Tuesday, January 31, 2012

TurboTax Business: Intuit Drops the Ball Yet Again

I really wish there was a decent alternative solution for doing multi-proprietor LLC tax filing and K-1 creation to TurboTax because this year I feel like I just wasted over $100 of my LLC's money on this junk software and will probably have to end up either filing by hand or handing off to a tax preparer to do.

The biggest issue is how utterly "glitchy" TurboTax feels this year. Last year's version was smooth enough (not the best experience in the world, but decent enough), but this year I can't even complete my K-1's to distribute to the LLC owners because the application continually hard crashes when filling out the business's information. We're not even talking about getting to the meat of the filing process--this is happening at the very beginning of the process. What adds to this frustration is that Intuit makes getting support difficult. I had to resort to using Twitter to attempt to get any type of help and they still haven't been very responsive or even touched upon the issue encountered.

I realize that the Business version of TurboTax is used by many, many fewer individuals than their other versions, but this doesn't speak well for their entire product line. I had switched from H&R Block's software to TurboTax last year so that I had a uniform experience when doing my business tax filing and personal tax filing, but I may go back to H&R Block for my personal taxes based upon my experience with the Business product.

It's quite baffling to me that Intuit can drop the ball so hard and let their products be so bug-ridden. It's not like they're creating a brand new product. They have an established product and just need to update it each year with the appropriate tax rules and maybe add a feature or two to make it look like they're not getting lazy, but they can't even make a usable product. I wish there was some way I could get get my money back since I most likely won't be able to file my taxes using this piece of garbage and will have to shell out more money to have it done elsewhere.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Titanium Rain Volume 1 by Josh Finney Book Review

Titanium Rain Volume 1Talk about a polarizing effort... I either loved or loathed so many aspects of this book with very little material in the middle ground. First, the good...

--The art is in the quasi-photo-realistic style, which at times yields some truly great scenes. The ground military scenes, in particular, are quite well illustrated and compelling.

--The new future state that is described and laid out is a very interesting take on the future of China and the rest of the first world. I was, frankly, more interested in the various descriptions of the geo-political future history than I was the actual lead story.

--The main character, albeit a naval-gazing, reluctant, emo hero, has some interesting moments throughout.

Now for the bad...

--The art sometimes comes off as really weird looking. There are moments when proportions are wrong (such as places where a person's arm only came down to their waist... human arms are much longer than that) or where the angle taken was just... weird.

--The main story is hardly a story. Since there is so much world building sections tossed in throughout the main arc, usually with no natural reason why they were there, the arc is pretty standard and brief: get to know some pilots, go on one mission, talk with pilots in aftermath, the end.

--This story was obviously set up to be continued in future arcs, but I'm not sure if we'll ever see them, so it might not be worth the time you'd put into this since you don't get very much in the way of payoff.

The foundation for a great future world is laid quite well in Titanium Rain, but it isn't very well utilized in this volume and doesn't look like we'll be getting any further visits in the near future, which is unfortunate. So unless you're interested in future history or world building, I can't really recommend this because everything else is pretty uninteresting.

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rick's Discoveries Volume XIII

At the end of last year, when most of this article was written, I was so busy putting together my top 10 for the year, editing the rest of the staff's submissions, and creating the overall DecoyMusic top 20 that I never got around to publishing this, or even to finishing off my writeups for some of these truly great albums. Heck, even one of the albums contained in this article ended up on my year end top 10 and has since received a perfect 5/5 review here on Decoy! With all that being said, even though this article is a bit tardy from my own publishing perspective, it's never too late to check out a few new, amazing bands creating solid music in their respective genres.

Auburn – Parallels

Auburn hit on so many different traits in the metalcore realm that I can’t help but love them. The core of their sound is straight ahead metalcore in the vein of The Ghost Inside, but there are also moments that are reminiscent of Bury Your Dead (usually in some of the lead-ups to breakdowns), Four Year Strong (the melodically sung passages), and Comeback Kid (during some of the straight up hardcore flavored sections). There’s so much here to like; it’s almost as if Auburn surveyed the current scene for what is trending and then wrote an album focused solely on those traits.

