Monthly Archives: March 2009

Review: KMFDM – Blitz

Once again a KMFDM album manages to sneak up on me and surprise me after I had my mind all nice and set up to hate it.

I’m not sure why this happens so regularly with KMFDM albums for me. It’s not like KMFDM drastically revamps its sound very often. Going on 25 years now they still sound more or less in the same ballpark as where they started. You would think that as a long time fan this would be a situation where no great amount of thinking should be required to decide my position on new releases.

I think my initial coldness toward Blitz actually stems from Tohuvabohu, their previous album. Tohuvabohu was surely the best album when taken as a whole that KMFDM has produced in quite some time, possibly ever. From start to finish there are fewer low spots than normal and the entire production just seems more cohesive and energetic than some of their other more recent material.

KMFDM has two “personalities”, if you will. One is their more guitar-driven industrial metal style as shown off so fantastically on Tohuvabohu. The other is a dance-floor chic electronic industrial style that KMFDM really haven’t dabbled in with this level of purity since perhaps their Symbols album in 1997.

As a followup to Tohuvabohu, the long running masters of the Ultra Heavy Beat have decided to give this electronic style another go and, quite frankly, it wasn’t what I wanted out of Blitz at first.

After finally giving it a good number of plays and time to sink into my brain, I think Blitz has managed to hook me. I just about gave up on it, but I now think it has what it takes to be called a solid album. What it doesn’t do is master its chosen style as well as Tohuvabohu did.

The album’s biggest failing is not any one specific element, but rather a general absence of “kick” – that all-important spark, the spitting anger and venomous beats that drive the best KMFDM songs. In its attempt to go back to basics, the band has not only thrown out some of the layers of complexity that had been building up in their more recent work, but they have also managed to lose some of the aggressiveness that had become so addicting in their music. A chunk of vital intensity seems to be missing here.

The Beat isn’t so much Ultra Heavy here. Maybe calling it the Moderately Intense Beat would be more appropriate this time around.

A lot of this might stem from the fact that much of the album was reportedly made by lead singer and frontman Sascha Konietzko with little aid from the rest of the band. The sheer synth dominance demonstrated on most tracks lends credence to this. What made Tohuvabohu so great was the way the whole band had finally started to gel as a team. The days of the “rotating door” policy at KMFDM were over. The lineup had stabilized and after a few albums to find their footing they really got into the groove and knocked one out of the park together.

With Blitz, much of this has been thrown out of the window. There is little evidence of many of the band members on the album, save for singer Lucia Cifarelli’s still great vocal performances and some sparse guitar work that usually feels more utilitarian than inspired. Sascha and his synth dominates and the final product feels a little lifeless without the group cohesion that made the last album so great. It is telling that one of the strongest tracks on the album, Strut, is also the one that seems to most fully involve the entire band (not to mention guest singer Cheryl Wilson, who lends a distinctly “Juke Joint Jezebel” vibe to the track with her wonderful performance).

There’s just no comparing most of the cuts on this album to the stern-voiced intensity of Free Your Hate, or the aggressive, multilayered masterpiece of Tohuvabohu’s title track.

At least the album starts out strong, as almost all of the best tracks are squished together in the first half.

Sticking both of the “experimental” tracks in the middle of the album was a questionable decision. People of the Lie and Being Boiled are both interesting to various degrees, but they disturb the flow too much placed so close together. People of the Lie feels a tad bland but is serviceable as a pace changer and Being Boiled is certainly interesting (and it’s undoubtedly amusing to hear Käpt’n K calmly chant, “Listen to the voice of Buddha”), but it doesn’t really stand up to some of KMFDM’s other recent cover songs.

The pace picks up after its drag in the middle with the aforementioned gem Strut, but things start to go a little astray again after that. Bitches is an amusing song where KMFDM once again makes fun of themselves and pretend to be money-grubbing evil bastards, but why anyone would choose to play this uninspired take on the theme over the brilliant “anti”-KMFDM anthem Sucks I have no idea.

Me & My Gun does provide a nice and needed end-of-album shot of energy in a song that, like the album itself, has grown on me the more I listen to it.

Blitz’s final note is sadly a little sour. Take’M Out is a slow, meandering track that not only fails to go anywhere, but is also fairly generic. It begins with air raid sirens for heaven’s sake (and the song’s not done with them after the intro either). I like a good air raid siren and all, but I think we can all agree they’re a tad overused gimmick in music these days. This mediocre closer is especially disappointing after the scathing Auf Wiedersehen from Hau Ruck and the unique, catchy Bumaye from Tohuvabohu provided such good closers to their respective albums.

