Book: Diary of a Wimpy Kid - Dog Days
“The struggle within...”
As a reader, I discovered the adventures of Greg Huffley during a nine month lull between job opportunities. Unlike our "hero" Greg, I can only play video games for so long before they lose their luster. Call it maturity call it what ever you want, I find it impossible to spend endless hours in front of a TV like I could in my youth, and in all honesty I wouldn't want to. Still, such personal revelations aside, I came across these books when I was looking for something non-video based to stimulate my mind and keep me sane during the aforementioned period. As if the popularity of the series wasn't enough of a clue, I ate the first three books up and quickly asked for seconds. A few months later I had "Dog Days" in my hands the day of its release. An hour after getting the book, I was more puzzled than entertained and the reason why would remain a mystery for quite a while.
Thankfully, that innocent little devil known as time as revealed to me why "Dog Days" and it's follow up "The Ugly Truth" aren't as strong as those in the original trio. In a nutshell, Greg Huffley, is a brat. I can't believe it took me four books to realize this but Greg is the poster child for the everyday, all-American brat who is incapable of appreciating anything. I know this probably isn't a surprising or interesting statement coming from someone who doesn't particularly like children or doesn't really care for reflecting on his own childhood (which is ironically what attracted me to these books in the first place) but it's downright hilarious - a.k.a. sad - that Kinney has made a fortune selling children a dead-on reflection of how fickle and shallow they can be. It's so brilliant it's like selling bottled water.
As nauseating as Greg's behavior has become, I find myself more attracted to Rowley and Mr. Jefferson. While I could never see Rowley headlining a series, it's amazing how Rowley is free of all the negativity that weighs Greg down. Rowley never lets anything get in the way of enjoying the moment (unless he's with Greg who isn't immune to outside pressures) and we all know when the two "break up" it's Greg who gets the short end of the stick and is miserable, not Rowley. As for Mr. Jefferson, I would get just as aggravated over Greg's antics, and I'd almost go as far as to disallow my *pretend* son to hang out with someone so thoughtless. Okay, so everything in Rowleyland isn't perfect - his parents are a bit too clingy and overprotective - but I think that's a decent trade off when compared to the delusions Greg's mother has about his "wonderful" summer at the end of the book.
In the end, "Dog Days" is as intriguing as it is disappointing. The unfortunate part of such an equation is whether or not younger readers really understand the inner machinations of these characters - which ones should really be embraced and which ones should not. Maybe I'm not giving kids enough credit, but given the main character falls in the latter category and is so celebrated I'm somewhat doubtful of the message getting across. Kinney is a clever author so I'm sure this is all part of his plan, but in the end the results aren't always attractive.
Overall Score: 7/10
CD: Edguy (2011) Age of the Joker
“Like a 'Quickie' in an Elevator”
Over the last couple of years I've seen my interest in power metal simultaneously strengthen and bow and break. Without going into a band-by-band analysis, it's hard to explain why one band's work remains viable and another band's doesn't. There have been serious surprises and there has been more than enough writing on the wall. Still, the one thing I didn't see coming was my growing disinterest in Germany’s Edguy. As with any lingering feeling, it didn't happen overnight and it didn't just happen due to the last album (which would have been more than enough to justify it) but it was growing even though I failed to admit it. So, if this paragraph is any indication, I've come to accept Edguy isn't the band I loved only a few years back. I've grown and they've grown (into what sometimes I haven’t a clue) so the very least I can do is be honest about it.
The problem with Edguy is ironically alluded to with the title of this album, Age of the Joker. First let's start with the word "Joker." Edguy has always been known for their wacky antics, and you don't have to look too far, especially on newer albums and singles, to see this in action. For years I found this quality endearing, but once tracks like "Lavatory Love Machine" (*groan*) started making their debut the hesitation to dive in head first started to build. This feeling magically disappeared when Rocket Ride was the hot thing but even that managed to boomerang back in a negative way a few years after its release. Still, I knew I had grown tired of Edguy's humor the minute I heard "Sex Fire Religion" on Tinnitus Sanctus. Trust me; it’s as bad as it sounds.
