Friday, June 28, 2013

Earth Afire Lights Up The Prequel

Earth Afire by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston opens in China where an 8-year-old named Bingwen spends as much time as possible at his local library. It is the only place where he and other children who live in the river valley rice villages can self-administer their education.

A formal education is nearly out of the question. Space is limited at far-off schools and only a few students from the rice villages are admitted about once every six months. To even be eligible for the lottery selection, the child has to score in the top 95 percentile after their eighth birthday.

With such competitive pressure to be selected, it isn't very surprising that the librarian would rebuff a video rumored to be the first glimpse of alien life. She considered it a waste of time, especially when when a line of children were waiting to study. Bingwen saw it differently. He believed it was real.

Earth Afire chronicles The First Formic War.

In Earth Unaware, the first installment in a prequel trilogy set 100 years before Ender's Game, Card and Johnston dispense with first contact by painting a vivid depiction of life aboard the El Cavador, a deep space mining ship in the Kuiper Belt. The second book, Earth Afire, pauses just long enough to introduce Bingwen, a brilliant young boy who becomes bound to another heroic character.

The video he sees also sets up where Card and Johnston pick up the Earth Unaware cliffhanger. Victor Delgado had been sent ahead of the El Cavador to warn earth about the impending invasion.

Although his chances were improbable, he endured several months of space travel crammed in a mining transport that wasn't designed to carry people. And yet, his mission might have been for naught. Much like the librarian peering over a young child's shoulder in China, Luna and the rest of Earth think his footage is faked — a spook vid produced to entertain and alarm children like Bingwen.

Much like Earth Unaware, Earth Afire slowly draws together various characters and tightens the various character threads from several threads as new threads are introduced. The mechanism makes the entire story flow with usual ease, right up until the end with an equally abrupt break. It's patently clear that the trilogy really isn't a trilogy but rather one book broken up into installments.

Orson Scott Card And Aaron Johnston solidify their collaboration with a cohesive second act.

One of several notable shifts is the decision to mostly trade up the perspective of MOPS leader Wit O'Toole for the half-Maori New Zealander Mazer Rackham. Rackham (portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the upcoming movie) is an unconventional hero who has made varied appearances throughout Card's books and stories. In the science fiction classic Ender's Game, he is Ender Wiggins' mentor. O'Toole tested him as a potential MOPS recruit in Earth Unaware, which was the most disjointed story thread.

In Earth Afire, Card and Johnston right the thread by making Rackham active near the action in China. This also gives him a unique opportunity to be within proximity of Bingwen and foreshadows what will become his natural affinity for children. Meanwhile, above the planet, Victor Delgado is forced to create an uneasy alliance with Lem Jukes, prodigal son and heir of the largest mining corporation in history.

As these two primary story threads contract, Earth Afire comes to life with Card and Johnston working as a singular voice. It is exceptionally clear that they found the right pace that will carry the story forward while moving into the political and military arenas where Card in particular has always felt at home.

Earth Afire By Orson Scott Card Lights Up 8.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Anyone who found some fault with Earth Unaware will likely feel much more satisfied with Earth Afire despite the same sudden break at the end. Many readers have mentioned that they didn't expect to like the second book as much as they did. And it leads me to believe that once all the pieces are in place, the  entire prequel trilogy will become regarded as an important part of the entire saga.

Earth Afire, The First Formic War is available from Amazon. You can also find the novel on Barnes & Noble. The book can be downloaded for iBooks or as an audiobook from iTunes. The audiobook is read by eight different voices, which might even be an advantage over print in helping to further define various points of view. You can find our initial review of Earth Unaware here.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Elway Cracks A Case For Leavetaking

Elway, an aging emo-leaning punk rock band from Fort Collins, Colorado, that captured headlines two years ago after retired Broncos quarterback John Elway asked them to change their name, has a brand new sophomore album out. Maybe the newest release will put the old publicity to rest. The band needs a break from it.

Sure, the story brought the band attention but it has also buried something more important. The band is better than good, which was the reason they had changed their name from 10-4 Eleanor in 2011. As more people discovered their music, they felt the old name was a hold back.

Leavetaking widens the distance away from 10-4 Eleanor and their Fort Collins roots. 

Back when the band was releasing 10-4 Eleanor albums like ...Too Bad, the bad kept everything simple. While some punk rock bands found causes, they always saw a cause to party. Most of their music was about that too. Ask anyone who saw them around 2010. 10-4 Eleanor was a good time.

Leavetaking, on the other hand, is a more mature sound for the former punk party clowns. They still know how to have a good time, but you can tell they have become more concerned with their craft.

Craft might even be the right word given that label says they produced the album with the help of Matt Allison (The Lawrence Arms) at Atlas Studio in Chicago and approximately 510 cans of Busch Light. How long it took to finish it off is anybody's guess. The beer, not the album. It's clear the album took as long as it needed.

It's especially clear in the lyrics, perhaps best punctuated by listening to Tim Browne play an acoustic session for KPSU. The performance debuted back in 2011, so expect the studio version to have evolved significantly. (There isn't much tame about Browne as implied here.) He looks different too.

Salton Sea is a song about regret and coming to terms with it. While easily dismissed as one of the band's growing list of sad sack songs, Browne retains some hopeful notes that this too shall pass. He wants to get on with it. On the studio version, the entire song plays tighter at under two minutes.

Tightness is something that can be heard in other areas as well. Brian Van Proyen (guitar), Joe Henderer (bass), and Garrett Carr (drums) are all playing better than ever. They aren't the band that sort of stumbled together to hammer out break-up inspired punk songs in Browne's basement — even if a couple of songs might convince you otherwise.

Montreal, which Browne presents on the album as a stripped acoustic, is about remembering a break up and wanting an apology. The track makes for a solid break from the aggressive and soaring melodies that typify Elway. Their brand of punk rock has mellowed and gotten significantly more complex. At times, it could easily fit into alternative more than punk.

The songwriting stands out above the clutter on Leavetaking.

It cuts at how Browne approaches composition. He has always felt more comfortable writing music that can have an emotional impact on people whether they agree with him or not. For those who do agree, they will find it impossibly easy to relate to him as a songwriter. There is some common ground.

Aside from the shaky vocal opening of The Great Divorce, anyone who has had their faith tested can quickly pick up on Browne's chronic angst about it. He does a fine job balancing his atheistic view and the girl he sings about. Better standouts include One Flew West; Someday, Sea Wolf; Christopher; and There Is A Line.

Prophetstown gets caught up in too much familiarity, but it has a solid sing-along chorus. Ariel is also worth checking out. It's not punk, but it illustrates how easy it is for Browne to write bust-up songs. It's both snarky and bitter, with the only pang off hope being that he won't remember her over time.

Leavetaking By Elway Rips 6.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There isn't any new ground being broken on Leavetaking, but Elway has found the right sound to mature with for another decade or so. That's better than most bands. Other than that, expect some flack over the fact that they spend more time in Chicago than Colorado or that they're overrated. I dunno. They just seem like talented, approachable guys to me that can lay down decent tracks.

You can pick up Leavetaking by Elway on Amazon. Barnes & Noble has the vinyl LP listed. You can also download the album from iTunes. The band has a sporadic schedule in July. Check out their tour schedule listed on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Olloclip Adds A Lens To Your iPhone

A couple of years ago, Patrick O'Neill had an idea. He believed that hardware, not software, was at the heart of great iPhone photography. He wasn't the only one. Designer Chong Pak agreed with him.

