Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nothing to fear but F.E.A.R. itself.

I’m playing catch ups with my gaming, doing my best to work through a rather prodigioud Pile-Of-Shame. It's taken ages to get around playing ‘F.E.A.R.' and to say that it was worth the wait is an understatment.
   ‘F.E.A.R’ is downright awesome!
   This incredibly atmospheric, suspenseful and often downright frightening first person shooter, unravels a fairly detailed storyline that comes across like a Tom Clancy tale imbued with a heavy dose of a Japanese supernatural horror film. The plot involved the clandestine activities of Armacham Technology Corporation, and the efforts of a sinister figure called Paxton Fettel ( a very Cronenberg-esque name if there ever was one ) who has been at the centre of experiments known as Project Origin, part of which seems to have been an attempt to use psychic powers to control cloned soldiers. Playing the unnamed Point Man for the F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) team you are sent in to investigate Fettel’s escape, and contain his command of the clones. What starts off as a fairly routine stalk-and-shoot around a warren of warehouses in a harbour district soon develops into something more significant, and potent. Spectral figures appear, speaking in a susurrant hush only to dissolve into drifts of ash, the shadowy semblance of a young girl constantly appears and disappears, and as you progress further into the experience seriously scary hallucinations begin to strike.
   The story is unravelled slowly, subjectively, via lap-tops and exposition between characters you encounter, offering glimpses and insights, rather than a full swathe of narrative. This ‘novel’ storytelling maintains a constant sense of uncertainty, and mystery, through to a series of cut-scene revelations that assemble to a satisfying dénouement, rather than a tedious tell-all sequence at the end.
   The action follows a fairly linear corridor and spreads from the harbour district to the ATC office building, a hair-raising sequence throughout a number of abandoned buildings and the streets on the way to the ATC research facility for a worthy climax. It is only during the extended office set-piece that repetition threatens to set in, though traversing corridors, darkened lifts shafts and air-con shafts in pitch darkness really gets the pulse racing. While the colour palette is ostensibly muted, (grey concrete walls abound), the details to the locations and scenery are suitably impressive, with the extant tableaux evidence to support the story: signs of earlier violence, pools of blood, bodies, cluttered office desks and overturned furniture, abandoned trucks and on and on. The real triumph to the animation is the use of light and shadow, especially shadow. The device of only having limited torch light creates a brilliant sense of suspense. In one sequence as I progressed through a pitch black subterranean corridor, flicking my torch on and off to conserve power, my character’s laboured breathing was matching my own hammering heart. This is how ‘F.E.A.R’ lives up to its' name. One of the nightmare hallucinations in particular left me stone cold and prickled with goosebumps, while the sudden appearance of the ghostly Alma made me jump and cry out, as did a suddenly collapsing lift. Looking down the shaft at the sight of several dozen, mutilated bodies on the roof almost made wee come out.
   The game-play is simplistic and logical, the movement fluid and fast, fast, fast, while the atmosphere is on slow boil. Clumsy fingers led to a re-jig of the key controls, as F to open doors and G to throw grenades often resulted in dumb accidents. The weapons all have their own impact, escalating in power as is tradition, though each is effective in its own way. Getting close-up-and-personal with a pump-action shotgun was exhilarating; with particularly close encounters resulting in the foe literally losing an arm, head or, in some cases, literally blown apart. My favourite was the particle blaster discovered later in the game. Not only was the spectacle of the laser beam lancing out to reduce enemies to blackened skeletons sensational but the sound was bitchin’ as well. Having said that; there is something about the chatter of triple-shot machine gun volleys, and the clatter of discharged shell casings hitting the deck, that always stirred my inner John Milius. The slo-mo option was brilliant, too, and necessary with facing preponderate force; out-manned, out-gunned. I will admit to an outrageously perverse pleasure in the Peckinpah mayhem, and to being ever-so satisfied with how skilled I became at killing the opposition. Crouching and sneaking around corners to take head shots of the opposition's point guys, only to lob a grenade, and tap slo-mo before strafing the hell out of the amassed baddies became a matter of routine. The AI has to be commended as well, as replaying a scene (after being killed) would invariably result in the opponents reacting differently, sustaining the challenge. The conceit of hacking the enemy comms, and hearing the exchanges provided are sparkling details; shooting a baddie, then hearing one of his colleagues shout ‘Fuck!’ is priceless.
   Many significant set-pieces such as the conflict on the rooftop LZ of the ATC office, the journey through the underground car park, negotiating the unfinished floors, traversing the abandoned housing block, and the climax in the research facility offer unique challenges, and rushes of adrenalin. This attempt to vary the threat, and the scale of enemies numbers and types ( the camouflaged guys are buggers and the ED-209 types are tough sons of bitches! ), as well as the scenarios in which you engage them, keeps things compelling.
   ‘F.E.A.R’ is an absolute winner in every way. Sensational sound and aesthetics, engaging plot, game-play, and more than enough violence, bloodshed and spooky happenings to keep me up until all hours of the night; wide-eyed, shit-scared and loving every minute of it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Maiden Flights of Fancy.

Iron Maiden - Hisense Arena – February 23rd 2011
The last time I saw Iron Maiden I was positioned, rather foolishly in hindsight, in the forefront of about 85,000 fervid fans on the opening night of the Wacken festival in Germany. To say that was a crazy gig is an understatement. Crowd surfers were in such proliferation that I spent most of my time ducking them, or holding them up, so much so that what I could see of the stage or the screen in front of me was greatly diminished, as was my ability to concentrate on the set. Add to that a would-be pick-pocket who had his fingers busted right in front of me, and a dude who insisted on warbling every damned word right exclusively into my ear, and in spite of the fact that Maiden played a wonderfully diverse set of recent classics, I was frustrated and disappointed. Amazing to be a part of, certainly, but that rather dismaying experience provided wise counsel for where I would position myself for later shows. Apart from hearing so many of the more recent ‘hits’ live for the first time I also managed to have my abstinence, and patience, rewarded by hearing the new single ‘El Dorado’ for the first time, live. To be able to say that I heard a Maiden song for the very first time during a live show is a pretty awesome boast.
   That I was pleased to be able to see the band again, so soon, and in a venue that meant I was going to actually be able to see the show, goes without saying. I still have mixed feelings about the new record, and some of them were manifested during the night. Playing in the relatively small Hisense Arena promised a veritable ‘intimate’ show, and this was something to be relished, and my view this time ( half way round to the left, and halfway down ) was excellent.
   Lights up to reveal the nifty space-station set, with an ocean-roar of applause to welcome the somewhat terrific tableaux. This is why Maiden are such a great live act, always offering a top-notch light-and-sound spectacular rarely matched by other bands.
   Launching into the show with the instrumental 'Satellite 15', with accompanying footage of planets and various other outer-space phenomena on the big screens either side of the stage, had a similar effect to that it has upon the album: it builds to a climax, which in turns becomes a wet fart. The title track of the new album is fairly routine and did little to whip up the crowd. In fact across ‘The Final Frontier’ and the following song ‘El Dorado’ I was struck, gazing down over the floor, at how immobile the crowd seemed to be. I actually had the impression, that in spite of the album being out for some time, the crowd wasn’t all that familiar with these new songs. Later during the acoustic intro to ‘The Talisman’ it was difficult to hear for the level of conversation going on around me. That was astounding. This is Maiden and people were chatting, instead of being enraptured.
   The band themselves seemed to be on a low-wattage and it wasn’t until ripping into their third tune, the essential ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ that matters finally came to life. Janick Gers, for once, was playing the guitar, rather than performing some sort of liturgical dance, and his acoustic intros were beguiling. Regardless of the wayward audience during the start of ‘The Talisman’, the interplay between Gers and vocalist Bruce Dickinson, performing in a shaft of dim light on a darkened stage, was a great bit of theatre that was would perhaps have been benefited by Dickinson ditching the beanie and donning a cozzie in the fashion of ‘The Trooper’ or ‘Powerslave’. This moment gave a palpable sense of the band still ‘feeling out’ these new songs. When they did rip into the rest of the tune, an almost classic galloper complete with soaring chorus, it was apparent that Maiden knew that they were doing what they did best. The anthemic ‘Coming Home’ turned out a treat, yet with that recurring sensation of the audience being new to it. The sense of uncertainty was contrasted by the following songs ‘Dance of Death’, atmospherically lit and played with admirable aplomb, and a full throttle rendition of ‘The Trooper’, finally rousing the crowd to a clamour. ‘The Wicker Man’ had everyone ‘Who-oh-ing’ along, and ‘Blood Brothers’ further united us all in chorus.
   ‘When the wild wind blows’ isn’t a song from the album I expected them to play live, and I will admit to sending up my loudest cheer when they eased into it. With some of the catchiest harmonies of all the new tracks, plus that heavy rocking riff section at the end, this proved to be the best of the new material played live on the night. After this it was pretty much back to the Maiden staples, and a noticeable levity in the boys on stage, especially in the antics of the guitarists fooling about with one another. That sense of fun gave a shot of energy to the familiar last act of the show. ‘The Evil that Men Do’, ‘Fear of the Dark’, their titular signature tune, punctuated by a visit from the new look alien Eddie, and the ‘Number of the Beast’ finally yielded to a welcome treat; ‘Running Free’, which most of the fans here in Melbourne had probably never heard live before.
   For the first time in ages Maiden didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders, and took a long time to warm up at that. Bruce’s banter for the most part, especially after his comment about the proliferation of booze-buses outside and that they were rock stars and that they were supposed to be pissed, gave me pause to wonder whether in fact that had partaken a little too heavily before the show. Dickinson himself, at one point, was so preoccupied with an oversized ball that someone had thrown on the stage, and the doodling on said ball, that he missed the second verse of ‘The Wicker Man’ altogether; and his rambling after the song (including a homophobic jibe) was a truly bizarre, and embarrassing moment. During the song Dickinson approached each member of the band showing them the ball, even going so far as to mount Nicko’s drum-riser to show him the offending article. This was all very distracting and strange. His attempts to show Steve Harris, as the bassist faced a speaker, seemingly to tune, were met with a noticeable lack of interest. I’m not sure if there has ever been a case of one band member actually killing another on stage but going by the look on Harris’ face, as Dickinson burbled on about the ball, I’m pretty sure he was contemplating beaning Bruce over the bonce with his bass. I found myself harkening back to that hilarious ‘Mission from ‘Arry’ clip, where Harris and Nicko had the most hilarious and drawn out argument over a misunderstanding during a gig, wishing that someone would record the ensuing backstage exchanges after this particular show.
   While the playing was all top notch, with the three guitarists in typically excellent form, and Dickinson’s strange antics not withstanding, there was a curious sense of everything not quite coming together. Excellent, entertaining, and so on through the superlatives, but for the first time I couldn’t say…awesome. Even a band as experienced as Maiden, with thirty years under their belts, are bound to have a duff show every once in a while, and think this was one of them.
   Beyond everything else though an absolutely true music-nerd moment came after the show. As I filed out the venue, and hit the footpath for home, I had to wait for a car that was blocking the way, paused to pull into the traffic. Who should be sitting in the back seat? None other than mega-manager Rod Smallwood, preoccupied with his mobile phone. That was certainly a cool little moment, indeed, to round out an already cool, if somewhat strange night.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

2010 - Looking Back...

Hello there, dear reader, my apologies for such a prolonged pauses between posting, but here I am again, so I do hope you'll forgive my absence, and this belated update.
   It was a funny old year, really. One of my best ever, as far as they go. Looking back it seems to have passed as three distinctive time periods: the lead up to a trip overseas, the two months on the road travelling across the span of Eastern Europe and to the far end of the British Isles, and the fallout afterwards.
   This year’s reading was dominated by vampires and the stories linked to the histories of Hungary and Romania, my decisions no doubt dictated by my travel destinations rather than pop-culture trend. Music was very much represented by best works of a number of my favourite bands, while film and TV suffered from both and budget constraints and the death of my media player. An enormous amount of time was spent finishing the music for the RiVeN project, while the time invested in painting the dozen or more pieces for the layout provided plenty of opportunity to plough throw countless radio plays, audio books, comedies and language lessons.
   So, for sake of self-indulgence, here are my highlights from 2010.

Dan Simmons   “Children of the Night”         
Never one to stick to any singular genre Simmons has long been at the front of science fiction and horror fiction. A look across his oeuvre is enough to confirm this: from “Hyperion” to “Carrion Comfort”, “Ilium” and the brilliant “Song of Kali”, to the recent “Drood” and “The Terror” he has established himself as a writer of considerable talent, producing works of incredible depth, and resonance. “Children of the Night” is no exception. This is the novel that confirmed my intentions to travel to Romania in 2010, and often provided inspiration for destinations on my tour. Simmons fashioned a tight, tense, thriller, threading the history of Vlad Dracula and the Order of the Dragon, with the very real horrors of post-Caecescu Romania and the novel concept (for the time) of vampirism as explored through the science of haematology. While this aspect may seem pat now, Simmons’ research and detail makes this work feel definitive.
   In a sub-genre that is rapidly becoming bloated with an excess of anaemic and pale tales “Children of the night” is one of the truly great, and essential, vampire novels, and well worth seeking out.

Elizabeth Kostova   “The Historian”              
I was given this to read after returning from Eastern Europe and it proved a gift of substantial serendipity indeed. This was a unique reading experience: the first novel to be set in places that I had ever actually been to. Having travelled through Slovenia, Hungary and Romania, Kostova’s exhaustively researched variation of the contemporary vampire novel offered a memory lane travelogue, as much as it did a compelling, if arguably prolonged, slow burn thriller. Blending mythology with the factual history of Vlad Dracula her vivid characters uttered rich, reams of realistic dialogue, and though confusing at times, as the narrative juggled time frames the story, “The Historian” worked towards an extremely satisfying pay off.
    “The Historian” served as a worthy companion and bookend to the trip, (pardon the pun), which was preceded with Dan Simmons’ sterling “Children of the

Jack Ketchum   “The Girl Next Door”                
This grim, gaunt novel comes with a well-deserved ‘tough read’ reputation, and for some time I had been loathe to picking it up and subjecting myself to the experience the hyperbole suggested. Grim is barely the word. Ketchum, through the voice of his young narrator, writes a very real horror story as if horrified by it himself, rather than indulging in excess to leave the reader appalled and shaken. Deeply disturbing, written long before the spate of ‘Torture’ cinema that is in such proliferation at the moment, “The Girl Next Door” is akin to those ‘coming of age’ tales that King excels at, while never straying from being a pungent, harrowing exploration of evil. In turns riveting, and repugnant, the imagery of the book burns itself onto the mind’s eye; ultimately proving harrowing and heart-breaking.

George R. R. Martin   “Fevre Dream”                          
 Known more for his fantasy epics like “A Game of Thrones”, George R. R. Martin’s “Fevre Dream” is much like “Children of the Night”; a sorely neglected gem that needs to be released into the light. The briefest way to surmise this book would be to describe it as ‘Mark Twain does Dracula’. Though, that sells it short. “Fevre Dream” is set in the world of the Mississippi in the mid 1800’s, a world of paddle steamers and fledging riverside towns, rapidly expanding and becoming corrupted with vice. With evocative, almost profound, prose, Martin’s tale is so rich and detailed in crafting a portrait of a time and place, as much as a moving melodrama involving vampires, rival steamboat captains and the march of time and tide themselves. Brilliant.

 Laurie R. King   “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”   I resisted this for a long time, as the very concept of continuing the tales of Sherlock Holmes after his retirement seemed an awkward cash-in contrivance. In spite of a rather ill conceived framing device I was thankfully rewarded with what turned out to be not only a cracker of a yarn, but a novel worthy of Doyle’s legacy. There is a glut of Holmes fiction, good, bad and inconsequential, with David Stuart Davies notable as one of the best at capturing Doyle’s voice and characters; though his plots are often a little too forced and gimmicky in themselves ( Holmes and Dracula, Holmes enmeshed within the realms of Anthony Hope’s Zenda) and rather than retread old ground American author King gambled by offering a new perspective to the history. A gamble that well and truly paid off.  Within this novel (and the subsequent three that I read in swift succession) King creates a reluctant, yet rancorous, Holmes, the character known and loved, but with a new depth and dimension.  This time he is accompanied by a young American lass, Mary Russell, who serves as more than a foil, and buffer for exposition, rather she stands as rounded, rousing, resourceful figure in her own right, more than a match for Holmes and his eccentricities. These are the stories of an older Holmes in post-First World War England, and the change of milieu is beneficial, helping the stories to feel new, rather than a rehashed, revamped. The novels that followed on were equally enjoyable, if not improvements on this one, and I look forward to reading more.

Honourable Mentions:

 Bram Stoker   “The Jewel of the Seven Stars”
            Moving his focus from Eastern European mythology to that of Ancient Egypt, Stoker spins a spooky, supernatural tale involving the resurrection of a long dead Queen. Dark, doom-laden and with a grim conclusion, I much preferred this to “Dracula”, which I’m sure is tantamount to blasphemy to the billions of believers in black.

Joe R. Lansdale   “A Fine Dark Line”
            Another typically excellent crime ‘memoir’; a comparable companion to his masterwork “The Bottoms”. Lansdale is one of the most original and reliable writers working and this is another example of his ability to blend a coming-of-age character piece, with social comment and a righteous crime mystery.

Phil Rickman   “The Lamp of the Wicked”
            The Reverend Merrily Watkins is drawn into a murder investigation that ties to the infamous West murders years before. Full of Rickman’s eccentric and authentic characterisation, it is compelling and challenging, illustrating again his skill at blending the psychological thriller with supernatural supposition.

Kim Wilkins   “The Autumn Castle
            Part of Ms. Wilkins Eurpoa Suite triptych this tale of faeries in Berlin was superior to “Rosa and the Veil of Gold” but fell just short of the greatness of “Giants of the Frost”. Full of colourful characters, plot twists and vivid arcana, the sheer dearth of research and sincerity in her written always impresses. One of my favourite writers, and one of few who can tug a tear from me.
Gaston Leroux   “The Mystery of the Yellow Room.”
            From the author of “The Phantom of the Opera” comes one of the earliest and easily most influential ‘locked room’ mysteries ever written, preceded only by Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, though considerably superior. I doubt Agatha Christie would have had a career without this constantly intriguing and perplexing novel. An essential read for connoisseurs of crime fiction. And, no, I didn’t guess the end.


Exodus   “The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit B”
Like so many current albums this newest from Exodus is marred by over-length but it is a minor quibble to what is not only their finest work to date, but one of the thrash genre’s finest offerings. Along with Ensiferum’s “From Afar” it is easily my most played album of the year. Arguably many of the songs do follow a set formula: two verse/ chorus combinations, a mosh section, leads like there is no tomorrow before yielding to another verse and chorus out, though it is the strength of the song writing that makes it rise above tedium. The album has energy to spare, with so many righteous riffs, hooks and catches, combined with novel unexpected touches consolidating the band as the most sure-footed incarnation yet. ‘Beyond the Pale’ and ‘Downfall’ are pacey numbers that balance fury with harmony, whereas ‘March of the sychophants’ and ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn’ are the most vitriolic, vicious thrashers they have ever produced. ‘Hammer and Life’ rocks a groove, and ‘Naking’ plods pungently, examples of diversity without sacrificing the severity of tone. ‘The Sun is my Destroyer’ and ‘Class dismissed’, with it’s incredibly catchy chorus, feature Rob Dukes really working to perform with his voice, rather than just barking caustically, monotonously. Gary Holt has long been a guitar God of mine, and on this album he and Lee Altus have locked into an incredible synergy, their leads proving to be structured, shaped and as deliberate as the riff work, making them compelling rather than twiddling distractions. The production and mix are perfect; illuminating the dark, dense sound of the previous two albums, and while perhaps a little too clean, the abrasive aggression is carried through. Trimming a couple of the lesser songs to a more palatable length would only serve to strengthen what is otherwise an almost perfect record.

Blind Guardian   “At the End of Time”
If there was complaint to be levelled against this latest offering from Germany’s Blind Guardian it is that the album starts in such a magnificently, massive fashion the rest of the record risks never being able to reach the same height again. Thankfully though, this is fear isn’t sustained for long. Much like the last Nightwish album, Blind Guardian kick off with an absolutely enormous sounding, orchestrally fused metal monolith of song, displaying not only one of the best ever segue from grandiose score to power metal I have every heard, but the best fusion of the two yet.  ‘Sacred World’ is threaded throughout with brass swells, strings and percussion, none of which feels like empty embellishment, or gaudy gimmick. In many ways this is all traditional Blind Guardian, punchy thrashy sections imbued with huge harmonies, and stirring folky ballads, all dominated by the power and diversity of Hanse’s unique voice.  Each song seems so utterly ideal, so wonderfully balanced, that it isn’t so much a case of repetition, as an escalation of established excellence. Songs such as ‘War of the Thrones’, ‘Ride into Obsession‘ and the splendid ‘Curse my name’ are so immediately infectious, and rousing, that they already feel like instant classics. And try not to sing along to the chorus of ‘The Voice in the Dark’. Blind Guardian erupt into these refrains with such ease, writing songs that feel essential, indelible. Rounding out the album is the gargantuan ‘Wheel of Time’ (much like the Robert Jordan novels that inspired it), infused with a middle-eastern theme and bolstered with a boisterous orchestra, Blind Guardian finishing as they started: epic and magnificent, without being utterly overblown. Intelligent and idiosyncratic, grandiose without gratuity, this is a brilliant record, from a brilliant band, and easily my favourite of the year.

Overkill   “Ironbound”
Akin to the Exodus album from this year Overkill’s ‘Ironbound’ stands as evidence of stalwart band soldiering on with renewed vigour, though Overkill, unlike the former, never retired to regroup. The addition of drummer Ron Lipnicki to the ranks continues to be a shot of adrenalin, with many of the tunes off ‘Ironbound’ the snappiest they’ve ever recorded. From the get-go ‘Ironbound’ is classic Overkill, but souped up and firing on all cylinders. ‘The Green & Black’ is an archetypical thrasher from the band that kicks things off in top form, eclipsed only by the awesome title track that ranks among the best of the band’s catalogue. Dave Linsk is righteously revved up, with this track a great showcase for his fingerwork, with the escalation of his midsection leads a veritable fireworks display of shredding that is a wonder to experience. ‘The Endless War’, likewise, positively explodes with energy and blistering guitar business. ‘Bring me the night’ may be trying just a bit too hard, but it is still cool and catchy, popping with the sort of vocal tics and tricks that singer Bobby Elsworth is famed for. Elsewhere on the album songs like ‘Give a little’ and ‘The Head and Heart’ showcase Overkill’s ability to experiment without straying to far from their own ‘groove with gritted teeth’ vibe. The only real duff moment on the disc is the intro to ‘The Goal is you Soul’, feeling obligatory and slightly skewed, serving no purpose to the song itself. As with every Overkill album it is never an issue about whether it will be any good, merely how good it is. In the case of ‘Ironbound’ this album as good as it gets.

Ensiferum   “From Afar”
My first experience of this band was seeing them live with fellow Finns Sonata Artica in Melbourne at the start of 2010 and they utterly blew me away. Arguably this album was released in late 2009, so isn’t necessarily a contender for this year’s this ratings, but I’m ranking it here as it is easily my favourite and most played record of 2010. Though I initially wished for another vocalist I’ve come to embrace the growly rasp, and persisted to inveigle myself in the breadth and depth of this enormous record. Swinging from ebullient jigs, folky fireside sing-alongs, outright thrashers and sprawling epics Ensiferum throw everything into each track, with nary a note wrong. The ‘Heathen Throne’ diptych sports a dynamic deployment of orchestral infusion, as impressive as Nightwish’s “Once…” and the opener from the Blind Guardian, and both halves prove to be essential, stirring sagas. The latter half, and album closer, has joined the ranks of my favourite songs of all time, easily. Beyond all of that, the core highlight is the rollicking ‘Stone Cold Metal’ that gallops along nicely only to give way to a bold as brass balls Ennio Morricone inspired mid-section, complete with acoustic guitar, accapella and hand claps, banjo, pubhouse piano and wonder of wonders…whistling! Imagine how magical it was hearing this for the first time, in a small club, with several hundred metalheads all pausing from pints to purse lips and puff along. Lacking the plump posturing of the orchestrally effusive bands like Rhapsody, Ensiferum have a created a perfect hybrid album, unique, constantly surprising, rewarding and long-lasting.

Danzig   “Deth Red Saboath”
If Danzig 8 ‘Circle of Snakes’ was a welcome return to form then this album is mostly definitely a return to greatness. Not since Danzig 2 & 3 has Glenn fashioned such a charismatic collection of rocking, soulful tunes as this. From the opener belter ‘Hammer of the Gods’ through ‘The Revengeful’, ‘Night Star Hel’, ‘JuJu Bone’ and the moody ‘On a Wicked Night’ Danzig maintains a dirty, fuzzy, sexy vibe I didn’t think he could pull off any more. ‘The Revengeful’ is worth the sticker price alone. Tommy Victor’s abrasive guitar sound has been softened noticeably, giving a bit more blues back to the production in lieu of the grate of metal on metal; though his solos tend to spark into shredfests of unbridled insanity. The fairly traditional rockers that the album opens with yield to a moodier more experimental last leg, giving the album an excellent sense of journey. Buzzing, humming, and very much alive with briol and frission, ‘Deth Red Sabaoth’ feels like a garage album, miles away from the rigid, clinical middle period of Danzig’s career. From the fantastic cover through to the final fade out, this is pure Danzig Black Magick at it’s best.

Honourable Mentions:

Leaves Eyes   “Njord”
‘Njord’ is a massive step forward for this band who have long been living in the shadows of the likes of Nightwish, Within Temptation and Lacuna Coil (who I can’t stand). The song writing has advanced from the languid, lumbering tone that has dogged them to become more progressive, multi-layered tomes worthy of the epic nature of the texts. ‘The Devil in Me’, ‘Emerald Island’, ‘Morgenland’, ‘Landscape of the Dead’ and the single ‘My Destiny’ stand out from a crowd of equally enjoyable numbers. The cover of ‘Scarborough Fair’ seems a perfect summary of the band’s ability to embroider a folk music fabric with threads of steel.  Liv Kristine’s voice is typically magnificent, (with fewer accompanying growls from her hubby making a marked improvement), perfectly matching the soaring, fantastic aural landscape of the album. Protracted, dense, and ultimately rewarding, ‘Njord’ is a keystone release, and hopefully a launching point for greater things.

Cradle of Filth   “Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aspersa”
Swiftly following the success of the ghoulishly grandiose “God Speed on the Devil’s Thunder” Cradle of Filth unleash another masterful title; this time tackling the legendary figure of Lilith, in all her incarnations across mythology. Not so much a side-step, or back step, from the prior disc, this album combines their now trademark combination of Grand Guignol theatrics and tenebrous thrashings to serve as compelling parallel to the previous triumph. A hyped-up Heathcliffe of heavy metal, if you will. Opening ferociously the first four tracks are absolute frenzies that almost wear the listener out to soon. The album comes alive in the second half with the variation of tracks such as ‘The Persecution Song’, ‘The Spawn of Love and War’, the ‘rock’-ish single ‘Forgive me father’ and the sensational ‘Lilith Immaculate’. Dani’s lyrics continue to amuse with clever puns and paraphrasing, remaining as ever erudite, didactic and distinctive, served superbly with his diverse, and demonic, delivery. Sinister and sumptuous, eerie and elegiac, Cradle persist in being not only one of the most original bands in the genre but one who continue to gamble and expand with equal success.

Nevermore   “The Obsidian Conspiracy”
"This Godless Endeavour” was always going to be difficult follow and though this album doesn’t come close to rivalling that superlative title the band have fashioned a different experience all together; most notably eschewing excess for more succinct songs and structures. The bulk of the album is brace of moody mid-tempo rockers and ballads haunted throughout by that unique voice of Warrel Dane, bookended by a number of sparking speed-metal sensations. The closing title track is an absolute Aladdin’s cave of guitar wizardy, and off-kilter progressions, with a fantastic refrain to rock out to. Initially disappointing, commitment reveals much to embrace and marvel at. 

Helloween   “7 Sinners”
Easy the best album released by this ince most-influential German band since their glory days. An over-produced cloying confectionery certainly but stacked with confident catchy songs from start to finish.

Positively alive with raw energy Slayer surprised me with this incendiary disc. With the classic line-up faltering last time on their reunion release last time round they thankfully have returned with the force of a battering ram opening a box of biscuits. Lombrado brings elasticity, Araya anguish and rage, and Hanneman and King trade solos with skillful fervour, abetted by a production that hums like an exposed power cable. ‘Psychopathy red’ is a classic example of irate insanity, a two-minute thrasher that harkens back to their classic period over two decades ago. Proof that Old Gods can teach the new ticks a thing or two. 
Slayer   “World Painted Blood”


Iron Maiden   “The Final Frontier”                               
I had the great luxury of being able to pick this up in London on the day of release, making it seem equally special (alas I’ve lost the price sticker!) though it was a rather frustrating fortnight before I had the change to experience it. And, an experience it is. I’m not sure if it the experience I wanted, but an experience it is. To be honest I struggle to define my feelings for this record; as ‘The Final Frontier’ is a slippery, unpredictable affair, to say the least.
   The opening instrumental section is a pleasant surprise, if unfortunately protracted, though it is welcome that the band are striving to deliver something new and unexpected. It’s a shame then that this invention is swiftly surrendered to the disappointing, and rapidly dull, opening title track. While this song seems under-written, in contrast the sprawling, jazzy ‘Starblind’ feels incoherent and impassable. There is a jammed out quality to a lot of the tunes; the band boldly experimenting, endeavouring to avoid repeating themselves, and keeping themselves enthused, but there are many times on the record when I feel their experimentation hasn’t been as successful as they were previously. “The Final Frontier” is no write-off, as it contains several solid, and terrific tunes. 'El Dorado' rumbles with a classic rock riff, ‘The Alchemist’ is swift and snappy, ‘Isle of Avalon’ is atmospheric, ‘Mother of Mercy’ anthemic that grows tougher towards the end, and  ‘Coming Home’ will no doubt be a crowd-pleaser when played live, but it echoes tunes from Dickinson’s solo career. ‘The Talisman’ gallops along gleefully, after an acoustic intro that echoes ‘The Legacy’ from the previous disc. The drudgerous ‘Man who would be King’ sounds unenthusiastic, punctuated with pacey harmony heavy section that is ‘classic’ Maiden but Bruce seems to falter, with the verses sounding flat and forced. The whole tune is symptomatic of a pitch and yaw that permeates the album; with so many great moments at odds with spans that perhaps needed trimming or re-thinking. “When the wild wind blows” is chockers with Steve Harris staples. Featuring the most, appropriately, whistle-able theme on the whole disc, and a wonderful crescendo that leads to leads to my fave moment on the disc, that big rocking ride that closes out the song. In fact I wished they’d rocked it a bit harder, teh guitar sound seems thin, mellifluous, drifting rather than soaring. There needs to be some 'Oomph' in there. “The Final Frontier” is a somewhat difficult journey, overlong certainly, and one that is better as a sum of it’s parts than that of a full album.  


Constantly inventive and impressive, this audacious thriller combines a high-concept premise with the rigours of a conventional action picture that once again confirms what the major talents of Christopher Nolan. Hans Zimmer’s score is one of his best; booming clarions and skittering strings perfectly punctuate the crazed Escher-esque narrative. Tom Hardy shines amid the uniformly outstanding cast. Brimming with unique imagery, and a plot likely to raise debate for years to come, “Inception” is cocky, complicated, cool and occasionally completely crazy, but no less brilliant for it.

“Shutter Island”
Scorsese’s stab at a 50’s genre picture, is a florid feature that remains riveting through to the despondent denouement. More visually restrained than usual, Marty masterly creates an oppressive sense of dread, sustained across the serpentine story. The shot of the American troops executing the German soldiers is an astonishing triumph of cinematic technique. A curious companion to “Inception” this is another exercise in the perils of subjectivity for Leonardo who contributes another solid gold performance as the cocksure, and conflicted, US Marshal. Haunting, and gripping, from the word go.

“Kick Ass”
An enormously entertaining film, overblown in the best kind of way. Jane Goldman’s screenplay adaptation actually improves on Mark Millar’s material, offering a more emotional engaging tale, while still as violent and amusing as the source. Destined for cult-status Matt Vaughn’s film is an absolute gem, with style never eclipsing substance. Never mind the great turn by Aaron Johnson as the titular character it is the brilliant Hit-Girl and the hilariously hale performance from the unpredictable Nick Cage that makes this film so sensational. Cage’s decision to play Big Daddy in the vein of Adam West was a stroke of genius. If only all ‘comic book’ films were made with this much wit, verve and class.

“The Town”
Ben Affleck’s first directorial effort “Gone, baby, gone” was an terrific throw back to the sort of crime drama that Sidney Lumet perfected in the 70’s, and took a lot of people by surprise. Confident, intelligent, with excellent performances all round, it was a film the like of which tends to only be released by Clint Eastwood these days. His follow-up, while more routine and conventional, is an equally solid effort, stopping short of being stellar by virtue of the staples of the story: decent guy in with the wrong crowd, trying to make a clean break. This story has been done to death, and yet Affleck injects it with enough pathos and pugnacity to indeed make it feel fresh. He has a great eye for milieu, and is as comfortable filming action as his is kitchen sink drama. The payoff is a knockout.

“The Social Network”
While initially dubious about this project I have to admit it is easily one of the best films of the year, David Fincher yet again proving what a master visual storyteller he is. Supported by an incredibly strong script from Aaron Sorkin, and a rock solid ensemble cast led by a towering performance from Jesse Eisenberg (and an impressive one from Justin Timberlake), this fictionalised account of the formation of Facebook is a riveting examination of ego, excess with an impressive verisimilitude. Fincher , as he did in “Zodiac”, succeeds in making Sorkin’s conversations sizzle and soar, even the most minor characters feel alive; a skill worthy of the late, great Robert Altman. A rare film that explores the inadvertent restructuring of social communication, this is an intelligent experience, engaging and stylish, in spite of the potential repugnance of the characters. From the verbal sparring of the opening scene, through to an absolute heart-punch of a punchline, this is a drama of classical proportions about ambition, loyalty, lust for wealth and power, that charts triumph and ultimate tragedy, themes that have long preceded and will certainly outlive this particular Zeitgeist.  Kudos to Trent Reznor for score that is both subdued and resonant, with an impressive of Grieg's 'In the Halls of the Mountain King"


This modest little thriller is an absolute winner; one that had me gripped right through to the final credit crawl. Seeing this with no foreknowledge of the plot was a positive boon, though I have subsequently seen the poster, which does rather spoil the plot. Like the best thrillers “Frozen” has a simple set-up that it milks for maximum effect. It’s been a long time since I was so enthralled in the drama that I squirmed and shouted so much at the screen.  Perhaps more work could have been invested in character and dialogue, but the young cast manage to engender a genuine emotional response to their plight. Their conviction, and fortitude, more than compensates. Rife with nods to the suspense masters Hitchcock, Spielberg and DePalma, young director Adam Green proves that he is a considerable talent to watch, having fashioned a tight, tense, and ambitious film that is welcome amid a glut of gratuitously cruel and exploitative genre cinema.

Wham! Bam! Thank you Ma’am! Phil Noyce returns to the action genre with a rip snorting rocket ride marred by a somewhat abrupt and perfunctory end, which almost spoils an otherwise outstanding thriller. Jolie is top notch, bringing confidence to the physicality and pathos required by the role. Kudos to Noyce too, as the action for once is filmed coherently, and concisely, showing the likes of Bay and Greengrass ( and all their imitators ) that there is considerable benefit in holding the camera still. There is a sensational moment in the score too, as is it escalates ever so slowly through the opening sequence right up to climax with Salt’s impersonation of MacGuyver. Ever so old-fashioned, made with great skill and economy, “Salt” isn’t Earth shattering but it is certainly entertaining.

And…my guilty pleasure of the year.

“The A-Team”
What a pisser of a film. It ain’t high art, but it sure is fun. A perfect distillation of everything we all loved about the TV series, full of macho swagger, with one impressive action set piece after the other. The film kicks out the jams and starts big, and though I feared the worst, it continues to escalate in size and scale to a climax of absolutely insane proportions. The core cast acquit themselves enthusiastically, with ‘District 9’s’ Sharley Copto positively bonkers as Murdoch. I love it when a plan comes together.
   The sequence in which the Team escape a plane being shot down by launching themselves out the back in a tank surely is one of the most mental and deliriously awesome action scene since Jena Reno chased Tom Cruise into a train tunnel with a helicopter. Credit to Joe Carnahan for pulling it off, and raising the bar.  My big niggle: Joe, mate, next time, cut out the camera callisthenics and the extraneous editing; there’s all ready enough going on without the framing flying all over the shop. No way near as bad as the last Bond film (itself impersonating that gratuitous Greengrass hand-held hopscotch), it is still infuriating and undermines the action, rather than bolster it.

Great moments:

   The truth of the escalated ‘dread’ experiment is revealed, and the poleaxing punchline.
“The Men who stare at goats”
   George Clooney faces down a goat…and wins!
“Piranha 3D”
   The incredibly well staged attack on the beach front.
   The sound of the cinema-crowd during this sequence, reacting vociferously at the sight of the girl whose hair is wedged in the propellers of powerboat as another character frantically tugs on the cord to start it, is a testament to director Aja’s skill (in spite of the rest of the film being such a mess.)
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
   Revelations are made through the careful examination, and juxtaposition, of photographs taken years before. And Noomi Rapace. The rest of the film was dismal, exploitative, and dull as dishwater.
“Up in the Air”   
   George Clooney meets his match, and is handed a painful lesson as a result. His expression at that moment speaks volumes.
“The Social Network”
   That final scene.
“Kick Ass”
   Hit-Girl drops a whole bunch of goons, then the C-bomb, then kills more goons.
“Tron Legacy”
   A walking, talking, young Jeff Bridges.
   Jolie’s stuntwoman earns her money the hard way, leaping from one moving vehicle to the other.
“The Human Centipede”
   As dismal and deplorable as the whole film is the moment when ‘the centipede’ is revealed, and the implications of the success of the surgery as nature takes its course, however implicity the scene is played out, is as utterly disgusting as it is unfortunately indelible.
Biggest disappointment:

“Tron: Legacy”
            Overblown, underdone, noisy, nonsensical, tedious tripe.
The Great God Gatiss and minor-Olympian Steven Moffat combine to create a brilliant contemporary take on Doyle’s beloved characters. A seamless transition to the modern day, with the bulk of the Doyle’s original novella “A Study in Scarlet” prevalent in the initial film. Most of the original facets of the characters lend themselves to the 21st century adaptation, almost effortlessly. This Watson, like his predecessor, has returned from Afghanistan, three nicotine patches in lieu of pipes, and so on. The two leads positively shine in their roles. Benedict Cumberbatch, a worthy Doctor Who if there ever was one, is an electric, tech-savvy, kooky, Holmes, while Martin Freeman proves his acting chops, holding his own against his eccentric co-star. Funny, knowing, exciting, the three stories were diverse, and though wavering in potency, all proved worthy and exceptional in their own way. Can’t wait for more.

"Doctor Who: Vincent and The Doctor."
If the writers of “Queer as folk”, “Coupling”, “The League of Gentlemen” and “Men Behaving Badly” seemed odd choices to write (and indeed run) Doctor Who then surely Richard Curtis, the author of the classic “Black Adder” series and perhaps the definitive modern day romantic-comedies, must appear absolutely barmy. In spite of that trepidation Curtis’ script is easily one of the best written and realised since the return of the show. Full of big monster hijinx, hilarity and ultimately heartbreak, this is a stunning script bound to have even then most hardened touter of Terrileptil terror tearing through tear-soaked tissues.


Big Finish continues to exceed their already high standards with each release; whether a self encased trilogy, a mini-series, or an overall series, they are constantly improving, and experimenting.
   There were so many great titles this year it is difficult not to gush over them all, but here are a few standouts:
   The 6th Doctor and Jamie arc was a thorough joy to experience, with both leads in sensational form, and a knock out twist at the end of the second story to really jolt me from my chair.
   The 8th Doctor’s fourth series opened with the excellent “Situations Vacant”. Unpredictable, offbeat and stoked with twists, this story started a skein of shocks that runs throughout the series, with many knockout surprises further in store. “The Book of Kells” in particular has a couple of revelations that are absolute corkers, as well as the potent performance of the one time Goodie, Graeme Garden. McGann is as bolshy and barnstorming as ever and the new companion played by Nicky Wardley is a hoot; haughty and hilarious.
   There was the return of the 5th Doctor’s crowded TARDIS as Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and Mark Strickson feathered fan heaven by uniting for a trilogy of tales that made the reunion more than worthwhile.

Over and above all of those great titles though stands the return of the Robert Holmes much-loved Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot from the indisputably brilliant Tom Baker tale “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”. The pair perform in a compact quartert of stories that have the police surgeon and the eccentric impresario combine to solve mysteries in London at the end of the 19th century. The sheer effortless ease at which Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter have reprised their roles is incredibly impressive. Both actors manage to sound as if it was only six weeks since they played these roles, in one six-part serial, and not three decades ago. Credit to the four writers for capturing the characters, their camaraderie and contrasts, and casting them into such canny and captivating capers. Credit goes to Lisa (Bernice Summerfield) Bowerman’s solid direction, and the sound designers and composers for fashioning the period milieu with such a vivid aural landscape.
   And it was Robert Holmes, though the patter he penned for Jago’s prolific proclamations, that promoted my predilection for the prosaic patter, potentially paradoxically pompous, punctuated by the alliterative paradigm.
    Three more seasons and forthcoming and I can’t wait.
And, on the topic of Bernice Summerfield, a huge “Huzzah!” must go to Alex Mallinson for his fabuolous 10 minute animation “Dead & Buried” that brought the much loved archaeologist, adventurer and almost alcoholic to life. While slightly disappointing in the fact that the script was so slight, and part of the story arc running across the regular audio series, rather than a stand-alone tale, it is never-the-less an incredible individual achievement, made with considerable talent and affection for the character. Bravo!

“Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened.”                   PC Game
I’d been dying to play this for ages, and rewarded myself upon the completion of the RiVeN art with many late nights immersed in the first-person world of Holmes and Watson as their investigation into a missing person leads to the terrible secret of a Cthulhu-like doomsday cult. With a detailed and extended world to explore, and plenty of headbanging puzzles to solve, I was surprised at the amount of thought that had gone into developing the game. There was a sensational atmosphere of dread throughout, from London docks by moonlight to the cellars of Swiss asylum, but it was the scene in the Bayou at night that proved significantly scary.

The mere memory of that sequence, of skinned bodies dangling from trees sagging into the murky Mississipi, and the evidence of a human sacrifice, all illuminated by Watson’s lamp, are enough to raise goosebumps. Building to an exciting finale, and bolstered by a righteous narrative worthy of both Doyle and old HP, “The Awakened” was an excellent experience, well above the standard of the traditional point and click adventures available.

Right, there you are, a snapshot, albeit a panoramic snapshot, of a few of my favourite things from the year. Hopefully there is something there for you, dear reader, to enjoy also.

And what am I looking forward to in 2011?
Well there are a number of new comic-films to savour, with 'Captain America' and 'Thor' the most anticipated. I had been excited about the 'Green Lantern' project until I saw the trailer, and then I sort of lost interest. 'Battle: LA' looks very cool indeed, 'The Adjust Bureau' akin to an Alan J. Pakula paranoia palpitation, 'Kill the Irishman' badass, 'Paul' must be good, 'Super 8' teases me and 'Sucker Punch' looks spectacular if artifical. 
   More "Jago and Litefoot', a brand new comic shop, tons of classic Doctor Who coming out on DVD, I will finally get around to playing 'Arkham Asylum', there's going to be another trip to Wacken, and some more music from everyone's favourite 'lounge metal' act will finally see the light of day on CD.
   So, plenty to be excited about then.
   Better get busy.