Sunday, July 31, 2011 - My New Obsession

You may or may not have heard of the up and coming service recently, but if you haven't I'll start by simply saying, "Check it out!" Essentially, it's a series of chat rooms that have people "spinning" music for their fellow DJs and the audience (chat room participants) to listen to. Anyone can be a DJ and take one of the 5 open slots when they're available in an established room (or create your own for you and your friends), pick songs from a media library (or upload your own), and work with your fellow DJs to create a custom mix for your audience. It's like listening to a music channel as curated and chosen by your friends or people you get to know through the service.

I've spent a lot of time in the Decoy Music Turntable room as a DJ, spinning new hardcore and metalcore for fellow heavy music lovers from Decoy (and some facebook friends). For such an amazing and addicting service, when you think about it, it's really a pretty simple concept. Take a chat room, mash it up with the ability to play music that the group can listen to together, add a voting system to keep from having too many Rick Rolls, and boom--that's Turntable.

There's a number of reasons I see this formula succeeding. First, there's the game aspect of it all. If you get a chance to hop in a DJ slot, especially if there's a decent crowd in the room, you're going to want to play songs the crowd will like for two reasons--first, so you don't get your song lame'd and look like a fool for what you chose to play and, second, so that you can get "points" for having people love what you're playing. As your points accumulate you are allowed access to new avatars which sets you apart from the masses, showing you have more clout than regular users. It's not World of Warcraft, but the "level up" concept is in full effect.

Building on the game aspect is the social aspect. Everyone in a room can chat as well as vote on the songs being played. When you note a song as being "awesome" your avatar starts bobbing along to the music, so fellow people in the room can see what you're digging. And with the chat room mentality you get both the good and the bad that's always been associated with it--a superb social environment to talk about whatever by people who are in the same room because of a shared interest, but also a forum for people to just be dicks if they want. The latter is somewhat kept in check by each room having a moderator that can boot people who misbehave.

Lastly, even if you don't care about playing the game or socializing, Turntable presents a great alternative to Pandora,, and other algorithm-driven internet radio. Instead of having a program choosing what songs are similar to what you want to hear, there are a group of people putting together what they think fit a genre or theme or group of people best. Add to this that right now there are no limitations on what songs can be played (remember, you can upload your own music), the variety is, essentially, infinite. Whereas other services are relegated to what's in their catalog, Turntable isn't, and for genres that don't have a lot of variety on internet radio stations, such as dubstep, Turntable has become the go-to place to listen to music.

Assuming the record labels or RIAA don't have the service shut down or it isn't acquired and neutered by a large media company, and if they buff up the rough edges (ie: they need multiple playlist support, mobile apps, non-mp3 file support, and some other small things) Turntable will be a hell of a competitor to other internet radio options. Right now, I've already given up listening to Pandora and for my internet radio and go straight to my favorite Turntable rooms.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Theta Naught - Naught Christmas Album Review

As I very quickly mention at the start of this review, I'm not a huge fan of Christmas music. I like the occasional punk cover of an xmas tune here and there, but traditional Christmas music does nothing for me and I do my best to simply tune it out when the holiday season rolls in. I may be a little rough on the holiday as I talk about it here, but I think I mostly wanted to illustrate how Christmas-time has lost a lot of its luster in my eyes. Still, I must say that the post-rock versions of these Christmas classics made them somewhat palatable to me, which is a nice feat. I can't say I actively listened to this album around Christmas time, but I could tolerate it more than other traditional music. Anyhow, I know it's not Christmas now, but this is the next review in my list of un-blogged reviews! This comes to us from December 22, 2009.

Traditional Christmas music, in my mind, can go away forever and I wouldn’t miss it at all. We’ve all heard the same tired songs every year, usually while in the mall trying to find crap to buy for relatives you don’t even like. Or they’re blasted ad nausea over the radio waves in the hopes it’ll get people “into the holiday spirit”. For most people, though, “holiday spirit” consists of spending too much money on useless crap that’ll get returned a week after you give it, drinking just to keep from killing your family, and stressing out over the myriad of events that you have to participate in so that you don’t look like a scrooge. Do I hate Christmas? Probably more now than I used to, but generally I still like the holiday season. The music, though, has got to go. The only things that keep me even remotely interested in holiday music are the inevitable Christmas song covers that bands put out. This year, unfortunately, has been somewhat disappointing. The Bowling For Soup album outright sucked, the MXPX album was passable but had too much old material, and August Burns Red’s rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was only one song (come on guys, you could make an entire album of Christmas music that would blast grandma right out of her rocker). Then out of nowhere, Differential Records sent me a copy of Naught Christmas by Theta Naught, and this couldn’t have happened at a better time.

Naught Christmas is an album filled with those Christmas classics I so much love to hate, but put through a post-rock filter that not only strips down these overplayed favorites into, at times, minimalist interpretations, but takes the key movements of each song and builds on them to create sprawling epics, most notably their 10+ minute long version of “Little Drummer Boy” and the 9 minute “God Rest, Ye Merry Gentlemen”. I know what you’re thinking, but Theta Naught didn’t take these songs and simply add peaks, valleys, crescendos, and unnecessary wankery to each song. That would be too easy.

