[Metal] Retrospective view of metal albums that filled my iPod in 2015

As we are closing on 2015, I thought it would be great into perspective the 2015 in terms of releases in metal albums that marked me and that I have purchased. I will keep them by chronological order by their month of release. Remember this is a very personal list and surely missed some.
If I have to say something, 2015 was certainly the year I discover so much talented French-female fronted metal bands (Thanks to Geo Theoneandonly) that have very good artistic talents but don’t have the juggernaut PR machine that some have through their labels or by their popularity. You can dig in more about it in one of my posts from July.
Lets jump to the meat and discuss about these albums.

February:
Whyzdom – Tears of the Hopeless God (95%): The third release of the symphonic metal band Whyzdom (Paris, France), having on board Marie Rouyer (now known as Marie McLeod) in the full album. That was certainly a blast of the year, certainly the best metal album of 2015. Bold, baroque, orchestral, with lyrics that just came on time in this period in which religious fanatism has been plagued the world. Majestic and brings on the French symphonic metal scene up to established bands from both Batavian (Epica, Within Temptation) and Lapland (Nightwish) gold standards. Beware, French symphonic metal bands are coming. A must have.
My favorite track of the album is “Tears of the Hopeless God”

Hydra – Malachite Skies (80%): The first release of the German gothic metal band from Bavaria, Germany, with Lisa Rieger as front singer. It was a nice first full-album to review. Simplistic but enjoyable, also had Liv Kristine from Leaves Eyes as a featured guest. My favorite track of the album is “CCC (Swath of Destruction)”

The Agonist – Eyes of Providence (not rated): The sixth release from the death metal band from Montreal, Canada that was previously fronted by Alissa White-Gluz that have joined Arch Enemy in 2014 with their album “War Eternal”. Also the first album featuring Vicky Psarakis. The question is always how the new singer will stand to the previous one? Surprisingly, Vicky was very good in this first album and made the transition very easy. She brings on the rage and the brutal growls in the female-fronted death metal scene. Brutal, loud and pumping up. Yet, Vicky proves as Alissa that she can do some clean vocals as well as proven in the “Gentle Disease” that is an acoustic song sharply contrasting with the rest of the album.
My favorite track of the album is “A Necessary Evil”:

March:
Ethernity – Obscure Illusions (85%): The first album of the Belgian progressive metal band from Belgium. It is a nice album, maybe outside my area of interest that may skew my judgement to it. I don’t have strong feelings but surely some other people will appreciate it.

Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful (90%): Who does not know Nightwish? Everybody knows about this band that set up the milestone in Symphonic Metal in 1998 with their album “Oceanborn”. It is also the band that has so many division in its fandom, with partisan stands on the front singers. I will be honest with you, for me Nightwish was awesome with Tarja fronting the band. Then something happened after “Once” that resulted in Tarja being dismissed from the band. For me that was a major mistake supplemented by the bad decision to take Annette Olzon that had not yet the vocal maturity of Tarja. The results were two terrible albums and ultimately the dismissal of Annette in the middle of the US tour (see the footage of their concert having Alissa reading the lyrics in their venue in Denver is just pathetic). Then Floor joined the band in an expedited process (48 hours and she was on stage). Floor Jansen (ex-After Forever) was amazing with After Forever until the band disaggregated and reborn in her own band “ReVamp” that had two very good albums. She also show that she could stand to Tarja and filling the divide. Yet, Tuomas is a special kind of animal and rather territorial on the sound of the band and raised concern on how Floor would sound in the album. The album was good, better than expected. Yet, not the best album. It is a mixed feeling I had with very unequal part. Floor is amazing in many songs of the album such as “Shudder Before the Beautiful”, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” or “You’re an Empty Hope” (that was aimed on Annette) or “The Greatest Show on Earth” (a 25-minutes ballad that is an ode of love to 4.5 billions of life). Yet, Floor feels like she watering down compared to their album with “Revamp” that were cocky and bold.
My favorite track (aside the Greatest Show…) is “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”:

May:
Sirenia – The Seventh Life Path (92%):
The fourth album of Sirenia featuring Aylin Gimenez and certainly the best album from a while from the band. The reason? Double. Firstly, Morten Veland finally found its winning formula in experimenting and navigating subgenres following his partition from Cristiana. It gives us a very dark, gothic and industrial metal that is cold, sharp as icy pickaxe. Thats bring us to the second one. Aylin has tremendously progressed since “The 13th Floor” and have remarkably worked on her voice, bringing on the warmth of the Iberic peninsula to the frozen shores of Norway. Most of the album is very enjoyable and even one song keeps on bringing tears in my eyes, in English or Spanish alike.
My favorite track of the album is “Tragedienne”, a powerful and melancholic melody reminiscent of “Still Kom Doden” from their previous album.

Dark Sarah – Behind The Black Veil (85%): First solo album from Heidi Parvianen (ex-Amberian Dawn). It felt like a Tim Burton movie, with air of Danny Elfman supported my metal riffs and the very nice voice of Heidi. Simple, the album is to listen of the story of Sarah that slowly sinks in her dark side, greatly performed by the duo with Manuela Kraller (ex-Xandria) until Sarah reaches salvation and brings a nice Christmas song with Toni Kaikko (Sonata Artica). The album is good with some tracks that failed to impress me. But overall it was a great first release from Heidi and waiting to see the coming releases
My favorite track is “Memories Fall” (feat. Manuela Kraller).