Against the Flood – Home Truths

This is an angry metalcore record that’s going to hit you with some straight up metalcore, some deathcore, and some progressive metalcore. So if you can imagine a combination of Architects (not the weenie version we heard this year—I’m talking Hollow Crown era), Dead Swans, and For the Fallen Dreams then you’ll get a good idea of what you’re in for. The strained vocals take center stage, being delivered between a few melodic passages, all hovering above the consistently punishing metalcore undercurrents.

A Hope for Home – In Abstraction

I’ve had my eye on A Hope for Home for a few years (this is the band’s fourth album). Their album Realis from last year really turned my head as the band had taken their post-hardcore style and married it with elements of post-rock and some atmospheric metal. They almost cracked my top 10 for the year. Now they’ve delivered In Abstraction which is their most ambitious album to date. There’s barely a hint of their post-hardcore roots as they’ve fully embraced a sludgy post-metal and post-rock combination. The band shares some close similarities with labelmates Hands in that they marry together crushing walls of sound and harsh vocals with melody and melancholic beauty. If you want band comparisons, mix together pieces of As Cities Burn, Cult of Luna, Explosions in the Sky, and Isis and you’ll get some semblance of what In Abstraction delivers.

TotoRo – All Glory to John Baltor

I saw this album tagged as “post-metal” on one of the music blogs I read, and I check out most any band with that tag, but TotoRo are surprisingly not really all that metal-y. They’re definitely post-y, but more so in the post-rock genre. On the 4 tracks of this EP, none shorter than 7:30 in length, you’ll have a lot of your standard post-rock build-ups, crescendos, and glittery guitars, but what sets them apart from your base post-rock band is the interspersing of some Envy-esque screamo moments and a few borderline post-metal moments that are more reminiscent of Caspian than, say, Pelican.

Gradjent – Flow System

Ok, putting “djent” into your band name might be a little much, especially when you’re not a full-on djent band. Gradjent definitely have some djent leanings, but it is best to think of them as a band that plays djent-lite mixed in with straight-forward radio-friendly metal. A number of the songs on this album could easily fit in on any local hard rock radio station, which I found somewhat odd, but they were relatively catchy and didn’t feel too clich├ęd. On top of that, adding in a few djent passages here and there definitely helps things out. Just make sure you set your expectations appropriately before you give this album a spin, because Gradjent is as much Five Finger Death Punch as they are Periphery.

Blue Stahli – Blue Stahli

Industrial metal, in the early 00’s and late 90’s, was unfortunately shat upon as nu-metal took portions of the genre and infused them into one of the more reviled musical genres in heavy music from the last couple of decades. Because of this, decent industrial influenced metal is hard to find, but when you do discover a great band, such as Celldweller or, in this case, Blue Stahli, it stands out. I mention these two bands together because they share a lot of similarities, so if you like Celldweller or any of Klayton’s other endeavors, you’ll find yourself liking Blue Stahli. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, think of Blue Stahli as a version of mid-career Nine Inch Nails playing more in a metal direction and leaning towards bands like Orgy or Stabbing Westward.

Aura of Aurelia - Polytope

As with most post-rock bands, the best way to describe what a particular artist sounds like is to explain what accentuating features they possess outside of the standard post-rock playbook. With Aura of Aurelia, they add to the mix a bit of ambience and a bit of shoegazing. Also, the band is very much on the mild, mellow end of the post-rock spectrum. They focus less on crescendos and more on soundscapes, with the shoegaze approach to add texture to their sound. All in all, it's a very relaxing approach to the genre and should work well as a calming influence.

Cold Body Radiation - Deer Twilight

There are two things that turn me off from most blackglaze artists--horrible harsh vocals and poor production. These are two traits of the genre that I think actually detract from it instead of adding to it. It seems like Cold Body Radiation got my memo as this is a very much post-rock infused blackglaze effort with great production and minimal harsh vocals. The album is all about mood creation and a melancholy mood it most definitely creates. The majority of the album sounds like a mix of Alcest and Mogwai, with a heavier focus on the former. The mellow sections perfectly set up the moments where you're simply barraged by a shoegazing wall of sound, demonstrating that Cold Body Radiation manages to do one of the tougher things in the genre well--making transitions.

