Let Them Fight – The Human Characters in the Monsterverse

Godzilla vs. Kong was easily the most excited I have been for a movie since… well, since right before Covid-19 hit and delayed A Quiet Place: Part II indefinitely. Most of the Monsterverse films are little more than disposable fun (except for the 2014 Godzilla, which is a straight-up great blockbuster as far as I’m concerned), but I got hyped regardless and found myself entertained as I watched the big gorilla and the big lizard punch each other on-screen. To the surprise of no one, Godzilla vs. Kong‘s human characters feel superfluous, which led to the common refrain of “well it’s a kaiju movie, of course the human characters suck!” This feels like a total cop-out though, because not only are there several good human characters in the long history of the Godzilla and Kong franchises, but we had a solid human cast in Godzilla 2014. Think about it – we don’t get any giant monsters until about forty minutes in and Godzilla himself doesn’t show up until nearly an hour has passed. The humans have to hold up the entirety of that first hour and the film doesn’t suffer because of it – can you imagine that with one of the more recent Monsterverse movies? So what happened? How did we get from the grounded human drama of Godzilla 2014 to the melodrama and camp of the latter-Monsterverse? Let’s examine each of these movies in turn and see how the human characters were handled there.

Oh, and in case it wasn’t obvious?

Alright, with that said, let’s get into this…

Godzilla (2014)

At the time of its release, one of the big controversies with Godzilla 2014 (which I’m just going to refer to as “Godzilla” from here on for simplicity’s sake) was that Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody shouldn’t have been killed off and that they should have killed the film’s actual main character, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody, instead. The reasoning for this is because Joe was a far more compelling character than Ford, which is hard to deny – he’s a broken man driven to self-destructive obsession to try to understand the unexplained nuclear reactor meltdown which killed his wife a decade and a half ago. There’s some good family drama early on where he and Ford reluctantly reconnect and try to uncover what caused the reactor disaster. Cranston puts his everything into this role, and the writing is interesting enough to carry the film on its own long before any kaiju appears on-screen. However, as soon as the first MUTO emerges and Joe dies, Ford takes over and is characterized as a dull, lawful good soldier. I can see how this would be a big come-down from Joe’s more compelling characterization, but I feel like this was an underrated narrative decision which ultimately made Godzilla a stronger film overall.

The best and most distinctive part of Godzilla is that it frames the kaiju action at a human level. The monsters are enormous, rarely able to fit into the frame and they are so gargantuan and unstoppable that the lives and cares of humans are unworthy of their attention. Some of the most memorable scenes in this film are just random humans trying to survive the destruction going on around them, with the audience’s full understanding that it is all unintentional collateral damage. For example, the tsunami in Hawaii or Godzilla going through the Golden Gate Bridge aren’t particularly crucial moments in the plot, but they get so much focus because they show the scale of the devastation that these monsters can unintentionally cause from a human perspective. In this kind of narrative, you need someone on the ground level who would have to be in the vicinity of the monsters in order to progress the story and Ford works perfectly in this regard. Think about it – what would Joe have done to improve the plot if he didn’t die? He’s not a soldier; at most he would be working with Monarch to try to stop the MUTOs. In order to keep Joe in this film, we would either require more dull expository scenes with Monarch (which would hurt this film’s pacing), or he’d have to be awkwardly shunted to the background of the film in order to preserve the narrative direction. Ultimately, killing him off was the most efficient solution – unfortunate, but necessary to preserve the pacing of the narrative.

On the other side of the narrative, we have Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa. He isn’t really a main character per se, instead acting as more of a mouthpiece to deliver exposition and, perhaps unintentionally, deliver memes straight to the audience. He’s in the movie just enough to let us know what’s going on and who we should be rooting for, but he doesn’t make a huge impression. He’s functional and unobtrusive.

That said, Godzilla‘s biggest sin would be how badly it wastes Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody. Like… seriously? You got Elizabeth Olsen (who had just received critical acclaim for Martha Marcy May Marlene and was poised for superstardom in the MCU) and then trapped her in a forgettable role as Ford’s wife. She barely even appears in the movie, but there’s no good reason for this to be the case. She’s a freaking nurse caught in the big showdown in San Francisco, you’re telling me you can’t find something for her to do? Especially in the early hours of the attack in San Francisco, before Ford is even on-site, she should be treating victims, avoiding falling buildings, etc.

Godzilla‘s human characters aren’t the most compelling out there, but you can see that they’re interesting enough to carry a good chunk of the film by themselves and provide a strong narrative grounding which only serves to make the overall film stronger. The monsters are still the main draw, but the humans don’t feel like they’re actively robbing us of anything interesting. It strikes by far the best balance in the entire Monsterverse and looking back it really is shocking how bad the human characters have become in comparison.

Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island starts out promisingly enough, introducing us to a large and colourful cast of human characters. They’re all clear archetypes (Tom Hiddleston’s your action hero, Brie Larson’s your tough leading lady, Samuel L. Jackson’s your Vietnam squad leader, John Goodman’s your shady, desperate scientist), but they’re interesting enough to give us people to care about and get the plot moving forward. The problem with Skull Island is that these characters don’t really go anywhere beyond these basic archetypes. Once the characters end up on Skull Island, they have little to no development to speak of, with the only real exception being that Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard goes kill-crazy (which is particularly notable because it is implied to be due to PTSD from the Vietnam War which leads to this breakdown, providing some well-trodden political commentary on the film’s 70s backdrop). The lack of development is particularly disappointing with Tom Hiddleston’s Conrad and Brie Larson’s Weaver – you’d think they’d at least give their leading duo something to do other than just look cool, but nope.

Luckily, Kong manages to get away with having such a disposable human cast by treating them as, well, disposable. The cast gets quickly whittled down one-by-one in fun ways at a quick pace. Like Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island wastes several of its talented actors, but I’m less annoyed about it here because Kong seems to understand the how high-profile its cast is and revels in killing them off unexpectedly. If anyone feels truly wasted it would be John Goodman, but he gets a funny and memorable death which helps make up for it. That’s not even mentioning Shea Whigham who, as a recent viral tweet stated, has one of the funniest death scenes ever. It almost feels like a disrespectful way to off one of the most colourful characters in the film, but it’s so funny that it is hard to hold it against the movie.

Kong also has one ace up its sleeve in the human character department and that’s John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlowe. He gets by far the most interesting characterization as a World War II fighter pilot who gets stranded on the island with a Japanese soldier and is instantly endearing to us with his fun personality, capability and desperation to get home to his wife and son who has hasn’t seen in almost thirty years. Seeing him reuniting with his family at the end is surprisingly poignant for a film that is almost entirely breakneck-paced action up to that point.

Kong: Skull Island represents the best and worst of human characters in a kaiju film. On the one hand, the cast is undeveloped and exist mainly to be killed off in fun ways, but on the other hand they’re just interesting enough to carry the plot forward, shuffle us along to a lot of entertaining action sequences and don’t feel like they’re detracting us from the good stuff (Kong kicking ass). While developing a couple more cast members would make the narrative resonate more, this is around the baseline of what you could consider “acceptable” for a broad-appeal adventure movie.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

The number one complaint about Godzilla was that the title monster didn’t show up nearly enough. King of the Monsters came along to try to right that, but the end result leaves me so mixed. On the one hand, this is a fundamentally flawed film, but it might be my favourite entry in the Monsterverse and is the best 5/10 movie I’ve ever seen by far. At the very center of King of the Monsters‘ flaws are those human characters, which are probably the worst in the franchise in some ways.

King of the Monsters has more of an epic, globe-trotting scale compared to Godzilla‘s grounded and human-level scope. This necessitates a larger cast of soldiers and scientists who are constantly giving exposition dumps to explain what big disaster is going on at any one time, which they make sure to constantly update us on. As if this wasn’t enough by itself, we also have family melodrama between Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobbie Brown (I could not tell you their actual characters’ names for the life of me), who are caught up in a bio-terrorist plot to unleash monsters across the world. This family drama has the potential to be compelling – their son was killed in the attack on San Francisco and it has caused them to grow estranged from each other. Kyle Chandler blames Godzilla for his son’s death and wants to destroy all the monsters, whereas Vera Farmiga uses their loss as motivation to try to save the world. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore their relationship any further than that. There’s just no time for human drama with all the action going on and it ends up serving as a way to have a fractured family caught on opposite sides of the conflict.

Serizawa also returns to lead the scientists and he’s about as functional here as he was there. His heroic sacrifice resonates because we’re familiar with the character and he seems like a good person who wants to do the right thing, although he still isn’t very well-developed. As for the rest of the characters, they are a bunch of nobodies. Like, don’t get me wrong, there’s a bunch of people we see a whole lot on the Argo: the lady commander/pilot, the smart alec, O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s soldier character, and probably a couple other nobodies that I’m forgetting because they were all so pointless. Oh and Sally Hawkins reprises her role from the first movie as well, but she was so forgettable there that I didn’t even realize she wasn’t in this as a stunt-casting due to her role in The Shape of Water. Oh, and she gets unceremoniously stepped on early in the film, making her character’s entire existence feel even more hollow.

Unlike Kong: Skull Island, King of the Monsters sticks to Godzilla‘s more serious tone, making these characters all just so dull to watch and entirely forgettable. For example, there’s the scene where Rodan flies over a Mexican town, destroying it from the hurricane-force winds created by his passing. Conceptually, it’s similar to the scene in Godzilla where Godzilla comes ashore in Hawaii and unintentionally creates a tidal wave which wipes out the entire downtown sector, but far less exciting because the film doesn’t bother to make us care about anyone on the ground. Like, they throw O’Shea Jackson and a kid into the scene, but at this point I don’t even know a thing about this soldier and this kid literally just showed up out of nowhere. Not only that, but we don’t even get a proper resolution. One second we see O’Shea Jackson desperately holding onto this kid and then like five minutes later we find out that they’re all fine, not that any of us were wondering anyway. To make matters worse, King of the Monsters does a fantastic job of giving all the monsters distinct personalities. Hell, King Ghidorah’s individual heads have more interesting characterization than anyone in this movie! Worst of all? The human characters actively take up time which should be dedicated to the monsters fighting, especially in the second half of the film. The two most egregious examples are when Rodan and King Ghidorah are fighting and suddenly the film cuts away to dumb drama aboard the Argo and when we get just one shot of Ghidorah wrecking downtown Washington D.C. That’s the kind of moment where some ground-level scenes of destruction could go a long way, but King of the Monsters‘ scope is planted so firmly on its epic, globe-spanning scale that it can’t even take the time to linger on this before zipping the plot ahead to the next big event. Again, I like King of the Monsters and in some ways I think it’s the ideal Hollywood blockbuster interpretation of a kaiju movie, but the human characters are by far its greatest weakness, to the point of being actively detrimental to the whole experience.

Godzilla vs. Kong

I was nervous going into Godzilla vs. Kong, but after seeing the first trailer I was reassured that they had learned one lesson – even if the human characters inevitably sucked, they had pulled off a masterstroke by making Kong the film’s true leading character and emotional core. That said, some studio head out there decided that there still have to be human characters in this movie, and these are a tale of two halves…

For the Kong half of the film, we get Alexander Skarsgård as Nathan Lind, Rebecca Hall as Ilene Andrews and Kaylee Hottle as Jia. They’re all functional at best and serve little more purpose than to drive the plot forward (Lind has researched the hollow earth, and they need Kong to guide them there) or provide a connection to Kong (Andrews is the top researcher on Kong and Jia has bonded with Kong to the point of being able to communicate with him). This half of the film also features Eiza González in an obviously-villainous corporate underling role as she funds their expedition to the hollow earth, but she similarly has little in the way of development or interesting motivation, you just sit there waiting for her sudden but inevitable betrayal. Like most people in the Monsterverse, the humans in this half of the film are purely functional – not actively detrimental or disruptive, but about as uninteresting as you’d expect from a film like this… so better than King of the Monsters, at least.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the Godzilla half of the film, which is centered around Millie Bobby Brown’s returning character, Madison, along with her friend and a bumbling conspiracy theorist who unearth a sinister conspiracy afoot at Apex Cybernetics… and good God, this is by far the worst set of characters we’ve gotten in the entire Monsterverse. Godzilla vs. Kong makes the interesting decision of dialing back on the po-faced seriousness of Godzilla and King of the Monsters and instead goes for a campier tone. This is an sensible idea for a monster movie, since they are intended to be a breezy fun time, but the camp is cranked to the max whenever this trio is on-screen to the point of being grating. It’s to the point of being cartoonish, as these three clowns bumble their way into Apex Cybernetics, somehow avoiding detection the entire way, until they come face-to-face with the moustache-twirling corporate villain. This half of the film also suffers from two egregious sins (actually let’s make that three – Jessica Henwick was cast but cut from the final film, what the fuck movie!?). The first is that poor Kyle Chandler is completely wasted, relegated to little more than a cameo role. A familiar face would have done wonders and I struggle to see how you couldn’t have worked him into the plot in a more substantial manner. The second sin is that the bad guy’s main henchman is freaking Ren Serizawa, the son of Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, and the film doesn’t play this fact up at all. Hell, he even dies unceremoniously, making the entire existence of this character pointless. Like, at that point why not just make him a nameless goon? Or just fold his role into that of the main bad guy? I don’t understand this decision and all I can think is that there was significant chunks of story cut out in the final film which may have expanded on his role.

So Godzilla vs. Kong has one set of characters who are functional at best and another set that I actively wish would die. This might have been a crippling flaw for the film but, like I said at the outset, Godzilla vs. Kong downplays this issue by making Kong the true main character. This provides what should be a blueprint for future Monsterverse films where they won’t feel like they have to saddle us with boring or annoying humans and instead focus on the monsters directly. That said, I would like to see a return to what made the first Godzilla film so successful, where the action is shown from ground level with humans scrambling just to survive. King of the Monsters already put the stakes about as high as they can realistically get, so I feel like trying to maintain that kind of scope just isn’t sustainable and instead the right course of action is to lean into the human stakes instead. I really enjoy the Monsterverse and it would be great to see this franchise continue and improve as time goes on

DOA Is The Best Video Game Movie (300th Blog Post Celebration!)

This review has been a long time coming. Like, to put it into perspective, I tend to start drafts on my blog so that I remember ideas and am able to come back to them later. Sometimes they even get completed and get published here! Well, it was around seven years ago when I thought “hey, I love DOA: Dead or Alive and would love to write a review explaining why!” For whatever reason, that idea kept getting shoved back in favour of other ideas, but that draft has been sitting in here for literally years in various iterations, including two serious attempts to complete it that got shelved and the whole blog migration to WordPress. This also means that I have had to rewatch the film on several occasions whenever I planned on sitting down to work on this review.

Well, a few months ago I realized that I was rapidly closing in on my 300th blog post. Considering that I celebrated my 200th blog post with a review of DOAX3, what better time to finally get off my ass and review this movie? DOA: Dead or Alive is the best video game movie of all time and I’m going to explain why (yes, better than Detective Pikachu – no one is more shocked by that statement than me).

I remember seeing this film’s DVD cover in the local movie rental place when I was in high school… it looked identical to the covers of the porn DVDs nearby. That was obviously an intentional choice.

Production

After the box office success of the first two Resident Evil films, the producers of the first film, Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt and Bernd Eichinger, were eager to tap into the burgeoning video game adaptation gold rush and searched for the next big hit (funnily enough, of all the video game adaptations listed in production on that link, the only ones that would actually come out were DOA and Resident Evil: Extinction). Perhaps owing to Anderson’s success with the 1995 fighting game adaptation Mortal Kombat, the producers decided to give Dead or Alive a shot – after all, it was all about action sequences and sexy women, so it would surely draw out all the teenage boys, right? Also being brought on to help produce the film was Mark A. Altman, who had previously produced freaking House of the Dead (fighting The Howling 2 for the championship title of most insane film to ever make it into theatres).

Corey Yuen was brought on as the film’s director. Yuen was well-known for his impressive Hong Kong action films and fight choreography, and had just found success with Western audiences with The Transporter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lead actresses were all models: Devon Aoki (of Sin City and 2 Fast 2 Furious fame) was cast as Kasumi, Holly Valance (known for the soap opera Neighbours, Prison Break and… what, she was in Taken!? Oh shit, she was the pop singer Liam Neeson has to protect, of course!) was cast as Christie and Jaime Pressly (probably the biggest name in the main cast, best known for My Name is Earl) was cast as Tina Armstrong. The supporting cast are also filled with plenty of interesting actors. By far the most notable is professional wrestler Kevin Nash as Bass Armstrong. This was an absolutely perfect casting, he steals the show whenever he’s on screen. The film also has several notable character actors and B-movie stars, such as Matthew Marsen (who has been in many films, but was last seen on IC2S in Atlas Shrugged) as Max, Eric Roberts (here playing a discount John Carradine) as Donovan, and Natassia Malthe (a kick-ass Uwe Boll regular) as Ayane. Some relative unknowns were also cast in major roles, such as Sarah Carter as Helena Douglas, Steve Howey as Weatherby and Brian J. White as Zack (who plays the role to perfection). Rounding out the cast were a pair of martial artists, Collin Chou as Hayate and Kane Kosugi as Ryu Hayabusa (he’s fine for the role they wrote for him, but good God do not expect this Ryu to be anything like the demon-slaying badass from Ninja Gaiden or you are going to be disappointed).

Filming took place in various locations in China. Most of the cast had never played a Dead or Alive game before, although most checked it out during production (Matthew Marsden specifically acknowledged that he sucked at it). According to the “Making Of” featurette (which really sucks by the way, nearly half of it is uninterrupted footage from the movie), the cast trained for 3 months with US marines and martial arts experts in order to learn their characters’ fighting styles. According to Sarah Carter, the entire cast performed most of their own stunts and some fight sequences could take up to 7 days to film (such as the impressive Helena vs Christie fight at the mid-point). The film also features a volleyball scene which was 100% pure fan service and which went through a staggering forty pairs of bikinis to complete.

Unfortunately for the producers, DOA: Dead or Alive didn’t light up the box anywhere near as much as Resident Evil had. In fact, while those films had wracked up grosses over $100 million worldwide, DOA brought in a paltry $7.7 million on a $30 million budget. Ouch.

Plot Summary

The film opens at a ninja palace in the mountains where princess Kasumi resolves to find her brother, Hayate, who went missing after being invited to the Dead or Alive martial arts tournament and is presumed dead. However, she is warned by Hayate’s friend, Ryu Hayabusa, that if she abandons the castle then she will be condemned to death by the laws of their people. Unperturbed, Kasumi escapes, pursued by her vengeful half-sister, Ayane, and is invited to participate in Dead of Alive. The film then cuts to Tina Armstrong, a professional wrestler who is trying to prove that her talents aren’t all just showmanship (which she quickly proves to us by beating up a group of pirates who board her boat, securing her invite to Dead or Alive). Finally, we’re introduced to Christie, a criminal who uses her femme fatale wiles to fight her way through a group of Interpol agents who have cornered her in her hotel room, earning herself an invitation to Dead or Alive in the process. With our main cast assembled, the group is flown to the island where Dead or Alive is held, alongside fellow competitors including Zack, Hayabusa (who has entered the tournament to watch over and protect Kasumi), Helena Douglas (daughter of the tournament’s recently-deceased co-founder), Bass Armstrong (Tina’s enthusiastic and laid-back father) and Max Marsh (Christie’s partner in crime, who is joining her to try to steal the company’s fortune). After parachuting to the island and traversing the rugged terrain to reach the tournament grounds, the group is introduced to Dead or Alive’s organizer, Victor Donovan, who explains the rules of the tournament – fighters will be tracked with nano-bots, fights can be called at any time and any place with single-round eliminations determining who will move on to the next round of competition.

As the first rounds of the tournament slowly get underway, the characters begin getting to know each other. Zack spends all his time hitting on a very unreceptive Tina, while a computer technician for the tournament named Weatherby tries to work up the courage to ask out Helena (who, surprisingly, decides to give him a chance). Meanwhile, Kasumi continues her search for Hayate, avoiding attacks from Ayane and the other competitors. She is eventually joined by Hayabusa, but he goes missing while infiltrating Donovan’s headquarters, making Kasumi even more suspicious about what’s going on. Finally, Christie and Max discover the location of Dead or Alive’s vault and try to figure out the password to get inside. Max eventually realizes that the code is tattooed on Helena, a fact which adds additional tension when Helena and Christie are paired off against one another in a quarter finals match. After an intense fight, Christie manages to come out on top while also discovering the tattooed code.

Concerned about Hayabusa, Kasumi convinces Tina and Christie to join her in infiltrating Donovan’s headquarters. They discover Hayabusa unconscious, but are incapacitated and captured by Donovan. Meanwhile, saddened by Helena’s defeat to Christie, Weatherby confesses to Helena that Donovan is working on some sort of secret project and that he believes that her father was murdered to cover it up. Helena decides to stop Donovan, but they are attacked by his cronies. They manage to defeat the mob and then head into the complex to get to the bottom of Donovan’s scheme. Donovan monologues to the captured heroes about his plan – he has been using the nanobots in their bloodstream to collect data on the worlds greatest fighters, which will be fed directly into a pair of computer-enhanced glasses he has developed, allowing him to instantly learn their techniques and counter them all. He plans to sell these glasses to several international criminals to rake in millions of dollars. Donovan then reveals that Hayate is still alive and uses him as a demonstration of the glasses’ power, defeating him in one-on-one combat easily and throwing him through a wall. He is left to die but Ayane saves him, which causes her to finally realize that Kasumi was right all along.

Before Donovan can send the data to his buyers, he is interrupted by Weatherby, who cuts off the upload and alerts the CIA of Donovan’s dealings. Donovan and Helena fight while Weatherby frees Hayabusa, Tina, Kasumi and Christie just before Donovan actives a self-destruct sequence. The fighters all converge on Donovan, with Helena, Kasumi, Ayane, Hayate, Tina and Christie all beating on the old man at once while Weatherby and Hayabusa try to find an escape route. They encounter Max, who has been trying to break into the vault, and help him escape (despite his protestations). Overwhelmed by the sheer number of people attacking him, Donovan’s glasses are knocked off and he is left in a paralytic state by Hayate and Kasumi and watches helplessly as the heroes all escape the island before the base explodes, consuming Donovan in the inferno. The group quickly come across the pirates who Tina had fought earlier and steal their boat as they ride off into the sunset… to a final stinger where our heroines all face off against an army of ninjas at Kasumi’s palace.

Review

The opening of DOA is a perfect encapsulation of what makes this movie work. It starts with a terrible CGI tracking shot through a palace in the sky and then assaults us with stilted acting, bad dialogue and melodrama… and then suddenly Kasumi’s escapes by throwing a sword into the wall, leaps the cross the backs of an entire army, uses the sword as a springboard to launch herself over the walls of the palace and then reveals that she has a freaking hang glider hidden under her clothes to sail away as a robot ninja star just comes out of nowhere and invites her to DOA.

Holy shit, what did I just watch?!

The movie just gets better from there and makes it unmistakable that Corey Yuen and his cast know exactly what kind of film they’re making and then wring every ounce of fun out of the premise that they can with tongue planted firmly in cheek. That’s the thing, DOA has several elements that would tank any other film – paper-thin story, bad acting, a stupid and cheap third act, etc. However, Yuen executes this all in such a manner that they either don’t matter or they even enhance the experience. For example, how many times have I criticized Resident Evil for its crappy stories? The difference here is that the story serves DOA‘s actual strengths – fantastic action sequences and fun characters (and for the record, these are the exact elements that made the two Resident Evil movies I actually like work). There’s very little time wasted on pointless exposition or worldbuilding, the film knows what you’re here for and it will give you enough to make that function and create some stakes in an efficient manner. Again, this would usually sound like a bad thing, but how many action movies have we seen where they put in a forced romance, or set up a long-winded relationship in order to give our character motivation when it’s taken away, or just spent time trying to prove that this is not “just some b-movie”? There’s a reason movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Taken and John Wick are so beloved and that’s because they cut the fat… and it just occurred to me while typing this sentence that I’m unironically going to argue that DOA: Dead or Alive is at least in the same ballpark as those movies.

First off, DOA has some fantastic fight sequences. This should be expected, but you’d be surprised how many video game movies (let alone lower-budget movies in general) that are all about their action sequences fail to even surpass this simple hurdle. Films like The Legend of Chun-Li are supposed to be all about the action but fail to even succeed there. Again, look no further than the most recent Resident Evil, which was basically just an excuse to string together action setpieces but which had the worst directed and edited action sequences in the franchise so far in the process. In this regard, DOA scored a homerun right off the bat by hiring Corey Yuen, whose expertise is clearly reflected in the plethora of fun and exciting fights peppered throughout this film’s runtime.

There are two particular sequences I want to highlight – the showdown between Kasumi and Ayane in the bamboo forest and the rain-soaked, bare-knuckle beatdown between Christie and Helena. The bamboo forest fight is a clear riff on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a sword-wielding Ayane tries to kill an unarmed Kasumi and features all sorts of acrobatics, wire stunts and creative use of the environment to allow Kasumi to survive her half-sister’s furious onslaught. I highlight this particular fight because it’s basically just thrown there for the sake of an action sequence, but it’s so damn cool that it doesn’t matter that it halts the actual story for a couple minutes. On the other hand, the fight between Christie and Helena is not only really cool (shot in slow-motion close-ups during a pouring rain storm), but is also tense because we have no idea who is going to win. We like both characters by this point and don’t want to see either of them lose. Some of the best acting in the film is demonstrated in this sequence, you can really feel that these characters are fighting a desperate battle against one another and doing whatever they can to come out on top. In a movie with tons of great fight sequences, this one really stands out because it makes you realize just how effectively it has gotten you to like these characters.

That’s another big strength of DOA – the characters are all really fun (well, mostly, but we’ll get to that). It helps their personalities and motivations are conveyed perfectly through the action sequences… again, just like Fury Road. I mean, just look at the character introductions for an example. Tina gets introduced complaining that, as a wrestler, she’s not taken seriously before her boat gets boarded by pirates. She takes the opportunity to then beat the crap out of them, proving to the audience that she is indeed a formidable fighter (and even kind-hearted as she allows the last pirate to throw himself off the ship to spare himself a beating). Meanwhile, Christie’s introduction establishes that she’s a charming femme fatale, using her sexuality in order to get the upper hand when she’s ambushed and seemingly cornered by Interpol. Hayate gets one of these introductions in a flashback as well. Need to prove that he’s the best fighter in the world? How about have him chuck a bunch of needles at a group of bandits, snatch these needles out of the air and prick the bandits in their pressure points to paralyze them all? Holy shit, this guy’s amazing! It makes Kasumi’s unrelenting search and Donovan’s later beatdown of Hayate all the more effective.

It’s not just about the fights though, DOA‘s characters are also just fun to watch interacting with each other and have great chemistry. The most obvious example of this is Kevin Nash’s Bass Armstrong and his interactions with Tina. He’s like the ultimate goofy, macho dad and Tina is constantly embarrassed by his inability to take anything seriously. This comes to a head when Tina and Bass get matched against each other and he bursts into her room, only to sheepishly back out when he realizes that he might have just walked in on Tina and Christie in bed together (in reality she was just sharing a bed because Christie’s room got trashed). It’s adorable how supportive he is of his daughter and is obvious that there’s a lot of love between them, even if there appears to be friction most of the time. Weatherby and Helena’s relationship is also quite cute. While Weatherby is a dork and it strains credulity to think that Helena would find him interesting, the fact that she does is adorable and both are kept interesting enough and have enough relevance that it doesn’t feel like either is a dreaded “generic love interest”. Or how about how the film establishes that Kasumi, Christie and Tina are now friends with each other? When the group parachutes onto DOA island together, they have to reach the tournament grounds in time or be disqualified. Initially they’re all looking out for themselves while climbing the temple, but quickly realize that they’re not going to make it unless they work together and are soon a solid team. It’s simple and obvious, but effective visual character building.

