Friday, February 15, 2013

Rings of Saturn - "Dingir"

One of my favorite things about this blog is that occasionally friends and acquaintances will approach me at social functions with various comments about it; some suggestions, some criticisms, etc. But by far the most frequent thing I hear is something along the lines of "I don't really listen to any of the music you write about, but I like reading about it because I feel like I'm learning something." These words are truly music to my ears, as I take great joy in educating non-metalheads about the musical smorgasbord that is heavy metal.

So after an unintentional but almost-six month lull in music reviews, school is back in session! Today's lesson: Rings of Saturn and their sophomore effort Dingir. Now, we're going to get to the musical assault of ferocity that is Rings of Saturn's 2nd release. But first, I want to tell you about this band as a whole because in all honesty, they deserve far more recognition than they're currently getting.

Dingir was originally slated for a late November 2012 release. But by October the band had been sucked into a miasma of petty litigation concerning their name, former band members were making specious accusations about recording techniques, and an unfinished, low-quality version of the album had been leaked to the internet. Things were grim, to say the least. But then, Rings of Saturn made an incredibly bold move. Rather than posting a guilt-tripping PSA about internet piracy with B-list celebrities and a parade of judgmental staring, Rings of Saturn released the high-quality official album as a free download through Total Deathcore saying, "If everyone is going to be listening to our new album, we would much rather have everyone listen and jam out to our high quality finished product and share that...we ask that you please still pre-order or purchase our album when it drops on Feb. 5th to support us."

That's right. Rings of Saturn threw themselves on the good will of their fans, and actually - literally - put their money where their mouth is. The ethical issues with music piracy aside, it's hard to care too much when stars with private jets and mansions speak out against piracy because it hurts their "livelihood." And it's downright impossible not to laugh when "thug" rappers whose music revolves around glorifying a life of crime decry piracy because it's stealing. So when I saw that post on Rings of Saturn's Facebook, my jaw practically hit the keyboard. Here is a band who, regardless of what you think about their music, is actually doing what they do because they love making music. 

So  I decided to actually buy an album which - up to that point in time - I didn't have any major plans on purchasing; just on principle.

Here's the scoop on "Dingir"....


I've had a number of non-metalhead friends ask me who I think the heaviest band is, or which is generally the most brutal. It's a tough question to answer, not unlike asking "Who is the most beautiful woman in the world?" It's largely a question of taste, with a loosely-defined but still tangible set of rules. So for example, magazines might put out a list of the "hottest" who's-who and you might personally agree, or change the order around in your head or whatever; it's all about degrees. Similarly, there are a number of bands that plenty of people would agree that - like it or not - produce music that is extreme and punishing and brutal and beyond that threshold it's a matter of taste.

For me personally, "heaviest" is a balance between technical prowess, down-tuned aggression, and utter chaos. Too much of any one of these qualities can move a given band out of the running for my makeshift "Top Five" - but generally speaking bands in the death metal genre (and its subgenres) are the heaviest. Which brings me to Rings of Saturn...

Dingir is easily one of the heaviest, most brutally punishing collections of technical death metal I've ever had the pleasure of gradually going deaf to. That list of qualities I mentioned in the previous paragraph are whittled to near pitch perfect balance in this album; the sonic chaos is unbridled, but reinforced by the kind of instrumental technical mastery that still lets you find a rhythm to which you can bang your head. 

"Objective to Harvest" opens with an ominous, ten-second soundscape swell to a rapid-fire guitar riffing and breakneck drum-work that calls to mind the sound of automatic assault rifles. Or consider "Peeling Arteries," which employs an almost groove-like riff around which the rest of the audible carnage pivots. 