Kamelot – Haven (not rated): Second album of the band with Tommy Karevik replacing the iconic Roy Khan. What I can tell, Tommy magisterially made the transition and nail down that he is the natural successor to Roy for the band. A very nice powerful album taking back from the original roots of the band and getting the inspiration of some of the iconic albums of the band such as “Epica”, “Black Halo” or “Ghost Opera”. Again, I appreciated the presence of featuring artists such as Alissa White-Gluz signing her second feature and definitely makes in favor of Alissa clean vocals (there were some questions about having her sing clean vocals with Arch Enemy as she did with the Agonist. I personally think it would be wrong and would rather favor Alissa guest starring with other bands such as Kamelot).
My favorite track of the album is “Liar Liar” that brings the best melodies of Camelot with the remarkable voice of Tommy and Alissa that would light up the old fans of Camelot. As a comment seen on Youtube, if MTV was still a music video channel, this would have been a direct hit in charts.

July:
Darkonelly – Stories From Beyond EP (non-rated): 2015 was certainly the year I discover the pack of talented French gothic/doom/symphonic metal bands as well as lyrical voices that stand up to Batavian divas. Among the different ones that I discovered as they released their album during this year, there was Darkonelly from Dijon France. Darkonelly (that is reborn as Erzebeth) brought the soprano voice to the gothic and doom metal. That gives a very dark and melancholic EP that I really enjoyed to listen, playing on contrasting heavy bass riffs and drums with the pristine voice of Marion.

August:
Xandria – Fire & Ashes EP (80%): This was the WTF moment of 2015. Xandria decided that making covers with Dianne Von Giersbergen was a good idea. It turned out it was a very bad idea. It is not Dianne fault, she has an amazing voice reaching on the high tones without effort and she was very good with Ex-Libris. But there are some songs that simply cannot work because you are expecting a rough voice to sing them. This is exactly what happened when they decided she should sing “Don’t Say a Word” from Sonata Arctica and “I’d Do Anything for Love” from Meat Loaf. You need masculine, grave and rough voice and this was a bust. There are some songs that still were worthing, just like “Voyage of the Fallen”, the favorite track of the EP and appreciate the soprano voice of Dianne.

Ghost B.C. – Meira (non-rated): This was maybe the most unexpected surprise of this year: Ghost B.C., an UFO in the metal scene, as fronted by Papa Emeritus III and the nameless ghouls. I got into it through “Cirice” official video that had this visual and musical tone straight out of a Lucio Fulci movie. It starts very well and you are expecting some growls once his Papacy reach the mic and then get splashed by the clean vocals of Papa.
The album sounds a lot like some blast from the past, with tones of some progressive rock mixed with almost Christian folk tones that is indeed a great escape from my comfort zone. For instance, listen to “He Is”, that is sounds coming almost from the 70’s, my favorite song of the album.

September:
Iron Maiden – Book of Souls (80%): Iron Maiden, the legends of metal, the reason I dived into metal were releasing their full album since a while. Unlike other bands of my teenage years (such as Metallica) that took different artistic direction (switching from thrash metal to a more vanilla alternative rock with “Load” and the following albums), Iron Maiden sticked to their style. The band had certainly better inspiration in their early years but you have to give them some high-fives for still being good even after 40 years on scene and having Bruce singing after his tongue cancer. Still capable to deliver very nice songs such as “Empire of The Coulds” or “Speed of Light” that makes you wish to have your teenage years in the 1980s to attend these bands in their pinnacle years.

Adrana  – Foreshadow (90%): 
This year was also the year I discovered Adrana, an opera-metal band from Tours, France. Their third full-release “Foreshadow” is simply their best album at this time. A very delicate and well handcrafted album that is very dark, very well orchestrated that you almost can imagine the tragedy piece. Anae has this beautiful voice that certainly is the highest vocal range I could identify in the French metal scene, filled of sadness and sorrow. So beautiful that brings you up tears in your eyes if your ears as sensitive to soprano voices. Imagine having la Callas singing with drums and bass guitars. It is so majestic that is not anymore Symphonic and really has to fill its own niche as “Opera Metal”.
The album is almost perfect with a couple of tracks that rather make me hesitant, most of them at taking from your gut such as the simplistic piano-played but beautiful “The Falling Song” (my favorite song) or the fast-paced and charging “Fight For Revenge” tracks.

October:
Dreamslave – Rest in Phantasy (80%): Another first full-album from another French symphonic/power metal band that would give you an idea if Epica and a French Stratovarius band would blend together. It gives something fast-paced, engaging and very distinct flavor that was a very good first starter. I recently reviewed the album so you may dig in my previous post easily.

Mercy Isle – Storm EP (non-rated): First EP from Mercy Isle, formed by the remains of the former metal band Ottoman Empire, from Madison, Wisconsin. The same band by which Mary Zimmer, currently fronting the death metal band “The White Empress” (reviewed in 2014) originated, this other part of the band has stuck more to the original roots (gothic metal, doom metal) and created Mercy Isle. It is always great to see another gothic metal band taking roots in the US, as the metal scene here is often divided into two camps: the soft (metalcore, Christian Rock, alternative and indie rock) and the very hard (death metal). If you are looking for some gothic metal from the US, you should give them a try.