That’s not to say that the whole album goes down like curdled milk. While none of the album’s best tracks bring much new to the table, after 25 years of existence it would be a little foolish to berate KMFDM for this now. Bait & Switch, Davai, Never Say Never, Potz Blitz! and Strut can all safely be added to any fan’s frequent playlist. Plus, while a decent number of Blitz’s cuts may fall a little flat, there are no outright stinkers present, making the album fairly listenable from beginning to end.

Perhaps with another album or two in this more minimalist electronic style under their belts, KMFDM will manage to turn out a dance floor masterpiece on the same tier as their recent metal gem Tohuvabohu. Hau Ruck was basically in the same position as Blitz – a good album that lacked a certain spark and energy that makes it now feel mediocre next to its more accomplished follow-up, Tohuvabohu. Perhaps someday Blitz will get its Tohuvabohu.

Ultimately the variety Blitz brings to the table is probably more important than being the best thing the band has ever done. We now have a different kind of album to like; a modern update to a style KMFDM hasn’t touched for ten years or so. It may not be exactly what I would have wished for, but it’s a better outcome in the end than stretching Tohuvabohu’s style too far and giving me too much of a good thing.

Perhaps its fitting that on their 25th anniversary KMFDM should produce an album that so clearly harkens back to the roots of the band in a way that many of their recent albums have not. Whether this is good or bad will depend heavily on the individual listener’s tastes. For what it is, Blitz is a decently-crafted slab of KMFDM’s classic sound with a few chinks that probably shouldn’t deter any fan from picking it up.


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Review – Skold vs. KMFDM

The idea of Tim Skold collaborating once again with KMFDM is exciting. Two old friends together again.

Even the concept of the album itself is unique. Every track would be created by one half of the pairing, then traded to the other for a different take on the material. The end result would then be more than a full album’s worth of material, giving both KMFDM and Tim Skold plenty of time to showcase their unique styles.

Unfortunately what is fascinating in concept is thoroughly snooze-inducing in execution.

KMFDM is no stranger to albums that are a little longer than they probably should be, but Skold vs. KMFDM feels like an album of rejected B-sides that weren’t good enough to make it on a compilation of already mediocre B-sides.

The potentially interesting competing personalities idea is almost completely unrealized. Most of the full tracks are the same style of generic, plodding electronic/dance/industrial and show no sign at all of the person behind them.

The album’s biggest failing, however, is the “interludes”. Quite frankly, they’re a joke.

Instead of being alternate versions of existing songs, the vast majority of them just sound like electronic, atmospheric white noise. Only one of them is over two minutes long, but you’ll quickly grow appreciative of that because there’s not a single one of them that’s worth listening to.

Calling any of them a “song” would be vastly stretching the definition. There’s usually little to no beat, no tune, no melody, no lyrics, no actual structure, anything catchy, or anything remotely appealing about them.

You know those little short, pointless atmospheric interludes that some bands like to throw in the middle of their albums because they think it changes the pace a bit or adds variety or something? The miniature not-songs you’ll listen to once and then skip because they add nothing to the album, totally screw up its flow and pacing, and have nothing appealing about them at all? The tracks that basically have no reason to exist except for being filler, giving the band an excuse to fiddle around with their shiny computer programs, and possibly adding that nice little bit of pretentiousness to the whole affair?

Imagine an album with one of those obnoxious things in between every single track. I dare anybody to get into the flow of this album. Hell, I dare anybody to find the flow of this album. It’s an impossible endeavor. These needless wastes of time totally ruin anything even resembling momentum this album could have ever hoped to have.

Not that it had much chance of gaining traction with the listener in the first place, seeing as how even the majority of the full-length tracks are forgettable. Even the most well-realized songs on this album could be bested by some of KMFDM’s more mediocre efforts.

And may the higher powers above help us, KMFDM has now been involved with a track that uses Auto-Tune. Error 404 is almost sickening. The thing sounds like an escaped Eiffel 65 song or something. Slow and plodding just like most of the rest of the album, with the added bonus of sometimes cringe-inducing lyrics and that abhorrent vocal effect grating against the eardrums in the chorus. This song is a prime example of why these folks shouldn’t try to do ballads. Yuck.

Bloodsport is the sole appealing cut of the entire album. It has a great beat, catchy chorus, and most of the other makings of a pretty decent KMFDM song in their purely electronic dance style. Find this one song somewhere and add it to your collection, but don’t bother with the rest.

That’s not to say absolutely everything else here is terrible. Why Me, Love is Like, A Common Enemy, and Alkohol are all varying shades of listenable.

But that just brings us back to the problem with the album as a whole. I’m not sure whether KMFDM wanted to do something new and experimental with this release and failed at innovating, or if they were just trying to go back to basics and failed at making it interesting, but it’s one of the two.

Not only does this album fail at bringing anything new to the table, it doesn’t even do generic very well. Even its biggest successes are drastically overshadowed by so much of the band’s other work that Skold vs. KMFDM is almost laughably pointless for all but the most fanatically die-hard fans.

