Thursday, February 28, 2013

Newsted - Metal [album review]

Released in January

Newsted is the name of former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted's latest project and Metal is the succinct title of their new EP (the group is rounded out by drummer Jesus Mendez Jr. and guitarist Jessie Farnsworth)Metal is a solid first release from the project headlined by a musician whose career since leaving metal's biggest act a dozen years ago has been rather underwhelming. Newsted had stints with Ozzy Osbourne's band and Voivoid, contributed to the awful TV-affiliated Rock Star Supernova project, and was the force behind the unimpressive Echobrain, among other musical endeavours.  

Metal's four songs sound much closer to the old school metal bands, like Black Sabbath and Motörhead, that influenced Metallica than Metallica itself. The sludgy "Godsnake" and grooving "Skyscraper" strongly evoke mid 70s Sabbath, right down to the latter's half-time tempo shift on its back end. There's still some Metallica-like elements in there, mind you, particularly on "King Of The Underdogs" and the thrashing "Soldierhead", which also has a mid-song bass breakdown that clearly pays homage to Megadeth's "Peace Sells". Newsted's punchy bass nicely stands out throughout the EP and his snarling vocals capably handle the lead singing responsibilities. As much as I'm a fan of Robert Trujillo, Newsted's replacement in Metallica, Trujillo's off-key background vocals in a live setting with the group can't hold a candle to the job Newsted did...and the less said about the even worse contributions in the same capacity of Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammet the better.

Although Metal scarcely has an original musical idea during its 22 minute running time, it's still an above average and quite promising appetizer from the Newsted trio, who are planning to deliver subsequent short form releases in the upcoming months.

Rating: B-

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Skunk Anansie - Black Traffic [album review]

Released in September

England's Skunk Anansie, who Motörhead's Lemmy names as his favourite band, are emblematic of the "popular in Europe/totally obscure in North America" label applied to most groups from the 90s Britpop/Britrock scene. Formed in 1994 and eventually disbanding seven years later, the group's last two releases since reforming in 2009 never even got physical releases on this continent.The newest of those releases, Black Traffic, is their fifth studio album and none of them disappoint. 

Skunk Anansie's biggest strength by far is lead vocalist Skin, whose amazing set of 
emotively rich pipes ranks, in my humble opinion, with the best female rock vocalists ever, accompanying such talent as Heart's Ann Wilson, Pat Benatar, and relative newcomer Emily Armstrong from Dead Sara. Aside from her vocal chops, Skin stands out enough just for being a female singer in the male-dominated rock world (which continues to be an unfortunate thing to even have to mention). Add in the facts she's black, a lesbian, regularly wears attention-getting outfits on stage, was bald for most of her career, and tackles provocative subject matter (like the religion-knocking "Selling Jesus", "Little Baby Swastikkka", and "Yes It's Fucking Political", to name just a few) and she becomes even more of a compelling figure. In case you were wondering about that name, by the way, most of the band have one-name stage handles - there's also guitarist Ace, bassist Cass, and drummer Mark Richardson (all but Richardson, who joined shortly after the band originally formed, are founding members).

Black Traffic admittedly doesn't depart much at all from the sound of past efforts from the group, although that sound is a never-boring diverse blend of metal, hard rock, punk, electronic music, alternative, and power pop. Black Traffic's track breakdown roughly amounts to about 70% heavy material and 30% of the songs being in a more commercial vein, a formula also applicable to just about all of their previous albums. Standouts on the heavier side of things are "I Will Break You", "Sad Sad Sad (with some tastefully used drum 'n' bass elements offsetting the crunchy guitars and pounding live percussion), "Spit You Out" (featuring a vocal appearance from French electro-rock act Shaka Ponk), and "I Believed In You", one of the best showcases of Skin's multi-octave vocal range. I was a little confused by the song's lyrics, however - the pointed words seem to be aimed at bankers (Oh I hope when you're sleeping/Your guns are close at hand/Who knows who's cheating?/To steal your contraband/That you gained in abundance/From cattle living poor/One day they would take it no more), but it's unclear why the anti-establishment singer would have had any faith in such people to start with. On the less aggressive side of things, there's the pleasing "Our Summer Kills The Sun" and fantastic "Drowning", which features nearly all of the aforementioned genres in just this one track. Since the band isn't deviating from their old tricks, there's also the requisite strings-heavy ballad in "I Hope You Get To Meet Your Hero", a lovely number equal to Skunk Anansie's past similarly grandiose classics like "You'll Follow Me Down" and "Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good)". The mid-tempo "This Is Not A Game" also bears mentioning, with its muted bass-driven verse sections and amped-up choruses.