This brings us to "Age." The sad fact is Edguy's humor doesn't age well. Can anyone really listen to "Save Us Now" on 2001’s Mandrake and not get the immediate urge to change the track? Alien drum bunnies may have been funny in 2001 but all it is now is a less-than-impressive filler track on an overstated "breakthrough album." Yet this is only one take on why the word "age" is so important when it comes to Edguy. Age has a lot to do with this new "rock" sound Edguy has cultivated since Tinnitus Sanctus. Now, I'm not going to say that power metal style the band adhered to before was the most fertile valley, but Edguy was good enough – and smart enough - to make it their own most of the time. This failed to be case with the music on Tinnitus Sanctus where the material sounded extremely dated, which is just ludicrous considering this is still a relatively young band. So given that Age of the Joker continues to explore this sound while being a lot more mindful of the likes and dislikes of the people the last album turned off, how does it fair?
Well, the music still sounds a lot older than it really should, but the album successfully bridges the gap and deserves some serious props. The most obvious plus is this is a grower album. It's the kind of album you definitely need to listen to more than once for it to make its impact and reveal everything within. I don’t think there is a preverbal goldmine in here but it’s far from a cellar dweller. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as the experience can be – especially when taken in as a whole - it’s over before it really begins. Unlike previous Edguy albums which could hang around and could be viable months or even years after their introduction, Age of the Joker has an incredibly short shelf life. It took me about a week to get “into” the album, from there it only took two weeks to enjoy what it had to offer and put it away cold turkey. There was no clear cut decree that I was “done” nor did I really get “sick” of the album, it had just run it’s extremely short course. I don’t even have the desire to listen to my favorites like “Two Out of Seven,” “Breathe” and “The Gates to Midnight World” on a stand alone basis. I came, I saw (err… listened) and I left.
As disappointing as the above, I have to wonder if the Age of the Joker the beginning of a reconciliation been a band and a listener or merely a small reprieve before the rift between the two becomes insurmountable. I wish I had the answer. Still, the album has been the first measurable glimmer of hope between the two for a long time and as shaky as the truths is I'm willing to admit it was fun while it lasted. That said; let's hope Edguy makes the most of this opportunity.
Overall Score: 7/10
CD: Edguy (2001) Mandrake
”A Decade later it’s time to get real…”
In his famous bit "Why We Don't Need the Ten Commandments," George Carlin asked why God settled on giving man *ten* commandments. Why not six, eight or twelve? The answer was that ten was a psychologically pleasing number, it was the basis of the metric system, it - perhaps most importantly - sounded official. So what does the number ten have to do with Edguy's "breakout" album Mandrake? Well, Mandrake turns ten this year and as such it seems more than appropriate to reflect back on how "well" it’s aged over the past decade.
As if the inflection above didn't give away what's to follow, Mandrake hasn't aged well. At all. In fact, I can't think of a worse breakout album than this. Why do I say such things? I think most fans can agree that Edguy was already making stellar music way before this album dropped (the ever-so impressive Vain Glory Opera comes to mind) and Mandrake's success only serves to remind one that Edguy should have received the kind of recognition they receive now at least three years before this point. I can't help but think how much more impressive the story of Edguy's rise would be if Vain Glory Opera had been their breakout album. But no, for many the story begins with a by-the-numbers album that is highly overstated in what it has to offer.
So what is wrong with Mandrake? The first problem flies somewhat under the radar (at least for a few years) and it takes about half the album with it: there is way too much filler here. "Golden Dawn," "Jerusalem," "All the Clowns," "Save Us Now" and "Fallen Angels" are pure, unadulterated filler. "All the Clowns" and "Save Us Now" have become victims of the humor reaper that eventually claims funny Edguy tracks for the soulless entities they are but I'd expect some to raise an objection or two with "Fallen Angels." Still, I knew this was a filler track the minute the band tried to make it sound more impressive than it really was on their first live album Burning Down the Opera. The same situation really applies to ten minute "Pharaoh" as well. Edguy simply has better tracks in their catalog.