Zebulon Pike - Space Is the Corpse of Time

This album marks Zebulon Pike's fourth full length and they continue to play a varied mix of metal, including doom, sludge, prog, and some stoner. At times I'm reminded of YOB, at others Mastodon, sometimes a more progressive The Sword, and even every now and again a bit of Pelican. With 5 tracks on the album and only one of them clocking in under the 10 minute mark, this is an album that you'll want to experience as a whole. It's an adventure, to say the least.

Spectrum-X - Black Death

EBM is a very wide genre encompassing all kinds of aggressive electronic music. Spectrum-X falls on the power noise and aggrotech end, fusing their punishing beats and vocals with an industrial sheen, complete with distorted guitars that take their already harsh sound and make it more rough. If you want a more industrialized version of Alien Vampires or Noisuf-X, Spectrum-X should be a good fit for you.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Snappy5: How the iPhone Camera Should Work

Having a mother who is a professional photographer, it's sort of a given that I would at least be somewhat interested in photography, and I am, but not quite to a level where I need a DSLR and pore over Photoshop to get everything just right. I'm not a fan of setting up the perfect shot or of trying to capture something in just the right way. I don't want to carry a bulky camera everywhere I go. I don't want to do a lot of work in post on shots. I just want to take pictures of things every now and again. 

With the advent of the iPhone and its possession of a quite useful camera (especially in the 4S), I found my perfect platform for snapping pictures whenever I have the chance. The icing on top of the iPhone cake is that there are a plethora of apps that make shooting fun and quirky. I love using Instagram, Hipstamatic, Snapseed, and numerous other apps to get variations on the "normal" shots you'd get from just using the stock iPhone camera app. I find myself taking pictures of random stuff all the time (even my wife has noticed, getting me an iPhoneography book for our anniversary).

Now as much as I love the iPhone and it's camera app, the biggest issue with using the iPhone as a camera is that it takes, at least on my iPhone 4, a bit of time for the app to load. Sometimes it's just long enough for you to miss that candid shot you wanted to get. Even being able to access the camera from the lockscreen in iOS5 didn't solve the problem because the camera app still had to load. I figured I was simply stuck... until I ran across the Snappy5 app

The app is relatively simple and makes me wonder why Apple couldn't make their camera app work like it does. Essentially all Snappy5 is, is a replacement for the stock camera app that loads almost instantaneously, be it from the app's icon, the lock screen, or via a gesture you set up in Activator. Now I suppose I should mention that you need to have your phone jailbroken to get this app, but since jailbreaking is so simple nowadays, I can't see why you wouldn't do it. 

This little app I know will make it (and has made it) so much easier for me to grab a quick, candid shot that I would have otherwise missed. It's well worth the two bucks you'll pay for it. The only improvement I hope to see in the future is potentially a way for it to launch other photo apps and do it just as quickly. I'm sure this is not possible, but it would be a hell of a feature. Imagine having Instagram's share interface come up almost instantly. For now, though, I'm just happy my iPhone's camera is now instantly accessible!

Friday, January 20, 2012

My Poor Sony Dash

Yes, I am one of the few people who own (and actually love) the Sony Dash. I picked it up on Woot a while back since the concept of an always on combo clock/news feeder/weather station was appealing to me. I've had it in my office so at a glance I have the time/date/weather and the news that's currently being displayed. I'd configured the little guy to cycle through news from Google, The New York Times, CBS Sports, and other outlets while cycling in Facebook photos, famous quotes, top Flickr picks to keep it interesting. And that's not counting many of the other interesting apps I have cycling through. It's a cool device and one of the few Sony devices I own and like.