Rings of Saturn is known for their high-speed, high-note picking patterns that weave in and out of their symphony of destruction, with a kind of comical whimsy. At times it sounds almost video-gamey; like the original 8-bit music from Mario has been possessed by the murderous souls of alien invaders and unleashed upon the listener's fragile ears. It's a big part of what sets Rings of Saturn apart from similar technical death metal acts like The Faceless or Abiotic. The opening moments of "Faces Imploding" is a great example of this earmark. Or, maybe you're among those of my readers who don't care for "screaming music." Fair enough - if you want to dip your toe into this album without going for a real swim, the final track on Dingir - "Utopia" - is an instrumental. Comparably speaking, it's pretty melodic - easily the least heavy song in their entire catalog, but still demonstrative of their skill as musicians.

I'm at a loss for new adjectives to describe Dingir, and the band overall, as their music is consistently brutal, punishing, vicious, and merciless throughout. But I will say I prefer Dingir to the band's debut album Embryonic Anomaly. Similar to the minor shift between iwrestledabearonce's first and second albums, Dingir has sacrificed none of the band's brutality by honing their sound and making it more precise.


Dingir so precariously balances on the axiom between unintelligible chaos and technical proficiency that at times it's hard to be sure if there is an actual time signature or if the band members are flailing about. A quick look through the videos on their YouTube channel, demoing their songs and giving walkthroughs will banish your suspicions. But Dingir is a pretty polarizing album; either you love it or you hate it, and plenty of people hate it. 

I'm tempted to mention the album's relative brevity, at over just 41 minutes. But at an average speed of...*punches buttons on calculator*...14,873,933 beats-per-minute, it's little wonder. Hyperbole aside, the album rarely dips below the 100 bpm threshold.


If you're a fan of technical death metal, Dingir is in a class all its own in terms of sheer scope and savagery. Rings of Saturn is another one of those bands that has a pretty outspoken group of "haters," and I'm completely baffled as to why. Roughly comparable tech-death bands like The Faceless or Spawn of Possession don't inspire near the amount of keyboard-pounding, so what gives? Honestly, I think all the "hating" on Rings of Saturn is a simple case of sour grapes. In their late teens and early twenties, the entire band was already more musically skilled than most of us will ever be in an entire lifetime. And I'll admit, their no-holds-barred-all-out assault on traditional song structure almost makes you want to plop down in front of your computer in your Mom's basement and pound out a rant on your keyboard until she tells you to stop making such a racket.

But if you can resist the urge to join the hater-herd long enough to listen to these guys, particularly Dingir, you might find a new favorite. At the very least, it's impossible to deny their musical skill. And for every forum post questioning their ability to play the unforgivably intricate music they write, there's a YouTube video of them live or in the studio playing without any effects or tricks aiding the sound.

The experience of listening to Dingir is not unlike having all of your nightmares funneled directly into your ear drum; vocalist Ian Bearer's influences (like the late Mitch Lucker, most notably) are readily apparent and he brings a vicious vehemence to every shriek and growl. Musically, this album is terrifying. But if you're a fan of extreme metal, that's most likely what you're looking for.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around Dingir; it's so unapologetic in its commitment to sonic insanity that I'm still left feeling somewhat incredulous, with gallow's laugh lurking in the back of my throat at the end of each track. But conceptually, any artist that's willing to commit to their music and their fanbase by giving their fans the option to download it for free has won my undying respect. So the fact that I'm actually enjoying the album is just whipped cream on the waffle.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

House of Cards

I'm a sucker for innovation, especially in the light of how quickly our world is changing.

A number of established mediums are slowly dying off, or being absorbed into others. Print journalism is mostly dead, as an online presence is essential to surviving in this web-based world of ours. Physical album sales continue to drop as - for better or worse - online piracy and services like iTunes and Spotify force record companies and artists to deliver their material in those channels. Last but certainly not least, broadcast television is starting to take a hit as Netflix and Hulu give people a viable option other than the outmoded "cable bundles." Because who can do without 100 music channels spanning basically ten genres, right?

