Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Oh Sleeper - "Children of Fire"

Metalcore is getting kinda long in the tooth. Even amongst metalheads, the term "metalcore" has come to have something of a stigma attached to it. It almost implies that whichever band you're talking about isn't really all that heavy, or hardcore, or truly-madly-deeply metal. In the case of some bands, it's a label appropriately applied when done with a bit of disdain; hundreds of metalcore bands litter the scene that all sound more or less exactly like each other. Even to a diehard metalhead like myself, metalcore has really lost its sheen and brilliance.

ENTER: Oh, Sleeper.


I'm gonna take a cue from Julie Andrews on this one and start at the very beginning...of the album anyway. The first track, "Endseekers," was the first track I heard back when the band was releasing a few preview clips of the new album a couple of months ago. The song turned out to be one of the few tracks I've ever heard that had me hooked from literally the second it started. It's got a kind of groove/borderline djent riff to it for about 15 seconds, and then lead vocalist Micah Kinard comes in with the lyrics "Pry your eyes and behold our captain (Rally 'round his feet!) As He controls His captive! (Bring him to his knees!)" and I literally got goosebumps. It's one of the most solid openings to any album I've ever heard, and leaves you with such a glow that you might not even notice if the rest of the album is any good.

Fortunately, it is - literally from start to finish. There's barely a wasted second - not a song on here feels like a filler track - and the album is just as heavy as any of their previous material.

The song "Hush Yael" revisits the Nahariya attack; an attempted kidnapping and subsequent murder of an Israeli family carried out by Samir Kuntar in 1979. The song starts out rather quiet and mournful, Kinard singing in a subdued dirge. At :27 the song literally explodes onto the listeners ears with another perfectly thunderous musical assault as Micah shouts "Wet your jaws for the world! We're going back to the darkest hours!" The song goes on to chronicle the brutal killings perpetrated at Kuntar's hand, and exhorts the listeners to "Rise and make these victims our martyrs." It's a song that gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it, and even typing these words out I'm getting chills down my spine. It's that powerful. The song descends further and further into fury until its last few moments: while a dark and brooding breakdown thunders away, Micah cries "End him slow." It's 'revenge-metal' at its finest and one of those songs that'll give you a second wind during a workout.

The title track and final song on the album is also another solid home run for Oh, Sleeper. Hell, the whole album is. But I'm going to try to keep it limited to my personal favorites - difficult as they are to pick out. I love that this album starts and ends on two songs that are just amazing. The chorus of "We are the children of fire, we are the lions, we stand when all else deserted, because we were born to fight and fight and fight!" is enough to get your blood pumping just reading it. But lay that over a melodic breakdown complete with a lead melody as intricate and forceful as anything that Oh, Sleeper has recorded and you essentially have an album that would have been worth the money just for this single. Or just for "Hush Yael." Or "Endseekers."

Whether your personal religious beliefs run in course with or afoul of Oh, Sleeper's - I think you'll still find it hard to resist how infectious their conviction is. The band doesn't make any bones about their faith as Christians - but this album still manages to be the kind that can resonate with those who don't believe as they do. For my part, Children of Fire is the kind of album that has really sparked a renewed desire to pursue my faith.


I honestly can't really say much in the way of negatives about this album - melodramatic though that may seem. Occasionally Oh, Sleeper likes to play with rhyme schemes that don't *exactly* match (rhyming "...in my name" with "...that he made" for example) and as a fan of lyrical gymnastics I occasionally find those stretches a bit much. And you've heard this complaint from me before, but the album is just too short. That's not to say it's a true fault, but when I get through 36-some odd minutes of just pure musical bliss and there's no more...that makes me a sad panda.


I'm going to say it: Children of Fire may be the best metal album of the year. With 3 months left to go and promises of new releases from many of my favorite bands, I'm still fairly confident that this piece will rank among the finest of 2011. It's arguably the best metalcore album of the year, and if you feel that metalcore has already run its course - this album will change your mind.

Oh, Sleeper deftly handles transitions between heavy and acoustic tracks (two whole songs with no screaming on them and little more than an acoustic melody feature prominently on this CD, and they somehow fit right in amidst the chaos) while still managing to somehow bring the heat throughout the entire album's length. Children of Fire is dark, ominous, brooding, aggressive, powerful, inspiring, profound, and beautiful. For me, it's the best Oh, Sleeper album to date and proof that dedication and commitment can still mine gems from the decaying ruins of metalcore.

Now I really regret not being able to make it to this album's release party.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Maylene and the Sons of Disaster - IV

Rock 'n' roll ain't what it used to be. For better or worse I don't think anyone would argue that what we call rock these days is a far cry from what was called rock even 20 or 30 years ago. With that in mind, it's always fun to see a band that revisits the roots of the genre with that special rock 'n' roll swagger. Maylene and the Sons of Disaster is a band that has had made a career of doing that very thing - writing and playing heavy metal with an emphasis on a return to a southern rock 'n' roll feeling. So with their fourth album, conveniently titled IV (preceded by III, which in turn was preceded by II, which in turn was preceded by a self-titled debut - hey at least they're consistent right?) does Maylene proudly carry on the gritty "cock rock" tradition they began 3 albums ago? Wish I could say it did...but we'll get to that.


