Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

On the cover of my copy of The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay is named as a "master storyteller". Tough praise to live up to, but Kay nails it with this novel. His prose is liquid smooth; The events of the book just unfold so naturally that I was able to just get caught up in the flow of events and completely enjoy the ride. I've been a fan of Kay since reading Tigana a few years ago, and this book reminded me of Tigana in many ways.

Kay places the events of the novel in a fictional medieval Spain. The peninsula is fractured into a bunch of small kingdoms and cities rife with instability. I think that by using a world that the reader already is slightly familiar with Kay saved himself from having to do lots of world building. Thanks to that, the novel focused more on the central characters, and didn't have the large information dumps that plague lots of other epic fantasies.

The characters are what make this a great novel. With a fairly large cast of characters, and rotating viewpoints, Kay creates characters that are extremely believable. From Alvar the young warrior, Ammar, aide to a king, Rodrigo, captain of an elite cavalry unit, and Jehane, a female doctor Kay gives a lot of glimpses into each character's goals and motivations. Their goals and motivations are often in conflict with one another, making for some great drama.

Kay also makes great use of cultural and social conflicts to add to the story. These conflicts parallel conflicts in our own world, and give the novel a degree of relevance that I don't often see in the genre. These conflicts also force many characters into tough choices throughout the novel. Choosing over love, country, ethnicity and family are just a few examples of the hardship the characters face. I found myself agonizing over their decisions at times, wondering what I would do in the same situations.

The conclusion of this stand-alone novel was fantastic. My feelings as the book wrapped up ran the emotional gamut. Kay did a wonderful job of keeping me fully engaged, giving me good reason to care about all his characters. This is easily one of the most solidly written fantasy novels I've read. I could heap more praise on this novel, but I wont, I'll just end by saying it was one of the most well crafted novels I've read in a while. I give this one my fullest recommendation.

Grade: A

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Abandoned Tomes

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

A few months ago I went to a book reading/signing for John Irving. The place was packed and I got there late, so I was stuck way in the back of the giant room where the whole ordeal was being held. I couldn't hear very well, but when someone asked Mr. Irving about books that have influenced him as a writer, my ears perked up.

I'm always interested to hear what books authors I like are reading. He mentioned that he enjoys great plots, and that the writers of the 19th century were the best at plotting. The name Thomas Hardy kept coming up, and while he mentioned a title, I couldn't recall the name of it after...but the plot is one that stands out, and simply by reading the back blurbs of a few Thomas Hardy books I was able to discover the one John Irving had mentioned. That's how I came to own The Mayor of Casterbridge.

So what is the brilliant plot that had me so interested? Well...The extremely drunken lead character sells his wife and daughter to a passing sailor at a county fair. See what I mean? Brilliant.

This simple and unique concept was enough to carry me through the first fifty pages or so, but as I read on I quickly found my interest waning. There was nothing particularly bad or annoying about this book, I don't have any gripes about it, I just could not stay interested in it.

It would appear that while I find much of John Irving's work to be geared towards my tastes, his tastes apparently aren't geared to mine. Maybe one day I'll be able to pick this one up again and read the whole thing, but for now it looks like I'll have to keep my reading planted firmly in the 20th and 21st centuries for a while.

Chance of giving it another go: Moderate

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Review: DMZ: On the Ground

DMZ: On the Ground is the first graphic novel in writer Brian Wood's DMZ series. The story takes place in the near future, and follows Matty Roth, a young journalist, into a hard to imagine war-zone: New York City. With U.S. imperialism bogging down the military machine in overseas interests, middle America decides to rise up and begin the second Civil War. With the so-called Free States army pushing their way towards the oceans, they come to a stand-still in Manhattan, or as the world now calls it: The DMZ.

The story focuses on Matty Roth, a young and inexperienced journalist, who gets the gig of a lifetime due to a sweet hook-up from his Dad, who has connections which are never fully explained. Matty, along with a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, choppers into the DMZ. Upon landing they are immediately attacked, and surprise, surprise, Matty is the only survivor. Now he has to survive in the most dangerous place on Earth. Luckily he meets Zee, a doctor of sorts who shows him the ropes and Matty must make the choice of getting the hell out of the DMZ, or seizing the opportunity of a lifetime to become the only reporter in a deadly war-zone... buuuuut of course he stays, otherwise there wouldn't be a story to tell.

The actual nuts and bolts of the rebellion; which states are on which side and what territories each group controls are never fully explained, and was confusing at times. The whole history of the situation is never fully explained, and I often found myself thinking: "Maybe Wood just had a cool idea to turn NYC into a war-zone and never really got any further than that." Because that is how it feels. I kept hoping for a map that would give me a better idea as to what the hell was going on in the U.S. but never got one. Hopefully things get explained in greater detail as the series goes along.

Which brings me to my favorite thing about DMZ: On the Ground, and that is that I care a lot about the dilemma that Wood sets up. I was immediately intrigued by the whys and hows of a second Civil War. I wanted to know the politics behind it, and the arguments for each side. I found myself wondering: if this really happened, which side I'd be on, and while Wood didn't divulge much information in this regards, my curiosity is sufficiently peaked, and I love the basic premise.

All that being said, Matty isn't the greatest lead character. I never found myself caring for what happened to him. He initially comes across as a young dip-shit journalist, who is completely naive. By the end of the first book, he had matured quite a lot, as he would have to given his situation, but I felt like Wood could do more with this character to make him more realistic.

The artwork by Riccardo Burchielli is solidly done. Seeing New York City as a bombed out war-zone was pretty cool. The drawings contain a fairly high level of detail, and he gives a real sense of place with all the dirt, grime, and graffiti in the DMZ.

Even though I've made my share of gripes, this is simply the first volume in a multi-volume story, so there is a lot more still to happen, and Wood may easily wipe away all my gripes in the next volume with some back-story and further fleshing out of Matty's character. This first volume did feel like it was all about set-up and that the next installments would really kick things into gear. The ideas in DMZ are cool enough to keep me around for at least one more installment, but I feel like I'll need to see more if I am in for the long haul.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Snakes for the Divine

Snakes for the Divine by High on Fire

Snakes for the Divine is High on Fire's fifth studio album. I've been awaiting this album ever since I bought their fourth album Death is this Communion, which is one of my all time favorite albums. High on Fire is a power trio unlike any other. They make every other band that has ever been called a "power trio" seem extremely weak in comparison. Rush, Nirvana, ZZ Top, Cream, even Motorhead, all bands I love, are not nearly as powerful a trio as High on Fire. Power is a good word to describe their fifth album, it starts out heavy and does not let up.

Track 1: Snakes for the Divine: Fantastic start to the album. It begins with guitarist/singer Matt Pike's guitar solo then the drums and bass kick in and it becomes a trudgy, riffy metal masterpiece. Pike's snarl sounds deeper and angrier than on past albums, but it fits well with the guitars, bass and drums for this song. His guitar mastery stands out as well; Soloing over his own riffs, then outright soloing, this is some good shit. Hearing this song makes me glad that I bought the album, it is fantastic metal, and classic High on Fire.

Track 2: Frost Hammer: With a title like Frost Hammer, this song had better kick ass. When I see a song titled Frost Hammer, I expect certain things, most importantly, that the song should fucking rock. Well, Frost Hammer delivers. It is a much more straight forward song than the previous track, which means it is still full of changes, but still it is probably more accessible and more mainstream to the average listener, which is why it is their first "single" off the album.

Track 3: Bastard Samurai: After my first few listens to this song, I admit that I was not really a huge fan of it. It is much slower paced and mellow than most all of High on Fire's other songs in their library. There is certainly less going on here than any of their other songs, but that isn't a bad thing, because when they do bring the heavy, they really bring it, and the effect is solid. Maybe I'm just a stickler for classic sounding High on Fire because after a close listen, this is a great song, it just feels a bit different.

Track 4: Ghost Neck: I could tell from the very start that this is going to be an awesome song...some are just like that, they just start out sounding great to my ears, and then just seem to get better as the song progresses. I am in my metal comfort zone.

Track 5: The Path: The first and only fully instrumental track on the album, coming in at just over a minute long, filled with some great wailing guitars, it serves as an extended intro to the next track.

Track 6: Fire, Flood & Plague: More very classic sounding High on Fire here. This is a band that is not afraid to rock out. They often find a great sounding riff then milk it, and I love that. One thing I've noticed about High on Fire is that their albums seem to pick up momentum as they go, and this is true for Snakes for the Divine as well. This song is the set up for the final two tracks.

Track 7: How Dark We Pray: A humble song about the strangeness of the Christian belief system, this song starts out with a lengthy melodic guitar solo, while the bass and drums keep a steady pulse going. Pike's guitar skill is really what sets this band apart for me. No one sounds like him, (maybe because he plays a nine string guitar), but he certainly gives High on Fire their unique signature. This is one of those songs you subconsciously find yourself turning up louder, even though you are already listening to the album loud as hell. Epic metal.

Track 8: Holy Flames of the Fire Spitter: As if all their other songs aren't testosterone filled, this one is even more so, right down to the "ho-rah" chants. As a High on Fire devotee, I feel right at home with this song. It feels instantly familiar, yet is unlike anything I've ever heard. The band really put their heads down and powered straight through as Snakes for the Divine goes out with a really loud bang.

I can't wait to see them play this album live.

Grade: EPIC (A+)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Battle Hymns Classics: Black Sabbath (the album)

Arguably the first true METAL album ever, Black Sabbath released their first, self titled album in 1970. The first song on the album is also titled Black Sabbath, which may lead one to think the band lacks creativity, but all you really need to do is listen to the song and you'll find that Black Sabbath lacks nothing in the creativity department...they created METAL!!

You can learn a lot about Black Sabbath by listening to the song Black Sabbath. First off, all it takes is a one song sample to tell if you'll like them or not. If you like the song Black Sabbath, chances are you'll like most of their other music too, if you don't like the song, then you probably aren't gonna like Sabbath's other music either...maybe you'll like the song Changes.

Another thing you can learn is one of Sabbath's favorite subject matter: Satan. (The other favorite is drugs).

Big black shape with eyes of fire
Telling people their desire
Satan's sitting there, he's smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me

Man the Christians must have loved these guys in the 70's.

The rest of the album kicks ass as well. You've got Sabbath classics in Wizard, (all the musicians were reading Lord of the Rings back in the day). Not to mention N.I.B. a song written from Lucifer's point of view. The American and European editions differ from each other, (I own the European edition), placing some songs in different orders, or having different tracks on the separate editions. The core of the album is there on each edition though, so having one album over the other doesn't matter much. Either way you get galloping riffs, insane solos, and classic Ozzy wail. Sabbath tore down the gates of hell, set up shop in Satan's front yard, and began to build their metal destiny with this album.

This is an absolute essential album for any metal fan. If you don't own, buy it, and hail Sabbath!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: Avengers Disassembled

I read Avengers Disassembled not quite knowing what to expect. I've been wanting to read something by Brain Michael Bendis for quite some time now. Bendis is one of the big names in comics, and possibly the biggest name at Marvel. I guess I didn't know what to expect because I feel like I have left the costumed heroes of my youth (the typical Marvel and DC heroes and heroines,) behind for the most part...aside from Batman. Yet here I was with an Avengers graphic novel in my hand. But, like I said, blame it on that Bendis guy. He is just too big of a name for me to ignore, and since my comic buying comes with a tight budget, (two things that don't go hand in hand very well), I was intrigued by this single book which I hoped would serve as a good introduction to Bendis' writings.

Well, now I'm not so sure. For the most part, 99% of my graphic novel reading has been planted firmly in the geared-towards-adults zone. Avengers Disassembled is not in that zone. It is aimed more at young teens. This was the most obvious when reading some of the dialog: "AAGGH! This is a nightmare! GGAARRGH!! What is this?? Why is this Happening??" Yep. That was taken from the book, from the same page, from the same panel. I did not make that up. So, yeah the dialog sucked. There were times when there was so much dialog between characters that entire pages of the book dragged on, and other times that there didn't seem to be enough. The latter times are likely due to my complete lack of knowledge concerning the current events in the Marvel Universe, and these parts assumed a bit of knowledge one the reader's part, but I haven't read an Avengers comic in years...and that was a West Coast Avengers title.

Despite my Marvel hiatus, I knew most of the major players. There was Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Vision, dudes I remembered from my youth, and others I kinda recalled, like Ant-Man, (lamest hero ever?) Essentially what goes down is the Avengers are having a really shitty day. First a former, long thought dead, teammate returns to their mansion/base and explodes, killing poor little Ant-Man. Then Iron Man loses it at a UN summit and flips out at the representative from I'm not misspelling that, that was the made up country name. Oh, yeah, there is more great dialog in that scene as well. Following that, while the Avengers back at the mansion are just recovering, Vision turns up, (another team member long missing), crashes a space-jet into the mansion, and deals out a cryptic message. More bad things happen, and more Avengers die, and eventually, with their government funding cut off thanks to Iron Man's flip, and team morale being at an all time low, they break up the team. (I feel like this isn't a spoiler given the title of the book).

My biggest problem with this graphic novel is that it never was surprising. The title isn't the only reason for this either, as I was never surprised when things went bad, or when Avengers died. It all felt pretty predictable. Added to that is the reasoning provided for why the Avengers are having a bad day was pretty convoluted. It seemed like Bendis was trying too hard to make the pieces fit...though maybe this again is due to my inexperience in the Marvel world and I would have understood things better had I more knowledge of current Marvel events.

The artwork, drawn by David Finch was quite good though. The pages were glossy and filled with big explosions and muscles. The heroes from my youth have never looked better, as Finch made Iron Man's suit look bad-ass, and the scenes where She-Hulk hulked out were visually pleasing.

I'm afraid Brian Michael Bendis and I got off to a bad start, but I don't think it is fair to judge his work based solely off this graphic novel. He isn't one of the biggest names in comics because he writes cheesy dialog and his stuff is predictable. I'll give him another shot, but probably outside of the Avenger's world.

Grade: C-

Review: The Crow Road

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

Prentice McHoan has returned home to Gallanach from his University in Glasgow to attend the funeral of his grandmother. While home among his family, Prentice begins to have thoughts of his long absent uncle Rory. Rory was a man filled with wanderlust, and experienced some success as a travel writer, but mysteriously disappeared eight years ago. Prentice's father has hinted at the idea that Rory is still alive out there somewhere, but where exactly, no one seems to know. Later, while attending his brother's stand comedy show Prentice runs into Janice, Rory's ex-girlfriend. Janice is in possession of some of Rory's odd notes and writings and she passes them on to Prentice. The writings are written in a tough to decipher shorthand, but they are tantalizing nonetheless, as they point to more than one family secret, and may hold the answer to Rory's disappearance. Aided by his curiosity, and lots of whiskey, Prentice sets out find some answers.

The Crow Road was tough for me to get into. Banks' writing is good enough, but story jumped around a lot; initially alternating from one chapter in first person narrative form, from Prentice's point of view, to a chapter that took place in the past, written in third person. This was initially a bit annoying, because it was hard to parcel out time and place in the third person chapters, but once I got into the flow of the book this problem went away. Another thing that slowed me down was nailing down the cast of characters. There are a lot of family members who play a part, and figuring out who was who and from which generation proved to be a challenge. Once again though, this problem disappeared as I read more, thanks to Banks' strong characterizations.

The main character, Prentice, is a likable guy. His character was easily recognizable as a fairly typical college aged guy, complete with the kind of drama in his life you might expect from someone his age...he's in love with a girl who he can't have, he is best friends with the girl he should be in love with, and he and his father don't speak, due to a falling out over their spiritual beliefs. At the beginning of the story, Banks puts Prentice through the ringer, and just when things cant possibly get worse - they do...but then things get better, much better, and Prentice begins to thrive. I felt like this was an uncommon sequence of progression for a main character, but was necessary given the story, as Prentice in his lowest moments would never have even been able to start investigating Rory's disappearance in the state he was in.

The Crow Road started akin to other family dramas like The Brothers K and East of Eden, which I enjoyed, but then turned into more of a typical mystery novel. While this wasn't a bad thing, I felt like it wasn't what I expected, given the early events of the novel. Banks is a skillful writer though and I enjoyed this novel. I got pretty attached to Prentice, and I found myself really pulling for him, in all aspects of his life. Seeing where Prentice's path leads him is one of the great joys of this book. Though things wrap up almost too nicely. Maybe Banks got as attached to Prentice as I did.

I wouldn't rate it as strongly as The Wasp Factory (one of my top five novels from '09), but I still thought this was a good novel. Banks seems to excel no matter what he writes, be it science fiction or literature, as everything I've read by him has been a hit with me. The Crow Road is a solid novel, even though I had a few gripes, there is a lot to like as well. Bank's is a skilled writer, and one who seems to be a bit of an unknown here in the U.S. If you haven't read him, start with Use of Weapons for sci-fi kicks, or The Wasp Factory, and enjoy.

Grade: B

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Black Summer

I have been waiting to read Black Summer for awhile now. It is written by Warren Ellis, with artwork by Juan Jose Ryp. Warren Ellis is probably my favorite comic writer, and Juan Jose Ryp's artwork is amazing. This combo has had me drooling over this title for nearly a year, so I was pretty pumped to get it at a half-off sale at a local comic shop. It then skyrocketed to the top of my to-read-pile, and I was rewarded with a kick-ass graphic novel.

Black Summer kicks things off from the get-go with a presidential assassination, an act committed by a costumed super hero. It is never out-rightly stated, but the president who gets killed is George W. Bush. The murderous super hero is John Horus, a member of a scientifically enhanced super group called the Seven Guns. The Guns are all linked to high-tech pistols that deal out more fire power than most small nations could muster. Due to the death of a teammate the Guns are like a rock group who have chosen to go their separate ways; One guy, after losing part of his leg, has quit the hero life completely, four others have somewhat stuck together - but haven't done much, and John Horus, who is surrounded by floating eyes - which is also his "gun", has pursued his solo career. Well, there's nothing like a government mandated bounty hunt to get the old band back together.

Tom Noir, he of the missing leg, gets brought back into the fold after a failed attempt on his life. Fitted with a fancy prosthetic limb, he re-enters the fray alongside his old teammates. But other government controlled enhanced Guns are looking for them, while they search for John Horus and try to right his wrong.

Black Summer is vintage Warren Ellis. A brilliant plot, coupled with gripping characters and tons of action. I haven't read too much of his stuff, but the things that I have read, (half of his Planetary series, and all of Fell), I have loved. He mixes science fiction, fantasy, and costumed heroes very well. I think what I like about him is that his ideas seem just plausible enough that I think they could or already have happened and we just don't know about it...the bastard makes me paranoid!

However, where Black Summer really blew me away was in the art department. Juan Jose Ryp's art is the best I've seen in a graphic novel yet. I found myself scrutinizing every panel, every page taking in Ryp's skill and drooling over the insane detail. My acts of deep scrutiny were rewarded too. I noticed that some pages contained "easter eggs" - little hidden pictures within the tapestry. On one page in particular I found Sponge Bob, Bam-Bam, and Mario. Crazy. Really fantastic art though...just look at the pictures!

The entire Black Summer story is contained in this one graphic novel. While I sometimes like the single book format, versus 10-12 volume story arcs, I felt like Black Summer could have been longer. I wanted more. I wanted more of the back story on the Seven Guns...hell, we never even see who the deceased seventh Gun is. I also think the story could have been fleshed out more, and Ellis could have given more depth to the plot. I can't really complain too much though, because I really loved this graphic novel. Any complaints I have are washed away by Ryp's artwork.

I think Black Summer is a great place to start for readers who are new to Warren Ellis. From what I've read of him, this graphic novel seems to be on par with his other writing and evokes a similar style to what I've seen. Ellis is definitely one of the biggest names in comic writing, and I have my sights set on reading more of his work in the future.

Grade: A

Emerald City Comic Convention

It is a day you'll never forget. You'll feel really nervous beforehand, you'll always remember where you were, how it felt, how much fun it was, and then, in the end, you'll have that feeling of it being over much too soon. No, I'm not talking about losing your virginity, I'm talking about losing your CONginity. Which I did, this past weekend.

I, along with my very supportive girlfriend, (strength in numbers!!) attended the Emerald City Comic Convention here in Seattle. I'll admit I was pretty nervous on the bus ride downtown. I knew that I was taking a step that led down what many would consider to be a verrrrry "dorky" path, but I've been craving some sort of new experience lately and Comicon provided the perfect new experience: it was strange, it was unknown, but CONFIDENCE! It would be also be fun...

Costumes proved to be one of our main sources of entertainment for the day. We knew we were nearing the Convention center when we started seeing people dressed up as Trekkies. As we entered the convention center it became harder and harder to suppress our giggles as we saw more and more people decked out in costumes. We knew there'd be people in costume, but somehow, seeing it for real just made it hilarious. The costumes varied in style from amazing first-rate replicas of the real deal, to solidly done homemade ones that ranged from decent to great. We walked past one scantily clad lady in a red bikni-esque outfit with red fishnet leggings and I then realized that people who wore costumes were an interesting niche group who definitely ascribed to the "go big or go home" frame of mind. Let's face it, super heroes wear some crazy, ridiculous stuff, and seeing normal everyday folk wearing the same thing blew my mind. As we passed the red bikni/fishnet lady, Anjali, my girlfriend, leaned in towards my ear and whispered the quote of the day: "I think I saw her vagina!" Now is that dedication to a hobby or what?

Another cool thing about comicon: celebrities are abound! Well, celebrities for the comic world. I never laid eyes on Stan Lee or Lenard Nimoy, but I did see Lou Ferrigno...he is still Incredibly Hulkish, and I also saw Tom Jane. (I guess he played the Punisher in a movie). Jane struck me as a complete celebrity douche. When I saw him, he was sitting on a table looking ever so much the movie star: Aviators? Check. Cowboy boots? Check. Distressed looking expensive jeans? Check. Leather Coat? Check. The way he "interacted", I use the term loosely, with his fans did not impress me...The word "smarmy" comes to mind.

There were also a large collection of comic writers and artists at the show. Since I am pretty much a comic noobie, I'm sure many of the amazingly talented people there who are big names in the field flew completely under my radar. But, I did see Joe Quesada, editor in chief at Marvel Comics, Brain Michael Bendis, a big name in comic writing, Ed Brubaker, local dude, and comic writer extraordinaire...I think I mentioned him here somewhere...And many others who were kind, polite, and always willing to take the time to discuss their work, and talk to you about your day.

The coolest part for me was being around so many talented people for the day. There was so much amazing artwork to look at and so many nice, interesting people to talk to. I don't think a smile left my face the entire day. I also scored some sweet S.W.A.G. and picked up a few new titles which I'm sure will get mentioned around here sooner or later. Losing my CONginity is certainly one of the highlights of my year so far. It was a really good time, and I'm really glad I decided to try something new on a gray Seattle Saturday.

Enjoy some Emerald City Comic Convention photos!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Battle Hymns Classics: Opiate

My Brother and I have long had the belief that Tool's first album, considered an EP, is the ultimate work-out album. Coming in at just about thirty minutes, it truly is an exceptional work-out companion. Not only does it start out somewhat slow - the warm up, then build in intensity, but it also mellows out a bit at the end for the cool down portion of your work out. Maybe Tool isn't the work out companion for everyone, but before you queue up Coldplay or some shit for your next work-out take this into consideration: This shit will fire you up. This is by far Tool's most intense, pulse pounding album. How intense? I'm talking John McClane versus Hans Gruber in the Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve INTENSE! If this album does not get you fired up for a work out, then you probably don't listen to enough metal.

Even though Tool has a bunch of other great albums Opiate is by far my favorite. Early Tool holds a special place in my heart. I've never really been able to put my finger on why this album is a favorite...their later stuff is certainly more technically skillful, and their song writing has only gotten better through the years, but Opiate has a compact heaviness that sets it apart. All the songs are fairly brief, aside from the title track which is over eight minutes, but each song packs a solid punch. Even though this wasn't the first Tool album I heard, I wasn't a Tool fan until I heard this album.

While every song is essential and awesome, Cold and Ugly and Jerk-Off are my favorites...I've always wondered: who is that "Bob Marley-wannabe-mother-fucker"? I've heard contrary, yet believable tales that it is Zac De La Rocha from Rage Against the Machine, and also that it is King Buzzo from The Melvins...perhaps the world will never know. Either way these two songs are great. The fact that they are played live, in the band's second ever live performance, show's how skilled Tool is. They sound fantastic on these live tracks, and while many singers sound less than great outside of the studio, Maynard James Keenan's voice sounds absolutely fantastic.

Opiate is a must-own for all metal fans. And non-metal fans as well...(I know a few Tool fans who aren't into metal). If you haven't heard this album yet, I suggest you set aside thirty minutes, or dedicate your next work-out to this album. It is sure to rock you.

Enjoy the Cold and Ugly video...the camera work is less than stellar, but the sound quality is pretty good.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Sleeper

*Note that this is a review of the entire Sleeper series. It can be found two volumes: Season 1 and Season 2.

Sleeper is a graphic novel series that stands out as unique. Devoid of costumed heroes (unless they are getting pounded on by the main characters), it instead chooses to focus on the bad-guys (and gals). The series has a very distinct film noir feel that gives the comic an edge. This dark, gritty motif sets the stage for a great spy-thriller where the spies have super-abilities and trust doesn't exist.

The series' protagonist is Holden Carver. Codenamed The Conductor for his ability to transfer any pain he has absorbed into another person by touching them. Carver is a deep cover agent, who is posing as one of the bad-guys. When we meet him, Carver has managed to work his way up to rungs of the criminal organization, getting ever closer to Tao, the mastermind who pulls all the strings. Carver's success seems like a good thing until we find out his only contact is in a coma and Carver is now stranded with the bad-guys, while his old employers are actively hunting him. Now Carver must employ his spy skills and his powers to survive in a twisted game of cat and mouse.

Sleeper stars some other very memorable characters. Most notably, Carver's love interest and fellow Prodigy, (the highest ranking members of Tao's criminal organization), Miss Misery, a deliciously evil and sexy lady who needs to commit acts of violence in order to stay alive. Miss Misery inspired very little sympathy from me, she is an evil, evil woman, but as a character, I admired her. Brubaker uses a fairly small cast of characters, but they all stand out as well constructed, without feeling like spy genre cliches. For example, on the surface, Tao is just a shitty Bond villain, but Brubaker fleshes the character out, and I actually found myself admiring his guile and scheming.

As with most graphic novels that I enjoy, Sleeper has fantastic artwork. The artist, Sean Phillips does a fantastic job of matching the art to the tone of the story. Sleeper is a dark tale and the art matches up nicely. Phillips certainly has his own art style, and often each page is a full page drawing, with smaller panels showing the action. Having never really seen this done before, I thought it was cool, stylish way to tell the story. Another thing about the artwork that stood out for me was Phillips' ability to portray human emotion in facial expressions. He often had panels of close ups on a character's face, and with out words or narration, I was easily able to tell exactly what was on that character's mind. This may seem like a minor thing for an artist to be able to draw faces well, but I thought it stood out as exceptionally well done.

As a series, I thought Sleeper was quite good, but I felt that Season 1 was stronger than Season Two. This is likely a case of personal taste, because in Season 2 there are so many back-stabs, and double and triple crosses, that I often had a hard time keeping everything straight. For that reason I had to go back and reread pages to make sure I knew what the hell was going on, which broke up the flow a bit. But really, I can't complain too much, because in the end, I was very much satisfied. Sleeper makes Jason Bourne look like Hello Kitty, and packs enough action and intrigue to stand with any of the great spy thrillers.

Brubaker and Phillips team up in a few other graphic novels as well, and I look forward to reading more of their material in the future.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Review: Lamentation

Lamentation by Ken Scholes

Lamentation literally starts out with a bang. Somehow, an ancient weapon has destroyed the entire city of Windwir. Windwir, long the intellectual/religious (the two go hand in hand in this book) center of the Named Lands is completely decimated by this unknown weapon, and armies and kings are flocking to the ruins to see what is going on.

At the heart of conflict are a handful of key players: Rudolfo, the King of a gypsy like forest people. Jin Li Tam, daughter of a powerful lord, and consort (read: spy/sex kitten) to Sethbert, the Overseer of a group of City States. Neb, a survivor of the city who watched it's destruction from nearby. And Petronus, a fisherman with a really big secret.

At first glance it appears that Sethbert is responsible for the destruction of Windwir...he takes credit for it, but Rudolfo finds a metal man, (a robo-computer from a past, more technologically advanced, age), in the rubble. The metal man, called Issak, holds valuable information about the destruction of Windwir, and before you know it, the armies of The Named Lands are at each others throats. Pulling strings from both behind the scenes and from center stage is Jin Li Tam's father, Vlad Li Tam, who appears to know more about what the hell is going on than anyone else.

Lamentation is a fast paced novel that is packed with more political wrangling, backstabs, and double crosses than any novel I've read before. Somehow, Scholes manages to keep everything straight, keep everything interesting and write a damn good book. The characters are engaging and realistic from the start. I initially thought that some of the names were silly, Rudolfo in particular, but as you get to know the characters, the names seem to fit their personalities well.

The world of the Named Lands isn't as fleshed out as well as some other fantasies. I never really got a sense of place in this novel. The Named Lands never really captured my imagination and I hardly spent any time flipping back to the map. For me this was a bit of a negative, as I like maps in fantasy novels, and I like feeling like the author is transporting me off to a new land.

This is clearly a character driven novel though. Scholes shifts between point of view characters every few pages, and this keeps the book moving at a good clip. The characters all have their own motivations and none come across as "good" or "bad" characters, but instead seem genuinely human. When you couple the fleshed out characters of Lamentation with lots of politics, you get a solid novel.

Lamentation is the first novel in a five book series by Ken Scholes.

Grade: B

Sweet News!

Its been all over the webernets, and I am probably the last guy on earth to blog about it, but HBO has decided to greenlight the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

HBO has been responsible for some of my favorite TV shows such as Rome, Deadwood, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and others, so I got pretty excited when I heard they were gonna shoot a pilot episode of my favorite fantasy series.

Well, I'm even more excited now. Hopefully the show does well, and there will be lots of seasons, but at the very least there will be one full season. Sweet!

Too bad I'll be the poor sap who doesn't have cable or satellite TV or whatever, and will have to wait for it to come out on DVD. Oh well. Good things come to those who wait right?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Review: Preacher: Until the End of the World

I recently read the second installment in Garth Ennis's Preacher series and I am glad to say that it was mind blasting.

Until the End of the World picks up where the previous installment, Gone to Texas left off. Reverend Jesse Custer and his gal Tulip have returned to Texas, intent on settling up some debts, but instead they get captured by Custer's most lethal enemies, who take him back to the family homestead. As far as homecomings go, this is about as terrible as it can get. Custer's Gran'Ma is easily the most severely deranged one hundred year old wheelchair bound granny ever. Her evilness is matached nearly equally by her cronies Jody and T.C. Jody is brains and brawn combined with a lethal temper, and T.C. is a shotgun toting lack-wit who sodomizes farm animals...Not exactly a family tree you'd be proud to branch off of.

To top things off, Jesse's "word of God" power has no effect on his family members.

During the capture, much is learned about both Jesse's and Tulip's history. Much of the mysteries of these two central characters are revealed, as Ennis expertly fleshes out his characters. Both have fucked up histories, Custer's unbelievably so. Through these flashback scenes, Ennis was able to make me really start to care about his main characters, and fully appreciate just how extremely evil Gran'Ma, Jody and T.C. truly are.

We also learn that Custer has a Guardian Angel/Pardner who may or may not be the Duke himself John Wayne...Crazy!

Adding to Custer's problems is the fact that word about his "word of God" power is getting around, and for better or worse, other groups are seeking him as well. With his world getting torn in two, Custer has to face evils that may be even more terrible than his Gran'Ma.

Until the End of the World is easily the best comic I've read so far this year. Ennis took everything that was great about the first preacher volume and ramped up the intensity. I think character building is tough to do in the Graphic format, but Ennis really made me care about his characters and those that surround them. Another amazing thing about Preacher is the dialog. Ennis may be a brit, but I can hear the Texas twang when characters speak. The conversations have an amazing flow and true to life feeling that is rare in writing these days.

I can't get over how much fun it was to read this graphic novel. Until the End of the World is a true page turner. There is more excitement packed into its 250 or so pages then most movies or novels. I can't say enough good things about this graphic novel, and I cant say much bad about it. I will say that Preacher is certainly NOT for everyone, but I still think everyone should read it. I give this graphic novel my fullest and most emphatic recommendation. Look for more Preacher reviews in the future of Battle Hymns.

Score: A+