December:
Bloody Melody – Gates of Mind EP: The female-fronted metal scene is fairly restricted to very niche, some that are oversaturated (like the Symphonic Metal), some that are hardly accessible for the vulgate (melodic death metal) and some that have taken a more mainstream approach that faded their original doom and gothic metal roots.
For instance, there was a golden age of female fronted metal bands that were excelling in the gothic metal, alternative rock scene such as Anneke von Giersbergen (The Gathering), Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), Sarah Bettens (K’S choice) before the appearance of the Symphonic/alernative metal wave carried by Amy Lee, Tarja Turunen or Sharon Den Adel. Bloody Melody from Tours, France is attempting to bring this back with their EP and it felt so good to listen something that sounded like what I listened in my teenage and college years. It brings up souvenirs of the younger Anneke and Cristina that were still beginners but had this “cachet” of authenticity that got faded over the years as bands evolve. If you want to escape from established roads, you should give them a try.

 

 

 

[Videogames] Fallout 4 (85%)

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Fallout 4, a game that everyone waited for so long since the release of the previous Fallout franchise installment (Fallout: New Vegas). A lot of rumors that grew about the game, including a leaked script back in 2013 that put the Fallout sphere on fire (I point to the Kotaku article from 2 years ago: http://kotaku.com/leaked-documents-reveal-that-fallout-4-is-real-set-in-1481322956).
Looking back to these leak, it is impressive that most of it was in fact kept in the final release of Fallout 4 including the location (Boston), the introduction (mostly the same narrative was kept), the first NPC encounter through Preston Garvey (that have kept most of the dialogues of the leak) and even the hoax website TheSurvivor2299 was not that far from the final iteration: the main character (Sole Survivor) and the year Fallout 4 is taking place (Year 2287, 10 years after Fallout 3).
Until the official presentation from Bethesda Software, no-one and nothing was a reliable source for rumors. Then Saint Todd Howard brought Fallout 4 to the E3 showcase in June, using a keynote to display what Bethesda had under the cover for Fallout 4. Many of us got their mind blown and started to count off the official launching date (11/10/2015).

It has been over a month, I have been playing for over 100 hours on normal difficulty settings and I think it is time to discuss about it and share my thoughts about it. Note: SPOILERS. I will spoil, a lot. Be warned!

If I have to give a score, I would give it an 85%, with Fallout 2 cultivating a 95%. It is a great game to play, but……

