Monday, September 19, 2011

Music Review: Dream Theater: A Dramatic Turn of Events

It's almost hard to believe that it's been about 26 years since Dream Theater first formed. After constant changes in band members and play styles, you would have thought a band like this could have never survived the decades. With that said, it has certainly been done before, with timeless bands like Rush leading the helm. Just like Rush and other inspirations such as Yes, it seems like no matter how many decades have passed and how many fads develop, this is a band that has stood the test of time, and will continue to show us that they're a force to be reckoned with.

Many fans (including myself) were quite afraid after drummer Mike Portnoy's departure of the band. The man is the second youngest to ever be inducted into the Rock Drummer Hall of Fame and for good reason. He plays with an accuracy and consistency that is nothing short of incredible. After almost a year of thinking the band was very much dead, I witnessed their episodic segment of "The Spirit Carries On" on youtube. I was even more concerned at this point, and thought the band might be going crazy. It's not that I don't think anyone else out there could do the things Portnoy did, but that doesn't make finding someone as talented any easier. The result was a very interesting surprise. Cue Mike Mangini; former drummer of Annihilator, James Labrie's solo project, Extreme, and even Steve Vai amongst others. I knew it was going to be someone big, but I didn't realize it'd be at quite this level. For those who don't know, Mangini was granted the nickname of "World's Fastest Drummer" by obtaining many WFD awards over the years. To put it mildly, this man is a beast. Another nostalgic moment to note is that for the first time since "Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory," John Myung (the bassist) once again took the task of writing some of the lyrics for the album. Okay, so enough about the new drummer and 90's flings. How is the album? The last four or so efforts from the group have had many mixed reviews among critics (and myself), so needless to say, there was quite a bit of pressure behind this album's release.

When booting up the first track, anyone who's listened to this band from beginning to end will no doubt see some of the similarities behind this song and "Pull Me Under" from their 1992 breakthrough, "Images and Words." Fans will be reminded of this by James Labrie's slightly softer (but effective) vocals, and even the sounds of Jordan Rudess's keyboards. It won't break down any walls, but it's a very competent and worthwhile track. More importantly, it's very Dream Theater.

The second track "Build Me Up, Break Me Down," took a few listens before I realized what would be fair to compare it to. It really didn't hit me at first, but this actually has quite a few similarities to "Caught In A Web." Once you get past the different in tempo, you will most likely notice the same. Most are going to criticize this one, just as they have every other "mainstream-sounding" Dream Theater track. I'd say that depending on whether you're into the band more for technical notations or for the general metal-head appeal, I think you can already tell from my words whether you're going to like this track or not.

"Lost Not Forgotten" is where things really start to get interesting. We get a very nice and soft piano into, followed by a powerful burst of energy that can only be described as epic. To those who were wondering if John Petrucci (lead guitarist) and Jorden Rudess could out-do themselves in the technical department, look no further. The instrumental unity of the 1:58-2:30 section will have your jaw on the floor. Petrucci and Rudess are absolutely relentless during this moment of sheer ferocity. Following this, almost as if some kind of inside joke, the band quickly switches to what may be one of the simplest riffs I've ever heard come from the rhythm guitar. The tempo shifts back to a quicker pace once more for the chorus, and breaks into a very nice bridge, once again very similar to "Images and Words" with Petrucci's solo, with "Under A Glass Moon" just bleeding off of it.

After catching one's breath, we come to the first of a surprising three ballad songs on this album. Labrie carries us away with his soft, but once again powerful voice, and Petrucci guides us back to the ground with his noteworthy solos.

Back up to the plate, we enter "Bridges in the Sky." This track begins with Tuvan throat singing to immediately set another visualization and tone to follow. We also get to see some very deep usage of the bass notes from John Myung in this track. He has proven that whether standout or not, he is every bit as important to this band. As the bass player, he is also what helps bring the whole group together musically.

Next in the journey, we come across "Outcry." This track, like "Bridges in the Sky" and "Lost Not Forgotten," exceeds the ten-minute mark, showcasing some crazy speed and precision, while also remaining an entertaining listen. You really haven't heard a Dream Theater song until you've heard it all the way through. The breaks and cues are so subtle, but so genius all at once.

