Monday, October 31, 2011

Blindside - With Shivering Hearts We Wait Album Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Black Summer by Warren Ellis Review

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews at Goodreads

Monday, October 24, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 21, 2011

Is Being Thin Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rick's Discoveries Volume X

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

Blueneck – Repetitions

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

Arch / Matheos – Sympathetic Resonance

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

Voyager – The Meaning of I

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

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

Dead By April – Incomparable

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

Cliff Martinez – Contagion soundtrack

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

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

Lydia – Paint It Golden

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

MuteMath – Odd Soul

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

Omega Massif – Karpatia

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

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wells Fargo IRA Transfer Bug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Look Back at Our Vows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristi's vows to me:

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

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

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

Friday, October 07, 2011

For Today - Breaker Album Review

I received a lot of flack for this review. I'd been highly critical of the band in the past and considering that, in my opinion, they had not really progressed much since their formation, my criticisms did not wane. It's interesting to see how polarizing any Christian hardcore or metalcore band can be. I suppose it's that way with any Christian or religious subject, but there is so much blind defense of bad religious metalcore bands that it sort of baffles me. And I know that many bands exploit being "Christian" in order to gain exposure and make money because of this, regardless of talent. I stand by this album and band being completely generic and, in many cases, just downright bad. This was originally published on August 18, 2010.

Frankly, I’m pretty surprised that For Today has made it to a third album. Considering that their debut from two years ago, Ekklesia, was about as unlistenable as a metalcore album can get and their follow up, Portraits, was only slightly better (which means it was still predominantly terrible), all signs pointed to the band fading away. They didn't, though, and with Breaker we see For Today changing their sound slightly, but unfortunately not really becoming that much more engaging. For every small improvement they made, they had an equally notable negative change.

To start, this album has some horrible flow. Of the 12 tracks on the album you have 3 poetry readings that are from one written work, but broken up throughout the album. I’m not sure what the point of this was, but it leaves you with only 9 actual songs, one of them being the culmination of the poetry readings into a very blasé album closer that sounds like a collaboration between Amy Grant and Sleeping Giant in full-on “I love God and so should you and I’m going to overtly tell you why” mode. Maybe the band was running short on material, which I could see as plausible since most of what is here is formulaic and basic, leading me into discussing the biggest issue this album has--a lack of anything interesting.

On their sophomore album, For Today tried to expand upon their very basic metalcore sound to include some quasi-technical moments, which was admirable and helped them sound less generic. However, on Breaker For Today have tossed aside any aspirations to be technical and instead focused extra hard on trying to be the next August Burns Red or War of Ages. They’ve taken their original, bland metalcore sound and dumped in numerous bass drops, also-ran breakdowns, and a thickening of their guitar tones. This makes them sound “heavier” and will have anyone who is not very judicious about what type of metalcore they listen to stomping along, but it also dumbs down the majority of their songs.

There are a couple of instances where the band tries to do something a bit interesting, but they aren’t enough to salvage the album. “White Flag” makes use of some melodic group vocals in the chorus, which actually provides a nice counterbalance to the breakdown loaded verses. Because of this approach, this track is actually one of the stronger songs on the album and gives a glimpse of what the band can do when they’re not stuck in a rut. “Arm the Masses” has the band collectively picking up the pace towards the end with the vocals being spat out nearly rap-ish like in an angry flutter. This may not be the best idea as it gives the band a somewhat rap-nu-metal sound, but it shows the band stretching, which they desperately need to do. Finally, you have “Phoenix” which starts off with a very straight ahead, solid hardcore passage before the band falls back into metalcore breakdowns. However, the hardcore motif does come back up here and there throughout the remainder of the song.

I want to believe that For Today have a solid album in them somewhere since they’ve shown some glimmers of hope on Breaker, but I’m also wary that they’re too easily drawn to sticking with what they know, which is generic metalcore. They are making incremental steps towards breaking out of their self-imposed boundaries, but if they are this slight every album, it may be another 4 or 5 albums before the band really breaks out. I don’t think that even the most forgiving metalcore addict has that much patience, though.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Congratulations Marathoners, Your Dedication Is Crazy

Runners as they come through mile 14
Over this past weekend the Twin Cities Marathon took place in Minneapolis. Having a couple of friends running it, I went out with my wife and a friend to cheer on runners at various points throughout the race. My wife mapped out when the runners we were cheering on would get to strategic checkpoints that would allow us enough time to cheer them on, drive to the next checkpoint, cheer some more, make our way to the next checkpoint, and so on. It worked out quite well, actually, and instead of cheering on many runners from one spot we were able to cheer on our friends at multiple locations.

