Sunday, November 15, 2015

Stratovarius: Eternal (2015) Review

Power metal is a divisive beast.  The genre draws as much praise as it does mock and scorn.  Yet even power metal fans and purists can't always agree on what constitutes a good or bad album.  This is more or less what happened following Stratovarius' 2013 effort, Nemesis.  Many embraced the zealous album's nature, yet a vocal portion regarded it as a band straying even further from their roots.  As one who initially viewed power metal and Nemesis through such a dismissive lens, I can confidently argue that the movements Stratovarius have taken as of late are subtle, especially compared to their peers (see Sonata Arctica and Nightwish).  Furthermore, an album like Nemesis, despite featuring odd moments like the DJ-esque sequence in "Halcyon Days," was a necessary injection for the band to reestablish their once firm rule over the power metal kingdom.  After a comfortable two-and-a-half year grasp, the Finnish outfit have bestowed us with another supply of melodies to nod and sing along to.  That much is a given with Stratovarius.  The real question, however, is how it moves the band forward (or doesn't).

A long-standing appeal of Stratovarius has been their ability to craft indulgently catchy tunes.  They've always been supremely accessible, often thanks to the combination of light production, complementary guitars and keyboards, intelligible vocals and agreeable track length.  And though these casual appeals can make the band seem like just that, any dedicated listener can tell you the music goes further than simple fun.  Timo Kotipelto and company haven't even strayed from more ambitious material (see Elysium's title track and Eternal's own "The Lost Saga"), but they've always expressed a harmonious charm in their music.  It's not just that the aforementioned aspects work, it's how they work when the pieces fall together.  No matter the taster, Stratovarius is super sweet, but ongoing fans can attest to why that sweetness tastes so damn good.  This is where Eternal comes in.

Rather than being a strict continuance from Nemesis, Eternal feels like a bit of a retread.  This may suggest a sense of indecision and stagnation after the strides made from Elysium to Nemesis, but it's a logical decision.  Stratovarius were already charging at full speed, to go further would make the band more prone towards speed metal.  Certainly not the worst of concepts, but also far from the best.  Eternal even preserves much of what made Nemesis such a reckoning force in the first place; the silky smooth production is intact, high octane moments ("Rise Above It" and "Feeding the Fire") still shout loud, chant-inducing choruses are in high supply, etc.

However, where Eternal reveals its differences is in how it chooses to incorporate these (and other) facets.  This time we see more toned down tempos brought to light, with "Lost Without a Trace" being the most lax moment of the entire album.  Similarly, "In My Line of Work" and "Shine in the Dark" effectively showcase the band on autopilot.  The good news is that Stratovarius on autopilot is far more engaging than most bands, regardless of genre.  And like I said, it's still effectively done.  The not-as-good news is that we never get a sense of the band challenging themselves.  Nemesis came at the exact time it needed to, unleashing what felt like a siege of sheer power (pun not intended) from start to finish.  Eternal, by comparison, feels more like an album stuck between dimensions throughout Stratovarius' career.  It's a far more defensive affair than its predecessor.  Whether that's good or bad rests on whether you expected another potential game-changer.

If Eternal is an indication of what Stratovarius thinks is the best course of action, then whatever they bring us next will be a bit more retroactive. Nemesis' naysayers may find more to enjoy from Eternal, since there is a sense of longing to return to the olden days.  Meanwhile, new and ongoing fans alike will be able to savor the new material with hardly a qualm.  The music is still competent and more than a little enjoyable, it just doesn't drive the power metal nail deep enough to leave a more lasting impression.

Grade: C

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Under the Red Cloud Review

If Finland held annual elections for their heavy metal scene, Amorphis would be THE contender for 2015 Presidency.  The new Nightwish album was a somber disappointment, and even with the likes of upcoming Children of Bodom and Stratovarius material, Amorphis have usually raised the bar for themselves and their peers.  An impressive feat, considering the band are celebrating their 25th year together with a 12th studio album.  Expected lulls in quality have naturally occurred during their lifespan, with the most recent example being the time between (and following) Skyforger and The Beginning of Times.  Though both were semi-competent albums, they definitely left some fans feeling under-enthused, more than anything.  Then the 2013 beast that was Circle showcased a band reinvigorated.  They were still doing the same spiel, but Circle delivered in a way that suggested more exciting avenues would be pursued.  Now the band is ready to cast us Under the Red Cloud, and all one needs to be interested is a good look at the album art.  The play of reds and blues is of significant contrast to the less saturated color schemes of previous albums, including Eclipse's warm hues and Far From the Sun's blank background.  Instead, this art is curious and eye-catching, peculiar and mesmerizing.  This is the forecast Amorphis have set for us.