"Far From Heaven" marks the second ballad on the album. I feel that this one actually tops the previous, despite the strong efforts it presented. Somehow, the feeling behind this song is encapsulated even more than the previous, bringing the highest even higher.

And now we traverse to find "Breaking All Illusions." Next to "Lost Not Forgotten," this is by far one of my favorite songs of the album. The song begins with a promising pick up, with quick signature changes, still maintaining the consistency all throughout. As we get to the first verse, the tempo slows down and the song shifts into a brooding and poetic atmosphere...; that is until the second verse. The song shifts into full blast here, with one of the most daring instrumental sections of the entire album. Petrucci is at another all-time high with his quick finger work and fretboard mastery. Mangini also finally gets some moments to really shine with this section, pedaling his way to prove he's here to stay. Once again, the song reverts to the mellow foreground we witnessed previously, still picking up tempo in small places, all the way to the end.

Finally, we come to the third ballad on the album, as well as the last song of the album, "Beneath The Surface." I know I've been saying this about each ballad on this release, but once again, the band seems to top themselves with what ended up being the best ballad of the album to me. James gives off some of his most emotional singing here, with wonderful acoustics to back him up.

To take everything we've been given and try to sum it all up, this album was quite an experience for me. I absolutely loved how members of the band like Petrucci and Labrie went back to some of their more "classic" roots, with Labrie's softer and more emotional singing, and Petrucci's concentrated, but fierce guitar work. As a drummer, Mike Mangini has already proven himself to the world. His sound is distinctly different from Mike Portnoy's, but that doesn't mean he can't carry the mantle all the same. It's a shame that we didn't get to see him really show off with this album (which I assume is due to the condition it was being written under, not having an actual drummer to test-pilot the songs). Due to this, I have a feeling we'll get to see more impressive work from him in the future.

I never thought I'd be saying this after what I felt were numerous disappointments from the group, but with all said and done, I'm actually very excited to see what directions the band will take next. While far from perfect, this is a very fresh start for Dream Theater, and a wonderful time to be a music fan.

8 Portnoy's out of 10

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Comic Book Reviews: DC's New 52 Weeks 1 and 2 combined!!!!

I finally decided that in order to keep up with all comics coming out, my only option would be to simply get all my reviews out for every title I wanted to talk about here. This includes the first and second weeks of DC's new line of 52 #1 issues. Hope this gives you all some insight about what's worth looking into (as trust me, there are titles worth looking into).


Action Comics #1 - This one is a little tough to review right off the bat, because as any readers of Grant Morrison's stories can tell you, he is a very unpredictable writer. His run on Batman demonstrated how far a direction for a character can be taken, despite whether it will garner positive reviews or not by comic readers. That said, his run on All-Star Superman was completely classy and true-to-form through and through. I enjoy both of those general directions that Morrison tends to follow. So far, he's featured a Superman very much like that of the 30's. Not only does this Superman jump far instead of fly like his golden-age days, but he captures, beats up, and intimidates criminals in order to get what he wants out of them. Many are theorizing Morrison is concocting sort of a re-imagined origin story, and I think I would be inclined to agree. Whether or not Morrison takes this story into more a of a psychedelic direction like some other stories of his past, I'm game for finding out where this is all going. 8.5/10

Detective Comics #1 - What started out seemingly average to me (almost to the point of too average) after the plot began to unfold, suddenly opened itself to be something more than the obvious cliches we've been subjected to for the past 75 or so years. The story began with the usual quips and inner-monologues we've come to expect from the title, and the Joker being as seemingly psychotic as ever. I can happily say that it is what happens on the last two pages that finally breaks the conventional mold that I was afraid this title was doomed to follow. Because of this sudden shift, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't interested in the follow up. 8/10