As the waves and waves of runners passed by, it was hard not to get caught up in the festivities of the event. I'm not a huge yeller or screamer when it comes to cheering (well, unless it's for a particular person), but seeing the support that all of the spectators were giving to all of the runners was pretty amazing. I know that it's this way for most marathons in cities across the world, but it's so much fun to see it happening in your own back yard.

The Cheer Squad
Watching all of the runners speeding by, I find myself getting caught up thinking to myself, "Self, you could totally do this. Just put in a little training and then during the race just dig deep and DO IT!"  And in years past I tried kicking up my training regiment, but as I tried to sketch out what I would need to do in order to successfully finish a marathon, it is quite daunting and I quickly give up. I've done plenty of 5K and 10K races, even tackling one half-marathon, but a full marathon is beyond scary when I really think about it.

But each one of the runners on the course had put in time, effort, and planning that leaves me in awe. Just talking with my runner friends who do marathons about their workouts, I am envious of their ability to focus on running, putting in the time needed to get in shape, and preparing themselves mentally and physically for what they need to do. I honestly don't think that even if I really, really wanted to that I could actually follow through on everything I'd need to in order to get to the point where I stride through the finish line after 26.2 long, grueling miles. So, runners, I offer up countless kudos to you. I'll always remain in awe of your accomplishments... and silently wish that I had the will to do what you do.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Rick's Discoveries Volume IX

I’m going to be honest. This batch is a mess. There’s no theme, there’s no common connecting thread, and there’s not a lot of genre crossover. This truly is a compilation of what I found worth listening to the last couple of months, regardless of mood or genre. I’ve dove into the dubstep waters, I continue to explore the djent world, then I get back in touch with some post-rock… and let’s not forget to toss in some progressive metal and whatnot for good measure. If this volume of my Discoveries series doesn’t have something for you, I’m pretty sure we don’t have any common musical interests!

This band’s most famous claim to fame will be that it is the side project of Chino Moreno of Deftones, however, this isn’t an endeavour just for fans of Deftones. No, Crosses is much less Deftones and much more Depeche Mode crossed with Nine Inch Nails with Chino providing vocals. All five tracks on this EP ooze moodiness and atmosphere, which is a perfect backdrop for Chino’s vocal style. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting much from this EP, but I was completely blown away. I am full of anticipation for a full length from these guys, especially if it’s even half as good as the contents of this EP.

Calista Divine – Calista Divine

Here I am once again finding a great post-rock band and not knowing how to accurately describe them than to compare them to other post-rock bands… anyhow, Calista Divine share many similar traits to post-rock bands that like to add atmosphere to their compositions, such as God Is an Astronaut or Saxon Shore. Sonically, Calista Divine sound much more similar to the former and not as much like the latter, but the feelings elicited are in the same realm. You also get some healthy doses of soaring Explosions in the Sky moments (which, I think, is a pre-requisite for ALL post-rock bands nowadays), and the occasional post-hardcore guitar riff. They’re used sparingly, but effectively.

Heartsounds – Drifter

This album takes me back. I’m reminded of the days when I used to listen to No Trigger, A Wilhelm Scream, Rise Against, and Crime in Stereoover and over again, loving their authentic punk sound. I’m sure many people have heard of Heartsounds after their breakout debut Until We Surrender from 2009, but in case you haven’t they continue playing uncompromising melodic hardcore infused punk. Drifer may not be quite up to the level of their debut, but it is still an extremely solid offering. The only criticism I have is that at time Laura Nichol’s vocals come through as a little weak, but this is a small drawback on a great album.