The storyline of Fallout 4 is fairly straightforward and follow the same canon that almost every Fallout games had done: starting from a Vault. The original Fallout was taking place in Vault 13, Fallout 3 vault was Vault 101 and this Fallout is Vault 111.
The game starts first indeed in the Pre-War area, just before the bombs fell on the United States, in Boston, Commonwealth (instead of Massachusetts). Again, Bethesda has done a great job to link the game to real-life geography and the story starts with the Sole Survivor and his wife Nora getting ready for a Veteran’s luncheon. The location of the starting game is taking place in a estate division named “Sanctuary Hills” that does not exist in real, but seems located on the western shore of the Concord River, juxtaposed to the town of Concord, MA. The time is October 22nd 2077, just a few days from Halloween and the first thing the game propose is to customize your face in front of the bathroom mirror and also choose your gender (you can play Nora if you want too). After this introduction, you can walk around the house and enjoy the Pre-War decoration. You quickly got someone knocking at the door and face the Vault-Tec rep telling you are (surprise, surprise) pre-approved for a slot in the nearby Vault. This phase acts the SPECIAL character building with 20 points to attributes to your SPECIAL attributes (all starting at 1).
This is a classical character build in the Fallout universe and previously attribution of these SPECIAL was very crucial as it was crafting your character and have very limited possibility to be altered later in the game (except using a character editor hack, bobbleheads or picking a SPECIAL perk). Once the SPECIAL were attributed, you were set and you were only capable to further craft your character by working on the skills (%) that was dictating how well your character will barter, influence dialog with charisma, repair broken terminals, hack computers using the science skills. In the original Fallouts, books around were giving a serious boost in a particular skill set (like the Big Book of Sciences read will give you +5 in Sciences skills).
Fallout 3 started to break loose the rules and made skills very easy to acquire (you could earn up to 20 points at each level if you have your Intelligence set at 10) and it was fairly easy for anyone to get crafty in almost everything by advanced level (level 50 being the maximum).
Fallout 4 completely revamped the system, throwing the skills in the dustbin and confusing old Fallout players as now everything was driven by perks, with one single perk per level. The SPECIAL is acting now as a ground basis for character build, by increasing the perks in one of them, you open access to skills that have several ranks in them.
Hacking and lock picking have their difficulty level replaced from quantitative to qualitative criteria, now you have “Novice, Advanced, Expert, Master” that are determined by your current overall level, your INTELLIGENCE and PERCEPTION levels as well as the rank of these attributes. Before, I could have been a midget in terms of strength but still be able to get the Pack-Rat attribute to allow me to transport more loot. Now, to unlock the Pack Rat attribute, I need a minimum strength and level to build up.
The SPECIAL had such a profound implication in the game mechanics that you had to sometimes start the game all over because you figured out that your character will not go far with a current profile. In Fallout 4, SPECIAL suddenly felt less special and you can play the game with almost any combination, you just adjust it accordingly every level, once you earn your perk.
Upon the visit of the salesman, you hear on the TV set the debut of the Great War and hear the sirens. Here starts the game frenetically as you run through the neighborhood, seeing the US military troops deployed with Vertibirds and Power Armors deployed. You run for your life, as well as your wife and son, Shaun. You reach on the checkpoint that check you are in the go-to list and allows you to enter the restricted area. This is the first time we experience entering a Vault from a vertical platform. As you stand, you can see the nuclear bomb and mushroom in the far landscape, in the ground zero area that is referred in the game as “the Glowing Sea”, that can be situated around Framingham, Wellesley and Sherborn triangle.
Vaults had always had a sort of social experiments underneath their altruistic mission. Indeed, you quickly learnt that the experiment of this vault is designed to see the effects of hibernation by cryogenic methods. Here we go, put yourself in a freezer, only to be awaken by seeing your loved one killed by a mercenary (that goes through the name of Kelloggs), a scientist and your son kidnapped. You are again put into cryostats for a number of years (60 years if I calculate correctly) to finally wake up in 2287. Here you start with rudimentary weapons (the good ol’ 10mm pistol, the faithful tire iron), your Vault 111 pajama and get your Pip-Boy from a dead Vault-Tec employee. Here you start your journey, 210 years after the bomb, with a dead wife, a missing son, a shattered Commonwealth and Codsworth, the same Mr. Handy that was taking care of the house and still running around vacating to its function (you should read the short story of Ray Bradbury “There Comes The Soft Rain” that was already used in Fallout 3, in a Georgetown house).
As you progress into the game (as Dodsworth recommends you to head to Concord to find any sign of life there), you get to meet your first human encounter in the presence of Preston Garvey, sieged by local raiders in the Museum of Freedom (that maybe referring to the real-life Concord Museum) and get hands on your first powerful weapon: a laser musket. Fallout 4 starts by flipping everything upside down: deathblows and power armors were only found late in the game, you indeed encounter them within the first hour of gaming. What was before a well-deserved prize is now as common as a Nuka-Cola bottle. Making it feel less special.
Yes, the Power Armors are nice, yes you can customize them with various parts. But hell no a Power Armor that requires fusion cores to remain active and that will just break easily as enemies blast on you, that peels off like a banana and will need you to go the armor workbench with all the junk (this I will talk about it later). No thanks!
The blessing and the cursing of Fallout 4 comes from the junk. Remember the junk in Fallout 3 and NV laying around (pens, pencils, cups, wonder glue……) that had little or no importance except gaining some caps from Moira or from Goodspring in your early hours of gaming? Rejoice because now this junk can be used as raw material such as steel, ceramic, concrete, wood….that are indeed essential parts for modding your weapons, your armor and foremost for building up a settlement.
Weapons mod are simply awesome because you can decide how you want to bring your weapon: do you want something more accurate? Or more firepower? Or lighter to transport? The good thing about is the riddance of the weapons condition (that was never an issue in Fallout 1 & 2 but was fairly annoying in Fallout 3 and NV), not even mentioning the legendary weapons that can be customized as well. Right now I have a reliable gauss rifle that peaks 200 points damage (but sparse 2mm EC) and a legendary laser rifle (Righteous Authority) that peaks on a 70 points damage with plenty of fusion cells around. This is where the curse is. As you liberate Preston and his band of broken arms squad from their siege in Concord, they will tell you to head them to Sanctuary Hills to help build a settlement.
Now this is something that can be a blessed curse or a fucking curse: settlements. Settlements brings what every player wanted: be able to build a safe house as we wanted to have it, furnish it and use it as a man’s cave (or a gal’s spot) for storing all your weapons you find in the wasteland and hoarding like nobody. If it was limited to one settlement, that would for me be something awesome. The first settlement in Sanctuary Hill is great because it has this up and fixing feeling, scavenging destroyed houses and scrapping down your neighbors houses and furniture to rebuild some decent habitat for settlers. What I wished though what the ability to use the same material to fix the houses that are still standing up. That would have been awesome to have kind of a rebuild of the neighborhood almost like the Pre-War and efficiently utilize it. You also learn you need to ensure food, water, electricity and defense are up to raise the attractiveness and happiness of your settlers. This is where comes one of the most bizarre aspect of the game: junk fences. Junk fences are basically wooden walls that serve very well as shield against marauders and intruders, forcing them to an only restricted access point in which you can send them to their death if your defense are well designed.  However, the game engine is very bad in the alignment of these junk fences. Where walls would just know how to perfectly fit to each others, these junk fences give you a misery to align them, yet with blatant clefts between walls.
The next curse is Preston starting what a lot of people started to make fun with the Preston meme: “a settlement needs your help. Go there and liberate the hostages, or clean the ghouls coming from 5 miles but ignore the settlement that is 300 yards near their site). This fetching kind of quests can be fun at the beginning but becomes very boring when the other factions like the Railroad (go eliminate this Courser, plant this MILA there), the BoS (get me that pre-war tech piece, take this squire to shadow you) or the Institute (go capture this synth) comes in. On top of that asking you to visit the same building that you have been cleaning three-four times to only see raiders or gunners or super-mutants respawned there. Suddenly, it makes Fallout less fallout and just something like “fillout” the emptiness of the storyline.
The storyline is short and concise but I found it great and interesting and deeply inspired by Blade Runner. OMG this was something awesome to see unveiling as you reach Diamond City (that is indeed the main settlement built on Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park that became Boston Green Diamond’s for the game) and have everyone paranoid of the synths from the Institute (that is the diminutive for the Commonwealth Institute of Technologies or CIT (MIT a la Fallout sauce:)) with even an execution of someone just because he is feared to be a synth in disguise. As you learn that the Institute maybe the one that have kidnapped Shaun, you get introduced to Nick Valentine Detective Agency.
To find Shaun is upon finding Nick and finding Nick brings you to find about Synths and human-robot relationship. I started the game with in mind “I will side by the BoS, wipe the Institute” and ended up wiping the BoS and stand by the Institute.
How my mindset changed? Why I side with the same institute from Dr. Zimmer that was chasing down Harkness in Rivet City in Fallout 3?
You have to encounter Nick (that is an old second generation Synth with the memory of a former detective implanted. A sort of Robocop with a more roman noir and polar atmosphere) and have to do his companion quest on the Winter tape. A very touching moment. You have to encounter Magnolia at the Third Rail bar and be like Blade Runner’s Deckert succumbing on Rachael’s charm. You have to encounter CURIE in Vault 81 (with her lovely French accent) and complete her quest to transfer her AI inside a brain-dead synth. You have to meet Edna at the Diamond City School, you have to meet with Shaun and think that maybe the Institute may not be wrong after all, especially when you are dispatched to take care of Gabrielus.
I also learnt that the BoS, the same that took over by the young Maxson is not the one anymore from Elder Lyons. This is the real assholes from Fallout Universe (remember they would only accept you to enter if you would dare to recover the holotypes from the Glow, an highly irradiated area?). They are impressive, they have Vertibirds and Power Armors galore. But they are jerks and they are here to wipe any competition and use the Commonwealth as their fiefdom like warlords from medieval times.
Although the main storyline is great, the amount of side quests are fairly minuscule if you trim all the fetching quests. This give you time to wander in the Commonwealth and brings the best of Fallout 3 and NV: the openness of NV with the urban areas of Fallout 3 (no more major rubbles blocking access to the main city to allow the machines to handle enough CPU power). It is a pleasure to wander around the post-nuke Boston and see major trademarks of Boston (like the Freedom trail, the USS constitution, Boston Commons……), have yet the most colorful wasteland I ever seeing (away from the concrete gray from D.C. and from the yellowness of the Mojave desert).
yet, this is not efficient to hide the fact Fallout 4 has taken a direction towards a Call of Duty and Sims blend, as dialogues option are very poor, you spend a lot of time in micromanaging your settlement, you spend more time shooting at things than accomplishing quests……That’s for a Fallout fan standpoint, it feels disappointing to see the game becoming like a Milelurk shell, carved out from its meat. This is where I wish Obsidian takes on a spin-off an brings the fun that made New Vegas way better than Fallout 3.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Metal] Lemmy Kilmister (1945-2015)

