Category Archives: Reviews

Lacuna Coil Conert Review

[Note: This article was originally published on July 17, 2009 on my new web site, www.zestfulcontemplation.com.  If you enjoyed this article and would like to read my more recent articles, please feel free to pay my new site a visit.  Thanks.]

Having managed to see Lacuna Coil live three times previously, it was refreshing to finally see them as the headlining act, rather than a support band.  With their June 6 performance at the Diamond Ballroom, the first in the North American leg of their headlining tour for their new album, they overtake Rob Zombie as the band I have seen the most times live.

This is not without good reason.

They are a fantastic band to see live.  They have a great stage presence and energy and, like all good live performances, it really shows through that these guys love what they’re doing.  Considering how heavy Lacuna Coil tends to tour, the fact that they still enjoy it and put on such a good show is pretty remarkable.

Going back to my Rob Zombie reference a minute ago, however, it is worth mentioning that seeing the two bands perform together twice is not the only connection the bands have with one another.  They also share a penchant for short set lists.

Having seen Zombie give the same one hour and fifteen minute on-the-dot set three times, I always came away satisfied but wanting more.  His concerts are full of enough energy, showmanship, and spectacle that their short length doesn’t come as a great detriment.  I always thought that his concerts would mark the low end of the length spectrum for full concerts, however.

Up until now, I was right.

Lacuna Coil performed for barely over one hour.  One hour and six or seven minutes, to be precise.  I won’t pull any punches here – had I not seen them live three times before, performing many of the same songs, this would have been incredibly disappointing.  Even though the ticket price was fairly low, after waiting for three hours through crappy support bands, one hour is just not enough for a headlining act.  Period.

Luckily for my own experience anyway, it only came as a minor disappointment because a missing fifteen minutes or so isn’t quite as devastating when you’ve seen them three times prior.

In this light, the fact that the concert was so damn much fun while it lasted presents the concert goer with a dilemma.  On the one hand, what’s there was so good that you might not care it was short.  On the other hand, it was so good that you would have given anything for just a few more songs to make it that much more fulfilling.

I’ll spare you too much detail about the support bands.  Suffice it to say I wish they had gotten out of the way for Lacuna Coil to play much earlier and none of them blew me away like Volbeat did opening for Nightwish at the same venue not too long ago.

Dommin opened and was somewhat unimpressive musically, but at least had decent stage presence and a humble, nice, approachable quality suitable for an opening band.

Kill Hannah was third and, while their music isn’t exactly my style, they impressed me a lot more than I expected them to.  They had a great on-stage persona, they seemed like really cool, down to earth guys, and they gave an energetic, enjoyable performance with a few songs that were much catchier than I expected.  Not sure I’ll be seeking out their music in studio form, but they were by far the best opener.  The green lasers mounted on the ends of their guitars were a nice touch.

Seventh Void was sandwiched in the middle of those two.  They sucked, quite frankly.  They came off as arrogant and trying way too hard to be cool.  Musically they were completely uninteresting to me.  Their songs seemed to go on forever and everything ran together into one long blur of uninteresting, mid-paced, generic riffage.  The crowd seemed to agree with me, as the place seemed rather subdued and bored when the other two openers actually got decent responses.  I even got the feeling a few people might have been there to see Kill Hannah as much as Lacuna Coil.

The Diamond Ballroom itself is a bit of a dump.  It’s located in the middle of nowhere, has a gravel parking lot, and what looks to be a large trash pile out back and a discarded, decaying old trailer off to the side of the place.

Still, the venue provides an extremely intimate atmosphere for live performances and the two shows I have seen there (Lacuna Coil and the aforementioned Nightwish show) will easily go down on my short list of favorite concerts.

As an added bonus, their sound seems to be mixed rather well, which is a nice change from damn near every other concert I’ve been too which either had sound level problems or was so loud it was distorted and unpleasant.  The Diamond Ballroom certainly keeps it loud, and perhaps uncomfortably so for its size, but the sound is good at least.  And as I choose to be a total square and wear earplugs during concerts (I make no apologies for my lameness here, by the way, as it is worlds more comfortable for me, not to mention safer) the volume wasn’t really a concern.