They wanted to create a double-sided lens converter that could slip inside your pocket. It sounded like a handy little device at the time. The fact that it was invented in nearby Huntington Beach was a bonus.

The Olloclip is a fisheye, wide-angeled, and macro lens in a compact camera accessory.   

Once the lens started to ship, it quickly attracted a cult following of people who love it. Some are friends of mine. And Apple even liked it enough that Olloclip was invited to enjoy some international retail store space. Almost all third-party products want the invite, but most of them never get it.

What makes Olloclip different is that much like Apple, O'Neill and Pak aimed for simplicity of design and quality components. It only weighs about one-third the size of an electronic car key. It weighs less too. (The small size is also why I recommend the red lens over the black.)

Olloclip made an overview video that runs down the basics, but be warned before you watch it. The product is cooler than the commercial, which resembles an early 80s throwback spot.

Of the three lenses, the two I use the most are the macro and wide angle. While the fisheye works, it's not a look I love. The few times I've taken pictures with it, I mostly edit off the black circular border left behind. Still, some people like it.

Fisheye. With its  hemispherical shape, the lens captures a panoramic-like view (about 180 degrees). While some people use it for landscapes, brightly colored artistic shots seem to suit it. It's especially cool when capturing something that doesn't lose its luster with distortion.

Macro. This is an exceptionally useful lens when you want a close-up without relying on an app. The macro lens magnifies your image roughly 10 times and allows you to get within with 12-15 millimeters of the subject material. The detail is crisp and brilliant, ideal for any small object or even something that would otherwise be too small for the eye.

Wide-Angled. Of the three lenses, the wide-angled is most likely to see some everyday usage. It doubles the field of view, giving the photographer a much bigger canvas. What impressed me the most is the little lens worked exactly like a wide-angled lens is supposed to, giving the photograph more depth of field by exaggerating the subject in the foreground.

An overview of additional products from Olloclip.

Since Olloclip has come out, O'Neill and Pac have been adding to the brand. Most of the additions were to address a few shortcomings. Specifically, the lens fit best on naked iPhones.

The solution was to invent a case specifically for the iPhone 4/4s and iPhone 5 owners. Called the Quick-Flip, the case features a corner that rotates to accommodate the lens. The case also has an accessory that slides onto the case for tripod mounts, video lights, and microphones.

It's a good idea, but still doesn't address a primary design challenge that prohibits using the product with a case. A better idea might be to spring load the clip mechanism, allowing the lens to accommodate a few variable millimeters. While it might not provide a solution for every case, it would ensure a snug fit.

Giving the case a break on special occasions or swapping cases is another solution too. It doesn't seem like too much of a hardship even if most people seem reluctant to take off a case after they put it on.

The Olloclip Lens Snaps On 7.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Overall, Olloclip is a tremendous design achievement in adding hardware to one of the most-used cameras on the market today (our phones). With the exception of a few design limitations, Olloclip is right on target. In fact, rather than focus on additional accessories to be all things to all people, everyone around here is looking forward to more lenses, filters, and other goodies that manipulate the image without relying on digital manipulation all the time.

You can find the Olloclip Quick-Connect Lens on Amazon. Olloclip also maintains its own storefront. New product launches are listed there first. Visit them on Facebook where they sometimes share fan photos too.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Decker Slides Into Psychedelic Folk

Decker Music
There are only a handful of bands that can claim to have been risen from the dead. Decker (a.k.a. decker.) is one of them. Brandon Decker and company suffered a near-fatal rollover accident en route to Santa Cruz, Calif., while touring last summer.

While most band members walked away, singer-guitarist Kelly Cole was ejected from the van. She broke her neck and was Medivaced to the nearest hospital. It was a miracle she survived.

Not only did Cole recover, but she eventually rejoined the band after they retreated to their homes in Sedona, Ariz. As Decker describes it, they were changed people and their newest album reflects that.

Slider is richly drawn psychedelic folk rock.

Anyone familiar with Decker already knows that the Arizona band is the brainchild of singer-songwriter Brandon Decker. He founded it in 2009 and over the short course of five years, the lineup has seen its share of change before settling with Decker, Cole (vocals, guitar), Bryant Vazquez (bass), Mike Leibowitz (drums), and Dan Allmond (guitar). Sam Cavanaugh also guests on the album.

While the lineup is the same on Slider, the band has changed for other reasons. The music is richer and more dynamic, not nearly as loose as some earlier outings. They sound more cohesive as a group, possibly brought closer with a newfound appreciation for their collaboration. The songwriting is also some of their best ever, heartfelt and reflective despite only one song with any connection to the crash.

In The Van was penned while the band was driving to SxSW in Austin, a few months before the crash. Singing the song still haunts Decker, especially because he says that there is an eerie, prophetic quality to the lyrics. There is some symbolism in the song that fits, especially a few words sung by Cole.

But perhaps even more haunting than the In The Van is Killing Me, a slow burn anti-ballad that captures the crumble of a destructive relationship. It's painful and bittersweet, with every effort between two people becoming one more thing to despise. The sense of quiet desperation is apparent throughout.

Although Killing Me is the slowest folk-rocker in their arsenal, it still represents a sound that the band has taken to calling psychedelic desert folk. Like many of their songs, it has the harmonies and structure of folk, melodic spaciousness of psychedelic, and survival despite hardship associated with the desert.

As both a comparison and contrast, check out the album opener, Speak In Tongues. The track has a restrained upbeat bluegrass boogie tempo while retaining many of those other qualities for texture and tone. There is a hint of Southern swamp country in the tune too, but even that is emblazoned with a dry crispness then seems to draw out of Sedona.

Brandon Decker and Kelly Cole
Other standout tracks include the lyric-driven authentic plead of Weight Of Gold Pt. 1, the big drawling funk of Shadow Days, and the dusty country rock groove of Weight Of Gold Pt. 2, and the deliciously complex and dreary Robes Of A Profit. But even with these standouts, there is a case to made for owning the album.

Sure there are a few areas where the album slows to a crawl on tracks like Blowhard, but then the band punches up sections of such songs to make them feel essential to their music.  Even Interluder, which is a psychedelic minute-and-a-half stitch of instrumental noise, lends something to the band's most memorable album to date. Give it a spin in its entirety.

Slider By decker. Dusts Up 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Decker has rendered something raw and unforgettable, allowing what often begins as a simple acoustic foundation to explode into something bigger with the added diversity of both solos and duets. Eventually Slider gets under your skin and stays there; moody, melodic and mesmerizing.

Slider by decker. is available on Amazon. You can also download it from iTunes. For tour information, visit their Facebook page. The band has several upcoming shows in Arizona and two in Santa Barbara, California. More shows to be added daily.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer Dresses With Eloquent Lace

Somewhere in between a more formal full-length gown and a short throwback casual is an emergent summer style with a shorter but unrestrained hemline. The dress itself is sleeveless, but in taking a cue from the long-sleeve short dresses seen this summer, the reef and teal lace dress has an optional addition.

Although Nancy Mac is better known for dresses that stand alone, the United Kingdom-based fashion designer has created two lines of shrugs. Either can alter a dress's appearance, but the shrug is surprising more versatile than its original purpose. Any one of them can be dressed down with jeans.

