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Friday, August 17, 2012

True American Mosh

Testament - Dark Roots of Earth
2012 Nuclear Blast Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

The most-discussed metal album coming into the late edges of summer is Dark Roots of Earth.  Prepare for this one to make many year-end-best lists and give the fellas in Testament a collective clap upon their backs for representing themselves (and all of us) with dignity and force.  2008 was considered Testament's comeback year and their well-received The Formation of Damnation gave their fans a reason to believe that the stabilized four-fifths of the classic lineup wouldn't be a mere cash-in reunion. 

"Comeback" is a phrase you either take literally or you scoff at its profoundly stupid usage.  Testament's devout kept tabs on the band through the Low and Demonic years and while the core lineup had been shaken then, you'll seldom hear anybody itch about those records.  Many hold those two nuggets in high esteem with anything Testament has laid down.  The Ritual has its fans and its detractors, but it was a product of its time when American metal had been sent on a different direction where those who still had recording contracts were forced to modify their speed if not aggression.  The Ritual, by all means, is a powerful album in its restraint, and one can examine that album along with Testament's entire recorded body when approaching Dark Roots of Earth.

We're beyond "comebacks" at this point.  The Who's Who of eighties thrash have all resurfaced these days and the operative word is hardly "comeback."  It's more like vengeance.  Dark Roots of Earth is complete vengeance.  Not vendetta, mind you, since that would indicate tones so ugly there's no regard for the audience.  Testament, a band that deserved to flourish more than they did back in the day, gets to enjoy the fruits of their labors (along with Overkill and and Kreator) this year as spotlight grabbers.  Granted, there's no Metallica or Slayer getting in their way at the moment, but it's cathartic Testament are the grand poobahs of metal for 2012 and even better Dark Roots of Earth is a lordly cranium basher.

In many ways a retrospective of Testament's entire career within nine fresh tunes, Dark Roots of Earth is a calibrated powerhouse of wreckage seldom few are going to be able compete with.  It's enough Testament has virtuosity and brutality contained as a perfect storm.  They've always had an unfair advantage that Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson are the KK Downing and Glenn Tipton of thrash and Dark Roots of Earth showcases their reverence-meets-antagonism symbiosis.  Their minute-plus solo section of the manic blitzer "True American Hate" is something to behold, regardless if you're used to hearing these guys.  Even their temperate intertwining on the lofting "Cold Embrace" (which hails and restructures "The Legacy" from Souls of Black and "The Ballad" from Practice What You Preach) is full of both elegance and checked-down fury.

Skolnick and Peterson have always exhibited advanced level class in each other's company, but their congruent blend of darkness and light is prevalent more than ever on this album.  You can hear the effect they have on Greg Christian, always a juggernaut on bass, and of course, Chuck Billy, whose vocal dynamics sparkle.  Safe to say this is one of Billy's personal best efforts, from growl to tenor.  Christian naturally answers the call with equal tenacity.  The beautiful mixing job on Dark Roots of Earth allows listeners to hone in on every player at will, very rare in these days of pasteurized audile processing.

The X-factor on Dark Roots of Earth (as if it needed one) is Gene Hoglan.  While serving Testament, you get the impression this was a whole new training ground for one of the modern masters of his trade.  We all know Hoglan is capable of summoning infernos with his blast beat stamps and triplicate-happy rolls.  Testament grounds him a bit while at the same time feeding off of his monster energy.  What a pleasure it is hearing Hoglan mix intracate rolls and rat-a-tat bass pedals amidst the primary drive of "Man Kills Mankind," much less the hammer-down mosh rhythms on "Rise Up" and "Native Blood."  Let's not overlook Hoglan's capacity to jerk out some impossibly smooth black metal racks on "Native Blood."  Not out of the question he could've easily played for Emperor.  Hoglan salutes Bill Ward (as Testament does to Black Sabbath in whole) on the lethal and proficient "Throne of Thorns."  The cool part to "Throne of Thorns" is how it becomes more of Testament's beast in the second half with exquisite soloing and a riffing death metal submelody before coming back to the primary stamp mode in the final stanza.

"True American Hate," however, is the album's tour-de-force for all constituents involved.  It's impressive enough hearing Testament unleash their hounds on this breathless and unfailingly fast monster.  The precision of each member is a true spectacle and it's a giddy task trying to soak up each part moving at hyperspeed.  As mentioned, the guitar solos are major league and abundant, while listening to Hoglan bop along quickly and then show off some breakneck chops as part of the song's chorus, hoo-mama.  "True American Hate" is the metal performance of the year.  No need to deliberate, Grammy committee.

