Friday, January 25, 2013

KISS - Monster [album review]

Released in October

A few months prior to KISS celebrating their 40th anniversary, as happened last week, the band released Monster, their 20th studio album. The soulless Monster represents why I let my metaphorical membership in the KISS Army lapse (as stated in my other KISS reviews, I think it's relevant to mention that I was a hardcore fan of the group for almost 30 years before souring on just about everything they've done after about 2002). Monster is yet another empty vessel whose sheer reason for existing seems to be to act as more KISS product, while also qualifying as new music that deflects criticism of the group now being nothing more than a nostalgia act. Tied into the release of Monster is a book of the same name that is advertised as "Three feet tall and two and a half feet wide! As tall as a guitar!" and is so crazily expensive at $4,250 U.S. (!) that they actually offer low monthly payment plans for that undiscerning and unhealthily obsessive KISS fan who can't live without it. The band at least found it in the goodness of their hearts to offer free delivery on the tome.

Looking back on my review from 2009 for KISS' Sonic Boom album, most of the criticisms and observations from it could be cut and pasted onto this review. There's the embarrassing lyrics that are atrociously bad in many parts: I'll take you out of this world to the other side/On a midnight rocket 'til the morning light/Going up, going down, it's gonna be alright and You and me we're like TNT/Light the fuse that's inside of me (from "Outta This World"); I was just another child going wild in the city/Just gettin' by on a dream/I was thinking life was gonna be pretty/It was pretty mean (from "All For The Love Of Rock And Roll"); and I told her that I had a submarine/She said "I know exactly what you mean"/I told her that my ship was ready to ride/She touched my heart when she touched my thigh (from "Take Me Down Below"). I don't expect KISS to start writing songs about world peace and I'm also conscious of the fact that they and a handful of other classic hard rock bands are into uncharted waters as their careers carry on into decade number five, but there's something profoundly sad about a group whose two principle members (Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley) are now well into their 60s and churning out lyrics as lazily written, thimble deep, and icky as these. Also carrying over from Sonic Boom is the fact the only good song on the album is its first track and first single - last time around it was "Modern Day Delilah" and this time it's "Hell Or Hallelujah", both with Stanley on lead vocals. The song is an obvious attempt at capturing some of the songwriting and studio magic from the earlier days and succeeds, with a crunchy main guitar riff that feels and sounds like a sibling of the one from 1977's classic "I Stole Your Love". Monster's only other track worth listening to is the heavier "Shout Mercy", also with Stanley singing lead vocals. Aside from those two, it's one forgettable example of the band going through the motions after another, as the 70s formula of each band member taking their turns in the lead vocal slot is predictably executed.

It should be noted that KISS are in some pretty select company in terms of classic rock bands that are no longer capable of putting out a new album that qualifies as even merely adequate. Aerosmith, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Heart are just some of the formerly prolific groups that can't write a good collection of songs any more to save their lives. It can be done, though, as demonstrated last year by inspired and stellar releases from the long-in-the-tooth Van Halen and Rush. Aside from a couple of instances, Monster just feels like a forgery of the far better music that KISS were able to make a long time ago, right down to them employing two guys (lead guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer) to look and musically sound like original KISS members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. At this point in their career, you can include KISS as another deserving candidate for the "musical euthanasia" I wrote about here. No doubt, the low-hanging fruit fan base that Simmons and Stanley depend on have already shelled out for Monster, as these diehards continue to turn a willfully blind eye to the hollow sham this band, sadly, now is. 