Unfortunately, DOA‘s one big stumbling block in terms of its characters is in its lead, Kasumi. Devon Aoki’s performance is extremely flat and I can’t help but feel like this was intentional – Kasumi herself is a bit of a personality-void in the games and I think they were trying to capture the same sort of stoic heroine energy. It’s a shame because Aoki seems very charming and fun in the film’s “Making Of” feature and it would have been nice to see her in a role that didn’t require her to be so serious the whole time. Similarly, Ayane is also very one-note, just pissed off all the time, while Ryu Hayabusa is downgraded from a demon-slaying badass to Kasumi’s generic love interest. Whenever Kasumi’s plot is in control the film loses some of its luster, but thankfully it’s more than made up for with the subplots revolving around Christie and Tina (and eventually Helena).

Another remarkable element of DOA is that the film is one of those weird movies that manages to strike the fine balance between being sexy and empowering at the same time. This is especially surprising given Dead or Alive‘s reputation as a pervy, tit-obsessed series (this certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2 released only a month after DOA hit theaters). DOA does a far better job of balancing this out, if only because the cast are real human beings and not a bunch of 36DD teenagers and so they can’t just take the easy route by going with over-the-top eye-candy. Sure, the girls are in bikinis on several occasions and there are lots of shots of cleavage and butts, but it comes across far better than in the games. The games are usually just voyeuristic but when they fetishize the girls it can get straight-up creepy, not to mention that the games try to maintain this weird sort of “innocence” to them all, like they don’t realize that they’re all stupidly-hot. In DOA, the women all own their sexuality – if they’re in bikinis it generally makes sense (it is a tropical island after all and they’re often in down-time between fights) and they’re not treated like these chaste, untouchable angels with no idea of how beautiful they are. Hell, Christie is straight-up sexually active in this movie, well-aware of her wants and desires and not afraid to use her allures to get the upper-hand on an opponent. It’s kind of like Bayonetta in this regard, where the female characters are framed by the male gaze, but they don’t allow it to trap them. Beyond the characters’ sexuality though, the female cast just kick a ton of ass throughout the film. That’s actually a strength inherent to the games themselves, where several women can go toe-to-toe with the best male fighters in the world and play out their interesting storylines, but the focus on tits always drowns this out and drowns out an otherwise empowering premise. Freed from pervy obsessions, DOA shows us just how awesome these women are as they take down an evil conspiracy with their fists. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to declare the film to be outright feminist, but it’s sure as hell a kickass girl power romp.

I also have to mention the third act, which is a potentially make-or-break part of the film. For my part, I think it’s fucking hilarious and the perfect cherry on top of an enjoyable sundae, but I can understand if someone would think that it’s terrible. Basically, as soon as Donovan’s evil plan is revealed, DOA turns into a G.I. Joe-level cartoon. The sets get really cheap looking and the plot goes off the rails because Donovan’s master plan is stupid beyond comprehension. Okay, cool, you’ve scanned all the fighting techniques from the world’s best fighters and downloaded them to a set of smart glasses which show you how to fight and beat any opponent… There’s just so much about this that’s pants-on-head stupid. First of all, how do you react quick enough to the glasses’ prompts to even fight back? Second, boy it sure would suck if your opponent decided to shoot you instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Third, why make the crux of this evil plan revolve around a fashion accessory which is notoriously easy to knock off, especially when you’re doing quick actions like… oh, I don’t know, fighting people? Fourth, why then antagonize the fighters you stole the data from!? If he had just waited til the tournament was over to sell the data to international terrorists (some of which look like random incels wearing sunglasses!) you wouldn’t have gotten defeated like an idiot! It’s so dumb, but given how intentionally tongue-in-cheek the rest of the film has been I can’t help but think that this plan was made so campy on purpose, so I’m more than willing to go along with it, grinning like a madman all the while.

If we’re being entirely honest, DOA isn’t a top-tier movie by any means. The acting is fine at best, the story is clearly bare-bones and the low budget makes it look cheap at times. Films like House of the Dead or Street Fighter: The Movie may be similarly fun and hilarious, but it’s clear that they were not intended to be enjoyed so ironically. On the flip-side, recent acclaimed video game movies like Detective Pikachu and Sonic aim to be taken more seriously, but they’re just ultimately mediocre popcorn films with boring characters, unimpressive action sequences and questionably-structured stories. However, everyone involved knew exactly what sort of film this was and they did away with pretension to maximize its strengths and make it as enjoyable as possible with tongue planted firmly in cheek throughout. That puts it well above every other video game movie out there.

6.5/10

Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2020

So… 2020 has been a year. However, if there has been one positive for me, it’s that working from home makes it even easier to listen to music all day. While I was initially worried that COVID-19 was going to see bands pushing back their albums until they can tour again, the latter-half of the year saw a number of high-profile and much-anticipated releases. Beyond that, coping with quarantine led to several cooped-up bands being able to sit down and put out new music or livestream concerts across the globe. With lockdowns and no end in sight of restrictions, there’s still plenty of time for you to experience fresh music, so why not check out the new albums I listened to this year and see if anything tickles your fancy?

Oh and one other thing – I usually do a countdown of the best movie posters of the year as well around this time. Obviously, due to COVID, most movies have had their releases pushed back so I decided to forego the rankings this year as the selection of posters is just too little to work with.

Honourable Mention: Somebody That I Used to Know EP, Three Days Grace
So this one is a really weird case. Normally I don’t bother to cover singles and I usually only include EPs on this list if there are at least two tracks (hence why “Stairway to Nick John” made the list last year, despite having only a live and a studio version of the same song). Three Days Grace’s Somebody That I Used to Know EP is really weird though because it’s just a new cover track and then three songs lifted wholesale from their last album. It would be one thing if they reimagined these songs, but they’re literally the same recordings. What makes it even weirder for me is that these three songs are all pretty damn good, certainly far better than the “meh” Gotye cover that this EP is named after. It’s obvious that these three tracks were just put on here to lure in new fans or old fans who stopped paying attention after Adam Gontier left the band. As a result, I can’t really justify putting this in the rankings, nor would I really know where to put it for that matter.

Honourable Mention: We Are The Lost Ones, Tear Us Apart and More To Living Than Being Alive, Anberlin

I’ve made it clear before that Anberlin are one of my all-time favourite bands so seeing them reunite in 2020 has been a real treat. They’ve been doing a series of livestreamed shows where they perform each of their albums in its entirety and they’ve been great. At the time of this writing, We Are The Lost Ones (the live recording of their first album, BlueprintsForTheBlackMarket) is the only one which has been released, but there are two more live recordings in the wings and at least four more shows coming over the next year. As a result, I’m going to refrain from ranking each of these albums individually in order to avoid swamping the countdown with Anberlin live albums in 2020 and 2021. Suffice to say they’re great, seeing Cities performed live was a truly magical evening that I’ll never forget, even if it would have been nice to be in the same room as them.

Anyway, with that out of the way let’s get to the rankings, starting with a real, steaming turd…

24) Shadow Work, Trapt
Like most people my age, my only experience with Trapt was their angsty one-hit wonder, “Headstrong” waaaaay back in 2002. It probably would have stayed that way too, except while doing research on a band with some shady political leanings (don’t worry, we’ll get to that band shortly) Trapt’s name came up as being a contemporary with awful politics. I’ve looked into it and, holy shit, they are seriously the biggest assholes in the music industry, getting into fights with everyone and bragging about how much money they make (and yet they can’t seem to pay the guy who did their album art, imagine that). Like, how bad do you have to be to get your own Wikipedia section about all the awful shit you’ve said on Twitter? Anyway, after going into this rabbit hole I discovered that Trapt had put out a new album this year and… well, I couldn’t resist the temptation.

I’m not sure what sort of music I was expecting to get going into Shadow Work, but it sure as hell wasn’t an ass-load of toothless pop-rock. Like, say what you will about “Headstrong”, but at least that song had some energy to it. The music in Shadow Work sounds like limp Backstreet Boys, stripped of any talent. For a band who is only known for one song, you’d think that there’d be at least one obligatory bro-metal, pump up song, something with some energy. From what I’ve heard, the band normally has more of a nu metal flavour, but they tried to sell out even harder on this album by watering down their sound and going for what’s hot in radio rock right now, meaning that Shadow Work doesn’t even please the people who normally like Trapt’s music.

In case you’re wondering, Trapt avoid bringing their shitty politics into their music (suggesting to me that it’s more of a social media grift to get attention). You could say that it’s wise that Trapt don’t bring their political leanings into their music, but it would have been nice if they had brought anything at all into it. Every song on this album is the sort of shit that killed radio rock – false sincerity, vapid songwriting, and every single track is about love or relationships… it all blends together into a boring sludge meant to be enjoyed listened to by the widest possible audience. And good God the songwriting is just embarrassing at times, to the point where I feel like I owe Five Finger Death Punch an apology. Like, check out these lyrical highlights:

“I’m going to make it/Going to make it/Going to make it out alive/I’m going to make it/Going to make it/Going to make it out alive/Make it out alive/Make it out alive/Make it out alive”

“I want to want what I want/I don’t want to have to have a need/I want to want what I want/I just want to be set free/I want to want what I want/I don’t want to have to have these needs/I want to want what I want/I just want to be set free/I want to want what I want/I want to want what I want”

“Tell me how you really feel/Tell me how you feel/If you really want to make it real/Then tell me how to/Tell me how you feel/Tell me how you feel”

“Looking for love in so many places/I think I took a wrong turn back there somewhere/So many pictures, so many faces/There’s not a soul that I know that well to tell/Looking for answers by going within/It’s getting harder to know where I’ve been/Crashing and burning before I begin/I don’t want it withheld/I want to hold and be held”

These look like the sorts of lyrics I tried to write back when I was in high schooler and I sucked at songwriting. Even the titles of the songs are lazy and cliched – like, the fifth track is “Far Enough Away” but then the ninth is “Too Far Away”. Any competent artist would use this sort of mirroring to make some sort of statement, but here it’s just a coincidence to wring out some sort of emotion based on the sentiment of the titles. Tracks that would be filler on any other album, like “Far Enough Away” and “Trying Too Hard” end up being highlights because at least they meet the level of bog standard. The best track though is “Save Your Soul”, a Jewel cover. It’s not amazing, but it feels like some actual effort was put into it, which is more than I can say about everything else on Shadow Work. That’s really the main issue here – even if you leave the band’s shitty politics out of the equation, Shadow Work is fucking boring and lazy, low-effort trash with no artistic merit to it.

I feel bad about making these annual rankings sometimes. I call it “Ranking The Albums I Listened To” for a reason – I’m generally not seeking out stuff that I won’t enjoy, so even the bottom-rung albums on the list aren’t necessarily awful in any given year, they just may be middling. Not so in this case though – Shadow Work is easily one of the worst albums I’ve listened through and has set a new standard for me for how shitty a band can be at everything they do. Oh and congrats on selling a grand total of 600 copies of this album in the first week, Trapt, it’s more than it deserved!

(Post-script: A week before posting this Trapt finally got banned from Twitter for defending a statutory rape. Classy!)

(POST-post-script: Mere hours before this article went live there were rumours circulating that Chris Taylor-Brown had been fired from Trapt, complete with a profanity-laden Parler meltdown. Unfortunately, as funny as this would have been, it appears that this is fake news.)

23) 2020 EP, Smile Empty Soul
I know I said back in 2018 that I didn’t have a lot of interest in Smile Empty Soul after being underwhelmed by their album Oblivion… but then a new EP called “2020” showed up in my “new releases” on Spotify and I knew I had to at least see what Smile Empty Soul think are the pressing issues in the turbulent times we’re living in. After all, 2020 is such a loaded, meaningful title for an album, you can’t really avoid tackling serious subjects, right? Well… Smile Empty Soul have some things to complain about, but holy shit are their priorities out of place. The album opens with “Entitled”, which spends its entire runtime whining about the kids these days with their Instagram and opinions. It’s seriously the sort of rant I’ve heard on more than one occasion from my aunt and it immediately put me in a sour mood with this EP. Like, you think that this is the biggest issue in 2020, to the point where you put it first on your album? You’re the dude who makes your money putting your opinions out there in music, if you don’t like it then stop caring about what they think. I mean, musically it’s an alright song but the lyrics completely ruin it for me, nothing more than out of touch whining.

After “Entitled” put me off right out the gate, “Excommunicated” at least takes a break from the bullshit. It seems to be about the breaking up of a friendship rather than a political song, all-in-all it’s fine. “Land of the Lost” put me back into hesitant territory though. The song itself seems innocuous enough, but “Entitled” put me off so badly that I started second guessing Smile Empty Soul’s intentions everywhere. Like, look at the album cover – a barcode on the forehead, a mask on and a needle killing you… is Smile Empty Soul anti-vax..? I honestly don’t know, but these lyrics calling out “smart people” who can’t think for themselves and let the government trample over our freedom don’t make me any less suspicious:

When you tell yourself you’re the smartest kind/But you’ve never thought your own way out/Of the box, land of the lost/I hope you’re ready this time/You’ve been away for so long/You fell asleep in another lie/The one that buries us all/ […] Nothing’s ever gonna save you now/Go tell your children that they aren’t free

Now, to be charitable, these lyrics are ambiguous enough that this song could also be about people who sit idly by as fascists take over, which would be quite fitting for an album with a loaded title like 2020. I get the sense that that’s not the case though, the lack of specificity just makes it come across like so many mealy mouthed, commercial “protest” songs that sell themselves on the language of protest but don’t actually stand for anything.

On the more positive side, “Go Broke” does seem to be pretty clear about how screwed up a society where everyone’s in debt to someone is, making it probably the only appropriately “2020” track on the EP. The album then closes out with “Same World”, which is just dull song on its own merits before you even look at the message which boils down to “I don’t understand the world anymore”. Again, you’re not helping my case that you’re just out of touch, dude.

2020 is a meh EP on its own, but is title really doesn’t do it any favours. It doesn’t even make any sort of relevant statement about the times we’re living in for that matter – seriously, replace the Instagram references in “Entitled” with Facebook references and this whole EP could have easily been released a decade ago. It just feels like out of touch bullshit… which put me down the much more enjoyable rabbit hole of trying to figure out what sort of political inclinations Smile Empty Soul have and see if my anti-vaxxer suspicions were correct. While I couldn’t find any evidence of that, it’s pretty clear that the band (which is really just one guy, Sean Danielsen) don’t like the government at all. To promote their shows they post a lot of imagery of Guy Fawkes and guns (oh Jesus Christ, they had an Austin, TX show with a gun poster that says “Come and take it”). There’s nothing wrong with any of these by themselves, but it gives me the distinct impression that Sean Danielsen is a conservative libertarian, which would make the toothlessness of his opinions in 2020 make a lot more sense. This also isn’t helped by the explicitly political post the band made where he liked when someone said he sounded like a conservative and then called someone else a social justice warrior because they pointed out that black people didn’t have it so good 125 years ago… like, dude, you’re supposed to be a punk. You tell me that you look out the window and look at what’s going on in the world and you think that the real problem is that the government tells you what to do too much? Worrying about government overreach is a legitimate concern and both political parties in the US do suck, but are you telling me that you can’t think of something to say about all the corruption, blatant authoritarianism, mass death from incompetence and rise in hate groups that are 100% specific to Donald Trump’s presidency? You are, after all, the guy whining about people who have opinions that don’t matter. Ugh, fuck 2020, this EP sucks.

22) Like A House On Fire, Asking Alexandria
I’ve never really had any interest in checking out Asking Alexandria before, but one day their newest single showed up in my Spotify recommendations with a, uh, interesting title: “Antisocialist”. Luckily for Asking Alexandria, “Antisocialist” is a misnomer whereas “anti-social” would be more accurate, because otherwise I would have gone right off on this band. However, I was interested enough that I decided to check their new album, Like A House On Fire, just out of curiosity. Unfortunately, the music here doesn’t really warrant any of that curiosity because it’s largely “meh”. Like, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say that any song on here is “bad”, but none of them are interesting either, just a lot of commercial hard rock looking for radio airplay. Vocalist Danny Worsnop doesn’t really help either, when he isn’t yelling he sounds like a whiny, hard rock Callum Scott. Normally I take notes on every track while going through albums for this ranking, but Like A House On Fire lost me about halfway through its bloated 52 minute playtime. On “All Due Respect” Danny sings “I can fly, and you’re gonna fall face down while/I inspire greatness/As long as I’m alive, I’ll fight, and you’ll be stuck in the shadows of/The heights of my greatness”. All I can say to that is… got a pretty high opinion of yourself, bro?

21) Supernatural Miracle, Stillwell
I saw Stillwell live back in 2010 or 2011 when they opened for Korn and Disturbed. It was actually a big deal for me because Wuv, the drummer for P.O.D., is the drummer for Stillwell so it was the closest I had ever been to my childhood favourite band at the time. Even better, I actually got to meet him after the show and get a picture together, which was easily one of the most exciting moments of my life and the only time that I was ever truly starstruck. Maybe I should have been more excited that freaking Fieldy from Korn was there too but at the time I was just too tongue-tied to think straight. Anyway, as you can expect I was on a high when I bought a copy of the band’s debut album, Dirtbag, and got Fieldy, Wuv and Q-unique to sign it, but as soon as I popped it into the CD player I knew I had made a mistake. The band put on a great show and there are a couple tracks which are straight fire, but Dirtbag was… rough to say the least. With each subsequent listen I was basically just listening to “Street Metal” and ignoring the rest. Due to this distaste, I never really bothered to check in again on Stillwell – in fact, they managed to put out a whole second album without me noticing. However, when the band put out their third album, Supernatural Miracle, this year and it popped up in my Spotify recommendations I grit my teeth and decided to take the plunge. I mean, I’ve already listened to goddamn Trapt this year, how bad can Stillwell be?

If I’m being honest, I actually expected Supernatural Miracle to be really bad, maybe even second worst album of the year bad, but I was pleasantly surprised when “You Don’t Wanna Know” started up. Gone were the rap and lite-metal proceedings of Dirtbag and instead in their place they gave us a pretty solid and polished rock track. I was even more surprised then when “Gasoline” kicked in and had me legitimately rocking along and having a good time. Even the most outright-Christian song on the album, “A Come to Jesus Moment”, was much better than I would have expected, bringing some hard-rockin’ swagger to the proceedings. By the time “Could’ve Sworn” rolled around my expectations had already been blown well past, but this also marks the point in the album where Supernatural Miracle starts getting really mediocre. The next six tracks are all “fine” at best, largely let down by their mediocre, shallow and uninspiring lyrics, although the closing track “Contagious” picks the energy back up a bit.  The album is also short at only 32 minutes and definitely feels like it, it’s quick, breezy and inoffensive. Like I said, I was not expecting much out of Supernatural Miracle, but the album easily surpassed these expectations. It’s a big step up from Dirtbag and while it’s unfortunate that more than half of the album is pretty meh, there are a few tracks here that are well worth listening to!

20) Curse of the Crystal Coconut, Alestorm
Alestorm have a long career of keeping the delicate balance between being fun and comedic but still taking themselves seriously on their past outings. However, Curse of the Crystal Coconut definitely crosses that line and just keeps going, resulting in an album which alternates between uproarious laughter and mind-numbingly stupid in equal measure. On the positive side of things we have fun tracks like “Treasure Chest Party Quest”, “Fannybaws” and “Pirate’s Scorn” (a freaking Donkey Kong Country cover of all things and also where the album’s title comes from!), which I can see myself sitting in a tavern singing along to with my mates. Leaning on the more “serious” side for Alestorm we get two fantastic tracks, “Chomp Chomp” and “Henry Martin”. Then there’s the epic “Wooden Leg Pt. 2 (The Woodening)”, which threads the needle brilliantly between deathly serious and laugh out loud funny.

Unfortunately, Curse of the Crystal Coconut is filled to the brim with embarrassing joke tracks, the first of which is “Tortuga”, this weird pop-rock track that turns into Run DMC-style rap-rock when Captain Yarrface steps in. It’s such a staggeringly stupid track that you need to hear it to believe it. You might even end up appreciating the audacity of it, but on repeat listens I’ve just found myself growing more and more tired. “Shit Boat (No Fans)” and “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew” are just dismal. “Shit Boat (No Fans)” sounds like it was written verbatim from an angry internet commenter, whereas “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew” is just vulgar for the sake of vulgarity (because “Fucked With an Anchor” was so popular last time, got to just do the same thing again right guys?). Meanwhile, “Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship” and “Call of the Waves” are just “meh”, but clock in over ten minutes between the two of them, almost a quarter of the total album length. As a result, half the album is practically unlistenable, especially on replays. Alestorm have really gone too far with turning themselves into a one-note joke this time, to the point where several of the tracks just feel half-assed. It’s too bad, there’s some tracks here which are great, but Alestorm may have finally scraped right through that barrel and out the other side.

Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, less-stingy critics seem to think it’s a blast so what do I know.

Also, like No Grave But the Sea before it, Curse of the Crystal Coconut comes with a gimmicky bonus disc on the deluxe edition. Whereas No Grave But the Sea had a funny but unlistenable version of the album with all the vocals replaced with dogs barking, Curse of the Crystal Coconut‘s bonus disc is a little more interesting, taking the songs on the album and running them through a 16-bit compression filter. The result is that each song sounds like it’s being run off a SNES, which would make it kind of cool to listen to while playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! or something like that. It’s not really worth paying extra for but when the album dropped it was actually cheaper to buy the deluxe edition so I snagged it.

19) F8, Five Finger Death Punch
I’ve made it clear in the past that I really don’t like Five Finger Death Punch. Musically they’re right in my wheelhouse, but lyrically they are just awful. However, I knew going in that F8 (it’s their eighth album, get it?) was the first album coming off Ivan Moody and Zoltan Bathory both getting sober, so maybe the band would find it in themselves to do some introspection. Also worth noting was that this album had no covers on it, which would normally be great news, except that FFDP are so bad at writing lyrics that their covers are almost always their only good songs on a new album. Still, I was curious and willing to give F8 a shot… and honestly, this is probably the band’s best album since American Capitalist.

After the tone-setting, title track instrumental the album goes right into the single-baits “Inside Out”, “Full Circle” and “Living the Dream” which immediately demonstrate that lyrics are still FFDP’s achilles heel. These songs all sound catchy, but their lyrics let them down as usual (“Living the Dream” in particular has trendy/cringy references to superheroes and then alludes to Ghost in the Shell… which makes me wonder if the band think that the Major is a superhero too). That said, at least “Living the Dream” has something to say, actively criticizing the American Dream as a ploy that doesn’t benefit us. While it could be articulated better, it makes for a more interesting song than FFDP’s usual oeuvre.

Then they go into “A Little Bit Off”, which I initially thought was a joke interlude – Ivan Moody puts on an air of intentionally-false optimism over an acoustic rock track. But no, you soon realize that this is a legitimate effort on FFDP’s part, so much so that it’s actually the album’s second single (and, what the hell, actually did really well for them)!? Once again, it’s nice to see the band trying to branch out, and the writing is deeper than they usually go (coping with the difficulties of mental health), but I can’t get over the fact that this sounds like a joke track. Maybe it’s just the way FFDP present the song, but it doesn’t work for me.

Luckily “Bottom of the Top” comes up next and is explosive, its drums sounding like gunshots in the chorus as FFDP rage back at the chinstrokers who say they aren’t “real metal”. It’s definitely one of the best tracks on the album, although the best has to be “Darkness Settles In”. In my opinion, “Darkness Settles In” is what “A Little Bit Off” should have been, a slowed-down, introspective and somber track which provides a stark look at recovery from alcoholism.

The rest of the album putters along, with a couple more decent tracks like “Brighter Side of Grey” and “To Be Alone”, but most of the rest are unremarkable (although “This Is War” is “classic” FFDP in all the wrong ways, as are the two bonus tracks on the deluxe edition). F8 ends up in a bit of an awkward place as a result. FFDP are clearly trying to expand their sound and are far less pissed off than they usually are. The lyrics are also better than they usually are, but are still far short from adequate. It’s enough to give me some hope for the future of the band, but I’m not exactly holding my breath, especially if they pull a Disturbed and decide that “A Little Bit Off” represents the band’s future.

18) Odyssey, Kaleida
After the fantastic Think EP, I really wanted to like Tear the Roots, but the album just didn’t work for me at all. Three years later, Kaleida are back with their sophomore effort, Odyssey. Going in, I was expecting this to be largely the same as Tear the Roots – chill vibes, echoed voices and a sparse soundscape, but just too lethargic for its own good. Luckily, Odyssey is quick to demonstrate that it is not just more of the same. I mean, their distinctive style is still there, but they’ve just built on it by bringing in some new influences from pop, electronic and jazz. In the songs where they do try to experiment a bit more with their distinctive sound, like “Other Side”, “Feed Us Some” and “No Computer”, Kaleida gain a lot more energy to their music. The title track and “Josephine” also take the Kaleida sound and do something different and enjoyable with it, with “Josephine” building up a defiant tension throughout its playtime (although I wish they had capitalized on this and really set it loose). Unfortunately, there’s still a bunch of tracks which have the same sort of energy as background music at a mall, but they’re outweighed by the more interesting stuff here. I think Kaleida still have a ways go to before they really knock it out of the park, but Odyssey is a promising next step in their evolution and I can only hope that their next album sees them venturing out even further.

17) S&M2, Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
S&M2, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours in length, is a roller coaster to parse through with soaring highs and crushing lows. Part celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the original S&M (which is, in my opinion, one of the best live albums ever), part celebration of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and part true sequel, S&M2 is a far less focused experience than its predecessor. I have to give Metallica some props for clearly trying to do something a bit different, but part of me wishes that they had just stuck to the formula of the original S&M instead. S&M worked so well because it was wall-to-wall bombast, giving lesser-known Metallica tracks just as much time to shine as the heavy-hitters like “One” and “Enter Sandman”. S&M2 opens nearly identically to its predecessor for over ten minutes, going through “The Ecstasy of Gold” and then into “The Call of Ktulu” before moving to “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. From there, the rest of disc 1 focuses a lot on latter-day Metallica tracks, which gives a new lease on life to some unappreciated bangers, with particular highlights being Death Magnetic‘s “The Day That Never Comes” and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct‘s “Halo on Fire”. Unfortunately, this part of the album is threaded with several tracks from the original S&M, meaning that we only actually get four brand new orchestral tracks before moving onto the second disc.

While familiar at least these returning tracks are good (particularly the fantastic “No Leaf Clover”). The same can’t be said when disc two opens with a five minute history lesson before going into two tracks which put the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra front and center. It’s undoubtedly a nice gesture to give the orchestra more attention here and let them choose their own songs to play, but it grinds the momentum of the album to a standstill for a full fifteen minutes. Like I said before, S&M worked so well because of the relentless bombast of it all. This part of the album makes for a decent curiosity on a single listen, but I can guarantee you that this part of the album is going to be skipped over every single time on future replays. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of S&M2‘s woes, because when the Metallica tracks start up again, we get very low-key renditions of “The Unforgiven III” and “All Within My Hands”, which do very little to get the energy going again. Instrumental track “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth” also gets treated with what I believe is a full-on cello solo. It is at least an interesting curiosity compared to the original track, but this also takes a long time to get going. The album finally gets back on track with the final five tracks, but these are a double-edged sword as well – they’re the band’s major hits, but they were all on the original S&M, and of these only “One” sounds noticeably different (improved, even!).

So, if you break it all down, we’ve got 11/22 tracks which are repeated from the original S&M, only one of which is noticeably different and improved. Then, of the new tracks, four are history lessons and full orchestra arrangements, while only four or five of the truly new tracks are worthwhile. It’s really too bad, this album is at its absolute best when it is giving the orchestral treatment to Metallica tracks we haven’t heard from them before and there isn’t anywhere near enough of that here. Meanwhile, the repeated tracks are enjoyable but they’re nothing I couldn’t have gotten on the original S&M. S&M2 just tries to be too much and fails to capitalize on what it does right. Drop the symphony-focused bits, swap out a couple of the repeated tracks for maybe five or six new tracks (I would have died if they played “Dreaming No More” after “The Call of Ktulu”) and then this could have easily been on-par with the original S&M. As it is, I’m probably just going to take a few tracks from it and bolt them onto the original album to make one even more epic concert experience.