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Today, we learnt the sudden death of Lemmy from Motorhead. I am not gonna make an obituary but an eulogy of Lemmy. Lemmy is one of these giants that marked the metal scene back in the 1980s with Motorhead by bringing a fast-paced and engaging form of rock, contributing in the establishment of heavy metal in the 80s among others and setting the seeds of genres we call today as “speed metal” and “thrash metal”.
Lemmy was known for enjoying the good things of life and quite frankly is exceptional that he has been able his body was able to sustain up to his 70th birthday the chronic exposure to two Class 1 IARC carcinogens. Lemmy was also great as he was not someone keeping his thoughts for himself and would call frankly what he has in mind straightforward.
Lemmy showed some signs that things were not doing good, as he had to cancel several concert venues during his last months. Motorhead official press-release only mention an aggressive form of cancer took Lemmy’s life. It is admirable to think Lemmy kept on entertaining us when he knew his time was counted in this world.
Rest in peace uncle Lemmy, thanks for inspiring a whole generation of metalheads and please give my greetings to Ronnie James Dio (Slayer) and Dimebag Darell (Pantera) on my behalf.

[Movies] Star Wars EPVII: The Force Awakens (Warning SPOILERS)

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We are now a bit one week over the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (aka Episode VII) and after watching it twice (once in 2D and 3D), time to share my thoughts and comments on the movie.
Disclaimer: This is not a review with a scoring system. I am sticking to the core of the Star Wars Universe (Episodes I to VII) as I know little if anything from the Extended Universe, so contributions are welcome to feed in my analysis. Finally, I will spoil, a lot. If you read by here, you are warned.

Star Wars! Something I grew up with my BFF, Phil. He got introduced earlier than me. I got into Star Wars through “Pif Magazine” (that is a kind of French comic strip) in which they were showing pictures of the movie and toys from “A New Hope”. The second time I got introduced was during a sneak peak in visiting some relatives that had “The Empire Strikes Back” on air through the Canal+ channel (it was a French subscription channel that was showing movies two years after their theatrical release). That was the “mind-blowing” effect: imagine getting into Star Wars by being introduced to the Battle of Hoth, in which you see the AT-AT blasting the rebel defense line, one of the Rogues harnessing the AT-AT, Luke spacecraft crashing, escaping and blowing the AT-AT and finally seeing Han Solo, Princess Leia and 3PO escaping in front of Darth Vader. How come you don’t want to see what is happening next?

However, the first full-length movie I was introduced was “A New Hope”, it was great and stuck me with forever. I watched all the Star Wars as VHS tapes recorded from the TV and still own the Star Wars VHS tapes that came during the holidays seasons of 1993-1994, just before uncle Georges started to mix things up with the Special Edition. Then things got broke with the “prelogy” (Episode I to III) in which if was a painful experience. First, the idea of waiting to have the movie delayed 5 months to be localized in French (when crossing the border will let you see the German version of it two months after the US release but I am sorry German doublage is an awful thing for me to watch), then further topped with the spin-off “Star Wars the Clone Wars” and “Star Wars Rebels” that are aimed for children. I also kept away from spoilers websites as it partially ruined the Episodes II and III (I ended up basically stichting together all the spoilers and watch the final product).