Rating: D-

Related posts: my October review of KISS' Destroyer (Resurrected) album

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Danko Jones - Rock And Roll Is Black And Blue [album review]

Released in October

Danko Jones is one of maybe a dozen musical artists whose new album I'll buy without hearing a note off of it beforehand - that's how much I admire his work. By the way, talking or writing about Danko Jones can get a little confusing - it's the name of the lead singer/guitarist, yet it's also become commonplace for the entire band to just be referred to as Danko Jones. Either one works, but for the purpose of clarity, when I use the name I'll be referring to the individual. The group is the second best rock trio to ever come out of Toronto, with a tip of the cap to the city's most famous three-piece, Rush, and apologies to the third place Triumph. Unfortunately, the band is woefully unappreciated in their home town (where they once opened a Rolling Stones warmup gig at the Palais Royale ballroom prior to the Stones' 40 Licks World Tour) and the rest of North America, with breakout success coming for them relatively early in their 17 year career in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden. 

Danko Jones' latest album is titled Rock And Roll Is Black And Blue, a reference to the generally poor state of rock music these days and if ever there were an apt band to fly the flag for an out-of-fashion-yet-always-resilient genre, it's this hard-nosed group. They're a must-see live band, with the frontman bringing the kind of intensity and commitment to his shows that found him actually detaching one of his retinas on stage in 2006 from the cumulative effect of slapping himself in the face every time the band performed the song "Bring On The Mountain (Become The Mountain)".    

Every one of Danko Jones' previous five full-length studio releases has been good for a minimum of three songs that are killer enough to warrant being staples in the group's setlists a decade from now and their latest doesn't disrupt that trend, with four more grade A songs. First on that list is opening track "Terrified", a prototypical Jones song featuring simplistic heavy guitars, a fat bass sound (from founding member John "JC" Calabrese), and aggressive, loud drumming. The drum stool this time around is occupied by newest member Atom Willard (who's played with Angels & Airwaves, Social Distortion, and The Offspring), which makes him the sixth drummer this band has had, giving Spial Tap a run for their money. As much as I hated to see previous two drummers Dan Cornelius and Damon Richardson exit the fold, Willard's attacking drum style is similar to his predecessors and makes for a seamless transition...let's hope he avoids death by spontaneous combustion. Next up on the list of stellar tracks is "Get Up", then first single "Just A Beautiful Day" (a ripper with a massive-sounding chorus that's stacked with meaty guitars), and lastly, "The Masochist", which echoes the rawness and volatile attitude also conveyed on "The Cross" from Jones' best album, 2003's We Sweat Blood.  

A little less memorable, but still damn fine are "I Don't Care", "You Wear Me Down", "Type Of Girl" (Urge Overkill might be entitled to some royalties, though, considering how much this one nicks the riff from "Sister Havana"), the more commercial-sounding "Always Away" (again borrowing quite liberally from a classic song - this time it's the hammer on/pull-off guitar riff from AC/DC's "Thunderstruck"), "Conceited", and "I Believed In God". The latter track represents a surprising new wrinkle to Jones' mostly static sound by injecting a gospel choir into the mix. It's a little surreal hearing their heavenly voices complementing those of a man known for his over-the-top, swaggering persona and bad behavior-celebrating lyrics (indeed, the words on this one deal with both a higher power and how He pertains to the hot woman Jones lusts after), but the whole thing works quite well. Only two songs failed to win me over: the slower-tempoed "Legs" and "Don't Do This".  

Rock And Roll Is Black And Blue, aside from Jones doing a little more singing and a little less screaming, plus the rare and successful creative risk taken on "I Believed In God", mostly sticks to the trio's formula of power chord-based, punk-infused hard rock with few frills and loads of attitude, along with simple lyrics that unapologetically focus on the fairer sex. As Jones said in last year's fantastic bio doc Bring On The Mountain, "If you look at the development curve of my lyrics, it's one flat line. I've just always written about the same stuff and I always will". Taking a page from the playbooks of some of their most significant influences (AC/DC, The Ramones, and Motรถrhead), Jones, Calabrese, and insert drummer's name here don't really care if you find their unwillingness to evolve very much a negative - this is what you get. If growth and ambitious experimentation from a musical outfit is what you seek, then listen to a Radiohead album.