But speaking of superior tracks, one of the greatest tricks Mandrake tires to pull is making average tracks seem a lot more viable than they really are. The greatest example of this has to be "Nailed to the Wheel." At first there doesn't seem to any negative to this edgy, in-your-face track but it eventually reveals itself as the one-dimensional cardboard cutout it really is. Speaking of things that die hard, one of the biggest blows to the album is when "Painting on the Wall" hits its eventual expiration date. With this being one of the album's centerpieces along with "Tears of a Mandrake," it should surprise no one how damaging this is.
So, given that I've been picking off tracks as quickly as George Carlin picks off commandments in the aforementioned piece, you may be wondering when - or if - I'm going to praise anything that can be heard here. Well, I am, but the pickings are rather slim. As if there was any doubt, the title track is worth one's time as is the ballad "Wash Away the Poison" which is just different enough from previous Edguy ballads to eek out a name for itself. In another odd twist, the bonus track that's on every copy of this album in existence ("Devil and the Savant") isn't as disposable as one would initially think.
While I'm sure there are those that think I've had fun dismantling what Mandrake has to offer, rest assured I have not. Nothing more would make me happier than to remember this album in a brighter light given this was my first Edguy experience. But if I have learned anything over the last ten years, it's not to lie to myself and avoid unpleasant truths, of which there are many. While the failings of a ten year old album are far from being truly important in the scheme of things, you got to start somewhere. Unfortunately way too many people started here when it comes to Edguy.
Overall Score: 6/10
Book: Dave Barry’s Money Secrets
A great read that sums up our relationship with money, but...
Like most people, I have rather peculiar relationship with my income. From asking the classic, rhetorical question of "where does it all go" despite knowing the answer to paying those annoying things that come in the mail each month called bills, there is no doubt that money makes the world go round. Outside the fact one never seems to have enough of it, it's certain that there are certain money-related situations we've all faced. It’s these near-universal experiences that Dave Berry tackles in "Money Secrets" with a sarcastic whit that unapologetically shows us how silly our material-fueled existence really is.
While pointing at all the stupid things we do with our money and how dumb it is for little slips of paper to hold so much theoretical value that we would lie, cheat or blindly run onto a busy freeway for it, there's something brutally honest about Berry's observations. From the stupefying effects an excess of wood furniture has on the executives of a failing corporation to the differing priorities men and women have concerning the various aspects of married life, there’s rarely a moment were he doesn't hit the nail on the head.
Unfortunately, as high as "Money Secrets" climbs, it comes does come with a sense of disappointment. Given that I was so smitten over this release, I was more than eager to check out additional works by Barry. Sadly, I would end up somewhat dissatisfied with "History of the Millennium" and "Boogers are My Beat," giving me the impression that "Money Secrets" is the exception rather than the standard when it comes to his writing and has made me wary of purchasing any additional books. Despite such uncertainties, I can’t recommend this one enough and it’s easily a highlight amongst the books on my shelf.
Overall Score: 10/10
Music: Sethian (2003) Into the Silence
"Sounds like someone has a case of the Mondays, melancholy Mondays that is...."
Like many of the bands I was introduced to during the height of my interest in the European heavy metal scene, Sethian's an outfit I ran across because of their link to Nightwish. Just as guitarists Emppu Vuorinen and Jani Liimatainen introduced me to Altaria in 2003, drummer Jukka Nevalainen would introduce me to Sethian's "Into the Silence." However, unlike Altaria, Sethian has become a one-shot deal since many of its members are involved with other projects. As disappointing as that may seem, it may be for the best. But why? The answer lies within the album's various ins-and-outs.
The first problem the album encounters is while each track has something to offer, there really isn't a song that begs to be the opener. "Nothing Is True" is a fine tune, but the opening riff can't fill the bill. This is mostly due to the fact "Too Far Gone" and "Magdalene" open in near-identical fashion, systematically paring down the variety. This is an area Into the Silence isn't too comfortable with, at least at first. As instrumental as it is for an album to forge an identity within the first tracks, the first five tracks find the band getting a bit too comfortable with their sound. I can't fault great tracks like "Dream Domain" and "Love Under Will" with any individual sins, but they're simply part of a larger pattern that's a bit too predictable.