Under the Red Cloud is a notably different affair than Circle.  It's still Amorphis at their core, with a couple songs falling into otherwise familiar archetypes, but there's a distinct and permeating sense of maturation here.  Elder albums Tales from the Thousand Lakes and Elegy come to mind when considering what's at work, albeit in spirit more than style.  Where folk elements came to enhance those albums, oriental comes to touch up Under the Red Cloud.  Amorphis don't necessarily go Orphaned Land on us, but a point like the ambient reprieve 90 seconds into "The Skull" exemplifies the kind of influence listeners can expect to notice throughout the entire album.  Amorphis haven't even shied away from incorporating other subgenres (often lightly) into their music, but this is the first time in years that such an approach has felt natural; Skyforger's coy progressive tactics were merely distractions from the band's overall sound; The Beginning of Times played so casually you could almost call it pop.  Under the Red Cloud makes short and effective work of dispelling any doubts, from the calm yet haunting keys that open the album to the chilling combination of dismal guitar playing with guest Aleah Stanbridge's (Trees of Eternity) vocals on album closer, "White Night."

The album is both quick and gradual in presenting its case.  After treating us to relative familiarity on the first two tracks, "Bad Blood" begins the actual transition whenever Tomi isn't contrasting the instruments with his harsh vocals.  Curiously, Under the Red Cloud is at its most experimental when the music is at its lightest.  Thankfully, Amorphis have an established pattern for alternating the harsh and melodic, though the emphasis has always been on melody (they are melodic death metal, after all).  Furthermore, blending these seemingly newfound elements into the formula works as smoothly as a mint chocolate chip milkshake.

As fresh as Under the Red Cloud is, there are still a couple moments that evoke a sense of familiarity, with "Sacrifice" practically instilling deja vu after Eclipse's "House of Sleep."  It's best served as an immediate piece to compare all the superior tracks to, especially considering its preceding track, "Death of a King" does such an effective job amalgamating the new and familiar, while the subsequent "Dark Path" plays out in a Circle-esque fashion, but with less distorted grit.  This brings us to Under the Red Cloud's necessary improvements to production, making the album a far smoother listening experience.  Comparatively speaking, Circle was a glass of tart lemonade while Under the Red Cloud is a properly made mojito.  Both serve their respective purposes, but for overall enjoyment, it's obvious which is preferred, regardless of your care for refinement.

Amorphis have finally combined best of their contemporary ingredients with the right spices and condiments to create a winning recipe.  Under the Red Cloud tastes like a long-lost experience, one that creates nostalgia and subsequent refreshment because of it.  Somewhere in the field of bands searching for the next big shift in style or ways to return to their roots, Amorphis have found a balance, allowing them to achieve two goals simultaneously.  Whether you prefer the band's newer or older material, both parties can agree that Under the Red Cloud is a welcome collection, ripe with subtle and overt flavors to savor with each and every sip.

Grade: B

Friday, August 28, 2015

Trainwreck (2015) Review

 Pitching a romantic comedy hardly seems necessary, since even the feign innovators often resort to the same tired tactics.  So when a movie establishes its main character with the expression "monogamy isn't realistic," we already know what the subsequent arc and conclusion will be.  It's a tale you know start to finish before the opening credits even begin, which means the best course of action is entertainment and a sense of actual character development.  Thankfully for us, Trainwreck has just enough of those qualities to make a visit worthwhile.

The aforementioned lead in question is Amy (Schumer), a young woman who juggles guys about as much as she chugs a bottle and smokes a joint.  She's also a journalist who hates sports and, as luck would have it, her sadistic boss (an uproarious Tilda Swinton) tasks her with a sports related article where she interviews sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), who happens to be pals with LaBron James.  Between Amy's behavior, her job and the assignment she's given, you can already what territory we'll be dealing with.  All the while, Amy has family matters to contend with, including her bitter, outspoken father (Colin Quinn) and rather resenting sister (Brie Larson).  When you consider what's going on, there's a lot to take in, even for a 2-hour movie.  And it's true, the pacing does begin to stagnate in some parts, but nearly everything is touched on just enough to avoid a sense of incompletion.  Judd Apatow movies aren't known for being slim offerings, but this feels less demanding than his usual work, which may have to do with the writing helm being given to Schumer instead of him.  That doesn't mean the usual antics and crude, pop cultural jokes don't get shoved in every now and again, but if you're already a fan of Apatow, the writer swap should hardly affect your lasting impressions.  
Another pleasant surprise in Trainwreck comes from one of its minor characters, Steven, played by John Cena.  Even non-wrestling fans are like to find themselves bawling with laughter at his deliberately over-the-top lines and deliveries, which peak at a movie theater scene early on.  Despite a number of surprisingly funny moments, this is by far the brightest highlight.  As you've likely noticed, Trainwreck has quite the cast of just-recognizable celebrities, and all of them are clearly having a fun time.  Laughs are never far away, and the expected drama is handled with enough heft to make you feel invested, if not won over like an overly generous slot machine.  

A romantic comedy like Trainwreck is an ideal date movie for those who like or prefer a mild spec of spice to go with their cheese.  Innovative?  No.  A fun time?  Yes.  Just be sure you know exactly what you're getting in this transparent piece.