I do think I would have appreciated it if the place wasn’t running more than a full hour behind.  Call me crazy, but I consider it a little unprofessional when the advertised time for the doors to open is 6:00 p.m. and I finally get in at 7:15 or so.

I also got the distinct impression that perhaps the concert organizers had tried to pack just a little too much action into such a small tour.  Three warm up bands in a venue this size before a one hour set from the headliner just seems a little excessive.  The poor roadies were struggling to put one band on stage an hour.  There were no fewer than three full sound checks.  Lacuna Coil didn’t take the stage until just after 10:00, a full three hours after the advertised start of the show.
I’ll make no secret of the fact that this is probably another reason their short set didn’t bother me so much.  By the time everything was finally finished I was so exhausted that being able to go back to my car and actually sit down was like a little gift from heaven.  I don’t even think you have to be as horribly out of shape as I am to think that standing on your feet for five hours for a concert, most of that spent waiting for doors to open or bands to get set up, is more than a little tiring.

But, as I said, it was all worth it.  Lacuna are a terrific live band and I can’t possibly think of a better place to see them than in an intimate venue such as the Diamond Ballroom.  The band was having a great time on stage, the audience was loving it, and Cristina’s voice was there in full force, as impressive as it always is.  There was plenty of good crowd interaction and between song banter, but not so much that it slowed things down or got in the way.

As a huge Lacuna Coil fan, I was somewhat disappointed with their most recent album.  I thought it was far too repetitive and lacking the creative spark and energy that made their previous releases so memorable.  On that note, while new songs did comprise a decent portion of the short set, not only did they not overwhelm the old favorites, but they also work far better live than they do as studio versions.  The energy infused into the tracks by the band on stage adds new life to songs that were flat in the studio and the atmosphere of the concert means the repetition is both less noticeable and less important.

Actually, as much as I may have been disappointed with their new album, reflecting on the concert I think it was actually refreshing that they played a good number of the new ones.  Perhaps a product of being so short, their set list consisted of nothing I hadn’t seen them do live before outside of the new tracks (and one old slower tune, Entwined, that I will admit to not actually having recognized at the time as I don’t listen to their oldest material much).  Not seeing another old favorite or a slightly different lineup other than the bare essential hits they’ve been playing at every concert they’ve given for such a long time is a little disappointing, but hey, don’t fix what isn’t broken.  All the songs I had seen them perform before were still as full of energy, excitement, and fun as the other times I’ve seen them, and perhaps even better due to the small venue.

I stand by my assertion that, gripes and all, it is one of the best concerts I have been to.  Lacuna Coil is a band tailor-made for a small venue like this and it was fantastic to finally see them in their element in a headlining gig.  They seem to be a very down-to-earth group and this really carries over into their shows, even on a larger scale, but especially in such a small venue.  It just feels like a bunch of friends getting up on stage and rocking the hell out because that’s what they love to do.

If you ever get the chance to see them, do it.  You won’t regret it.  I’ve seen them four times and I sure haven’t.

Side Note: Whist at this concert, I was lucky enough to experience first-hand a pretty healthy majority of the variety of concert-goers featured on Cracked.com’s list of 7 Obnoxious Assholes that Show Up at Every Concert.

Set List:

To the Edge
Fragments of Faith
Swamped
I Won’t Tell You
Not Enough
Fragile
Entwined
Closer
Daylight Dancer
I’m not Afraid
Enjoy the Silence

Encore:
Heaven’s a Lie
Spellbound
Our Truth

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Review: F.E.A.R. 2 – Sweet, Sweet Parthenophobia

Let’s not delude ourselves any more than necessary. F.E.A.R. 2 is little more than a long string of horror movie and shooter cliches strung together into one tidy package.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar: creepy little girl, long black hair, scientific experiments gone awry, traveling through subways, hospitals, and elementary schools…

You get the picture.

But as such, it becomes a prime example of how a game can be perfectly enjoyable despite not bringing much new to the table.

In F.E.A.R. 2, you play as a different character than the undoubtedly poorly-fated soul you inhabited in the first game. This fresh perspective on the world allows the game to retell and clarify much of the backstory. F.E.A.R. 2 even begins before the ending of the first game. Far from seeming redundant, this recapping actually managed to tell many of the hazy details of the first outing better than the original, so it is much appreciated.