What Theta Naught has achieved is a synthesis of the traditional components of each song and the post-rock mentality. Let me explain. No doubt your grandparents or parents have a Christmas CD or two where it’s all instrumental or acoustic versions of classics. It’s easy to break down a Christmas song into its most basic melody, play it on an acoustic guitar, and cash in. It’s also easy to take the basic melody of a Christmas song and use it as a starting point for a brand new sprawling composition, which is what you would think a post-rock band may tend to do. However, Theta Naught successfully marries both of these approaches. The basic melodies are still here, are very key to the entire composition, and are also the basis for the band’s unique creative output.

“Little Drummer Boy” is really the best example of how they do this. Utilizing drums to set the pace, the melody of the song is carried, at different points, by the bass guitar, banjo, harp, and cello. When these instruments are not taking to the forefront with the melody, the band are using them to explore how best to complement and underscore such a well known movements. At times this experimentation is quite amazing, but in some rare moments it doesn’t feel quite right. These off moments are very few and far between and usually only occur when the core melody is subdued behind the band's new additions to the songs. In any case, Theta Naught is both honoring and subtly reworking these classic songs for not only post-rock audiences, but general Christmas music loving audiences as well.

Christmas can be a tough time of year for some people. It can be stressful, demanding, time-consuming, and exhausting, but Theta Naught look to help calm the nerves and ease your spirits with their special post-rock interpretations of these classic songs. I can easily say that, at this moment, I can’t think of another Christmas album this year that I’d rather get as a gift, so pick up Naught Christmas for you, your family, a friend, or someone you care about.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Autumn Project - This We Take With Us Album Review

For once, I really don't have much to say about an album that I had previously reviewed. The Autumn Project put out a great, solid CD. The packaging was hand-made and authentic. There was obviously a lot of passion put into this effort. Yet... when I try to think of something to reflect about in regards to it, I come up empty. So, with that, take as you will a review originally from November 20, 2009.

I find that there is a weird phenomenon at play when it comes to home-made, self-recorded albums and the types of bands that make them. In my experience, for almost every genre of music, when I receive an album that is obviously self-record, self-produced, and sometimes even self-constructed (usually using the CD case as an excuse to make an art project), the music contained on that plastic disc is, to be blunt, often pretty bad. The bands sometimes possess a large amount of ambition and definitely have their heart in it, but sometimes the talent just isn’t there. So in most cases, when I get these types of releases I often cringe before listening… that is unless the album is from a post-rock band. I don’t know what it is about this specific genre, but almost every self-released post-rock album I receive, in comparison to efforts from other genres, contains music that is extremely polished, well thought out, and very professional in nature. It’s almost as if post-rock bands tend to care about the craft of making music more than bands of other genres. I know that may sound a bit elitist, but it’s hard to deny that post-rock bands, more often than not, have a more nuanced and informed knowledge of music than bands at the same level in other genres.

The Autumn Project’s album This We Take With Us is one of the aforementioned self-recorded, homemade affairs and, being that these guys are a post-rock band, I was unsurprisingly not disappointed by this album. Hailing from the state of Iowa, it seems as if The Autumn Project has incorporated the wide open spaces of the Iowan countryside into their musical approach. Playing a form of Constants meets Explosions in the Sky meets Gifts From Enola styled post-rock-metal, the band allows their compositions room to stretch out and grow to their fullest.

The first three tracks of the album (none of the eight songs on this album have titles) show the band rushing forth, playing with different ways to create crescendos and large walls of sound. There’s nothing necessarily unique about these tracks, but they are fine examples of what you’ve come to expect from bands playing around in the post-metal genre. The fourth track, however, is where the band seems to come into their own. The 14+ minute epic starts out methodically with a structure akin to some of Isis’ more contemplative songs. It slowly grows, weaving in more and more layers until a third of the way in it pulls back only to build a powerful and melancholic middle third followed up by an overflow of sound capped off with a final minute of aftershock effects.

With such a strong first half, it’s unfortunate that the band takes a slight misstep on the fifth track, an eight minute quasi-interlude. The completely ambient piece would have felt like a natural break in the album if it were only a minute or two in length, but it drags on way past its welcome. Fortunately this appears to be the only real mistake the band makes as the final three tracks build the band’s sound out even further. Track six again has a very strong Isis feel in how the song plays out, while the seventh track does what should have been done with the fifth track and turns a long, ambient build-up into a necessary prelude to a gorgeous post-rock crescendo leading into the final track. Having exhausted their post-metal playing at the beginning of the album, they cap off this effort with a 13 minute, luscious post-rock track that, while very familiar feeling, is a solid ending to this 73 minute trip.

As has been the case in the past, I am once again surprised by the quality put forth by an independent, unsigned post-rock band. It’s apparent that The Autumn Project have put a lot of time and effort into This We Take With Us, not only musically but in the release itself. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on the physical release, it’s a nice cardboard slipcase that is hand numbered and part of a limited run. It fits in well with the rest of my post-rock collection and will with that of any other post-rock fan. The Autumn Project have crafted a very solid post-rock-metal effort that will hopefully get noticed by connoisseurs of the genre.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Phoneless and Feeling Naked

Earlier this week my iPhone 3GS finally gave up the ghost. It was a trusty companion for many years, but something finally gave way and the pin connectors that charging/syncing cables connect to wouldn't accept charges to the phone which made it, well, unusable. I wanted to hold out for an iPhone 5 (or 4GS or whatever the heck we'll get this fall), but obviously couldn't go without a phone until then so I sucked it up and replaced my 3GS with a white iPhone 4 (yeah, I got the white one, make fun of me now).