16) Medium Rarities, Mastodon
I’ve stated in the past that Mastodon tend to operate on a two year album cycle, but here we are three years out from Emperor of Sand with no follow-up in sight. Instead, Mastodon are choosing to whet our appetites with Medium Rarities, a compilation of B-sides, live recordings and assorted oddities, clocking in at over an hour and ten minutes. Listeners looking for the band’s next great epic will probably be disappointed, but for fans Medium Rarities is a bizarre, scatter-shot treasure trove of curiosities. The tracklist is made up of four instrumentals, five live recordings, four covers, two B-sides and one new track. Of these, the covers, B-sides and new track were by far the most exciting content for me. While the new track “Fallen Torches” is heavy, sounding like classic, Leviathan-era Mastodon, the covers are all very different from the band’s usual sound in exciting ways. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” was particularly enjoyable and surprising and Bran Dailor’s vocals are perfect for the song. It sounds exactly like The Flaming Lips’ original before turning into something heavier as it goes along. The other covers are similarly interesting, although “Atlanta” might be just a bit too weird and distorted for its own good. The B-sides are similarly diverse. “Cut You Up With a Linoleum Knife” was written for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie as a pre-movie “warning” to the audience, so you can probably guess what to expect from that. I found myself laughing at the lyrics (which include such gems as “If I see you videotaping this movie/Satan will rain down your throat with hot acid/And dissolve your testicle/And turn your guts into snakes”), but it’s not the sort of song I’d listen to on its own merits. On the other side of the coin is “White Walker”, which was written for Game of Thrones. It’s a very solemn, haunting track, sounding more neolithic or medieval than metal, but it’s one of my favourites on this compilation.

As for the instrumentals and the live recordings, these mostly feel like filler. The instrumentals in particular feel like little more than curiosities, given that they are literally just the studio recordings of the songs without the vocal track. None of them are bad by any means (in fact, it’s really cool hearing “Jaguar God” as an instrumental track), but they’re probably the least exciting content on this release. That said, I got into Mastodon in the first place after hearing instrumental versions of “Crack the Skye” and “Oblivion” in Brutal Legend, so maybe these will draw more people in, who knows? As for the live tracks, I wasn’t particularly interested because Mastodon’s vocals aren’t great live and because we already got live recordings of “Circle of Cysquatch” and “Blood & Thunder” on Live at the Aragon. However, when I realized that at least some of these live tracks were recordings made before their respective albums were released I sat bolt upright. That is how you make a live filler track interesting, give it some historical importance! It also helps that the band’s live vocals are better here than they usually are.

All-in-all, Medium Rarities sets expectations well – it’s half-baked and it’s not going to suit all tastes. There’s maybe a bit too much filler and it can get a bit too weird for its own good at times, but there’s a plenty here to be enjoyed. I just hope that Mastodon are enjoying their extended break and using it to get their creative juices flowing once again. If “Fallen Torches” is anything to go off of, then Mastodon may just be preparing us for the main course.

15) Re-Stitch These Wounds, Black Veil Brides
So apparently Re-Stitch These Wounds is a re-recording of Black Veil Brides’ debut album We Stitch These Wounds. Having never listened to the debut before, I can’t tell you whether this is wildly divergence from the original or just a re-recorded version with better production, so just be aware that I’m judging Re-Stitch on its own merits. I’ve heard a few Black Veil Brides’ tracks previously and they seem to be all over the place, musically. Like, they have an emo/metal aesthetic, but the pompously-titled Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones sounds like freaking Nickelback of all things. Thankfully Re-Stitch These Wounds is closer to what I expected of Black Veil Brides, sounding strikingly similar to heyday-Bullet For My Valentine but without the overwhelming emo angst. Most of the music sounds good, being enjoyable heavy rock that you can happily headbang to, but there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about it. The one big sore spot is the overblown “The Mortician’s Daughter (Overture III)”, which brings the album’s momentum to a grinding halt right in the middle and which goes on for an agonizing three and a half minutes. I thought it was a joke intro at first, but then it just kept going and going. It’s actually bad enough that it soured my experience with the album as a whole. All-in-all, Re-Stitch These Wounds is fine, but it wasn’t enough to make me rush out to hear the rest of Black Veil Brides’ music.

14) Brand New Vision, Point North
We all have that one friend who we share new music recommendations with on the reg. Well, one day they recommended me this album and said it was a R&B/rock fusion. It wasn’t really the sort of thing I’m into, but I decided to check it out anyway (plus, y’know, that album cover is dope). As I kind of expected, Brand New Vision isn’t really the sort of thing I would choose to listen to, but it’s fairly solid. It definitely leans closer to R&B than it does to rock, although tracks like “Heartbeat” feel like they could be on rock radio. The other nice thing about Brand New Vision is that Point North are doing there own thing to fuse the two genres together instead of just replicating the sound of Imagine Dragons like most commercial rock bands struggling for relevance seem to do these days. If I was more of a pop fan then I might have liked Brand New Vision more, but as is it was a nice little diversion from my usual barrage of depressing metal.

13) Inner Universe EP, Words of Farewell
I say this a lot but I often find new music by browsing Spotify, seeing what it recommends to me, and then leaning towards music with striking album art. Well, the Inner Universe EP is by far the coolest goddamn album art of the year and instantly had me rushing to check Words of Farewell out. Like… look at that damn thing, it’s gorgeous and evocative! It’s also obviously in my wheelhouse because the artist has definitely been playing a lot of FromSoftware games. Beyond the general aesthetic, the woman is the spitting image of the Fire Keeper from Dark Souls 3, while the skeletal figure’s massive sword hilt has the mark of sacrifice from Berserk, the obvious inspiration for the Hunter rune from Bloodborne.

So obviously the band’s visual art is on-point, but how’s the music? Well, I’d say that Words of Farewell are pretty good. They aren’t doing anything particularly revolutionary or different, but they do it solidly. The Internet tells me that they’re a melodic death metal band but I’d say they’re closer to progressive metalcore with some light death metal elements. Opening track “Chronotopos” is probably the heaviest track on offer with a very fast tempo. The other three tracks operate at a far slower pace, but offer plenty of heaviness and up the use of electronic synthesizer elements… again, nothing I haven’t heard before, but the band executes it well enough that it’s an enjoyable listen. That said, Inner Universe is a sparse 18 minutes, is over far too quickly and leaves me feeling hungry for more. Hopefully it’s just the prelude to something more substantial because I can guarantee that I’ll be keeping my eyes on Words of Farewell.

12) The Sinner, Kill the Lights
Yet another Spotify recommendation that caught my interest, Kill the Lights further intrigued me because the band is a supergroup featuring the current drummer for Bullet For My Valentine, a band which I’ve been on a nostalgic kick for this past year. Plus, just look at that album cover – it’s no Words of Farewell, but it’s still freaking awesome. I’ve seen Kill the Lights be described as a metalcore act and I’d agree that that’s part of their sound, but I’d argue that they lean closer to a progressive metal sound (tracks like “The Faceless” sound like heavier versions of classic Judas Priest or Iron Maiden). The tracks here tend to be high energy and very heavy, with tracks such as “Watch You Fall” and “Plagues” instantly managing to get my head banging. Kill the Lights also dabble with slowed-down tracks, interspersed evenly throughout the tracklist. Of these tracks, “Rest” is by far the best, reminiscent of Bullet For My Valentine’s more introspective tracks and is just begging for radio airplay. That said, while I enjoyed The Sinner and would say that it’s worth a listen, there’s nothing about it that particularly stands out (other than “Rest”, that track is great). Kill the Lights are clearly industry veterans with a lot of talent to back them up, but I just feel like they need a bit more time to hone their craft before they’re really going to blow my socks off.

11) Kindred: Act I, Red Cain
Red Cain know how to pique my interest – the album art for their singles is incredible (especially for “Kindred”, holy shit that looks like something out of Bloodborne). That’s all well-and-good, but how do Red Cain sound? Well, I’d say that the best way to describe their sound is “epic fantasy power metal”. The band’s vocals are exaggerated and theatrical, similar to power metal bands like Powerwolf or Manowar and the fast and packed full of guitar solos. It makes for an enjoyable mixture, but whether you’ll enjoy Red Cain will come down to your taste for power metal. Opening track “Guillotine” kicks the album off in bombastic style, but it’s arguably too excessive – I feel like the mix is so much that it feels like you’re getting blasted with a wall of sounds all at once. It also doesn’t help that this track has electronic effects on it which get close to shrill at times. Luckily, this is an isolated issue because the rest of Kindred: Act I is much more enjoyable, albeit conventional, power metal. “Wing of the Crow” is a particular highlight though, with the band’s soaring vocals harmonizing beautifully with guest singer Kobra Paige. All-in-all, Kindred: Act I is enjoyable and fans of power metal should definitely give it a listen.

10) Firelink, Firelink
The Dark Souls-inspired black metal band Firelink are back on ICS2 already, with their sophomore effort releasing just over a year after their enjoyable first album, The Inveterate Fire. This self-titled album largely follows the template set by The Inveterate Fire, giving us more punishing, atmospheric and technically accomplished black metal. However, the main thing that sets Firelink apart is that the album tells a story this time, covering the second half of Dark Souls‘ plot. It opens with the epic and moody “Cerulean Athenaeum”, which is just a fancy way of saying “blue library”, aka the Duke’s Archives. From there it moves into the haunting “Where Demons Bore”, an obvious reference to the realm of the demons, lost Izalith. “Cloak of Marrow” (another obvious reference, this time to the Tomb of Giants and Gravelord Nito’s literal bone cloak) then pushes the album into a more direct, heavy and punishing black metal sound. “Kingseeker” brings back the haunting atmosphere, which is appropriate because while the title is a reference to Kingseeker Frampt, the lyrics make it clear that this song is about the ghost-infested New Londo and the Four Kings. Finally, the album closes on “End of Piety”, which opens on a reflective tone before going into the typical black metal sound, flitting between heavy and sombre as it goes. The lyrics here reflect the choice the player is given when they defeat Gwyn – link the fire or become the ruler of the darkness? It makes for a fitting end for the album and it’s nice to see the album telling a story to tie it all together. You don’t even have to be a fan of the games to appreciate the music or the story, although obviously it helps. Musically, it’s still more of the same quality black metal, so while I do find the genre itself to be a bit too indistinct for its own good, I do find myself enjoying Firelink’s albums when the mood strikes me.

9) Aurora, Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin are notorious for just putting out the exact same music over and over again (that said, the “one song” they keep putting out is so damn good), so when it was announced that their newest album would be an acoustic reimagining of past hits I couldn’t help but laugh. Naturally, there’s also one brand new track so that completionists can’t just sit this one out. Luckily, Aurora doesn’t feels like a half-assed release meant to squeeze a few more dollars out of fans. Featuring a bevy of guest appearances from the likes of Red’s Michael Barnes, Three Day’s Grace’s Adam Gontier, Flyleaf’s Lacey Sturm, Underoath’s Spencer Chamberlain and Cold’s Scooter Ward, Aurora is a real treat for fans to appreciate old favourites in a new way. Tracks that I already thought were fantastic, such as “Failure”, “Angels Fall” and “Red Cold River” are given new dimensions by their arrangements. “Red Cold River” in particular sounds quite nice without the obvious auto-tuning which was present on the original recording. Other tracks, like “So Cold”, “Never Again” and “Torn In Two” are functionally similar to their original arrangements, but with electronic elements swapped out for acoustic ones in a way that just makes it feel like a slightly different, toned-down version of the original. The real highlights of the album though are the two big inspirational anthems, the reimagined “Dear Agony” and the new track “Far Away”. “Dear Agony” was already basically an acoustic track, but Lacey Sturm’s vocals compliment Benjamin Burley’s so well that it sends an already great song to even greater heights. Meanwhile, “Far Away” also makes the most of its guest collaborator, playing Scooter Ward’s baritone vocals against Benjamin Burley’s soaring singing. It’s easily one of my favourite tracks of the year, a song that just begs to be sung along to. The album is enjoyable in whole, but these two songs in particular propel it beyond a curiosity to a must-own for fans of the band.

8) Fracture, Bleed From Within
Like most new music I find, Fracture showed up in my Spotify recommendations and the album art was so cool that I had to give it a shot. What I got was fast tempo, high-intensity metalcore in the vein of As I Lay Dying, with primarily screamed vocals. If you’re into this kind of heavy music, then Fracture will likely be very enjoyable. I love to headbang along to tracks like “The End of All We Know” and scream “This is not a war it’s a victory!” along to “Into Nothing”. The only real issue is that Bleed From Within never let up the intensity, which causes the tracks to bleed together after a while. Still makes for a great album to rage or get pumped up to (or, in my case, do menial office work to), but a little bit more variety might have pushed Fracture that much higher.

7) Under a Godless Veil, Draconian
I checked out Draconian on a bored whim during lockdown this year and was instantly impressed by what I heard. As I’ve said in the past, I’ve been looking for a band to scratch the itch that Agalloch left me in their dissolution and Draconian are the closest I’ve come to recapturing that atmospheric doom metal feeling, while also crafting their own unique style. Draconian put out moody, atmospheric, gothic doom metal which really stands out due to the interplay between its two vocalists – the death growling Anders Jacobsson and the operatic female vocals of Heike Langhans (I have heard this dynamic referred to, hilariously, as an angel vs the cookie monster). It’s a great dynamic and Draconian make it work fantastically.

Anyway, after listening through all of Draconian’s music I found out that they had a new album slated for 2020 and so I eagerly awaited it. Under a Godless Veil is another solid effort from the band but it doesn’t really shake up their sound all that much, emphasizing melancholic, atmospheric soundscapes over a more traditionally heavy metal sound. That can make the album feel sluggish at times, but that’s not to say that Under a Godless Veil doesn’t have its heavy moments – “The Sethian” should get your head banging during the chorus and “Lustrous Heart” is a rock-solid doom metal track, easily my favourite on the album. Under a Godless Veil is good, but whether you’ll enjoy it will largely depend on your taste in metal. I don’t think I’d say it’s among Draconian’s best, but it’s a quality effort and worth listening to if you’ve never experienced the band’s sound before.

6) The Sun and the Cold, Oceans
The Sun and the Cold might just be the biggest surprise of the year for me – and remember, this is coming in a year where I had some praise for the newest Five Finger Death Punch album. This album showed up in my recommended list on Spotify and I decided to give it a shot, despite the fact that “Oceans” sounded like the sort of band name that a pop or soft-rock outfit would have. Imagine my surprise then when I am immediately met with a very interesting mixture of grunge, industrial and various styles of metal (on various tracks you can hear influences from doom metal, death metal, sludge metal and metalcore, among others). It also helps that the production is spot-on, every track sounds fantastic and there are some really great songs on here – in fact, The Sun and the Cold is probably the album I most replayed on this list. “We Are the Storm” is easily one of my favourite tracks of the year, it makes you want to sing along and headbang at the same time, while “Dark” turns things in a relentlessly heavy direction and the title track makes for a solid opener. There’s even a bluesy track, “Water Rising”, which I didn’t appreciate at first but on repeat listens has become on of the highlights of the album. I also found it interesting that there’s a thematic throughline in the album relating to water and the dark unknown of the depths, lending the band’s name some unexpected significance. All-in-all, I like “The Sun and the Cold” quite a bit, it’s a really enjoyable album. I went in with zero expectations when it showed up in my Spotify recommendations and found myself pleasantly surprised, to the point that I bought a copy the next day. I’m more than happy with what’s on display here and am excited to see where Oceans go in the future.

5) The Reckoning Dawn, Winterfylleth
After putting out the unconventional The Hallowing of Heirdom back in 2018, Winterfylleth are back to their usual tricks with The Reckoning Dawn. Winterfylleth have a history of putting out punishing but indistinct black metal. I hoped that Winterfylleth would expand on the territory they covered in 2016’s The Dark Hereafter, where they changed up their sound by adding more epic, atmospheric and contemplative sounds which gave each song its own distinct identity. The Reckoning Dawn draws a little bit from this template, but unfortunately it goes back to Winterfylleth as usual, only with some choir parts and better production quality. While it’s disappointing that the band decides to settle back into their comfort zone, they still manage to put out some high-quality, atmospheric black metal here and it’s hard to deny the craftsmanship on display. That said, you have to be in the mood for black metal to really get the most out of it – it’s an album you need to listen to in one sitting to really appreciate. While I admire just how good it sounds, it isn’t one that I’m going to put on very often.

4) Valley of Kings, The Wise Man’s Fear
The Wise Man’s Fear return to the IC2S albums ranking, closing out their “Codex trilogy” with another round of fantasy-inspired metalcore. Given how good Castle in the Clouds and The Lost City were, this was easily one of my most hyped albums of the year. While I was expecting Valley of Kings to be good, I wasn’t expecting The Wise Man’s Fear to be nearly as ambitious or experimental as they are on this album.

The album opens on a very heavy note with “The Relics of Nihlux”, showing off the strength of their duelling vocals, swapping between near-deathcore growls and soaring clean vocals. It’s something I’ve always loved in metalcore and The Wise Man’s Fear are masters of it. “The Relics of Nihlux” flows seamlessly into “Breath of the Wild” (what can I say, The Wise Man’s Fear have always worn their influences on their sleeve), which flows seamlessly into “The Tree of Life”, with each song shifting the tone of the album. “Breath of the Wild” brings this very epic, wide-open soundscape, while “The Tree of Life” slows things down a bit and even features a freaking pan-flute solo at one point! It only lasts for a single line (not even a whole verse), but it’s a cool bit of experimentation that I wish they had allowed a bit more time to shine because it never comes back again on the album. “The Forest of Illusions” marks the start of the album’s second act, ending the seamless transitions between songs, but keeps up the experimentation, incorporating what I believe is a mandolin into its epic soundscape. “The Cave” then moves the album into a darker place, opening with distant, echoed wailing before blasting into aggressive deathcore and sharp, synthesized strings. From there, the album takes a bit of an angsty and introspective turn with “What Went Wrong” and “The River and the Rock”, providing us with probably the most “standard” songs on the album before moving back into the heavy third act. The third act is an assault of deathcore with “The Sands of Time” and “The Door to Nowhere” really punctuating how dire the story has gotten. “Firefall” takes it to a whole new level though, this song get brutal and demands that you headbang along to it. There’s even a sword-slicing sound effect which punctuates the song’s brutality and just makes it feel that much nastier. Then, as per The Wise Man’s Fear tradition, the album takes a very sudden turn back into more standard, positive metalcore fare with the closing title track. After how dark and brutal the third act had been, it’s a bit of a tonal whiplash, but it’s a very enjoyable outro that you just want to sing along to. It even manages to be surprisingly nostalgic, ending with a distant, echoey version of the opening from Castle in the Clouds, tempting you to go back and start the trilogy all over again.

Valley of Kings is easily the most ambitious album from The Wise Man’s Fear, demonstrating that they aren’t content to just make the song music over and over again. The Wise Man’s Fear flirted with deathcore sounds on The Lost City, but Valley of Kings makes them a core part of their sound that they can carry forward with them. It’s also a testament to The Wise Man’s Fear’s compositions that I can get a good sense of the story beats of the album without having to dive into all the extended plot that they have developed for the really hardcore fans to get into. Valley of Kings takes multiple listens to really appreciate it, but it’s undeniably an extremely well-crafted album and I can’t wait to see where The Wise Man’s Fear are going to take us from here.

3) WE ARE CHAOS, Marilyn Manson
Marilyn Manson has had a very up-and-down career. Despite being more renown for their shock tactics, the band put out some legitimately good music with Antichrist SuperstarMechanical Animals and Holy-Wood, only to seemingly buy into their own hype and put out several dreary albums throughout the 2000s. It wasn’t until 2015’s The Pale Emperor that the band came surging back to prominence. While refreshing and featuring a bold new sound, I personally felt like The Pale Emperor was half of a fantastic album weighed down by a mediocre second half. It’s follow-up Heaven Upside Down was also lauded by critics, I personally found it disappointing. With all of this in mind, you can understand why I went into We Are Chaos (sorry… WE ARE CHAOS, because everything in this album is in all caps) with some trepidation.

After a fairly standard post-The Pale Emperor opening in “RED BLACK AND BLUE”, Manson pulls off a big surprise – thanks to his collaboration with co-producer Shooter Jennings, the first half of the album is loaded with acoustic guitar and piano-driven pieces. It harkens WE ARE CHAOS back to the David Bowie-inspired sounds of Mechanical Animals. This part of the album houses some of the best songs on here, including the great title track and the emotive but disturbing “PAINT YOU WITH MY LOVE”. The second half of the album then goes back into the more standard industrial metal and bluesy sounds that Marilyn Manson have made a career off of and all the tracks here are enjoyable enough. WE ARE CHAOS finishes with another acoustic track, “BROKEN NEEDLE”, a song that just keeps building on itself and makes for a really powerful way to end the album.

It also helps that, like in The Pale Emperor, Marilyn Manson dials back his bad habit of being a provocateur, instead allowing his songs to make an artistic statement on their own merits (although “KEEP MY HEAD TOGETHER” feels a bit gratuitous in its vulgarity). Probably the most important element of WE ARE CHAOS though is that Marilyn Manson really knows how to write a lyrical hook. So many times during my first listen-through I was making notes of interesting lines that Manson would repeat and get stuck in my head: “We are sick, fucked up and complicated, we are chaos” (“WE ARE CHAOS”), “Don’t chase the dead or they’ll end up chasing you” (“DON’T CHASE THE DEAD”), “You’re dead longer than you’re alive” (“INFINITE DARKNESS”) and “I’m not special, I’m just broken and I don’t want to be fixed” (“SOLVE COAGULA”). I had my reservations going into WE ARE CHAOS, but I’m happy to see that Marilyn Mansion isn’t up to his usual, tired tricks. Who would have thought that focusing on making good music instead of focusing on your reputation would pay dividends?

2) Mother, In This Moment
Going into Mother, the lead single “The In-Between” primed me to expect it to carry on the heavy sound and occult tone of Ritual. I probably should have known better though – In This Moment have always done something wildly different on every single album and while it does carry over some of the witch aesthetics those expecting another Ritual or even Blood are going to be disappointed. In fact, Mother has proven to be somewhat divisive amongst fans as it is far less heavy than previous In This Moment albums and incorporates more electronic elements into its sound, similar to Black Widow. Those who write the album off for not sounding the same as what’s come before are going to be missing out though because, as far as I’m concerned, Mother is one of the best-crafted and touching In This Moment albums ever.

The album gets the heavy stuff out of the way early, opening with a surprising but amazing cover of “Fly Like an Eagle”. Having seen In This Moment in concert, I can just imagine how much this song would slay live, it makes for a shockingly good opening track. From there we go into “The In-Between”, which I already loved when it was a pre-release single. It’s a top-tier In This Moment track, like something off Blood but with the spirituality of Ritual… it’s also the last particularly heavy track we get on the album for a long time. “Legacy” then comes in as a slower, powerful, more electronically-laden track – it’s really good! From there we get another surprising cover, particularly from a band that isn’t known for them, with “We Will Rock You”. Lzzy Hale and Taylor Momsen getting their own verses, turning this song into an overt GIRL POWER anthem. It doesn’t do much different from the Queen original, but it’s hard not to enjoy listening to the girls having the time of their life on this track, especially given the marginalized status of female vocalists in rock and metal music.

From there we move into what is, in my opinion, the best track on the album: the title track, “Mother”. Maria Brink’s powerful vocals and songwriting are on full display on this track, which serves as the thematic statement for the whole album: an appreciation of mothers. The theme runs through nearly the entire album. The inclusion of “Fly Like an Eagle” makes more sense when you realize the album’s theme, as Maria is careful to emphasize this line:

“Feed the babies/Who don’t have enough to eat/Shoe the children/With no shoes on their feet/House the people/Livin’ in the street/Oh, oh, there’s a solution”

Similarly, “The In-Between” opens with the line:

“My mother said that I was holy/My father said that I would burn/My mother said I was an angel/My father said that I would turn/So I believed these words and I turned on myself/’Cause maybe he’s right, maybe I’m worthless/Or maybe he’s wrong and my mother was right/I got a killer in me to give me purpose”

Meanwhile, the entire point of “Legacy” can be summed up in the chorus, “We are one, we run free/I am you and you are me/You sacrificed everything/I am and will always be your legacy”. The girl power of “We Will Rock You” is obvious already, but when you realize the album’s themes it just gives it that much more gravitas.

Of course, once the motherhood theme gets punctuated with the title track, the album takes a detour into entirely unrelated territory with “As Above, So Below”. It’s so out of place that it makes me wonder if In This Moment initially set out to make an album a bit more akin to Ritual, but the theme of motherhood emerged halfway and subsumed the rest of the album. The album begins to drag just a little bit at this point – while “Born in Flames”, “God is She” and “Holy Man” (the obligatory “Sure this album’s about mothers, but what about us men?” track) aren’t bad songs, they just don’t hold a candle to the strength of the first half of the album. Things start to get back on track though with “Hunting Grounds”, the last heavy song on the album. It has a weird, haunting atmosphere to it as Maria Brink and Joe Cotela of DED (Maria’s current partner) harmonize together. This also marks the point where the album drops the motherhood throughline, as “Lay Me Down” and yet another cover, “Into Dust”, close out the album sounding like something from Blood (not a bad thing at all, considering that’s their best album). I kind of wish that Mother maintained its theme throughout the entire album, it would have been nice if the second half was just a bit stronger (seriously, just drop “Holy Man” and you’ve got a tighter album right there) and maybe a little bit more heaviness wouldn’t have hurt, but these are fairly nitpicky. In This Moment clearly put out the album they wanted to and I feel like it’s one of their most thoughtful and mature releases yet.

1) Declaration, Red
I’ve said it many times in the past, but Red are a really inconsistent band. They’re just a likely to put out a “meh” album as they are to put out one of my favourite albums of the decade. It makes every new release a roulette wheel, but you can tell that there’s something different about Declaration. This is the first album where Red has gone fully independent and, as the title suggests, the band is keen to make a statement. Red gave us a sneak peak of the direction they were heading last year with The Evening Hate EP. I had said back then that I liked what I heard and hoped that it would be indicative of the quality of the band’s next album, but I was really not expecting Declaration to be this good.

Simply put, Red aren’t doing anything particularly revolutionary on Declaration – it’s very much their usual sound, if a bit heavier than usual. The difference maker is that they bring their A-game, delivering a rock-solid album of ferocious, catchy hard rock from start to finish. The rock-solid tracks from The Evening Hate EP appear here and are just as good as they were a year ago, but brand new tracks like “Infidel”, “Cauterize” and “Sever” confidently stand toe to toe with them. The only issue with Declaration is a glaring one – “Only Fight”. This track shows up near the end of the album and sticks out like a sore thumb, sounding like something from one of Red’s weaker albums and being of considerably lower quality than any other track on Declaration. It straight-up sucks and is literally the only thing holding Declaration back from being the uncontested best Red album. Seriously, listening through this album I was agonizing over whether I liked it more than of Beauty and Rage, but the second “Only Fight” started I thought “welp, well second place is still good”. That one blemish aside, Declaration is a fantastic album, enough so that I would say that it’s a strong contender for my future “Best of the 2020s” list in ten years time. If you like this sort of heavy music, you owe it to yourself to check Declaration out!

15 Best Movie Posters of 2019

Welcome back to the annual, year-end countdown of the best movie posters of the year! And just like that, this is now officially an annual thing! I’ve been browsing impawards throughout the year, keeping an eye out for eye-catching, interesting posters and saving them for later. Suffice to say, I had a bunch of posters to sift through and narrowing this down to a top 15 was difficult (not least of all because new posters are released all the time so I couldn’t even begin to narrow the list down until the start of September). Also, starting this year I’m going to be giving extra consideration towards posters which are actually intended for mass distribution rather than posters which are intended to be artistic but very limited in their reach. I mean, this Dark Phoenix poster is really cool, but it’s also clearly a poster you’re never going to see if you go to a theatre. I’m still going to consider these kinds of posters if they’re really good, but I find it more impressive when a poster which is meant to sell general audiences on the film does something particularly artistic or interesting.

Anyway, with those considerations out of the way, let’s get onto the list! As usual, you can see the full-sized poster in all its glory if you click on the images.

Honourable Mentions

While Disney absolutely destroyed the competition at the box office this year, their posters were, by and large, very mediocre and lifeless. This poster for Frozen II was one of the few exceptions, with its interesting use of colour and reflections hinting at the plot and feel of the film. It ultimately just missed the list, but it was definitely worth mentioning.