So I watched it twice (this is my mandatory protocol for every Star Wars) before to make a final decision. So here is my take: This is a damn good Star Wars movie that I have seen for more than a decade. It is not as good as the Empire Strikes Back, it certainly a bit less good than Return of the Jedi and a bit better than A New Hope. It is not perfect but it is fairly promising. There are good stuff and bad stuff but yes I can ensure I will have the same joy of watching it after few years, where Episodes I-III faded away quickly as a Jedi mind trick.

So, let’s get to the meat and discuss the myths of Star Wars. The film starts as usual in the space and focus on one planet: Jakku. Again, this is typical from Star Wars: seeing the planet of the first action taking place. The planet is indeed quickly eclipsed by a Star Destroyer that hides it. By the lack of perspective, the  ship appears huge, way more huge than any destroyer seen before. And we see four APC space ships flowing down to Jakku, loaded with storm troopers. That’s some brutal and exciting introduction to start it.
Jake feels a lot like Tatooine: dry, yellow and hot. We get introduced to Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac), an elite pilot of the Rebellion that get an important piece of information about Luke’s whereabout (that we will discuss a bit later) from Lor San Tekka (played by Max Von Sydow). The question that arise is how did he get hands on that piece of data?
Here comes the troopers, landing and starting a fight with the locals trying to protect Poe Dameron escape with BB8, the R2D2 of this new Trilogy. Of course, things does not work out. We also spot the future “Finn” aka FN-2187 (that is an interesting reference to the Cell 2187 in which Leia was imprisoned in Episode IV) to be (played by John Bodega) as it is the only storm trooper showing disdain as he sees a brother-in-arms falling in action (and covers his helmet with bloodstains) as well as a moral conscience objection when ordered to fire on the villagers, including women and children alike.
Here comes the main villain, Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver). Same appearance than Darth Vader (dark clothing, mask but no breathing machine). The interesting aspect of Kylo Ren is the contrasting behavior to Darth Vader: where Darth Vader use to remain cold and secretive about his emotions and favored the termination of people by strangulation, Kylo Ren shows his immaturity by showing a rebellious, impulsive and aggressive behavior like a blazing fire. This is also symbolized by his lightsaber. The “old” lightsabers had this “cold” feeling as a neon tube would feel like, whereas the “new” lightsaber (aka the cruciform one) is almost like a “fire” burning, unstable and unpredictable. Not even talking about his ability to freeze “laser blasts” with the Force (Vader just repelled them as you can see it when facing Han Solo in Bespin in Episode V) or using a “brute-force attack” to get confession from prisoners (even Vader failed to have Leia or Solo talk much about the information he needed to extract).
This is a recurring theme that will accompany Ren during the whole movie. Where Darth Vader would just call the highest-ranking officer that let the mission fail, strangulates him and consider his death as an apology, Ren is more acting through a beserking rage by smashing everything around (like a hair metal band smashing their instruments because they simply lack the talent to appreciate them), some would call his behavior like a child throwing a tantrum. The latter allusion is maybe more in par with the storyline as Ren indeed is not yet mature, at least in terms of training.
Following this sequence, we are introduced to Rey (played by Daisy Ridley). In my own opinion Rey is the strongest character of the new trilogy, the same than Luke from the original one.
Again what is interesting is that all promising Jedi are orphaned during their young age on a desert planet. Look at Anakin (Tatooine), Luke (Tatooine) and Rey (Jakku). We nether knew their father (with the exception of Luke). We can speculate an hereditary transmission of the Force through the paternal lineage although mothers carrying the Force within (like Leia) can transmit to their offspring.
Until now, all the Jedi that were described had a filiation pattern with the exception of Anakin (unknown father) and Rey (unknown parents). However, I suspect that Leia maybe indeed Rey’s mother (see how the bounding takes place. These are also women and maybe more incline to show their empathy and feelings than men. Little boys are grown to be like men and introvert their feelings to look strong).
As a biologist standpoint, it blows away the early concept of midchlorians (that sounded more to me like mitochondria), as mitochondria are only transmitted from the ovum (thus the material side). If the Force was a gene or a set of genes, we could speculate that is likely a dominant gene or geneset as an heterozygous carrier will be enough to show traits.
Again, if we stick to genetics, we have a “nature vs. nurture” and have to face genetics vs. environment. I don’t think these contradicts but rather superpose to each other, with genetics being the foundation and the environment topping into it. This is especially the case for autism spectrum disorders, in which we have a network of genes involved but that does not mean you will develop the condition. You have a baseline risk, with its odd to display the condition increased by the environment. But the environment alone is very unlikely to trigger the trait. It can only act as a pressure factor to favor or eliminate one genetic trait.
Again, we know that younglings Jedi were selected from a pool of potentials and then decided by the Jedi Council if it was worth the investment in their training or not (see Episode I).
All the Jedi or wanna-be Jedi came from a desert planet and have indeed faced harsh and child labor. You can see it with Anakin (Watto’s slave), Luke (it is the only human worker for uncle Lars and aunt Beru) or Rey (Unbar Plutt, the junk dealer paying in food rations). We see Rey scraping through the wreck of fallen Star Destroyers, X-Wings and AT-ATs (that by itself would worth a lot of storytelling because I don’t buy on the galaxy was completely liberated after Endor’s battle. The Palpatine/Vader chain of command was dead but the commanding army was mostly untouched and still functional and raises the question of a power vacuum following the death of Palpatine, Vader and the appearance of Snokes).
It seems that characters that underwent a harsh childhood end up being the most gifted. Anakin is said to have extraordinary skills with robots, as well as Luke (remember the reaction of the scared and wounded 3PO at the beginning of A New Hope? The friendship between R2 and Luke?) and also as it appears between BB8 and Rey (it takes a high dose of compassion to refuse to trade the droid for 60 rations, when Rey barely survives on half-ration each day). It seems the Force grow strong to those who faced the harshness of life. In the opposite, Leia and Kylo surely grew in a more nurturing environment and maybe have been less incline to develop their Force without a supervision.
But what is interesting is to see Rey extreme potential coming in very fast. She senses the importance of the droid (as she refuses the offer of 60 food portions from Plutt), the incredible ability to fight back Plutt henchmen (even impressing Finn by the way), get into the Falcon Millennium ace-piloting within 10 minutes (flying through the Destroyer wreck was such an amazing moment and pilot skills that I am pretty sure that she could not have learned with her land speeder on Jakku), solving the Hyper-drive compressor in a couple of minutes, ace in the hole with a blaster with an accuracy after a couple of shots to put into shame a seasoned storm trooper, reverse “brute-force attack” on Kylo Ren during the interrogation session, using the Jedi mind trick on Daniel Craig and holding on a lightsaber duel with Kylo on Starkiller base.