The only choice you have to make is which shrug fits with your wardrobe best — a fine knit wool or lavishly embroidered lace. One feels a bit more formal; the other more bohemian.

Rather than longer sleeves, Nancy Mac revises the shrug. 

Most the shrugs are light wool, with detachable corsages made from a fine knit. The shrugs come in soft green, purple smoke, blue pearl, and reef teal. They are specifically designed to cover the shoulders and arms, resting high on the back.

Alternatively, Nancy Mac also carries embroidered lace shrugs, with kimono-style sleeves. The shrug hangs loose, making it versatile as a cover-up or to dress up a camisole and jeans. The lace shrugs come in ivory, reef teal and purple smoke.

The shrugs accessorize other wardrobes or Nancy Mac dresses. 

As mentioned, the shrugs were added this year to add length to short-sleeve and sleeveless dresses. It creates a completely different look for many designs, including the Kristen lace dress (above), which is sleeveless. Although this dress has a paneled skirt that is cut to mid-calf, the scalloped edge keeps it casual.

For a different, much more sheer look, the higher cut Olivia dress has a shawl-like collar, scalloped lace-edged hem, taffeta belt, and contrast lining. The design was inspired from the 40s, a flattering classic with an optional belt. What makes it stand out the most is that the cut is classic but the fabric is bohemian modern.

Nancy Mac also carries a floral summer shift dress, with a lightly paneled skirt that is gently fitted at the waist. In lieu of a belt, it has a drawstring back and can be accompanied by a lace jacket. The pattern also lends well to the Gabrielle dress.

A couple of graphs about Nancy Mac.

Nancy Mac is a womenswear fashion boutique in the United Kingdom. It was founded by two sisters who wanted to design a line of standalone separates cut from luxurious prints and fabrics.

What makes Nancy Mac unique is that they only design two label collections that are made available to independent boutiques throughout the United Kingdom. This leaves them more time to get involved in other projects, creating designs for specific couture shows and sometimes the Royal Academy.

Alternative styles that take the dresses shorter.

While many Nancy Mac designs land just above or at the knee, don't discount other designers looking for much higher cut with long-sleeve dresses. Doing so breaks a bit from the classics and brings out a lively 60s vintage. There is considerable more sass than style.

The dress itself features a mostly transparent mesh in support of a short black party dress. For something more bohemian, a different fashion retailer accessorized a dramatic floral print with a peekaboo black lace to cover the arms and bring the dress up to the neckline.

Summer Classics By Nancy Mac Pin Up 7.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

What makes Nancy Mac designs work is how effortlessly they make classics modern. Some elements of the dresses even remind me of Downton Abbey. Although the dresses have a different style, the timeless qualities of lavish fabrics and lace are all very visible.

You can keep up with Nancy Mac collections at NotOnTheHighStreet, which specializes in helping small businesses and designers in Britain get noticed. The online outlet makes United Kingdom purchases easier, all over the world. The alternative styles were found at a discount retailer, ZLZ.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Splashh Debuts With Comfort Mood

When Toto Vivian and Sasha Carlson left Byron Bay, Australia, last summer, neither one of them knew precisely where the collaboration and collection of psychedelic indie pop songs might end up. It wasn't really clear, in fact, until they landed in Hackney, East London and lined up their first gig last May.

As soon as they did, the duo knew they couldn't put it off anymore. They needed a little help from their friends to round out the band. So they started calling around until Jacob Moore and Thomas Beale turned up for their first live set and it all fell into place.

With Vivian having played with Beale in another band and Carlson having known Moore for years in Aukland, the only real hitch was that Moore was still in New Zealand. The whirlwind trip had him playing with his old band one day, and flying to London the next day to rehearse with his new band.

Comfort is a brilliant alternative indie rock debut with ample psychedelia.

The album, Comfort, doesn't really take its name from being a theme per se. It's more like a state of being. Everyone in Splashh has played in several bands before and they've all settled into the idea that it is more important to do things with people you like rather than those who promise everything.

Most of the music came together by playing in the moment. They prefer to go with it more than overwork it.

Vacation, which was the first track the band ever played together in the studio, sounds like that. It's a fuzzy fringe daydream song about taking off and finding some solace away from the hectic pace of wherever you are. It's simple, but has a stylish and steady psychedelic atmosphere.

All I Want To Do feels much the same way, except with a sound that is even more relaxed and almost underwater. It's not just about wanting a vacation, but imagining what it might be like to live without worker worries. The music can be a bit mangled, but only in the best possible and most cheery way.

For anyone who has listened to music for more than a few decades, there are similarities and familiarities to be found, casting the foursome as a cleaned-up grunge band in some quarters. But maybe what's more interesting than who they sound like is the crowd that found them. They never heard that music.

Not everything about the band has a sunny smile. Just most of it.

While most of their music floats along with Carlson delivering a steady stream of distant and dazed vocals, Splashh doesn't rely on single gimmick to win people over. They balance out their brightness with edgier and somewhat darker tracks at times.

Two of them, So Young and Washed Out, touch on sadder stories — dismissive in one instance, heartbroken in the other. There is a tinge of hopelessness in both songs despite the airiness that cocoons the lyrics. Headspins, which opens the album, isn't as cheery as you think on the first pass either. Neither is Need It, which carries the casual call to run away from everything.

What makes it all work are the simple but penetrating chords, the right amount of fuzziness, and enough authenticity to give pop a punch in the head. It's human and modern but unafraid to give nods to the late 60s and early 90s. Comfort is worth owning as an album and make sure to add the bonus track Sun Kissed Bliss to the mix.

Comfort By Splashh Makes Waves At 9.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Comfort is a jewel because it achieves exactly what it sets out to do, without trying so hard or thinking that fuzz and distorts can turn something foul into something fun. While it probably wasn't nearly as effortless as it sounds (or the band makes it sound), Comfort catches everyone off guard in that it's a debut that gets it right. They can only go up from here.

Comfort by Splashh can be found on Amazon or order the vinyl from Barnes & Noble. Comfort is also available from iTunes. The band has also put most of their songs up on YouTube, but the best place to catch their chronicle is Facebook. Add them to this year's best debut list.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Aric Davis Makes A Stake In The Fort

The Fort by Aric Davis
In his most tightly written thriller to date, author Aric Davis sets his newest story to work in the unsuspecting suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's the summer of 1987 and sports have taken a back seat for three local boys. They have bigger plans with the inheritance of scrap wood from an old deck.

After building a fort almost 20 feet off the ground of a small unclaimed patch of forest, Tim, Scott and Luke intended to play Vietnam snipers with their air rifles all summer. It was a sign of the times. Oliver Stone's Platoon and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket sparked a resurgence in Vietnam war movies.

This time around, Americans had finally come to terms with a conflict they had largely shunned for more than a decade. The soldiers were finally being cast as heroes until the movies made in the 1970s.

Naturally, the three boys don't make the connection. It lurks just under the surface, much like something else that was happening in the 1980s. Parents were becoming aware that their children were venerable.

A bottle cap defense system was meant to keep the boys safe. 

To keep the boys safe, each one carries a different bottle cap that they can place on the lowest ladder rung before climbing up. If any of them hear noises from the fort but don't see a bottle cap, they can cautiously retreat. Unfortunately, everyone's concern for safety in the forest turns out to be misplaced.