I have little respect for companies or industries that refuse to evolve with the times; conversely I have a great deal of respect for those that can use the changing media landscape to their advantage. So with the prevalence of Netflix, it was only a matter of time before their original programming started beefing up and with House of Cards, I think it's safe to say Netflix has successfully earned a spot among the TV big-wigs like Showtime and HBO.

This debut 13-episode season relates the story of Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a ruthless and cunning politician who is passed over for the position of Secretary of State in the opening moments of the show. Slighted, Underwood launches a sprawling scheme to exact revenge on those who betrayed him. By his side, and just as ruthless, is his wife Claire (Robin Wright) - who acts as both pawn and player in her husband's machinations. Hungry for an inside source on Capitol Hill, ambitious journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) cozies up to Underwood - who in turn uses her desire for exclusive stories to wag the dog throughout his various and sundry dealings. A myriad of characters populate the series to varying degrees, but the heart of the story revolves around the clearly villainous but undeniably compelling Underwood; and it's every bit as good as it sounds.


I've been eagerly anticipating the release of House of Cards for a few reasons, but chief among them was the hope that it would further legitimize web-based television. Rather than being stuck having to sit through commercials or chained to a once-a-week dose of my favorite show, I relish the idea of audiences being given a choice in how we enjoy our entertainment. Want to stage a weekly House of Cards night with your friends on an evening of your choosing? Knock yourself out. Want to watch 2 and 3 episodes at a time with a tuna sandwich for dinner? Feel free. Maybe mainline the entire show in an epic 13-hour plus marathon so that you can go to bed with visions of political corruption (but mostly Kate Mara) dancing in your head? Go nuts, buddy.

So House of Cards had me at hello conceptually, plus it actually looked like a well-written and compelling drama. So I have been elated to find that it has exceeded all my expectations.

By the way - I'm not familiar with the book or the early-90s BBC adaptation from which the series is inspired, so I can't really comment on how they compare. Just so ya know.

First things first; Kevin Spacey is an actor who has long since established himself as capable and compelling; his turn as Francis Underwood is another solid notch on the bedpost. One of the first things you'll notice about the show is that he often breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera directly - filling us in on little thoughts and expositional material throughout each episode. It's jarring at first, and I wasn't entirely sure of it in the early moments of the first episode. But as the pieces of the narrative come together, I found myself enjoying these moments almost more than the rest of the show. It's used as much for darkly comedic effect as it is for exposition, and helps to make Underwood that much more of an engaging character. Moreover Underwood is a curiously compelling character, considering he's so clearly villainous. I often found myself rooting for him out of sheer admiration for the scope and profundity of his plans. Underwood is one of the most deliciously Machiavellian characters I've ever had the pleasure to watch.

Practically all of the supporting cast turn in top-of-their-game performances, and I'm at a complete loss as to favorites. After Francis himself, though, I would have to say that Robin Wright's performances as Claire is equally captivating. Like her husband, Claire is a calculating and ambitious character whose marriage is as much about achieving her own personal goals as anything else. As if Underwood's asides to the audience weren't Shakespearean enough, Francis and Claire put me in mind of a kind of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth dynamic early on in the series. It's not a one-to-one comparison, but I found it utterly fascinating to watch two characters who were both so undeniably corrupt on a number of levels maintain a loving yet realistic marriage.

Kate Mara's Zoe is perfectly suited to the actress's personal appearance, as her somewhat mousy features trick characters and the audience alike into underestimating her early on. My celebrity crush on both Mara sisters aside, Zoe's subtleties as a character don't really start influencing the principle action until later on in the season. Even after a full season of this show, I'm wary of Zoe in a way I wasn't at first, and I'm curious to see if she's been hiding things from the other characters and the audience all this time. I have my suspicions, and I love that the show is taking its time unfolding its many twists and turns.