In the couple of days with no phone usage, it became utterly obvious how tethered I am to my phone and, when I'm without it, how odd I feel. To start, I simply felt odd without the trusty weight of my phone in my pocket, constantly vibrating as I received new emails, push notifications, and texts. My right leg suddenly felt slightly lighter... and my ears felt empty.

Not only is my phone my communication hub, it is also my portable entertainment center. When I'm walking just about anywhere--to the bus, running errands, walking the dog--I have my headphones in listening to some of my favorite podcasts (like Nerdist, Doug Loves Movies, The Bugle, and many others). Without something to listen to, I felt... well, bored. I'm so ADHD that I constantly need to have something to interact with or pay attention to. Without things to listen to while walking about, I almost felt like I was wasting time and found myself rushed to get to somewhere where I could interact with things again.

My run wasn't the same either as I didn't have my phone piping in some deathcore to my headphones as I tried to keep myself motivated all the way through my 2-3 mile loop. And I couldn't map it either as my phone is my GPS, which I use for tracking my runs and bike rides. I didn't know what my pace was, how far I'd gone (well, I had a rough idea), or how I compared to previous runs.

Lastly, my bus ride was almost unbearable. When I'm feeling tired, either because it is early in the morning or because I just finished a grueling day of work, I like to grab something light from my Netflix or Hulu queue and watch it as I wait to get home. Without my phone... I was forced to either do nothing (which is not an option for me) or read, even if I wasn't totally in the mood for it.

It's amazing how essential my phone has become to my everyday lifestyle, going far beyond a device used simply for calling people. Truthfully, using it for calling people is one of the features that isn't really all that important to me--it's all of the other things it does for me that matters. If anything, I could do without the phone service as long as I always had access to a nice, solid 3G or greater data connection which, if you ask me, is where we'll be in a few years.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Rick's Discoveries Volume VII

Do you ever take stock of how what habits you may have when listening to music? Since I listen to, on average, about 8 hours of music a day I have a lot of time to reflect over when I think about my music listening preferences. I’m definitely a creature of habit, but my listening rituals do change. Before I started this article series I was content to throw all albums that I hadn’t listened to into one pile, regardless of release date, and I would listen to them whenever I got to them. Now, however, I have noticed this article series shifting how I rifle through that pile. It is now segregated into albums released this year and albums from all other years. I then have to pick whether I want to listen to something new new or something just new to me. This helps me get my articles written easier, but has had me straying less towards the “new to me” pile in favor of new releases. I hope that my craving “new” new music doesn’t keep me from uncovering some hidden gems waiting in my “new to me” pile. In the meantime, though, here at 10 absolute gems from this year that you should most definitely give a listen to.

Hands Give Me Rest

You can quote this later in the year because it will still be true—this is the first definitive addition to my best of 2011 albums list. Initially I was impressed by the way Hands, on their third album, combined the raw heaviness of early to mid career Isis with the melodic moments of Misery Signals interspersed between late career Thrice introspection and Trenches inspired walls of sound. That’s a pretty heady set of comparisons, but Hands can hold their own with any of them, and it’s actually their combination of the disparate sounds into their own approach that makes this album so compelling. And the icing on the cake is the vocal work of Shane Ochsner whose throaty yells are filled with yearning and whose delicate, cleanly sung passages are permeated with maturity and quiet confidence. His approach suits the spiritually laced lyrics, giving them a weight that otherwise wouldn’t be there in a less capable vocalist.

Talib KweliGutter Rainbows

Truth be told, I’ll probably listen to anything Talib Kweli releases. Ever since his collaboration with Mos Def forever ago I’ve been interested in what he’s doing. The first of two releases to drop this year, Gutter Rainbows is a heck of a hip-hop album, even if many fans think it is one of his lesser works. There aren’t any huge beats that will entrance you, but I think that works to the album’s advantage. The tone of the record is smooth and laid-back, even when Talib is rhyming a mile a minute. If you enjoy conscientious hip-hop, this will not disappoint.

We Are the OceanGo Now and Live

Only a bit more than a year after they gave us Cutting Our Teeth, We Are the Ocean are back with Go Now and Live. Any time I see such a short time between releases, I’m skeptical about the quality of the second album. I’m a firm believer that bands need time to let their creative juices flow and have enough time on top of that to know what they need to cut, trim, or change. When you don’t have enough time for the latter you end up with an album that doesn’t feel polished. However, in this case (as you no doubt guessed) we have quite the opposite. In the year’s time between albums, We Are the Ocean have matured a significant amount. Their latest album shows them sounding similar to Alexisonfire in a number of ways, but still working to create their own niche in the post-hardcore realm. Throughout the 10 tracks on this album, you will be hard pressed to find a weak moment, which goes to show that when you know what you’re doing, I guess you don’t need that much time between albums.

Access to Arasakavoid();

If you take a quick look at the song titles, glance at the album cover, and cue up the first few tracks, you’ll almost believe that you are inside a futuristic computational machine environment. The combination of glitchy Aphex Twin inspired madness with ambient soundscapes is a potent mix. Simultaneously introspective, menacing, and industrialized, Access to Arasaka creates a soundtrack to your most vivid technological dreams or the post-apocalyptic nightmare you deeply fear. It could easily be either… or both.