This is another entry which could have easily made the list if the competition wasn’t quite so fierce. It’s got such a creepy design already and then as your eye gets drawn upwards you realize that the trees have been arranged in such a way that they spell “FEED”. I like this poster a lot, it looks way better than a gritty, Grimms fairy tale adaptation should.

Having seen Us, I like this poster quite a bit with its minimalist design resembling a Rorschach blot, but with the right side missing bits which hint at the film’s psycho doppelganger premise. It gets across the idea of the film very well, but I feel like it’s just a bit too subtle to really be appreciated unless you’ve actually seen the film first.

15) The Death of Dick Long

This is one of those posters where I have no idea what the film is actually supposed to be about, but it kind of makes me want to see the movie regardless. As I’ve said in previous best posters of the year countdowns, that’s ultimately the goal of a movie poster, so it’s worth some points in my book. On top of that, this poster is just eye-catching with its use of harsh, contrasting lighting and muted colours… and then you notice that the fireworks are coming from the guy’s freaking crotch. And then you notice the title is called The Death of Dick Long, and that it’s from one of the directors of Swiss Army Man. Yeah, it’s going to be weird as all hell, but intriguingly so. That said, I could have very easily skipped over this one if the poster wasn’t so eye-catching so I’d say that this is well-deserving of a spot in the Top 15.

14) Low Tide

Every best movie posters countdown needs a poster which is just a beautiful, “artistic” shot and Low Tide takes that spot for me this year. It really isn’t much more than an extremely well-composed photo and a cleverly integrated title using a reversed gradient, but that’s all it really needs to be. Low Tide‘s poster is so beautiful it makes your eyes water, suggesting that you’re in for a gorgeous treat if you watch it. In addition, its use of colour and gradients also implies a dangerous tone for the movie without really having to overtly spell it out. A great poster all-round, and that fact that it is only in at #14 just shows how impressive posters have been in 2019.

13) Hail Satan?

This poster is just so clever. It’s appropriately interesting, informative and inflammatory in equal measure. Most Americans (especially evangelicals) are uninformed about the Satanic temple and have a knee-jerk opposition to them, but that is exactly how they get awareness to their admittedly worthy causes. Usually, if you hear about Satanists in the news, it’s because they’re fighting for religious equality – after all, if an evangelical is okay to do something, a Satanist should be able to do an equivalent action, right? That idea gets across perfectly in this poster, with the image of the Statue of Liberty as Baphomet as a striking visual that is guaranteed to trigger evangelicals. Oh and it also has one of the best taglines of the year, which just manages to put this over Low Tide as far as I’m concerned. I love it.

12) Bliss

This is definitely the poster I’ve mulled over the most on this list. At first glance, the colour choices make it very ugly to look at and unappealing. However, the longer you look at it, the more intriguing it is. For one thing, the ugliness is clearly intentional and is meant to be at odds with the title, Bliss, which is usually associated with bright, cheerful colours. If you look closer you can pick out all sorts of unsettling details – screaming, disembodied mouths, blood dripping off the woman’s face, and piles of reaching, naked bodies scrambling over each other. The longer you look at it, the more unsettling things you begin to notice and the more intriguing Bliss becomes to me. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the hand-painted art help make this stand out a bit more compared to all the photoshopped posters of its contemporaries. All-in-all, when I was narrowing down this list to just a top 15, I had considered dropping Bliss on a number of occasions because of its surface-level ugliness, but I’m now confident that it really deserves a spot here due to its bold and evocative design.

11) The Ghost Who Walks

Again we have another poster which is, by itself, super intriguing. We’ve got what appears to be a very zoomed out, birds-eye shot of Santa Claus in an alleyway being escorted or robbed by a pair of men – whatever the scenario is, they don’t seem to be doing him a favour anyway. The story the poster tells is enough to make you go “WTF?”, but what really puts it over the top is the very clever composition and framing of the image and the way that the title has been integrated into the shot. It doesn’t really give you any information about the film’s story beyond a tone, but it’s fascinating enough that I can see it selling someone on the film by itself.

10) Pet Sematary

There’s no movie in 2019 that I wanted to love more than Pet Samatary, but good God the film was so mediocre that I can’t even be charitable to it. Oh well, at least we have this awesome poster that’s forever going to get my imagination going for a movie better than what we got. I love the way colour has been mostly drained from the poster. The use of black and white tones makes for great contrast and allow the bits of gold in Church’s eyes and the red in the title to stand out all the more. It’s all put together in such a creepy manner, from the great, shadowy shots of the main cast (especially the look of dread on Amy Seimetz’s face and the nearly skeletal-looking Jason Clarke), to the scary, masked children, to Church’s glower hanging over everyone. It uses the Drew Struzan style in an interesting way, is just striking and original in its own right, and ultimately does a better job of selling the film’s premise than the actual movie did. Sigh, sometimes print is better.

9) Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Tarantino’s latest kind of had to make this list. Sure, it’s not exactly the flashiest poster of the year, but it captures the aesthetic of 1960s film posters perfectly. The hand-drawn style, the vignettes of moments from the film, the way that the cast is shown off, even down to the way that the credits are listed – it’s perfect. Considering that that’s clearly the intent here, it would feel wrong for me not to recognize it on this list.

8) Child’s Play

Speaking of posters that, on their own, aren’t all that flashy… holy crap, Childs Play just goes bonkers. If you’re not aware, the Child’s Play remake/reboot went head-to-head with freaking Toy Story 4, and the marketing department were eager to make the most of this with this bonkers poster that takes the aesthetic from Toy Story 4‘s own marketing and uses it to make a freaking statement. There were a few posters in this Chucky murders Toy Story series, but the one with Woody’s arm and hat was the most striking, in my opinion. It reminds me of those posters for You’re Next a few years ago which had a killer hiding in the “reflection”. I just love how cheeky, bold and clever this poster design is and can only imagine how hard Bob Iger must have shit himself when he saw it for the first time.

7) Joker

Hoo boy, if there’s one movie we didn’t need in 2019, it’s probably a sympathetic, mass killer origin story for Joker for all the incels to admire… That said, this poster does a great job of conveying the idea without making him into someone we’re meant to feel sorry for. There’s such a creepy vibe here with the idea of a psychotic person who can’t smile without physically forcing himself. The awfulness of this is further reinforced by the paint-drop tear, the sickly colour palette and the disturbing extreme close-up which shows off all the strained emotion on Joker’s face. It’s a very well-composed image that gets across the idea of the film perfectly… arguably better than the actual film does, in some ways.

6) The Unborn

What. The. FUCK. IS THAT!?!?!! Okay, I’m sold on this movie already – I don’t know what the hell it’s about, but this poster is straight-up disturbing shit. It has such a disgustingly creepy vibe to it with little more than a shadowy mutant baby in a jar backlit by what looks like a hundred year old light bulb. It’s horrifying and, while I’m certain the movie can’t hope to live up to the sick shit running through my head when I look at this poster, it makes me want to find out what the hell this movie is all about. Sign me the hell up.

5) Detective Pikachu

Okay, obviously I’m a Pokemaniac, so I’m kind of biased on this one. That said, this is a dense poster packed with all sorts of subtle Easter eggs and plot hints that are enough to make a Pokemaniac like me jizz their pants. Seriously, whoever designed this poster clearly loves Pokemon and packed nearly every inch of it with obscure references to the games’ universe. Even if you don’t get the nerdy references, the Easter eggs still do the job of making the world of Ryme City appear lived-in and bustling, inviting you to pour over all the details that have been hidden in it. As a result, I’ve probably sunk more time into this one poster than I have on all the other posters on this list, combined. That by itself is an accomplishment worthy of some appreciation, which is why Detective Pikachu ranks so high on this list.

4) Aladdin

Perhaps mirroring their creative bankruptcy for most of the year, Disney’s poster output in 2019 has been unfortunately mediocre. Even Endgame didn’t have any particularly interesting posters, so imagine my surprise when I finally found a visually arresting poster for a Disney movie: the live-action AladdinAladdin was a mostly-mediocre and over-stuffed film, but it did have its charms thanks largely to the performances from the three main leads, especially Will Smith. Thankfully, they’re all on display in this gorgeous poster which uses the white background and expert use of a red and blue to draw your eye and tell a particular story. Your eye is naturally going to be drawn to Will Smith’s genie first, then down to Jafar and Jasmine, then down to Aladdin, then down to Abu jumping into the lamp before you reach the title. It’s such a cool and clearly-intentional trick, using the space of the poster itself to great effect to direct the viewer in an unnatural upper-right to lower-left line. That’s impressive on its own, but the fact that the poster itself is just gorgeous-looking easily cemented this as one of my absolute favourite posters of 2019.

3) Glass

Glass was, in a lot of ways, a colossal disappointment which threw the nascent Shyamalan resurgence back into disarray. There are a number of reasons for this, but probably the most pertinent is that Glass represents so much wasted potential. We can see some of that potential here in this poster, which captures the essence of a climactic superhero story in such a beautiful way. Each broken piece of glass shows off characters painted in a comic-book art style, interspersed with actual comic art created for the films itself. It’s enthralling to look at, packed with strong emotions for each of the characters and can’t help but feel evocative to for anyone who appreciates comic book storytelling.

Also worth mentioning is this other poster which creates a portrait of Mr. Glass out of literal shards of broken glass. It’s not nearly as striking as the above poster of course, but it is quite interesting in its own right, especially for a “character poster”, which usually just comes across as a boring, requisite marketing piece.

2) John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

There were ultimately only two films on this list which were duking it out for the top spot, and I have to say that John Wick: Chapter 3 only just barely lost out on it. I mean, just look at this poster, it is exquisite! I would hang this on my wall in a heartbeat. The neon-soaked colour palette is simultaneously arresting to look at and a perfect representation of the aesthetic of John Wick, while the harsh metals and skull imagery convey the feel of the series. There really isn’t much more to it than that – it’s just a poster so cool that it just plows its way to the runner-up position of this year’s posters.

Oh, also worth mentioning is the poster on the right, featuring John Wick versus hundreds of assassins. This gets across the tone and sort of odds that ol’ John is in for in the film in such a striking and frankly funny fashion. It isn’t quite as visually-arresting as the above poster, but it is definitely worth mentioning in its own right.

Which brings us to our #1 spot for 2019…

1) Godzilla: King of the Monsters

 If there’s one film whose marketing department absolutely killed it this year, it’s definitely Godzilla: King of the Monsters‘. To put it simply, every single poster for this film is simultaneously visually beautiful and totally kick-ass (as if this were an action movie starring Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron). Unlike a lot of blockbusters, even the regular theatrical posters have a level of creative artistic merit to them which is usually reserved for more specialized posters (presumably for fear of alienating the mass audience with a poster that’s not aimed at the lowest common demoninator). When you consider that the beautiful shots in these posters are also just being indicative of the cinematography of the film itself, it just makes the marketing for this film even more impressive. Godzilla: King of the Monsters may have been a bit bloated and underwhelming on its own merits, but holy crap if the film’s marketing department didn’t go all-out this year. Here’s hoping that next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong continues this trend, because if it does then we are in for an absolute treat.

Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2019

It’s that time of year once again, when I look back on all of the random-ass, new music I’ve listened to in 2019! I’ve been slowly curating this article all year as there have been plenty of new albums by my favourite bands, which has given me plenty of time to parse my feelings on them. Also, if you’re curious about last year’s picks, you can read that list here.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s get to the rankings!

23) Jesus Is King, Kanye West
If you’ve checked out any of my previous annual album rankings then you’ll probably know that I skew towards rock and metal rather than rap or RNB, so perhaps it wouldn’t be all that surprising that my white, heathen ass would rank a Kanye West album so lowly. However, I did enjoy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and some of my all-time favourite albums are pure gospel music (Worship and Worship Again by Michael W. Smith are just inspiring to listen to back-to-back), so suffice to say I was pretty intrigued by the hype surrounding the release of Kanye West’s big Christian music debut. It’s undeniable that Kanye West is an asshole, but the guy has a way of crafting really interesting music so I was very curious to see what he could come up as an outsider in the Christian music scene. However, the results are pretty disappointing. With 11 tracks and clocking in at only 27 minutes long, this album just feels half-baked, like Kanye put out a bunch of demos instead of taking the time to actually craft something satisfying. Only 3 tracks manage to get over the 3 minute mark, “God Is”, “Hands On” and “Use This Gospel”, and these are clearly the most enjoyable and well-crafted tracks on the whole album. There are some potentially interesting aspects to “Selah” and “Follow God” as well, but these tracks are so brief and incomplete that they leave you very unsatisfied. I also got a bit of a kick out of the gospel choir opener “Every Hour”, although it is little more than an enthusiastic mood-setter. Most of the tracks are just lacking in substance. All this said, the only track on this album that I actually liked and would listen to on its own is “God Is”, a fantastic gospel choir and RNB fusion which is helped immensely by Kanye West’s sincere singing and declarations of faith and praise to God. It’s actually moving, has something to say and is easily the best track of the bunch. However, this is just one well-crafted song on an entire album and it’s not enough to justify how scattershot, incomplete and uninteresting the rest of Jesus Is King is. Now, if Kanye would gimme a whole album of gospel tracks similar to “God Is”? I’d be all over that, but as it stands Jesus is King just feels like Kanye is dumping his half-completed homework on us.

22) The Change, Awake At Last
I did a post several months ago about bands who had followed me on social media, one of which was Awake At Last. I didn’t really have much to say about them though – their debut EP was distinct with theatrical, enthusiastic hard rock, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I figured it was worth giving them another shot with their first full-length album, The Change, but this album ultimately just told me that Awake At Last aren’t for me. Awake At Last certainly have their own style, especially because of lead singer Vincent Torres’ theatrical (perhaps even overwrought at times) vocals. It’s not like they’re playing the same music over and over again either, they sprinkle their hard rock with electronics and vocal effects, although they don’t tend to get too heavy. When it comes down to whether or not I enjoy their music though, I really can’t bring myself to care about it too much. Usually when I listen through an album for the first time for these countdowns, I’ll write some notes about each song and put down any first impressions I have about whether I like it. For The Change, I did this for about the first five songs but just stopped because I wasn’t really into it at all. In fact, my notes ended up being just me trying to figure out which bands Awake At Last reminded me of, and I realized that they most remind me of Papa Roach… so take that how you will. I dunno if it’s just because this is positive hard rock (I like to wallow in my misery, thank you very much!), but it just didn’t work for me at all. I’d still recommend checking them out if you’re into bands like Shinedown, Saliva or Papa Roach, but for me at least I don’t imagine I’ll be checking back for their next album.

21) Armageddon, Art of Dying
I saw Art of Dying opening for Disturbed years ago… oh God, I was still in high school, it must have been around 2008 or 2009. Anyway, I was pretty impressed with their self-titled debut album, it was a solid post-grunge which gave me a lot of promise for the band going forward. Their follow-up, Vices and Virtues, was decent as well, but clearly not as good as their debut. I felt like they were drifting towards more of a mediocre radio-rock sound and so I kind of stopped paying attention to them. Since then Art of Dying has put out three more albums so I figured that I might as well check out their latest release and see if I’ve been missing anything in the meantime. I have to say that, if their other albums are anything like Armageddon, then I haven’t really missed much. The uneasiness which drove me away from Art of Dying in the first place has definitely manifested to reality, because the band is very clearly chasing radio trends here. That’s not to say that radio-friendly music is bad by any means, but there’s a difference between putting out music that you want people to hear and putting out music which is supposed to get mass-appeal radio play. Art of Dying are talented enough that Armageddon isn’t exactly “bad”, but at least in terms of the songwriting it feels like a band that’s several albums deep going through the motions and trying to pay the bills.

The album opens in irritating fashion right off the bat with the title track which is clearly ripping off the pop-rock sound of Imagine Dragons. While your mileage is certainly going to vary, I find Imagine Dragons’ sound annoying, especially because their popularity has led to several other bands mimicking it (spoiler alert: this is far from the only band on this list which has been riffing on Imagine Dragons). Taste-aside, frontman Johnny Hetherington’s vocals sound really strained on this track for some inexplicable reason. The guy has a pretty good voice so I’m not sure why he’s stretching himself so far here. The lyrics here are also typical of the whole album, in that they’re generic and uninspired. Even reasonably decent songs like “Cut It All Away”, “Rearview Mirror” or “Shatterproof” are let down by the lyrics, which is especially unfortunate when it deflates the impact of the enjoyable guitar solos in tracks like “Rearview Mirror” and “I Believe”. This culminates in a real disaster with “Unoriginal”. Look, if you’re a band like Art of Dying and you decide to put a song on your album called “Unoriginal”, you need to make sure that that song is amazing or you’re just setting yourself up to get pilloried. So what do Art of Dying do? They basically come right out and admit that they’re just going through the motions. I mean, check out these lyrics:

“I’m so fucking bored / Keep coming back for more / It’s all been done before yeah”
“It’s just the same old / Is this really where we’re at right now / Are we so, are we so unoriginal”
“I’m so sick and tired / Of being uninspired / Nothing ever changes”

Wow… I wouldn’t have expected the band to just come out and say that they just don’t give a shit, but there you have it. Sure, they probably aren’t actually intending for the song to be taken as a serious declaration, but in the context of such a limp album it’s hard to interpret it any other way.

20) Live From Alexandria Palace, London, UK, Disturbed
Oh look, Disturbed are once again bringing up the low end of the album rankings this year, although I can say that at least this live EP is better than Evolution. The main reason this ranks so low is that I really don’t understand why they decided to put out a bite-sized live EP at all. The band put out their full live album, Live at Red Rocks, only a couple years ago and 3 of the 5 tracks on this EP appeared there in essentially the same form (and, in my humble opinion, their live recordings don’t sound as good as their studio recordings). That leaves us with only two new live tracks from Evolution. Luckily, “A Reason to Fight” is far more effective when sang live than it is in studio. While the studio recording just came across as melodramatic, the live version really gets to show off how well David Draiman can sing. It doesn’t solve the issue that the lyrics are uninspired, but it is definitely the superior way to experience this song. It also helps that David then goes into a speech for almost 5 minutes about not falling prey to addiction, depression and suicide, which is honestly more raw and moving than the song itself. Cutting from this sombre moment into “Inside the Fire” is a pretty inspired move in my opinion, but the rest of the tracklist is strangely erratic. “Inside the Fire” was clearly the last song on the setlist when this was recorded, and all subsequent tracks on the EP are just faded into and out of haphazardly. The lowlight is, in my opinion, the second song from Evolution, “No More”. I already didn’t like this song, but it’s not improved any in a live setting. It’s just the same sort of protest song about greed, government and war that we’ve already heard more effectively thousands of times, not only from other bands, but Disturbed themselves too. Other than that, tracks like “Inside the Fire” and “Ten Thousand Fists” which sound fantastic in studio and great in a live setting are robbed of much of their effectiveness when they’re recorded live, since David Draiman has to sing at a higher pitch to avoid ruining his voice. The best track on the EP though is the closer, “The Game”, which manages to make the live transition without losing any of its energy. I’ve always enjoyed this song, although the message certainly makes me uncomfortable. I like to assume that there’s an unreliable narrator thing going on and that this song is actually about how much men suck, although I seriously doubt that that was the intent. Anyway, like I said at the outset, this is a pretty limp EP which doesn’t really have much to offer to anyone. Even bigger Disturbed fans than me will probably be disappointed that there’s only 2 newer songs on here and I wouldn’t say that either of them make it worth a purchase or more than a cursory listen.

19) Victorious, Skillet
Throughout this past decade if you asked a mainstream rock music fan if there were any good Christian bands, odds are the most common answer you’d get would be “Skillet”. While their fame has always bothered me, I can kind of understand why it happened. After experimenting with weird industrial/electronic rock and straight-up worship albums, Skillet finally hit their stride with Collide and Comatose, a one-two punch of hard rock albums that really resonated with me back in 2006. The thing is though, I was an angsty high schooler at the time and have grown up since then. Meanwhile, Skillet have released 4 albums in the last 10 years and each one is clearly just trying to rehash Comatose. Like… John Cooper is 44 years old. Hearing him angst about parents who don’t understand and girls not paying attention to him was contrived enough when he was 31 years old (and married to one of his bandmates, I may add), but at 44 it’s hard to imagine that he really has much connection to “kids these days”. At least Victorious has shifted lyrically from angst to encouragement for its teenage target audience, although as I said on The Change that doesn’t tend to be my cup of tea either.

Anyway, Skillet come swinging right out of the gates with “Legendary”, clearly intended to be their big radio single. What does it sound like? FUCKING IMAGINE DRAGONS, UGH. I get that they’re going for a completely different audience than me, but holy shit there are so many bands aping this same sound right now because it’s popular (and shows up on several songs on the album). Guys, trendsetters don’t follow, they lead… As I’ve said for a lot of these bands so far on this list, the songwriting on this album is just so rote and uninspired (sidenote, I came across this image from the lyric video for “Legendary” and it made me laugh). Unlike some of the other albums on the list up to this point though, Skillet are at least talented enough that they can serve up some decent songs every once in a while. The title track is appropriately triumphant and inspiring, “Terrify the Dark” has a fantastical air about it and “Anchor” is like a straight-up worship track. Fans of the band’s past few albums will probably dig Victorious regardless, but Skillet clearly aren’t making their music for me anymore and I can only really speak to my own feelings on the album.

18) Breathe in Colours, Forever Still
Like Awake at Last, Forever Still were on the list of bands that followed me on social media. However, Forever Still’s debut album, Tied Down, had actually impressed me and so I was excited to see what their 2019 album would be like. Unfortunately, their sophomore album Breathe in Colours didn’t impress me nearly as much as their debut. The band’s greatest asset remains lead vocalist Maja Shining’s vocals (also, holy shit, what a name!!!), which are able to range from screams to operatic melodies. I made this comparison in the social media bands post, but she definitely reminds me of Sleeping Romance’s Frederica Lanna, although Forever Still hew more towards “vanilla” metal than symphonic metal (although there are a few songs which dabble with symphonic elements). The main issue with Breathe in Colours is that, other than Maja’s voice, nothing really stands out. The music is fine, but it’s treading firmly in typical metal/symphonic territory and is nothing special. The songwriting is also just fine, only a few tracks really stood out to me, such as the title track and “Pieces”. Perhaps the best track though is the acoustic version of “Is It Gone?”, which strips back Forever Still’s weaker elements and puts everything down on Maja Shining’s vocal talents. It makes the song far more enjoyable in my opinion. Hopefully Breathe in Colours is just a sophomore slump which will help Forever Still to figure out where to take their music in the future, because I believe they still have the talent to really stand out as a female-fronted metal band.

17) Stairway to Nick John, Mastodon
As I said in my 2017 album rankings, Mastodon have a pretty reliable album cycle, putting out a new one approximately every 2-3 years. Knowing this, I expected that we might get a Mastodon release in 2018, but imagine my surprise when I open up Spotify and see that the band has put out a surprise cover of “Stairway to Heaven”. It was a weird turn of events for me, but when you look into the story behind it, it’s actually quite poignant – Mastodon’s longtime manager, Nick John, died and as a tribute the band played an emotional cover of “Stairway to Heaven” at his funeral. Unexpectedly, someone recorded the performance on their phone at the time and so the band decided to re-record it in studio as a record store day release.

So, with that bit of background out of the way, how is Stairway to Nick John? It’s… fine. If you’re looking for a very straightforward cover of “Stairway to Heaven”, then Mastodon has a studio and a live recording just for you. Mastodon’s Brann Dailor usually has very questionable vocals in a live setting (as anyone who has heard their Live From the Aragon record can attest), but he does a fantastic job on “Stairway to Heaven” in both of the recordings. His vocals here are unlike any other work they have done, to the point where it’s kind of unfortunate that we haven’t heard this side of him before. There aren’t really any frills going on here, the vocal melody and the music hew closely to Led Zeppelin’s original composition, with some very light hints of Mastodon’s flavour worked in. This is no Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or Disturbed’s “The Sound of Silence”, where they aim to recreate the song their own way, it’s just straightforward cover. It’s also worth reiterating that the live version of the song was recorded on a phone, so the audio is a tad rough, clearly being picked up from far away in an echoey hall. It’s impressive just how well it turned out, but it’s worth knowing that it’s not really captured in professional quality, if that bothers you. All-in-all, Stairway to Nick John is fine, although the story behind it is far more compelling than the release itself. It’s not the 2019 Mastodon release I was expecting, but a bit of a creative break is probably better for the band overall.

16) This Is Not the End, Manafest

Growing up as a small town church kid, Manafest was considered the cool Christian rapper in our youth group. At the time I was mainly into Christian hard rock/metal, so his rap-rock fusion worked well for me. It also didn’t hurt that his two albums, Epiphany and Glory, were both really solid releases. However, with each subsequent release, Manafest just lost more and more lustre to me. Each new album was just nowhere near as good as Glory was – they all retread the same sounds and themes, while being weaker and less inspired (although there were usually at least a couple good songs). This all came to head around the time Manafest crowdfunded his seventh album, The Moment and promised big things. At this point I said “Fine, this is your last chance to impress me”… and, lo and behold, it was probably my least-favourite album of his to date. Suffice to say, that was it for me. However, here were are now 5 years later and the guy has pumped out another 3 albums, so I was curious to see if he had improved any since 2014…
…but if This Is Not the End is anything to go by, he hasn’t really. I mean, he has diversified his sound somewhat: the title track shows off electronic elements that he has incorporated into the rap-rock fusion, while “Kamikaze” demonstrates a different style of rapping than he ever did on previous tracks. That said, he’s still just putting out the same sorts of music meant to appeal to white Christian teens despite the fact that the guy is now 40 years old, although there is a surprising amount of cheekiness, such as faking out F-bombs on the title track (as innocent as this sounds, it’s a move which is sure to piss off parents and Christian music reviewers alike). The track “Kamikaze” also has a really awkward chorus which features Manafest saying “I love the way you suck my… energy”… it definitely does not sound like he wants to say “energy” though, unless that’s the nickname has has for his dick.
But then there’s “Plan For Me”. When this started playing with its piano opening my initial thought was “oh, this is this EP’s ‘Mockingbird'”, which was actually pretty spot-on in some ways. However, then he starts singing to an unborn baby who’s been dead for 5 years and who they even had names picked out for before Manafest’s real-life wife starts singing the chorus and I was truly surprised. Shit, when I walked away from his music, did Manafest and his wife have a miscarriage and here they are airing their continued grief? It was pretty heartfelt, and then he goes into the second verse as the child, telling their parents that it’s okay, they don’t have to feel guilty anymore, they can move on because this child they never knew will still love them and see them in heaven someday. By this point, I was actually getting emotional – my son was born just over a year ago and my fiance and I both thought that we were going to lose him on two separate occasions, so the fear of losing a child welled up raw emotions in me. I was actually impressed – a Christian rap song about a real experience of struggle with guilt and pain, learning to move past it and accepting that even loss like this is in God’s hands? Even if it wasn’t a true story, it speaks true to so many real-life experiences. I listened to it three times in a row.
…and then I realized it was an anti-abortion song and my enthusiasm was deflated so quickly. Like… goddammit. It makes less sense as an anti-abortion song! Why are they picking out names if they’re not planning on keeping the baby? If he was so keen on having a baby and so cut up about it now, why did they even go through with it? The only reasons we’re given is that the parents were young and not ready, which are fine reasons actually, but it’s like Manafest can’t imagine why someone would really feel that an abortion is justified. Like, did the relationship fall apart because of the abortion and now he regrets that? We don’t even get the mother’s perspective at all during this, which is frustrating – it’s entirely from a man’s perspective, including having him extrapolate that perspective to an imagined unborn child. It’s just another reason why it’s so deflating that this is an anti-abortion song instead of a song about experiencing a miscarriage, it just perpetuates so many frustrating pro-life tropes (often from a male’s perspective). Instead of being some real, lived experience, the song is like a youth pastor’s anti-abortion skit – a moralizing, melodramatic, theoretical scenario of someone regretting their abortion and being unable to move past it, robbed of the nuance of most peoples’ real experiences. I know people who have gone through abortions and, looking back, they know that they made the right decision, but most of the guilt then comes from religious family members calling them “baby murderer” or other people making them feel like they should be ashamed about it. I’ll give the song some credit, it does at least suggest that the abortion was part of “God’s plan” all along and therefore not some abomination. It also tries to be as loving to the parents as possible, but it’s unavoidable that a song with half of its verses from the perspective of an unborn baby in heaven is going to try to guilt you into birthing that little bastard next time. Like, despite effectively saying it was God’s plan to have things go this way, it’s still very judgy about the parents’ decision and that the unborn child’s potential is never realized.
It’s just frustrating to me that Manafest wrote the song this way. When I mistakenly thought it was a song about a miscarriage it was so good… Sigh. While it deflated my enthusiasm for the song significantly, I still have to say that it’s a really good sounding song, easily one of Manafest’s best, so I’ve got to give him some credit for making one banger on this EP… even if it really, really sucks that it’s an anti-abortion song and which will totally invalidate it in other, more unforgiving, peoples’ eyes.

