Monday, April 24, 2017

The Wall

Looking back on my review of Alan Parker's film adaptation of Pink Floyd's album, I find in the very first sentence I declared The Wall to be "my favorite music album." I'm not here to backtrack it. If anything, that sentiment has only grown stronger. (Side note, that review is just over five years old. Feels just like yesterday.).

My musical tastes have grown, I've been exposed to a lot of great music from many wonderful bands and artists, and yet, I keep returning to The Wall. It's my go-to album when I have a long, lonely road trip, and while I can't relate to everything the main character of the album goes through, something about the music speaks to me. It's not a happy album, it's not a rocking one, and in fact, it's downright nightmarish, surreal and frightening, but I can't help but be moved by it every time I hear or discover something new to appreciate about it.

"So ya
Thought ya
Might like to go to the show
To feel the warm thrill of confusion
That space cadet glow"

The Wall is another concept album by Pink Floyd. It tells the story of a rock star named... Pink Floyd. Mentally and emotionally, Pink has walled himself from the rest of the world, and the album lyrically explores the source of his neurosis, his fragile psyche, and how all the traumatic experiences of his life - the death of his father in World War II, the smothering of his overbearing mother, the infidelity of his wife - shaped him and transformed into, I'll say it, a monster.

Much of these story elements, in one form or another, are autobiographical details of Roger Waters, who wrote the album, and other aspects, the crazed rock star aspect and the drug abuse, draw on the life of former Pink Floyd band member Syd Barrett, who famously had a breakdown before leaving the band. So, yes, it would be accurately to describe the album as narcissistic and indulgent. It's also accurate to call the album brilliant, fascinating, multi-layered, and ambitious.

Musically, Pink Floyd has rarely sounded better. Guitarist David Gilmour, bassist Waters, drummer Nick Mason, and keyboardist Richard Wright sound fantastic, and the arrangements are superb. Gilmour plays some of his best solos, especially on "Comfortably Numb" and "Young Lust."

"There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship, smoke on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying."

The band goes in many directions without disintegrating; the sound - whether the rising "Empty Spaces," the disco-like march of "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2," the acoustic "Mother" - remains unified within the theme and story of the album. They play fast, they play slow, loud, quiet, dark, light, and it all works.

From a production standpoint, the album mixes in several other elements: children's choirs, TV samples, ringing phones, and other pieces that add and progress the story without being overwhelming. Even the switch between characters is easy to follow through the use of guest vocalists and Waters and Gilmour trading off on different songs.

The Wall has so much going for it. It is fascinating to poke and prod at it from many different angles, musically, lyrically, psychologically, and others. I think of it as a journey, an emotional trek through despair, anger, misery, loneliness, alienation, and fear that transcends that in the end with stunning release and beauty.

"Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Can you feel me?"

Standout Songs
Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) - the iconic anthem of the album
Mother - Wonderful acoustic piece
Young Lust - The closest thing to a traditional, partying rock song on the album while simultaneously knocking down the rock star lifestyle
Comfortably Numb - A song I am desperately trying to learn to play on guitar

Favorite Moment
Say it with me: "Tear down the wall! Tear down the wall! Tear down the wall!" After so much darkness and despair, it is cathartic to hear this chant, followed by the inevitable crumbling.

Album Cover
A brick wall with the band's name and the title stenciled in red over it. Bleak, oppressive, appropriate.

Track Order
Disc 1
1) In the Flesh?
2) The Thin Ice
3) Another Brick in the Wall (Part I)
4) The Happiest Days of Our Lives
5) Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)
6) Mother
7) Goodbye Blue Sky
8) Empty Spaces
9) Young Lust
10) One of My Turns
11) Don't Leave Me Now
12) Another Brick in the Wall (Part III)
13) Goodbye Cruel World

Disc 2
1) Hey You
2) Is There Anybody Out There
3) Nobody Home
4) Vera 
5) Bring the Boys Back Home
6) Comfortably Numb
7) The Show Must Go ON
8) Run Like Hell
9) Waiting for the Worms
10) Stop
11) The Trial
12) Outside the Wall

Roger Waters - Vocals, Bass, Synthesizer, Guitar
David Gilmour - Guitar, Vocals 
Nick Mason - Drums, Percussion
Richard Wright - Piano, Organ, Synthesizer, 
And a load of guest musicians.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Your Name

Body swap movies, like the buddy cop genre, have been done so many times the formula is encased in concrete, and usually, that formula focuses on two characters who learn to appreciate what the other goes through and brings them closer, like the mother and daughter in Freaky Friday and the father and son in Vice Versa. It's predictable, but it can be done well.

Your Name (2016), an anime film directed by Makoto Shinkai (and based on his novel of the same name), is a body swap movie, but it plays with the formula and is not so easily predictable. It's less about understanding the other person and more about finding the other person in this chaotic experience we call life.

Our body swappers in this case are a couple of high school students. Mitsuha (Mone Kamihiraishi) lives in the rural town of Itomori where her father is the mayor. Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lives in Tokyo and works part-time in a restaurant.

This is where I'm supposed to say, "One day, they wake up in each other's bodies," but that would be slightly misleading. Yes, that is what happens, but unlike other body swap movies, the switch is not permanent nor is it explained. It happens randomly, without rhyme or reason, and they just as easily return to their own bodies after experiencing the other's life for the day (the only structure is the switch begins when one wakes up and ends when he or she goes back to sleep at the end of the day).

The obligatory elements of the genre appear here. Of course, Mitsuha and Taki, who have never met and don't know each other, are confused by what happens, and they wreak a fair bit of havoc on each other's life because they don't know where they are or who they're with or what they're supposed to do. So we get scenes of Mitsuha not knowing how to work in the restaurant and being amazed to be in the big city for the first time to the confusion of Taki's friends. Meanwhile, Taki, as Mitsuha, can't resist copping a feel on his newfound boobs, much to the puzzlement of Mitsuha's little sister.

What would it really like to wake up and be another person, even if only for a day? Your Name suggests it's like being a dream. Everything feels different, you don't know anyone but they all know you, and when you find yourself back in your own body, it's difficult remembering exactly where you had been. Was it real? Did it really happen? A feeling that is so familiar and yet so far away and barely glimpsed.

The movie moves into different territory when Taki decides he wants to see Mitsuha. All he has to go on are drawings of her town they made from memory. When he learns the truth of where she is, it's a genuine shock, and I will say no more, but leave that for you to discover yourself.

There are moments of tremendous beauty in Your Name and moments that capture a certain magic. Mitsuha and her sister partake in a religious ceremony to make a special kind of sake, kuchikamizake, as an offering in the family tomb. The ceremony involves elaborate costumes and dance. The journey to the tomb itself, located within a crater and surrounded by water, generates a strong spiritual feeling.

Later, during the town festival, a comet passes overhead and splits into many parts. Without spoiling too much, let me say this a key moment in the plot because we know something about the comet that the other characters don't, so there is a degree of tension and suspense, but it is a strikingly and awe-inspiring streak of color and streams. As frightening and confusing as life can be, it can be wondrous.

When it looks like Mitsuha and Taki will finally meet face-to-face for the first time, the scene occurs during the twilight, which we're told is when spirits come to life and fantastical things become possible, which given the circumstances of the characters at this time, is fitting. They meet on the edge of a crater, overlooking a lake and town. It's a very tender moment, they're so happy to finally meet, and they agree to write their names on each other's hands before they wake up and forget. Taki writes first, but when he passes the pen to Mitsuha, she pops out of existence. Twilight has passed. I almost gasped.

Back in her bed, Mitsuha wakes up and looks at her hand. Taki didn't write his name.

He wrote, "I love you."

Friday, April 21, 2017

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

What is the value of a human life? What could anyone offer that would be equal to the life of even one person?

That question is one of many philosophical mysteries in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, an anime based on the manga of the same name. It's the question that sets our main characters off on a journey that marks their minds, bodies, and souls. At its heart, the series centers on the conflict between those who would destroy or control life to advance their aims and those who cherish life more than anything else and will protect it at all costs.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood centers on two young brothers: Edward and Alphonse Elric. In the country of Amestris, they are employed as state alchemists by the military and are the youngest state alchemists in history. In fact, it is Edward's codename, Fullmetal, that supplies the title. I should note Alphonse is a suit of armor.

More accurately, Alphonse's soul is bonded to a massive suit of armor. As young children, Ed and Al committed the major transgression of alchemy, human transmutation, in a failed attempt to resurrect their mother Trisha Elric, who had died of an illness. Crossing over to the "other side," Ed lost an arm and a leg while Al lost his entire body. Their father, Von Hoheneim, himself an accomplished alchemist, left them when they were young and never returned.

The teenaged Elric Brothers, especially Ed, are exceptionally talented at alchemy, and in between completing missions for the military, they search the countryside for a way to restore their bodies.

The quest of the Elrics is the base plot on which everything else rests, and everything else encompasses a lot. The anime is filled with dozens of primary characters and their affiliated circles along with big narrative threads and countless subplots and personal vignettes. If there's one thing to say about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it does not lack for material, richness, or detail. I'll try to cover some of the more important characters as succinctly as I can.

- Winry Rockbell, a childhood friend of the Elrics. She is a skilled mechanic and constantly repairs Ed's damaged prosthetics, which are known as automail. She lives with her dog Den and grandmother Pinako but has a way of getting involved with the boys' adventures.

- Colonel Roy Mustang, an ambitious military officer also known as the Flame Alchemist. He is focused on eventually becoming fuhrer, the military leader of Amestris, but he is loyal to those around him, especially longtime associates Lt. Riza Hawkeye and Colonel Maes Hughes.

- Fuhrer King Bradley, the military dictator of Amestris who is respected for his superior fighting skills and beloved by his people for his devotion to his country. It is Bradley who recruits the Elrics as state alchemists.

- Scar, a vengeful killer with no name targeting state alchemists, whom he believes are defying God's will. Scar is from the province of Ishval, which was a country annexed by Amestris, leading to a bloody war that ended after the Amestrian leadership ordered the extermination of the Ishvalan people, wiping out most of them in a genocide conducted mainly by the state alchemists (state alchemists by the way are referred to as "Dogs of the Military").

- Princess May Chang and Prince Ling Yao. Contenders to the throne of Xing, a neighboring country across the desert. May is a young girl, always accompanied by her little panda (that everyone refers to as a cat) named Xiao-Mei, but she is skilled in Alkahestry, another form of Alchemy. Ling is a cocky young man with a pair of body guards, Fu and Fu's granddaughter Lan Fan. May and Ling arrive in Amestris looking for a way to become immortal.

I could go on. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a series in which history, both personal and national, plays a pertinent, ongoing role, and everyone is connected in an ever-expanding web. It very much concerns itself with legacy, the legacy parents have on their children, the legacy wars have nations, and the legacy we leave on the people around us. Amestris is a country with a trouble past and an uncertain future, controlled by a ruthless military and defended by people who end up questioning their values and beliefs as they learn the truth about those who lead them and what they've done.

Alchemy is based on the idea of equivalent exchange: to get something, you must sacrifice something of equal value. For example, Ed can fashion his automail arm into a blade during a fight or extract steel from a wall to make a sword. In a gruesome example, a rebel alchemist uses his blood to create a weapon. So the question becomes: with all those lost lives in the Ishval Civil War, what did Amestris receive in return?

Fairly early into the series, Ed and Al discover they might be able to restore their bodies when they learn of Philosopher's Stones. A Philosopher's Stone amplifies transmutation abilities, granting seemingly unlimited power to the user, but it comes at a heavy cost. To create a Philosopher's Stone, one must harvest human souls to power it. That Ed and Al are horrified by the idea and refuse to take any lives under any circumstances sets them at odds with the villains of the series, who see human lives as mere pawns to be spent. The Elrics and their allies give all they can, and their enemies only take.

The initial villains of the piece include Scar as well as high-ranking elements in the military, but the ultimate villains are revealed to be something much worse. Artificially created humans known as Homunculus, each with terrifying powers and abilities, are behind a great deal of the scheming and evil in the series, and they serve a mysterious figure known as Father (who looks like Von Hohenheim). Simply put, the Homunculus - each named after one of the Seven Deadly sins - are monsters, and they include the shape-shifting Envy, the hulking Sloth, the man-eating Gluttony, and the shadow-being Pride, who masks his true form beneath the visage of a young boy.

And yet, the Homunculus are not one-dimensional threats. They have their quirks and foibles. Gluttony, who looks like a massive Ziggy, is relentlessly cheerful and almost child-like, even as he announces his intention to eat someone. Greed is the rebel of the group who acts out his own agenda. And yet as monstrous as they are, for all the contempt they hold humanity in, one still can't help but feel some pity for them when they meet their fates over the course of the series.

Tonally, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is all over the place like a roller coaster. There's exciting action, terrifying fights to the deaths, tearjerking goodbyes and realizations, heartwarming relationships, tragic downfalls, cruelty, adventure, comedy, even some romance. Sometimes, the tones overlap.

Early on, Al and Ed meet a state alchemist, Shou Tucker, with a cute little daughter, Nina, and a big friendly dog, Alexander. Tucker's work is stagnate, and he's worried he'll lose his job, so he fuses Nina and Alexander into a human-animal monstrosity called a Chimera. This after Ed and Al spent the day playing with Nina and Alexander and growing fond of them. The resulting creature is horrifying to look at but pitiful, and the Elrics' rage at Tucker is palpable. The gradual realization of what he's done is one of the show's most shocking moments.

It's not all doom and gloom. Sometimes, there's silly comedy. Take Major Alex Louis Armonstrong, the Strong Arm Alchemist. He's a hulking, overly muscular man with a shaved head and blonde mustache; he looks like an old-time strongman. Yet, he's a big teddy bear, prone to weeping with joy and wrapping others up in a big bear hug. He also likes to flex. Just wait until you meet his ice queen sister, General Armstrong, who thinks her brother is a weakling.

Meanwhile, Ed and Al have a tendency to get scolded and beat up by those who love them, mainly Winry and their alchemy teacher, and there is a running gag about how insecure Ed is about his short stature. He hates being called short.

Visually, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is stunning. The fights involving alchemists involve much manipulation of the environment, like summoning a wall out of the ground to block an attack or transforming concrete into a giant fist. The realm beyond the living world, whether nebulous shadows or infinite emptiness, suggest a hellish landscape. Dark tendrils lurk in blackness, ready to drag people off; eyes and teeth appear on people in places you'd prefer they didn't; and the pour souls used in Philosopher's Stones are left in a twisted state of eternal agony.

Overall, it's an aesthetically pleasing world just to take in and look at. The world looks fairly modern - guns, cars, trains, etc - but has an old-fashioned, fairy-tale like touch. The characters look distinct, the environments are interesting, and the supernatural elements are alternatively beautiful and terrifying (sometimes both). When something overtly comical happens - like when someone gets scolded - their character designs simplified and without details, as if their fear and embarrassment has drained them of their distinguishing features.

With more than sixty episodes, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a huge commitment. I confess I found the middle section dragging a bit, but by the end, I was sad to see it conclude. I wanted it to keep going. The characters go through so much and change greatly; even the side characters have their arcs. It felt like watching my own friends and family go their separate ways.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


This is what we call a calling card. If you want someone to understand what Black Sabbath was all about, you have them listen to Paranoid.

Paranoid, released in 1970, is the album that defines Black Sabbath. If their eponymous debut created the heavy metal genre and later releases found them experimenting and stretching their sound to the limits, then Paranoid, their second album captured everything they were all about: the crunching riffs, the foreboding atmosphere, the dark and often apocalyptic lyrics. Black Sabbath the album may have been more groundbreaking, but Paranoid is more refined and packed with more classic songs.

The album begins in high gear with the absolutely epic War Pigs, one of Sabbath's all-time great cuts. With a subtle background of air raid sirens adding some early atmosphere, the song launches into a massive, stop-and-start rhythm that builds in intensity. The group also works in some political digs in their lyrics, as the band attacks the military who would do Satan's bidding by causing evil and destructive wars.

"Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches in black masses.
Evil minds that plot destruction, 
sorcerers of death's construction."

That angry tone continues on other songs throughout the album, suggesting a lashing out at the evils and hypocrisies of the world. Humanity will doom itself whether it's through war, drugs, or some other form of destruction. The psychedelic, almost funky "Electrical Funeral" chronicles nuclear fallout and the devastation it has on humans, and "Iron Man," with its stomping, monster riff, is not about the Marvel superhero but a time traveler who ends up transformed into the very instrument of destruction he tried to warn the world about.

The moody, sinister "Hand of Doom" depicts the horrors of heroin. It's a slow, almost subdued piece during the main riff and stanzas, with Ozzy singly comparatively softly and Geezer Butler's methodical bass lines offering the only instrumentation. Like here's the calm, mellow part of addiction, but when the song gets to the chorus, the volume cranks up and the music intensifies in speed and intensity, as the heroin reveals its true, deadly nature.

"Take your written rules
You join the other fools
Turn to something new
Now it's killing you."

Sabbath also turns inward and finds fear and a state of mind that is, well, paranoid. The title track, originally a filler song, finds Ozzy lost in his mind, alienated from the world around him and himself and despairing. It's the fastest and shortest song on the album on the track, and it blazes through with yet another iconic Iommi riff, Geezer's pumping bass, and Bill Ward's frenzied drumming.

"And so as you hear these words telling you now of my state,
I tell you to enjoy life. I wish I could but it's too late."

Elsewhere, Ward gets an extended drum solo on "Rat Salad" that rivals John Bonham's "Moby Dick." Sabbath also gets somber on the quiet interlude "Planet Caravan," with soft vocals from Ozzy; this song follows "Paranoid" and precedes "Iron Man" and feels like a brief respite from the despair on one side and doom on the other. 

Everything comes together at the end with "Fairies Wear Boots." This is perhaps the band's weirdest song with some of their oddest lyrics ("Fairies wear boots dancing with a dwarf"), but it has a swinging, almost jazz-like rhythm that paired with Iommi's metallic riffs makes for an idiosyncratic and masterful closer.

Standout Songs
War Pigs - Epic opener is an apocalyptic roller coaster.
Paranoid - A concise primer on everything awesome about Sabbath.
Iron Man - Feel the power and fury when you listen to this.
Electric Funeral - Who knew the end of the world would be so funky?
Fairies Wear Boots - Surreal, swinging closer contains some of the band's best sounds.

Favorite Moment
So hard to choose, but I got to go with a guitar lick by Tony Iommi just over six-and-a-half minutes into "War Pigs" as it transfers over into "Luke's Wall," the outgoing solo. It's like time to ride out the nightmare to the end.

Album Cover
A blurred, pink swordsman in the woods. Certainly memorable and recognizable, but I'm not too crazy about it.

Track Order
1) War Pigs/Luke's Wall
2) Paranoid
3) Planet Caravan
4) Iron Man
5) Electric Funeral
6) Hand of Doom
7) Rat Salad
8) Jack the Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots

Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Tony Iommi - Guitar
Geezer Butler - Bass
Bill Ward - Drums

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Monsterican Dream

Finnish shock rockers Lordi are the ultimate Halloween party band. Every song - whether a catchy, anthemic rock song or piano-driven power ballad - celebrates all things ghoulish and macabre, and the members are decked into monster movie makeup that would make Kiss and Gwar blush in shame. You listen to them, and you just want to get your freak on.

Lordi is a deliberate throwback band, the kind of act that would have been at home in the eighties playing alongside the likes of Alice Cooper or Twisted Sister. They play unabashed, melodic hard rock and pair it up with a larger-than-life and morbid theatricality.

Take 2004's The Monsterican Dream. The album opens with a track called "Theatrical Trailer," and it plays like a radio spot for an upcoming horror movie. As background music quickly builds and swells, a narrator warns us the band is back, the ones so vicious, evil, and deadly. He lists them by name - Kita, Enary, Kalma, Amen, and Lordi - these "raging hounds" are back to "bring it on." That leads appropriately into the first proper song, "Bring It On (The Raging Hounds Returns)."

"The rancorous return from their graves
Won't you bring it on, bring it on big time
Bring it on, bring it on down
Bring it on
Behold your town will burn
As the raging hounds return"

The song is fitting. Lordi plays like a bunch of vicious, rabid dogs, monstrous beasts who see what they want and attack it with no mercy. We are coming, and you should be afraid; that is the confidence of Lordi. This driving style does not let up on such songs as "Blood Red Sandman," about a serial killer (possibly Jack the Ripper) returning after the people prayed he'd never come back; "My Heaven is Your Hell," a song which requires no further elaboration of its meaning; and "Shotgun Divorce," about a woman who is final in her decision to end her marriage.

Lordi celebrate wickedness and all the other taboos normal people find repellent. The band can't resist a good, below-the-belt innuendo, and such odes to sex include "Pet the Destroyer," "Wake the Snake," and "Fire in the Hole." It may be juvenile, but it's funny.

"Pet the destroyer
My beast Le royal
Pet my destroyer
Sweet killing machine
Oh won't you please meet the beast?"

Even the ballads, while giving some breathing room between the straight-ahead rockers, are warped and spooky. "Magistre Nocte" is a haunting, atmospheric piano piece, and "The Children of the Night" offers no tenderness or love; this is a song about murdering children and hiding their skulls under the floor, but still their voices cry out.

"In the dead of night, I hear them sigh, The Children of the night are calling
I hear a cry, they still defy, endlessly I fell like falling on the road
My children of the night"

Yes, Lordi glorifies all things bad taste, but they do it in a way that rocks. The songs are catchy and driving, the production is clean and polished, and the band crosses the line from repulsive to funny. It's so outrageous, it's impossible to not find it infectious. You'll pump your fist, bang your head, and feel the beast within.

Standout Songs
Blood Red Sandman - This song about the Jack the Ripper packs a mean crunch and a haunting, child-like chorus.
Pet the Destroyer -  I can't believe it took me as many listens as it did to realize this pumped-up, pulsing, throbbing piece was about Mr. Lordi's dick.

Favorite Moment
In the final song, Amen hits an absolutely killer guitar solo that is most triumphant. It soars.

Album Cover
A portrait of the band members in closeup with Mr. Lordi's visage being the largest and dead trees in the night behind them. Ghoulish, in-your-face, dark, like the band will bite you if you pick up the album.

Track Order
1) Theatrical Trailer
2) Bring It On (The Raging Hounds Return)
3) Blood Red Sandman
4) My Heaven is Your Hell
5) Pet the Destroyer
6) The Children of the Night
7) Wake the Snake
8) Shotgun Divorce
9) Forsaken Fashion Dolls
10) Haunted Town
11) Fire in the Hole
12) Magistra Nocte
13) Kalmageddon

Mr. Lordi - Vocals
Amen - Guitar
Enary - Keyboard
Kita - Drums
Kalma - Bass

Monday, April 3, 2017

Black Sabbath Vol. 4

Originally titled Snowblind, Black Sabbath's fourth album, Black Sabbath Vol. 4, reveals the lords of gloom and doom beginning a progressive streak that would continue through their next few albums while simultaneously crafting one of music's heaviest albums. It's something of an unfocused album with the band seemingly trying their hand at everything that interests them. Don't look now, but the boys from Birmingham are expanding their minds and experimenting with their sound.

Sabbath's first three albums (their eponymous debut, Paranoid, and Master of Reality) sounded like they could be the soundtracks for a gothic horror movie and were filled with spooky, eerie, and downright apocalyptic lyrics and instrumentation. Vol. 4 proves heavier than that trio but not as dark.

Tony Iommi's guitar and Geezer Butler's bass still pack a sludgy, moody punch, but Ozzy Osbourne sings not of devils, nuclear war, or damnation, but instead, the songs are about ... actually, I'm not always sure. The lyrics are more abstract and surreal, like in the opener "Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener."

"Long ago I wandered through my mind
In the land of fairy tales and stories
Lost in happiness I had no fears
Innocence and love was all I knew
Was it illusion?"

It's no secret the members of Black Sabbath were strung out on drugs during recording, specifically cocaine (note the original album title), and in fact, "Snowblind" finds the band celebrating the magic powder. The ascending guitar riff of "Snowblind" is one of the best and heaviest in Sabbath's canon, and Ozzy sings about the freedom of his mind the drug has brought him and feeling bad when it wears off.

"Let the winter sun shine on
Let me feel the frost of dawn
Fill my dreams with flakes of snow
Soon I'll feel the chilling glow."

In retrospect, maybe this album should have been called Master of Reality. The songs are more about perception, the vastness of the mind, and dreams. These guys are trying to break out of the limits of reality and transcend. As Ozzy sings on "Supernaut," "I want to reach out and touch the sky. I want to touch the sun but I don't need to fly."

This holds true musically. While still based on the sludgy, heavy sound that defines Sabbath, the songs find the group expanding outward. "Changes," a sappy lost love ballad, uses a soft piano, and "Laguna Sunrise" incorporates a classic guitar piece with a backing orchestra. Even "Supernaut," which is massive and crushing, has a funk-inspired breakdown toward the end. "Wheels of Confusion" is a complex, multi-part song, as is "Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes," the album closer.

"So believe what I tell you, it's the only way you'll find in the end
Just believe in yourself, you know you really shouldn't have to pretend
don't let those empty people try to interfere with your mind
Just live your life and leave them all behind."

Vol. 4 finds Black Sabbath pushing their sludgy heavy sound into new and interesting directions. The result is an album that's at various times, beautiful, tender, strange, powerful, heavy, massive, and transcendent. 

Standout Songs
Supernaut - Heavy and psychedelic, the song includes a funky, almost Caribbean drum solo that somehow fits perfectly.
Snowblind - A glorious ode to cocaine, it contains one of Tony Iommi's best riffs.

Favorite Moment
The opening riff of "Snowblind." It was one of my favorite pieces to learn on guitar.

Album Cover

In white block letters, the band's name and the album title wrap around an orange imprint of Ozzy with his arms raised to the sky. Maybe not the flashiest but an indication that this album will stretch out a bit but remain true to the band's core

Track Order

1) Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener
2) Tomorrow's Dream
3) Changes
4) FX
5) Supernaut
6) Snowblind
7) Cornucopia
8) Laguna Sunrise
9) St. Vitus Dance
10) Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes


Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Tony Iommi - Guitar
Geezer Butler - Bass
Bill Ward - Drums

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Nice Guys

Tell me if you've heard this before: a lazy and perpetually intoxicated detective figure in Hollywood, a gruff partner who does not let aggression stand, a missing young woman whose family is hiding something, corrupt businessmen, threats and talks of castration, some bohemian hippy types, and a trip through the world of pornography.

You're right; those are elements of The Big Lebowski. They're also the elements of The Nice Guys (2016), directed by Shane Black, who ramps up the action, dials down the surreal weirdness of the Coen Brothers, and places more emphasis on the plot. Imagine if the Dude had a 13-year-old daughter and a job and Walter Sobchak was more calm and competent, and you'll have a good idea of what The Nice Guys is all about. It establishes its own quirky identity and packs plenty of laughs.

Our heroes are a couple of 1970s L.A. private detectives: Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a boozing widower with a 13-year-old daughter named Holly (Angourie Rice), and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), an enforcer who uses brass knuckles to beat up people. One of the movie's inspirations is how March is the jerk and Healy is a calm, rather polite professional. They meet when Healy is paid to get March to stop following Amelia (Margaret Qualley). As he beats him up, Healy even tells March which arm bone to tell the doctor is broken. When he leaves, Healy accepts a Yoo-hoo from Holly and genuinely enjoys it.

Things get twisted when Amelia disappears and a couple of thugs (including Keith David) attempt to torture Healy for information about her whereabouts. So, Healy and March reluctantly team up to locate Amelia and get to the bottom of what's going on. It all leads to Amelia's mother Judith (Kim Basinger), a top Justice Department Official; a porn producer; some environmental protesters complaining about smog; and some dealings with Detroit's Big Three Auto producers. And of course, Holly inserts herself into the mix.

Fundamentally, The Nice Guys is a buddy cop movie. Two mismatched partners are forced to team up to take down the bad guys, and over the course of the movie, they grow to respect and even like each other. A movie like this depends on the chemistry of leads, and Gosling and Crowe have great chemistry.

March is the kind of guy who won't say no free alcohol while staking out a wild party at the porn producer's mansion and ends up swimming in the pool with the porn star mermaids, but he's just good enough as a detective to be believable. Healy is focused and wants to do the right thing, but he gets his hands dirty and doesn't shy away from being violent. They both make mistakes, they both cause trouble, and deep down, despite the sleazy nature of their work, they're both nice guys. Holly sees the good in both and tries to get them to be that way.