Sun CagedThe Lotus Effect

It seems like there are very few traditional progressive metal bands around. Every “progressive” band is trying to expand into other genres, be it tech-death or psychedelia or math rock or power metal or whatever other genre flavor seems to be an interesting direction to go in. With Sun Caged, however, they’ve honed in on the traditional progressive metal sound for their third full length album. With plenty of time passing between each of their albums, it is quite apparent that the band has grown with each release, this being the most interesting album they’ve yet composed. There are plenty of traditional prog movements, lengthy songs, solos, keyboards, and soaring vocals. For the progressive metal purists, this will be one of the more interesting albums to be released this year.

Falling UpYour Sparkling Death Cometh

This may be the modern, progressive rock hit of the year. Falling Up bring to mind hints of Dead Letter Circus, Dancing Echoes-era Codeseven, and even some Dredg in their take on the modern rock sound. Considering that this band started as a pretty standard alternative rock band, they have made a heck of a progression from their generic beginnings to the intelligent band that they have become. This album is solid from the sprawling opening track all the way to the concluding seven minute closer. For fans of intelligent rock, this could be the album for you this year.

CrossfaithThe Dream, The Space

Attach –core to any already existing genre and you have a new metalcore subgenre. The latest to be all the rage—trancecore. Basically to be trancecore all you have do to is play metalcore and have lots of keyboards. It’s worked for We Came as Romans, The Devil Wears Prada, Enter Shikari, I See Stars… ok, this is a genre that might be wearing out its welcome. However, I find Crossfaith a bit more appealing than the other bands listed for one main reason—they don’t sound “new.” They sound more like Still Remains, who are a band I sorely miss. I know this isn’t much of a reason to like a band, but I hadn’t found anything to replace that void in my playlist where new Still Remains albums would go… until now.

Trust CompanyDreaming in Black and White

Yes, this is the same one-hit wonder band that was responsible for you hearing “Downfall” a million times on the radio back in 2002. And, yes, they definitely have the same nu-metal infused alternative rock sound, but it’s much more mature this time out. I didn’t even know that Trust Company was still around until I noticed this album mentioned in a music blog I follow. Being mildly curious, I had to track it down to get a listen since The Lonely Position of Neutral was one of my favorite early 00’s alternative rock albums, but the follow-up True Parallels was an abysmal mess so I approached cautiously. Thankfully Dreaming in Black and White hearkens back to Lonely Position’s style, but with some tighter songwriting and much more consistently listenable tracks than I honestly expected to find. This is still pretty basic nu-metal alternative, but it is quite nicely done and a solid listen.

TurisasStand Up and Fight

This is some epic shit. This is raping and pillaging music. This is what Halfdan would have listened to as he rampaged through England. This is what his brother, Hastein, would have used to inspire his men during their Mediterranean raids. This is the soundtrack of Valhalla! And, heck, it’s a got a Viking anthem about hunting pirates. Yeah, that’s right, a Viking metal song about hunting pirates. It does not get any more awesome than that. Seriously, though, if you have ever even had the slightest interest in Viking, folk, or power metal then you owe it to yourself to listen to Stand Up and Fight. Turisas, who have been monsters in this genre since 2004, have created the album of their career. If you want to hear something truly, completely huge and epic, listen to this album from beginning to end. You’ll feel like you just experienced the full life of a Viking hero.

MC LarsIndie Rocket Science

You have no excuse not to grab this… it’s free! MC Lars, if you haven’t heard of him, is one of the more prominent nerdcore rappers. Indie Rocket Science is a mixtape that MC Lars put together but unlike most mixtapes, this doesn’t feel like a cheap, cobbled together mess. It’s slick, has tons of guests (KRS-One, Grieves, Weerd Science, Sage Francis, MC Frontalot, and many more), and is catchy as all get-out. The majority of the songs maintain the nerdy lyrics and tongue-in-cheek approach consistent with nerdcore, but don’t think of this as a “funny” album or a joke effort—this is rock-solid hip-hop, it just happens to have clever lyrics about geeky topics.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

It's no secret that people seldom write letters any more, if at all. Most of our everyday communication is done either in person, via email, or often on Facebook. The only things we mail any more are packages and cards for holidays. When's the last time you actually wrote a letter? It will probably take you a little while to remember when. For me it was about 10 minutes ago.

I make it a goal to write letters to my grandparents at least once a month, often trying to shoot for multiple times a month. I started out doing it many years ago simply because my grandparents would write notes in the cards they sent me for holidays. I thought it would be nice to take a moment and write back because it was pretty cool getting something in the mail that wasn't a bill, junk, or a magazine I didn't order.

As it became habit, I started to get more out of the process. Writing an email or posting on someone's wall or shooting off an @-reply doesn't take much time or thought and, truthfully, I can't remember the last time I took more than a couple of minutes on any type of online correspondence that wasn't either for work or a blog post. When I sit down with a pad, pen, and mug of coffee on a Saturday or Sunday morning, however, with music playing in the background and the pets at my feet, it is a supremely unique communication experience.