More of the same from Skunk Anansie? Unquestionably. But while the band might somewhat deservedly take some knocks for adhering to their familiar creative blueprint (as a number of reviews from the vicious British press criticized them for, among other things), the excellent results produced once again on Black Traffic make it hard for me to make it too much of an issue.

Rating: B+

Saturday, February 23, 2013

30 Rock [television review]

30 Rock's final episode aired on January 31st

30 Rock recently aired its 138th and final new episode that completed a seven season run and the television landscape, already embarrassingly depleted of quality comedic shows, is that much poorer with its departure. Inspired by creator/star/writer/executive producer Tina Fey's time as a head writer on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock never managed to find large-scale viewership numbers on NBC, although it was always lavished with critical praise and was the recipient of many awards. Frankly, any awards show and their accolades are pretty meaningless to me, but for a change I found myself on the same page with TV critics when it came to their mostly high opinions of 30 Rock. 

The acting and particularly the writing operated at an amazingly consistent high level during the series' span and for a long-running television comedy to maintain such high standards is a rare feat, indeed. Credit, naturally, must go to the fantastically talented Fey (playing geeky show-within-a-show head honcho Liz Lemon), along with co-star Alec Baldwin (brilliantly playing network executive Jack Donaghy, whose staunchly Republican ideologies hilariously countered the actor's own outspoken liberal beliefs). If there's been better chemistry and performances from a pair of actors on a television comedy since Seinfeld ended 15 years ago, then I'm at a loss to recall who that twosome might be or have been. Over the show's seven seasons, there's been an outrageous wealth of memorable moments from each of their characters. Two of my favourites are the scene where Liz tries to get out of jury duty by dressing up as Princess Leia (complete with a full-on cinnamon bun/danish hairdo) and pleading to the judge "I really don't think it's fair to be on a jury since I'm a hologram", as well as Jack's scene in season two where he role-plays the mother and father of Tracy Morgan's character with exaggerated black voices taken from 70s sitcoms, which may be the funniest thing I've seen on TV in at least the last decade. That scene is a perfect representation of the offbeat and edgy humour that was 30 Rock's stock-in-trade and much of the risqué material that the show got away with in both their 8:00 and 8:30 evening time slot continually surprised me. I'm reminded of Jon Hamm's gut-busting performance in blackface on one of 30 Rock's two inspired live episodes (Hamm also had a guest stint as another character earlier in the show's run), a reference to trampolines as "hymen demolishers", and the show's last episode featured a Hitler sight gag. 

30 Rock also benefitted from great performances by its secondary characters, including weirdo NBC page Kenneth Parcell (played by Jack McBrayer), eccentric man-child Tracy Jordan (played by Morgan), and diva Jenna Maroney (played by Jane Krakowski). The only weak links in the cast were a couple of the lower profile writer characters, one being the spastic John Lutz (played by J.D. Lutz) and the other being the trucker cap-wearing Frank Rossitano (played by the very annoying and always unfunny Judah Friedlander). Really, these two lame characters eking out an existence for seven seasons on a show that otherwise made very few missteps is a curious anomaly. Other third tier characters that did make positive contributions to the show were producer Pete Hornberger (played by Scott Adsit), and the Grizz and Dot Com characters (played by Grizz Chapman and Kevin Brown, respectively). Fey also enlisted the help of a number of her former SNL co-workers: Rachel Dratch, Tim Meadows, Will Forte, Amy Poehler, and Chris Parnell's pricelessly incompetent Doctor Leo Spaceman character all made appearances, some on a recurring basis. The show also trotted out a long line of big-name stars for one-off or recurring guest roles: Salma Hayek, Michael Keaton, Steve Buscemi, Oprah Winfrey, James Marsden, Matt Damon, Susan Sarandon, Jim Carrey, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Reubens, Brian Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Matthew Broderick, and Margaret Cho (playing both late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il and his son, Kim Jong-Un) were all memorable. Less so were appearances by Steve Martin, Bryan Cranston and Catherine O'Hara as Kenneth's parents, Julianne Moore (using a terrible Boston accent), and Sherri Sheppard's irritating recurring role as Angie, Tracy's wife.