What it took for Anakin and Luke almost over three episodes to master with a master Jedi (Obi-Wan and Yoda respectively), Rey was able to showcase it without proper training in a whole episode. I am wondering what Luke will teach her as the Force is strong with her. It is also a powerful feminist message for all the “bro” out clamoring as “men’s right activism” or macho-ing on Gamersgate discussion boards: girls are more than “be pretty and shut up” and indeed have amazing talents and potential if you give them the opportunity to show it, certainly they can kick some butts out and hurts some “bro pride” but this is where we should embrace them instead of shunning them. This is also underlined by the relative gender-equal and diverse cast (never seen such a mixed genders in command centers and ethnic diversity in any Star Wars as this one) that is a reflection of our current society changing.
The other aspect I also liked is the sincere friendship occurring between Finn and Rey (bounding after escaping the TIE fighters attack on Jakku) and Finn and Poe (that was a very good starting duo when they stole the TIE fighter). It is also interesting to see how the bromance between Finn and Poe will go. I am pretty sure the jerks that cried wolf on Finn (because of his ethnicity) will become even more enraged if this bromance turn into LGBTQ-friendly direction. This is a PSA to these jerks: guys, the society evolved. What was common and standard in society (WASP and racial segregation) one hundred years ago is no more. Time to move on.
So this is the good part of it. Now let’s talk about the part part of it.
Firstly, one of the big mistake done by JJ was unmasking Kylo Ren. That was a no-no unless you want to break the scary from your villain. Darth Vader villain aura works well because nobody knew who was behind it until we knew he was Luke’s father and we only saw the face of David Prose at the end of Return of The Jedi. In the other hand, this effect works very well if you want to make fun of the villain, like “Spacebars” Lord Dark Helmet (played by Rick Moranis, also known as Louis from Ghostbusters). By unmasking him, JJ basically did what happens if you take out a souffle out of the oven too early: it falls flat. Even the death of Han Solo by his own hands cannot bring back and even worse brings the idea that Adam was starring in “Girls” TV series. It is kind of the same if Patrick Dempsey was playing Kylo Ren, remove his mask and suddenly you are exclaiming “McDreamy!”.
Second thing that bothered me was Snokes. Snakes appears to be the man behind the curtain. Yet, he failed to convince me. In the other hand, Palpatine (played by Ian McDiarmid) was way more convincing and manipulative. Palpatine is an example of the dirty politics cliche: playing two sides of the arena, using manipulation and coercion like a chessboard game, showing a public face built on integrity to better hide the dirty games played under the table. If you have to carve out some nuggets from the prelogy, you have to carve out the nuggets with Palpatine. Who is the one pushing the merchants to put a blocus on Naboo and send troops on the ground? It was him. Who was the one directing Padme Amidala (played by Natalie Portman) to ask the Chancellor to step down and takes his place? It was him. Who was the one seeding the battle of clones by requesting full powers to quell the rebellion from the Merchant? It was him. Who was the one gaining the trust from Anakin and brought him to the dark side? it was him. What made Palpatine one of the most formidable villain of Science-Fiction is yet to be shown in Snokes, that for me looks more like a Voldemoor or one alien of the Prometheus than a real villain.
The third was the Starkiller Base (a nice reference to the early name of Luke Skywalker that was originally named Luke Starkiller, confirmed claim by Mark Hamill Q&A tweet). Yes, it was impressive piece of technology but in the same time it was a ridiculous concept to have been brought on the table. If the Galactic Empire had to learn a lesson from Episodes IV and VI, is that Death Stars are completely useless piece of junk. Yes they can blow an entire planet or system (as the Starkiller) when it works. But by the time it would be functional, it get blown. Not only one, but twice. Even the version 2.0 was showing the same design flaw that made it easy to blow. There are even some economists that speculate that the lost of the second Death Star was the reason that put the Empire to fall, as it was such a huge financial loss putting the Empire in default and into a failed empire. Empire and states fall because they reached over the critical mass that drive an overdrive expenditure compared to revenues. You can look at how World Wars (I and II) broke the empires that were in fragile economic situation and resulted in dismantlement of these empires that have no choice but to trim the excesses to keep the vital part of the empire surviving (UK, France, Germany, Japan, former USSR).
Finally, the Starkiller base was something that completely blew over the laws of physics and biology, enough for Neil Degrasse Tyson to slay our unicorns dream. Where did the Empire (or the First Order) found the resources to build up this Starkiller Base? It would have required a unimaginable amount of resources, manpower and money to achieve it. Even if a planet was turned into a Starkiller base it would remains ridiculously costly. Secondly, how can this planet may harbor an ecosystem made of trees or rocks if it was man-made in such a small period of time. This is where I guess they have turned a planet into a Starkiller base. Finally, how can a planet absorb such energy from a star and be able to propel it to another system without being self-destructed by the colossal amount of energy. We are again falling in the conundrum of the Death Star planet, capable to produce enough energy to create a laser beam capable to explode Alderaan. It did not only blew one planet but blew a whole system. What could have been more realistic and maybe possible is kind a catching and concentrating method for solar flares and using these flares as a powerful EMP to knockdown a whole planet communication system (as most system rely heavily on electronics to feed their communications and troops).
Finally, the biggest cliffhanger is the reinitialization of R2D2 at the end of the movie, seeing again this old couple fighting and bickering over is just revive the spirit of the old Star Wars. Now they found Luke system, located in a planet that looked very similar to Earth from the outside (as Rey and Chewie flew over) and in a set of very small islands that are likely somewhere between Scotland and Ireland. I looked hard at the stellar system depicted at the end and still wondering: is Luke Skywalker (that is said have been looking for the first Jedi temple) retired on Earth? That would be some interesting outcome to watch. Another thing is what the heck Luke has been doing all this time as an hermit? Dirty jokes are of course open for debates :p.
A lot of questions have been brought and still remain unanswered, we have two episodes that will answer to them hopefully. What I really liked is that feeling of seeing the original trilogy, the darkness and seriousness of Episode V being translated in this one as well although JJ have been playing a bit too safe on this episode.
This is what Star Wars should look like and this is where uncle Georges had it wrong and I am sure he knew he had it wrong because he has been working very hard to hide “Star Wars Holiday Special” that have preceded the nightmare we have been experienced with Episode I and II. Between Jar-Jar abomination (I am sure if you trim the Jar-Jar and all the Gungan and Naboo fat from Episode I, it suddenly becomes more viewable), the sequences “cul-cul la praline” of Anakin and Padme in Episode II and the dead sequences, we may have something to salvage and more interesting to watch (By the way, glad that Disney let you buy the Blu-Ray by trilogies separated. In my local Best Buy, I had my hands on the last Blu-Ray of Episodes IV-V-VI, where there were plenty of Episodes I-II-III screaming to be picked up as well)
I am waiting now to see the next episode and maybe dig into the Extended Universe to find some answers to some questions that have been raised.
What about you? Liked it? Disliked it? Comments and feedback are welcome. “May the Force be with You”