I've always been one to give the benefit of the doubt wherever necessary. With that in mind, IV definitely has the best production value of any Maylene album to date. It's clear from the moment that the first double-time riff starts off that the band spent a good deal of time perfecting and fine-tuning the engineering of this album.

And before it sounds like my review of this album is meant to be largely negative, that's not my intent. We'll get to why my praise for this album is a bit hesitant in the next section, but for the moment let me say that the music itself is really solid. Maylene's signature sound is still there, more or less, and they've managed to refine it even more.

Lead vocalist Dallas Taylor is a big part of why this band's sound is so unique. Having formerly fronted metalcore outfit Underoath, Dallas was originally known for the squealing, vaguely emo-tinged vocalizations that characterized much of "mainstream" metalcore in the early 2000's. The idea of Dallas going from Underoath (a strictly metalcore band) to founding Maylene and the Sons of Disaster (a band all about Southern machismo and old school rock-metal) seemed like a longshot. But he managed to find his true calling with Maylene, and adjusted both his singing and screaming to evoke more "Southern" motifs. He's only perfected with each new album, and IV is no exception.

A few stand out tracks are the opener, "In Dead We Dream" - which features just about the most aggressive riffs on the album (the other primary contender being "Never Enough", or maybe "Cat's Walk"). It's a pretty solid barn burner type of song, and just as much fun as any previous Maylene material. "Taking On Water" and "Come For You" feature chord progressions and lyrics more in-line with traditional rock - and for all their bark-instead-of-bite, they're actually really good songs.


If you've heard the album, you probably know what comes next: this album is not classic Maylene. I'm not attacking the quality of the music or even the band itself, I'm really not. This is not the old "the band sold out" routine. But I don't think even the band would argue that IV sounds pretty markedly different from their other material. Is it bad for a band to explore new subgenres? Of course not. But I went into this album expecting some more fire-and-brimstone Maylene, more middle-finger-to-the-mainstream Maylene, more work-out-and-then-go-shoot-my-shotgun Maylene. So when what I got instead was..."radio-friendly" Maylene, needless to say I was a bit disappointed. And from the fan-reaction to the album it seems I'm in pretty good company. I'm not negating their right as a band to write and record whatever the hell they want. But as a fan of a very specific thing from Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, getting the exact opposite...yeah, I'm disappointed with this album.

To be specific...IV can most readily be described as a sound you're probably intimately familiar with. Think Theory of a Deadman, plus a dash of Nickelback, a few Creed-like moments, and one or two half-nods to their previous material and you have IV. It's not just the fact that Dallas doesn't scream hardly at all on the album; the riffs themselves and the music overall has been mixed to greatly reduce the full force of the electric guitar. The music feels...kinda, declawed is the only way I can describe it. And while that's not a bad thing in and of itself, it's not what I've come to expect from Maylene and the Sons of Disaster.

Another signature Maylene and the Sons of Disaster motif is to have the last track kinda stand out from the rest of the album as well. It's usually more instrumental, occasionally featuring some spoken word. Well, "Off to the Laughing Place," the last track from IV definitely keeps that tradition alive, but not in a good way. The track would be an experimental outing for a band like Dream Theater - it's just plain weird, and it feels like an after thought more than anything else. Even trying to give Maylene the benefit of the doubt, that song just had me scratching my head.


Again, let me reiterate I'm not saying I think the band sold out at all. The fact that they deliberately moved away from the sound they were known for is a pretty ballsy move such as it is. So I'm not of the opinion that Maylene is now trying to eat out of corporate trough. But you'd have to be in pretty solid denial to say that IV is not the least aggressive Maylene outing to date.

If you take Maylene's 4-album career and look at their progression, it still seems fairly logical. Their self-titled debut had a very "dirty" feel to the recording, and the riffs were gritty and unrefined. II scaled that back a bit and III continued to take Maylene to a slightly less overt sound. It wasn't a bad thing, II and III are my favorite Maylene albums. So it doesn't come as a complete surprise to see them scaled back even further. But it is, as I've said before, a bit disappointing.