You see, I'd given up on Sony a few years ago. I sold my PSP when I got my iPad. I sold my Playstation 3 when I didn't game that much any more. I went the Vizio route when upgrading the TVs in our house.  It was a weird transition. When I was younger, in the 90's and early 00's, Sony was THE brand. Now, however, they're not even considered when making technology purchases. Outside of my Dash, there's not a single Sony product that gets my attention... A lot has been made of this in the past about how they don't seem to care about their customers and are very stuck in their ways, but what they're doing with the Dash reinforces the attitude that is going to kill them as a company.

Over the last couple of weeks, some of the apps I used on my Dash stopped loading or instead displayed notices saying the app had been pulled. This was the case for Digg, The New York Times, and a few others. I thought it was weird that some of the most popular apps were getting pulled. Then there was a day long outage of Dash services with Sony neither acknowledging it happened or explaining it. Now it's been announced that Sony is stopping developer support for the Dash. This includes closing up the forums used and shutting off the ability for any new apps to be created or for current apps to be updated.

As a customer, this is extremely frustrating... especially when it would be so easy to just open up the device. In an age where opening up a device only makes it more popular and well-liked, while locking it down or bricking it only hurts your image, why choose the latter? Sony could still give up support of the developer community and simply open source it or, what would be really great, just turn it over to the developer community that created all of the apps. This would keep the little guy fully functional, ensures that a dedicated community stays involved, and would probably perk up interest in the tinkering community.

Instead of that option, though, I have a sneaking suspicion that my Dash is starting on its journey towards becoming nothing more than touchscreen clock... which defeats the entire purpose of why anyone bought it. Here's to hoping Sony rethinks things, but I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lamb of God - Resolution Album Review

Lamb of God, if you count their days as Burn the Priest, have been around since 1990. Of course, Lamb of God proper didn't unleash their first album until 2000 in the form of New American Gospel, which set the groundwork for the rest of the band's popular career. Five albums later, on their sixth full length Resolution, Lamb of God looks to have reached a crucial point in their career that will potentially define where the band heads in the future.

Much like any band that's been around for quite some time and amassed a number of fans, it can be tough to radically change your sound. Look at what happened to Machine Head when they went nu-metal or Megadeth when they went radio rock with Risk. No great or popular band is completely isolated from making a misstep here or there. Both of the aforementioned bands made stellar comebacks after their weakest moments, proving that one error doesn't necessarily end your career.

This brings us to Resolution which, unfortunately, seems to be Lamb of God's St. Anger. I'm sure there are screams proclaiming blasphemy resonating from Lamb of God fans everywhere, but I think this is a very valid comparison, although I would definitely take Resolution over St. Anger any day. In fact, the career arc of Lamb of God closely resembles that of Metallica. Both started out raw, filled with aggression, and fueled by anger. Eventually Metallica softened and indulged in a glossier sound with their black album, much like Lamb of God's Sacrament. Over time both bands tried to dive back into their earlier sound, with Metallica outright failing on St. Anger and Lamb of God showing some promise, as well as significant weakness, on Wrath.

The leak of Resolution that hit the internet a week or so ago was heavily criticized because of the poor sound quality. Fans were sure that it had to be a rip of an unmastered copy of the album, which it most likely was, but even after hearing the mastered retail version, this is the rawest Lamb of God has sounded on any of their albums. Your first thought may be that this is a good thing--they're getting back to their roots--but getting back to your roots is never as easy as everyone assumes. The rawness detracts from the album as much as it adds to it. Yes, the glossy sound of Sacrament may have softened the band, but much like St. Anger this raw sound doesn't come across as the right type of "raw."

Randy Blythe's vocals are hurt the most by the band's choice to strip things down. His yells sound a bit more strained and less authoritative than in the past. His voice is still recognizable for most of the songs, but at times he comes across somewhat generically as he tries to rely less on his previously unique southern metalcore vocal approach. Some songs, such as "The Number Six," really stand out as showing him straining a bit too far away from his strengths.