15) Patterns of Mythology, Falls of Rauros
I’ve been dabbling in the black metal subgenre over the last few years, and while I enjoy bands like Winterfylleth, I find that a lot of this kind of music blends together indistinctly. That said, when I was trolling Spotify one day and saw a black metal band named “Falls of Rauros” (named after the place where Boromir meets his end in The Lord of the Rings) had a new album out in 2019 I knew I had to give them a look. Patterns of Mythology is unmistakably a black metal album (the screamed/growled vocals should make that immediately obvious), although it is at a much slower tempo than, say, Winterfylleth. That said, Falls of Rauros change up the tempo multiple times throughout each song – one minute a song could be slow, moody and contemplative and then it can suddenly ramp up into a punishing wall of metal. That said, while they clearly have their own flavour, there really wasn’t much here to really make Falls of Rauros stand out enough to me. Like all the other black metal I listen to, none of the songs really stand out on their own for me and I can’t see myself playing this album as anything other than background music. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t something I’d come back to repeatedly.

14) Peace, Demon Hunter
Demon Hunter tend to put out solid music. I actually backed their last album, Outlive, on PledgeMusic (and got the big, beautiful deluxe box set!) and enjoyed it quite a bit, although the aggressive, hard edge to their music typified best by The Triptych has long since been eroded away. However, when it was announced that their double album would be titled War and Peace, I was tentatively excited. Based on the titles, it was pretty clear that they were going to give us the best of both worlds: War would be the heavy album, whereas Peace would be on the lighter side, a theory which turned out to be true when the albums dropped.

Peace is certainly lighter than any previous Demon Hunter album, but that actually makes it feel a bit fresher than if they had just watered-down their normal sound. Demon Hunter actually get a chance to experiment and do things we’ve never heard from them before, such as the western-inspired “When the Devil Come” or the full-on piano ballad, “Fear is Not My Guide”. We also get some solid, melodic tracks which show off Ryan Clark’s singing voice, particularly “More Than Bones” and “Recuse Myself” (which I’d definitely say is the track which has stuck with me most on this album). Unfortunately, Peace starts to drag very quickly. The lighter tone isn’t the issue at all, if anything it’s the tempo that’s the issue – it feels like most of the songs have been slowed down in order to facilitate the lighter tone, which ends up making most of the tracks feel sluggish. This sluggishness means that most of the tracks drag, lack any energy and become instantly forgettable. The lyrics throughout the album aren’t great either, particularly on the title track, although even tracks I like, like “More Than Bones”, are very simple and repetitive. Most of the tracks are sub-par, very few stick out to me at all, and even the best tracks are only around the baseline of quality I’d expect from Demon Hunter anyway. Again, Peace gave Demon Hunter a great opportunity to try something fresh, but I just don’t think that they succeeded at all. In fact, mainly due to how forgettable it is, I’d argue that Peace is probably their worst album ever, which is just unfortunate.

13) War, Demon Hunter
Man… Demon Hunter really didn’t do it for me this year. I had heard good things about War around its release, but I was left a bit underwhelmed. I was kind of expecting them to move their sound in a heavier direction on War. While it’s certainly heavier than Peace, it’s far from a return to the aggressive edge of old-school Demon Hunter, coming across more like a next step from Outlive, where lighter tracks outweigh the heavier tracks (and even the heavy tracks will have lighter bits interspersed, such as the choruses for “Cut to Fit” and “On My Side”). I enjoy songs like “Cut to Fit”, “On My Side” and “Grey Matter”, but they’re interspersed with mediocre tracks like “The Negative”, “Unbound” and “No Place for You Here”. The only truly great track is the album closer “Lesser Gods”, a really heavy, epic track unlike anything Demon Hunter have put out before. It’s the sort of shot in the arm that makes you wish that the band had done more like this on War, but having it as the closer just hammers home how mediocre most of the album is. On the other hand, the only particularly bad track on the album is “Ash”, which has this really weirdly-pronounced chant of the title which makes it sound like they’re saying “ASS!” each time. Suffice to say, it ruins the song and makes it impossible to take seriously when all you can hear is “Suffer the ASS!”

All-in-all, War and Peace just did not work for me. About half of War is mediocre and brings down the overall quality of the album. I really think that Demon Hunter would have been better off taking the best tracks from these two albums and putting them on one album, with the rest as harmless B-sides on a deluxe edition. It may not have made for their best release ever, but it certainly would have felt more satisfying and on par with their usual level of quality. For what it’s worth, War has a bit more energy to it which helps it come out on top, but both albums are just mediocre releases from a band which usually does much better.

12) Kiss of the Cobra King, Powerwolf
It was pretty surprising when Powerwolf announced a new version of “Kiss of the Cobra King”, one of their favourite tracks from their debut album. I expected to just get a cleaner version of the song, but Powerwolf have actually gone and rewritten the song from the ground up, only retaining the iconic chorus from the original song. The resulting song is immediately more epic, showing off the polished production quality you can expect from a Powerwolf track in 2019, akin to something from The Sacrament of Sin. It was a nice surprise to hear and I’d say that this new version of the song is easily as good as the original, if not better.

Instead of just releasing this by itself though, Powerwolf also threw a live version of “Army of the Night” onto the release. This feels like a bit of a pointless move to me though, because we’ve already gotten a live version of the song on The Metal Mass a couple years ago and it hasn’t changed much in the interim. Still, it can be looked at as a bonus track, because most people are just going to be interested in the solid “Kiss of the Cobra King” anyway.

11) Secrets, Written By Wolves
I was going through my Daily Mix on Spotify when I decided to check out a song called “Let It Burn” by Written By Wolves… and holy crap, it was awesome! It was a really solid metalcore track, energetic, well-written and with just the right amount of angst. Suffice to say, it caused me to track down the rest of Written By Wolves’ material and, lo and behold, it turns out that they had just put out their debut album, Secrets. “Let It Burn” was the opener and it really got me hyped for the rest of what Written By Wolves had to offer.

…and, uh, well let’s just say that “Let It Burn” is NOT indicative of what Written By Wolves’ sound is like. Hell, I’m not entirely sure that they even have a distinct sound, based on what we’ve gotten from Secrets anyway. Like, immediately after the heavy, metalcore sound of “Let It Burn”, we get a couple indie/alternative tracks, then we get EDM on the title track and “Demons”, then “Something to Save” mixes in some gospel of all things, then a heartfelt ballad in “Lucky Stars”… the band is all over the place, throwing everything they can at the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s impressive, but also exhausting to experience and especially disappointing because they never really return to the heavy sound that sold me on the band in the first place. That said, Written By Wolves have some clear talent on display and, unlike many of the bands on this list, they’re clearly giving it their all and not just going through the motions. There’s so much variety here that odds are you’re going to like at least one track, but you’re also just as likely to not care for half of the songs on here. It’s a bit of a crapshoot in that regard but I have to give Written By Wolves some credit for going for it regardless, I just hope that they can focus themselves a bit more in the future.

10) The Inveterate Fire, Firelink
Several months ago I stumbled across an article about a band producing Dark Souls-inspired metal. As a pretty big fan of the franchise and of metal in general, I knew that I had to check this band out for myself as the Souls franchise is just so rich for artistic adaptation (and they’re not even the first Souls-inspired metal band I’ve come across). The album cover and the song titles were all getting me to geek out and there’s even an audio sample from Dark Souls III of (I believe) Prince Lothric on one of the tracks. However, you don’t necessarily have to be a big fan of the series to enjoy Firelink, because the music they’ve crafted is interesting in its own right. In some ways they remind me of Winterfylleth, with metal that can be slow, ambient and introspective, and then suddenly rev up into fast, punishing black metal with howled vocals (although, regrettably perhaps, these vocals do make it hard to appreciate the lyrics, which is another reason why you don’t necessarily have to be a fan of the franchise to enjoy the band).

“Vessel of the Primordial Serpent” kicks things off in brutal fashion, with very fast and aggressive black metal. “Kindled” opens a little closer to the traditional soundscape of Dark Souls, with a strong bassline and plucked, echoing guitar giving the song a more moody, thoughtful and lonely tone. Just as it’s starting to drag, it kicks into the punishing metal sound which typifies this album (one could say that the song is kindled itself, much like the bonfires in the game). Interestingly enough, Firelink sound almost like Dragonforce at times, they have the same sort of wailing-guitar sound which isn’t so common in the bleaker tone of black metal. The album pinnacles with “Manus”, which shows off some of that very impressive Dragonforce-style guitar work. It’s easily one of the most distinct and enjoyable black metal tracks I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, “Beckoning Sun” then feels scattershot, like the band recorded themselves improvising an ambient tune – it doesn’t feel like there’s any sort of intentional craft behind this track and it makes it feel super forgettable. The album then closes on “The First Sin”, which just continues more of the heavy and fast black metal we’ve already gotten to this point. All-in-all, The Inveterate Fire is worth checking out for fans of black metal, the Dark Souls links are fun but the music certainly stands on its own.

9) When the World Becomes Undone, A Pale Horse Named Death
My God, just look at that album cover. Just look at that title. Just look at that band’s name! Yeah, I was sold on this album the moment I saw it, it’s clearly My Shit™. I’ve seen A Pale Horse Named Death being classified as “doom metal” and “gothic metal”, but at least based on this album I would have to say that they also have a distinctly grunge sound, very reminiscent of Alice in Chains (y’know, if Alice in Chains’ music was all about despair and the death of the world). This actually gives When the World Becomes Undone a shocking amount of potential crossover appeal, as tracks like “Love the Ones You Hate” and “Fell in My Hole” are solid enough that I could potentially see them getting radio airplay. That said, as much as I enjoyed this album, there are a couple glaring weaknesses. First of all, vocalist Sal Abruscato’s singing is not great, it sounds like he’s putting on an affectation and mumbling the lyrics half the time. Listening to him, I can’t help but imagine how much better these songs would sound if they were sung by Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley or William DuVall, or even if they were screamed or growled. The second big weakness with this album is that there isn’t much diversity to the songs. When you consider that the album is over an hour long, it really starts to drag as it goes on. Still, I really liked what I heard here and will definitely be checking out A Pale Horse Named Death’s back catalogue.

8) Rewind, Replay, Rebound, Volbeat
Volbeat are one of my favourite bands and usually they can be depended on to put out really good albums, especially since they have a longer release cycle than many bands. They have a very distinct sound that you don’t really get anywhere else in popular music (I call it “hard rockabilly”) and Michael Poulsen’s wonderfully illegible vocals which make nearly every release feel special. They also rarely rest on their laurels, usually going for a different “feel” on each album (eg, Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood feels like turn of the century saloon tunes, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies has a country-western theme, etc). Suffice to say, I was expecting good things from Rewind, Replay, Rebound.

The album starts out at its highest point with “Last Day Under the Sun”, an infectious (if slightly repetitive) rock tune which has gone down as one of my favourite and most memorable tracks of the year. The only other other track that comes anywhere close to that level of quality is “Rewind the Exit”, although that’s not to say that the rest are bad. In fact, the first half of the album is pretty enjoyable, especially the Elvis-like swagger of “Pelvis on Fire” and the surging energy of “Die to Live”, but there are two big issues with Rewind, Replay, Rebound. First of all, the album feels very bloated. I like that Volbeat put out hour-long albums, but the music has to be consistently high-quality for it to work. Normally, I’d say that Volbeat manage to clear that barrier easily, with maybe one or two tracks at most that don’t really stand out, but in this case at least half of the tracks feel pretty mediocre by Volbeat’s standard. This is especially the case in the second half of the album, where a lot of the songs are so indistinct that they just start to blend together. This is especially egregious in the case of the closing track “7:24”, just comes and goes so uneventfully that you go “oh wait, that’s the end of the album?” It’s too bad too because the earlier track “Maybe I Believe” felt like a more natural and satisfying closer.

The second big issue is that the album feels very familiar. It starts at just the second track on the album, “Pelvis on Fire”. I like the song quite a bit, but the song is unmistakably ripping whole sections off from an earlier Volbeat song, “Sad Man’s Tongue” (they also name-drop the song in the lyrics, so obviously this wasn’t unintentional). Hell, even the lyrics in both songs match up at times and as someone who is familiar with Volbeat’s catalogue I just can’t not hear this, it always takes me out of the song at least a bit. Then only two songs later we have “Die to Live”, which would almost certainly be named “Let It Burn”, except that Volbeat already named a song that on their last album. Obviously, that’s less of an issue, but it continues the feel that Volbeat are just recycling the same ideas. This still wouldn’t be much of an issue if not for yet another obvious recycled song, this time on the track “Cheapside Sloggers” which not only sounds similar to “We” on the verses, but very clearly rips off the opening guitar riff from “Hallelujah Goat” and a bit of “Pool of Booze, Booze, Booza” for good measure. Again, these are just the instances which are unmissable if you’re familiar with Volbeat’s work. There are a few other tracks which have a niggling air of familiarity to them, but I wouldn’t even care if there weren’t so many obvious instances already of them plundering their back catalogue here. It would be one thing if it was a theme for the album overall, but instead it just feels like they’re trying to reintroduce elements from deep cuts to new audiences who haven’t heard the rest of their music. Maybe there’s some merit to that idea, but it takes me out of the album with how obvious it is.

There’s also a Deluxe Edition release with 2 B-sides, an alternate version of “Die to Live” without guest vocals, and a bunch of demos. The B-sides are solid and basically all that makes the deluxe edition worthwhile, since the demos sound virtually indistinguishable from their slightly more polished versions and the alternate version of “Die to Live” is basically a less-interesting version of the standard track. All-in-all, if you like Volbeat already then the Deluxe Edition is basically a no-brainer anyway, but considering that 6 of the 8 tracks on it are basically more filler on an album which feels bloated with filler already, it doesn’t exactly help the overall feeling about the album. I enjoyed Rewind, Replay, Rebound well enough, but it’s very clearly on the lower end of Volbeat’s catalogue. I’m sure I’ll continue to give it listen-throughs into the future, but I can already tell that it’s not going to get nearly as much replays as their past classics. I just hope that the band doesn’t rest on their laurels when the next album cycle rolls around.

7) The Evening Hate EP, Red
I went over a bit of my history with Red in my 2017 album rankings – suffice to say, we’ve had a rough relationship. I’ve gone from loving Red, to being sick of them, to loving them again and then back to trepidation, all due to the inconsistent quality of their releases and balancing between different parts of their fanbase. So you can understand if I was a bit cautious going into The Evening Hate EP, but luckily for me the band was firing on all cylinders with this release. This is classic Red – the music is heavy (especially “From the Ashes”), the backing strings are beautiful and the electronic elements that permeated Release the Panic are almost entirely absent. The fight between using electronic elements versus strings seem to have been dogging Red for years, but I’m hoping that The Evening Hate EP is showing us a glimpse of the future, because everything on here sounds great. The title track has some unique elements for a Red song, while also managing to sound epic like something from their best album, of Beauty and Rage. It’s a great way to start the album. The next track, “From the Ashes”, is a very heavy and solid track, and while it is more typical Red fare than “The Evening Hate”, it doesn’t really hurt it any. “Hemorrhage” slows things down significantly and has wildly different vocals than anything Red has ever done, but this is in part due to it being a cover of a Fuel song. It’s very different for this band and I like the vocal style they used here. The album then closes out with an alternate version of “The Evening Hate” and an acoustic version of “From the Ashes”. The acoustic version of “From the Ashes” isn’t really anything special, but the alternate version of the title track is awesome. It slows the song down, making it more ethereal and puts more emphasis on the backing strings. It completely changes the song, to the point where both versions easily stand on their own. It even starts to build when the chorus kicks in, keeping it from stagnating like so many slowed-down, alternate versions of songs do. All-in-all, The Evening Hate makes for a very solid EP, to the point where it would be nice if it wasn’t so bite-sized! I just hope that this is a glimpse of where the band is heading because I definitely like this direction.

6) N.A.T.I.O.N., Bad Wolves
Bad Wolves’ Disobey was one of my favourite albums of 2018, but I was surprised when I found out that they were following it up with another full album just over a year later. I was also pretty surprised when I saw the album cover for it – an underwear-clad and tattoo-covered model was a pretty far cry from the imposing riot cop that adorned Disobey and perhaps signified a shift towards Five Finger Death Punch’s brand of bro metal. However, I’ve kind of turned around on this album art since my first impression – I actually like how deeply contrasted the colour of the model’s underwear is to her skin and tattoos, it looks striking. I’ve seen people say that the fact that there’s a woman in underwear here at all is “tasteless”, but I don’t feel like it’s overly-sexualized, especially considering that they’re intentionally covering up the model’s underboob.

Enough about the album art though, what about the music? Well, I can’t say that I like it nearly as much as Disobey, but N.A.T.I.O.N. is a solid-enough follow-up, especially considering that it was pumped out only a year later (and is 42 minutes long at that, some bands can barely manage 30 minutes in 3 years). There are some delightfully heavy and aggressive tracks on here, particularly “I’ll Be There”, “L.A. Song” and the brutal “The Consumerist”. When Bad Wolves are unleashed like this they’re at their absolute best, but they can still restrain themselves somewhat and put out a solid, radio-friendly rock tune. “Killing Me Slowly” is a great example of this, managing to be clearly written as a single while also being one of the best tracks on the album. Unfortunately, there are also several songs which were clearly written to be singles which just suck in comparison to the rest of the album because they make Bad Wolves sound so defanged. “Better Off This Way” is the first sign of this, a slowed-down, heartfelt breakup song right in the middle of an album full of blistering metal. It feels more like the cliche, emotional album closer rather than the start of the middle of the album. It’s a masterpiece though compared to “Sober”. Here I was hoping for a Tool cover, but what I got instead was another breakup song (this time with addiction added in!) that sounds exactly like an Imagine Dragons song, complete with claps and the layered vocal harmonies. It sucks and is clearly intended to get more of that radio airplay after the success of “Zombie” on their last album. Personally, I hope it bombs because I do not want Bad Wolves carrying on in this direction in the future. That’s the thing though – when they’re sticking with the heavy, aggressive stuff Bad Wolves sound fantastic. It’s these transparent attempts at radio friendliness which suck a lot of the life out of this album though – up until “Better Off This Way”, this album was shaping up to be in my top 3 of the year, but the quality of the tracks becomes extremely inconsistent from that point onward. As a result, I can’t say that it’s a step up from Disobey, but it’s a good enough release that I’m certainly going to be listening to it into the future many more times.


5) Fear Inoculum, Tool
Holy shit, it’s finally here! It’s been over 13 years, but the long-awaited Tool album finally saw release in 2019. For what it’s worth, Fear Inoculum sounds like Tool haven’t skipped a beat in the last 13 years, with the only real change in their sound being that frontman James Maynard Keenan sounds more like he did on last year’s A Perfect Circle album, Eat the Elephant, than he normally does on Tool tracks (which works for me, his voice sounds better this way in my opinion). However, the music landscape has changed drastically since 2006 and having such a blatantly esoteric, technically-ambitious and non-commercial album come out is, somewhat ironically, a major selling-point. While this gives Fear Inoculum a definite novelty factor, it’s hard to argue that it was worth the 13 year wait. Previous Tool albums always had their own distinct flavour, but Fear Inoculum sounds very much like their psychedelic, mystical tour de force, Lateralus. The problem with this though is that, while you can appreciate the craftsmanship and commitment to just being simply weird, the songs here aren’t as enjoyable as the ones on Lateralus. That’s not to say that there aren’t enjoyable tracks – the title track and “Descending” are really solid, but there’s nothing quite as impactful as Lateralus‘ “Schism” or “The Grudge”. Luckily, the latter half of the album starts shedding some of the trappings of Lateralus and we get interesting tracks like “Chocolate Chip Trip” (which sounds like something Iron Butterfly might craft) and the absolutely epic “7empest” (easily the best and most easily-enjoyable track on the album, even if it is almost 16 minutes long).

Oh and like The Great War, there are two versions of this album you can get, the physical edition and digital edition, which actually comes with 3 additional instrumental tracks. Normally I’d say to go for the additional songs… but man, I thought that all three of these bonus tracks were by far the worst music on the whole album. They’re just weird interludes for the sake of being weird and just get in the way of enjoying the actual good tracks in my opinion. Worst of all is “Mockingbeat”, which channels some of that old trolling energy the band used to display on Ænima and gives us a bunch of unbearable screeching for 2 minutes. I get it, ha ha, you’re literally mocking us Tool, but no one is going to want to listen to that shit. Just do yourself a favour, buy the album on CD or vinyl, you’re not missing out on anything good in doing so.

4) The Great War, Sabaton
Since finding their sound after a few rough, early albums, Sabaton have been one of the most consistently reliable bands in heavy metal. Their music doesn’t change very much from album to album, but they are always of a high quality, reinvented just enough that it doesn’t feel like they’re doing the bare minimum each time. If you’ve never heard Sabaton before, their music is all about war history, with their last three albums all having a central theme (the Swedish Empire in Carolus Rex, war heroes in Heroes and final stands in The Last Stand). With their newest release, Sabaton look to World War I with The Great War, which sees them putting more emphasis on the history of their subject than ever. In fact, they’re so dedicated to education that this time they’ve released a special edition of the album called the “History Edition”, which has short voice overs before each track. I actually bought this version of the album and while it does provide some very interesting context for each song I’m not sure I’d say it’s the recommended version to buy. Having to listen to the same introductions to each song every time is kind of annoying and some of them aren’t that informative anyway (eg, Verdun’s intro is about 5 seconds long). It’s worth a listen at least once, but I kind of wish that I had just gone with the standard edition, since you can glean the history from the lyrics anyway.

In the past, Sabaton have towed a fine line between glorifying war versus honouring the soldiers who fight in it, but The Great War probably strikes the most clear position on it. As is appropriate for an album about World War I, several songs decry the brutality and pointlessness of the war and there is a sombre tone to the whole affair, such as the doom-laced title track or “The End of the War to End All Wars”. This sombre tone is most clearly seen in the closing track with a choir rendition of “In Flander’s Fields”, which sees Sabaton dropping their entire sound in favour of a sober reflection to show how serious a tragedy WWI was.

Of course, it’s not all melancholy and seriousness; Sabaton have some awesome tracks which pump you up. Right out of the gate, “The Future of Warfare” is a killer opening track with an energetic chorus which makes you want to shout along with it, while also hammering home the idea that World War I was a conflict which changed the world. Other than the anti-war tracks, the rest of the tracks could have easily made their way onto Heroes, as Sabaton recounts various heroic soldiers’ actions during the war. All of the tracks are very solid, but they’re also just “more of the same”. If you’re into Sabaton already, this will certainly be fine, but it’s not likely to change any minds. The Great War is another solid album from Sabaton, but it’s a little unfortunate that they can’t evolve their sound much. The injection of sombreness at least gives The Great War a slightly different tone than previous releases, but at this point I just expect the band to rest on their laurels whenever a new album comes out.

3) Volume III, September Mourning
This list was supposed to come out about a week ago, I had it all ready to publish, when September Mourning dropped the news that their newest EP was coming out December 13. September Mourning are easily the best band I’ve discovered in this past year, so the opportunity to give them some more exposure was one that I wasn’t going to pass up. Even if their music wasn’t great (and it is), and even if frontwoman Emily Lazar wasn’t gorgeous (she seriously is), September Mourning are also a Gorillaz-style transmedia project. This means that every song is advancing a this deliciously-nerdy story about a half-human half-reaper character who tries to give people a second chance, played up by Emily Lazar’s elaborate costumes in live shows, along with a whole graphic novel line if you want to really dig into the lore. I love the whole project and Volume III was easily one of the releases I was most looking forward to this year.

Volume III features four songs, all of which have their own kind of flavour. “Unholy” strikes a rather sultry tone with the way Emily Lazar sings, very reminiscent of Maria Brink of In This Moment. Of course, I love In This Moment, so this works well for me although that’s not to say that September Mourning are just a clone of a more successful band – on the contrary, they have their own flavour. Most female-fronted metal bands, such as Evanescence, Sleeping Romance or the aforementioned Forever Still will end up in the symphonic or operatic metal subgenre, but September Mourning end up somewhere in between those are more “traditional” metal. “Hiding From Heaven” was released as a single earlier this year and is a fantastic demonstration of the band’s entire shtick, with their nerdy subject matter, empowering vocals and excellent songwriting. It’s a catchy song that will stick with you long after you hear it. The latter-half of the EP gets a bit heavier too, with “Madness” and “Overdose” being some of the heaviest music that September Mourning has produced thus far. That said, “Overdose” gets a bit repetitive on the chorus and may be the weakest track on the EP because of that… not that that’s a huge criticism though, because everything on here is solid. Easily the most frustrating part of Volume III is that it is just so bite-sized, it’s less than 15 minutes long in total! That’s way too short to be satisfying, but considering how good everything on here is I really can’t hold it against them. I love September Mourning and I really hope that I get a chance to see them live sometime in 2020!

2) The Nothing, Korn
Few bands have been through the wringer quite as badly as Korn. After helping to establish a whole subgenre with “nu-metal” and several successful albums in the 90s, the band became a punch line and put out terrible album after terrible album for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t until 2013 when original guitarist Brian “Head” Welch returned to the band that there were glimmers of a resurgence with The Paradigm Shift. 3 years later, The Serenity of Suffering was easily their best album since their heyday and this year’s The Nothing is unquestionably one of the band’s best albums ever, putting the band back at the forefront of the metal scene in tragic fashion. There’s a rawness to The Nothing that this band hasn’t seen in quite some time and this obviously is a result of the death of frontman Jonathan Davis’ wife to an accidental overdose. You can hear the pain and guilt in Davis’ words and voice, most explictly on album closer “Surrender to Failure”. It’s some of the darkest material the band has ever put out, but the band has gained a maturity over their 25 year career that keeps it from becoming too overwhelming. Songwriting was always a weakness of Korn in their heyday, with the band relying on emotion to carry them through rather than the lyrics, but the writing here has matured significantly. Tracks like “H@rd3r”, “This Loss”, “You’ll Never Find Me” and even the extremely dark “The Seduction of Indulgence” are really solidly-written and don’t come across as insincere or undeservedly angsty. I’m particularly impressed that this album remains rock solid throughout – I often complain that an album dips halfway through (or vice-versa), but The Nothing retains a consistently-high quality from start to finish. I’m happy to see that Korn have definitely gotten themselves back on track and are putting out the best music of their entire career now, it’s just unfortunate that it had to come from such pain. Here’s hoping that the future holds some joy for Jonathan Davis and company.

1) We Are Not Your Kind, Slipknot
Who would have thought even 15 years ago that the icons of nu-metal would be putting out some of the biggest and best rock albums in 2019? That said, Slipknot have always been viewed as the critical darlings of the subgenre but they don’t always get the respect they deserve, perhaps because they are such a brutal band. I like how CagyCylinder describes Slipknot’s place in the metal scene: “the heavier parts are still more brutal than anything any other ‘mainstream’ metal band will ever serve up”. I like this description – there are certainly heavier bands, but among the bands in the mainstream, they’re almost certainly the most brutal, almost approaching death metal levels of brutality at times. Coming off of The Gray Chapter, which synthesized the heaviest parts of early-Slipknot with the more mainstream-minded work of their third and fourth albums, we now get We Are Not Your Kind which picks up from their and sees the band experimenting with their sound more than ever. Hell, no two songs on this album feel quite the same and the band has clearly worked to make every track on this album stand out on its own. This is particularly impressive since, while there are individual songs on previous Slipknot albums that I like more than some of the songs here, as an overall package this is the first Slipknot album I’ll happily listen to from start to finish every time without skipping over anything.