Our dear little psychotic Alma is now all grown up, on the loose, and seriously pissed off. You will spend most of the game chasing after her and trying to put an end to her shenanigans. That’s pretty much what you need to know. It’s a simple setup, but since the game carries the added burden of making sense of the original’s heap of poorly-told nonsense anything more would have bogged it down too much.

Not to worry though, as there are plenty of twists and turns in store and the yarn is much more satisfying and clearly delivered than in the first game.

The gameplay will also seem familiar, but in a pleasant, comfort food sort of way. Not much has changed, but it’s so well crafted that it didn’t really need to. A few new guns are added to the mix, the AI has received a notable boost in intelligence, and you can now make cover for yourself in case you ever felt jealous of the enemy’s ability to do so in the original F.E.A.R.

The combat isn’t terribly original, like the rest of the game, but it’s immensely satisfying and provides that perfect roller coaster of fear, tension, and release as the game moves from scary bit to action bit. Adding to this are a couple of sections where the player is given the opportunity to control a mech and mow down legions of enemies. Monolith has totally nailed the sensation of piloting one of these things like no other game I can remember, and if these mechanics aren’t fleshed out into a full game it will be a true shame.

Even the slow-mo, which could feel seriously dated, unnecessary, and overused, remains great fun. It’s hard to define exactly why slowing time and blasting foes into tiny bloody bits never gets old in this game when it wears thin so quickly in so many others.

The gorgeous graphics and terrifically disturbing blood effects certainly don’t hurt. This is one extremely gory, visceral game. In fact, the presentation here is easily one of its biggest strengths, from sound design to graphics to special effects. The whole shebang is quite an impressive package.

Occasionally, however, the lights do shine a little too brightly in this haunted house and expose a few of the more shoddily built props for the cheap skeletons they really are.

Most notably for fans of the original F.E.A.R., Monolith doesn’t seem to have learned too many new scare tactics for this newest outing. Alma still pops up randomly, lights flicker on and off, and hallucinations haunt you from time to time. The entertaining “dream” sequences from the prior outing are also more infrequent than I would have liked.

This, by far and away, is my biggest complaint. The atmosphere is stellar, the shooting is just as fun, and the environments more varied, yet this one fault comes dangerously close to making the game feel uninspired.

All is not lost, however. The game certainly does have enough cool, creepy, and even genuinely scary moments to keep you on the edge of your seat. I’m not about to spoil them here, but there are definitely some treats in store.

Monolith has thankfully addressed one of the biggest complaints about the original F.E.A.R., and to great effect. The environments are both impressively detailed and varied. Gone are the days of the endless series of cloned office corridors. Sure we may have seen the themes before, but never once did they feel sterile or uninspired, as if they simply chose these overdone location themes because they couldn’t think of anything better. All of them served their intended purpose and were suitably creepy, unnerving, and memorable.

Also, other games should pay attention to F.E.A.R. 2 when it comes to endings. It’s no secret that few horror stories, no matter the medium, actually end properly. The first F.E.A.R. was certainly an example of this and the sequel is no different.

What separates Monolith’s two games from the rest of the crappy horror endings (and indeed the innumerable games of late that seem to relish in not having an ending, instead choosing to set things up for the inevitable sequel) is how well they are constructed. In the first F.E.A.R., you knew Alma was far from gone and the story far from over, but the arc of your particular character, and that of the game’s slice of the overall story, had been told and concluded, in suitably epic fashion.

F.E.A.R. 2 is even more of a cliffhanger than the first game, but the ending is so spectacular that it doesn’t matter. The entire sequence, from the last level to the final confrontation to the story twist saved for the very last moments, is one of the outright coolest endings I can remember playing in a long time.

I can only hope that the, yes, inevitable sequel will make good on it, because they’ve already sold me.

So while it may not be astoundingly original, while it may have lost a little bit of its fright factor compared to the first game, and while it could still be accurately described as a “ride” just as much as a “game” at times, it is still an experience most certainly worth undertaking for those that fit its target audience. There’s nothing wrong with creating something that’s simply fun, and that’s what F.E.A.R. 2 is: a fun experience that, for the right audience, will provide thrills, chills, and plenty of memorable moments.