Thankfully, the sixth track "Purity of Sorrow" and its follow-up "Dead Reckoning" topples this monopoly even though they aren't as immediately accessible. It quickly becomes apparent how important tracks such as these are and how top heavy the album would be without them. The remainder the album is a bit more balanced when it comes to juggling the two types of tracks although it's hard to take the closers "Call of the Wild" and "Into the Silence" over the stilted speed of "Blood Calling" or the haunting presence in "Heavens May Fall."
Still, Into the Silence's final strengths and weakness revolve around Tapio Wilska's vocals and lyrics. If the morose direction of the cover art didn't clue you in, Into the Silence is built upon a rather somber soundscape. This isn't the kind of album one listens to when they're in a super good mood, but when they're a little down and out. As penetrating as Wilska's voice can be when tackling the darker topics touched upon here, I don't think I'd want another album of comparable material. Some things can be built upon to make a brand and some things stand better as a solitary experience. Into the Silence is something that falls in the later category despite how enjoyable it can be.
Anyway, negatives aside I'm glad I picked up and brushed off Into the Silence out of the vast backlog of music I've heard throughout the years. It's not the kind of album that's always going to fit the moment but it definitely hits the spot when its melancholy melodies mirror your own.
Overall Score: 8/10
Altaria (2003) Invitation
“You’re invited, but should you attend?”
I have to admit, the only reason I ever checked out Altaria was because of guitarists Emppu Vuorinen (Nightwish) and Jani Liimatainen (ex-Sonata Arctica). It may seem crappy to check out band based upon a few of it's members but hey, the powers that be want you to focus on that - that notice on the front cover is no sticker, it's actually on the front cover! To some it may seem like I'm angry about that; I'm not, but I think it's fair to warn others while these musicians play the guitars on Invitation, that's all they do. None of the material here was written by Vuorinen or Liimatainen but rather Tony Smedjebacka (drums) and Marko Pukkila (bass) who make up the core of the band and who listeners should be passing judgment on.
That said, Tony and Marko's music on Invitation is an odd creature. Sure, it's drenched with all the typical Euro-styled flavorings, but there's a lot more to consider before one forges an opinion on the album. In general, the music is the better half of the deal and so is the first half of the album. Unfortunately, things start off kind of rough with "Unicorn." "Unicorn" is a great song (and personal favorite) but only if you track down the 2002 demo - otherwise it's overstuffed and overproduced. Demos exist for some of the other songs as well (which can be found on the 2007 compilation "Divine Invitation") but don't surpass their final versions to such a degree.
The handicapped "Unicorn" is followed up with solid offerings like "History of Times to Come," "Wrath of a Warchild" and the excellent "Ravenwing." As content as I am to take those tracks to the bank, the remainder of the album is a bit more vulnerable. The lyrical content of "Fire & Ice" is so cringe-worthy I can honestly imagine it being something I'd find on an old 45 in my attic while others like "Emerald Eye" feel unfinished. This puts pressure on "Immortal Disorder," "Kingdom of the Night" and "Here I Am" to make up lost ground, something they're incapable of, at least at first. It's only after the listener completely immerses themselves in the album that these tracks surrender their tasty charms.
As if it needs to be said, I've accepted Altaria's "Invitation," but should you? That's no easy question. While I could sit here and try and make excuses as to why you should give this a chance, I can't. Why? As explained above, I'm not totally content with the music as Invitation presents it; I had to supplement it with 2007's Divine Invitation to get everything I wanted. When you have to go through that much trouble to get what you're looking for, any kind of plea is dead on arrival. So, if anything, the best advice I can give is to tread carefully, at least until you reach 2004's Divinity.
Overall Score: 7/10
Sonata Arctica: Winterheart's Guild
Has lost a bit of clout over the years…
As odd as such a statement may seem for the beginning of a review, Winterheart's Guild is one of the most peculiar records I've ever come across. It's not the music that's unusual, but rather how many times my opinion of the album has changed. Of the top of the head I can't think of another album that matches the heated, internal debate Winterheart's Guild has stirs within me.