Rating: B

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Walking Dead [television review, part two]

The first half of season three aired on AMC from October through December of last year; the second half of season three premieres on February 10th

Warning: major spoilers ahead if you haven't seen up through the eighth episode of season three

I've written well over 200 reviews on this blog and none of them were as much of a challenge to complete as this one for The Walking Dead. As mentioned in the review's first part, I hit creative roadblocks in getting my thoughts from the brain to the keyboard, which continued as I wrote the second part of this review. I actually debated whether or not to just scrap posting this second part altogether because of my unhappiness with the end result. I opted against that due to the large amount of time invested in putting it together, plus the fact that what I wanted to say is all here - I'm just not thrilled with how the structuring and wording of it came out. It's a lot longer than I wanted and the editing process was dragging on as well and I just reached my limit of how much more patience I had to continue working on it. Basically, I just want to put this one to bed already. Yes, it's unusual for a writer to admit that what they're sharing is far from their best work (unprofessional, too, I suppose...not that I get paid for this), but I'm just being upfront. And yes, I get the irony of me bitching below about the show's lazy writing and then typing what I just typed in the previous sentences. On with it then... 

Frankly, I find the writing on this show downright terrible, which is one of the biggest reasons I dislike these characters so much. Season two was defined by far too much talking and bickering amongst the group members, along with an excess of stupidity from the characters. I can appreciate that one's ability to make rational decisions would be diminished in the challenging environment and circumstances these people find themselves in, but that doesn't excuse the many, many boneheaded choices and moves the writers saddled these characters with, resulting in behaviour that alienated me to the point of no return. For example: 
  • Darryl riding a chopper that yes, would be great on gas and advantageous in getting places a bigger vehicle can't access, but is LOUDER THAN HELL and therefore a zombie magnet. Conversely, there was the decision by some of the group members to get around in an RV, which is just about the worst vehicle you could drive in terms of gas mileage (and it was a broken down RV at that). 
  • At the end of season two, we find out that the group doesn't even have their vehicles loaded up with supplies in case they have to make a hasty exit if zombies attacked the farm, as ended up happening. Nor do they have an arranged meeting point should they get displaced from the farm, although that didn't keep most of the scattered group from miraculously arriving at the same time at the same place after the farm attack. In another example of extremely shortsighted planning, they wait until Lori's baby is born in season three before stocking up on baby formula, a commodity that strangely seems to be quite easy for the group to find in abandoned daycares and stores.    
  • On several occasions (even on into season three when he went off alone to find medical supplies in the prison), Carl wanders off by himself with completely ineffective repercussions from his parents. The fact he keeps doing it might point to a kid with a rebellious and adventurous streak - I'll chalk it up to a combination of his not being very bright, crappy parenting, and lackadaisical writing.    
  • In season two, Andrea, feeling empowered with her newly discovered supposed markswoman skills, mistakenly shoots Darryl from a distance because an already suffered injury has him conveniently shuffling along like a zombie and, uh, the sun got in her eyes. It was one of the many unintentionally hilarious moments this series has delivered. 
  • In season two, Shane slices open his good hand to attract some zombies with his blood. I might have chosen the less useful hand I don't shoot or stab walkers with, but that's just me. 
More lazy writing abounds throughout the series, resulting in uneven story elements that eschew logic to accommodate the storylines and enhance the drama. Some of the following would also qualify under the "stupid decisions" category, but here's some examples:
  • The reunion between Carol and the group in the seventh episode of season three after she'd been missing in the prison for an extended period didn't add up. Yes, it made sense that the group was happy and tearful at seeing her again - why, then, was barely any effort made to find her? It struck me as a case of the producers shortcutting their way to the reunion's easy emotional payoff.  
  • In the episode previous to the aforementioned one, the scene between Andrea and a woman guarding The Governor's commune resulted in another unintentionally hilarious scene. The woman states that she's proficient with a crossbow, but then proves to be the anti-Katniss when she's incapable of taking out a slow-moving walker from a short distance. It's an amateurly executed scene both in its dialogue and acting that unimaginatively exists only to demonstrate Andrea's toughness and lack of regard for authority, as she climbs over the barricaded wall to handle the walker herself. The rationale of The Governor having this woman on guard duty, after it's been well established that he runs a very tight ship in regards to the safety of the commune, makes zero sense.    
  • Lori, after stating in season two that the group should avoid making unnecessary trips off the farm, soon after irrationally decides to go after her husband who's out on a mission with some other members, all of whom have demonstrated an ability to take care of themselves. Naturally, she ends up flipping her car en route to saving the day, putting herself, her fetus, and anyone who has to rescue them in danger. Utterly ridiculous.
  • In season two, some characters risk their lives and a lot of their limited ammunition to save the life of a guy that just tried to kill them who ends up impaled on a metal fence post. That was bad enough. Said rescuee is then walking amazingly fine just a week later after being patched up by a veterinarian (Hershel) coming off a booze bender following a decades-long period of sobriety. The comedy gold continues.   
I could continue to rail on about the other things I dislike about this show: its atrocious pacing (an interminable amount of time was spent on the season two search for Sophia, storylines were revisited too often, and many episodes were completely devoid of action until the last five or ten minutes, when the producers seemingly jammed any zombie killing in as an obligatory bone to action-craving viewers); the disgusting double standard that allows the most gruesome violence you could ever see on a TV or film screen air at 9 p.m. on basic cable, yet nudity and the word "fuck" are strictly verboten; how the novelty of the zombies wore off a long, long time ago; and the show's incredibly boring action sequences. You get the idea by this point, though.