For those that don’t fit its target audience, well, I feel sorry for you, because if this game is a ride, it’s a hell of a trip that will leave you wanting more at the end. And that’s what any good story should do.


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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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Review – Captain Dan: From the Seas to the Streets

Infamous pirate rapper Captain Dan is back with his Scurvy Crew in tow for another album full of cannons, wenches, rum, and gold. But does his latest adventure live up to past outings, or has the old captain finally run out of amusing chanties to throw our way?

When I was listening to the iTunes previews for the songs in “From the Seas to the Streets”, trying to decide whether or not I wanted to purchase it, I was disappointed with my initial 30 second glimpses. They didn’t seem to contain those same, accessible, catchy beats that made Captain Dan’s version of rap music entertaining even to someone like me, who traditionally stays away from the genre.

Frankly, it worried me. I didn’t want to lose my Captain Dan. I didn’t want him to turn into some overly serious act, interesting only to those heavily invested in the genre, more a parody of his former self than the genre he was originally taking off of.

Thankfully, he has avoided that fate.

Perhaps some of my initial worry was just a product of iTunes choosing the wrong 30 seconds to demo, but I think there’s more to it than that.

After springing for the full album in blind faith that Captain Dan wouldn’t do me wrong and subsequently listening to it all the way through, I realized I had been unfair during my preview. I was listening specifically for those overly catchy hooks and, yes, they are perhaps less obvious on the whole than on previous albums.

What’s gained in their place is greater variety and maturity (although I hesitate to use that particular term with this group for some reason) in song construction. It’s not less accessible, and certainly no less catchy, but it relies less on the overly obvious hooks of yore to achieve its goal this time around.

In another major step forward, more than on either of their previous albums I can listen to the whole thing all the way through without wanting to skip anything – either because of a joke that got tired, a hook that got old, or a song that was just never all that good in the first place. The album is strong all the way through – a notable accomplishment for any band, much less a “novelty” act like this one.

Overall, far from being significant downfall for the rapping pirate like I had at first feared, this is, on the whole, his strongest work yet.

Even the previously abysmal (but pathetically amusing) British rapper is decent this time around. They must have given him some serious lessons, because it’s a huge (and welcome) improvement.

This is also the first Scurvy Crew release where no two tracks really sound the same, even on first listen. The variety really is much appreciated. It makes it much easier to play the whole thing from start to finish without getting bored.

Admittedly they do retread a lot of the same themes. I mean, they’re rapping about piracy, there’s bound to be some overlapping topics now and again. That said, none of the tracks feel especially tired or flat. I already had my finger on the skip button when “Chests O’ Plenty” rolled around, threatening another strained take on the “oh, aren’t women and prostitutes just dandy” theme that I had learned to skip consistently on their previous two albums. Too much actual rap theming and not enough pirate in those particular cuts for my liking, I guess.

Imagine my surprise when I found that I actually loved the track. Euphemisms and puns abound and plenty of laughs are to be had here. It strikes the right balance between sexy, funny, pirate, and rap, and doesn’t stray too far toward any of the individual directions.

I’m not accusing “From the Seas to the Streets” of perfection. I’ll probably start skipping “That’s How We Row” before too long and I’m already not overly fond of “Diggin’ for Gold”. Still, the tracks aren’t poorly done. They just don’t resonate with me as much as others on the album do. Both are perhaps a tad minimalist for my tastes.

A couple of the tracks are modern rap takes on traditional pirate chanties and, let me say, this is a brilliant move. They change up the pace and provide amusing takes on what are sure to be familiar tunes to most listeners.

To even further raise the variety bar, they invited a couple of female guest rappers for “Ladies in Scarlet” to sing about how the better gender experiences life on the high seas.

Overall, wherever my worrying first impression came from, it was certainly a flawed one. This is one captain who has only improved with age. His third album has greater variety in rhymes and rhythms, more polish than ever before, far fewer duds than its two predecessors, and just as many catchy hooks and accessible head-bobbers to draw in those those not into rap that doesn’t happen to be fronted by a pirate.