The first half of the album sounds like classic Slipknot, with all the aggression and heaviness you’d expect, but things really start getting interesting with “Spiders”, a piano-led track that sounds kind of like the Halloween theme. It gives it an air of creepiness which is appropriately-Slipknot despite sounding unlike anything they’ve ever done before. Even more unusual is “My Pain”, which is equally-creepy and has an incredibly sparse and unusual soundscape to it. Like… the music in this track makes me think of the sound of a grandfather clock at night when you’re lying alone in your bed. Somehow I don’t think that that’s an accident that it brings back those same sorts of childhood anxieties. We also get a bit of a return to the norm with “Orphan” (one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album), but the last two tracks, “Not Long for This World” and “Solway Firth”, fuse a bit more of this experimentation with Slipknot’s usual sound, closing out the album on something familiar yet different. The experimentation in the latter-half of the album works and clearly comes from a desire to try new things rather than get more mass appeal.

The songwriting is also on-point and matured in this album. It’s basically just a lot of facing personal demons and battling depression, but that resonates with me. I complained about bands with positive hard rock earlier and that’s partly because, as someone who goes through anxiety and bouts of depression, those sorts of music don’t make me feel any better, stuff like this does. I can channel the emotion of “Unsainted” and use that to express what I’m feeling in a cathartic manner. It’s also nice to note that, unlike say Five Finger Death Punch, Slipknot’s aggression isn’t directed at random nobodies who piss them off or women who dare break up with them, it’s more introspective and, consequently, justified. We Are Not Your Kind is probably the most consistently-even Slipknot album they’ve ever put out and there is very little fault I can find with it, hence why it landed on the top of the rankings this year.

10 Worst Movies of the 2010s

As you can probably tell if you’ve frequented this blog, you’ll know that I have a thing for bad movies. There’s a special sort of film-going experience that you can only get from a crap-tacular film, be that stunned disbelief or pure rage. Then there’s the true bottom of the barrel. Most of the films on this list are so bad that I would never want to subject myself to them again, and even several years removed from watching them they still leave an awful taste in my mouth. So let’s go down memory lane and exhume some of the worst movies of the entire decade and show off their rotting putridity for all to see?

Honourable Mentions

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (February 27, 2010)
You would be remiss to mention bad movies of the 2010s and leave out Birdemic, a rip-off of The Birds that’s so legendarily incompetent that it became a meme. Director James Nguyen really wanted to make a positive film about environmentalism and pacifism, all wrapped up in an epic love story, but good God he failed spectacularly. For the most part, the film is just boring, but then suddenly the clip art GIF-quality birds attack and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I swear to God I laughed for at least a minute straight when they started dive bombing and literally exploding. Even with everything else wrong with this film, that alone made it at least hilarious and so-bad-it’s-good enough that it’s more enjoyable than any of the movies that made this list. Still, for the sheer ineptitude on display, this film deserves at least a mention on this list.

Dogman (November 6, 2012)
I’ve always been highly intrigued by the legend of the Michigan Dogman, so when I found out that someone made a movie about this creature I was excited to see what they would come up with. I even saw a Blu-ray copy of the film on sale and even though it was going for freaking $35 I was tempted. However, I ultimately decided that I’d better find out if it was good or not before dropping that much on it… and thank God I did, because I dodged a freaking bullet. Dogman is clearly a no-budget film and what we do get on screen is just boring. I can’t really remember much more about it than being extremely disappointed that nothing happens, so I can’t really justify putting it on the list proper (and like hell I’m rewatching it).

The Predator (Septemer 14, 2018)
The Predator isn’t *quite* bad enough to actually make this list, but it is easily one of my most hated films of the decade. I don’t often advocate for films to be written out of continuity, but the Predator franchise is absolutely dead in the water if this film is allowed to dictate the franchise’s future. And why did they feel the need to reboot the franchise anyway? Predators was awesome and went over most of the ideas this film tries to pass off as new anyway.

So with those dishonourable mentions out of the way, let’s get on to the list…

10) Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt? (September 14, 2014)
If you read my Atlas Shrugged retrospective series, you might have expected to see this film on here. Atlas Shrugged Part III fails on so many levels that it’s frankly impressive. Even setting aside the shitty philosophy and morality at this film’s rotten core, the filmmaking is distractingly bad. Like, almost every scene has something distracting – from terrible editing, to bad lighting, to bargain-basement props, to time wasting stock footage, one can’t help but feel like the filmmakers just didn’t give a shit anymore after losing more than $45 million on this franchise. Oh and the acting is the worst in the franchise, which is even funnier when you realize everyone was recast in all three parts. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this movie is on a level of filmmaking incompetence that rivals The Room. I saw a copy of this movie on DVD at a store once and I was sorely tempted to buy it, I had that much fun at its expense (the only reason I didn’t buy it is because like hell I’m going to financially support the bastards in the Randian community). Literally the only reason I didn’t rank this movie lower was because it was such a hoot to watch, but it is unquestionably one of the worst movies of the decade.

9) Pompeii (February 21, 2014)
I could say that this movie was a bigger disaster than the real-life eruption of Vesuvius which the film is based on, but that would just be insensitive, stupid and uninspired… coincidentally, all of those words could be used to describe Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii adequately though. Pompeii is a disaster-romance in the same sort of vein as Pearl Harbour, where far too much time is dedicated to a dull romance and the disaster is just dumb spectacle. Kit Harrington is here at his absolute blandest and poor Emily Browning is saddled with a lifeless damsel in distress role. About the only notable thing about this movie is Kiefer Sutherland who seems to be having an absolute blast hamming it up as a cartoonishly evil Roman senator. I personally thought that he was the one entertaining bit in this film, but I can see others thinking that his acting is just plain bad so who knows – you might think that this film’s even worse than I did. Really though, there’s so much potential for a great film about the eruption of Vesuvius, even from the dramatic accounts that still survive to this day. Unfortunately, Pompeii struggles to even survive in the DVD bargain bin in 2019.

8) I, Frankenstein (January 24, 2014)
Some movies are so bad that you wonder how they even managed to get greenlit, let alone released. I, Frankenstein is just that kind of film. Who in their right mind thought that a 65 million dollar film about a monster-hunting Frankenstein’s monster would be a success? Turns out that that would be the production company and co-creator of the Underworld franchise, which should be incredibly obvious to anyone who has actually seen this film because it feels like a cheap knock-off of Underworld (which is, in itself, a cheap knockoff of White Wolf’s RPGs), only years after people stopped giving a shit about the franchise. Okay, fine, the idea is shit, but how did they then manage to rope Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto and even Jai Courtney into this!?! Even then, there could be some campy enjoyment if the film was at least in on the joke, but the film is embarrassingly self-serious, full of mythologizing about angels and demons and the status of Frankenstein’s soul… it’s just bad, everyone who’s even heard of the film knows it, I’m not sure what else there is to say.

7) Osombie (May 5, 2012)
Okay, I remember being moderately excited for this movie back when it came out due to the bonkers premise alone, but my memory is a bit hazy at this point (and like hell I’ll watch it again). I do remember being incredibly disappointed by the film though, which just plays out like all of the other  lazy zombie movies which were infesting video shelves at the time. The zombie Osama bin Laden gimmick isn’t even that well utilized either – instead of having him as this Dead Snow-like monster, I distinctly remember that he kind of just shows up every once in a while and is ultimately pretty inconsequential, not to mention that the film isn’t really all that interested in having a campy or over-the-top laugh. The film’s characters are also incredibly stupid, with its “special forces” cast being clearly modelled from someone’s Call of Duty expertise. Oh, and in case it wasn’t obvious, it’s also pretty goddamn insensitive to make a movie like this when Afghanistan was (and still is) a warzone at the time. Osombie is one of those films whose premise should have just been a dumb laugh between a group of friends and then been allowed to fade into the night instead of something that everyone involved is going to have to explain to their grandchildren one day.

6) The Cloverfield Paradox (February 4, 2018)
The Cloverfield Paradox has to be one of the most deflating films of all time. After 10 Cloverfield Lane there was legitimate hype for Cloverfield as a franchise and then The Cloverfield Paradox gets surprise announced and released in the middle of the Super Bowl? Holy shit! But good God were we ever duped because this film sucks ass. Seriously, there are few films which I have hated with such vitriol more than The Cloverfield Paradox. To put it simply, in The Cloverfield Paradox, shit just happens for no reason. Early on it seems like they’re setting up a mystery with all the weird things happening, but no, it’s just happening because that’s what the writers want to happen. There are absolutely no rules to ground everything and it just makes the film frustrating to watch. Oh and don’t even get me started on that damn ending, which just makes for a cocktease since it reveals that we’re missing everything that we actually wanted to see. Ugh, fuck this film.

5) God’s Not Dead 2 (April 1, 2016)
Oh hey, another terrible film we covered in a retrospectives series! God’s Not Dead 2 is truly one of the most deluded and cloying films I’ve ever seen. Any attempt at nuance from the previous film is discarded entirely as atheists are outright portrayed as body snatcher-like monsters, all working to destroy Christianity in America, while the Christians are all portrayed as poor, innocent nobodies who never did anything to deserve such scorn. It’s just plain offensive and gets to the point of being conspiratorial. Even the evangelicals this film is directed at should feel dirty for getting their dicks sucked so hard by this film. That’s really the issue – you cannot separate this film’s politics from its story. It bashes you over the head with the message so much and demonizes everyone outside of its target audience that you either hate it or feel validated by it. There’s really no middle-ground and no other purpose to the film (other than, y’know, to sell bullshit Christian merch).

4) Project X (March 2, 2012)
I wrote a review about this film 6 years ago (!!!), and to this day I can still remember how much I hated it. A found footage teen sex comedy doesn’t sound like that bad of a premise (like… it sounds like shit, but not unbearably so, right?), but the main problem is that the characters in this film are all loathsome. I struggle to think of a character I hate more than Costa, a selfish jackass whose only concern is literally getting laid, everyone else be damned (even his “friends”). The unbearable characters are enough to tank this movie by themselves, but it also doesn’t help that this film is just plain offensive. Every female character exists only to be oogled by the camera, we get all sorts of mean-spirited gay and fat jokes, and there’s even a little person who only exists to get thrown into an oven while the teens just laugh about it. Wow. Did I mention that everyone in this movie sucks and I wish they all overdosed on the stolen ecstasy in the film? That would have probably earned a single laugh out of me in this deeply unfunny “comedy”.

3) Game Over, Man! (March 23, 2018)
Is anyone surprised that Neflix originals nabbed 2 of the 10 worst films of the decade? Game Over, Man! is easily the worst one that I’ve seen, which is especially criminal considering the fantastic premise – basically, it’s a comedic Die Hard knock-off where the “heroes” are a bunch of slacker hotel housekeepers. How can you screw that up? Well, by making a comedy which attempts to be so outrageously over-the-top that it’s just deeply unfunny. Like, let me paint the picture for you – the bad guys are closing in on our heroes. They need to do something to slip past them and Adam Devine announces he has a plan. Cue the bad guys finding him with his dick out in the closet, pretending he died of auto-erotic asphyxiation. I thought that he was going to use this surprising moment to get the drop on them, but no, they just think that auto-erotic asphyxiation is funny on its own merits, plus they get to have Adam Devine run around on screen for about 5 minutes straight with his dick flopping about everywhere. Oh, and then the bad guys start trying to make out, because oh my God guys, did you know that there are gay men who like other men! Yeah, there’s a shitload of gay jokes in this film and they’re all incredibly lazy. About the only funny part is when the bad guy tries to punish a dickhead celebrity by forcing him to eat out another hostage’s ass, but is then surprised and flustered when it turns out that they’re both into it. There, I’ve told you the one good part in this film, you don’t have to see it now, you can leave a thankful comment to me down below.

2) Noobz (January 25, 2013)
Noobz is kind of lucky that it came out in 2013, because in a post-GamerGate world, this already-painfully unfunny movie has aged worse than Bubsy 3D. Imagine a movie that takes the worst stereotypes about gamers – they’re all basement-dwelling nerds, they’re racist, they’re homophobic, they hate women and can’t believe that they play video games, etc. Now imagine that the movie plays this all straight and expects us to find it endearing. Bad news, Noobz, you suck and everyone in this movie sucks (except for poor Zelda Williams who finds herself in a hapless role as the personalityless, token object of affection for the douchebag “hero”). Like Game Over, Man!, Noobz thinks that there’s nothing funnier than a closeted gay character and the movie mines this one “joke” over and over to the point of insanity. Somehow, it even manages to one-up Game Over, Man! by also including a kid with severe asthma who almost dies several times when his breathing apparatus gets damaged (which is somehow less-offensive than how every aspect of his personality revolves around his disability). Everything in this film is just lazy, from the tired road-trip structure to the awful jokes. It doesn’t even have the decency to end in a satisfying manner, instead having the heroes all get a sponsorship from Mountain Dew… and then reveal 2 seconds later that the guy who signed them gets arrested for impersonating a Mountain Dew executive. It’s like an extra big middle finger to you, as if you didn’t already waste almost two hours of your life watching this movie to begin with.

1) Scary Movie 5 (April 12, 2013)
As you have probably noticed by now, there’s not much worse than a terrible comedy, hence why they’ve captured the top 4 spots on this countdown. Scary Movie 5 might just be the worst comedy I’ve ever seen, let alone one of the most unenjoyable films I’ve ever subjected myself to. Don’t get me wrong, all of the other Scary Movie films were already REALLY shitty, but they at least had the occasional laugh and the comedic talents of Anna Faris, Regina Hall and Leslie Nielson to at least keep things somewhat respectable. Scary Movie 5 has none of that, and the results are just pathetic to watch. The jokes are tired, stupid, predictable and just plain unfunny. There was no good reason for this franchise to come back to life after a 7 year hiatus and we are well and truly fucked if David Zucker decides to trot out the franchise again in 2020. Literally the only good thing that I can say about this movie is that, for once in this franchise, at least it doesn’t lean into mean-spirited homophobia, transphobia and making fun of people with disabilities… but, like, that’s not something I should have to congratulate the film for.

My 10 Favourite Movies of the 2010s

It’s the end of the decade, so you know what that means – big retrospectives of the years that were the 2010s! We’ve already done a list of my favourite albums of the 2010s and today we’re moving onto my favourite movies of the decade. It was so hard narrowing this down to only 10 films (plus a couple honourable mentions) – at the outset, I had over 70 films listed that I had to whittle down until only 10 remained. As before, this is purely my opinion, although I’m much more confident that these picks should be less niche than my favourite albums are. So with that in mind, let’s get on to the list.

Honourable Mentions

The Witch (February 19, 2015)
While it wasn’t quite good enough to make my top 10, The Witch is one of those films which sticks with you and just gets better every time you see it. The film is rich with themes of family and religious devotion which give you many different ways to interpret it. There’s also a slavish attention to detail as director Robert Eggers tries to make the film as authentic as possible to the time period. For that matter, the film is basically a straight adaptation of the sorts of stories Puritans would have been telling each other in the 1600s, to the point where I consider this movie equal parts a Christian movie and a Satanist movie, depending on how you read it. This can make the movie a bit dense, particularly if you’re not into Puritan history or constant discussion about religion, and the scares are few and far between, but if you aren’t turned off by these then The Witch is a truly engrossing, unforgettable experience.

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc (February 4, 2012 – February 1, 2013)
Okay, this one might be slightly cheating since it’s a trilogy of animated films, but it’s my list so here it is. Berserk is one of those stories which has been indirectly influencing me for years, through all of its many imitators. The Golden Age Arc is what got me into the franchise and makes for a great introduction to the story (and, in some ways, streamlines the manga for the better). Part 1, The Egg of the King, isn’t great, with rough CGI, some strange choices in direction and a plot which is clearly just set-up for the next 2 films. However, Part 2 (The Battle for Doldrey) and Part 3 (The Advent) are both top-notch. The Battle for Doldrey is one of those rare battle sequences which manages to be both cinematic and clever, since the heroes actually win the day through fairly sound tactics, while giving us some fantastic character growth in the process. The Advent is the crown jewel of this trilogy though – if you’re like me and went into this trilogy essentially blind about what was going to happen, it’s a shocking, truly horrific turn of events that have been set up since the very first film in the trilogy. All-in-all, The Golden Age Arc is just a solid adaptation of an already-fantastic manga and I heartily recommend it to anyone for the compelling characters, as long as you think you can stomach a very dark fantasy story.

10) A Quiet Place (April 6, 2018)
A Quiet Place tickles so many of my fancies that it feels like it was practically made for me. You’ve a horror movie about cool monsters hunting people, you’ve got Emily Blunt in top-form and you’ve got some extremely tense direction from John Krasinski making the most of the monsters’ gimmick. While I certainly would have love this movie at any time, its release also happened to coincide with me preparing to become a father myself, so the film’s themes about family and protecting your children really hit hard for me. You can certainly argue that A Quiet Place is just a very standard monster movie, but it’s made with such high quality that it manages to stand on its own.

9) The Raid 2: Berandal (March 28, 2014)
As good as the John Wick franchise is, the premier action franchise of the 2010s is undoubtedly The Raid. While the first film was basically just a bunch of incredible fight scenes strung together around a very basic plot, The Raid 2 ups the ante by having not only incredible fight scenes, but is also anchored by an engrossing mob story which is every bit as compelling as the fights. We not only get the return of the martial arts expert protagonist Rama, but also are introduced to a colourful cast of new characters, most notably Uco (or, as I like to call him, the Indonesian Bruce Campbell) and a pair of assassins who kill people with a hammer and a baseball bat. The previous film’s “Mad Dog”, Yayan Ruhian, even returns in an extended cameo role where he gets to take on an entire building full of people. All-in-all, these characters and this story make The Raid 2 so much more than just a bunch of amazing action sequences (but, fret not, they certainly did not skimp on the jaw-dropping action choreography either). If you haven’t seen it yet, do it – it is without a doubt one of the most insane action spectacles of all time.

8) Kubo and the Two Strings (August 19, 2016)
Kubo is, put simply, a gorgeous film. Laika Studio (of Coraline fame) has crafted some of the most ambitious and phenomenal stop-motion animation ever put to film, which makes the simple act of just watching and appreciating the sheer talent on screen enjoyable. Still, the animation wouldn’t matter if the story wasn’t up to snuff, but luckily Kubo is stellar in this regard as well. The film explores themes of family, identity and the power of storytelling, while very self-consciously playing with the traditional hero’s journey. There are moments of elation and moments of terror and it’s just such an emotional and well-crafted story that you can’t help but fall in love.

7) The Founder (December 16, 2016)
The idea of a biopic about the guy who turned McDonald’s into a corporate empire sounds incredibly boring, but The Founder surprised me with just how engaging it is from start to finish. Led by an incredibly dedicated performance from Michael Keaton, this film manages to avoid many of the usual pitfalls of a biopic – instead of just going through a checklist of highlights of Ray Kroc’s life, the film weaves these together to tell a story about a down-and-out entrepreneur who stumbles across the opportunity of a lifetime. The film plays the difficult balancing act of having you root for Ray and then having you actively despise him by the ending, while questioning the merit of what he did and whether he always planned on usurping control. It feels so contemporary and indicative of how we got to modern day America – the film also came out before Trump’s presidency, but you probably wouldn’t realize it considering how many parallels you can draw. Even exposition scenes are done in a fun way, such as when the McDonald brothers explain their fast food method and it’s demonstrated to us visually at the same time. It just makes for a fascinating and extremely compelling film, which is all the more delightful considering how dubious I was going in.

6) War for the Planet of the Apes (July 14, 2017)
The Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy is arguably the best trilogy of the 2010s and War is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch (which is no mean feat considering how incredible Dawn is as well). War takes the trilogy into a much darker and more introspective direction, putting Caesar into a violent and dangerous headspace which puts the lives of himself and the apes in peril. Andy Serkis once again absolutely kills it as Caesar and this time we actually get a strong human villain with Woody Harrelson’s ruthless Colonel. Being a Planet of the Apes film though, the evils at the heart of humanity are the ultimate villain and there are some truly bleak moments in this entry. Some may feel shortchanged that the “war” promised by the title doesn’t really materialize in the way you would expect, but given the overarching premise of the series, it’s pretty fitting how it all plays out and Caesar’s story arc comes to a satisfying conclusion. It does my heart good to see one of my favourite franchises get such a resurgence and I can only hope that the inevitable continuation can continue to be anywhere near as good as this film.

5) Silence (December 23, 2016)
Oh hey, look, a Martin Scorsese movie made this list and (spoiler alert) no Marvel movies did! DUN DUN DUUUUUN!!! In all seriousness though, Avengers: Infinity War just missed the Top 10, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Scorsese’s religious epic, Silence. With incredible lead performances from Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson, Silence can be a rough watch at times, considering that it depicts persecution, torture and execution of Christians in Japan during the 17th century. The film also probably won’t resonate too much if you don’t have interest in religion or theology yourself, but luckily the questions this film asks are right in my wheelhouse. The film asks several questions, but ultimately leaves it up to the audience to decide the answer: do outward expressions of faith ultimately matter? Can you snuff out the church by doing this? Is Kichijirō is wrong for denying his faith, or is what is held in his heart what matters? Should Rodrigues deny his faith to save the lives of others? Even the ultimate conclusion of the film is somewhat up for interpretation, although Scorsese has certainly pushed you towards an answer here, unlike the much more open-ended book the film is based on. It’s certainly not the easiest film to watch, nor is it the most efficiently paced, but Silence is a fascinating film which tests your very assumptions about faith and God in a complex and mature manner.

4) Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15, 2015)
Fury Road is one of those films that reveals that you can take a B-movie premise and turn it into something incredible if you know what you’re doing and put in the effort. In fact, Fury Road was so good that it effectively won the 2015 Oscars (even if it didn’t take home the Best Picture or Best Director awards, although looking back it probably should have). That’s right, a movie about weaponized cars, kamikaze psychos in fetish gear and a guy in a skin mask playing a flaming electric guitar was so incredible that even the Oscar crowd had to bow down to it. Seriously though, Mad Max: Fury Road deserves all the praise it gets. It’s expertly directed, with some of the coolest, most creative and most death-defying action sequences this side of The Raid. Much has been made about how the action actually enhances and moves the story forward, which is where much of the film’s accolades have come from. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron’s performances, which are crucial to the film’s success. Fury Road is just… it’s basically perfect, what more is there to say? The Road Warrior was already a template on how to make a sequel better than the original film, but Fury Road went and blew it up by being even better and I don’t think anyone could have seen that coming.

3) Sicario (September 18, 2015)
You had to know that Denis Villeneuve was going to be making an appearance on this list. While literally any of his movies from this decade could have made this list, Sicario is ultimately my favourite of the bunch. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro all in top form, this film is a brutal, harrowing and eye-opening look at the War on Drugs, its toll on Mexico and America’s unethical response to it. It’s a truly thrilling film with some of the best constructed and tense suspenseful sequences I’ve ever seen. In particular, the sequence where a convoy of US forces cross the border to pick up a target and then bring him back is perhaps the most intense sequence I’ve ever seen, as the tense just keeps ratcheting up and up until it finally spills over. Everything about this film is just firing on all cylinders, from the direction, to the story, to the cinematography, to the acting – it’s basically perfect and never, ever dull.

2) Nightcrawler (October 31, 2014)
Nightcrawler is like a modern-day Taxi Driver, a character study about a morally-bankrupt protagonist which shines a light on the seediest elements of modern society. Jake Gyllenhaal is spell-binding as Lou Bloom, a young entrepreneur and burgeoning psychopath who will do anything to get ahead in society. Watching this unfold is absolutely enthralling from start to finish and it rings so true about how modern society has been established and the levels one has to go to in order to be a speedy, self-made success. I don’t want to spoil the film too much because it really is that good, but trust me when I say that absolutely everything in this film is on-point, it’s basically perfect.

And, with that we come to our #1 pick…

1) Star Wars Episode XI: The Last Jedi (December 15, 2019)
…okay, I’m just kidding, I couldn’t pass up such a golden opportunity to be a troll though. Legitimately, I do really like The Last Jedi and believe that it was exactly the sort of breath of fresh air that the franchise needed to move forward into the future, but it’s certainly not without its rough points. Hell, it’s not even my favourite Star Wars movie of the decade (that would be Rogue One) so it wasn’t really even in consideration for the Top 10. With that said, my real #1 pick is…

1) Whiplash (October 10, 2014)
A movie that you could describe as “intense” doesn’t come along very often, usually relegated to brutal war dramas like Saving Private Ryan or gory horror films like Evil Dead. However, Whiplash manages the hitherto unthinkable feat of being an intense film about freaking drumming. I’m serious, this film just keeps escalating and going to crazier heights until literally the last second. This largely comes down to stellar direction and fantastic performances from J.K. Simmons and Mile Teller. The film shows you what it takes to be “the best” without glamorizing it – in fact it’s pretty much actively discouraged from the start when it eschews all our expectations by having protagonist Andrew Neiman dump his perfect girlfriend because she’s going to distract him from his dream – a dream which he acknowledges is going to destroy his life. He’s ultimately a psychopath in his own right, but J.K. Simmons’ Trence Fletcher is an emotionally abusive monster who believes he can be the push to drive his students to the next level. Whether that’s worth it is for the audience to decide, but there’s no doubt that it is amazing to watch these two men play off of each other. I had a hard time picking between Nightcrawler and Whiplash for this spot, but Whiplash was such a unique film for me and I can’t say that I’ve seen anything else quite like it since.

My 10 Favourite Albums of the 2010s

Man, I really left myself a lot of work for the end of this year. Not only did I do my “Best of 2019” albums ranking, but it’s also the end of a decade, which means that it’s also the time for “Best of the 2010s” lists. We’re going to start out today with my favourite albums of the 2010s. Standard caveats apply here – music is not only incredibly subjective, but there is so much of it and my tastes are somewhat niche, so I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to declare that these are “the best” albums of the decade. That said, they’re all great and have affected me in one way or another, so I would certainly recommend checking them out if you have not!

Honourable Mentions:

Asylum, Disturbed (August 31, 2010)
I waffle between Asylum or Ten Thousand Fists being Disturbed’s best album, but it’s pretty much unquestioned that this was the last time they were such a self-assured band. Whatever your thoughts about their last couple albums are, the post-Asylum hiatus changed the band significantly and I don’t predict that we’re going to get another album from Disturbed that I’m going to like nearly as much as Asylum.

Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, Volbeat (April 5, 2013)
They say there’s nothing quite like your first… Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies was the album where I decided to give Volbeat a chance and I fell in love with their style. Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie would also have a pretty good shot at being one of my favourite albums of the decade, but they both fell just short of the top 10. Still, I love the band so much that I had to at least give them an honourable mention.

10) We’re Just Really Excited to Be Here, Countless Thousands (June 4, 2011)
Countless Thousands’ debut album is such a joy to listen to. Their brand of enthusiastic nerd rock is infectious and energetic from the outset and there is so much variety and experimentation that it never gets boring. Want a pirate rock song? Try “A Pirate’s Shanty”. Want something political? You’ll love “The Patriot”. How about a version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, but rewritten to be about bassist Davey Munch battling Satan? Try “The Devil and Davey Munch”, it’s amazing. There’s even stuff like “No Contest”, where there is no instrumentation, only vocal layering which gives the song an interesting and haunting feel. On top of all of this, the songwriting is all top-notch, with one exception – personally, I just can’t stand “The Asskickers’ Union”, a sickly-sweet love song which is just too goddamn happy for my tastes. It’s not like that’s a major blemish though on a 16 track album and there are plenty of other styles and standout tracks that it’s easily washed away.

9) of Beauty and Rage, Red (February 24, 2015)
Red were a band that I got into with their first two albums, but gave up on after their next two albums were very disappointing. Imagine my joy then when they managed to not only course correct and return to form on their fifth album, but they actually managed to put out their best album yet. of Beauty and Rage sees Red firing on all cylinders, putting out an album which is equal parts heavy, haunting, epic and beautiful in various measures. It certainly feels like a Red album, but there’s a maturity to it and everything has clearly been crafted painstakingly. At this point, I’d consider of Beauty and Rage to be Red’s magnum opus. They have set the bar very high for themselves going forward, but they’ve shown that they know what it takes to come back. If Red ever manage to put out something that can match this album I would be delightfully surprised.