I'll say it again: I don't think the band sold out. Hell, I'm sitting here with "Taking On Water" and "Come for You" on repeat, I really like these tracks. But their sound is more radio-friendly, less aggressive, and overall more mainstream. Those things aren't necessarily bad things in and of themselves - I'm not trying to demonize a mainstream sound. But it's flat-out not what I've come to expect from Maylene and as a result I'll probably wait for a few other reviews to come out before I run out and buy their next album. If you didn't like Maylene because their sound was a little too metal for ya, there's never been a better time to become their next biggest fan. You can have my seat - to hear Dallas tell it via their Facebook page, it seems I'm not wanted in these ranks anyway. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

Straw Dogs

Sam Peckinpah was a pretty controversial Hollywood figure during his prime in the 60s and 70s. His movies often featured disturbing content, not-very-likeable anti-heroes, graphic violence, and quite often a scene (or scenes) of rape. The guy really had some demons to sort out, and he most often did it on the big screen. Some of his more prominent works include The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrent and Billy the Kid - but one he's just as vilified for is Straw Dogs. Originally released in 1971 with Dustin Hoffman in the lead - Straw Dogs remains just about as controversial as the day it was released. Exactly 40 years later, Straw Dogs hit theaters again as a remake. So how does it stack up to the original?


The story is fairly simple. Husband and wife David (James Marsden) and Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth) move back to Amy's home town of Blackwater, Mississippi to tend to her recently deceased father's affairs. David, a screenwriter, also hopes to use the time in the countryside as an opportunity to get some writing done and Amy seems eager to reconnect with her roots. At first, all seems fairly well - if quaint, and for the most part the citizens of the small town are largely friendly to the two "city folks." But Amy's previous relationship with Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) seems to generate tension in their marriage. And while I hate to use such vulgar shorthand here, the only thing to say at that point is "things just go downhill from there."

On the plus side - both films explore the same themes thoroughly. The old argument of "violence never solves anything" is the most obvious lesson on the menu, with various "sub-themes" occasionally explored - things like the balance and flow of power in the Sumner marriage, definitions of masculinity as embodied through violence, etc. The film expresses its message in a fairly transparent way - and simple devices like intercutting between concurrent events to juxtapose them against each other are used appropriately.

For the most part each performance is adequate, though this movie does make the mistake of assuming that all Southern accents are largely the same - so even though the film takes place in Mississippi, one hears Texas accents, Floridian accents, etc. It's not overly long, in fact it clocks in at almost the exact length of the original. The pacing of the film is fairly even, and the flow of events is organized in a logical way. This is not a hard movie to follow in the first place, but it's worth noting as a positive at any rate.


As far as the negative side goes, there's not a whole lot to be said about the film that hasn't already been hashed and rehashed about the original. It's a dark movie, and it's got its fair share of disturbing content.

One drawback that I personally found a bit distracting was James Marsden's physique. He's playing a bookish, pacifist, "mousy" sort of fellow who eventually gets pushed to a breaking point. (Think Dustin Hoffman circa 1971 - ...oh wait...) But Marsden has both the classic movie-star good looks and bulk of someone who could probably hold his own in a fight anyway. So when the inevitable siege of their farm house begins and David "snaps," it doesn't seem to stand in stark contrast to anything but his demeanor before. That's not to say Marsden's performance is inadequate, but he was cast against type and the brunt of the film's message is lost over that.

The other thing about the film that didn't quite live up to my expectations was how "on-the-nose" the whole thing was. In an interview about the film, James Woods (who plays the short-tempered Coach Heddon) remarked "We're painting in broad strokes with this film. And that's the fun of it: it's not a subtle movie." Eh...yes and no. While the topics explored warrant a certain measure of "broad strokes," there's still something to be said about the ways in which Peckinpah managed to nuance the violence in his original with more than just pure catharsis. There are hints early in both films that indicate that David is the kind to eventually snap, but Peckinpah's film managed to obscure some of those hints a little better. The 2011 remake lays everything right out in the open, and even movie-goers with no "formal education" in film analysis will pick up on what's being communicated.


Straw Dogs isn't a total strikeout, but it's not exactly a home run. It succeeds in being a strong remake - in taking the prescient elements of the original, updating them a bit, and remolding them adequately, but the original is still better. That's by far more often the rule rather than the exception, regardless.

The other thing that struck me about the film was how...not unsettling it was. Now, this may have more to do with my own desensitization to violence than with the content of the movie itself. I found the rape scene just as unsavory as the original - if not more so - which was a good gut check for my sense of propriety. But when the big siege of the Sumner home begins, all I could do was root for David and revel in the glory of his retribution. Again, maybe that's just me. But I think a lot of it had to do with the way the film was framed - where lines of black and white were more starkly drawn than the original...again kinda going back to the whole broad strokes thing. If the purpose of the movie is to enjoy the catharsis of watching David finally fight back and give those racist backwards rednecks what they deserved, then the film succeeds. But if we're to take writer/director Rod Lurie at his word (and by extension, Peckinpah as well) then the point was to emphasize David's descent into unforgivable savagery. The film ultimately fails if that is its goal, and instead glorifies the violent climax. I've always enjoyed a good retribution flick, so I don't personally have a problem with that glorification of violence and the much-needed catharsis at the end (especially after the rape scene). But maybe that's my problem.

Ultimately, Straw Dogs is one you can afford to miss. You probably won't regret seeing it, if you know what you're going into. But if you don't get around to seeing the remake, the original still packs a better punch anyway.