As immensely disappointed as I was to hear that 30 Rock was ending, I honestly never though the show would make it past season three or four with its quirky and fast-paced humour loaded with pop culture references, its unconventional single camera/no laugh track format, and those perpetually low ratings, so anything after that point has felt rather like a bonus to me. NBC didn't do 30 Rock any favours with their scheduling, either, moving the show around numerous times and, towards the comedy's end, putting them in the same time slot as ratings juggernauts American Idol and The Big Bang Theory, two more shows on my long "Why is this crap so popular?" listBaldwin, frustrated with NBC's placement of the show on the TV schedule, tweeted before an awards show that maybe he'd win something for "Best Actor In A Comedy In A Shitty Time Slot". 30 Rock cheekily exploited their anemic ratings for laughs, naturally, making plenty of self-deprecating references to their low Nielsen numbers, and taking shots at other low-rated NBC programs (like the now-cancelled Harry's Law) and the network's overall inability to keep pace with the ratings numbers of CBS, ABC, and Fox. Saying goodbye to 30 Rock is also hard because the show arguably went out at the top of its game, with 
many of the 13 episodes from this final shortened season ranking up there with the series' best, right up through the highly satisfying final episode. While it stings to lose a show that was still turning out creatively rich and hilarious work, there's also a good feeling that 30 Rock went out still demonstrating exactly those qualities. Not many TV comedies or dramas that ran for seven seasons are able to make such a claim.

Some of 30 Rock's best quotes:

  • "Trying on jeans is my favourite thing. Maybe later I can get a pap smear from an old male doctor." - Liz Lemon
  • "I believe that when you have a problem, you talk it over with your priest, or your tailor, or the mute elevator porter at your men's club. Then you take that problem and you crush it with your mind vice. But for lesser beings, like curly haired men and people who need glasses, therapy can help." - Jack Donaghy
  • "You didn't realize emotion could be a weapon? Have you not read the poetry of Jewel?" - Liz Lemon
  • "Wow, that is some high level paranoid Hitler or Willy Wonka." - Jack Donaghy
  • "Now I'm heading home for a nooner, which is what I call having pancakes for lunch." - Liz Lemon
Rating: A

Related post: my February 2012 review of Fey's 'Bossypants' book

Friday, February 8, 2013

Horror movie fan? Check this out...

Mark Tumber is my best friend and a highly accomplished pencil artist who does amazing photorealistic work. I promised I'd give him a plug for his latest piece, a horror movie-themed collage titled "The Damned", which you'll see below (beside it is a version with a legend, click both to enlarge). If you're interested in a print of it, or want to check out some of his other work that ranges from wildlife to architecture to family members to celebrity pieces, head over to his website.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Expendables 2 [film review]

Released theatrically in August; now available on all home video platforms

Why I keep watching new films starring Sylvester Stallone I'm not quite sure - God knows few actors have a worse track record over the past 30 years than Sly. A look at his filmography over that period lists roughly 30 features in which he's had the starring role, of which I've seen 25. Of those 25, I can count the number of good films on one hand and still have a finger or two left over (and that's with the generous assessment of 1993's Cliffhanger being considered "good"), with only one of those worthy of "excellent" status in my books. That'd be 1997's Cop Land, where Stallone gave the best performance of his career in a highly refreshing against-type role. The only reasons I can come up with as to why I repeatedly set myself up for such disappointing movie-viewing experiences from a markedly one-dimensional actor is: a) there's likely some sort of ingrained connection to him as one of the first big cinema stars I gravitated towards as a young kid just beginning to become a movie lover and b) I've simply always liked the guy.