The rest of the band don't fare too much better, with the drums (most notably the cymbals) seeming to lack punch and the guitars not being as thick as in the past. The band does sound much more "live" than on any of their other albums, and their thrash meets groove meets Pantera sound is as well put together as on Wrath, but this outing simply feels a bit more unfinished than it should.

Lamb of God fans should be ok with where the band is heading, but there might be some seeds of worry planted after hearing this quite lengthy release (it's nearly 60 minutes and could have been pined down to a stronger 45 or so). This feels like a temporary misstep for the band as they reorient themselves and figure out how to best move forward. If they can harness the energy and aggression of this release and also put on just enough polish, their next release can easily be their Death Magnetic or The Blackening or The System Has Failed.

SuperFreakonomics... Not All That Super, Actually

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life InsuranceSuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt

Eh... it was an ok read. Freakonomics had some unique and interesting correlations, causations, and anecdotes that, while not always 100% accurate, were at least neat to read about. SuperFreakonomics, however, felt much more meandering, less focused, and at times I had a difficult time discerning what the point of some of the sections of chapters were other than to have you read about some "oh, cool, that's different" bits of information.

There are still some good nuggets in here, but don't go into it expecting a ton of hard information, decisive reasoning, or strong logic. If you expect simply some interesting pieces of information loosely tied together by topics, then you should be relatively entertained.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 12, 2012

That One Time When I Was in the News

This blog has been in existence for what now seems like eons, but in reality it's not quite yet a decade old. Still, in internet terms, that's probably equivalent to an eon or two. Anyways, I've recently been taking on the task of converting my grandma's and parents' home videos, which are still on VHS tapes, into digital files and DVDs. As I was rummaging through the first batch of tapes to go through, I found a copy of a local news story (the channel was KTTC out of Rochester, MN) about blogging from 2005 that featured none other than myself (looking much younger than I do now). It's now been uploaded to YouTube to be preserved for all time... or at least until YouTube goes away... so if you're the least bit curious, here it is:

It's odd seeing yourself from years ago. I don't feel like I've changed that much, but when I look in the mirror, there's definitely a bit of age added to my face and body. That's what 6 years of time will do to you, I guess, but that's not important. What is important is thinking back to half a decade ago when blogging was all the rage for anyone and everyone with an internet connection and even the most minor craving to write. There were blogs everywhere by everyone. This was pre-Twitter and before Facebook had become ubiquitous. I'd spend hours of each week just writing about random crap--stuff I saw on the internet, junk I read, the mundane activities of my life, and complaining about the most minor of inconveniences.

Now, however, maybe it has come with age or maybe I just don't have the writing bug as much, but blogging is more of a "if I'm bored and don't have much else to do" activity. I always feel like I have so much to write about, so much to impart upon the denizens of the internet... but when it comes time to type out what I want to write, I'd much rather go read a book or catch up on the boatloads of work and commitments I seem to always have lined up. 

It was nice to get a glimpse back into the past and maybe it'll rekindle a bit of what I've lost in terms of my lust for writing. Or maybe it's just proof that the glory days are truly gone. Only time and the post counter to the right will tell!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

My 2011 Top 10 Albums of the Year

According to what I track over at RateYourMusic, I've listened to 901 albums that were released in 2011. That simply boggles my mind. Yes, I listen to music about 7-8 hours a day on average, but that still comes out to almost 3 new albums listened to per day. True, some I listened to once (maybe only halfway through) and realized they were crap or not for me, but just knowing that I've had that much new music pass through my ears makes me question, at least a little bit, the contents of this list. I've had a lot to keep track of and maybe there's something out there that truly connects with me, but I just didn't listen to it in the right mood (or, god forbid, I didn't get around to listening to it). Because of the low barrier of entry for new bands to get their music out to the general public to listen to, we have more music at our fingertips than we could possibly know what to do with. Some days I feel overloaded by the amount of new promos staring at me in my inbox, CDs sitting on my desk, stuff I downloaded wanting to sample, or albums I bought from Bandcamp which, by the way, has to be one of the best outlets for new bands to get discovered. With all of this in mind, below are 10 albums that I truly loved this year. Each connected with me in such a way that it commanded multiple, repeated listens, even in the face of a myriad of other new albums I could flip on instead.