I'm sure some of you still reading this are thinking that I need to stop taking a show about zombies so seriously and picking it apart. To reiterate what I wrote in part one of my review: trust me, I'm totally able to suspend my disbelief with a show like this and succumb to its charms. Unfortunately, The Walking Dead has next to none. And my critique is so nitpicky because I am holding the show to a higher standard, mostly based on its overwhelmingly glowing reviews, but also because of the rabid viewer following the show generates. Entertainment Weekly magazine says this of the series: "Pound for pound and thrill for thrill, The Walking Dead could turn out to be the greatest thriller ever produced for television" and "...the real star of The Walking Dead is its sharp, humane writing". Other adjectives I've read and heard to describe it (and from professional TV critics no less) are "brilliant", "great", and "genius". Like the similarly mystifying critical love given to Homeland, I simply don't understand how they're watching the same dumb show I amDuring a recent conversation with a friend about the huge ratings and fan enthusiasm for the program, he said The Walking Dead had probably resonated so deeply with viewers because the horror genre was so underrepresented on TV and nothing like this had ever aired before. That makes sense on a certain level, but crap is still crap, so I'm still mystified why a show that's as hugely flawed as this one has connected on such a massive level with such a widespread demographic and those who write about the medium. And reminding myself about that whole "taste is subjective" thing doesn't make me any less perplexed. 

So why in the world am I still watching a program I've crapped over as much as this one? Partly, it's a bizarre fascination with the massive disconnect between where I stand on the show and where a hell of a lot of other people seem to stand. Another reason is I genuinely do get enjoyment out of watching for the unintentional laughs and colossal stupidity on display in almost every episode. Apparently, this practice has now been coined "hate watching" and has developed into a popular trend. Watching for the wrong reasons only has so much of a shelf life, though, so I'll probably only hang in there for a few more episodes when the second half of season three resumes next month. One other thing that does intrigue me about this show is the upheaval going on behind the scenes with some of the top people determining its creative direction. Showrunner Frank Darabont quit early on in season two and his replacement, Glen Mazzarra, either quit or was fired (the details are a little murky) earlier this month. Perhaps the instability explains the mess that appears onscreen. 