While the performances help ground the series, its really in the writing and direction where House of Cards flexes its muscles. Political thrillers can easily become either too blatant or too labyrinthine, but House of Cards does a magnificent job of balancing exposition and intrigue. There's all kinds of mystery and numerous layers to each episode, but the show manages to keep all of its conflicts in focus throughout. Characterizations are strong, but the pacing aids cohesion as well. We spend just enough time with various moments to fully grasp what's going on, but rarely do we dawdle. It's an impressive accomplishment given how many characters the show boasts and how well each of their motivations are outlined. And being a largely character-driven piece, it's astounding at how quickly everything clips along - thoroughly covering a great deal of ground each episode.

House of Cards also showcases some superior direction. As I've mentioned before, David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. Having helmed the first two episodes of the show, Fincher brilliantly constructs the blueprint for the 11 episodes that come after. Even scenes in the middle of the day are darkly lit, there's often a shallow focus to much of the camerawork, and the ominous quality to the entire combination reminds us that dark deeds are afoot. On top of that the names of the various directors who steer the proceeding episodes are ones readily recognizable from drama and television - like Joel Schumacher, James Foley, and Allen Coulter.

And while this show would hardly substitute for a formal lesson in Civics and Government, it brilliantly demonstrates the kinds of conflicts of interest and subterfuge that dictate much of American politics. Fictional situations and names are employed, of course, but House of Cards provides viewers with fantastic illustrations regarding - for example - the danger of corporate lobbying and how interpersonal networking all-too-often trumps democratic process.


Honestly  I didn't find too much to be displeased with.

The show does occasionally falter with dialogue; particularly with Spacey's. Once or twice I felt as though Underwood's use of cliched expressions felt inconsistent with his character's cold-blooded brilliance. But even then, Spacey's complete commitment to his character elevates these weaker lines.

There were one or two subplots that I found slightly inconsistent at first, but my misgivings were laid to rest after the season concluded and character conflicts were resolved, one way or another.

House of Cards is a distinctly adult show; there's language, drugs and alcohol, nudity, the works. Personally, this has never been a problem for me, but for more sensitive viewers this may prove a deterrent. Again, this show could easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the "Premium Cable" programming from HBO or Showtime - so you can expect a requisite approach to content.


House of Cards is easily one of my new favorites, and a formidable accomplishment on multiple levels. In a world where most television networks are entrenched in broadcast prime-time traditions and often won't release full seasons of their shows to Netflix or Hulu, I'm excited by how strong Netflix's first major foray into original programming has turned out to be.

Broadcast television hasn't died yet, and likely won't completely for some time. But this show has proven that television as we've known it has never been closer to obsolescence; and, fortunately, that's a very good thing.

When Tron first released in 1982, it was disqualified from winning any Oscars on the grounds that the film makers had "cheated" by using computers for their special effects. In a similar fashion, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Emmys balk at including House of Cards in its nominee pool at first. But, just as CGI has come to define visual effects, I firmly believe streaming services like Netflix will come to define what we collectively call television; and if House of Cards is any indication - it's going to be a change for the better.

I can't wait for Season 2.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Warm Bodies

It's getting a little old, guys. The whole zombie thing; it's starting to lose steam. Sure The Walking Dead is addictive and one of my favorite shows on television right now. Yes, Zombieland is one of the best horror-comedies I've ever seen. Left 4 Dead? Hours of dismember-tainment. Left 4 Dead 2? Hours of dismember-tainment plus samurai swords and an inescapable hatred of anyone named Rochelle for the rest of your life. So yeah...the whole zombie thing is getting old...but, all the things it's given me so far make me happy, never mind? I guess?

Let's face it - the zombie "thing" has been going pretty strong for awhile and I feel like by now I should be sick of it. But there's a staying power to the concept of a horde of mindless undead because, frankly, if you've ever been to your local grocer you've already dealt with them: scores of slow-walking, blank-staring, obliviously-taking-up-the-entire-aisle-because-their-face-is-glued-to-their-phones-but-technically-not-undead. You deal with them on the highway (looking at you, Mr. "Blinker? Never Heard Of It!"), the mall, the movie theater; everywhere. So it should come as little surprise that the idea of a zombie apocalypse has caused its own little media-related zombie apocalypse.

