Friday, February 26, 2016

Anthrax — For All Kings [album review]

Released today

Full-length studio album number 11 from thrash metal pioneers Anthrax proves that the resurgency displayed on their last full-length album, 2011’s Worship Music (which I reviewed here), definitely wasn’t a fluke. For All Kings packs its hour-long running time with one monster song after another, picking up right where its predecessor left off in terms of top drawer material from beginning to end. Critics (and there were plenty when the album got leaked a couple of months early) might opine that this latest collection of songs is merely just “more of the same” from Anthrax, an argument I actually can’t disagree with on one level. True, the band barely deviate from the sound of their last album, but why mess with a winning formula? Especially when the results in both cases are this superb.

Pulling double duty as Anthrax’s new lead guitarist, while also retaining membership in his longtime band Shadows Fall, is Joe Donais. He comfortably slides into his role alongside Anthrax founder Scott Ian (guitar), longtime members Frank Bello (bass) and Charlie Benante (drums), and their “classic era” vocalist, Joey Belladonna. The musicianship on For All Kings, as expected, is tight and formidable, particularly on the epic “Blood Eagle Wings”, mood-swinging opener “You Gotta Believe”, the pummeling “Suzerain”, and punk-fuelled album closer “Zero Tolerance”. It’s not all breakneck speed thrashers, however, as the band modulates things nicely with less frenetically-paced songs like “Monster At The End”, “Defend/Avenge”, and the surprisingly accessible “Breathing Lightning”. Pissed off lyrics that focus on Anthrax topical staples like social injustice run throughout the album. The evocative You’re just a bag of blood and I’m holding the nail (from “You Gotta Believe”) and the religious extremism-condemning lyrics from “Evil Twin” (inspired by 2015’s Charlie Hebdo attack) stand out amongst the album’s overall strong lyrics.

The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the album by metal fans on a couple of the online forums that I perused shortly after the album leaked completely baffles me. A common refrain was that “Breathing Lightning” was too commercial. While that track may be more melodic than most of Anthrax’s material, it’s still plenty heavy, leading me to believe that the folks spouting that criticism are the same close-minded people who think “Enter Sandman” is lightweight.

With Worship Music and now For All Kings, Anthrax have completely defied the music industry standard by releasing the two best albums in their discography three-and-a-half decades into their career. If ever an album was befitting of the well-worn “all killer, no filler” label, then For All Kings is it. Belladonna, who returned to Anthrax in 2010, and the rest of the group are clearly firing on all cylinders creatively at this point in their lengthy career, despite a surprising story from 2014 that places their future together in question. Belladonna said in the interview that he’d never really found his place in the band and that he’s “only allowed so much friendship” from the other members. My options for buying new music from metal bands are painfully slim these days (very few newer bands resonate with me), so here’s hoping the long-time acts like Anthrax keep rolling on.

Rating: A

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

David Bowie — Blackstar [album review]

Released on January 8th

It was eerily like the perpetually forward-thinking David Bowie had it all planned. (pronounced “Blackstar”), his 25th studio album released on his 69th birthday, had to be viewed in a completely different light when he died from cancer just two days later. His stunning loss and Blackstar’s universally glowing reviews translated into the icon’s best chart success since the 80s, making it his first ever number one album in America. It topped the UK album charts for three weeks straight before being dethroned…by one of his own compilation albums. Bowie also tied Elvis Presley’s record for the most simultaneous entries in the UK top 100 albums chart with 12 (Presley also set that record right after he died). Following Bowie’s death, he also shattered Vevo’s previous one-day high-mark for a music artist’s streamed video views with 51 million views from his catalog on January 11th. Adele previously held the record with 36 million views in one day after dropping her “Hello” video in October.

Blackstar finds Bowie steering himself back to more of the experimentation he’s built his entire career upon after the relatively “traditional” tone of his previous release, 2013’s unexpected The Next Day (which I reviewed here). Bowie set aside his regular stable of world-class musicians and turned to a New York-based jazz quartet lead by saxophonist Donny McCaslin to back him on his final album. That pairing inspired much speculation about this being a “Bowie jazz album”, which isn’t quite accurate...much to my relief.

Strong jazz elements do run throughout Blackstar, mostly via the front-and-centre placement of McCaslin’s saxophone, which plays a strong supporting role on “Dollar Days”, “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”, and “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)”. The two latter tracks originally appeared on the “Sue” single that was released in 2014 for Bowie’s Nothing Has Changed compilation album. They both benefit from Blackstar’s reworked versions — “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” softens the original’s drum sound to much greater effect and the frenzied “Sue” re-employs the original version’s drum ‘n’ bass-style percussion, while wisely significantly dialing down its overly grand horns and shaving almost three minutes off of the original’s drawn-out running time. Speaking of lengthy running times, the title track runs just a hair shy of ten minutes, but it’s essentially two very different-sounding songs joined together, eventually winding its way back to the musical thread established during the song’s first half. The ominous “Lazarus” (made even more haunting by its brilliant accompanying video) keeps a measured pace and the song’s spare musical arrangement effectively accentuates the intermittent distorted notes from guitarist Ben Monder. “Girl Loves Me” was my least favourite Blackstar track (partly because of the gibberish lyrics sung in Nadsat, an invented language from A Clockwork Orange), although Bowie does adopt an interesting singing style where he raises his pitch at the end of most of his vocal lines. After somewhat of a mid-album letdown, Blackstar goes out on a high note with superb album closers “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (featuring a standout guitar solo from Monder).