It is Molly Peterson who doesn't return home from a drive-in one night. The only explanation offered up by her friends, including Tim's sister, is that she was last seen making out with a boy that nobody knew. Molly disappeared shortly after, leaving them surprised but not worried. They aren't alone either.

Theaters from Grand Rapids history
The truth is no one would have given a second thought so soon if a teenager decided to break curfew under normal circumstances. But these circumstances weren't normal. There has been a series of murders downtown and the police would rather be safe than sorry.

The detective assigned to the case, Dick Van Endel, sees it differently. After speaking to Molly's friends, Van Endel becomes convinced she had run off. They might all have the same story, but they all sound too rehearsed. Besides, Molly doesn't fit the modus operandi. The killer targets prostitutes.

Van Endel is just about to write the case off as a waste of time when two things happen. From the safety of their fort, the boys catch a glimpse of a would-be kidnapper holding a gun on the missing girl. And then a few hours later, the police discover a days-old body behind the drive-in presumed to be the girl.

Since both accounts can't be accurate, the detective is forced to make a choice. Either he pursues the leads left near the dead body or he takes a leap of faith and follows up with the boys. The wrong choice has consequences. It's only a matter of time before the killer strikes again or, if the boys are right, kills the missing teenager.

Aric Davis continues to make strides in his craft as a novelist to watch.

Although there is a tightness to the writing that Aric Davis has been working to master, it comes with some sacrifice this time. By alternating between the boys, killer and detective, some of the suspense is stripped away as the story unfolds. The reader knows too much, but without getting to know the characters.

Aric Davis
While there are hints of who the principal players are throughout the book, none of them are as fully developed as those who populated A Good And Useful Hurt or even Rough Men. The closest anyone comes to seeing his thoughtfulness shine through is Detective Van Endel, a character who plays a supporting role in other books too. He is not the protagonist, but we start to understand the decisions he will make later even if we don't understand what made him so coolly aloof in the first place.

With the much-loved grit gone and a sense of purpose missing in the plot, The Fort wants to be several things and never becomes any of them. What's left is a well-told and tightly crafted story that is entertaining by all accounts. It's not his best story, but it is Davis's best writing and certainly worth a read this summer.

The Fort By Aric Davis Climbs 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

With four books to his credit and a serial being written, Davis has come into his own as a writer. His storytelling is always interesting and fresh, even when he succumbs to rushing his endings. The Fort will certainly be a must-read for any fan, another opportunity to hang out with an authentic voice.

The Fort by Aric Davis can be found on Amazon. You can also order the book in its trade paperback form from Barnes & Noble. Although not available for iBooks, Nick Podehl narrates the audiobook available on iTunes. Podehl infuses something reminiscent of Stand By Me for a different generation's qualities when the story is grounded on the three kids. It might have gone in that direction, but the point of view splits keep it from being a coming-of-age story. Visit Davis at his site too.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Divine Fits Unchains A Double-Sided

Divine Fits
Most people know that the formation of the Divine Fits can be traced back to Britt Daniel (Spoon) attending a Handsome Furs show and approaching Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs) just to tell Boeckner he had one of the best rock voices he'd ever heard. 

Then Boeckner told Daniel that he used to order Spoon singles through the mail back in high school. More than that, Spoon had convinced Boeckner to give up on the Metallica cover band of his youth and set out on a path that would eventually lead to Wolf Parade

The exchange was enough for them to keep in touch, which turned out to be a good thing. The Handsome Furs was about to end; a thing called the Divine Fits was about to begin.

Chained To Love keeps the Divine Fits fresh. 

Almost nobody gave much attention to the double-sided single when it was first released, but then the co-frontmen turned up on Conan to cram the two songs into a four-minute melody that still has people nodding in agreement. The Divine Fits are more than a super group with Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks) and Alex Fischel. They are super performers, who can swap guitars mid-show and give their live performances life on sheer charisma alone.

The two singles are slated to appear on a brand new 12" that will be released this summer, but the singles are good enough that waiting for the album release seems pointless. Here's an upload of the television performance as a preview of things to come.

Conan wasn't the only place that the Divine Fits was making an impression. On June 17, the band set out to lay down a live record at Third Man Records in Nashville. To make it right, they wanted a live audience to give them additional energy. For $10, anybody could join them.

Thy also recorded a crazy outtake of four songs over at Daytrotter a few weeks ago. It's not something most people know about beyond hardcore fans. One track in particular, Neopolitans, is an especially nervy song that pulls you as taut as the uneasy music. Check it out after the double-sided singles. 

The singles themselves are everything you might imagine from Divine Fits. Chained To Love has an indie pop song feel with Boeckner delivering terse vocals against tight playing that will immediately remind anyone of a throwback beat several decades ago, with a strong bass line contrasting with the vocals.

If one thing sounds different from their debut it's that the band is clearly not content unless it's experimenting. The song doesn't have the same meat and grit that Shivers or some of the other picks off A Thing Called The Divine Fits, but it doesn't necessarily have to be cool. 

Ain't That The Way isn't that different either, with Daniel taking over the vocals and delivering a little Spoon to the overall sound. It's mostly more polished like Chained To Love, except with a much more roots rock underbelly driving the verse. 

 Some people might point out that parts of both songs feel like vintage Spoon or Wolf Parade. But that is part of the magic in the exchange that Daniel and Boeckner have been working out. Boeckner in particular has said that he likes revisiting sound and image-driven phrases, hoping to perfect them with every pass. I can only assume that Daniel is on board with this thinking, working to evolve favorites.

Chained To Love Unchains 7.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Listening to the singles really shows some progression as a group, especially in that Fischel doesn't distract but rather brings his talent to the table. If anything, in comparing the album to what might be coming up next, Divine Fits has found a sound worth the snapshot, leaning more pop rock and not so much electronic while celebrating the successes of their co-frontmen.

Chained To Love/Ain't That The Way are available for download on iTunes. You can also find the two singles on Amazon. Both tracks are expected to make the album. For show information, check the band  out on Facebook. The band is busy, with Daniel being even busier with both Spoon and the start of another band soon.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bryce Canyon Is Memorable Earth Art

Bryce Canyon
Although the Grand Canyon in Arizona is the best known canyon in the world, it's Bryce Canyon in Utah that has some of the most striking rock formations in the United States. While hoodoos can be found on every continent, no other rock spires truly compare to the size, scope, and color of Bryce Canyon.

The spires take on a grand shape and scale at the Bryce Amphitheater, which is the most visited section of the park. It's one of a series of breaks eroded into the eastern slope of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, a major plateau that rises to an elevation of 7,000 to 9,300 feet in southwestern Utah.

The plateau was created 10-20 million years ago by an uplift on the larger Colorado Plateau. After the uplift, erosion carved soft rock areas away and left harder areas that have since been whittled down by wind, rain and snow. The most durable hoodoos are capped with a magnesium-rich limestone that dissolves at a slower rate and protects the softer limestone underneath.

Four vista points to take in the dramatic beauty of earth art.

There are more than 13 different viewpoints within Bryce Canyon, with all of them accessible from spur roads that run between the cliffs and Highway 63, which runs parallel to the cliffs. The four best vantage points include Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration, and Bryce Point.