Justice League International #1 - ... I think I will start by saying that a wide majority of people are going to hate this #1, and rightfully so. If you've read just about any of the past installments of the series, you'll see that this first issue really didn't encapsulate anything that made the original stories so great in the first place. The jokes were a bit juvenile, as were the characterizations. Still developing or not; this was not a pretty sight. As a fan of Booster Gold, it also hurts to see the character we saw developed so highly after 52 and his own self-titled book, reduced to going back as if none of it ever happened. This is exactly the kind of thing I was afraid of when DC announced this reboot in the first place. Many of the other #1's have shown that you don't have to re-start a series in order to re-vamp it. This one should take note. 5/10

Animal Man #1 - The artwork may not quite be to everyone's tastes, but this ended up being one of the better titles for me this month. I came out very impressed by Jeff Lemire's way of getting readers up to speed with the character at hand, and throwing us right into the tension immediately following. It's basically the perfect way to introduce the character, while also finding new ways to keep fans of Grant Morrison's run on the book interested in the hinted scenarios to come. The cliffhanger for this one hit hard, and I can't wait to see where it goes next. 8.5/10

Batgirl #1 - Gail Simone has officially done the impossible. She not only managed to bring Barbara Gordon back from the wheelchair after over 20 years of permanent paralysis (courtesy of Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke"),Barbara is free to roam once more. I think one of the factors I enjoyed the most was that Simone didn't try to pretend The Killing Joke story never happened; quite the contrary, she made The Killing Joke an important part of what helps to craft the story, as well as Barbara's inner struggles and (mental) recovery. It still has not been explained exactly how Barbara came to such a miraculous recovery, but I'm sure finding out will be half of the fun. The status quo, new characters, new settings, and new general personality and outlook for Barbara have made this one of the best new titles to come from this reboot. 9/10

Static Shock #1 - Whether you're a fan of the cartoon or the original comic book series, I think there's just about something for everyone here to like. Vergil is still as spontaneous and wisecracking a hero as ever, and still goes through the stages of teen life and making adult decisions in the end. In that sense, and with the overall quick set up, this issue sets the stage for good things to come, though it's hard to give it a great rating on its own as is. I'll give it a fair score for now while I look forward to seeing more development in the future. 7/10

Swamp Thing #1 - Scott Snyder continues to prove he is completely awesome with this new beginning for Swamp Thing. It's hard to say much of anything without giving any spoilers, but I can happily say that Snyder's usage of dark imagery is at full force here, and it lays down its effects on the reader perfectly. He's already provided twists not yet used before, and left us all guessing where this book is going to go next. The artwork only seals the deal even further. Without a doubt (and to my own astonishment), this is the best title to come out of DC's new 52 for me, and from what I can tell, many others as well. 10/10


Batman and Robin #1 - The book's tone has slightly changed, but that doesn't stop this from being any more enjoyable. Batman and Damian working side-by-side has created for an interesting dynamic, showing just how different it is when Bruce is working the show, instead of Dick. Damian quickly tires of listening to the words of yet another Batman, when he felt he did enough in order to gain the trust of one. Tomasi and Gleason still have a hit on their hands and it doesn't look like this title will be letting up any time soon. I think just about everyone coming from this title will find something to like. It's spins like these that keep the Bat-titles interesting after these years. 8/10

Superboy #1 - A very promising start. Were are given everything we need to be in order to enjoy this one. The character's backstory and overall beginning development are what makes this so catchy from the start. The supporting cast only makes that development even better. This is not another Superman, and Scott Lobdell shows that to the reader perfectly. Very interested in the future of this title. 8/10

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1 - From the moment I started reading Frankenstein's tie-in mini-series for Flashpoint (which I happened to think was the most entertaining Flashpoint tie-in of all), I knew I was going to want to pick this issue up, and I wasn't disappointed. Once again, the art is going to be a mixed bag for some, but I felt it adequately help set the stage for the events taking place, and while being fed all of the details we need to know to understand these criminally over-looked cast, we are also thrown plenty of twists, and an ending already leaving you wanting for more. Stories like this remind me of what attracted me to comic books in the first place (well-crafted story, fun characters and development, and crazy action to top it all off). This is one that most will miss, but shouldn't. 8.5/10