Closing off with a tried and true San Fran mosher, "Last Stand For Independence," it's fitting Testament calls up the old school "Mechanix" gallop marking their home scene, never forgetting their roots...dark roots, that is to say.  It's as if Testament is humbly making a stand for themselves along with their Bay Area brethren.  The slower but searing middle section of "Last Stand For Independence" is like a beacon call that Testament is here to claim their birthright and kudos to them.  They freaking deserve it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Industrial Diamond Dogs

Marilyn Manson - Born Villain
2012 Cooking Vinyl
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Marilyn Manson may not be grabbing headlines on firesale like he used to, but that doesn't mean he can't still put out some groovy cool music.  Like him or not, the man is focused, creatively-speaking.  If anything, Manson's affinity for David Bowie goes full tilt on his latest release, Born Villain and that's not a rip.  It's an affirmative nod that Manson still has something to entice us with when frankly, his marquee factor was burned up well before he released 2009's The High End of Low.

With a stripped mojo, heavier gears in place and a backup band you might as well refer to as industrial diamond dogs, Born Villain kicks and struts instead of flogs and shocks.  Antichrist Superstar and Holy Wood are yesterday and Manson has the saviness to understand and accept it.  "The Beautiful People" remains his legacy tune, but for all of his high profile touring alongside Slayer and now Rob Zombie, his drawing power has been reliant upon something bigger than he is.  That's become slightly out of fashion now, which has left Marilyn Manson as an artist in a quandry.  Fortunately, he had the smarts to reinvent his sound and put on some high riding kicks for Born Villain.

"No Reflection" is straight out of Bowie's fantabulous flame-on glam years, as is much of Manson's latest venture.  "No Reflection" catches a groove and it's one of the tightest vibes he's pushed unto his audience.  Better yet is the subsequent "Pistol Whipped," one the sexiest and nastiest cuts of the album.  Sexy is hardly a word anyone outside of the Goth underground would care to attribute to Marilyn Manson's music, but "Pistol Whipped's" raunchy verve and slinking drum whacks in the chorus are undeniably Bowie and undeniably infectious for Manson's electro-pumping purposes.  A new jam thus emerges for the pole dance.

Even "Overneath the Path of Misery" treads into Bowie territory, albeit the Low and Scary Monsters eras and this allows Manson to embrace his tortured id once more.  Both gnarled and gnarly in its brackish cadence, there's a panting sweatiness to "Overneath the Path of Misery" that makes the most of its arcane inhibitations and Manson and his posse punches it out with a mean stamp.  "Slo-Mo-Tion," on the other hand, is a single, grinding embodiment of Bowie's career up through Let's Dance. If Manson was validated for taking wild glam turns on his Mechanical Animals album, "Slo-Mo-Tion" is the album's honor-graduating antecedent.  Dirty, sleazy and wallowing, Manson pulls it off because he's such an apt pupil of Bowie and seventies glam rock he makes the ethos his own for the here and now. 

While Bowie continues to influence Manson on "The Gardener," there's also a Love and Rockets/Daniel Ash sway guiding the song's rhythmtic slide.  Alternative rock and loud fuzz rock intermingle perfectly on "The Gardener" and it's almost unfathomable Manson had this in him if you were to gauge his full frontal heyday years.  His id still has a perpetual boner, but "The Gardener" proves Marilyn Manson can use it to glide instead of skull fuck.

Born Villain does get heavier and sometimes weirder through the remainder of the album, culminating forcefully on the sardonic "Murderers Are Getting Prettier All the Time," by far the fiercest track of the album.  Even Al Jourgensen and Ministry ought to approve of this one.  Interestingly, the title track slips into a classic rock jive as interpreted through industrial modes following a creepy acoustic intro.  Perhaps this is Manson at his most haunted, which means he isn't fully ready to release his demons, but then, why should he?  Too much of a commandeering to the other side would spell his inevitable demise from the scene.

Whether or not the public buys into Born Villain remains to be seen, but if it does, there's no denying they'll be well-entertained.  Even Manson's nonsensical cover of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" fits this album's devil-glam motif in such a snarky way you have to tip a charbroiled top hat to him.  This album is precisely the tuneful, slithering vehicle Marilyn Manson needed to stay relevant without selling out.  Some listeners may need adjustment to the two-step shuffling Manson dishes out on Born Villain, but if he can compromise with a confident poise and still maintain his eerie alter ego, then more of this, if you please, Mr. Manson...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Van of the Dead DVD Review: Some Guy Who Kills People

Some Guy Who Kills People
2012 Lightning Media/Anchor Bay Entertainment
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

We've come miles from the days of The Boston Strangler, The Hillside Strangler and Helter Skelter.   Those affiliated acts of barbaric murder were once appalling to us as a culture.  Even the power of suggestion in the filmed stories of Albert Desalvo, Bianchi/Buono and the Manson Family respectively were horrific enough without the benefit of grue as shock value.  That's been lost to us over the years.  These days, we're on the cusp of calling graphic depictions of methodic slaughter on celluloid popcorn films.  Seriously, as Perry Farrell and Jane's Addiction would chant, there's simply  nothing shocking. 

