Friday, December 20, 2013

After the Burial - "Wolves Within"

How would you like your blog today, folks?

Perhaps I can interest you in one of our signature dishes: a choice selection of adulatory paragraphs directed at a band on whom I clearly have a massive man-crush. That comes with a healthy side of the narcissistic obsession I have with my own words, lightly drizzled in a pretentious musician sauce. All of this of course served on a bed of my relentless fixation with all things relating to heavy metal. And for dessert, the meal is topped off with a piping hot cup of critical commentary about the metal scene and what's wrong with it today, served alongside a slice of self-righteousness - marinated to perfection in pop culture references.

Excellent choice, if I may say so. Coming right up!


This is going to sound bad, but After the Burial is one of those bands I keep forgetting about. Not in the sense that I completely forget the day I bought In Dreams or the week I had "Aspiration" (Rareform re-release version) basically on a loop. But when I think of bands I want to listen to during my commute or at the gym or what have you, I just keep forgetting they're in the mix somewhere waiting to be queued up. Me, of all people!

But that forgetfulness allowed me a pleasant surprise: hearing about their latest album only a few short days before it was to be released. Instead of months of crossed fingers, I had less than a week to enjoy the two tracks they had already posted: "Of Fearful Men" and "A Wolf Amongst Ravens." These two tracks made me genuinely hopeful for the quality of this release, and I'm happy to announce that Wolves Within delivers the goods like a really good good-deliverer.

"Anti-Pattern" kicks things off with a half-second of bending guitar strings that almost sounds like the revving of an engine before a quick drum solo smashes the door down like an axe-wielding lumberjack. Then the guitars jump in to a staggered pattern of riffs that are as heavy as they are head-bobbingly catchy, and the hypothetical lumberjack from the previous sentence announces he's traveled 500 miles to bring you his seed.

A reference for this reference.
And that's just the first track. Next up is the previously mentioned "Of Fearful Men," which had already pleasantly surprised me with its brief, jazzy interlude - one of the more experimental moments in After the Burial's discography, and a welcome ingredient. Later on, "Nine Summers" opens with a complex riff that leaps back and forth between needling high notes and sweeping low-end chugs in a sequence that reminded me of the opening to "Luck as a Constant" from Periphery's sophomore album - a release whose praises I have already sung at length. Elsewhere, "Neo Seoul" opens gently on a soft bed of ambient musical textures before the guitars ninja-chop their way into the song while maintaining the chord progression established. And in a wonderful example of musical symmetry, the smooth melody I just mentioned returns toward the end of the song while the rest of the instruments are still going strong - adding a beautiful depth and resonance to the piece.

There really is a lot to love about this album, but my personal favorite track is the last - "A Wolf Amongst Ravens." When I first heard the track a few days before the album was released, I kinda fell in love. It's easily my favorite song out of After the Burial's entire discography, which means I'm scheduled to have a very difficult conversation with "Aspiration" in the near future.

"A Wolf Amongst Ravens" perfectly encapsulates what After the Burial brings to the table. The main groove barrels along like a muscled juggernaut launched from a polymetric cannon while the second guitar layers a complimentary lead over the proceedings. It's a song that gets your blood pumping in an almost trance-like way, as the interlocking rhythms and riffs envelop the listener in an ocean of energy and focus. This is of course saying nothing of lead vocalist Anthony Notarmaso, who flawlessly alternates between the high-pitched shrieks of a mutant panther and the low rage-growls of a battle-ready berserker. (A wild reference appears!)


Guitarist Trent Hafdahl performing the crowdpleaser: "Split Ends"
After the Burial has been something of a "song-by-song" basis kind of band for me. I loved 3 or 4 tracks from Rareform, I loved 3 or 4 tracks from In Dreams. I didn't dislike the rest of those albums, I just didn't find them terribly compelling. With Wolves Within I've found the After the Burial album for which I've waited - with basically a complete set of songs I enjoy without feeling the need to skip ahead.

However, one thing I was slightly dismayed to see was the absence of any clean vocals, and I know that might sound a little heretical. In Dreams featured a very light amount of clean vocals, primarily on "Pendulum" and "To Carry You Away." I felt those moments - brief though they were - added a dimension to the album that would have been lacking otherwise, and frankly I expected to see it return on Wolves Within. It's hardly a deal-breaker, but I was hoping for a little more variety in that department.


Without question, Wolves Within is my favorite After the Burial album to date. The band seems to have found the perfect blend of metal ingredients, and have managed to arrange them in such a way as to sound distinctly unique. Each piece taken by itself - the blast beats of "Virga," the quirky bass interlude on "Parise," the standard uptempo metalcore pace that appears in most of the songs, simple palm-muted breakdowns accompanied by complex palm-muted polyrythmic grooves - isn't strikingly remarkable when compared with what plenty of other bands are doing these days. But when all those elements come together the way they do on this album, the result is immensely satisfying.