8) Dark Before Dawn, Breaking Benjamin (June 23, 2015)
In my opinion, Dark Before Dawn is Breaking Benjamin’s best album. Perhaps this is because I got into the band pretty late into their career, but as far as I’m concerned it is by far their best overall. You’d be justified in saying that Breaking Benjamin just cover the same ground over and over again, but Dark Before Dawn is the best execution of this by far. All of their previous albums were uneven at best, even ones I genuinely like such as Dear Agony or Phobia. However, Dark Before Dawn is great from start to finish, with no track being weak or feeling like filler (other than the mood-setting, instrumental opening and closing tracks, but they’re harmless in my opinion). On the contrary, there are so many standout tracks here, from “Failure”, to “Angel’s Fall”, to “Close to Heaven” and “Ashes of Eden”, all of which show off Benjamin Burnley’s fantastic voice and make you want to sing along.

7) Carolus Rex, Sabaton (May 22, 2012)
While Heroes might be the point when Sabaton hit the peak of their popularity, its predecessor Carolus Rex is still the height of the band’s talents. It’s perhaps their most focused and personal work ever, detailing the rise and fall of the Swedish empire. In fact, it’s so interesting and compelling that it has taught me more about this period of time in Europe than any history class I’ve ever taken. THe songs straight into history. A particular highlight in this regard is “A Lifetime of War”, which make you feel how awful a decade-long war is, and then pulls the rug out and reveals that this war would go on for another two decades. Songs like “The Carolean’s Prayer”, “Carolus Rex” and “Ruina Imperii” all demonstrate the religious fanaticism of the time, how it was used to control men and dehumanize others. “The Carolean’s Prayer” in particular is easily one of the best songs of Sabaton’s career. Oh and I would be remiss to forget that Carolus Rex also has some amazing B-sides, most notably a cover of Amon Amarth’s “Twilight of the Thunder God”. When I was in university and this song came out, I would play it on repeat over and over again and try to death growl along. It’s so good and the fact that it’s a B-side better than what most bands can manage to put onto full albums is insane.

6) Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch (November 23, 2010)
Most of the albums on this list are my favourite by their respective bands. With that said, I feel it’s worth emphasizing that Marrow of the Spirit is actually only my third favourite Agalloch album – seriously, if you haven’t listened to them before, do it. Agalloch tend to dabble in atmospheric doom metal with clear nature- and pagan-inspirations to each of their songs. Marrow of the Spirit is perhaps their rawest album in that regard. Having come off of two fairly polished albums, Agalloch were looking for a grittier sound and so opted to record Marrow of the Spirit on vintage analog equipment. The difference in production quality is immediately obvious when you compare Marrow of the Spirit to The Mantle or Ashes Against the Grain, but it works very well within Agalloch’s sound. The album immediately sets the tone with “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness”, a sombre mood-setter which is almost entirely composed of a cello and a recording of water running. From there, each of the remaining 5 tracks is just incredibly well-composed doom metal, equal parts sombre and epic, ranging in lengths from 9:40 to a staggering 17:34 on “Black Lake Niðstång”. “Black Lake Niðstång” is a particular highlight for me – it certainly feels like a 17 minute song, but it goes through so many changes throughout that it never stagnates. Marrow of the Spirit might not be Agalloc’s most accessible album, but it’s certainly one that gets better the more you listen to it.

5) Through Glass Eyes, At Dawn’s Edge (September 30, 2017)
Oh hey, the first pick from one of my annual album rankings! As I said back then, Through Glass Eyes is ambitious, diverse, mature and has impeccable production values, all of which are even more impressive when you consider that this is not only a debut album but also an independent release! They also don’t fit into cliches – many female-fronted, symphonic/melodic metal bands can get dismissed for sounding like Evanescence-wannabes, but At Dawn’s Edge have more maturity to their songwriting and singing which gives them their own unique flavour. It’s a fantastic debut album and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its follow-up ever since. Owing to the independent nature of this band, I would implore you to check them out if you have not yet, they’re seriously this good.

4) Blood, In This Moment (August 14, 2012)
In This Moment are unquestionably one of my favourite bands right now. Every album they put out has its own unique flavour, but in my opinion Blood is clearly their best overall. It maintains the band’s metalcore edge while dipping into more experimentation to make the album feel a bit more unique than its more standard-metal predecessor, A Star-Crossed Wasteland. Of course, experimentation doesn’t mean much if the music isn’t great, but luckily Blood has so many good songs that it’s practically a greatest hits album. “Blood”, “Adrenalize” and “Whore” are all top-notch and kick the album into high gear right out of the gate. They’re not the only highlights though, there’s also the fantastic “Burn” which shows off Maria Brink’s ability to go from melodic vocals to blistering screams. Tracks like “Beast Within”, “The Blood Legion” and the haunting “11:11” also bear mentioning and, like Carolus Rex, the B-side cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” is also an absolute treat. My fiance loves it… and I’ll let you fill in the blanks from there. Blood is also notable for “sexing up” In This Moment (to the point where they would feel the need to address it on their next album in the song “Sex Metal Barbie”). The album deals with themes of abuse and manipulation, but it always reclaims sex and turns it into something empowering. It gives this album a bit of a sultry, even kinky, edge that I really enjoy and gives it a much different vibe than any other metal band I listen to.

3) Wait for the Siren, Project 86 (August 21, 2012)
Wait for the Siren came out at a time when it looked like Project 86 were about to implode – after 7 very solid albums, their guitarist, drummer and bassist all quit the band, only leaving frontman Andrew Schwab to continue on. Luckily for us, Andrew Schwab was always the primary, most dominant creative force in the band, so the loss of the other band members didn’t completely sink Project 86 (that said, Schwab’s overbearing control might actually have been why the other band members quit, they wanted to experiment more and he wouldn’t let them, or so the rumours say). Having also quit Tooth and Nail Records in favour of crowdfunding, Schwab was free to rebuild the band in whatever way he saw fit, and Wait for the Siren is a fantastic mixture of old and new. Right off the bat, the band shows off some of this new creative expression with “Fall, Goliath, Fall”, which features such distinctive instruments as uillean pipes, mandolin and hammer dulcimer. That said, these additions to Project 86’s sound are just that – additions. The band is still as heavy as they ever were, as shown off in tracks such as “The Crossfire Gambit”. Songwriting has always been Project 86’s greatest strength and Wait for the Siren is no exception, with every track being diverse and interesting in their own regard. My personal favourite track on the album is the rousing “Take the Hill”, easily one of the best tracks in Project 86’s history. While Drawing Black Lines will probably always be my favourite Project 86 album, Wait for the Siren is easily my second favourite, which is pretty incredible considering that they haven’t had a bad album in their lengthy career.

2) Eat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle (April 20, 2018)
Oh hey, another pick from my annual album rankings! Eat the Elephant really impressed me last year. Nearly every track is expertly crafted and has something to say, from the hopeful title track, to political and social commentary in tracks such as “The Contrarian”, “The Doomed” and “TalkTalk”. The particular highlight though is “So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish” a song which is apocalyptic and beautiful at the same time (to the point where it’s probably going to end up getting played at my wedding… seriously). While the second half of the album is weaker than the first half, the fact that this album still managed to take the spot of my 2nd favourite album of the decade should go to show that that doesn’t lower it in my estimation too much. The stuff that’s here is just too damn good to pass up.

1) Devotion, Anberlin (October 15, 2013)
I love Anberlin. When they released their 6th album, Vital, I thought that it was almost as good as the band’s fan favourite, Cities. However, just over a year later, the band reissued the album as Devotion, adding 3 new tracks and 4 B-sides to the original album and retooling the tracklist somewhat. This was, in my opinion, enough to put Devotion over the top to be the clear best album in the band’s history. Vital already boasted some great music, such as the aptly-titled opener “Self-Starter”, “Other Side”, “Orpheum” and the absolutely fantastic “God, Drugs & Sex”. You’d think that throwing a bunch of new songs and B-sides into an already-completed album might mess with the flow of the music, but the new additions are all solid and more than good enough to stand side-by-side with the existing tracks, although the best is definitely “IJSW”. Devotion was by far my favourite album of the 2010s, I knew for sure going into this list that it was going to be my #1.

And that’s it for my favourite albums of the 2010s. Tune in soon when I go through the best movies of the 2010s!

Best Reese’s Products (2019 Update)

A year and a half ago, I took a trip off the usual content that shows up on this blog and made a list of the best Reese’s products. Since that was published, I have come across quite a few new Reese’s products which have been making me want to do an update. Now that we’re a fair ways out from that initial list, I’d say it’s finally time to add in all the new products I’ve tried in the past year and a half. I’ll probably update the list again in future, depending on how many new products I try and how long has passed since the last list.

As before, I’m not exclusively going over official Reese’s products, but any exceptions are done at my discretion. I’ve also once again excluded the original Peanut Butter Cups from the list, because they’re just timeless and the default (and therefore would just end up on the lower half of the list for being less interesting).

Anyway, without further ado, let’s get started!

29) Reese Mix – These things got a dishonourable mention in the original list because they’re way too expensive for what you get so I could never bring myself to buy them. However, my fiance knows I like to try new Reese products and hadn’t seen one of these before so she bought it for me. Turns out that these are kind of worse than I expected. I mean, it’s just the sum of its parts – peanuts, pretzel, Pieces and Minis, but the pretzel bits are really salty. On the one hand, this just makes you want to eat the Minis more to counter-act the salty taste, but it’s a pretty bad look when your snack food is actively making me want to ignore parts of it to get to the bits I like. Plus, the saltiness passes over to everything else in the package anyway. All-in-all, it’s not the ideal way of eating any of the ingredients and I’m 100% certain you could make your own Reese Mix that would not only taste better but be cheaper overall. These things are just all-round failures as far as I’m concerned.

28) Puffs – Reese Puffs are the KFC Double Down of the breakfast cereal world: breakfast cereals are already towing a fine line trying to justify themselves as something other than sugary junk food, but Puffs just shit all over that line and head into something that’s just disgusting. I mean, the tag line when I was a kid was that they’re “Reese, for breakfast!” Yeah, uh, no thanks. I mean, I like Coca-Cola, but I don’t want one before noon at the earliest. Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms at least pretended like they weren’t sugar in a bowl, but Reese Puffs don’t even put up a pretense about what this product is. I had these maybe once as a kid, and even then I was not taken in. Of all the things on this list, if I had to sacrifice one Reese product for the good of humanity, this is the one I’d cast into the fire.


27) Whipps – I swear that I tried one of these things when I was a kid, but I can’t remember it at all, it didn’t leave any sort of impression on me. I don’t recall it being bad, but there’s basically nothing else on this list that I wouldn’t rather have instead (y’know, aside from Reese Puffs and Miniatures). I’d probably buy one just for the memories if I saw one, but it isn’t a particularly interesting choice.


26) Reese Bar – I’ve had these things a few times, but I’ve never been particularly impressed. Maybe it’s just me, but these things are just too big and push over the limit where you’re getting “too much” sweetness. Plus they don’t hold together very well. I always find that if you try to break pieces off of the bar it caves in on itself and the peanut butter filling is very soft. They’re certainly edible, but I never buy them as anything more than a curiosity.


25) Blizzard – So I usually tend to order a Reese’s Blizzard when I go to Diary Queen, but I definitely have my issues with them. For one thing, Dairy Queen Blizzards are just stupidly expensive in general, and just keep getting worse year after year. Furthermore, if I order anything more than a medium, I just feel gross afterwards. I mean, think about what you’re actually ordering: you’re basically eating 3 or more packs of Peanut Butter cups, in addition to the ice cream itself. I have literally gotten sick from all the sweetness afterwards multiple times… not that that stops me from ordering them again, but the fact that these things literally can make me feel sick makes them harder to recommend than nearly everything on this list, even without the huge expense.


24) Minis – They aren’t quite as satisfying as a full-sized Peanut Butter Cup, or once which has been wrapped for that matter, but Reese Minis are a nice little treat. Plus the fact that they come in resealable bags is great, it helps to make them last and not over-indulge in them. There are 2 varieties of Minis available too, regular and white chocolate. The variety is nice, but I tend to lean towards the white chocolate – for one thing, I think that they taste better, and Hershey’s rarely sells white chocolate Reese products north of the border so I’ll take whatever avenue I can get for that fix.

23) Pieces – These things are iconic, probably the second most popular candy Reese products after the original peanut butter cups, in part thanks to the textbook usage of product placement in E.T. which made everyone want to try them. While I enjoy Reese’s Pieces, I have tended to find that they’re inconsistent. Sometimes I’ll buy a box and they just don’t taste all that great. I’m not sure if it’s inconsistent recipes or what, but when I was in high school I’d have this happen on a few different occasions, so it was like a flip of the coin on whether I was actually going to enjoy my box of Pieces or not and it completely soured me on them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still have Pieces on occasion, but I don’t care for them nearly as much as some other people might.


22) Reese’s Crispy Crunchy – I was pretty disappointed by this thing. It’s essentially a Crispy Crunch bar, which I do really like, but bigger and with peanut butter and nuts added to the mix. Wow, how can that possibly go wrong? Well… it did somehow, because I would definitely rather have a Crispy Crunch. This bar tastes like a cheap, dollar store knock-off of a Crispy Crunch rather than a product put out by a major chocolate manufacturer and nothing about it really “works” for me. Just unfortunate all around.

21) Reese’s Chocolate Lovers Peanut Butter Cup – I’m not entirely sure who this product is for. It’s just a peanut butter cup, but with slightly less peanut butter and slightly more, somewhat richer chocolate. It’s like they tried to design a peanut butter cup for people who don’t like peanut butter cups… but still left a lot of peanut butter in there so it doesn’t even accomplish that. Oh, and it only comes with 2 cups, so I really don’t see why someone would buy these. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this well enough, but I just don’t understand why these exist when they’re so similar to a regular peanut butter cup, but with less in a package.

20) Eggs, Hearts & Christmas Bells – I’m going to use this entry to cover a couple seasonal variants which don’t really deserve to have their own separate entries, since they’re basically just the same product in different packaging each time. The Christmas Bells, Valentines Hearts and Easter Eggs are essentially seasonal versions of Reese’s Miniatures – small, individually wrapped peanut butter cups with a shape based on the season they’re made for. They’re great, and if you find some of these in your stocking or for your Easter egg hunt, you know that whoever bought the chocolates was slaying it this year. Always a welcome gift, although the one thing keeping them a bit lower is that, as seasonal releases, they price gouge you for them.

19) Reese’s Peanut Butter Lovers Peanut Butter Cup – The Peanut Butter Lovers cup definitely comes out on top compared to the Chocolate Lovers, but neither of them really do much to stand out, instead just providing a bit more of a niche for a Reese’s lover. What makes the Peanut Butter Lovers cup stand out is that the top quarter of the cup has been replaced with peanut butter, which naturally gives the whole cup a more pronounced peanut butter taste, more akin to the taste of a Big Cup, just in a smaller package. It suffers the same sort of issue as the Chocolate Lovers cup where the difference isn’t that big of a deal and there are only 2 cups in a package, but I’d have to say that the Peanut Butter Lovers does a little bit more to stand out.

18) Reese’s Fast Break – As far as Reese’s chocolate bars go, the Fast Break is definitely one of the better ones. The nougat is very soft and subtle, but luckily all the peanut butter is what really makes this thing shine. It’s very simple (basically a Snickers, but with the peanuts and caramel swapped out for extra peanut butter), but it works so well. I can definitely see myself buying one of these things again because it was quite good.

17) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups Stuffed with Crunchy Cookie – These things sound amazing, but in practice they’re just decent. It’s basically just a regular Peanut Butter Cup but with a crunch to it from the cookie bits. They don’t really change the taste substantially, but the crunch is very satisfying, much moreso than the older Crunchy Peanut Butter Cups. However, you only get 2 cups in these packs, whereas you get 3 in a Crunchy Peanut Butter Cups pack and I can’t really say that it’s worth the difference considering that they taste basically identical in the end.

16) Peanut Butter Cups with Crunchy Peanut Butter – I’m not sure if I’m just not remembering these things very well, but the big “crunchy peanut butter” gimmick of this product never actually stood out to me – they basically just tasted like a normal Peanut Butter Cup to me, just maybe a bit less smooth. It’s a small difference I guess, but not much to justify having a whole other variation on the market. I think Reese agreed because I haven’t seen one of these things in years and imagine they were probably discontinued. It’s too bad though, just remembering that these exist makes me hungry for one…

15) Miniatures – On first glance, these might just seem to be the same thing as the aforementioned Minis, but there are a couple notable differences which make them stand out. Miniatures are all individually wrapped and maybe about twice the size of an individual Mini, which might not seem like a huge difference, but for whatever reason, Miniatures just taste better to me. Plus, they come in regular and white chocolate versions, which just helps to vault them over the seasonal chocolates in my opinion.

14) Christmas Trees & Easter Eggs – At first glance, these just appear to be low-effort, cheap holiday cash-ins (hell, that “tree” is more reminiscent of a chocolate turd). However, these things over-deliver in a big way. Plus, unlike most seasonal chocolate, they actually tend to be priced reasonably. The fact that they come in regular and white chocolate varieties is just icing on the cake, I used to buy these things around Christmastime when I was in university. I would not be surprised if I was eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Tree while writing some of the earliest posts on this blog.


13) Swoops – I can remember back when these things came out and was saddened when I heard that they were discontinued. If you never got the chance to try one, imagine a Pringle made entirely of chocolate and with that Reese’s peanut butter mixed in. Suffice to say, they were delicious and it was easy to forget just how much chocolate you were consuming as you scarfed them down.


12) Big Cups – Unlike some of the Reese’s products I mentioned earlier, while Big Cups certainly tow the fine line between decadence and overindulgence, I feel like they strike the perfect balance. I definitely feel like I’m pushing some limits with a Big Cup, but I never feel like they’re too much or like I’m going to be sick or disgusted with myself for having one.

11) King Size Peanut Butter Cups with Crunchy Cookie – I know I just went over the regular-sized Crunchy Cookie cups early, but there’s actually some big differences between them and the King Sized version which make it stand out. Most importantly, it comes with 2 Big Cups in a package, which is standard for the King Sized Reese’s products, so it doesn’t feel held back as a result. So, factor in that satisfying crunchiness, and you have a clear recommendation over a regular Big Cup with no reservations.

10) Reese’s Outrageous! Stuffed with Pieces – The naming convention for this chocolate bar is pretty weird. It’s basically a Reese’s Nutrageous bar… but the nuts have been replaced with Reese’s Pieces. I don’t know why they didn’t just come up with some sort of totally new name, especially since they make sure to specify that the bar is stuffed with Pieces anyway, but whatever, I’m not a big marketing exec now am I? In any case, the Outrageous bar is quite good! It tastes very similar to the peanut butter Oh Henry! bars, minus the nuts of course, and adding in Pieces always makes a Reese’s product better by orders of magnitude. My only real complaint is that the standard size version is pretty small for a chocolate bar, but it is certainly a tasty treat.

9) Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Reese’s Pieces – I normally don’t care for a Hershey’s bar, the milk chocolate is quite tasty but it’s a rather boring product as far as chocolate options go. This version really surprised me though – the bits of peanut butter taste and the crunch from the Pieces gives it some more flavour than usual and there’s even little bits of peanut added in for added texture and taste! All-in-all, it’s pretty similar to the M&Ms Bar (which I do really like), but much better!

8) Sticks – It shocks me just how good these damn things are. If you thought peanut butter and chocolate were a match made in heaven, Reese Sticks prove that 3 sticks of wafer definitely make a case for a hot threesome. Just… these things are brilliant. They sell smaller versions in the same sorts of bags as Minis too, and they are so addictive. If you’ve never tried these, then seriously, freaking do it.


7) Crunchers – These might be the most surprising entry on this list for me. I saw a package of these at a gas station and, similarly to Reese Mix, the price seemed rather steep but I figured I’d try them out. The price is definitely a bit high, but bloody hell are they worth the cost. They’re kind of like little, delicious bite-sized clusters and just writing about them is making me want to eat the package of them that I have in a bag nearby. (Post-script: Yeah, within 5 minutes I had that package opened and was scarfing them down greedily.)


6) Breyers Reese Ice Cream – Breyers’ Reese ice cream has some big legs up on the Reese Blizzard which propel it so far up the list. For one thing, a container of Breyers ice cream can be purchased for about the price of a Blizzard, particularly when they go on sale for around $4. Secondly, the ice cream is flavoured to actually complement the peanut butter cups in there, which makes it taste better than a Blizzard in general. Thirdly, you control the portioning, so you shouldn’t ever feel sick when eating this. Whenever I see this product on sale at the grocery store, I love to pick it up because I know that I’ll get to enjoying it on a hot day.

5) Royal Reese’s Brownie Blizzard – My God, a Reese’s Blizzard is already tasty enough, but this one was just so over the top that it was unbelievable. A peanut butter filling and brownie bits in addition to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? Holy crap, this thing is completely amazing. Like most Dairy Queen products, it’s insanely expensive, so you’re only going to be indulging in this kind of thing on a special occasion, but man… that special occasion is going to be the freaking best.


4) Pieces Eggs – It’s getting close to Easter season now, and the most exciting part of that is that the Easter chocolates are going on sale. For most people, that means Cadbury Mini Eggs, but for me that means Pieces Eggs. While Pieces themselves don’t set my world on fire, Pieces Eggs are a whole other animal. To put it simply, Pieces Eggs are quite a bit bigger than a regular Pieces, so they’re far more satisfying to me. The only real issue is that, like all Easter Egg chocolates, they charge you through the nose for them. Said said, I just paid nearly $20 for a big bag of Pieces Eggs… that pains me, but it’s (just barely) worth it and that bag will probably last me for months.


3) Big Cups with Reese’s Pieces – Who is the diabolical candy-making genius who thought up this decadent combination? This is just such a brilliant mixture that I have to applaud it, even if it might be enough to break that delicate balance that Big Cups strike and put them on the side of over-indulgence. They’re as good as they look, but I definitely feel some shame afterwards for how decadent they are.

2) Miniatures with Reese’s Pieces – As I predicted in my original rendition of this list, Miniatures with Reese’s Pieces are the perfect version of the “just add Pieces” puzzle. Whereas Big Cups with Pieces just feel like they’re too decadent, Miniatures with Pieces are small enough that you can eat a few at a time without feeling like you’re going overboard.


1) White Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups – Dear God, white chocolate Peanut Butter Cups are absolutely amazing. There’s only 2 of these in a package, compared to 3 in a regular package of Peanut Butter Cups. When I was in my early teens, they sold these in Canada, but now they’re bloody impossible to find here. Recently, at Ottawa Geek Market, there was some enterprising international candy-seller selling these things for $5 EACH, and I love these so much that I begrudgingly bought 3 of them. Hell, I’ve considered dropping $60 or more of a whole box of them on Ebay, because they are just that good. The white chocolate Minis aren’t nearly the same, and while the white chocolate Trees and Miniatures get close, they’re still hard to get ahold of and nothing quite matches just how good a white chocolate Peanut Butter Cup is. It wasn’t even a contest for me to place this entry, it was basically just a question of how I was going to fill out the remaining slots beneath this.

Listening to Bands That Followed Me on Social Media

I love to follow my favourite bands on Twitter and Instagram, it’s such a convenient way for me to stay in the loop on new music, nearby concerts and other goings-on in the band members’ lives. However, I have also noticed a side effect to this: every time I follow a major band, I will get followed back by a couple other, smaller bands trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a pretty clever strategy I must say – it’s free advertising, it immediately gets them into your good graces and it lets you know that they’re making music similar to the stuff you already love, so why not check them out? As a show of good faith and because I like to support independent artists, I keep a list of all the bands who have followed me and check them out when I get a chance. I’ve gotten enough piled up now that I thought that I would do a list of the bands that have followed me, listed from my least favourite to favourite. This is, of course, super subjective so I would recommend checking out all of the bands here regardless rather than just taking my word as final for how good any of their music is. Oh, and if more bands follow me in the future then I’ll probably do a follow up article, so I hope that happens!

Honourable Mention: Brian “Head” Welch of Korn and Love & Death followed me at one point and even slid into my DMs with a message of encouragement (very much on-brand for him based on what I’ve read about the man). He has since unfollowed me, but that’s probably because I have a real potty-mouth on Twitter since that’s where I post my most passionate political opinions. Anyway, I don’t really count him since he followed me in response to me following him rather than because he was trying to market himself, but I thought that it was worth a mention at the very least.

7) September Sky
Genre: Metal
Followed Me Because I Liked: Breaking Benjamin on Instagram
Favourite Track: “Fallacy”

Of all the bands that have followed me, September Sky have the biggest catalogue (2 EPs and 1 album) and longest history, having released their first EP back in 2011. They also have a pretty strong marketing push for the band, having followed me twice (!!) on Instagram in order to make sure I definitely noticed them and very promoter-friendly bios on their website and Spotify which make such claims as “In a sea of mediocre alternative metal, September Sky stands out not only with their magnetic twist of alternative grunge rock and thrash metal influences, but also their well-known empowering and inspiring vocals and refreshing guitar solos.” They also claim that fans describe their sound as “Disturbed meets Tool and Alice In Chains”. If that sounds like a strange mixture, well, September Sky doesn’t really live up to it. Their first EP, Bright Sides to Dark Days, sounds very much like Tool but without the same level of craft and refinement. Tracks like “Ted” sound very much like “Aenima” or “Eulogy”, to the point where it feels like their sound might be just a little too derivative. The only song which breaks out of the Tool mould is “Freakshow”, a non-conformity song which is probably their only track which reminded me of Disturbed… and not in a good way at all. I really disliked “Freakshow”, it felt like a black mark on an otherwise decent debut. Bright Sides to Dark Days might feel a little too familiar, but I was really digging tracks like “Disappearing Friend”. There was some promise here and with time and maturity September Sky could carve out their own niche.

Oddly enough though, their second EP, Letter to Fear, totally ditches the Tool influences and takes on a much more bog-standard metal sound. The heaviness of it all was constantly reminding me of Faceless-era Godsmack with maybe a hint of Breaking Benjamin on “My Ending”. I was also starting to hear the Alice in Chains influences (especially in the layered vocals and grungy instrumentation on the title track and “Fallacy”). All-in-all though, while Letter to Fear is much different than Bright Sides to Dark Days, it feels like September Sky were still trying to figure out what exactly their sound is. I was hoping that they would refine the Tool-inspired sound and make it their own, but instead Letter to Fear is another starting point, and not for the better in my opinion.

Then there’s The Dying Season, the only September Sky release classified as an “album”… although it’s only 31 minutes long, so basically just another EP. The Dying Season starting bringing in those guitar solos that they bragged about in their bio on tracks such as “Pieces”. However, they’re easily the best part of “Pieces”, because I could not stand the sluggish instrumentation and strange vocals on this track. It’s like vocalist Scott Bernhardt is going for an Eddie Vedder impersonation, but it doesn’t sound natural. He also does this weird, snivelling, echoey voice on “House of Shadows” which I couldn’t stand. Bernhardt’s voice is fine when he’s just in his natural range, but when he tries to shake it up like this, I really can’t stand it. Most of this album just didn’t stand out to me at all, but I will give some credit to “Eye of the Beast”, I thought that this track was legitimately good and interesting. Unfortunately, I just don’t really like September Sky’s music. Only a couple of tracks grab me in any way, but even those are a far cry away from something I would listen to on a regular basis. I’ve got no ill-will towards September Sky and I wish them the best, but they’re just not for me. Still, I have to give them props once again for their marketing, because holy crap am I ever awful at marketing myself. Even though I didn’t like their music, they still managed to get their opportunity to spread their band to the thousands of people who visit IC2S every month. I’ll give September Sky a tip of my hat and I sincerely hope that one day they release an album that I do like.