Turbid North – Orogeny

There is a very epic scope to this album, and to many of the songs on an individual basis as well. Playing a mix of melodic death metal, technical metal, and groove, the band creates a very large sound. By being able to ground their songs in massive, groove and death metal movements, they are able to branch out at appropriate moments to let their technical chops shine. 8 of the 10 tracks clock in at 5+ minutes, with 3 running over 8 and a half minutes each. The songs never drag, however, and the monumental closer is a 12:30 opus that allows the band to truly shine, creating a capstone to an already solid album.

Bassnectar – Divergent Spectrum

Dubstep has really gained a lot of attention the past year or so here in the US and with it, a lot of backlash. There’s quite a lot of hate for the genre out there, mostly with the criticism that it all sounds the same (which is valid to a point). However, there are some solid dubstep entries out there to check out with Divergent Spectrum being one. Unlike a lot of dubstep, Bassnectar doesn’t focus on “the drop.” Instead the songs use elements of dubstep and mix them with breakbeat, house, and hip-hop. This leads to some great songs, especially in the remix realm (the remix of “Lights” byEllie Goulding may be one of my favourite songs of the year), that have longevity and aren’t as in-your-face as a lot of dubstep. Yes, there are a couple of clunkers on here and a couple of songs don’t really go anywhere, but this is definitely one of the better overall dubstep full lengths to hit this year.

Nero – Welcome Reality

This is a another dubstep album. If that isn’t your thing, then continuing moving on. If it is, then this should be a treat. Nero has been playing around in the dubstep/drum & bass/house realm for years, but this is his first official full length release and he brings his A-game with him. Mixing together the big beats and drops dubstep is known for with some luscious vocals, futuristic soundtrack elements, and a variation on regular house themes, Welcome Reality should be a must-get album for anyone looking to find a top-tier dubstep release.

Stand Your Ground – Despondenseas

I’ve read a number of reviews of this band comparing them to The Ghost Inside, Hundredth, and Shai Hulud, so I had an expectation of what I was going to hear coming in to the album and at times I heard exactly what I expected—straight up melodic hardcore—but at other times there were some unexpected tinges of Misery Signals style of metalcore. Yes, for the most part this is really straight-forward melodic hardcore, but every now and again there’s a song on here that will get you to perk up your ears. It’s that promise of potential that draws me back to this album… and I hope they capitalize on it with their next go-round.

Anubis Gate – Anubis Gate

This is the fifth album by the progressive metal band, Anubis Gate, and the level of maturity on display shows that the band has been putting together songs for years. Being a fan of the band, I was a little tepid going into this album since, in the middle of its recording, vocalist Jacob Hansen abruptly left the band. With this change also came a change to the overall approach of the band. Not as concerned with creating lengthy, showy songs, the tracks on this album are a bit meatier (there’s less power metal influence this time around) and feel very tight. The majority of this album also feels catchier than their past releases, no doubt because of the shorter length of many songs. In my mind, this could be Anubis Gate’s best album to date, but it’ll take a few more listens to truly solidify that conclusion. As it stands, this is a very talented band creating a stellar progressive metal album.

Nemertines – Bad Blood

Similar to Dan Dankenmeyer, Nemertines is a one-man djent/progressive band that has put out a significant amount of material in the last couple of years. Bad Blood is the latest in a string of EPs and full lengths that number into the double digits. Unlike many popular djent artists, Nemertines has a somewhat grungier sound, as opposed to a completely mechanical sound. Now I say grungier not to signify the musical genre, but instead to note the dirty, grimy sound some of the songs have. The grooves and riffs are meaty and thick, often offset by keyboards that are much more upbeat in nature, which leads to a nice counterbalance. If you aren’t a fan of instrumental djent-influence progressive metal, this is not going to be something for you, but if it does interest you, this is definitely an artist to keep on your radar.

Thomas Bergersen – Illusions

Every now and again there’s a movie trailer that has an absolutely perfect score underpinning the brief compaction of the contents of a movie into its 2-3 minute running time. It suits the material, is necessarily epic, and builds to the perfect climax, making you want to see the film no matter how terrible it might actually be. Now imagine an album full of, to quote my brother, “epic trailer music” and you have Illusions. I think the proper genre is “neo-classical” or something like that, but really the description of “epic trailer music” works best. From swooning compositions that would fit perfectly behind an Oscar nominee to rousing action-oriented songs to menacing slow-builds, you feel like you should be watching something as you listen to this album. If you crave epic, you crave this album.