My penmanship is not the greatest and I'm not the fastest writer in the world so as I formulate my sentences and write them down, I actively reflect on what I'm writing about. As I write about my volleyball game from last week, even if it's only for a sentence, during the time I'm writing that sentence I'm actively reflecting on that moment.  It's not about writing about right now; it's about remembering the memorable events from the last few weeks, putting down a brief description of them, and reliving them if even for only a moment or two.

After every letter, I feel like I've strengthened my memories of the time covered in the correspondence. I'm not only recounting the events of my life for my grandparents', but I'm rewinding time and reviewing the memories I'd created. It's very refreshing to reminisce in these short bursts. So if you find yourself bored or wondering what to do with an hour or two, grab a pen and paper and just write someone a letter. It would be amazing to see more letters flowing through the post office every day... and really, who doesn't love to get a hand-written letter every now and again?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Oddzar - Ready the Chariot Album Review

I am a huge fan of progressive rock and alternative metal, especially when the two are combined together. I can't get enough of bands like Chevelle, Tool, 10 Years, and their brethren. With that in mind, I'll usually take on any album that falls into the same genre boundaries. Oddzar was one of those bands and I genuinely enjoyed this album when it came out, but unlike many other progressive alt-metal, it lost some of its luster with time. There wasn't quite enough there that was setting them apart. Still, I do think it was a good effort for the time and hope the band does put out more music in the future. This was originally published on October 14th, 2009.

Oddzar have taken a different route than many of their radio-friendly alt-metal peers; instead of watering down and glossing over their songs with production sheen, they’ve attempted to show that they are dynamic, diverse, and *gasp* interesting. It’s a bold move, and one that sometimes works but at other times doesn’t quite pan out. With only 9 tracks, this full length doesn’t feel so full and really doesn’t allow the band to fully flex their muscles.

What works best for Oddzar is their infusion into the standard alt-metal formula of various elements of other tangibly related metal sub-genres. Throughout many of the songs, especially the longer 5+ minute tracks, you get a strong Tool-lite vibe, somewhat in the vein of early Chevelle or Earshot. The longest track on the album, the title track, clocks in at nearly 6 and a half minutes and uses a nice combination of Tool influenced guitars, emotive crooning, and a very solid song structure with well defined peaks and valleys. Many other tracks follow this pattern, but not too explicitly as to make the album overly monotonous.

Adding to the intrigue of the band are Russ Eckell’s vocals. Sounding extremely similar to Stavesacre’s Mark Salomon, Eckell has a full voice that works well for the elongated singing style he employs. The only downside to his vocal work comes when he is obviously stretching for some higher register notes at the ends of certain forceful passages. He doesn’t quite have the range he is striving to use at those moments, but thankfully it isn’t an issue very often. Also, quite thankfully, there is no unneeded screaming to be found, which is a rarity nowadays since every heavy band feels it essential to at least toss in a token scream here or there. There are the occasional backup screams mimicking a sung chorus, but they’re so low in the mix you’ll rarely hear them.

I mentioned previously that the album decently diverse, which can be chalked up to the insertion of unique elements in different songs, be it the marching drums used in “Reign”, the acoustic build-up of “Demur”, or the guitar solo in “Sake’s End”, there are pieces of many of the songs that help set them apart from the rest of the album's contents. Even so, the band’s general songwriting approach is to keep the songs slower paced (with only short moments of sped up tempos), thick, and not straying too far from a standard alt-metal song structure (despite their obvious want to experiment). It would be spectacular to see this band really go balls out and ignore the confines of the genre they play in. Ready the Chariot hints at a lot of untapped talent that could be unlocked if they let themselves truly explore all of their capabilities.

Keeping in mind the confines of the genre they play in, this really is a great album. If Oddzar had a large label with a solid promotion budget behind them, you would no doubt be hearing this band all over the place. As it is, they’re a great independent band that hopefully more and more people will give a chance to based simply upon the fact that they’re a solid band that plays good songs.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Refine Those Regression Scripts

When it comes time to test a new release of a software application, I'm always anxious to dig into the new functionality to start mapping out exactly what needs to get poked, prodded, and kicked. Figuring out how to test what's new is, of course, going to be interesting because, well, it's new.  On the flip side, there's also regression testing that needs to be performed to make sure that everything that used to work still works. In between the two there's some integration testing that makes sure the new functionality plays nice with the old functionality (and vice versa).

New functionality testing will always entail creating new test scenarios, test plans, and data sets so you know you have to dedicate the time and effort to do it. Regression testing... well, that's mostly done already, right? It's easy to leave your regression scripts sit, untouched, until it's time to execute them since you're testing things that shouldn't have changed, right? It's especially easy to have this mindset in a smaller organization, but if you do give your regression scripts even a small amount of focus before re-using them, maybe updating them just a tad, you can make your regression so much more effective.

First, just do a scan through your regression scripts to make sure none of the new functionality has changed the existing functionality. If it has, make the appropriate modifications to your regression scripts so that they don't break down (if automated) or introduce confusion (if manual). I've run into more than a few situations where I had to modify regression scripts while running through them because something had changed.

Second, and I find this most important when reviewing your scripts, take a quick stock of where you had previously identified defects in releases past and make sure to cover situations that deal with replicating or attempting to reproduce those defects. You'd be surprised at how many times you'll find new defects in the same area or, heck, even notice that the previously uncovered defects aren't completely resolved. If you had an area of the application that had a few defects, pay special attention and make sure your regression scripts are giving the proper attention to that area--there are probably more issues where those you already found came from.