Green Lantern #1 - The first thing that surprised me about this issue #1, is that instead of crafting a story for new readers to really pick up with, Geoff Johns has simply chosen to continue his last story, per the aftermath of War of the Lanterns, and keep things going at full throttle. I think this is a great thing, as I was originally very worried about the status quo of Green Lantern after the announcement of this reboot. My fears are now at rest and I'm very happy with the issue crafted, as the new developments with Sinestro and Hal are more than enough to grab me on board. New readers may not feel too welcome with the title, but that won't stop me from giving it a great score that I feel it deserved for continuing to once again be engaging without conforming to the standards of others. 8.5/10

And there you have it! My reviews for all of the DC #1's I decided to grab so far! More to follow (as this month is only halfway through(. Expect more reviews soon and hope you all enjoyed. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Updates And What Comic Reviews to Expect From DC's New 52

It's hard to believe that it's been over 10 years now since the 9/11 attack. I was still in high school at the time (I graduated college last year, in October), and I remember hearing the announcement over the loudspeaker. Everyone just kind of froze and didn't know what the heck to think. I had heard that my cousin (who lives in Bayonne, NJ) actually saw one of the planes crashing as he was coming over a bridge. Truly creepy. As always, I give thanks to those who work hard to keep our country safe everyday, and think everyone should take a chance to do the same.

To any tennis fans out there, the US Open this year has been absolutely amazing. The semi-finals have been especially stunning. Djokovic and Federer's match was the biggest highlight of all for me so far. The whole time, you thought Federer was going to end things with the third set, but Djokovic slowly began to perform a miracle by coming back with the third, fourth, and epically won fifth set. It was also quite a spectacle to see Djokovic getting everyone in the stadium to dance with him. Best of luck to him and Nadal in the finals!

I've decided I will not be reviewing all of the new 52 DC #1 issues, but still a decent amount. Expect reviews this week for Action Comics, Detective Comics, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and Batgirl amongst others very soon, including next week's haul (Green Lantern included of course).

I'll also be picking up Star Fox 64 3D for the Nintendo 3DS today. I may decide to review this one if the remade features constitutes it.

Well, that's all for now. Check back often and have a nice weekend everyone!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Comic Book Reviews: Flashpoint and (new) Justice League #1

This week, DC had some pretty big shoes to fill on two opposite ends of the spectrum. One one hand, they put out the final issue of their big event series, Flashpoint. On the other, they released the first in their new line of 52 #1 issues, Justice League #1. Out with the old and in with the new seems to be DC's business strategy at the moment; a strategy that could either help them significantly, or result in pure turmoil. Only time will tell what may become of this.

But let's start this review by talking about Flashpoint. As a farewell to the current DC universe itself, this title had quite a bit of hype about it, as do most big events such as the many Crisis titles and the like. The basic story (without going into too many details and spoilers) showcases Barry Allen (the Flash) living his relatively normal life (or as normal as a life for the Flash can be at least) up until the point that everything around him literally start to change: the people he knows, the way he knows them, etc. The only thing we are told is that Barry feels Reverse Flash must have something to do with this time changing. Following this, a whole new world has been revealed. Everything you know and love about the DCU is different. Bruce died instead of his parents as a child, and his father became a Batman instead, Kal-El was captured and taken into holding immediately after crash-landing on Earth, Aquaman and the Atlaneans are at a terrible war with Wonder Woman and the Amazonians, etc. It’s all crazy, and it’s all really cool.

This is where I am going to get a bit tongue-tied. Flashpoint had me hooked from beginning to end, but it’s hard to explain my feelings on the payoff and if there was even much of one. It’s hard to understand how one is to really look at this story since you’re going to have some who have pointed out that this is technically the DCU’s big sendoff before their new 52 event begins, and others who just wanted to look at it as a nice Flash story, making the whole thing become a garbled mess to define.