It is a rare thing to come across an album that hits you on every level. After two moderately respectable albums, Hands' third effort is a spectacle to behold. They have tapped a sound that resonates with me musically and lyrically. They have written a concept record that is deep, challenging, and mature. They have melded genres in a way that sets them apart from both their peers and their influences. This album's concept, one of a journey where the existence of god is questioned, the belief in a higher power is struggled with, the end of life is contemplated, and the meaning of our spiritual journey is confronted… it mirrors my personal struggles of faith, it captures my fear of death, and to some extent gives me hope that someday there will be an epiphany to put it all into perspective. No other album even came close to challenging Give Me Rest for best of the year, and that's really saying something.

Periphery was last year's king of the djent sound, and I honestly thought the genre, even though it was only starting to gain wider exposure, was peaking last year. I was quite wrong, thankfully, and this year saw many amazing djent albums drop with TesseracT maturing the genre even further. One is not a concept album per se, but the 6-part "Concealing Fate" suite that makes up the bulk of the album is some of the best progressive, djent metal that I've heard. The combination of the thick polyrhythmic sound along with the beautiful melodic vocals and underlying atmosphere make this album simultaneously pummeling and beautiful.

Dubstep, love it or hate it, gained a hell of a lot of popularity as a genre this year and I, like many others, got sucked in. Most of the dubstep I listened to, however, didn't hold my interest for very long. There were neat songs here and there, but nowhere could I find an entire album that I'd actually listen to all the way through, let alone listen to multiple times… until Welcome Reality found its way into my car stereo. This album is candy for my ears as Nero takes dubstep, heavily infuses it with pop sensibilities, and makes sure to give every track a unique feel. I've probably listened to songs like "Crush on You," "Innocence," "Promises," and "Must Be the Feeling" more times than I can count. This is pop music for people who don't like pop music.

This album was almost a casualty of my thirst for new music. Since I listen to so many albums, if I'm not captivated initially, I too often toss aside something and don't come back to it unless it comes up on random when listening to my entire collection. This means "grower" albums almost never catch on with me… except in this case. "Dance on Blood" came up one day on random and got my ears to perk up. After giving the album a few more spins, their unique combination of a textured, dense, modern rock sound, along with some definite Deftones and Katatonia influences, turned out to be infectious. There are more and more layers that can be uncovered with each listen.

On album #5, Falling Up have finally done it. Whereas Junius created a dense slab of modern rock, Falling Up went in the other direction and made a more open, exploratory, modern, progressive rock album. Add to that the fact that this is Falling Up's most prog-oriented album to date and you have a peculiar mix of The Pineapple Thief, Hopesfall, and Far-Less. I at times found myself disliking the album for being somewhat too proggy for a modern rock album, but it kept calling me back regardless, which is saying something.

This is a real latecomer to my list. I had this album sitting on my desk for ages and never got around to it, but I am so thankful I did before the end of the year. It's best to think of this as a sister album to Hands' Give Me Rest, which probably explains my instant gravitation to it (once I finally did get to it...). Sonically, this album is a mix of Explosions in the Sky, Isis, As Cities Burn, and Cult of Luna, creating a pretty interestingly diverse album, yet it never falls apart or feels incoherent. The lyrics and sounds of the album explore concepts and feelings of lost faith, death, family, and change so there are a lot of heady thoughts in this musical mix and it all comes together perfectly, showing yet another band this year fully realizing their potential to create a career-topping album.

Yep, I hopped on this bandwagon as well. I couldn't have asked for a more engaging hip-hop album this year. Childish Gambino, or Donald Glover(his given name), put together a mix of songs that jump between aggressive, dance-tastic, pop-ladden, and ballad-y. Yes, his lyrics are sometimes odd and feel a bit forced, but his flow is so perfect and fits each of the myriad of approaches he uses on this album. This is hip-hop for the people who haven't quite found that poppy hip-hop album that they like quite yet.