Third, look at where you can eliminate some testing. Let's be honest here--regression testing takes a long time, especially if you got a little overzealous when you wrote your scripts. You might not need to go through all of the tests you have in your scripts. Look for places where you can combine test cases or test steps. On one project I was able to combine 3 separate test chunks into a single battery of tests. I had separate testing chunks for adding a specific piece of data, deleting that type of data, and migrating that data. They were all written at different times so were in different spots, but as I reviewed the overall script, I found I could combine those tests into one test script that created the data, then migrated that created data, and finally deleted it. Combinations of testing chunks might not be as obvious as that, but if you know your application well and have a keen eye for evaluating your test scripts, you should usually find a spot or two where you can make them more efficient.

Lastly, and this should be obvious but it doesn't always get done, make sure to add regression testing for functionality that was added in the previous release. It's easy to be lax about maintaining your scripts and not adding to them with each release, but it is essential that you have scripts for new functionality from the last release. If you don't, you leave yourself with a gap that could become quite dangerous. You're going to give plenty of focus to your new functionality and your unmodified regression scripts will cover most of the older existing functionality, but the newer existing functionality may receive no testing which could leave defects uncovered.

I know regression testing isn't sexy and isn't always fun, but it needs to be done. Since it needs to be done, why not make it as efficient and effective as possible? It's not that difficult to give a little bit of focus to your scripts, so overcome that urge to assume you don't need to touch those scripts and give them the tune-up they need.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Elvis in the House!

Yes, it's true, Elvis did perform in our basement. Well, not the Elvis since he's in Bermuda with Tupac and Biggie, but a very fine impersonator of The King. It was all a part of my mother-in-law's retirement party that we hosted at our place. She finally said goodbye to the working world to enjoy her time as she wants to, not putting in time at a job.

We wanted to throw a surprise party, but we all know how well surprise parties actually work, so instead we compromised and went with a pseudo-surprise party. It's too tough to keep something 100% secret and under wraps and if you plans go even slightly awry, it becomes obvious to the person attempting to be surprised that things are amiss. So, why hide the fact you're having a party? We simply told her that we were doing a family barbecue at our house to celebrate her moving on from the working world. However, she didn't know that extended family, co-workers, friends, and a myriad of other people would make an appearance to share in the celebration. That was definitely surprising and we were able to keep that from being let out of the bag before the party.

The other surprise, obviously, was the Elvis impersonator. My mother-in-law is one of Elvis's biggest fans, so it was a no-brainer for one of her friends to book a private performance for her. If you could only have seen the look on her face when, instead of looking at slides of her working years, "Also Sprach Zarathrustra" pumped through the speakers and Elvis made his way down the aisle of the makeshift theater area we set up in our basement.

As we celebrated, it was hard for me to really wrap my head around the concept of retiring. She had put in her 40+ years of time in the working world (41 of them at the same employer--a feat rarely seen anymore!) and could now look back on it and not have to continue punching a clock. As it is right now, I have at least 35 years to go before I can think about that (probably more the way the retirement age keeps getting pushed further and further back). I've been at my current employer for 5+ years and that feels like quite a while so it's hard to fathom repeating that tenure 7 times over in the next 35 years.

Anyways, it was a great party, everyone had a wonderful time, we all had too much food to eat (and I'm still stuffing myself with leftovers), my mother-in-law was overjoyed, and we finally got the extended family out to our new house. All-in-all I would have to say it was quite the success!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Burning Fiction - Don't Lose Touch Album Review

For the past few years, Australia has been a hotbed for great, new musical acts. Out of all of the countries I receive submissions from, the highest quality to crap ratio comes from down under. Even Australian bands that are bad aren't really bad, they're just average. Maybe they're isolated from all the trends running rampant through Europe and the U.S. Maybe I only see what labels deem as good since they have to mail it across the sea (yes, Australia labels still mail discs a lot of the time instead of providing digital promos). Or maybe they're just the IT country for rock music right now. Frankly, I don't care what it is, I just can't wait to give every new Australian band I get a listen.  This review was originally published on September 24, 2009.

For a while I was really hoping for a new, modern wave of melodic punk in the vein of Pennywise and Strung Out to take over as the popular "scene" genre. As we saw the meteoric rise of A Wilhelm Scream, a band that had more than just a little bit of an influence from the aforementioned two bands, I thought they'd lead the tidal wave of new, similar bands. However, there weren’t really any other bands that stepped up their game like A Wilhelm Scream did. Instead we had some of the original pioneers come back to give us new albums which, let's be honest, didn't really take hold with the younger crowd. Recent efforts from Propahandhi and Pennywise just didn’t have the same magic that previous albums did. It seemed like there would be no next wave… until you look outside the borders of the United States.

Australia, in recent years, has been a nice little hotbed for punk and hardcore, as well as many other genres of music. Perhaps being on an isolated continent has kept them insulated from the overflow of horrible trends that are overtaking the US and European musical landscapes. Burning Fiction, hailing from the land down under, have not only created an album that pays homage to their influences, but have had a chance to venture out of their home country to play with the likes of Strung Out, A Wilhelm Scream, Lagwagon, and No Use for a Name. Don’t Lose Touch contains pieces of all of these bands, as well as some early era AFI thrown in for good measure.