The first two, Sunrise and Sunset, were named after the two best times to take photographs. At these two times of day, the park features explode and the colors become even more pronounced. Almost all of the most famous photos taken in the park were taken at these two times, one of the reasons that day trips to the park never truly capture the magnitude of the canyon.

Bryce Canyon
Each of these two viewpoints are best known for their immediate rock formations, with Sunrise Point capturing the towering Boat Mesa and Sunset Point including Thor's Hammer, a formation that resides just below the overlook on the northern edge. Conversely, Bryce Point is probably the best place to take in the entire amphitheater and Inspiration Point offers several varied perspectives.

All of them highlight the lower pink formations that are made up of sand, silt, and iron and the upper white members are a purer limestone. On a clear day from the bristlecone pine-dotted plateau, it's easy to see more than 100 miles beyond the amphitheater and into the lowlands beyond.

Things to do in and around Bryce Canyon.

After taking in the amphitheater from various vistas, hiking is one of the most common activities. There are more than 50 miles of trails and hiking paths, including the the Rim Trail, which follows the edge of the amphitheater for approximately 5.5 miles. Other trails give visitors the opportunity to descend into into the amphitheater, ranging from the the Queens Garden Trail at Sunrise Point (a 320-foot decent) to the Navajo Loop Trail that passes through the narrow slot of "Wall Street" and a closer look at Thor's Hammer (a 580-foot decent).

There are many other trails, with Swamp Canyon being one of the least traveled but most interesting as it is bounded on two sides by "fin" formations and gravity-defying hoodoos. Because it connects to the Under-The-Rim Trail, hikers can follow a loop and return to the Rim Trail rather than backtracking.

Bryce Canyon Lodge Cabin
In addition to hiking, Bryce Canyon hosts various events throughout the year. They include guided tours to prairie dog colonies, astronomy events, moonlit night tours, ranger programs and area horseback riding. In the winter, there are even snowshoe hikes that take visitors out in the solitude.

Although not included in the review, non-campers might consider staying at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, which is a National Landmark that was built throughout the 1920s. It is the last of the original lodges designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood. All of the lodges, hotels, and motels in the area are outside the park. While they aren't lavish enough to earn 4- or 5-star ratings, the staff make up for it. Reserve a cabin or the second floor as space is available.

Bryce Canyon Breaks The Landscape At 9.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Bryce Canyon is open 24 hours a day, with the visitor center open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. between May and September. Hours vary between October and April. The visitor center includes a small museum with geology, wildlife, star gazing, and history. Wildlife abounds in the park, ranging from chipmunks to mule dear. The park itself is ideal for art and photography. Summers tend to be more crowded.

For a complete overview of travel accommodations in and around Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park, compare top travel deals at For more information about the Lodge Bryce Canyon, you can also visit the site. The best part about staying overnight is that the park is one of only three International Dark Skies parks in the United States.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dear Thief Is Dark, Heavy And Heady

There are two ways to take Dear Thief, an impossibly eclectic art rock band out of London. They are either one of the most original bands you've ever heard or a swirling thump and buzz of barely listenable rhythm and noise.

Sometime you might even wonder if they want to be known as the trio channels equal energy into other projects. Vocalist-guitarist Yusuf B’layachi also fronts his new band B’layachi and sometimes plays with Vic Godard (Subway Sect). Drummer Tim Greany is equally busy, lending his sticks to B’layachi as well as other gigs as they come along.

Bassist Emma Bennett is almost better known as an artist. Her latest work, for example, follows the band's recent release, Oh Yeah. She painted the album cover, an exercise in attempting to make ephemerality permanent.

But she does something else too. Rather than approach the work like historic photographer Roger Fenton or contemporary photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, Bennett gravitates to the dark side. Her canvas captures loss, holding onto this last moment, i.e., a rabbit lying still by seasonal flowers, with any beauty just beginning to wilt and decay.

Dear Thief captures several dark and drawn-out moments with Oh Yeah. 

Whether the art inspired the album or the album inspired the art hardly matters; the direction is woven together. The collection of eight tracks explores something darker, heavier and much less accessible than their debut. And yet, Oh Yeah feels more poignant too.

Most of the tracks rely on hard-grooving, rhythmical directness that repeats with regularity and is only broken by an occasional instrumental flair. Another consistency, from one side of the album to the other, are deep rhythms that bury the distant echo of B’layachi's nearly spoken vocals.

B’layachi seems to prefer it that way. Even with his new band, he drops back and otherwise diminishes his vocals. In this case, it almost makes Oh Yeah sound like it was recorded in two different rooms: the band was in the studio and their frontman was in a closest.

Some of this works. Some of it doesn't. But the only reason it doesn't is because B’layachi often forces you to tune out the groove if you want to hear the lyrics. Only when you do can you get that Hotel smacks of angry insomnia, an endless chug and throb before their welcomed transitions.

One of the best tracks on the album is the two-minute tight Big Arse Rabbit. Lee McFadden caught the track live when Godard asked Dear Thief to play a last-minute support set at the St. Aloysius Club in London. The studio track sounds much fuller, but this is one of the few previews put out.

Although heavier, this is the sound that captured some attention a few years ago with Under Archway. What makes this band so interesting is how they oscillate between post punk and impulsive nervous noise. At times, it's almost hard to get a handle on the sound. Sample at least one full track a few times.

Elephant tells a hypnotic tale of how someone lives on the dark side of the street, contrasting his ugly here and now with a hint of where he comes from. Move picks up the pace, conveying a desire to get somewhere despite being trapped in place. And Ground Swell carries a haunting resignation backed by more heavy and melodic riffs. After Big Arse Rabbit, any of those are good places to start.

All in all, there is plenty to like about the Dear Thief for anyone who has an open ear and wants to listen to some loud and insistent arrangements with unapologetic lyrics. It's all about snapshots and ruts, especially those ugly enough that they aren't meant to be permanent.

Oh Yeah By Dear Thief Bangs Out 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Interestingly enough, the band recorded the album with two different approaches this time out with John Hannon. Some tracks were well crafted before being laid down. Others where improvised in the studio. The effect is both memorable and ephemeral as intended, even if the album seems likely to slip by unnoticed. Maybe that is all the more reason to preserve it.

You can pick up the heavily idiosyncratic album Oh Yeah by Dear Thief on Amazon. You can also find Oh Yeah on iTunes. Follow the band on Facebook if you want to catch them live. While the band won't be for everyone, Dear Thief makes for some great original art.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Joe Hill Rolls NOS4A2 Down The Road

Charles Talent Manx has a gift. He can travel roads that almost nobody knows like The Night Road, Gumdrop Lane, and St. Nicholas Parkway. He can find the dreamlike destinations  Lovecraft Keyhole, Pennywise Circus, and Christmasland. And as long as he keeps his pristine 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith gassed up on misery and in mint condition, he can save children from futures filled with abuse and malcontent.

For better than 100 years, he has done exactly that. He peruses their futures, discerns their fates, and conspires to snatch them up before any additional harm might happen. He is a savior and eternal  benefactor, hellbent to return and preserve their innocence forever — about ten kids with every run.

It's a tough job, but Manx finds the rewards well worth it. His children, those he saves, are treated to cocoa every day and presents every morning — a never-ending Christmas Day with costumes, games, and amusements. It's a place so miraculous that the price of admission hardly seems to matter.

Charles Manx owns a vanity plate. It reads NOSA42. 

Manx isn't the only person with the talent. Small town librarian Maggie Leigh can see into the hidden spaces any time she plays Scrabble. Victoria McQueen can shortcut her way across the countryside on a Raleigh bicycle. And even Bing Partridge, who doesn't possess any supernatural ability, performs his own brand of magic with a gas mask and gingerbread smoke.

1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith
It's these special talents that draw them all together. Partridge makes the perfect elf for Manx, although he prefers to see himself like a solider with a chest full of medals. Leigh makes a less-than-perfect seer for McQueen, who uses her bicycles to find anything and everything from lost bracelets to child abductors.

It's the latter talent, in fact, that sets Manx and McQueen on a collision course. After a fight with her mother, McQueen wants to find some trouble and the shorter way bridge doesn't steer her wrong. It opens the way to Sleigh House, a halfway house of sorts for Manx and his wayward children.

The Sleigh House was a cottage, surrounded by pines and decorated year round for Christmas. The music playing on the radio was always the same, Burl Ives with Holly Jolly Christmas or something similar. The always-present aroma of turkey dinner wafted in air. And the boy she spied in the backseat of the Wraith seemed pleasantly content until McQueen leaned in a little closer.

He didn't look like any boy she had seen before. His face was lunar in the its paleness. His eyes were hollow. His veins were black and seemed to crawl beneath his skin. His hair was the color of frost. And although he warned McQueen away when she first approached him, he turned gleeful as soon as he could hurt her and call for his abductor. Manx was almost merry to learn someone wanted to find him.

A couple of graphs about author Joe Hill and his supernatural story.

Joe Hill
Joe Hill finds a new voice with NOS4A2, taking on a tone that is much simpler than his earlier work and, at times, sounds like it is written for a young reader audience despite the adult content. It's part of the mechanism that makes the novel creepy in between bursts of fast-paced suspenseful prose.

Everything about NOS4A2 balances sickly sweet and terrifyingly abrupt, a feat few authors could reach. Hill also does his best to take the romance out of vampirism, which is good, and hurls some of his own feelings about what he calls the over-commericialism of Christmas by bending Manx's idealization of it and innocence around full circle into a dark and horrific place with painted on smiles.

Although most people know he is the son of Stephen King, he originally chose the pen name Joe Hill (shortened from Joe Hillstorm King) to succeed on his own merit. His early successes include comics and short stories. His first novel was Heart-Shaped Box, published in 2007.

NOS4A2 By Joe Hill Rides 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While not as strong as his debut, Heart-Shaped Box, but better received than his underrated novel Horns, NOS4A2 is an epic-length novel without an epic story. At the same time, it doesn't really matter because the story is enjoyable all the same, mostly because Hill has mastered the art of constructing scenes that people care about. You almost can't help but to want one more.

NOS4A2: A Novel By Joe Hill is available from Amazon or you can order the book from Barnes & Noble. It can be downloaded for iBooks and the audiobook is brilliantly read by Kate Mulgrew. Hill handpicked her to read the audio edition, which could be the best narration casting decision of the year. Mulgrew gives McQueen a pained likability, an extra dose of dimwittedness to Partridge, and a near Charles Burns-like sound to Manx.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Almost Finds Fear Inside Of Bones

Aaron Gillespie and The Almost did something few rock bands do. They holed themselves up in a small room at Omni Studios in Nashville for five days and played 11 songs front to back until they had an album. The resulting live studio album, Fear Inside Our Bones, is a foray into thunderous and sometimes gritty rock.

"It's something none of us have ever done and with the time crunch, we were surprised how tight of a live band we've finally become," said Gillespie. "Thematically, we bounced the entire record off using anxiety as our backboard."

The sound on Fear Inside Our Bones is more urgent and rock-driven than their sometimes popish sophomore album, Monster Monster. It recaptures the freshness The Almost possessed when they released Southern Weather in 2007 while showcasing how the band has matured at the same time. They definitely feed off each other's energy when they play live, even in a studio. You can feel it.

The song Ghost is an addictive album opener, with its heavy refrains and unbridled bluesy base. Gillespie uses all of it to his advantage, giving his vocals some lift in order to soar above it. The lyrics have depth, splitting the chorus and verse into present and past.

The hardship theme of it, someone with nothing to lose but barely hanging on, rolls over into the third track too. Although more radio friendly with straightforward and repetitive lyrics, it's the Southern rock roots vibe that holds the song together like dirty rice. Overall, I'm Down makes for a great pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps rock song.

The title track, Fear Inside Our Bones, is bookended between those openers. It opens with one of the softer rock moments on the album before revealing some bristle one minute into the song. The band alternates between pop and rock throughout it. The best element is the chorus, even if it promises that the song will play dirtier than it ever does.

The balance of Fear Inside Our Bones has highs and lows. 

Never Be Like You and Come On cut two ways, depending on your point of view. Fans will hear two tracks that suggest the band comes into its own on the album, settling into a groove that sounds like the band. Others will hear something else. Although both songs have their moments, there is a sense that they're only going through motions — taking a break between better tracks.

The Almost gets back on track with The Florida Sun. The underrated ballad might revolve around the Sunshine State, but it proves more accessible in that it can reach anyone reminiscing about whatever place they consider home. It's one of Gillespie's most personal and intimate tracks.

As the sixth track, The Florida Sun marks the halfway point of the album. Fight Song, Won't Let Go, and So What  revive the never-give-up attitude of Fear Inside Our Bones. Each gives The Almost a slightly different rock vibe: urgent, brooding, and tight. Love Is Coming is the most obvious Christian rock song in the mix and Lonely Boy breaks ranks as the weakest closer in memory. Seriously, skip it.

Overall, Fear Inside Our Bones is Gillespie's best work to date as a singer-songwriter. It also demonstrates how far the band has progressed with Dusty Redmon (guitar), Jay Vilardi (rhythm guitar), Joe Musten (drums), and Jon Thompson (bass). While there is obviously more room for maturity, there isn't any question that recording straight to tape was the right call.

Fear Inside Our Bones By The Almost Picks Up 4.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Fear Inside Our Bones promises to pick up some of its earliest supporters, especially those who thought the last album was a little too polished. This time out, there is an ever-present honesty in every song that works. And while it is too bad that not every song works, some tracks are clearly winners.

Fear Inside Our Bones by The Almost is available on Amazon. You can also download it from iTunes or pick it up from Barnes & Noble. The Almost is currently touring on the West Coast, with plans to head south in July. You can find the band's touring schedule on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Warhammer Quest Takes A Game Turn

While Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition left some people wondering why anyone would ever create a classic turn-based role playing tabletop game without overcomplicating everything, along comes Warhammer Quest. It delivers Dungeons & Dragons style play better than any app before it.

Although role playing is naturally limited — making the game more akin to a turn-based dungeon crawl (a.k.a. hack-and-slash campaign) — Warhammer Quest does exactly what it sets out to do. It allows you to lead a party of four pre-generated characters on a series of loosely-tied dungeon adventures.

Warhammer Quest works as an interactive story, with you playing every player. 

The party consists of the proverbial troupe made famous by Lord Of The Rings: marauder (fighter), elf (archer), dwarf (fighter), and wizard. There are three additional characters that can be purchased, including classic Warhammer-like characters such as a troll slayer dwarf, warrior priest, and archmage elf. Although the additional character packs are steep, the game is tooled for future character packs too.

The important thing to know here is that while a large party can travel from town to town together, only four find themselves on a quest or adventure at a time. So unless you plan to ignore one of the original four outright, characters will have to be rotated into alternating quests in order to keep them relatively close in level, something that is challenging even if they journey together.

While the characters do place treasure, artifacts, weapons, and armor in a community pool (unless they possess the item), experience is tallied on individual merit with an unfair advantage of last hit being awarded the kill. The point is that every character needs to get their hands dirty to progress.

A quick overview of a turn-based, semi-strategy game. 

The game is mostly broken into three play areas: towns, dungeons and the map. Towns (and cities) are where the party can sell and purchase goods, level up, pray to their patron, and find quests that are tied to a larger overarching story of sorts. Dungeons (and quests) are located around the city, usually consisting of missions (rescues and assassinations), quests (find specific treasure), and arch stories.

The map is how the party navigates between the other two play areas. If they are starting in a town or city, for example, every quest marker within their immediate proximity will be available. Sometimes something might happen on the road, but those stories are mostly scripted content and not real action.

The skirmish elements take place in dungeons and on quests (which are also dungeons with different goals). Much like the board game that Rodeo Games ported into an app, the battle area is a dungeon grid. Characters move to engage monsters, use items or cast spells. Spell casting can be a mixed blessing. Characters within the spell radius can and will be injured by friendly fire. Wild swings can cause damage too. And some characters don't fight well in a crowd, occasionally becoming pinned.

Once you kill all the monsters (orcs, goblins, trolls, etc.), the party collects any loot or artifacts before moving on to the next encounter. It's surprisingly fun, even if turn based means a slower paced game.

What Warhammer Quest currently lacks are any point-and-click search points in the richly rendered landscapes. As far as anyone can tell to date, there are no secret doors or non-combatant encounters.

A little bit about the development team at Rodeo Games. 

The basic game play concept not only comes from Warhammer Quest, but also the perfection of a platform designed for a different franchise. Rodeo Games developed a space story franchise called Hunters and Hunters 2. Hunters 2 has a similar play style as well as some fun customization. The attention to detail is apparent in all their work.

The development team came together specifically to make iOS games in their Guildford, Surrey studio, which is located in the United Kingdom. The developers have worked for a few large-scale projects, ranging from Criterion Games and Lionhead Studios to EA Games and BodyCount.

Warhammer Quest By Rodeo Games Grinds 8.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Rodeo Games has been known to work diligently at producing additional content for the games it creates, which keeps everything fresh for nominal support. The game already has an expansion pack.

Overall, Rodeo Games has set a new bar. And after talking it over with my editor, there isn't too much that can be improved. A few long-term suggestions might include modest customization for characters (especially names), findable loot (as opposed to automatic awards), secret doors, traps and locks for thieves, etc. And, of course, if they are ever able to port characters or play parties made up of multiple iPad players (especially those entering lightly custom dungeons), they might have a serious run on paper games too.

Warhammer Quest is only available from the iTunes App Store. The initial game is $4.99 and well worth it. While there are in-game purchases and warrior packs, the initial game is immersive, offering plenty of play time. Visit Rodeo Games for more intel.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Queens Of The Stone Age Skip Death

Josh Homme
Josh Homme was talking about a sixth Queens Of The Stone Age (a.k.a. QOTSA or Queens) album well before starting Them Crooked Vultures with John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl. Even so, most people assumed that Queens would take a back seat as this new band earned ample acclaim.

But before Vultures could set a date for their second album, Queens released its remastered debut and Homme lent his talents to The Mark Lanegan Band, a session that foreshadowed things to come. Grohl, Alain Johannes, Elton John, Mark Lanegan, James Lavelle, Nick Oliveri, Trent Reznor, Jake Shears, Alex Turner, and others contribute to the new album Like Clockwork, setting the stage for what some think of as a cyclical nature of music. The Homme sun dial is pointing at Queens for now.

Along with those guests (and Joey Castillo before he left), the new Queens lineup includes Troy Van Leeuwen (guitars), Dean Fertita (keys), Michael Shuman (bass), and Jon Theodore (drums). If you imagine that all these names might make Like Clockwork sound eclectic, you would be right. It's manic, with most of its inspiration drawn from a near-death experience.

Like Clockwork rolls in like a daze and out like a fog. 

There is an ever-present black hearted edge to everything, but mostly Like Clockwork is an exercise in Homme becoming a better songwriter. The opener, Keep Your Eyes Peeled, couldn't make it more obvious and Homme second guesses reality. You could plant a tombstone next to his perspective.

The second riff-ripe track, I Sat By The Ocean, is all about heartbreak. It might even be a well-deserved heartbreak but Homme makes the case we can feel for him anyway. Another more creative take on the song is that the lover is death, with a lament in that it didn't take him. It left him embarrassed instead, trying to find what was important in life even though most people assumed he already knew. 

If that sounds bleak, then consider The Vampyre Of Time And Memory. It was the first song Homme wrote in a little shack that he had converted into a home studio after his wife told him to go write whatever he wanted. He didn't even like the song at first pass. She told him not to care. 

It's songs like Vampyre and the title track, Like Clockwork, that channel what he was feeling after the experience and into recovery. He is sort of a lost soul in some ways, attempting to assign it some meaning and yet struggling to find it. The refrain is unforgettable. 

This is easily the dreariest album ever put together by Homme, but there a few familiarities to Queens as well as vintage rock arrangements. Part of that is by design. Much as he felt like starting over on uncertain footing, music has restarts too. Homme is pretty good at catching the front end of them.

Although all the melody and moodiness is great, the album kicks everything up a notch with My God Is The Sun. The track is faster with a quicker tempo. Kalopsia is another show stopper with its lullaby opening and big bristling transition. The song hints at what happened. Things are prettier than they appear. 

The epic Fairweather Friends, the derail in Smooth Sailing, and the unexpected climax in I Appear Missing are all variants of harshly unsettling alternative rock. Each of them lends something more exciting to the overall experience. Things began to move again for Homme after he came to terms with the idea that most of what he thought was important wasn't so anymore. 

Like Clockwork By QOTSA Skip 8.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There really isn't too much out there like this album. Sure, some of the arrangements are familiar and everyone who contributed blends in like their tracks, mixed with a blur tool. In doing so, Homme gets the album he needed to make and everyone else gets props for helping him make it. When you really take the time to listen in, it's the lyrics and vocals that will turn your world around like it did his. 

...Like Clockwork by Queens Of The Stone Age can be found on Amazon. You can also download the album from iTunes or order Like Clockwork from Barnes & Noble. QOTSA has been dropping large sets of tour dates on Facebook, sometimes as many as 12 at a time. It's a big tour. Watch for it. The iTunes edition, by the way, was mastered for the format.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Battery Recasts The Zombie Movie

While World War Z is shooting for catastrophic action horror with its $200 million budget, The Battery shot for cathartic dark comedy with a budget of only $6,000. Somehow, the deliberate and plodding indie flick carries a cultish charm that slowly settles in on a not-so-subtle zombie paradox.

Undead body counts are fun, but so are psychological portraits. In The Battery, writer-director-actor Jeremy Gardner settles on mostly two former baseball players — Ben (Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) — who find isolation more dangerous than zombies as they wander the New England countryside. And fortunately (or unfortunately), they find more of the former and less the latter.

The Battery is a bit of the odd couple. 

Although Ben and Mickey were teammates, they were never friends nor ran in the same circles. It becomes increasingly apparent that as bad of a match they seem to be in the worst of times, they would have been a bad match in the best of times too. Much like Ben describes it, they are a battery, implying positive and negative charges.

Ben embraces the new world with a nomadic lifestyle in the wilderness; Mickey can only find solitude in attempting to shut the worst of it out with denial and his headphones. Ben immediately kills any shambling zombies they find on sight; Mickey recoils from them with a whimper. Ben wants to keep moving; Mickey wants to settle for a comfortable bed and boarded windows.

If not for his own cowardice and inability to survive, Mickey would break off on his own or stay behind at the next available shelter. Ben, on the other hand, is more pragmatic. He knows Mickey relies on him for survival, but is also hopeful that his new friend-by-fate will eventually pull his own weight. Like it or not, they only have each other.

This isn't a film for jump scare fans. It bears more resemblance to the original George Romero film that defined the modern-day zombies as opposed to any action-packed remakes. Gardner seems much more interested in the psychological acceptance, adoption and emptiness that accompanies being a survivor.

He accomplishes much of it in the atmosphere he creates with drawn shots of the mundane, sharply written dialogue, and the caustic relationship between two people who coexist together out of necessity. They might have spent several months together, but it's clear there isn't a stitch of bonding.

The lack of camaraderie is eventually what invites conflict into the story. After dropping batteries into two walkie talkies taken from Mickey's dead girlfriend's house, the duo pick up some channel banter between other survivors. The survivors seem organized, secure, and structured. They also make it clear newcomers are not welcome. Ben accepts the warning. Mickey cannot leave it alone.

Three people that stand out in this indie success. 

Mickey (Adam Cronheim) and Ben (Gardner)
Florida-native writer-director-actor Jeremy Gardner originally wrote the screenplay based on an audition tape he made for a horror film casting contest. After two more years of rewrites, he asked ten friends to finance the film for $600 each. He does remarkably well in all three roles — writer, director and actor.

As a writer, he is especially sharp at dialogue and atmosphere. Although difficult to gauge how he might perform in other roles, his portrayal of Ben is near perfect as a wilderness drifter. His principal co-star is also mesmerizing to watch as a city-boy turned sad sack survivor.

While New York-born Adam Cronheim has a long resume of short films, voiceovers, and stage, The Battery is his first feature film. He and Gardner are friends in real life and, according to film biographies, Cronheim was responsible for all the licensing and distribution.

Although there are additional cast members and extras worth mentioning, the third primary player was never seen on camera. Photographer Christian Stella jumped in to handle the camerawork, design, color grading, and mixing the score despite not having any experience in cinematography. Everything is sun-soaked, with Stella using the same camera he uses for photography.

The Battery By Jeremy Gardner Charges 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The entire film was shot in 16 days and, with the exception of the zombies, the entire cast consisted of seven players (unless you count a worm that Gardner granted a film credit). The score has several gems too. The only thing this movie "isn't" is scary. But it was never intended to be anyway. It's a zombie movie with brains. No, really.

The Battery never panders to come across like a big budget picture nor does it ever descend into the schlock of amateur found footage films. Instead, everything about the film hits an indie sweet spot without ever becoming pretentious, predictable,or boring. If The Battery finds cerebral middle ground fans who have grown weary of special effects and thrill rides, it could easily become a cult classic.

The Battery is currently available to rent or purchase via iTunes. The Battery can also be streamed from Amazon. The film is currently available to rent in other formats too. Links will be added to retailers when it is eventually released on disc formats too. We look forward to more from all parties.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rogue Wave Lays Nightingale Floors

Rogue Wave
The Oakland, California, indie rock band headed by Zach Rogue (a.k.a. Zach Schwartz), Rogue Wave, has just put out its most underrated album. While some will still lament the band's departure from the low-key lo-fi that once characterized it or the changes heaped upon the band with ample pain, Nightingale Floors is a triumph as Rogue and company come to terms with everything they've gone through.

Written and recorded in the wake of his father's death, Rogue has composed a riveting full length with a full 14 tracks included on the deluxe edition. Parting with his father isn't the only the bit of anguish that he attempts to distinguish. Life, death, love, loss, and individual mortality move the album.

Nightingale Floors lays down a few tracks about life and death, most with a peaceful resolution. 

Perhaps what catches people completely off guard is that Rogue delivers much of it with what some might mistake as stoicism. Instead, listen a little closer, and Rogue seems have found peaceful acceptance in all the hardships he and his band have had to endure. He is at peace, come what may.

He's not alone either. The lineup for Nightingale Floors include a full dance card. Along with the cranky but apologetic Rogue is Pat Spurgeon (drums), Dan Iead (guitar), Masanori Christianson (bass), and Rob Easson (synth, guitar). Newcomers Easson and Iead fit right in with original members Rogue and Spurgeon. (Christianson has been on and off, lately on, with the band before).

The two most visible songs since the release include College and Siren's Song. College is one of the few songs with pop energy behind it. The lyrics hint at another story, however, comparing and contrasting knowledge and wisdom. Siren's Song is a perfect example of how the layered compositions make Rogue Wave impossibly addictive.

Interestingly enough, Rogue is always quick to point out in interviews that he has been doing pretty good for the last couple of years. The only pain left in his life is related to his slipped discs. That ailment is forever, but he has no intention of slowing things down.

The only thing he didn't know, in fact, is whether he and Spurgeon would click after all this time apart. That doubt lasted for about two minutes. It immediately felt right, like the break had never happened.

Although No Magnatone opens the album like a prologue, it actually plays better if you listen to it as an epilogue. There isn't much to it compared to College, Siren's Song, or even the Rogue Wave lite track Figured It Out. The Closer I Get would have played better in third position. It's throwback tender.

Rogue Wave
Other tracks worth a listen are my personal favorite, Everyone Want To Be You, a long eight-plus minute opus that has a big ambiance and an even bigger presence by Rogue. It closes out the album perfectly, except that it actually serves as a segue for four bonus tracks that change the dynamic.

Nearly Lost You, Body Breaks, Operated, and When You Walk Away collectively make what might have been a good album great. The irony is that after several dozen reviewers dismissed the album as forgettable, the bonus four make it unforgettable in that the band proves a needed depth and diversity.

That's not to say other tracks ought to be ignored. The largely overlooked Used To It and the sparsely acoustic Without Pain are both listenable. But in looking at the two wholes, the 10-track release does feel hit and miss with the addition of four more bonus track cousins.

Nightingale Floors By Rogue Wave Leaves A 5.8 Wake On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

It might be important to note that the rating is attached to Nightingale Floors (deluxe version) as opposed to the original release, which delivered equal parts hits and almost misses. The additional four tracks make up the some of the best alongside College, Siren's Song and Everyone Wants To Be You. Some of the other tracks play okay too, but not to the caliber of the balance.

Nightingale Floors (deluxe version) by Rogue Wave is up on Amazon. You can also download the deluxe version from iTunes. Barnes & Noble carries the original CD release. The band is currently working its way east before heading west via the Midwest again. Tour schedules are posted on Facebook.