Take the djent sound of TesseracT or Vildhjarta, make it even more mechanical in nature, and add a 2 ton sledgehammer of aggression… then let it hit you in the face and you've got Sees. This album knocked me on my ass the first time I heard it, and it quickly became a motivational album for my visits to the gym, propping up my adrenaline level with every song. This laser-sharp focus may make the album seem somewhat simplistic, but when a band does what it does so well, that's not necessarily bad.

There's an interesting trend I noticed with this year's top 10--only 3 entries are from new artists releasing debut albums (and in the case ofTesseracT and Nero they've actually had previous EP output). It seems to me that either a) new artists just weren't that appealing to me this year or b) that we are seeing a number of bands reaching their creative peaks. I would argue the latter. Ghost Brigade, with this effort, has created their most diverse album yet. Fully embracing their melodic, acoustic side, we hear moments where Ghost Brigade explore this side in depth. A perfect example is the opening track "In the Woods." Not to be outshined by this new side, Ghost Brigade also continue to dive deep into the atmospheric sludge and progressive metal realms that they've mastered on their previous albums. It seems as if Ghost Brigade is completely unafraid to try anything they feel is necessary to express themselves, and that gamble keeps paying off.

Upon my first listen of Go Now and Live I was completely let down. I loved We Are the Ocean's Alexisonfire copycat approach on their debut, Cutting Our Teeth, so to hear them move away from it to more of a straight-up post-hardcore/rock sound didn't seem right. Then, after months on the shelf, I discovered the album all over again and it suddenly clicked with me. "What It Feels Like" re-ignited the love I originally had for this band. Yes, they've changed, but in doing so they've shed the shackles of sounding exactly like one of their influences and instead sound like their own band. It's a case of yet another band growing up and showing their maturity.

Honorable Mentions:

Floating Me - Floating Me
Omnium Gatherum - New World Shadows
Draconian - A Rose for the Apocalypse
Leprous - Bilateral
Blueneck - Repetitions

Friday, January 06, 2012

Souldrainer - Heaven's Gate Album Review

Often times a genre gets so rigidly defined that any band playing in it nearly always sounds identical to every other band in the same space. For me, melodic death metal has become one of those genres. Either bands are trying to play classic MDM like early In Flames and At the Gates or they're trying to pull of the more "modern" MDM that bands like Scar Symmetry are playing where there's an added focus on hooks and melodic vocals. It's rare that I run across a band that tosses something new into the mix, which is why Souldrainer was such a pleasant surprise.

The bedrock that this album is build upon is undeniably melodic death metal, but what was constructed on top of that is an exploration of what you can do if you don't have such a laser focus on your target genre. Permeating nearly every song is a gothic metal vibe, attributable to the heavy usage of keyboards, which creates a nice backing atmosphere. This influence goes much further, however, than just some underlying keys. The entire tempo of the album is dictated by the gothic rock aesthetic. The mid-tempo pace of songs and lack of overdone, speedy progressions makes for a soundly, sturdily built album, but with this consistency comes some blandness.

The album consists of 12 tracks and considering that many share a lot of similar traits, there are moments where it drags, which shows that even if you have a fairly unique take on a genre you still need to have diversity within your album or you run the risk of making things more uninteresting than they actually are. Having noted this one shortcoming--the only real one this album possesses--let's further review the elements that Souldrainer used to construct this rock-solid album.

Throughout the course of Heaven's Gate there a number of influences that can be felt, from Paradise Lost to Dark Tranquility and Katatonia to Soilwork (newer era, of course). You won't hear passages that scream out, "That totally sounds like band X during that section," believe it or not, because Souldrainer does what any good band does--they mold their influences into their sound instead of just ripping off what they adore. How often do you hear an album where the influences of the band aren't 100% obvious? It's rarer than you think. So even though you can hear the elements or approaches of other bands, Souldrainer have designed their own album architecture instead of simply copying what has worked for others.