Used to be we lived in fear of the Zodiac and John Wayne Gacy.  Now we immortalize twisted acts of serial depravity as entertainment value.  Henry:  Portrait of a Serial Murderer was horrific, but it was the first step in what has become a trivialization and unsettling farce of cold-blooded misconduct.  American Psycho changed the horror genre as much as it ushered Christian Bale in as a future superstar.  Disturbingly comical, American Psycho and later, C. Michael Hall's wildly successul Dexter series, gave rise to the serial killer as a pop icon.  Hell, Dexter even has own bobblehead figure, for crying out loud.

While much of the aforementioned are standout moments of the horrror genre, there's become a need of a reckoning specific to the serial killer's role in it.  Whether you're talking about the Friday the 13th stalk and slash motifs resurrected in the Laid to Rest and Hatchet films or the openly brutal examinations of inhuman cruelty via Cyrus:  Mind of a Serial Killer, Neighbor, Bereavement, Sick Girl, The Human Centipede and the Hostel series, it's been high time someone called the genre out.

John Landis has always had his finger on the pulse when it comes to horror and comedy.  His segment comedy films Schlock, Kentucky Fried Movie and Amazon Women On the Moon may have been over-the-top pokes at politics, sex and social issues, but they were precursor to the undercurrent of hilarity wafting through his horror vehicles American Werewolf of London and Innocent Blood.  Landis has a flair for gallows humor, which naturally led him to get behind the production of Some Guy Who Kills People.

The suggestive title indicates a cheeky, sanguinary romp, which is the intent behind Some Guy Who Kills People.  While not consistently hilarious or gut-churningly nasty, there's a fair balance between the two and crazy enough, a settled sense of normalcy emerges from it all.  At the very least, Some Guy Who Kills People is a dicey number directed by Jack Perez (Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus) that dangles a carrot overtop its audience while sneaking in a plot twist (no spoilers coming, take comfort) and it's a pretty decent payoff. 

Ken Boyd (Kevin Corrigan) is an unhinged refugee from a troubled past.  We're offered the notion that he's picking off tormentors from his past in gruesome but articulate fashion.  Having spent many years in a mental institution (assumedly) as a result of a severe beatdown from his high school's basketball team, Ken's maladjusted adult life as a kickaround toy gives Some Guy Who Kills People its premise, albeit a routine one on its muggy face. 

The difference here is, Ken has an eleven-year-old daughter Amy (Ariel Gade) from a one-off fling, one who has been hidden from him by her mother.  Discovering she has a biological father, the rebellious but sweet Amy seeks Ken out and turns his life around--all while he is purported to be enacting calculated acts of vengeance.  Ken's affinity for drawing leaves behind a trail of assumed guilt, given the terrifying themes of murder in many of them.  Amy's discovery of her father's sordid secrets sets up the film's flim-flam finale.

You can't go much deeper into the film's plot without tipping off its ending, but for the sake of this review, Kevin Corrigan plays his role with an appropriate level of smugness, paranoia and a striking bit of sympathy.  The closer he draws to his daughter and his fragile love interest, Stephanie (Lucy Davis), all while living with his disapproving, critical mother (Karen Black), the more Some Guy Who Kills People becomes a better prospect than your average psycho film.

What really sets this film apart from its ilk is its flagrant nuttiness.  Poor Ken is sent out in the streets dressed as an ice cream cone.  People in town treat him like a turd.  His boss is no better.  He comes off as a poor schmuck and you end up snickering at him as you did Melvin Ferd in The Toxic Avenger.  The show stealer, however, is Barry Bostwick as the town sheriff.  His police department comes off as inept, but really, Bostwick is as desensitized to gory murder as the rest of society and his dark humor rubs off on his wannabe deputy.  Herein lies the film's primary potshot against the prevailing nihilism that infects our world .  At one crime scene, Bostwick examines the setup of the remains like an art critic, comparing it to Dadaism.  At another, the deputy tries to match Bostwick's flair for puns overtop a victim with an axe in his face.  Finding a beheaded corpse at an old drive-in, Bostwick munches down on popocorn while his deputy steps on the lopped-off head mere paces away.  It's all funny as hell, to be sure, but it's Landis (by oversight of the project) holding up the mirror and casting the world's pessismism straight back at it.

While Some Guy Who Kills People leaves a few question marks and plot pitfalls along the way, it is a nervy throwdown against the serial killer film that for once, doesn't leave you feeling like a cretin for having watched it.  The unexpected feelgood ending is more than just a catharsis; it's a strange validation.