I think my biggest problem with this series however, stems from the fact that: A) The tie-ins for Flashpoint seemed to be the real meat of the story, not so much the main story itself, and B) many are going to argue that the payoff in the final issue was not worth the wait, and that the first four issues may even be construed as filler, due to the way the fifth issue concluded. It’s a good story in my opinion (albeit a little jumbled up), but as a sendoff to the current DCU itself, it’s a bit disappointing. Because of this, I find it very hard to score this series. On one hand, I came out thoroughly satisfied with the story itself, but on another, I didn’t feel like this was a good way to say goodbye to everything. I’m going to take a stab and say that this was never meant to be DC’s big send off story when the idea was conceived. I honestly think it just happened to turn out that way.

I haven’t really mentioned all the things I feel are good about this story, so I’ll do so now. The world crafted in this series was fascinating to read about. Each character had a very interesting background that I wanted to read more about once I was done with each main issue. I actually wish Flashpoint went on for longer than five issues, simply for the purpose of being able to take in the world around them more. Even with all of the tie-ins to fill in the gaps, I couldn’t help but feel like it went away all too quickly for my taste.

The artwork was very well done from beginning to end (though judging from the slight drop in quality with the last issue, you could definitely tell they had to rush a bit in order to get the last issue out within their scheduled time frame). There were some very emotional and impactful moments (mainly in the last issue in fact) that were executed perfectly and couldn’t have been done without someone like Andy Kubert at the helm. Even with the slightly rushed feel of the last issue, Kubert made sure the impactful moments were in fact going to leave a large impact on the reader.

As a whole, there’s two ways you can look at this story. I saw it as a nice Flash story, with a few confusing moments, but overall very satisfying and intriguing with the little gap left open involving what could happen next. Others will look at this as a very disappointing way to send off the current DCU to give way to the new one, and I don’t blame them for it, as I’d see it that way too in their shoes.

7 flash tokens out of 10

With Flashpoint concluded, there’s no looking back; DC Comics New 52 has begun. In a very interesting move, DC decided to put out the first issue of Justice League before any of their other new titles, which will be released the following week. That’s certainly one way to grab people’s attention (especially those who were collecting at least 10 or more DC books a month). It’s very clear that DC wanted everyone to read this story first in order to get a taste of what we’re really in for, and it definitely makes a great place to start from what I gathered. So how is this issue with such a big hype-wagon following it? Surprisingly, maybe to some at least…, it’s not half bad.

I admit that I have been one of the biggest skeptics about this reboot from the start. I personally feel that DC’s decision to restart 52 of their main titles was completely risky, and also came off as a way for them to try to make more money in general. That said, I also felt the objective itself (at least from what we’re being told the reboot is for) is a sound one. Getting more people into comic books is always a wonderful thing, and the idea of drawing people in that may have otherwise felt “overwhelmed” or “intimidated” by DC’s large and expansive history is another plus in itself. How well this concept actually works is up to the fans and the money it makes.

The issue itself is a fun, albeit quick read all around. We get to see some very entertaining interactions between Batman and the Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), and a quick glimpse of Superman by the end. Jim Lee and Geoff Johns really do complement each other’s writing and art styles perfectly. This was another great choice of team for a book as important as this one. Nothing major happened in this issue. It was simply the type of book that anyone could catch on to at this point in time, and in that sense, I feel DC is already succeeding in a way. Getting your fanbase expanded by introducing new events in old settings like the one they’ve crafted now certainly does make for an interesting read. When Spider-Man’s “Brand New Day” event started, I was beyond reluctant with all the status quo changes afoot. That said, things about it ended up growing on me quite a bit, like the new characters, setting, and story-telling methods. I see this going in the same direction for me as long as I keep an open mind.

In another small twist, I decided to ask my girlfriend (who’s only just started to truly tap into the world of comic books) to read this issue as well and give her thoughts. She agreed that it was a fun read all around and that she looked forward to seeing more of it. That said, she also agreed with me that it was a bit crazy to pretty much put all other stories not involving these new #1’s on hold until further notice.

Overall, my girlfriend and I agree that it is a fun issue, and we both look forward to the next. That said, this first issue is not in any ways important or life-changing. It’s just a fun little way to kill 20 – 30 minutes and get a glimpse into the new world being crafted once more. This is definitely worth looking into.

8 Batman/deep voice puns out of 10