The previous sentence easily sums up this release, and the vast majority of melodic punk fans now know exactly what to expect. This is both, unfortunately, a blessing and a curse. You know exactly what to expect, yet you may experience something of a mild letdown since this is ground which has already been well tread upon. Looking beyond this fact, though, Burning Fiction are a solid band and the collection of songs on Don’t Lose Touch will be enough to hold the attention of a listener for the half hour run time of the album, if for no other reason than to hear the traces of Davey Havok’s vocal approach in a few of the songs and to listen to the promise that the band exudes every minute of this album.

Burning Fiction seem to love what they are doing and that will, in the end, provide them with a much longer and fulfilling career than any number of myspace friends or appearances in scene ‘zines ever will. They aren’t afraid to let their influences show, they play hard and fast, and they will give you enough moments to sing along to. Really, what more can you ask for?

Friday, July 08, 2011

Matisyahu - Live at the Minnesota Zoo

Minnesota, usually known for the depths of cold during our winters, wanted to remind everyone that this state can also have some wicked summers, coating everyone in the filled amphitheater at the Minnesota Zoo with a sheen of sweat from the breeze-less, 95 degree, 99% humidity weather as they waited for Matisyahu to perform. The sweltering heat did nothing to keep the crowd from enjoying the show, however, and didn’t even phase Matisyahu as he put on a top-notch performance for all in attendance.

The show got off to a late start, but after the North Mississippi All-Stars got the crowd warmed up, the sun started to set, the lights came up, everyone rose to their feet in cheers, and Matisyahu took to the stage, taking no time at all to dive in and get started. The first few songs of the night were filled with an abundance of energy, an essential ingredient for getting the hot, sweaty crowd involved with the music. What was interesting to experience during this portion of the show, and actually throughout most of the performance, was the heavy focus on the band and the raw, aggressive approach with which they played. The opening song, “Close My Eyes,” worked as a perfect lead-off, containing all of the facets of Matisyahu’s music—reggae, rock, and some hip-hop flow—and gave everyone a chance to get involved with the music.

Using the energy of “Close My Eyes” the band transitioned into an extended version of “Youth” complete with a meditation, as well as a chance for the Dub Trio (Matisyahu’s band) to show off as they created a post-hardcore maelstrom (believe it or not) before pulling back and giving everyone a chance to catch their breath. From this point, things slowed a big as the popular songs “Jerusalem” and “Darkness into Light” let the crowd slow down and sway with the reggae beats.

The second half of the set was not quite as dynamic as the first, but it was more consistent and flowed quite naturally as Matisyahu interspersed his beatboxing and stories of his previous visits to Minneapolis with crowd favorites such as “King Without a Crown” and the set closer “One Day.” This approach actually made sense, though, especially in light of the oppressive weather, to expend the crowd’s energy at the beginning of the show and then mellow out during the progression towards the show’s conclusion. As the pre-encore show closed with “One Day” the crowd sung in unison with the chorus, making it readily apparent that Matisyahu still commanded the full attention of everyone there.

Only waiting for a couple of minutes after leaving the stage, the band returned to the stage for their encore and broke into “Warrior” before closing out with Matisyahu’s take on Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant.” With the cover song’s conclusion, followed by many hearty cheers, a weathered and entertained crowd made their way through the maze out of the zoo to the parking lot all chattering about both the show and the weather, the former in quite a positive light while the latter was vehemently derided, rightfully so.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Evergreen Terrace - Almost Home Album Review

I'd enjoyed just about everything that Evergreen Terrace had put out in the course of their career, so it was almost a given that I would have a positive view on anything they put out. That was definitely the case with Almost Home. There's a reason I try to avoid reviewing bands that I have any sort of connection to, either positive or negative--no matter how I approach the band I have some pre-conceived notions of what I think of them before even taking on their material. It's hard to avoid bands that have long histories, of course, so when I do tackle a band with history I try to keep my reviews planted within the framework of their career. Weighing their various efforts against each other gives a context that helps, at least to a point, cover up any particular bias that exists. I don't know if this tactic succeeds or not, but it is one I often utilize. For informational purposes, the review below was originally published on August 26, 2009. 

For this review to work, before you go any further, you’re going to have to either agree with the following statement or, at the least, operate under the assumption that you should agree with it: Wolfbiker was not Evergreen Terrace’s best work and was actually, upon repeated listens, a step backwards after Sincerity Is an Easy Disguise in This Business. Wolfbiker was full of energy and had a few solid songs, true, but it really didn’t seem like the band was flexing the right muscles. They excel at mixing together hardcore music, abrasive vocals, and smooth sing-a-longs. They didn’t do enough with the third part of that equation on Wolfbiker, and the album suffered in the end. Almost Home looks to rectify that problem, to a point, as well as show the band beefing up their songwriting skills.

Throughout Almost Home you will feel more of the vibe that was present on Sincerity… than any of the band’s other albums. Along with that vibe, you’ll also hear the band picking up some new techniques that set much of this album apart from what they’ve done in the past and, it should come as no real surprise, puts this album at the pinnacle of Evergreen Terrace’s discography. Setting up the album, “Enemy Sex” shows the band treading through familiar musical fields, but even though they're in the same territory they’ve previously been in, this time around they’ve livened up and thickened their sound. This is also readily apparent as the album moves through the next few tracks. The livening of their sound comes mostly in the way that Craig Chaney and Joshua James handle their guitar-wielding duties. They are branching out beyond the normal melodic hardcore that you’ve heard in the past to include more menacing tones and the occasional guitar solo (something that really adds to songs such as on “Almost Home (III)”).