It’s truly a shame. I was looking forward to what this unique concept could bring to the table. All I found in the final product was a lot of boredom and wasted potential. KMFDM’s 25th anniversary deserves a better celebration than this. Let’s hope Blitz can bring it, though I’m not as hopeful of that prospect as I once was.


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Review: Watchmen – Slavish Imitation Begets Mediocre Movie

Watchmen is widely acclaimed as perhaps one of the best examples of the graphic novel format around. After reading finally reading through it for myself, I can wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Unfortunately for its highly anticipated movie counterpart, what worked to make such a brilliant graphic novel works directly against its movie adaptation. Sticking too close to its original format for its own good, the Watchmen film tells a tale that feels far too long and is split between too many characters, losing some of the emotional intensity, depth, and clarity of the original in the process.

Watchmen is a classic example of what can happen when the creators of entertainment fail to take into account the strengths, weakness, and differences of the formats available to them. What works in one medium does not necessarily work on another.

I don’t want to sit in a movie theater and listen as Rorschach narrates his journal to me (multiple lengthy times). I don’t want to shift uncomfortably in my seat, periodically checking my watch, as the movie decides to spend an inordinate amount of time telling its tale through flashbacks instead of real-time action. I don’t want the movie to split its time between so many different main characters, not giving me time to get to know or get attached to any particular one of them.

Movies can’t dive into a character’s head like a book (or graphic novel) can, and that’s something Watchmen doesn’t bother to account for, choosing instead to faithfully preserve practically every panel, line of dialog, scene setup, and pencil stroke from its printed counterpart. As a result, it feels alien to its own format.

In one sense, the faithfulness of Watchmen to its source material is something to be praised. After all, it does really and truly feel like the graphic novel has come to life and suddenly made itself visible on a movie screen instead of the printed page.

On the other hand, this results in a distinct lack of reasons to see the movie version rather than simply reading the graphic novels. The movie fails to bring anything significant of its own to the table over what the book was originally able to offer. Moreover, due to limitations of the medium (time and that pesky third person camera perspective, most notably), it does a lot of things quite a bit worse, making it inferior in just about every important sense even though on the surface it seems like a pretty close copy.

I can forgive the movie a lot of its faults simply based on its source material. For instance, what I might call cheesy acting, someone else might call a stylistic reference to the nutty comic book worlds the entire universe of Watchmen was based off of.

Fair enough. When viewed in that light, some of the acting I was displeased with might even be called a success (save for a couple of characters that are just plain old poorly done, but they aren’t enough to ruin the movie on their own).

Let me state this as clearly as possible, just for the sake of clarity: Watchmen is not a bad movie. It is perhaps a little misguided and not as good as it should have been, but it is not bad. It has plenty of redeeming qualities for those willing to endure its missteps.

Even its unflinching devotion to preserving its source material works in its favor on occasion. For instance, Rorschach, one of the most fascinating characters in the graphic novel, is brought to life damn near perfectly in the movie. Even the actor they found to play him looks uncannily like the drawings in the book. He’s every bit as captivating on the screen as on the page, although it does help if you already know his background because the details of his character development are somewhat abbreviated in the movie and lack the full impact of their revelation in the book. Still, he’s easily the most interesting character in the movie.

The visual style of the movie is another pretty solid win for the movie. The CG effects are certainly overdone and can be a little distracting in their ever-presence, but other than that it really does look like the graphic novel brought to life. In this instance that’s a good thing.

For example, the costumes worn by the heroes don’t look like the sleek, modernized outfits worn by Christian Bale’s super-rich Batman or Tobey Maguire’s unbelievably form-fitting Spider Man outfit. Instead they look a little cheap, a little plastic, and a little cheesy. Exactly as they should. The heroes in Watchmen are not superheroes, they are costumed vigilantes who made their outfits from scratch from materials actually found on Earth. It’s wholly appropriate that the seams and zippers show through every once in a while; that they look a little ridiculous. It makes the universe as-told feel a lot more believable.

The rest of the visuals, from cinematography to set design, fit in just as nicely as the costumes. There are plenty of over-dramatic shots that, again, look like they were directly inspired by a comic book panel, but in this case that feels appropriate. It’s clear the makers of this film went a long way to make sure their adaptation would preserve the great art style of the original, and their work paid off nicely.

All the above negativity aside, though, let’s face it, this is a unique movie. Fans of the graphic novel should see this film and will probably have fun while doing so. It may not be spectacular, it may not live up to the source material, and it may not have much in the way of its own voice, but it is still an enjoyable experience to see such a classic graphic novel brought to life on the big screen.

