. Take these traits and pour them over some basic pop-punk song structures and you’ve pretty much got The Bigger Lights.

You could leave it at that, but it does deserve mentioning that, despite the overwhelming stench of leftover Fall Out Boy b-side songwriting, more than a few of the songs on this EP are actually decently catchy. However, for every catchy track, there’s an utter failure to offset it. For example, “Goldmine Valentine” sees the band wondering if they can break out of the genre conventions that trap them, but by goofing around with tempo switches, odd chastising vocal “Oh no no no” passages, and some odd stuttering guitars they only prove they don’t quite know what to do when they’re not sticking to the strict guidelines of the pop-punk playbook.

With the right marketing and tours, however, it wouldn’t be that tough for The Bigger Lights to be as popular as All Time Low or Hit the Lights. On their own merits, though, they don’t have a lot going for them other than being able to excel at crafting cookie-cutter pop-punk songs that don’t push any boundaries. If that’s what you want, which is true for many kids today, then Fiction Fever will be just perfect.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I'm Still Falling Out of Love, Netflix

I know I've already recently ranted about Netflix, but even in the short time that's passed since then, I've noticed a few other things that rub me the wrong way.  Since the latest couple of seasons of South Park are now streaming, I wanted to catch up by watching through season 13 on my bus ride. As I went to watch on my iPhone, I had to load and scroll through the entire list of streaming South Park episodes (which meant I had to go through all of the first 12 seasons before getting to what I wanted to watch). And I'll have to do this each time I want to watch the next episode.

Well, I wouldn't have to if the "Resume" link worked. It's not necessarily broken, but more often than not when I choose to "Resume" watching a TV series it kicks me back to an episode I've seen that Netflix somehow forgot to log that I've watched. So then I've wasted time getting to an episode I've already seen, I have to go back to my queue, navigate around to the episode I actually want to watch, and then load it. Since I'm doing this on my iPhone over 3G it isn't exactly blazing fast.

I know, first world problems, but much like I mentioned regarding Mint, I hate to see a phenomenal service start to get muddied down. Netflix streaming used to be amazing. Now it's only pretty cool. Soon it'll be merely functional, and I'm sure given enough time it'll be atrocious to use. I hope that I'm completely wrong, but I'm not confident I will be.

The other recent change that I find a step in the wrong direction is the watch instantly section of their website. No longer can you quickly shuffle through titles, but instead you have to slowly scroll through rows of movie covers. And in order to see the details of the movie or series you have to hover over the movie cover and let a popup appear that contains the entry's rating, summary info, and description. Before you could at least get the rating info without accessing the popup. And when you click on a title's cover instead of going to the title's page, it tosses you right into the stream of that title. To get to the information page for the title, you have to wait for the popup after hovering over it and then you must click on the title. It's kind of a pain to use.

In the last year or so, I can't think of a change to Netflix's interface, be it mobile or web, that has been for the better. I'm not sure what their goal is with the shift that they're making in their organizational structure and GUI, but it definitely isn't something I'm on board with.

Hunting Club - Pretty / Ugly Album Review

I should probably have disclosed at the time that I wrote and published this review that it was for a friend's band... oh well. Shortly after the release of this album, however, my friend left Hunting Club so I guess if I was somehow benefiting the band, it didn't end up benefiting my pal that much. With that being said, I genuinely enjoyed the album as a good change of pace from what I was usually listening to at the time. And I'm always happy to get local Minneapolis bands some exposure when possible. This was originally published on March 4, 2009.

Minnesota winters can be long, frigid, and desolate affairs. To anyone not from the upper Midwest, the cold winter season sounds unbearable, but when you are born and raised in the land of 10,000 (usually frozen) lakes you learn to embrace the cold, sometimes even coming to love it. In dealing with the sometimes brutally arctic weather, a favorite method of coping utilized by Minnesotans is to get a group together, hide out in a cabin, pound back some PBR and Grain Belt, gather around the fireplace, and relax in the company of friends.

When you listen to Pretty/Ugly, it is quite obvious that Hunting Club has been influenced by the warm mood that often emanates from such gatherings. Think of them as melancholic parties in the middle of the frozen expanses surrounding all involved, each person coping with the desperate cold encroaching every part of a Minnesotan's winter life, with the exception of the warmth shared by this group of friends. This island of positivity in a landscape of what feels like hopelessness is, if you ask me, the manifestation of the shoegaze genre, or maybe shoegaze came about as a way to express these long, lonely Minnesota nights. I can’t tell you which, but Hunting Club are well entrenched in the introspective nature of the genre.

The EP starts out very sparsely, with the opening half of “Deep Sea Diver” playing out in a dissonant, minimalist fashion. The latter half of the song sees the band dropping the minimalist approach and amping up the dissonance and moodiness, bringing to mind another Minnesota band, Red Fox Grey Fox, only if they were a little more depressed.

Throughout the middle 4 tracks of the EP, the band oscillates between fuzzed out, indie rock and down-tempo shoegazing. There are nods to the stripped down style that Starflyer 59 used sporadically during their later career and the shoegaze approach of the great My Bloody Valentine. In an effort to add a little something new to the standard indie and shoegaze mix, there are some undertones of modern post-rock guitar playing, most notable in the latter half of “Redhot,” where you hear the use of twinkling, shimmering guitar tones that everyone associates with Explosions in the Sky. Not content to stick only with shoegaze, Hunting Club also strays, at times, into straight-up indie rock territory. There are hints of Yeah Yeah Yeahs in “Make It Work,” and “Hang On! We’re With You” attempts to close out the EP on a somewhat upbeat note.

Hunting Club are very much at their best when they’re keeping it low-key, using slower tempos, and utilizing the dissonance and fuzz of the shoegaze genre. Considering winter is still in full swing here in Minnesota, Pretty/Ugly is a welcome comfort. Even if you aren’t forced to deal with snowy winters and below 0 temperatures, I’m sure you’ll still be able to appreciate and enjoy Pretty/Ugly.