And, predictably, that media-related zombie apocalypse has finally traversed another genre boundary: romance. In the post-Twilight era, I'm a little surprised it actually took this long for a movie like Warm Bodies to come along (Boy Eats Girl doesn't really count). The story needs very little introduction: it's boy (Nicholas Hoult) meets girl (Teresa Palmer). TWIST: Boy is a zombie. Everyone still with us? Cool.


The first thing I feel worth mentioning is how surprisingly good Warm Bodies actually is. It's not phenomenal, but it's pretty good considering the overall idea is conceptually thin. The movie scores points by being a loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, so the lit-geek in me enjoyed seeing how those parallels are spoofed or evolved; the balcony scene (yeah, there's a balcony scene) is a great example.

The performances are good, if not great, and herein lies the most notable part of the film that bends zombie mythology a bit. In the film, zombies can talk - though only in broken sentences. Warm Bodies kindly asks that you suspend disbelief here, which isn't too tough considering...ya know, zombies. It takes just a little getting used to, but the movie does a good job of exploiting the idea for comedic effect. Nicholas Hoult, who plays the lead zombie R, is the most relatable zombie you've ever seen onscreen. Again,  it's a little conceptually unfamiliar, but it works. Teresa Palmer's Julie is a nice romantic foil to Hoult; her kinda "rough around the edges" approach balances his undead-and-innocent characterization - though at times she did remind me a little bit of bad Kristen Stewart. "But! But!.." shouts Captain Contrary in your head, "...all Kristen Stewart is bad Kristen Stewart!" Friends of this blog know where I stand on this topic, and while you're opinion is perfectly valid, I urge you not to listen to Captain Contrary; he's what's wrong with the internet.

Moving on...

Rob Corddry plays M, a zombie-buddy of R who provides a good deal of the laugh-out-loud moments in the movie. Corddry isn't the most convincing zombie you've ever seen, but his place in the cast helps round out what might have been other wise luke-Warm Bodies.

Another major score for the film was the perfect balance of horror and comedy. Where other horror-comedies succeed with over-the-top gore (Zombieland, Slither), Warm Bodies is smart to keep the blood-n-guts - while present - largely toned down. The movie has a few moments of violence but for the most part wisely develops the romantic and comedic elements to a greater degree.


Part of the story involves a subplot regarding "bonies," which we come to find out are what zombies eventually become. They're the zombies of the zombie population and before the film's end are the primary antagonists of undead and human alike. On paper, this is a great addition to the film. In practice, it's some of the worst CGI you've seen in the past decade. The bonies' skin textures are woefully underdeveloped (subsurface scattering apparently wasn't high on the visual effects department's priority list) and they move in an almost stop-motion, herky-jerky type of way. No exaggeration, I've seen better animation in student films.

If zombies aren't your thing, you probably won't find much worth watching in Warm Bodies. Even at only an hour and a half, the movie feels almost overlong.


I'll admit I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Warm Bodies. I like my zombie-related media over-the-top and intense, so I didn't expect to like Warm Bodies all that much. And while it's not a revelatory experience - considering the limitations of its subject matter - it's modestly impressive. The comedy, while not laugh-a-minute, is steady and genuinely funny and the romance that develops between R and Julie is actually believable and accessible. I figured a zombie love story was just around the corner after the Twilight craze, and I just wanted to rip the bandaid off and get it over with. Warm Bodies isn't going on my list of favorites, but it's far from the wreck I expected it to be.

There are a small handful of "zombie movie rules" that have to be broken by the very nature of the story. So if you can get past zombies talking (to varying degrees) and the idea that the undead can be brought back to life - in a fully human way - you might find yourself enjoying this one.

Here's hoping it doesn't spawn a series of increasingly uninspired sequels generously referred to as a "saga."