Rap fans, pirate fans, humor fans, and those that just like a catchy beat should not hesitate to pick this one up. Nobody does the buccaneer technique quite like Captain Dan.


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Review – Mirror’s Edge: Frustration Has Never Been This Much Fun

Mirror’s Edge had me from the moment I first saw a glimpse of it. It was a game made just for me. Platforming, racing, a unique art style, and innovation all wrapped up into one tidy package that I knew on first sight I just had to own.

It’s really a shame that the developers weren’t as confident in their concept as I was. In their defense, I suppose it is hard for the creator of a gun-obsessed series like Battlefield to quit weapons cold turkey with a drastic change in tone like Mirror’s Edge. Old habits die hard, right?

Well, yeah, apparently.

The combat in Mirror’s Edge is so clearly the weakest link here that it’s really hard to understand how they could justify it being included at all. With a little tweaking it would not have been hard to make running the only option when faced with foes. Running is certainly the most fun option.

There are numerous sections in the game where Faith is being chased by a group of enemies who are constantly on her tail. One wrong move and she’s toast. She must rely on her reflexes, her skills, and her runner’s instinct to get out alive and outrun her pursuers.

mirrors-edge-sniper_kick_webMoments like those are where the game really shines. The tension hums in the air. Your heart beats faster, fingers gripping the controller in white-knuckled suspense. Inevitably, a few minutes later, this epic chase scene will be followed by running right into the waiting laser sights of far too many armored goons with impeccable aim and nothing even resembling mercy.

Of course. It makes perfect sense that my unarmored, fragile, female protagonist who’s profession relies on her to run everywhere should stop cold and take the enemies down in combat.

Yeah, perfectly logical, that.

Combat is not the only stumble in Mirror’s Edge. There are a number of other nitpicks that could be brought up to drag it kicking and screaming even further away from that ever-elusive goal line of perfection. But among all the things that went slightly awry with this game, the forced combat sections stand out by far as the clearest failure. A clear signal, at least to me, that the developers didn’t quite realize just how awesome their game already was sans fisticuffs.

mirrors-edge-scr1 Perhaps those clever, devil-horned marketing types who couldn’t fathom selling a first-person game without a gun made the decision. Perhaps the developers realized perfectly well what was going on but just didn’t have time to fix it before the ship date. Perhaps the creators were simply afraid of a lack of variety and couldn’t come up with any other way to change things up.

In any case, the damage has been done.

mirrors-edge-slide_webI can deal with most of Mirror’s Edge’s other stumbles. Overly frequent deaths at missed jumps and failed attempts are a small price to pay for not having another completely needless time-manipulation mechanic slapped on the game like so many other spineless platformers these days. A short length is disappointing but hardly signals a death knell in this age of shiny-but-short that we seem to have careened into headfirst thanks to our high-maintenance, testosterone-fueled game consoles of choice. Hell, the time trial mode included in this game might well be the most fun part of the package and it’s highly replayable and, dare I say it, more than a little addictive.

What it all comes down to is that Mirror’s Edge is quite clearly a valiant stab in the dark at a genre many, including myself, wouldn’t have thought possible before its release. If you had asked me half a year ago whether a first-person platformer would be fun I would have had violent flashbacks to horrible Half Life 2 jumping puzzles and then ran screaming away in the other direction screaming, “Oh, God, no!”

me2But here we are and Mirror’s Edge isn’t half bad. Color me surprised. I hope to look back on Mirror’s Edge in the future and say that the best thing about it was that it taught the developers how to make a good game in this style and the sequel ended up being the better game by leaps and bounds. That may well be exactly my thoughts a year or two from now. I look forward to the day.

In the meantime, Mirror’s Edge as it stands isn’t a total loss. You just have to go in with a mindset of forgiveness. Know ahead of time that it’s not perfect, that it requires patience, and that you’ll probably want to change the difficulty to easy to keep yourself sane.

But if you do all of those things, Mirror’s Edge has moments unlike any other game out there. It has thrills like a roller coaster and the most amazingly visceral player-protagonist connection yet seen in gaming, not to mention a gorgeous art style and a story world that at least has promise.

Not bad for taking a blind run at a genre that didn’t exist.


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