Grade: C

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ant-Man (2015) Review

Let's consider the very thought of a movie named "Ant-Man."  Simply reading the title would lead one to assume this was a tride, D-grade kids film.  Yet it's the latest in Marvel's ongoing series of productions, introducing yet another potential Avenger.  The aptly named character uses size (or lack thereof) to achieve results, often involving infiltration in a fashion that would leave James Bond speechless.  This may immediately sound like a step back for Marvel, especially considering Age of Ultron's bloated sense of scale.  In many ways, Ant-Man is indeed a regression; everything is more low-key, local and concentrated.  But here's the thing: most of it is for the better.

Paul Rudd fronts a competent cast as burglar Scott Lang, a disenfranchised father who can't seem to find a groove between his con-man skills and desire to be with his daughter.  Fortunately for him, former Ant-Man Hank Pym (a reinvigorated Michael Douglass) offers Scott a second chance, one that may set him on a path to reunion and redemption.  The ensuing plotline is, as you'd expect, a heist scenario fitting for this latest branch in the neverending Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Edgar Wright was the original visionary for Ant-Man's big screen arrival, and though he ultimately dropped out, his influences are immediately discernible.  Comic relief is never out of reach, and though this silliness can turn grating, audiences will get a fair fill of chuckles.  Another of Wright's qualities shines through in the action sequences, even from a conceptual standpoint.  Hank and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) put Scott through a bit of training to preface what's to come.  Each of these are noteworthy simply for the instantaneous nature they lend themselves to; shrinking, sprouting and shrinking again make Scott a tour de force unlike any Marvel hero we've seen.  In short (pun not intended), it's a refreshing take.

Performance-wise, most of the cast is in fine form.  Paul Rudd caters to his off-key and awkward, comedic strengths while keeping the right dose of humanity.  Yet he ends up outclassed and outversed by Michael Douglass, who gives one of his best portrayals in recent memory.  Douglass runs the gamut from stark comedy to dramatic heft and turns into the film's true center of interest.  If anything, he nearly steals the thunder from the action scenes, which are at their best when they're the most spontaneous.  The finale is ripe with clever action and silly, comedic touches that leave a lasting impression.  Less commendable on the development front is Corey Stoll, bringing enough odd facial expressions to make one doubt the script's own competence.  Douglass expositiously mentions that Stoll's character isn't the most stable person, but this facet is insufficiently realized.  What ultimatley results from this is a miss-mash of rising action into the climax.  The payoff feels disproportionate when compared to recent MCU entries, but this also has much to do with perspective.
Ant-Man is more Iron Man than any other Marvel entry, especially considering the volume of sequels we've received.  The disadvantage here is that Ant-Man doesn't have the element of surprise that Tony Stark brought on us.  For what one would initially expect, however, Ant-Man is a home run.  You could objectively pick this film apart in so many ways, but that would require several moments of denial, moments that are ripe with fun.  And really, isn't that what a Marvel production should accomplish above all else?

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) Review

Girl has cancer; girl meets boy; girl and said boy spend time together.  Might sound like a rehash of The Fault in Our Stars, right?  Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, however, has a newsflash for you: "this isn't a touching romantic story."  These words come courtesy of Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), the first of our titular characters and voice of narrative throughout the film.  As a senior in high school, the fact Greg has a dearth of friends already tells us enough about him as a person.  To say that Greg is a pessimist is like telling prospecting viewers that this is a hefty film; the ongoing and growing role of Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) and her cancer is essentially a base for the film to move from.  In a deliberate play of irony, Rachel becomes the optimist to balance out Greg's less-than-glowing personality.  As for Earl (Ronald Cyler II), he's often--and expectedly--the neutral, unemotive voice of our three characters in question, though his role is of less emphasis than Greg and Rachel's.

Speaking of Greg and Rachel, let's discuss them.  The two simply become friends, a fact that Greg points out early into their off-key greeting session.  This isn't to say the two don't develop feelings for each other on a different level--a reality Hollywood often makes us forget, quite the contrary.  We see what Greg and Rachel do for one another, even if one of them requires more encouragement from other, more minor characters.  The film uses its fitting depictions of high school life to bring us in, ultimately keeping us clenched thanks to the transitions out of school and into the characters' personal lives.  This is where Greg and Earl's collection of films come into play.  On their off time, they write, direct and act out parodies of many famous movies.  These are among the many things in Greg's life he'd prefer to keep low-key, yet their significance goes beyond mere charm and entertainment.  How exactly is this achieved?  You'll have to see the movie to find out.
One can easily look at the preview(s) for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and expect a quirky dramedy that will express in equal doses of oddball laughter and conflict.  On that same coin, there's an anticipation for heavy themes tilting the scale ever so considerably.  Neither would be entirely wrong.  There are a number of chuckle-worthy moments, though these are admittedly of a dry nature.  Subsequently, the dramatic moments aren't here to pull punches, and one key scene features growing intensity amidst a prolonged frame-hold, similar to a standout shot in 2013's Twelve Years a Slave.  Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon doesn't shy away from breaking the characters open, and when the cards are down, he makes sure we see (and feel) every bit of emotion. 

Grade: B