Anyone who's read my blog before knows I like to pontificate about the state of the metal scene and decry how everyone seems to want to decry everything else. It's a bad habit, but it has its uses; for example, sometimes you can use the lack of negative response to a given album as an indicator of its quality. It's not a perfect measurement, some people will always find something to be upset about. But when a new album drops and you're actually hard pressed to find someone drinking the Hater-ade, you know you've found something exceptional. From what I've seen, response from fans and critics alike has been overwhelmingly positive towards Wolves Within....turns out there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo; and it's worth fighting for.

There are a few moments on Wolves Within that reminded me of other artists - "Disconnect" reminded me of some of Volumes' work, for example. And the mix in several places put me in mind of Monuments' debut album Gnosis. None of that should imply that After the Burial is "ripping off" anyone else; quite the opposite. One of the strengths of Wolves Within is how deftly different defining qualities emerge and evolve throughout its run time - there's even a vaguely Iron Maiden-like hook in "Virga" right after former lead vocalist Nick Wellner's guest spot (right around the 1:43 mark).

I made this, I want everyone to see it, and I couldn't really think of a clever way to work it into the rest of the review so, here.
Wolves Within is the kind of album that from moment-to-moment very definitely fits into one genre or another. This part here is very metalcore, this part over here is classic djent, this moment is your typical Nazi-face-melting-before-the-Ark-of-the-Covenant-core, etc. But After the Burial manages to bring all those elements together on Wolves Within and bind them together with their own signature sound. I've already said this album is my favorite After the Burial release, but I'm going to one step further; Wolves Within is the best After the Burial album to date and you'd be a fool not to go pick it up right now.

Besides, doesn't your grandma need some new tunes to jam while she's making jam?

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Traditions are important.

Say, for example, waiting until the Saturday of opening weekend for The Desolation of Smaug in order to enjoy a Denny's Hobbit-breakfast beforehand. Such traditions mean that the timeliness of my review might suffer, as did my digestive tract after that trip to Denny's. But also like the mild gastrointestinal discomfort I experienced, the delay in getting this review posted was well worth the trouble of a little change in routine - and that's as much thanks to the film itself as anything else.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up where movie number one left off. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and the dwarves (a bunch of dudes in costume and makeup prosthetics) are continuing their journey to Erebor - the former city of dwarves that was stolen from them by the evil dragon Smaug (voiced to chilling perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch) ages ago. Another evil has been gathering across the land in the interim, and it's not long before Gandalf is called away to confront that evil in the ruins of Dol Goldur. A few pit stops in spider pits, several non-canonical characters' appearances, and some thrilling visual effects sequences later - we conclude on a cliffhanger ending that leaves you perfectly primed for the third and final film.


You may recall that back when the first film came out, it wasn't terribly well-received. But being a longtime Tolkien fan and confrontational internet blogger, I predicted that critical response to the series would warm once the next film came along, as viewers and reviewers alike saw that Jackson was very slowly bridging the gaps in style that characterize the source material. After all, The Hobbit was meant to be a children's book, while The Lord of the Rings was written for a more mature audience. From what I can gather, my assessment was accurate - and the critical reception to this film has already been much more positive, and with good reason.

Having done away with the majority of the more laborious exposition in the first film, Peter Jackson can get right down to the more fun aspects of in The Desolation of Smaug. There are an almost overwhelming number of characters to keep up with as nearly everyone from An Unexpected Journey returns; in addition to the coming of several new characters. First off, readers of the books will note that Legolas (Orlando Bloom) does not make an appearance until The Fellowship of the Ring, and the character of Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) exists nowhere in the Tolkien canon whatsoever. Having said that, Elven-king Thranduil (Lee Pace) is very much a part of The Hobbit and since he is Legolas' father - it's hardly a stretch to fill in the gaps and write ol' blonde-hair-and-blue-eyes into this movie.

"I just felt a great disturbance in the Force. As if millions of ovaries cried out..."

As for Tauriel, the bottom line is that without her, the extras are the only female characters to appear in this particular installment. And since it should be a given that adaptation from page to screen means some liberties have to be taken, we should judge additions and subtractions by how well they serve the story and not simply whether or not they're canonical or cool. So I was on board with Tauriel as a character since it was announced she was going to be added to the cast, and Evangeline does a great job with the material supplied.

One of the things I was a little unsure about going from book to film is the scene where the dwarves go over a waterfall in barrels. In the book, it's a downright silly moment that reflects just how much of a children's story Tolkien was trying to create. In the film, it's arguably one of the most thrilling and exciting sequences of the entire series - including the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rolling over foaming waves and bobbing along the current, the dwarves have to be nimble and well-coordinated to defeat an army of orcs that have the tactical advantage and high ground. And even in this edge-of-your-seat roller coaster moment, there's still plenty of room for laughs and pratfalls amidst the high-wire stunts. Seriously, it's just about worth the ticket price for that sequence alone.