Still, my experience with "Winterheart's" really begins in 2002 after receiving a mixed CD with "Victoria's Secret" and "The Ruins of My Life" on it from an old friend. Of the two songs I found that really I liked "Victoria's Secret" but I totally despised "The Ruins of My Life" and still do. Despite the latter being one of the worst songs that Kakko has ever penned, I was definitely interested in hearing more of the album, especially after checking out Silence and Ecliptica. Unfortunately, but my first impression of Winterheart's Guild was somewhat negative. There was something about it that quickly put in behind its predecessors. The album would remain at the back of the pack until I got a roommate of mine interested in the band and his interest reignited my exploration of the band's music. Eventually I discovered I liked the album, I liked it a lot. There was something about it that was simply "edgier" and a bit more chaotic than the straight-laced albums that preceded it.
For years, and even through the release of Reckoning Night, this was enough to put the album at the top of the heap. Things would eventually change with the release of Unia - an album I disliked for the better part of a year. Once Unia wore down my initial defenses - presenting the change I didn't know I wanted - I realized it and follow-up The Days of Grays outclassed the majority of band's previous material. After listening to those albums, I found it hard to have patience with a speedy, one-dimensional track like "The Cage" or a slow, one-dimensional track like "Gravenimage." These songs are far from bad but they just can't compare to albums with more to offer, or even other songs on this album like "Champagne Bath," "Silver Tongue" and "Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited."
Beyond knocking "The Cage" for being a bit shallow, you may notice that the slower songs are the ones I'm picking on and not the fast ones. This ying and yang is another area that's been slightly tarnished by time. Despite the band being more known for their speedier numbers than slower ones, I always felt the band struck a good balance between both. The band's newest releases reaffirm this to me but Winterhearts, perhaps more than any other album, proves the slower pieces are more susceptible to time's wear and tear. As noted, "Gravenimage" has some problems getting out of the gate as does "Broken" even though it's one of the album's calling cards. Things get even more confusing as the album draws to a close with the ultimate Replica wannabe "The Ruins of My Life" and enchanting yet conflicted "Draw Me."
Neither the star-studded masterpiece nor the misguided rush I initially thought it was Winterheart's Guild is an album that is shrouded in a veil of uncertainty. As important as the album is in the scheme of things, albums like Unia and The Days of Grays have done a more than efficient job at chipping away at its allure. Such a situation is a double edged sword. While one would obviously want the band to continue their effort in making great music no one wants it to be at the expense of where they've been. Alas, that's something musicians can't really help. That said, even though Winterheart's Guild will always be there, it's definitely less inviting than it once was.
Overall Score: 7/10
Last edited by Ashley Winchester (Dec 30, 2011)
"I was wrong, may the divine forgive me..."
In previous reviews, I've often referred to Divinity as Altaria's weakest album. It turns out I was wrong. After purchasing 2007’s "Divine Invitation" and listening to the selections from Divinity on it, I realized this album had a lot more to offer (e.g. Stain on the Switchblade) than I remembered. I can't even begin to explain or understand how songs like "Try to Remember," "Prophet of Pestilence," "Unchain the Rain," "Darkened Highlight" and "Final Warning" failed to catch my ear back in 2001. Even better, once I got the full album I found those songs where just the tip of the iceberg when "Discovery," "Falling Again," and "Divine" revealed themselves as the album's impressive core. "Divine" really deserves a nod for being a title track that's a bit more unusual than most.
Still, but what puts Divinity above and beyond its predecessor and successor is the fact it feels like a concise whole. The dark, grungy sound of the guitar works in tandem with the lighthearted synthesizers to create an intriguing mix. As expected, there are a few small hiccups along the way: "Will to Live" is the weakest cut with its tongue-in-cheek message and "Stain on the Switchblade" is an out-of-place anomaly which is nowhere as appealing as it was years ago. Additionally, "Haven" tries to wedge a ballad like number in an experience that doesn't really need one, but these problems are easy to overlook when the rest of the album works as well as it does.