The members of Souldrainer are experienced musicians, so it is not unexpected to see such a solid effort, especially having delivered some relatively decent output in the past, but this reinforces another trait that is more important than many realize--experience. It's something that no doubt contributed to the overall polished and mature sound that this album possesses. Melodic death metal fans, new and old, should take a listen to what Souldrainer are doing. They're not building their music by the established guidelines and because of it, they have created something interestingly different to listen to.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

My Top iOS Apps

Over at TiPb they've been running through the apps that they use most and it's had me reorganizing my iPhone and iPad apps and thinking about how I actually use both of those devices. I use both almost daily and they both have way too many apps loaded onto them, but when I analyze my app usage, there's usually only a few on each that I regularly use, day in and day out. So, if anyone is interested, here's what I mainly use my iDevices for...

My Top iPhone Apps

1. Hipstamatic
With my mother being a professional photographer, it's a bit of a given that I would at least like photography a little bit. I'm not the type of person to lug around a DSLR with me to get pictures of things, but I like to whip out my iPhone, which is always with me, and take pictures here and there. What Hipstamatic gives me is a combination of interesting classic filters that create unique pictures. The killer feature for me is the randomizer. If you shake your phone before taking a picture, it randomizes the lens, film, and flash combination so you can get something new every time... although I think it prefers a few films over others as they come up a LOT.

2. Netflix
This is how I entertain myself on my bus ride to and from work. Considering we have good 3G coverage in Minneapolis through AT&T, unlike many other cities, it rarely stutters or re-buffers. Occasionally on a few specific spots, probably where I'm being handed off from one tower to another, it will pause, but I'm ok with that knowing I can watch Breaking Bad or Kids in the Hall on my bus ride.

3. Audiogalaxy
This app gives me streaming access to my entire music collection. Sure, lots of people use Google music or Amazon's cloud, but since I have 3/4 of a terrabyte of music on my home machine, it's nice to not have to upload it all to a service (which would take forever). Instead, you have the Audiogalaxy app on your home machine that stores your music and as long as that computer is on and connected to the internet, you can stream your entire library through the Audiogalaxy app.

4. Scrabble
This is my go-to time waster. At any given time I have at least 6 or 7 games going with people. It's  not a perfect app (it takes forever to load and doesn't always load your Facebook friends games right away), but it's the easiest way to play Scrabble against my friends and family who play it on their phones or just on Facebook.

5. Facebook
Let's be honest... everyone uses Facebook now, myself included. There's just no getting around the fact that it is almost an essential communication tool for keeping up with friends, family, and those you just want to keep tabs on.

My Top iPad Apps

1. ComiXology and Comic Zeal
I list these two together as I use them both for reading comics on my iPad. The iPad is the perfect size for reading comics and graphic novels and there's nothing like having an entire long box of comics with you at any given time. Over the last year I've been making the transition from physical comics/graphic novels to digital and with these two apps I'm getting pretty close to not needing hard copies any more... well, except for when I want something to put on the bookshelf.

2. Kindle
Much like I'm doing with my comics, I'm also trying to switch over to reading digitally from dead tree books. The Kindle app makes this very possible, syncing up with the Kindle app on my other devices and on the web so I can pick up reading wherever I left off. The only downside to the iOS Kindle app is you can't buy books in-app; you have to go to the Amazon site to do so. That being said, it's still the best e-reading app I've found.

3. Terra Web Browser
Sure, Safari can get the job done, but Terra has become my favorite browser and since one of the things I use my iPad for is simply browsing the internet, I end up using it a lot. It's relatively zippy, rarely crashes, has a lot of extra features Safari doesn't (text search, unlimited tabs), and is regularly updated.

4. Kingdom Rush
The last two here are games that I've played a lot. This is a great tower defense game that my brother turned me on to. It doesn't do anything 100% new, but the mechanics of the game are so streamlined that it feels like it best captures everything that tower defense games need to do well to be fun.

5. Pinball HD
I love pinball and the iPad is a great toy to play pinball games on. The iPhone is simply too small, but the iPad excels at it. The tables that come with this free app are great, but the other tables you can buy are also phenomenal. I've spent many an hour trying to up a high score, never getting bored.