Back in my 2010 review of The Expendables, I noted that the film "has the distinct whiff of Stallone trying to launch another franchise". With the unexpected success of it and the inevitable sequel, The Expendables 2 (the original made $274 million worldwide and the follow-up tallied $300 million worldwide)it's only appropriate then, given the militaristic nature of The Expendables films' subject matter, that Stallone's goal of creating another profitable movie series be acknowledged with a "mission accomplished". The sequel one-ups its predecessor's strategy of cramming as many action stars as possible into an 80s throwback action spectacle by expanding the cast even further and pushing the limits of how many actors can appear on a movie poster. Added to the returning mix of Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Jet Li (in a very limited role), Jason Statham, and Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in expanded roles this time around are Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. Newcomers Liam Hemsworth and Chinese actress Yu Nan also contribute supporting roles and Nan turns out to be a solid addition, adding at least a little counterbalance to the testosterone surplus surrounding her. Sadly, Steven Seagal still apparently has better things to do.

Stallone, who once again co-wrote the (once again) thin screenplay hands off the directing role he assumed on The Expendables to Simon West, no stranger to unsubtle moviemaking with credits such as The Mechanic and the crème de la crème of turn-your-brain-off movies, Con Air, on his resumé. The Expendables 2 hits the ground running with a 12 minute long opening action sequence that finds Stallone's Barney Ross character and the rest of The Expendables breaking into a Nepalese prison to rescue some hostages, with subsequent plot lines involving the crew exacting revenge for the death of a comrade, and having to save the world from harm by getting their hands on both some plutonium and some high tech computer technology also playing out. The story, which is peppered with numerous eye-rolling "nick of time saves" moments, is purely incidental, of course. The main focus is having the ensemble mowing down their opposition with extreme prejudice, as often as possible, with as many bad one-liners as possible. It's probably redundant to say anything in a film like this is too over-the-top, but the overuse of those punny one-liners (like "rest in pieces" being proclaimed by Ross before he obliterates an enemy) deflates the initial "stupid fun" pleasure they deliver in the film's earlier parts. The corny, self-referencing lines also wear thin quickly, too, as we get an overdose of self-deprecating quips about the advanced ages of many of the movie's participants (I was amazed no one used an "I'm gettin' too old for this shit" line), multiple Terminator-related jokes from Arnie's character, "lone wolf" and Rambo references to Norris' and Stallone's characters, a "yippee ki yay" joke from Willis' character, and some backstory that reveals Lundgren's character is a brain (the actor actually has a degree in chemical engineering, if you can believe it). At first, I wasn't completely sure if all of the high camp that The Expendables 2 dispatches was completely tongue-in-cheek or just the general meatheaded nature of a killfest movie like this one. By the time I got to a little over 30 minutes into the film, I ended up going with the first theory. That was the point where Van Damme shows up, breaks out a single martial arts move that is downright hilarious for all the wrong reasons, and we find out that his Eurotrash villain character is named...Jean Vilain. Awesome.

As I was finishing up this review, it occurred to me that the takeaway impression I had after watching the aging action figures in The Expendables movies paralleled one of the observations I just wrote about in my last review for KISS' latest album - there comes a point where what both aging parties are still hanging on trying to do just seems rather undignified (even by the lower dignity standards of action stars and face-painting musicians) and it can frequently be painful to watch or listen to. The Expendables 2 isn't a complete waste of time, mind you. It still provides some decent entertainment in places and moderately exceeded my rock bottom expectations established by The Expendables. Considering the brutal box office returns this past weekend for Stallone's newest film, Bullet To The Head, plus the similarly anemic theatrical performance of Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand a couple of weeks ago, expect plenty more long-in-the-tooth action all-star team nostalgia trips under The Expendables banner in the foreseeable future.  

Rating: C