Or to see the craziest "Previously on Pushing Daisies..." EVER.
And what of the titular dragon? (Hehe..."tit") Jackson's been teasing us with glimpses and peeks ever since An Unexpected Journey and Smaug does not disappoint, ladies and gentlemen. It takes us most of the film's run-time before we even get to meet him, but trust me; it's worth the wait. And it's not just the visual spectacle that he provides, nor the spine-chilling resonance of Cumberbatch's vocal performance: Smaug himself is very much an active character in this film, rather than simply a narrative obstacle for the heroes to overcome. His dialogue reveals the inner workings of a mind as narcissistic as it is sadistic, and the film doesn't miss a beat bringing us an "anatomically realistic" dragon that also talks; something I feared might skew too far towards the light-hearted, children's book tone of the source material.

Oh yeah, and Stephen Colbert's cameo...That definitely goes in the "PROS" section of my review.


Split Ends: The Movie
No matter how much these films try, there will just always be moments that seem impossible to render with a straight face. The Return of the King has one of the most cringe-worthy moments at the end, when everyone is coming to visit Frodo in his elven bed and all the hobbits are jumping on it in jubilation and Gandalf is giggle-snorting in slow motion... Everyone commits to the bit, and it almost-sorta-kinda works considering everything that came before - but ultimately it still feels awkward and weird. The Desolation of Smaug suffers a similar fate at one point. There's a scene where Tauriel is attempting to heal one of the dwarves, and I think Jackson was trying to draw a visual comparison between this moment and Arwen's introduction in Fellowship of the Ring. Both ladies - breathtaking and lovely - are backlit and haloed by the light. Their voices echo and reverberate as they chant in sultry Sindarin, and they look into the camera with eyes that sparkle with elven might and magic. For whatever reason, it totally works in The Fellowship of the Ring and I find myself transfixed in that scene. But in Desolation of Smaug, the moment feels cheesy and almost hackneyed, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.

Some of the Laketown sequences, while completely appropriate, also felt strangely out-of-place in the film. Again, this is simply a limit of the source material - and it's certainly not like Laketown was poorly designed or the time spent there doesn't serve the story. But there was something strange - vaguely anachronistic - about the production design of those sets and costumes that almost took me out of the story. Maybe it's just me.


I'm a bit torn over the budding romance between Kili (Aiden Turner) and Tauriel. It seems a bit too obvious; as if it's been placed in the story to keep the stakes and tensions up, and in that sense it kind of succeeds. But it also feels strangely some fan-fiction indulgence run amok. Again, I'm torn and having a hard time expressing my feelings over it; I don't hate it, but I don't love it. Having said that, I'm pretty sure Tauriel is going to perish in the third film (gotta write her out of the way somehow), and I am eager to see how that aids some of the character development down the road. So I'm fully reserving judgment until the final chapter in this trilogy. Check back here in another year or so for the final word on that development.


If you know me, you know I don't mind tooting my own horn from time to time. And after watching almost everyone change their tune critically speaking from the first film to this one - like I thought they might - I'm just gonna take a moment to do that, if you don't mind.

Pictured: Me, totally
But it's not only a victory for snarky bloggers like myself! It's a victory for the franchise as a return to form - aesthetically and critically. The Desolation of Smaug covered way more ground than I expected going in, which means managing a lot of characters and their development. True to form, Jackson manages to pull this off like it's the easiest thing in the world - introducing us to the intimidating skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), letting us get familiar with the calculating and morally ambiguous Thranduil (Lee Pace), engaging us with the noble struggles of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), etc. All of this while clipping along with the central conflict of the entire series - the corrupting influence of the Ring - and the numerous character arcs that we need to keep track of. Considering the limits of the source material, this movie really is almost perfect in the balance it strikes between cinematic license and fidelity to canon.

The Lord of the Rings is - for me - synonymous with Christmas holiday celebrations. If I'm not watching the movies I'm reliving them through the soundtracks or thumbing back through the books or watching the making-of featurettes on my Extended Edition BluRays. I feel indebted to Peter Jackson for bringing these movies into my life over a decade ago in the first place, and further blessed to enjoy fresh fruits from his vision. The Desolation of Smaug brilliantly builds upon what came before in An Unexpected Journey, and continues to showcase the gradual steps by which Jackson is bringing this trilogy from its roots as a children's book into one of the greatest and most epic film franchises of all time.

And even if you're not a big Tolkien aficionado, this movie really is just a fantastic piece of cinema to look at; breathtaking in its scope and scale, and truly inspiring in its commitment to quality film making.

To sum up, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug makes me feel like this: