The Good Bits: February 2017

February was full of fun, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. March is here now and has a lot to offer, mostly in terms of film, but also in terms of a certain type of media I haven’t mentioned on here yet: video games. I love gaming, but I’m not normally playing any games considered current. But, now that I’m newly equipped with an Xbox One, that’s beginning to change, so I’ll be adding a Currently Gaming category. On that note, if you ever have free time you want to kill, why not watch myself and my fiancée play Diablo III together? Head over to The Co-op Couple on Youtube and get watchin’!

Iron Reagan, Crossover Ministry (Relapse)

iron-reagan

I’m not sure why, but in the past I haven’t been as interested in albums with twenty plus songs ranging from thirty seconds to three minutes. This is the case on many thrash/hardcore/crossover thrash albums, and the only reason I can think for avoiding them is that I lean more towards progressive albums with nine or ten songs ranging anywhere from six to fourteen minutes. I also get more bored by thrash than I used to; there aren’t many newer bands in the subgenre to catch my attion. But I have enjoyed Municipal Waste in the past, and I’ve seen both them and their offshoot Iron Reagan live before and thought they put on a hell of a show. I can’t remember ever just sitting down with an Iron Reagan album before, but there hasn’t been much to catch my attention this month. And I mean really catch my attention. I threw Crossover Ministry on in my car just because it was new and two minutes later I was pumped. It’s a short album that can be finished under half and hour, but I had a lot of fun listening to it, so much so that I put it on again the next day.

 

Arrival

arrival

Arrival is a perfect example of a sci-fi film that doesn’t feel the need to resort to action in order to be great. Don’t get me wrong, I love my action sci-fi movies, but why do movies involving Earth and aliens always have to be a horror show or an explosive set piece? Why do we assume that the first thing aliens want to do is destroy Earth? Arrival bucks this trend with aliens showing up in multiple ships around the globe and then just kind of loitering. So it’s up to Amy Adams, a linguist professor, and Jeremy Renner, a theoretical physicist, to figure out who the aliens are and why they’re on Earth. What follows is a perfectly paced sci-fi drama that leads to much discussion and debate.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without getting into spoiler territory, and I really think this is the kind of film where you should go in blind to get the full impact of the story. Suffice it to say that the film manages to sidestep any M. Night Shyamalan nonsense when it comes to the central twist. It makes sense within the plot as well as thematically and there are hints dropped here and there that, if you’re really thinking and paying attention, you can figure it out just before the reveal. That, in my opinion, is the best kind of twist, one that leaves you actual breadcrumbs and ties into the whole rest of the story rather than being a simple pulling back of the curtain.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s next film is Blade Runner 2049 and he’s also slated to direct a new adaptation of Dune. If you are excited for either of those films, watching Arrival will give you hope as Villeneuve demonstrates his virtuosic ability. And if you don’t care about those movies, Arrival is still worth your time, so much so that I would go back to my top five of 2016 and put this in.

 

Get Out

get_out

I have been pitching this movie to the uninitiated as Rosemary’s Baby meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. If that’s a combination that piques your interest, I assure you it’s worth your time. The movie is about a black man, Chris (Kaluuya), who goes to visit his white girlfriend’s family. They’re a little strange, but not as strange as the few other black people Chris meets. What follows is an expertly crafted comedy horror film that provides not only a subversive take on black protagonists, but highly relevant social commentary that we kind of need.

Don’t let the label of comedy horror fool you; this film is thick with tension and you never really feel at ease, which is my favorite kind of approach to horror. Sure, there’s one or two minor jump scares, but the atmosphere is the star of the show here. Every now and again the tension is broken to deliver much needed laughs, usually from Chris’ best friend played by Lil Rey Howery, whose character is meant to channel your typical horror audience (“I told you not to go in that door!”) to hilarious results. It’s a great dichotomy, and allows the tense atmosphere to stay potent without being overwhelming and the comedy never feels overdone.  I’d rather not spoil the film (surprise surprise) but suffice it to say that it’s a solid horror film in its own right and it’s relevancy when it comes to race issues both in Hollywood and the world as a whole make it a horror film you can actually learn something from.

 

Books:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep

I’m going to flat out say that Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? may be one of my new favorite books, and not just in the sci-fi genre. I may be late to the party, but I just can’t get over how a book that’s nearly fifty years old can be so refreshing to read. I read it before watching Blade Runner, the cult classic film that I had so long neglected. Now, both are different mediums and both excel in different areas, but if we’re going by overall level of enjoyment, I’d have to give the nod to Dick’s original vision. The writing is snappy and well-paced, never getting boring or diving into too much backstory. If you’re a fan of Blade Runner, I’d highly recommend picking this up to see where it all started. Meanwhile, I’m going to give the film another run sometime before Blade Runner 2049 comes out this fall.

 

Currently Reading

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

dune-messiah

Dune was yet another 60’s sci-fi classic I’d yet to read until last year, and I loved it. So I picked up the next book right away, but I’ve sat on it for a while because of my extensive reading list. Now I’m about halfway through, and so far it’s a welcome return to Arrakis.

 

Currently Gaming:

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls (Xbox 360)

As I said above, Lizzy and I have been playing co-op in D3 for a while now and we’ve been recording our progress. We only just started posting the videos, but in real life we’re at Act V!

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Xbox One)

Dishonored 2 (Xbox One)

 

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The Good Bits: January 2017

Music:

TWRP, Ladyworld (Self-Released)

twrp

My favorite album of January is a departure from what you might normally see in my music listings. Tupper Ware Remix Party (or TWRP) was brought to my attention last year when Ninja Sex Party released their covers album. TWRP was the backing band for most of the album, expertly recreating some of the most well known songs of the 80’s. With the release of their new album Ladyworld, I took it upon myself to finally check out the band’s own work and was met with a catchy delight full of positive vibes. TWRP is firmly grounded in the 80’s aesthetic, touching on elements of rock, synthwave, and funk, while focusing on a message we can all get behind: loving your lady. This is most apparent on tracks such as “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Her” and, my personal favorite, “Body Image”, featuring a chorus both catchy and inspiring in its message. The album also features Arin Hanson (Game Grumps, Starbomb) and Ninja Sex Party, returning the guest appearance favor for TWRP on the final track “Built 4 Love.” The album is on the short side, clocking in at under thirty minutes, but I think that feels just right for a band like TWRP; it’s an upbeat listen to punch-up your day, giving you that little feel good boost we all so often need.

 

Galactic Empire, Galactic Empire (Rise)

galactic-empire

You know me, I love my Star Wars, my metal, and metal versions of non-metal songs. So having a whole album comprised of the most iconic pieces of John Williams’ legendary score turned to metal is nothing but good news. The group has put out a few videos that have made the rounds on social media and now they’ve put out a full LP. It’s a pretty straightforward album; we go from “Main Theme” to the expected “Imperial March”, then touch on a few pieces from the prequels such as “Duel of the Fates” (which uses actual vocals) and “Across The Stars” before capping it off with “Throne Room/End Title.” All of the arrangements are impeccable with excellent guitar tone and feature close attention to all the little nuances from Williams’ score. Any Star Wars fan, metalhead or no, will enjoy this tribute to one of the greatest film soundtracks ever.

 

Film:

Prometheus, (Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender)
Director: Ridley Scott
Released: June 8th 2012

prometheus2

I didn’t really see any new movies released this month, but I did watch Prometheus in preparation for May’s Alien: Covenant. The Alien series is one I’m catching up on, having neglected it for a number of years. Now I’ve finally watched the prequel to the series that I’ve heard much about, opinions always mixed. My personal experience with the film turned out to be very enjoyable one, exceeding my expectations thanks to its spectacular visuals, atmosphere, and theme.

My view of the movie was prefaced with the general opinion that the film, while gorgeous, has a “meh” plot, and I can see where that opinion comes from. There’s some horror movie cliches you can pick out early on, especially if you’re familiar with the other films, and the movie raises more questions than it actually answers. But I forgive the film’s plot because it caters more to theme than revelation. The parallels between the Greek myth of Prometheus and the Prometheus crew are woven into the narrative and share the same message: if you try to get on the same level as Gods, you’re going to be in for a hurtin’. Sure, we all came here for the Xenomorph, but I appreciate where Prometheus stands as far as its own story and theme.

 

Godzilla (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Released: May 16th, 2014

godzilla_2014_poster

Here’s one that’s been on my list since the first trailer but that got away from me. I finally got to watch Godzilla in anticipation of this year’s Kong: Skull Island, which is set in a shared universe with the former film. I’m not necessarily a long time Godzilla fan, meaning I’ve only seen one or two of the classic films and not much else. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand how awesome Godzilla is, or at least can be in the right hands. Like Prometheus, I heard a lot of mixed reception about this film, usually amounting to, “The thirty minutes of Godzilla are great but the rest is boring.” Upon viewing, I do agree that the comparatively small amount of time spent with Godzilla is FUCKING AWESOME, but I would argue that it’s only so awesome because of all the time that isn’t spent on him.

Now, I understand why the majority of the plot spent with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a Lieutenant in the US Navy, and Ken Watanabe, basically a kaiju expert, might be considered boring, the main reason being that neither of them are an enormous destructive monster. But I would argue that spending time with the characters is what helps create the overwhelming sense of awe that is meant to surround Godzilla. Sure, we could have had a film that was ninety percent Godzilla smashing things, but there’s always been more to Godzilla than that. The original movie essentially portrayed Godzilla like an atom bomb, an unstoppable, destructive force all the more powerful because of that sense of shock and awe. Now think about how many explosions and city destroying monster movies we’ve gotten in recent years that are soulless, mindless action (Pacific Rim being a notable except because that movie rules). The decision to focus more on the human characters and their perceptive builds anticipation to a boiling point, and when we finally see Godzilla in all his glory and hear his roar, you get serious chills. Because Godzilla isn’t here to entertain you; you’re here to witness him.

 

Books:

Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole

talion-revenant

Standalone fantasy novels are a rare breed not because there aren’t many of them but because they don’t seem to get as much attention. It’s understandable as the landmark fantasy novels are typically epic in scale and scope, spanning across anywhere from three to five to eight books. But there’s a lot to love from single entries, the most notable being that you don’t have to prepare yourself for the plunge into multiple books and you get a complete story arc all in one go. So I went looking for one, preferably something I’d never heard of before, and came up with Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole, best known for penning several Star Wars books from the old Expanded Universe. The result is an enjoyable fantasy novel that, for the modern reader, doesn’t turn genre conventions on its head, but does tell a satisfying tale of heroic fantasy.

The story tells of a man named Nolan, a Talion Justice, a highly skilled and feared warrior who, as his title implies, travels about the Shattered Empire righting wrongs and delivering retribution. They are known for their ability to suck out the souls of wrongdoers as a method of execution, which is why they are so feared. The chapters alternate between Nolan in the present, fully grown and trained, and Nolan as a boy, fleeing from his country after his family was slaughtered by a neighboring country. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this style of storytelling at first; being constantly pulled back and forth through past and present can make it hard to maintain momentum in the story, but it eventually won me over as the chapters usually parallel each others subject matter. It’s also told in a first person perspective, which I also questioned at first, but I understood it was more fitting for the story.

The big hook of the story, displayed right on the front and back cover, is that Nolan is assigned a mission where he must pose as a noble in order to protect a king from a seemingly unkillable creature. The catch? This is the very same king of the country that killed Nolan’s family. It sets the story up for a tense duty vs. vengeance dilemma, but, slight spoiler alert, that doesn’t end up being the focal point. It certainly motivates Nolan and helps define his sense of justice, but the issue itself is kind of resolved in a few paragraphs. I can see what the intent was here i.e. spend your whole life plotting revenge then questioning yourself, but I did feel slightly mislead.

The good news? The overall plot of the book is still enjoyable. Young Nolan’s training to become a Justice makes for some interesting world building and character background that contrasts well with adult Nolan’s more action oriented scenes. There’s one or two twists as well that help to elevate the exciting finale which, despite this being a standalone book, leaves some room for a sequel. If you’re one for more traditional fantasy and/or don’t particularly feel like committing to a longer series, Talion: Revenant will deliver a well executed story with plenty of action and adventure to keep you invested.

 

Currently Reading:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep

Confession: I have never seen Blade Runner. I’ve meant to for a long time, and with the sequel coming this year I’ve all the more reason to finally watch it. But I figured, while I have the time, I should read the book that the film is loosely based on. I’ve also never read Philip K. Dick before. It’s a short book and I’m nearly done, so expect a full review next month.

 

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The Best Bits: 2016

The year 2016 has been strung up as a punching bag for a while now, and though it’s an understandable sentiment given the multitude of celebrity deaths and the election cycle from hell, I can’t say it was all bad for me. I’ve made fantastic progress on my book, kept this blog going the whole year, and, most importantly, I got engaged. It doesn’t hurt the year was filled with spectacular media, from albums that I played two or three times a day to movies that had me geeking with joy. If you’ve been reading my blog all year, if you checked on it only once or twice, or if you simply liked it on Facebook, I thank you for taking the time to stop by. Without further ado, here are the Best Bits of 2016.

Top 10 Albums of 2016:

1. Dream Theater, The Astonishing (Roadrunner)

the astonishing

A little bit of fantasy/sci-fi, a dash of Rush’s 2112, and the virtuosic pedigree of Dream Theater brings this rock opera to life. Never before has a concept album gotten me so caught up in its story.
2. Bon Iver, 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)

bon-iver

The jump from “dude with an acoustic guitar in a cabin in the woods” to folktronica glitch pop could have gone poorly, but the new album from Justin Vernon and company is probably their best yet.
3. Zeal and Ardor, Devil Is Fine (Self-Released)

zeal and ardor

Blues, black metal, with a dash of trip hop. Manuel Gagneux’s one man project is bold, unrefined, and one of the most memorable albums of the year.
4. Alcest, Kodama (Prophecy)

alcestkodama

Alcest returns with their winning combination of shoegaze and black metal, creating an atmosphere that is both beautiful and chilling.
5. Haken, Affinity (InsideOut)

haken

One of the best prog releases this year, hands down.
6. Neurosis, Fires Within Fires (Neurot)

neurosis

One of the band’s shorter albums, Neurosis’ latest is not short on quality and is as dark and introspective as ever.
7. Opeth, Sorceress (Nuclear Blast)

opethsorceressfinalcd

For a while, I wasn’t sure if Opeth’s latest would win me over. But, after I found myself humming “The Wilde Flowers” to myself, I knew I had to listen to it again and again.
8. Anthrax, For All Kings (Megaforce)

anthrax-for-all-kings-album-new

We were lucky to get albums from three-fourths of the Big Four this year, but Anthrax’s followup to Worship Music was the one that stuck with me.

9. Cult of Luna (with Julie Christmas), Mariner (Indie)

Cult-Of-Luna-Mariner-47682-2_1

I am kicking myself for forgetting about this when I was putting together my list of Metal Insider. This is another fine LP in Cult of Luna’s already excellent discography.
10. Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop, Love Letter For Fire (Sub Pop)

love letter for fire

Of course any fan of Iron & Wine will like this album, but I love it more because of a certain special person who listened to it with me.

Honorable Mentions:

Hyperion, Seraphical Euphony (Blacklion)
Black Crown Initiate, Selves We Cannot Forgive (eOne)
ONI, Ironshore (Metal Blade)

 

Top 5 Films of 2016:

1. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

batmanvsuperman

Call me contrarian. Call me delusional. Tell me that the DCEU is dead in the water. I don’t care. I’ve enjoyed this movie more with each and every viewing, especially after the Ultimate Cut fleshed things out. It’s not a perfect film and I’ll be the first to admit it, but I’ve pondered over it more than any other film this year. And that Batfleck warehouse scene is just fucking brilliant.

 

2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_poster

If being blinded by nostalgia is wrong, then I couldn’t give a shit less about being right. The film was a great first outing for the standalone Star Wars anthology that is both strong in its own right pays meaningful tribute to the saga’s 1970’s origins.

 

3. Captain America: Civil War

civil war

The film that proved you can fit twelve superheroes into one movie without it being a disaster. Phase Three of the MUC looks as promising as ever as we begin to explore heroes new and familiar.

 

4. Deadpool

deadpool_ver9

While the film itself is a hilarious raunchy romp, the biggest achievement of Deadpool is that 1) it actually happened, and 2) it has opened the way for R-rated superhero films, hence there reason this year’s Logan will be rated R.

 

5. Finding Dory

FINDING_DORY_-_Key_Art

This is the odd one out on the list, but given the pure joy I experienced watching Finding Dory I believe it deserve a spot amongst the superheroes and space operas. Beautiful animation and touching themes on those differently abled make this another gold star for Pixar.

 

Honorable Mention:

The Little Prince

This technically is from 2015 and I neglected to review it on my blog, but this joyful adaptation of the beloved novella has been updated to break down what we expect of children in today’s world where cold, dead career’s take precedent over dreams.

 

Favorite TV Show:

Westworld

westworld

There aren’t too many shows with previews that make me go from zero to “I gotta watch that”, but Westworld‘s premise and stellar cast was enough to make me sit down with the original 1973 Michael Crichton film before diving into HBO’s latest hit. I’m not a binge watching kind of guy, but I was always ready to devour one episode after the next with this show. It’s one of the best shows on TV right now and I’ll be anxious to see if they can top it.

 

Favorite Book:

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

words of radiance

If you’re been follow my blog, this shouldn’t be a surprise. I put a lot of time into reading this book, and it was all worth it. Promises were fulfilled, paths were crossed, and the game has changed. It’s everything a sequel should be and is a confirmation that Sanderson is going to make reading these tomes worthwhile for any fantasy fan. I can’t wait for the next one to come out this year (hopefully).

 

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The Good Bits: December 2016

As I write this, I am also coming up with a post for the Best Bits of 2016, which, admittedly, is going to overshadow this one a bit. Still, I can’t leave December out of the mix, especially since the most hyped-up movie of the year came out (and I’m not talking about Sing, though it was a fun movie).

Music:

Hyperion, Seraphical Euphony (Black Lion)
Released: February 6th 2016

hyperion

Every year, before I put together a list of my favorite albums, I embark on a search for any albums that I missed during the year in an effort to weed out any hidden gems. There’s always at least one every year, and this year it came in the form of the debut album from Swedish blackened death metal band Hyperion. Nowadays, I tend to lean toward slow, progressive kind of bands and it takes a really kickass album to hook me back into something fast, shreddy, and deadly. Hyperion does just that with incredibly fast riffs and raspy vocals, but they aren’t afraid to get melodic, something I always appreciate. It’s not only one of the best debut albums of the year, but one of my favorites overall. I haven’t spent as much time with it as other albums from this past year, but I spent enough time to know Hyperion are worth keeping on the radar.

 

 

Film:

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Released: December 16th 2016

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_poster

I honestly wasn’t sure if I was ready for a new Star Wars film. Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars and was certainly excited for Rogue One, but knowing this was officially the start of a new movie every year made me wonder if it was going to be too much too soon. Having two or three Marvel movies out is one thing because they usually span different types of genres depending on which hero is up front. But a new entry for the biggest blockbuster franchise every year? Sounds too good to be true. And while there may come a day when a new Star Wars film comes out and ends up being a dud or people begin to feel fatigued by having a new one every year, it is not this day. Rogue One is a wonderful first entry in the Star Wars anthology series, hauling in just enough satisfying fan service without leaning on it while remaining a strong film in its own right.

FYI: I’m going to do my best to keep this spoiler free even though most of you have seen it at this point

For some people, Rogue One is a confusing follow-up to The Force Awakens in that it features none of those characters and is in fact set just before A New Hope, telling the story of how the Rebellion stole the plans to the Death Star. Here’s one thing to keep in mind about Rogue One: this is not your typical Star Wars movie. It’s not even like The Force Awakens. This is, in essence, a war movie with a dash of a heist plot telling the story of how the Rebel Alliance stole the plans to the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Jones) leads a ragtag group in search of her father, Galen, a scientist and key player in building the superweapon. The titular Rogue One is composed of a few archetypes such as a snarky droid, hotshot Captain, and a deadly spiritual fighter to name a few. They may sound one note, but they’re certainly fun to be around. Once again, this isn’t a hero’s journey where we see several characters growing and changing. These are the small timers, the moving gears of war that make the big moments for bigger characters possible.

On the other side of the table is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn), Grand Moff Tarkin (featuring a digitally resurrected Peter Cushing) and, the one and only, Darth Vader. While Krennic is interesting to watch, he does get a bit overshadowed by his peers. Seeing Peter Cushing onscreen again is going to be hit or miss depending on how creepy you think the CGI is. Personally, I enjoyed it and think it contributes to the film’s authenticity, though I wouldn’t want to see a whole movie led by something like that. Vader, of course, is awesome even with his expectedly small onscreen time, and is a big contributor to making the last ten minutes some of the best in Star Wars history.

I’m beginning to realize there’s way too much to cover to cover for this movie, and I like to keep things brief, so I’ll try to narrow it down: Rogue One is excellently crafted to fit the aesthetic of A New Hope and will certainly tick all the nostalgic boxes. That said, Gareth Edwards’ direction makes the film feel different from other films, rather than trying to stick to the template as The Force Awakens did. It’s fresh and familiar, and while some fans might not like the dark tones and deviations, I think there’s plenty of Star Wars magic in this film, proving that we can have more films that don’t rely on the Skywalker’s or Jedi. It’s a worth addition to the saga and I can’t wait to see it again.

 

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell)
Director: David Yates
Released: November 18, 2016

fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_poster

I’m a little late with this one since it came out in November, but better late than never. Here we have yet another prequel set in the universe of one of the biggest Hollywood franchises, the difference being that Fantastic Beasts is set to kick off a series of five films. Now, I consider myself a relatively big Harry Potter fan; not quite a fanatic like I am with Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but I grew up reading HP and they had a pretty big impact on my reading tastes as well as my writing. That being said, the idea that we’re getting four more of these movies feels like…a lot? Not that I’m judging the film on its future plans, but I’m skeptical of the series’ longevity especially where there are several other Potterverse stories that can be told (feel-good Quidditch movie anyone?). Regardless, Fantastic Beasts is a dazzling, surprisingly dark, stuffed first entry to the proposed series.

I have to give big ups to the film for being a well done prequel. Sure, you get some name drops like Dumbledore or Hogwarts, but it manages to stand on its own merits without heavy reliance on what fans already know. The cast is entertaining; Eddie Redmayne was born to play a wizard and Dan Fogler stands out as a surprisingly entertaining muggle who gets dragged into the whole mess. Ezra Miller’s turn as a deeply disturbed teenage boy is some of the best acting in the film and is the centerpiece of the film’s aforementioned dark tone. I know I keep saying “dark” as if the original Potter films were all sunshine and farts, but there are themes and depictions in Fantastic Beasts that I wasn’t expecting, from child abuse (and I mean more so than living in a cupboard under the stairs) to capital punishment.

Visually, the movie is like someone took a dab of Tim Burton to the Wizarding World, which is neat and makes the titular beasts great fun to watch and marvel at. The 1920’s New York City setting mixes in a prohibition aesthetic with the Wizarding World to great effect, staying familiar enough to keep us grounded but giving the world a new flavor. The big sticking point for the film is plot, however, which isn’t necessarily amazing or terrible, but it’s just…a lot. A lot of characters and stories are introduced to you very quickly and certain plotlines overshadow the others whenever they mingle. I would have been perfectly fine watching Newt Scamander running around NYC recollecting his creatures, but there’s also talks of the stability between wizard and muggle relations in the US, whispers of the deeds of dark wizard Grindelwald, and numerous backstories for certain characters that are hinted at then left for another film. Now, I don’t necessarily have a hard time keeping track of multiple story arcs (I watch Game of Thrones after all), but so much is happening at the same time in this film, like a child just bursting to tell about its day and moving from one big event to the next without a breath in between. It doesn’t kill the film, but it does make me wonder if I want four more of these. Is this how other people felt while I sang the praises of the The Hobbit films ?

Potter fans will (or already do) love it. If you only saw the films and likely them, you’ll like this. Even if you’ve never delved into Harry Potter before, you may like it since it’s so far removed from the original films that you don’t require much prior knowledge. I’m questionable as to the quality of future films, but for now it’s an entertaining romp and a fun return to the world of J.K. Rowling.

 

 

Currently Reading:

Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole

talion-revenant

I’m more than halfway through the book and it’s still good so far, though here and there I find things that aren’t quite to my taste. That said, the book is told from a first person perspective, something not often done in fantasy, and I’m enjoying the change. I’ll be done with this one by the next Good Bits.

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The Good Bits: Top 10 Albums of 2015 Redux

Back when I was doing radio, a few of my fellow DJs would do a show around this time of year where they reflected on their favorite music from the pervious year. They would change around their top albums, include music they’d missed out on, and elaborated on how well their favorites had aged. I nicked this tradition from them while on radio and have decided to do so again on The Good Bits!

Here’s a list original top ten albums of 2015. If you’d like to see my initial thoughts on this list, you can head over to Metal Insider where it was originally posted.

Top 10 Albums of 2015:

10) Panopticon, Autumn Eternal
9) Intronaut, The Direction of Last Things
8) Sigh, Graveward
7) Leprous, The Congregation
6) Clutch, Psychic Warfare
5) Between The Buried And Me, Coma Ecliptic
4) Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls
3) Ghost, Meliora
2) Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase.
1) Ghost Bath, Moonlover

Honorable Mentions:

Enslaved, In Times
TesseracT, Polaris
Mutoid Man, Bleeder

Now, nearly a year later in 2016, I’ve gone over these albums again, noted which ones I’ve returned to the most, discovered ones I missed, and then reassessed my list. It remains mostly the same but with two notable changes, both of which involve a mutual vocalist.

Top 10 Albums of 2015 Redux:

10) Sigh, Graveward

sigh-graveward

Graveward is still ridiculous, yet also still straightforward compared to Sigh’s other releases. If you like your black metal with an 80’s shred tinge, this is still a solid go to.

 

9) TesseracT, Polaris

tesseract

My initial impression of TesseracT’s third LP was that it was good, though not as good its predecessor Altered State. Part of this was due to my preference of vocalist Ashe O’Hara, whose performance dominated Altered State and who was replaced by original singer Daniel Tompkins for this album. But I kept coming back to Polaris this past year thanks to the tight, proggy songwriting and Tompkins’ performance eventually won me over. I was remiss in not including last year, and so it has been bumped up from its spot in the Honorable Mentions.

 

8) Earthside, A Dream In State 

earthside

Cinematic maybe isn’t the first word to come to mind when describing a metal band, but it certainly describes the music put together by the fantastic musicians comprising Earthside. A Dream In Static is a mainly instrumental journey occasionally joined by guest vocalists such as the aforementioned Daniel Tompkins, Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust, and more. The addition of the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra on select tracks only adds to the shifting soundscape, full of gorgeous peaks and unique textures that many progressive bands push for but don’t always meet. This album is a treat and Earthside should be on everyone’s watchlist.

 

7) Clutch, Psychic Warfare

clutch

I only really got into Clutch when they put out Earth RockerPsychic Warfare is an excellent follow-up that is on par with its predecessor.

 

6) Leprous, The Congregation

leprous-the-congregation-01

The dark horse of 2015 for me is still holding the original spot I gave it. Leprous are one of the finer progressive metal acts out there.

 

5) Between The Buried And Me, Coma Ecliptic

coma_ecliptic_cover_art_by_between_the_buried_and_me

I saw the band perform the entire album live this year. That only helped solidify my love for this album.

 

4) Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls

iron-maiden-the-book-of-souls-2015

I’m a Maiden fanboy. That’s all I feel the need to say.

3) Ghost, Meliora

meliora

Ghost have gotten better and better with every album. The only thing that would make Meliora better is if “Square Hammer” from the Popestar EP released this year was on it.

 

2) Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase.

steven_wilson_hand_cannot_erase_cover

This is still one of the single most moving, beautifully written albums I’ve ever heard. Steven Wilson is a gift to the musical world.

 

1) Ghost Bath, Moonlover

ghost-bath

Of all the albums on this list, I think I go back and listen to Moonlover the most. Ghost Bath are one of the best new acts out there and this album may very well rank in my personal best of all time.

 

And there you have it; my retrospective on my favorite albums from 2015. I’m sure there are still other albums that got swept under the rug or albums that I didn’t appreciate the first time around, but nothing in the music world is ever static. Stay tuned for my favorite albums for 2016 coming soon!

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The Good Bits: November 2016

November was a tough month for many, so I was thankful for all the movies, music, and literature present on this month’s edition of The Good Bits to remind me that it’s not all bad all the time.

Music:

Metallica, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (Blackened)
Released: November 18th 2016

metallica

Where do you even start with reviewing something as massive as a new Metallica album, let alone a double album? It’s one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year for music in general, not just metalheads. Fans and ex-fans alike rejoiced when they heard “Hardwired” and were blown away by how great it sounded. People who dismissed them for years were suddenly hopeful for a return to form for the band. The result? Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is a great modern Metallica album. And that makes this fan very happy.

If you read my retrospective of 2008’s Death Magnetic, you’ll remember my assessment that the album’s biggest flaw was how it tried to emulate 80’s Metallica just a little too much, from album format to song structure. This is not at all a problem on Hardwired as the band sound way more natural with songs that progress organically and less constructed to fit a template. “Hardwired” kicks everything off with the perfect one-two punch to get you hyped about the rest of the album. The whole first disc is solid, with “Halo On Fire” and “Now That We’re Dead” standing out as favorite. What’s more, you can tell that everyone in the band showed up to kick this album into high gear. The second disc is good too, though some of the songs seem a cut below those of the preceding disc. But then “Murder One” and “Spit Out The Bone” wrap up the album in furious Metallica fashion.

Was a double album necessary? Maybe not. It could have just been the whole first disc and then the last two tracks to form a solid eight track album. That said, I don’t think the other songs hurt the album overall and maybe they’ll grow on me more after a few listens. Either way, the bulk of  Hardwired…to Self-Destruct‘s enjoyment stems from simply being a great, exciting new Metallica release. It feels like their natural destination after such a long and storied career. Plus, with everything else that’s happened this year, we deserve something as special as a new Metallica album.

 

 

ONI, Ironshore (Metal Blade)
Released: November 25th, 2016

oni-ironshore

Technical ability can only take you so far nowadays in metal. What good are crazy time signatures and shit hot guitar solos if your band just comes off as boring? It’s a trap many newer bands fall into that ONI managed to avoid on their debut album. You can tell right away on the opener “Barn Burner” that the band has some serious chops, but when you get to “Eternal Recurrence” the sound opens up, revealing a band that sounds less like Meshuggah or The Faceless and more like Dream Theater with harsh vocals. I was surprised to hear more than a few clean, hooky choruses in between guitar wizardry (and bass wizardry too, Chase Bryant is a goddamn madman).

The album keeps it to nine tight tracks that lasts long enough for you to drink your fill of prog metal bedazzlement. The eleven minute “The Science” was over in a flash for me and proves that ONI know how to write long songs with getting top masturbatory. There are many bands that I’ve been saying telling people to watch for on this blog, and these guys are high up on that list. If you need more convincing, this debut album features Randy Blythe (Lamb of God) as a guest vocalist. That’s how you know you’re doing it right.

 

Film:

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Released: November 4th, 2016

doctor_strange_poster

The term franchise fatigue has been thrown around a lot regarding the seemingly never-ending line of superhero movies heading our way. Sure, we’re done with them for the remainder of 2016, but between DC and Marvel we’ve got six movies heading our way in 2017. In the meantime, we’ll be endlessly assaulted with trailers, breakdowns of trailers, trailer stills, you name it. As a result, while I enjoy this superhero film renaissance, it can get a bit tiring. Luckily, Doctor Strange provides a dash of invigoration for the genre, providing a new character with an origin story that goes by-the-numbers in some aspects, but makes plenty of room for new, mind-bending thrills.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is a bit overexposed at this point and his inclusion in the MCU means we’ll be seeing a lot more of him. That said, even my fiancée, who was skeptical of Doctor Strange before viewing, couldn’t deny the charm and gravitas Cumberbatch brought to the role, moving from cocky jerk to ruined surgeon to hero. The supporting cast is great too: Chiwetel Ejiofor has a great turn as Mordo and hints a his character’s morally gray development in the future; Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius manages to be more than just a one-note villain; Tilda Swinton is excellent as The Ancient One, although I understand the casting controversy might make some viewers less enthralled with her performance. The only one who is so-so is Rachel McAdams, but that’s less because of her acting ability and more because it feels like she’s only there to fill the love interest role.

By now, you’ve likely seen and/or heard about this film’s up-and-front use of special affects, and I can assure you they’re nothing short of spectacular. I saw the film in 3D, and while I think the film is great no matter what format it’s viewed in, you get just a little bit more out of the effects when they’re popping out at you. What’s more, the film’s thorough usage of trippy CGI sequences was never too overwhelming, always toying with the viewer just the right amount before backing off. The film also contains one of the best action set pieces of the entire MCU in its finale, ranking up there with the Daredevil hallway scene under the category of “How the hell did they do that?!”

While Doctor Strange does present us with yet another origin story and its familiar beats, the film gets them out of the way quickly and efficiently enough that we get an effective introduction to the Sorcerer Supreme while taking in a new layer added to the MCU that mixes the status quo up a bit, leaving the franchise with fascinating potential. If nothing else, see it for the Cloak of Levitation. Best cloak ever.

 

 

Central Intelligence (Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson)
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Released: June 17th 2016

central-intelligence

File this one under “Potentially Dumb Comedy Better Than Expected.” Action-comedy buddy movies are a tried and true formula, but sometimes you can’t help getting that “seen one, seen ’em all” feeling when you spot a new trailer. Then again, not every one of those movies features Dwayne Johnson, whose mere presence in a film boosts its chances of being good by at least 25%, sometimes more depending on how much screen time he has. Combine him with Kevin Hart as the straight man and you get a film that’s somewhat predictable, but the star power yields enough laughs to entertain you on a night in where you have absolutely have no idea what to watch.

The film also touches on the subject of bullying, depicting a teenage version of Johnson’s character Bob Stone as a fat kid who is mercilessly picked on at school but is shown sympathy by star student Calvin (Hart). While comedies aren’t meant to be downers, I wouldn’t have minded if the film tried to touch on bullying just a bit more. But, as it stands, you have a solid pair of actors with good chemistry and a fast paced plot. You know what you’re gonna get before you got in, but you’ll have a good time anyway.

 

Books:

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

words of radiance

About this same time a year ago, I’d just finished reading the The Way of Kings, the first in Brandon Sanderson’s series of cinderblock-sized epic fantasy novels dubbed The Stormlight Archive. And I loved it. I wasn’t sure how Sanderson could get better than his Mistborn trilogy, but that first book drew me into a unique world full of endearing characters, fascinating magic, and an endless but intriguing amount of lore. The promise was great, so I opened up the second and latest volume Words of Radiance hoping for some payoff. And boy, did it deliver. Note: I won’t be revealing any big spoilery plot points, but if you’re entertaining the idea of reading this book at some point and want to go in knowing absolutely nothing, read at your own risk.

The biggest payoff of the book is finally seeing the paths of our view point characters converge. It’s entertaining to finally see these characters finally meeting each other and reacting to each other’s quirks. Shallan is kind of the star of the show here; just as Kaladin received backstory chapters in tWoK, Shallan gets her mysterious past explained in WoR. She’s much more engaging in this book than the first, so I didn’t feel like I had to suffer through her chapters if they cut in on someone else’s action. Everyone else gets their time to shine (sometimes literally) as well. Like the first book, there’s a lot of build up and about halfway through you start to see lots of promises fulfilled that make the book feel like a satisfying, savory feast. The most notable event is probably our heroes’ encounter with Szeth, the assassin in white (that’s not a spoiler, it’s on the cover of the book).

The length of the volume can feel like an undertaking, but if you read the first volume and spent a lot of time thinking “Oh god, this is dragging” you might be more pleased with this one’s pace. It’s apparent now that tWoK was meant to get us comfortable with the world of Roshar, to get us invested in the characters, and to promise an extraordinary tale before delivering the goods. As a result, World of Radiance ends up being a triumph, wrapping up one giant arc of the story while setting up the events of the next installment. This is probably my favorite book that I’ve read from Sanderson so far and I’m storming well in it for the long haul.

 

Currently Reading:

Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole

talion-revenant

Normally I try to space out what I read according to genre, but after coming across this book I decided to continue my fantasy streak. Talion: Revenant is a stand-alone fantasy novel, which isn’t something you see a lot of, so I’m intrigued to see what satisfaction I can get out of it versus starting a new series. I’m about a hundred pages in, and so far so good. This won’t take nearly as long to read as the behemoth mentioned above.

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The Good Bits: October 2016

I’m posting this the morning after Election Day. I don’t intend to go on a political rant on here because you’ll get enough of that today as is. But I hope that if you’re taking the time to read what I’ve put down it distracts you for a little while from whatever else is happening out there. This is The Good Bits, after all.

 

Bon Iver, 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)
Released: September 30th, 2016

bon-iver

Gambles don’t always pay off for artists who make a dramatic change in musical direction. Sometimes it just flat-out backfires and then all the fans wait for some return to form. This is not the case with Bon Iver’s third album, which makes the transition from indie folk to glitchy folktronica. There’s something so fascinating about this album as it could have failed on every level for mastermind Justin Vernon. Instead,we got a goddamn masterpiece. Granted, not everyone is going to be into switching from acoustic guitars to autotune and other electronic standbys, and I get that. But if you’re hesitant, give “8 (Circle)” a listen, and if you like that, you should dive into the rest of the album. I know I’m mostly a metal guy, but I’ll be damned if this doesn’t end up in my overall top 10 of the year.

 

Insomnium, Winter’s Gate (Century Media)
Released: September 23rd, 2016

insomniumwintersgatecdnew

Insomnium made quite an impact with their 2014 release Shadows of the Dying Sun, and I believe their new album is even better. It’s a single song album (split into seven parts for digital release) that runs for forty minutes. The continuous forward movement of the album never gets boring, moving through heavy but melodic passages that help depict the vast, frigid landscapes and seas of the album’s story that revolves around (what else?) vikings. I slept on this band the last time around, but I’m glad I didn’t do that with Winter’s Gate.

 

Thy Catafalque, Meta (Season of Mist)
Released: September 16th, 2016

thy-catafalque

Tamás Kátai, the man behind Thy Catafalque, put out a really weird but intriguing album last year called Sgùrr that utilized electronica, folk, and black metal. It may sound vexing, but I’m not one to shy away from experimentation, and I enjoyed the album enough that I kept an eye out for future doings. Apparently I didn’t do that great a job since he put out another new album in September and I missed it the first time around. Meta is a tad more straightforward than its predecessor, with a larger reliance on heavy guitar passages early on, but there are plenty of other experimental elements on the album that keep things interesting. In refining his sound, Kátai offers an album that is more accessible but is far from generic. I would call it avant-garde black metal, but I’m not sure any one label is going to do this album justice.

 

 

ELEL, Geode (Mom + Pop Music)
Released: October 21st, 2016

elel_geode

The only album on here actually released in October is from a local Nashville band whose album release party I had the pleasure of attending. If you ever get to see these guys live, don’t miss out. If you can’t, there’s always their debut album Geode. Now, most of the music I post about on here is not happy. At all. But ELEL write some of the happiest, most lively indie pop I’ve heard, and it just feels good to listen to. “When She Walks” and “Kiss Kiss” are the two I would try first, but I think you’ll want to sit down with the whole thing to understand why these guys are the real deal. You’ll probably be seeing their name a lot more in future.

 

Film:

The Girl on the Train (Emily Blunt)
Director: Tate Taylor
Released: October 7th, 2016

girl-on-train-movie-poster

I normally like to read a best-selling novel before the film adaptation comes out; I did so with The Martian and Gone Girl. I missed that opportunity with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, so I wasn’t sure how my experience would be impacted as a result. Luckily, I quite enjoyed the film and, like everyone else, I have to applaud the always formidable Emily Blunt.

The film’s pace is a tad slower than its thriller contemporaries, and while many reviews have cited this as a negative, I enjoyed the time the film took to fill us in on the different character perspectives. Rachel Watson (Blunt) is the star of the show of course, and Blunt’s performance is highly captivating as we the audience wrestle with our sympathy for her. But seeing the perspectives of Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett) fleshed out their characters to the story’s benefit. I can’t speak to how it compares to the book, but it’s still impressive for a film adaptation that clocks in under two hours.

Of course, a mystery thriller can fall apart depending on its twist, but The Girl on the Train sidesteps that particular pothole. The twist is as it should be: natural, able to be figured out by context clues, not contrived. It helps tie the movie into a nice package rather than going off the rails like many mystery thriller twists do. If you missed this one because of the mixed reviews, I’d give it a chance if for no other reason than to watch Blunt’s performance.

 

Halloween Watchlist:

Devil’s Advocate (Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron)
Director: Taylor Hackford
Released: October 17th, 1997

devils-advocate

Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite horror movies, and I was told The Devil’s Advocate is similar. That and it’s considered essential Al Pacino viewing. This is some of the best acting I’ve seen from Reeves and he has great chemistry with Theron. Pacino is, of course, incredible, saving the real fireworks for the final minutes of the film. It’s a great mix of genre that might be a tad overlong, but certainly delivers a satisfying tale.

 

Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder)
Director: Tim Burton
Released: December 14th, 1990

edwardscissorhandsposter

File this one under movies that fellow 90’s kids can’t believe I’ve never seen. Look, I like a lot of Tim Burton’s movies, I just had other priorities when I was a kid, alright? Anyway, the movie is great of course, with an overly colorful 1950’s suburbia clashing with the doom and gloom now chiefly associated with Hot Topic. It reminds you why Burton, Depp, and Ryder became such stars in the first place.

 

The Sixth Sense (Bruce Willis, Hayley Joel Osment)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Released: August 9th, 1999

the_sixth_sense

File another one under movies that I’m insane for not having seen. Of course, I went into this movie knowing the twist, but I feel like that actually enhanced the experience for me. I looked for tells by watching certain scenes while thinking “Okay, if I didn’t know the twist, what here would tip me off?” It’s also interesting to watch this moving knowing that director M. Night Shyamalan would go on to be mocked for essentially making self-parody movies.

 

The Village (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jaoquin Phoenix, William Hurt)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Released: July 30th 2004

the-village

Okay, in this one I didn’t know the twist, but I’m not sure it would’ve made a difference if I did. I’m kind of split on this movie because I liked the concept and it boasts a great cast, but I feel like the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a monster horror movie? A psychological thriller? A failed utopia? True, it’s possible for a movie to be all of these things and be stellar, but not for one that wants to pad itself out with boring stuff until it can reveal the twist.

 

Maggie (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin)
Director: Henry Hobson
Released: May 8th 2015

maggieposter

Here’s an under the radar film that I’d recommend if you’re not tired of zombies yet. In the film, Arnold’s daughter (Breslin) has been bitten by a zombie and is set to transition into one herself over the course of eight weeks. This is not the kind of movie you’d expect to find Arnold in, but you’re going to be genuinely surprised when you see his acting alongside Breslin. It’s a quiet, beautifully shot movie that adds its own noteworthy touch to the overtired zombie genre.

 

Currently Reading:

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

words of radiance

Not much left to go on this one (page 1124). Expect to hear my final thoughts on it next month.

 

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