Blackstar certainly isn’t the most cohesive album, but it’s for damn sure always interesting, right down to the visually compelling CD jacket and liner notes featuring shiny black text on a black background. It’s yet another bold and challenging Bowie release that rewards patient listeners. Lyrically, Blackstar is a fairly dark album full of bleak themes, with numerous references to death that are obviously painful to hear now (including Look up here, I’m in heaven from “Lazarus”, a refrain of I’m dying to from “Dollar Days” that sounds eerily like I’m dying too, and merely the title of “I Can’t Give Everything Away”). Bowie bows out on a respectably high note worthy of his legacy, somehow pulling off the bizarrely unique and beautiful feat of incorporating his death into his final piece of art.

Rating: B+

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Hateful Eight [film review]

Released theatrically on December 31st

It's a testament to Quentin Tarantino's unpredictable creative choices that I managed to stick with The Hateful Eight for the duration of its almost three hour running time, despite the major issues I had with it. The movie's title comes from both the fact it's Tarantino's eighth directorial feature (he also wrote the screenplay), as well as the number of principal cast, consisting of Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, and Demi├ín Bechir. 

Even more so than The Big Short (which I recently reviewed here), the aptly titled Hateful Eight gives you absolutely no one to root for amongst the motley crew of thieves, liars, and killers who occupy this murder mystery Western. That shouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker in terms of whether or not a movie can be enjoyed, but it certainly ups the challenge level for viewers. When you add in inconsistent character development, some baffling acting choices, overly gratuitous violence, and a flagrant number of utterances of the n-word, well, the only thing that kept me from bailing out early was a perverse curiosity to see where the unpredictable Tarantino ultimately landed this bloated, slow-cooking mess. 

The majority of the film, which is set in Wyoming in the decade following the end of the Civil War, unfolds over the course of a day within a drafty roadhouse named Minnie's Haberdashery, where the converging characters are forced to wait out a nasty snowstorm. Russell's character (John Ruth) is a bounty hunter of great repute, with his latest captured fugitive (Leigh's Daisy Domergue character) shackled to his wrist and destined for the local town of Red Rock for a likely date with the hangman, who just happens to also be at Minnie's (Roth's Oswaldo Mobray character). Also present are Dern's former Southern General character (Sanford Smithers), Goggins' incumbent Red Rock Sheriff character (Chris Mannix), and Madsen's and Bechir's characters, who both have relatively small roles. Jackson's character (Marquis Warren) does most of the film's heavy lifting. He's a former Union officer who's also now in the bounty hunting business and Warren becomes the focal point of the proceedings, partly because of his threatening smarts, but mostly because of the colour of his skin.

The obviously incendiary subject of race less than a decade after the abolition of slavery fuels the tensions between Warren and nearly everyone else in the establishment, permeating the film's narrative to an overbearing degree. I don't expect Tarantino to sugarcoat matters and not reflect the ugliness of the era, but I also don't need to hear the n-word used as ridiculously excessively as it's used throughout this film - roughly 65 times and occasionally numerous times in just one sentence (note: I never censor my writing on this blog, but I find "ni--er" to be the most loathsome word in the English language, so "n-word" will suffice for me). I was surprised to read that it was actually used far more in Tarantino's last film, the slavery-themed Django Unchained - well over 100 times (both counts come from online articles written by folks who are tallying these kinds of things so I very thankfully don't have to). Again, I obviously expect to hear the word in a film set in the slavery era, but Tarantino's overuse of it throughout his filmography and in these two films, in particular, is downright bizarre, distracting, and deeply off-putting.

The Hateful Eight consistently offers up plenty of head scratching moments meant to throw the viewer off-balance, a staple of Tarantino's work that mostly misses here more than it hits. Roth's character exaggerates his Britishness to the hilt, Tarantino regular Zoe Bell shows up briefly and appears to be (over)acting in a completely different movie, Russell's character essentially seems to be doing a bad John Wayne impression and at one point erupts in a fit of rage for no good reason, and Dern's character confusingly does a complete 180 in terms of how he treats Jackson's character. Other curiosities include a woefully miscast big-name actor who shows up in The Hateful Eight's final act, plus Tarantino providing his own narration at seemingly random moments. Then there's the self-indulgent exterior scene towards the film's end of a horse and buggy and its occupants travelling through the countryside, which drags on interminably.

There is some clever writing, compelling intrigue, and some fine acting performances nestled within The Hateful Eight's framework, it's just not nearly enough to overcome the overwhelmingly odious atmosphere of a film that tiredly pummels the viewer with its desire to shock. Even the unmemorable score feels like a wasted opportunity, considering Tarantino enlisted Spaghetti Western legend Ennio Morricone to compose his first Western score in over three decades. My experience could have been worse, though - I could have had to endure the film's even longer "Roadshow version". That version played in limited release in the extinct Ultra Panavision 70mm format, which few people other than Tarantino probably care much about.

Rating: C-