This album also feels like the band put in a lot more care into writing their songs. On past albums some songs felt underdeveloped or short, but every track on Almost Home feels fully developed, even the quicker raging tracks like “God Rocky, Is This Your Face?” and “The Letdown,” both of which are full-steam ahead, pit-roiling, ear-splitting hardcore tracks. Their songwriting strength really comes into play, however, when you hear some of the more melodically focused tracks. The band is conscious of the need to make the mellow tracks catchy since sing-a-longs just don’t work if they aren’t catchy.

“Hopelessly Hopeless” and “We’re Always Losing Blood” are going to be two tracks that get you to love the melodic side of Evergreen Terrace. These are a couple of melodic hardcore gems which, scarily enough, have some mainstream appeal to them. The main reason why this appeal is there comes from Chaney’s clean vocals. He sounds as smooth and confident as ever while, on the flip side, Carey’s voracious and vicious screams continue to explode during the band’s heavier moments. Losing longtime member Jason Southwell doesn’t seem to have affected the band at all, and allowing some production input didn’t seem to hinder the band either.

Evergreen Terrace has a solid album on their hands with Almost Home. It contains a number of songs that will become live show staples (especially “I’m a Bulletproof Tiger” – this song was made to get a crowd moving) and more than a few songs that will stick with you for days after listening to them. These guys have really hit their stride and appear to be playing at the top of their game. Pick up this album and go see these guys on tour; both will be an utter treat!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Sleeping Giant - Sons of Thunder Album Review

One or two good songs does not an album make. Sleeping Giant is a perfect example of that statement. On Sons of Thunder they had one absolutely amazing song (the track "Sons of Thunder") and 8 others that were either bland or awful. In high school and college I would often buy albums solely on how good a song I heard on a mix or the radio was, and upon listening to their full album be so dishearteningly disappointed. Too many bands used the trick of having one good song surrounded by an album of crap, so I may be trained to get a bit more harsh when I stumble upon that type of situation today. Sleeping Giant will be having a new album dropping this year, so I'm interested to see if they fall into the same trap once again.

Sleeping Giant’s debut album, Dread Champions of the Last Days, was panned pretty hard at Decoy and for good reason – it was nearly unlistenable. Honestly, I thought they’d break up or fade into oblivion after such an abysmal release, but like many subpar members of Facedown Records’ roster, they hung around, stuck with it, and are now back again, but this time around, fortunately, with Sons of Thunder we have a more listenable experience.

This album is definitely a tale of two sides to the same band. You got the feeling on their debut that they were trying to experiment every now and again, but were still firmly planted in the standard, clichéd, Christian hardcore arena. With Sons of Thunder the band now almost completely differentiates themselves from song to song by either staying true to their hardcore roots or, on the longer tracks of this album, stepping into a more textured slow-burn metalcore. From listening to the progress the band has made when putting together longer, building compositions, it’s a complete letdown to listen to the straight up hardcore tracks, which are all underwhelming and feel like they were included on the album just to appease older fans.

The title track is absolutely epic and, I feel somewhat odd saying it, maybe one of the best hardcore tracks I’ve heard this year. Even the overtly preachy bible quoting in the intro can’t ruin this long, slow-building, melancholic, and hopeful song. For once the Christian background of the band feels natural as the song radiates a spiritual feel, instead of the forcefully preaching nature of some of their other songs. If there were ever a metalcore version of a prayer, “Sons of Thunder” would be it. You can feel the spirituality of the band flowing through the song as it builds to a pummeling climax about five minutes in, at which point the band hammers home the song with grinding guitars and chants of “See you in Armageddon!”

After such a powerful track, you’re thrown one of the better hardcore tracks on the album, “Descending Into Hell,” but it’s still jarring to go from something so amazing to something so formulaic. The band then oscillates back to their newfound sound, mixing in some potentially song-killing quasi-rap, but it’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds. The grinding guitars make a return, as well as the ethereal tinged vocals used a few other places on the album, all for great effect. Still, this just accentuates the gulf between the two identities of the band.

If you were to take “Sons of Thunder”, “The Streets Don’t Lie”, “The Army of the Chosen One” (which has Ryan Clark of Demon Hunter contributing a solid vocal performance), and “I’ve Seen” (where Sleeping Giant play to some Modern Life Is War influences) and create a four song EP, it would easily be a four star rated EP. As it stands, though, beyond those four tracks you have a bunch of standard hardcore and a horribly clichéd and plodding piano ballad of a closing track.

Somehow, some way, Sleeping Giant need to embrace the new direction they're taking and focus exclusively on their progressive elements. They simply don’t do straight up hardcore that well. They do, however, pull off some progressive metalcore very adequately. A lot of potential has been uncovered on Sons of Thunder which wasn’t apparent that the band possessed when listening to their debut. Sleeping Giant are making strides forward and they need to continue growing to truly make an impact on the musical landscape that previously laughed them aside.