 

[Metal] Dreamslave – Rest in Phantasy (80%)

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Thanks to the holidays season, I can catch up on my album reviews that I underwent during fall but never had time to write down my review and critique.
One of the album that I particularly liked came earlier in October from the French metal band Dreamslave, a metal band from Lyon, France. This is their first full-released album and as I usually do, I have it go through the commuting test.
My first impressions? Imagine combining Symphonic Metal, with the tempo of power metal bands like Stratovarius or Sonata Arctica. It tells you all about the album: it is fast-paced and dynamic with symphonic elements.
I liked the album in general, as it tries to be distinct from the generic Symphonic Metal band and blend into element of power metal that brings a fast-paced atmosphere to it.
Some tracks are simply let you imagine if we had a French iteration of Stratovarius or Sonata Arctica. For instance, the tracks “Dark Crusade”, “Doomsday” or “The Vinland Saga” are very nice because it blends the fast tempo of the former with the Beauty and the Beast vocal duet (Emma Elegy being the front singer). Some tracks like
My main criticism I may have is the accent of Emma, that sounds sooo French. As a native French speaker, that does not cause any problem, but I rather do not know how non-French listeners would find it annoying. I found it very funny because there are other French metal bands in which the accent is not as obvious. Overall, the album is nice to listen and can let the listener how a French metal band  would sound if this band get the inspiration from Finnish power metal with a female front singer.
Again, the band has an official Youtube channel, allowing me to share a video from the band and let you decide.

 

[Metal] Bloody Melody – Gates of Mind (EP)

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Holidays break is here, giving me some times to write some blog posts :).
To start this first series of posts before the end of the year, I wanted to introduce you to a new French metal band named “Bloody Melody”, from Tours, France.
The band has currently one EP named “Gates of Mind” that I recently purchased and listened. One thing that pleased me is the current sound of the EP that is kind of “old style”. I classify it as gothic metal but you may classify it as you want it.
What I like about it is that sound that I did not listen for a long long time, a sound that I associate with The Gathering dutch gothic metal band, especially from their “Mandylion” (1995) and “Nighttime Birds” (1997) release and in a certain extent also close from Lacuna Coil debut album “In Reverie”. The tempo is slow, melancholic and very pleasant to listen and relaxant. Among the different songs, I particularly appreciated “Gates of Mind” because he remembers the good old times when Anneke von Giersbergen was fronting with the Gathering and when the band were transitioning from doom-metal to a more experimental and acoustic rock. It was a pivotal time as these two albums were simply great before I dropped the ball with the band. It was also a time in which  female-fronted metal bands were not as common as we can see today and yet common names like Nightwish or Within Temptation were still experimenting in their garage.
As the band is fairly new, their Youtube channel is still frugal but they have their official channel and therefore I put one of their song to share so you can listen and appreciate it.

If you like it, you can help the band by purchasing the EP as a digital album on all good digital music providers or by directly contacting the band