Divinity also finds strength in its lyrics. There’s a general power metal cliché here and there, but the writing is simply more streamlined than it was on Invitation or the 2006 follow-up The Fallen Empire. In other words, you won't find those awkward, lyrical fragments here or at least to the same degree.
While I may not be a fan of the past coming back and biting me in the... nether regions, Divinity proves there can be pleasant surprises to uncover in one's past. It's a downer it took me so long to truly discover what was here, but it's another solid album I'm more than happy to add to my collection.
Overall Score: 9/10
What's the point of reviewing things when you never give lower than a 6? Seems to me like this is just a thread for your own musings and ramblings after playing games that are already pre-established as good games...?
If you want something lower than a 6 I can give that to you...
Edit: By the way, I gave Tomb Raider III a 5. I wouldn't call that good.
Last edited by Ashley Winchester (Dec 31, 2011)
Cirrus (1998) Back on a Mission
"There's one scrumptious anomaly here..."
Given my usual diet of rock and heavy metal records, one may question why I'd be interested or even poke my head into the Big Beat/Breakbeat quadrant of music. Well, to be honest, it really wasn't a choice per say, but rather a chance encounter that introduced me to Cirrus' music.
So, how would someone not interested in the genre be exposed to it? Licensed music, or more specifically licensed music within a video game. Some may remember the popularity of the Twisted Metal games during the early years of the original PlayStation. The first two games used original music but this changed when Sony switched development teams (to the distain of many) for the third and fourth games. These games contained music from several heavy metal outfits, most notably White Zombie/Rob Zombie. So where does Cirrus come into play? The tenth track on this album - "Times Running Out" - plays in the second stage (Neon City) of Twisted Metal 4.
While I don't dabble in video games as much as I use to despite the fact it's still a large part of my identity, why would anyone be so concerned about a piece of music used in a twelve year old video game? I've always enjoyed video game music and how it coincides with the action on the screen. This usually doesn't apply when a game opts for licensed music, but the Twisted Metal sequels found a nice balance with this and the tracks selected really helped enhance the wreck loose automobile combat. "Times Running Out" really nails this feeling in the dark cityscape it plays in, but what about the rest of the album? What does it offer?
Like a little devil wringing his hands with evil grin, the rest of the album has little to do with this track. I was hoping to hear some similar pieces or pieces that contained the same architecture and sound but no. "Times Running Out" is a true anomaly and definitely feels tacked on to the end of the album. I can't say the rest of the album is bad, but it is certainly isn't what I'm looking for. It's a mystery as to why this song feels so full, almost as if a full band was behind it and the rest are more reminiscent of what would expect from a trace/techno duo. The biggest disappointment has to be the fact there are no lyrics in the booklet; I was dying to find out what they were singing about only to find out I will never know.
If anything, Back on a Mission is a reminder that disappointment is an essential part of discovery and that misleading anomalies exist in the world of music as well. That said I've no problem taking that one moment of magic and adding to the vast well of music I keep on hand and leaving the rest to its own devices.
Overall Score: 4/10
playing games that are already pre-established as good games...?
So what your telling me is everything I grew up with has been "established" as a good game? Whew, that's a load of my mind. Oh, but I like SaGa Frontier which many consider a crapfest... So by this reasoning there is no reason to replay anything my memories fall a little short on, to, you know possibly see it in a different light? Good to know. I guess Legend of Mana is as good as I remember it being (hint: it's not).
Ok, but seriously, my interest in gaming is pretty much frozen in time. I'm not saying I shouldn't play games I've never played but it's probably not going to happen. As for new games someone bought me Dead Space 1 & 2 for Christmas and while I'm not saying they're bad I'm probably never going to play them.
Edit: In the end (and I think I've mentioned this elsewhere for other things) I wrote these things up for myself first and formost so I'd have a point of reference down the line of what I thought of this stuff. If you don't enjoy or think I my collection focuses too much on "good stuff" it it doesn't really matter to me - just ignore the thread. But, I don't know, I thought by some stupid coincidence someone might share an opinion - I don't know. Whatever.
Bad John. Silly John. Why do I insist on trying to interact with people! Stupid!
Last edited by Ashley Winchester (Dec 31, 2011)