The plot's not too original, but Black knows how to balance the comedy with high stakes. The movie knows when it's time to get serious (but not too serious). Amelia is terrified for her life, and Holly is smart enough to realize when she's walked into a dangerous situation. Shootouts occurs, blood flies, bones break, etc. The action scenes are nothing too special in a post John Wick world, but they get the job done.

Black also includes some inspired hallucinatory weirdness. When Healy approaches March with the offer to team up, it's in the bathroom of the bowling alley where Holly's birthday party is being held, and March is sitting on a toilet; he tries to keep a gun drawn on Healy while failing to keep the stall door open. Later, March falls asleep at the wheel and has a talk with a giant, talking, smoking bee in the back seat (that scene actually pays off twice in the plot, so it's not completely random).

And now, I'm suddenly craving some Yoo-hoo.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Bone Tomahawk

Based on early word of mouth, I expected Bone Tomahawk (2015) to be the closest we're going to get to a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Bone Tomahawk has its share of horrors, depravity, and violence, and squeamish viewers will no doubt watch many moments with their fingers  over their eyes as characters are shot, stabbed, gutted, scalped, and eviscerated in gory detail.

Bone Tomahawk melds two genres: the Western Movie and the Cannibal Film. The only other movie I can think of to do so is Ravenous, but the movies could not be any more dissimilar. Ravenous is a dark comedy with a supernatural element (eating a person allows you to absorb their strength and heal from mortal injury), a wonky musical score, and a wintery army camp for its location.

By contrast, Bone Tomahawk has practically no music, much less humor (though it has its share), and the hot, blazing sun of dry desert valleys. It's a much more grim film and not "fun" the way Ravenous is. And where Ravenous resembled more of a vampire film (outside villain infiltrates group, turns allies into enemies, etc.), Bone Tomahawk shares a greater kinship with the Italian cannibal flicks and Eli Roth's The Green Inferno: civilized people penetrate a dangerous wilderness and are captured by the savage inhabitants.

The Western elements are more obvious, not just in the expected imagery but also the main plot. Indians kidnap some settlers, and a heroic group bands together to rescue them. That's straight out of John Ford's The Searchers with John Wayne, only this time, the sheriff and his group find themselves in way over their heads, outmatched, outmaneuvered, and outnumbered by a ruthless enemy who knows the terrain better and shows no mercy.

Kurt Russell is in the John Wayne role as Sheriff Frank Hunt. The rest of his makeshift posse includes his backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), experienced Indian killer Brooder (Matthew Fox), and the man in the leg brace, Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), whose wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) was among the captured.

These characters are straight out of Hollywood's Western legacy. The cannibal tribe emerges from the dungeon. The "troglodytes," as they are referred to, live in a cave, dwell on interlopers, move like wraiths through the shadows, communicate with wolf howls and grunts, and the movie avoids giving us long looks at them. In a hundred years, they could be the mutant family from The Hills Have Eyes. The normal, civilized Western characters have no way of comprehending these monsters.

The violence in Bone Tomahawk is not pretty or glamorized. Usually, it's sudden, out-of-nowhere, and quiet. Many times, it's over before the viewer has a chance to process it, and the effect is jarring, shocking, and disquieting. There's plenty of gore shown on screen and implied off screen (accompanied by sickening sound effects), and most eerily, there's no music accompanying it. We have no choice but to watch.

Performances are mostly strong. Russell embodies rugged authority better than just about anyone, and Jenkins, unrecognizable, convinces as the old timer perhaps a bit too eager to help out. Fox plays the most complicated character; Brooder is the most educated, dressed most fancily, and has a reputation as a ladykiller, but he's also casually racist and eager to kill more Indians (we learn his motivation later). He's the most "civilized" character and embodies some of civilization's worst and best traits.

By default, Wilson has to be the boring lead (kind of a habit for him), notable only for his determination, and Simmons feels too modern with the script giving her too many scolding lines that only serve to offer unneeded exposition.

First-time director S. Craig Zahler crafts some memorable and nightmarish images (like the troglodyte women who are kept blind, limbless, and pregnant) and suspense (I really liked the scene where Wilson desperately reloads as a troglodyte charges). The pace drags though. At more than two hours and ten minutes in length, the movie would have been a lean, mean thriller at the 90-100 minute mark. I get the sense Zahler is striving for epic and lyrical, but sometimes, he pushes over into pretentious.