Finally, as much as I've criticized The Walking Dead, I'm not completely without some praise for it. Along with the likable Glen and Maggie characters I've already mentioned, the show consistently demonstrates great special effects and I've also been impressed more than once with some of the artfully composed shots that have appeared (one was an eerie long shot from the episode aired during the same night as the Oscars last year where a lone zombie walked through an open field, another was the death scene of Shane from season two set in another field bathed in moonlight with fog rolling around). And I must admit, the moment in the second season's mid-season finale where a zombified Sophia emerged from Hershel's barn and was gunned down by Rick was outstanding and almost redeemed the entire boring season that had led up to it, even if in retrospect, I felt as dumb as the rest of the characters were for not figuring out before that point that maybe they should have checked the mystery barn on the very land where they were staying. Also, the show has also made some bold moves in killing off major characters, even if that maneuver has now become rather de riguer on other cable dramas like Sons Of AnarchyBoardwalk Empire, American Horror Story, Breaking Bad, and Game Of Thrones. Those last two sentences sum up my at-odds relationship with The Walking Dead - even when I'm attempting to find something positive to say about it, the compliments tend to end up coming out backhanded.

Rating: D 

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Walking Dead [television review, part one]

The first half of season three aired on AMC from October through December of last year; the second half of season three premieres on February 10th

Warning: major spoilers ahead if you haven't seen up through the eighth episode of season three

Record ratings for a basic cable show, along with critical and viewer raves be damned - I think The Walking Dead is one of, if not the most aggravating TV programs I've ever spent time with. I've tried to write a review of the show a couple of different times over the past year or so, but found myself repeatedly hitting a creative roadblock, as will happen occasionally when I'm trying to formulate my thoughts into words on a particular subject. So I've just been stockpiling plenty of observations and opinions over the course of watching all 27 episodes of the AMC drama during its two and a half seasons on the air. Because I have so much to say, I'll break up my review into two parts (as I've said on here before, most people look at a bulky 2000+ word review - which is what this full one would clock in at - and aren't exactly willing to dive right into it). Part one looks at the show's biggest weakness: a crippling lack of likable and sympathetic characters.

In my 42 year lifetime of being an avid TV consumer, I'm hard-pressed to come up with another show I've watched with a large ensemble cast that has so few agreeable characters and as many thoroughly unlikable ones as this one (The Newsroom would be a not-too-distant second). There's exactly two characters since the show began that I enjoy, who either haven't annoyed the hell out of me or made me shrug with indifference: Steven Yeun's Glenn and Lauren Cohan's Maggie (Norman Reedus' Daryl might qualify as half a likable character). Everyone else on The Walking Dead I've felt absolutely no attachment to and completely failed to be intrigued by, which is a huge problem as a viewer watching a program built upon the concept of rooting for the survival of the main group. Here's a rundown of the show's main characters and my many issues with them:

  • Rick (played by Andrew Lincoln)...the show's protagonist has admittedly exerted more sensible authority in the first half of season three than he did during his bumbling time as de facto group leader in the first two seasons. Rick's stupid choices and numerous moments of indecision earlier on were obviously meant to complicate the character and convey the difficulties of navigating the changed world which the group inhabits - his actions just had me slapping my forehead repeatedly, though. This and Lincoln's tendency to overact has always kept me at arm's length from warming up to the character. 
  • Lori (played by Sarah Wayne Callies)...Lori was a huge nag who repeatedly proved incapable of keeping an eye on her adolescent son Carl (played by Chandler Riggs), despite the fact that danger lurks around every corner since, you know, there's a zombie apocalypse going on and all. Plus she hooked up with Shane, Rick's best friend, a little too quickly when they thought Rick was dead after the world went down the crapper following the virus outbreak. It seems I wasn't alone in disliking the character, judging from the overwhelmingly negative reactions online from viewers.   
  • Shane (played by Jon Bernthal)...the season one and two character, who was incredibly stubborn and irritatingly cocky, had "weaselly prick" written all over him almost immediately (see the Lori hookup, among many other examples). 
  • Carl (played by Chandler Riggs)...I cannot remember the last time an actor annoyed me like the precocious Riggs has over the past two seasons. I know ripping a kid for being a crappy actor is mean, but screw it - he simply is. Like Keanu Reeves, you can practically see the acting mechanisms whirring in his head. Riggs didn't have much to do until about halfway through season two, at which point Carl started being worked more into the important storylines, usually as a result of his bratty behaviour (like wandering off again and taunting a walker stuck in the mud, an action that would come back to have major implications). Season three has unfortunately seen the show's writers establish Carl as much more grown up and able to take on bigger responsibilities, all while wearing his dad's sheriff's hat (subtle symbolism there, writers). That bloody hat has been glued to Carl's head for every scene Riggs has appeared in during season three's first half, which has somehow made the character even more intensely annoying to me. I doubt we'll see it, but I'm desperately hoping Carl meets a very grisly ending. 
  • Dale (played by Jeffrey DeMunn)...while on the topic of grisly endings, such an occurrence thankfully befell this character in season two. When the sanctimonious Dale became zombie chow, I literally bounced off my couch, pumped my fist, and exclaimed "Yes!" with delight. I will give this to The Walking Dead - it definitely provokes some emotional reactions, even if they're not the ones the show's brain trust are necessarily looking for (the show also elicits plenty of unintentional laughter from me). 
  • T-Dog (played by IronE Singleton)...the combination of a character with a lame nickname who was usually given less to do than the background scenery, played by an actor with an even stupider first name adds up to one more member of the group whose fate I simply had no investment in. I also always felt an uncomfortable "token black character" vibe with T-Dog, like the producers felt obligated to at least have some black representation on a show that looks awfully white for a story that takes place in Georgia, where one third of the population is black (in Atlanta, where the show started out, the black population is over 50%). And yes, I get that this is a show about zombies and one obviously needs to suspend disbelief about a lot of things - it's just an observation. Granted, the black Michonne character, a major one, was added in season three, but the "token" thing stood out to me even more after one of the secondary black prisoner characters was briefly given a more prominent role right when T-Dog was mercifully put out of his misery near the end of the mid-season finale from the most recent run of episodes. And as soon as that prisoner went down for the count, another black male character named Tyreese was almost immediately then introduced. It's interesting (and rather amusing) is all I'm saying.
  • Michonne (played by Danai Gurira)...I'm just not caring whatsoever about this one-note character, boringly played by Gurira with a perpetual scowl. 
  • Andrea (played by Laurie Holden)...Andrea feels like the female version of Shane - arrogant and unlikable from episode one of the series. It seemed fitting that the two got together for a brief fling, one that had all the sparks of a soggy Roman Candle.
  • Carol (played by Melissa McBride) of the many examples of very poorly written female characters on The Walking Dead, Carol never really has much to do, all while doing it with quite possibly the worst hairdo in TV history. She's such an admired part of the group that they hardly bothered to look for her after she went missing during the zombie attack on the prison in episode four from this season. 
  • Merle (played by Michael Rooker)...I had hopes for Merle, whose return to the series after being abandoned early in season one was entirely predictable. Since reappearing this season, he's been an uneven mixture of at times being his old, nasty redneck self and other times being a man seemingly neutered by his current overlord, The Governor. 
  • The Governor (played by David Morrissey)...the writers can try to inject all the dark and complex duality into this character that they want - he's still forgettably dull.
  • Hershel (played by Scott Wilson)...not quite Carl or Dale-level irritating, but Hershel's propensity for dispensing his folksy wisdom had me hoping that the zombie bite he took on his lower leg earlier this season would mark the departure of yet another hard-to-take character. No such luck. Hershel's addition of a priceless ponytail this season provided some good laughs, while having the same grating effect as Carl's ever-present chapeau.
Part two to follow...

Rating: D