It’s just a shame that material with as much potential as Watchmen couldn’t manage to expand beyond this novelty and give viewers something new – a perspective on story world that even the graphic novel could not give us using the unique storytelling possibilities of the movie format.

As it stands, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to offer if you haven’t read the graphic novel. Newcomers will likely be slightly confused by the twisting story, which jumps back and forth in time and abbreviates a lot of important background for time reasons. Long as it is, they still couldn’t squeeze everything in. Also, the uninitiated might well be turned off by the needlessly gratuitous sex and violence in this film. I’m no stranger to either nudity or gore, but Watchmen took both of these to levels that felt like glorification, above and beyond what was required for telling the story or setting the tone.

Still, even if the only reason to see this movie was the novelty of seeing the once static panels brought directly to life before your eyes (and to be fair, claiming this as the movie’s only appeal would be quite unfair), it’s a novelty worth indulging as Watchmen nails this particular thrill. So if you’ve read the graphic novels, head out to your local theater and see your beloved characters on the big screen. If you haven’t read the original work, then do yourself a favor and start with the genuine article, rather than this abbreviated imitation.


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Forgotten Smiles

I have been caught underneath a veritable flood of nostalgia as of late. Frequently I have found myself fondly yearning for things from all different stages of my childhood.

Frankly it’s beginning to worry me a little.

Does this mean I’m getting old? Am I unsatisfied with my current life? Do I wish to return to “better days”? Do I have an unhealthy fixation on some of these strange childhood preoccupations of mine?

Certainly the Internet has not been a great help in escaping the grasp of my youthful indulgences. YouTube and Wikipedia alone make it far too easy to become swept up in memories of times gone by.

In seriousness, I jest with my alarmist pondering above, but it is interesting to examine the flavor that the Internet can add to recalling childhood experiences.

With a simple search, things that had become muddy, lost in the depths of my mind and buried under many other memories, can be instantly recalled and brought back to the forefront. It’s an interesting feeling and, while some of the things I find myself fondly remembering now as I browse the web definitely have that “why on Earth was I so fascinated with this crap” quality to them, it is nonetheless refreshing to have the memories brought back to me so vividly. It is nice to know that they’re not really gone for good – they’re just hiding, waiting to be brought back by the right prompt or whim.

On the other hand, the coldness of the digital realm adds a bittersweet quality to the proceedings. I watch as other people’s videos are displayed on YouTube. Slices of their lives are made available to me for browsing, and through them I can gain a window back into my own memories, but not without feeling like a bit of an outsider in the process.

It is also easy to forget that the icons of my youth do not remain trapped in my memory. More often than not they came out of the vile depths of a marketing department and probably existed long before and long after I had any interest in them. So while I do regain many of my own memories browsing the far reaches of the web, they are slightly tinted through a different lens than when I first experienced them: through the eyes of a different family, in a different time period, in a different location, with different details.

But then again, all nostalgia is viewed through a different lens than the one that originally captured the memory. Nostalgia itself is a filter, exaggerating both the good and the bad, the pleasant and the humiliating, and covering up many of those pesky details that take up just a little too much room in our grey matter.

With the Internet at my side I am also able to see, for better or worse, how these icons of mine have been shifted to fit different childhoods than my own; foreign childhoods; childhoods that would look upon my precious memory of the experience as the unusual one. It is a phenomenon that seems to make my own memories both more precious and less personal at the same time. I am on the one hand thankful that I was shaped by the experiences that I was; that these newfangled, unwelcome takes on the themes of my childhood were not the ones I was exposed to. At the same time, the more I realize this, the stronger the light shines on the cheap scenery in the background. I become increasingly aware of the impersonal, profit-driven, corporate roots of so much of what I enjoyed. As much as I still cherish the memories, this is not an overly pleasant thing to realize.

Ultimately I suppose that nostalgia is always bound to be both a little pleasant and a little painful, much like life itself. A fond look back at the happy times of youth reveals many pleasant memories, forgotten smiles, and good times, reminding us of where we came from and who we were. At the same time, nostalgia reminds us that we have grown older, we are no longer that person fondly remembered in our memories, and those things we once cherished will never return to us in quite the same way. The lenses have been changed, the perspective shifted.

Even though the trip may be a little painful, it is a trip worth taking. It is a good pain: a pain of remembrance, of growth, and of wisdom. Those scenes in our memories must by their nature remain forever inaccessible to us, but at least, through this bizarre medium of nostalgia, we are able to relive them somewhat and be glad that we were able to form the memories in the first place. We can appreciate the past without becoming stuck in it. We can embrace the change that has come to us over the years while recognizing the building blocks that got us to where we are in the present.

However cold the Internet may be, I’m still glad to have it as my companion for this journey. After all, without it, who knows what memories could have been lost in those mysterious shifting sands of time.

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