6) Awake At Last
Genre: Hard Rock
Followed Me Because I Liked: …Breaking Benjamin? Demon Hunter, maybe? I can’t even remember when or where they followed me because they aren’t following me on Instagram or Twitter anymore… thanks guys!
Favourite Track: “Constellations”

As of the time writing this, Awake at Last had one EP on Spotify: Life / Death / Rebirth, a pretty trippy-looking album that was making me think of Tool or Mastodon right out of the gate. The music I actually got was… well, I wasn’t really expecting theatrical hard rock. That’s not to say that it was bad, but it was much less interesting than what I was hoping for. The opening track, “Purgatorium”, very much reminds me of “Ladies and Gentlemen” by Saliva. Much of their music also makes me think of Shinedown, although with a less-distinct vocalist. And… uh… that’s basically all that I have to say about their music. It’s a pretty short EP, but it didn’t leave an impression on me at all. They do have a new album recorded and apparently it will be releasing in 2019, so I will probably be checking that out – expect to see it at the end of the year in the annual albums round-up.

5) Forfeit Thee Untrue
Genre: Christian Metalcore/Deathcore
Followed Me Because I Liked: Demon Hunter on Twitter
Favourite Track: “Sermon of a Dying Atheist” or “Lucifer’s Lullaby”

Forfeit Thee Untrue had an unfortunate first impression with me because their band’s name was eerily similar to a douchey, joke band from Metalocalypse, Get Thee Hence. Hell, Nathan Explosion even says that the band’s name sounds like a bad Christian metal group, which just makes Forfeit Thee Untrue’s name sting more. Then I saw the title of their album, Cremationem Jesus Lacrimam, and the difficulty of just pronouncing their damn title had me annoyed with this band before I even listened to the first song.

The second that “The Mirror That Hates” starts I instantly was awash with this feeling of familiarity. I used to hear this same, screaming/growling, hyper-aggressive metalcore/deathcore sound every day from countless bands on Weathered Steel (a now-defunct Christian metal internet radio station; it’s what got me into Impending Doom and A Feast For Kings, among others, since they were the best and most distinct bands on there). Forfeit Thee Untrue’s music is fine, it just isn’t something I’d want to actively listen to. Vocalist Gideon Karsten screams and growls well enough, but I didn’t really care for the sung vocals most of the time. Karsten keeps trying to sing at a lower range than is natural for him and it just sounds unpleasant, especially on tracks like “Fractured God”. That said, it seems that Forfeit Thee Untrue has had a major member shakeup so maybe the new vocalist will have more range in their next release?

It’s also worth noting that, right from the sermon in the opening track, Forfeit Thee Untree is explicitly a “Christian band” rather than a “band of Christians” (such as Demon Hunter or P.O.D., where their music can be appreciated by anyone regardless of faith). This isn’t inherently an issue, but it did make me roll my eyes at the tracks of certain songs on this album. “The Burning of the Last Bible” also hints at the evangelical persecution complex and really makes me wish that the lyrics to this album were online so I could make certain that I’m not mischaracterizing this band (that said, the title also kind of ignores that we live in a world where the Bible can be found in its entirety online in seconds). Then there’s “Sermon of a Dying Atheist” which is… well, the title kind of speaks for itself and the old “no real atheists” myth that persists throughout evangelical culture. It belies the usual lack of imagination and empathy that evangelicals have when it comes to atheists, but this is also possibly the best put-together song on the album, even featuring clean vocals from Karsten that I actually liked. It’s pretty bad when the only song on this album I thought was actually pretty good is also conceptually troublesome.

All-in-all, I can tell that Forfeit Thee Untrue are not a bad band, but they just don’t stand out for me at all. It also doesn’t help that I feel like they’re struggle to carve out their own sound. If you’re into the Christian metalcore scene then you might enjoy their music, but it’s not my thing unfortunately.

4) Red Devil Vortex
Genre: Metal
Followed Me Because I Liked: Breaking Benjamin
Favourite Track: “Undaunted”

Red Devil Vortex leave a really strong first impression: they have a great name and the artwork for their debut EP, Something Has to Die is awesome. Of all the bands on this list, Red Devil Vortex was by far the one I was most excited to check out.

And then you start their first track and realize that they’re Five Finger Death Punch.

…okay, I’m exaggerating greatly, but my first thought upon hearing the opening track, “Undaunted” was “oh God, they sound like Five Finger Death Punch, NOOOOOOO!!!” Thankfully, this fear ended up being mostly unrealized, since Red Devil Vortex are much better lyricists than Ivan Moody and company, managing to produce bro-metal without coming across like a bunch of douchebags. Not that their lyrics are all that deep (mostly standard, empowering metal), but the band fires on all cylinders and churns out some really solid music throughout. With a bit more musical maturity, I could easily see them becoming a commercially successful force in the metal scene.

…but still, I can’t shake that fear I had upon first listening to them. Red Devil Vortex had almost won me over, but at the very end of the last track on the EP they pull a colossal blunder by ending the song with a pointless declaration of “from villains to kings, BITCH!!!” It’s just… ugh, why? Just like that, they upend their non-douchey look and make me question their entire career trajectory. Maybe I’m just nitpicking this, but it seriously annoyed me that they’d put in such a pointless, tough-guy wannabe punctuation on the EP. It makes me seriously question whether Red Devil Vortex are going to evolve into a FFDP-lite, or if they’re going to seize the promise that they’ve shown here. I seriously hope they can follow the lead of Godsmack and shed the bro-metal bullshit in favour of something inspiring, because there’s some serious talent on display here.

3) Dark Moon Lilith
Genre: Alt Rock
Followed Me Because I Liked: In This Moment on Twitter
Favourite Track: “Kerosene” and “Hiding Place”

Dark Moon Lilith gets some points for being the first band on this list to follow me (after Brian “Head” Welch anyway) and for having an amazing band name (which is apparently an astrology term for “a mathematical point that’s exactly in between the earth and the moon — essentially, empty space. It represents the cosmic void, that very energy this spirit embodies” and is related to eroticism). The band’s debut EP, Occultation, surprised me a bit because I was expecting alt metal similar to In This Moment. Instead, Dark Moon Lilith produces very moody, angsty, slow tempo alt rock. Any surprise I had was quickly washed away by “Kerosene”, a really well-made track which exemplifies Dark Moon Lilith’s style, Lilith’s vocal range and is easily the best track on the EP. In fact, “Kerosene” alone was enough to sell me on Occultation and buy the digital EP, but it’s far from the only good song on here. “Blind Side”, “Shores” and especially “Hiding Place” are all very well made, moody compositions which show off Lilith’s raw talent, although they also show that her range of songwriting topics is rather limited. That said, the songs themselves are pretty well put together, and the pervasive moodiness only really start to drag a bit in the second half of the album when the tempo slows to a crawl in songs such as “World Away”. It’s unfortunate that the EP struggles to keep my interest towards the end, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that “Kerosene” and “Hiding Place” alone more than made Occultation a must-buy for me. I really liked Dark Moon Lilith and will certainly be keeping an eye on them in the future and will certainly be relistening to Occultation many times in the future.

2) Forever Still
Genre: Metal/Symphonic Metal
Followed Me Because I Liked: In This Moment on Twitter
Favourite Track: “Alone”

Forever Still are, relatively, one of the bigger bands that has followed me, as demonstrated by the fact that they’re signed to the major international metal label Nuclear Blast. Their debut album, Tied Down, did not disappoint as vocalist Maja Shining shows off her impressive vocal range, which can go from operatic heights to screams in the blink of an eye. Their music is also quite impressively diverse, going from heavy, energetic metal tracks to Sleeping Romance-esque symphonic metal. Sleeping Romance was probably the touch-point that I came back to the most while listening to Tied Down, but I was also reminded of plenty of other, smaller female-fronted bands that I like such as At Dawn’s Edge and Ilia. The album remains enjoyable throughout, but it’s not until the last three tracks that the band really finds their groove, with “Alone”, “Break the Glass” and “Tied Down” pushing the album’s energy into a new level and taking it from “good” to “I want to buy a copy of this album”.

All-in-all, Tied Down makes for a very solid, polished debut album. There’s clearly room for further refinement, but what Forever Still have crafted here is really good and worth checking out. The band also has a new album coming out in 2019 called Breathe in Colours, so you can be sure that that will be making its way on to the year-end music round-up. I’m really looking forward to seeing if Forever Still have managed to refine their sound further and put together a whole album as strong as the last few songs on their debut!

1) Fight Like Sin
Genre: Hard Rock
Followed Me Because I Liked: Breaking Benjamin
Favourite Track: “I Was Nowhere”

When I started writing this article, I listened to all of the music of the other bands on this list in one day. It started off pretty well with Dark Moon Lilith and Forever Still, but eventually I was capping off that day by feeling extremely burnt out by September Sky. I decided that Fight Like Sin was going to have to wait for the next day, since their musical output just about rivaled September Sky’s and I couldn’t take another long bout of disappointment. Luckily for me, as soon as I started up the Surrender Nothing EP, I was hooked and re-energized. I had some tepid reservations about opening track “The Black”, namely that the songwriting was just fine and that I didn’t really care for the vocalist, but the track itself was a really enjoyable slice of hard rock akin to Breaking Benjamin. However, then “I Was Nowhere” and “All On Me” really impressed me with great songwriting, smart build-up and the vocals even grew on me. These three tracks alone sold me on Fight Like Sin being my favourite band on this list, and there were still two more releases to look forward to!

The Singularity EP opens solidly with “Fire Away”, which shows off a slightly more refined sound and even features a guitar solo near the end! It immediately leaves the impression that this is a very confident band who are hungry to make it into the big-time. Fight Like Sin really remind me of Breaking Benjamin here, especially on the track “Nightmare”, which could have easily been pried from a Dark Before Dawn recording session. Fight Like Sin tend to be lyrically angsty, such as on the track “In the Dark”, but they manage to find a balance between angst and empowerment which keeps them from ending up feeling too dour. All-in-all, Singularity is another solid EP from Fight Like Sin, which manages to make each of its five tracks feel distinct despite fitting comfortably into the angsty teen lyrical mold. Singularity easily gets another high recommendation from me.

Then we get to Identity, Fight Like Sin’s debut album… although, like The Dying Season, it’s another basically-EP at 31 minutes. Thankfully, the album feels longer than it actually is and opens with a moody instrumental before an explosive lead-in to “Chasing a Lie” that grabbed me immediately with its hard-hitting, energetic sound. Fight Like Sin seem to be really gunning for wide recognition on this album, as there are songs like “Demons” which just scream “hit radio single”, but the band also manages to give all of the songs their own distinct flavour. However, there was one clear issue that was nagging me throughout this entire album which hadn’t really been an issue in their EPs – the songwriting feels uninspired. I mean, I liked “Chasing a Lie” a lot, but lyrically it’s just another non-committal resistance song of the sort that I was making fun of so much in the 2018 album round-up. Songs like “Wasteland” are enjoyable but end up feeling lesser because the lyrics aren’t really pushing any boundaries. It’s the same sort of issue I had with XXI and their debut album, Inside Out – the songs are all good and the band is clearly very talented, but their lyrics are so bog standard that it makes the entire album feel kind of throw-away. Talent can still manage to carry a band (Breaking Benjamin have been making the same album since 2002 and I kind of love them for it regardless), but I’m not quite sure that Fight Like Sin have gotten to a point where they can rely on it to pull them through. Either way, when my only real complaint is that I wish that Identity was even better than it already is, you know that it’s worth checking out.

And that’s it for now! With any luck more bands will follow me in future and I will be sure to check them out. It was fun being exposed to new music, even if some of it wasn’t really my cup of tea.

15 Best Movie Posters of 2018

If you’ve read any of my movie reviews, you might have noticed that I always have a whole blurb at the start of the review critiquing the design of the film’s poster. I really love a good movie poster, it’s a piece of art unto itself. Films that treat their poster as more than just a piece of marketing deserve special recognition, so what better way to do that than a year-end countdown?

Also… man, it’s hard to believe that the last time I did a movie posters best-of was 5 freaking years ago! I’ve always wanted to turn it into an annual thing, but it has never actually happened for whatever reason. Hell, I even had a folder with notable movie posters saved in 2015 or 2017, but the countdown just never materialized. So, with any luck, this will be commencement of the first annual IC2S Best Movie Poster countdown!

(Images come courtesy of the film poster database Internet Movie Poster Awards.)

Honourable Mention: The Predator

This poster deserves special mention just because of how weird it is. This is one of a series of stylized posters featuring the Predator living a “cool” lifestyle of playing basketball, skateboarding and break-dancing. It’s such a bonkers design, made even weirder by the tongue-in-cheek “ALIEN” brand on their computer and basketball jersey. The neon graffiti aesthetic is also so at odds with Predator that this whole thing becomes really interesting. I mean, it’s more respectful to the franchise than The Predator was at the very least.
15) Acrimony

Acrimony has a couple really cool posters, but in my opinion this one is the best of them. Maybe I’m somewhat biased (red and black are my favourite colour combination), but the poster itself is just quite striking and says a lot about the film and the dangerous nature of its protagonist through its use of imagery. Plus, if Acrimony‘s Tomatometer is anything to go by, its posters are higher art than the film itself.

14) Isle of Dogs

This poster works on a few different levels, any one of which could be enough to get someone to want to see the film. First of all, it shows off the film’s unique artstyle with each of its colourful characters on display. It also hints at Wes Anderson’s particular “flat” style of directing, something which would excite anyone who had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox. Furthermore, it also shows the film’s Japanese setting, not only with the title and sole human character, but with the way that the dogs are arranged vertically as if they were kanji. Character posters are an overdone trope with major releases these days (one that Isle of Dogs is not immune to), but it’s nice to get a poster like this which shows off all of the characters in the film in an equal light, from the major to the minor, while also conveying that the film’s style is as important as any singular element.

13) Goodland

This poster mainly makes the list because, I mean look at it, it’s a gorgeous composition. The reflection in the water also has some thematic significance for the film, representing how the events of the film turn everything upside down. It’s just a cool, visually striking poster, one that could easily be considered art unto itself.

12) Active Measures

Visually, this isn’t a particularly complex poster. Rather, this one succeeds for just how effectively it conveys the idea of the film through simple images. The sheer scale of the maze also goes to show that this isn’t a simple affair, rather things have been progressing and going in Putin’s favour for a long time to get them to the point where they could potentially have influence in the highest levels of the White House.

11) Ant-man and the Wasp

A list of the best movie posters of the year is never complete without one good Drew Stuzan-style poster and I had a few candidates to go with this year. While Black Panther, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War all had posters competing for a spot, I ultimately went with Ant-man and the Wasp. I just thought that the red, gold and white looked far more striking than any of its competitors. The equal prominence of Ant-man and Wasp as the co-leads also helped as it lent the poster just a bit more flavour to the composition, splitting the cast in half down the middle. Ultimately, it just makes the film look like a ton of fun, which is exactly what the Ant-man franchise is going for, moreso than any other Marvel franchise.

10) The American Meme

This poster for The American Meme goes to show why taglines are so important. There are a few different posters for this documentary, but this one is definitely the most eye-catching of the bunch. The tagline and image alone are enough to convey the idea that one should be cautious on social media, which is enough to make me intrigued on what sort of angle the filmmakers are going to take. In fact, of the films on this list that I haven’t seen, this is one that I am definitely going to check out entirely because of the poster. I’m not sure what higher praise you could give a film poster than that.

9) Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

This is another one of those posters on this list which earns its place mostly by just being really cool and well-composed. It does get some points as well for managing to convey that this isn’t “just another Spider-man movie”, with its animation style, different costume for Miles Morales and the clothing he’s wearing over the costume which helps convey his character. Oh, and to top it off, the poster just makes this film look like a ton of fun.

8) Beats of Rage

…and speaking of fun, we’ve got Beats of Rage. There were a couple films in 2018 with 80s arcade-inspired posters, but Beats of Rage takes the cake in my opinion. I have absolutely no idea what this film is about, but the poster is making me interested just due to how insane it looks. Is this like a mash-up between Mad Max and Dance Dance Revolution? I almost want to watch it to find out, but I feel like there’s no way it can live up to the insanity in my head.

7) The Endless

This is one gorgeously haunting poster. It almost looks like it could be a pretty cool desktop background, but the poster is also designed in such a way as to make it simultaneously unsettling to look at. The darkness encroaching throughout the image, the gigantic cosmic portal dwarfing the human characters and the humans all getting sucked into the vortex all make for a creepy image. This is another one of those posters that gets me interested on its own and having looked into the film more as a result, it sounds enthralling.


6) The Meg

The Meg had some of the funnest and most impressive marketing campaigns of the year, promising an entertaining popcorn film with a shark bigger than any other (whether the film delivered on that promise is up for debate). The posters helped to build up that hype, that this was a shark movie for the modern blockbuster age. I liked this poster the most, as it shows off the scale along with some humour in the process, while also riffing on Jaws.

5) Avengers: Infinity War

There were quite a few cool posters for Infinity War (even the obligatory, normally-boring character posters were pretty great), but this series of five posters were by far the best and most stylish. Thanos takes the center poster, but the two posters to either side of him feature stylized versions of all of the major characters in Infinity War. It just goes to show just how epically unprecedented the scale of this film is, while also just looking super cool in its own right.

4) Deadpool 2

Unsurprisingly, Deadpool 2 had a slew of great posters to choose from, but this one was definitely my favourite. For one thing, it just looks really stylish and eye-catching. Most importantly though, the meta aspect of it is just pure Deadpool, made even better with all the random extras in the audience super excited to see the movie and Deadpool’s own enthralled expression. The marketing really shows off the character’s unique sense of humour and why this isn’t “just another superhero movie”.

3) Truth or Dare

Man, it was super hard to pick between the top 3 entries on this list, they were all super close. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this poster is that it’s for freaking Truth or Dare. Look at that thing, it makes you flinch and promises a far more brutal film than what you would be actually getting into. Furthermore, the neon green and pink style of the poster is really interesting and eye-catching. If there’s one thing I don’t like about this poster, it’s the stupid “Truth or Dare” grin on the corners of the skull’s face, but that’s more of a failing of the people who made this movie rather than the poster itself. I really wish that this was a poster for a better movie, it it does go to show that sometimes the marketing can transcend the film it’s trying to sell.

2) The Clovehitch Killer

Everything about this poster is so unsettling, from the sleeping victim to the masked killer, the washed out colours, the incongruous domestic setting, the voyeuristic framing, even the title which contextualizes everything and makes it even creepier. This is another one of those films that I am definitely going to check out this year based on nothing more than this extremely unsettling poster. I mean, if the poster is this artfully disturbing, you’d hope that the film itself can capture some of that energy right? I look forward to finding out!

And now for our winner of the 2018 IC2S Movie Poster awards… Drum roll please!

1) Free Solo

OH GOD. If ever there was a poster that conveyed exactly what the film was about, this has to be up there among the most evocative. Like… how. How do you manage to make that climb? Can you even take breaks on the way up? How does he survive? Good God, how high is that cliff!? Has a poster alone ever given someone vertigo before? I have so many questions because of this poster and the only way I can get my answers in a satisfactory manner is to watch Free Solo. Again, there is absolutely no greater praise you can give to a poster than that and I have seen few posters that have pulled that off greater than this.

Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2018

Hey, it’s that time of year again! That’s right, the time of year when I look back on the random-ass music I’ve listened to, most of which no one has heard of or cares about! If you’re curious about last year’s picks, you can read the list here. I decided to change up the title of these lists going forward because, while “Favourite Albums” is less wordy, by no means do I want people seeing some of the low-ranked crap on this list and thinking it was one of my favourite albums of the year.

Also, in February I had the pleasure of seeing In This Moment and P.O.D. in Detroit, along with opening acts New Year’s Day and Ded! It was a fantastic time and I’m so glad that I got to see two of my favourite bands live. Was also a great experience to share with with my fiance, along with my longtime friend and fellow blogger at The M.

Alright, let’s get to the rankings…!

19) Evolution, Disturbed
Oh how the mighty have fallen. About a decade ago, I would have said that Disturbed were one of my favourite bands. You could justifiably say that their songs all sounded pretty similar, but it was hard to deny that they weren’t refining their sound for the better with each successive album.

…and then the big four-year hiatus happened. At the time I had hoped that this break might give them a creative refresher, but their triumphant return Immortalized was anything but triumphant. It was a creative mishmash and definitely felt like the band’s first major step backwards. The only breath of fresh air was the band’s surprisingly evocative cover of “The Sound of Silence”, which became a major radio hit and changed the public perception of the band. This surprising hit most clearly influenced the band’s direction on Evolution, as Disturbed splits the album evenly between their traditional hard rock sound and slowed down ballads… and the results make me wish that “The Sound of Silence” never happened, because Evolution sucks.

The album opens with “Are You Ready”, which is probably the best song on the heavier-half album, but doesn’t really hold a candle to Disturbed’s previous singles. It also doesn’t help that it’s a totally empty protest song that doesn’t dare make any sort of actual statement. Bland, uninspired and not daring enough to make any sort of statement is pretty much what you could say about almost all the heavy songs on this album. Considering that Ten Thousand Fists had “Deify”, an overtly political song criticizing the presidency of George W. Bush, you’d think that Disturbed could find something to take a stand on, right?

If Evolution was just a bunch of bland heavy tracks, it would be a mediocre album, but it wouldn’t be awful. However, half of this album consists of slowed-down ballads which make you realize that Disturbed don’t really understand why “The Sound of Silence” was such a hit for them. For one thing, the songwriting is (again) really bland at best and the slowed down tracks utterly waste the talents of the rest of the band. David Draiman seems to be going for an inspirational tone with his singing, but when the most “inspirational” track “Hold Onto Memories” has nothing more to say than “appreciate life”, it comes across as weak. Album closer “Already Gone” ends the whole thing on a dull, unsatisfying note. Even worse, the album has four bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, one of which is by far the best track on the whole album, let alone the best ballad: “Uninvited Guest”. The fact that it’s a bonus track is baffling and I can’t help but think that this was done for cynical reasons to shift copies of the deluxe edition.

As a longtime fan of Disturbed, I say with confidence that Evolution is the worst album that they’ve ever released. It’s just a total mess and far from the step forward that the title would imply. Even if the individual songs didn’t range from mediocre to bad, the album’s structure just makes things worse, threading between heavy and slow songs haphazardly and with little sense of flow. By the time the album comes to an end I literally said “wait, that’s it?” Immortalized was bland enough, but after this album, all I can think is that it’s about time that I evolved beyond Disturbed.

18) And Justice for None, Five Finger Death Punch
As you might have gathered from my recent blog post, I really hate Five Finger Death Punch, so the fact that their newest album comes in ahead of Disturbed should just further illustrate how bad Evolution is. On paper, they seem like the sort of band that I should like: I had heard a bunch of songs of theirs which were really enjoyable and I typically enjoy aggressive, angsty heavy metal. However, Five Finger Death Punch embodies the absolute worst elements of that type of music, pushing their macho rhetoric to the point of toxicity. A band can only rage so much at the world, blame everyone else for their problems and posture about how they’re going to beat your ass before they come across as a bunch of whiny losers instead of the badasses that they think they are. This also isn’t helped by the fact that their songwriting is some of the most embarrassing stuff I’ve ever heard, repeating the same kinds of macho phrases and chalked full of swearing thrown in for no other reason than because they think it makes them sound tough. The end result is a “tired formula that makes wannabe badasses swoon”. They might be the only metal band that I actually like more when they’re selling out for radio hits, as their slowed down stuff tends to be better written and lacks the toxicity of their typical material. Their radio hits also tend to be covers, which admittedly they are usually fantastic at and really give a unique spin to (again, not having to write their own material helps significantly). It’s actually too bad that FFDP’s songwriting is so cripplingly abysmal because they clearly are a talented band that can make good music.

Anyway, that brings us to And Justice for None. I skipped Got Your Six when I heard just how lame the lead single “Jekyll and Hyde” was, but it’s immediately obvious that the band hasn’t changed a bit since I last checked in on them. For what it’s worth, the album is 100% typical FFDP. There are some enjoyable songs (“Top of the World” and, awful title-pun aside, “Sham Pain”), some good songs (“Blue on Black” and “Gone Away”, both of which are covers which just further illustrate this band’s strengths and weaknesses), lots of mediocre stuff and some utter garbage (“Rock Bottom” and especially “Fake”… just look at these lyrics and try to imagine taking them seriously). Unexpectedly, the second half of the album is actually somewhat slowed down compared to the first half, kind of like Evolution (although it never goes quite that far into ballad territory). This works better than expected since it actually makes the album itself have some flow to it, although I feel like it’s ultimately just a weak attempt to pander to a wider audience.

Like I said at the start, And Justice for None is better than Evolution, if only because I know for a fact that I’m going to come back to some of the songs on this album again someday. While it definitely has its lower points and hasn’t changed my opinion on FFDP in the slightest, at least it has some moments of enjoyability.

Also, just because I don’t have anywhere else to put this, have a good laugh and look at this stupid fucking mic-stand that FFDP uses!

17) Oblivion, Smile Empty Soul
This is the first entry on that made its way onto this list thanks to random Spotify recommendations. While listening to a random discover station, the song “Bottom of a Bottle” came on and I was digging the sound, while also being floored by the brazenly hedonistic lyrics (although apparently they’re meant to be metaphorical, you’d never know it though) and the ridiculously emo band name. I was pretty intrigued in any case and decided to check out Smile Empty Soul when I saw that they had a new album named Oblivion. Unfortunately, Oblivion is pretty forgettable and has basically turned me off from bothering to spend much more time on Smile Empty Soul. Oblivion is a passable but mediocre post-grunge hard rock effort that doesn’t seem to have much to say (the fact that their one protest song is yet another “the whole system sucks!” anthem is distressing). Hell, the only song which had any sort of impact for me was “Small Incision”, which is just a short, moody piano interlude… yikes. If you’re into post-grunge then you might enjoy Oblivion more than I did, but I can say with reasonable certainty that this is an album I will probably never listen to again.

16) The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth
Winterfylleth are a band that I got into early this year while hungering for something to fill in that Agalloch-shaped folk metal hole in my soul. Winterfylleth don’t exactly meet that lofty expectation, but they do put out some decent black metal, even if all their songs all sound pretty similar. Their last album, The Dark Hereafter, took some steps to differentiate each song and incorporated more clear folk influences, which was a welcome step and which made seeing where they were going to go in the future more exciting.

When a new album for 2018 was announced, Winterfylleth were quick to clarify that they were doing something completely different and it’s probably a good thing that they did so. Whereas their previous albums were raw, black metal with plenty of folk inspiration, The Hallowing of Heirdom goes full-on traditional English folk music. It’s an understandable fit for the band considering the style that they’ve carved for themselves, but it’s a major departure from their usual sound and definitely takes some getting used to.

For my own part, I don’t have a ton to say about this album. I preferred the harmonizing of black metal and folk on The Dark Hereafter, but The Hallowing of Heirdom presents an intriguing experiment for Winterfylleth. I just hope that this isn’t indicative of the band’s long-term future. The Hallowing of Heirdom is a decent album, really well-crafted and beautifully atmospheric, but it’s also just not really something I can see myself listening to on a regular basis. It would make for really atmospheric background music in a Dungeons & Dragons session, but that’s about the only way that I can see myself interacting with this album again.

15) The Now Now, Gorillaz

Gorillaz usually release one album per presidential term. This irregular cycle has left me wondering if the band had dissolved unceremoniously on more than one occasion, although it does give new albums an “event” status and a provides a unique flavour on each release. The one time they broke this pattern was with 2010’s The Fall, which was recorded on an iPad during the touring for Plastic Beach, which was released less than a year earlier. It was by far their weakest and most throwaway album at the time, owing to its spontaneous and experimental nature.

I mention all this because The Now Now came out just as unexpectedly, a little over a year after last year’s Humanz and I was left wondering whether it would be another The Fall. The Now Now is thankfully better than that, although it definitely feels like a “lesser” Gorillaz release. The album has a very chill tone to it, much more cohesive than the chaotic grab bag that was Humanz and with far less guest contributions. That said, the only big standout is “Hollywood”, which meshes the album’s chill tone with a really mesmerising house/dance sound. Other than that, none of the songs really stand out to me as being anything special. The Now Now isn’t a bad album, it it lacks that special feel that a Gorillaz release typically has. I know Damon Albarn has said that he doesn’t know how many more years the band has left in it so he wants to release albums while he can, but if that means that we get more albums like The Now Now rather than a Plastic Beach or Demon Days, I question if it’s worth it.

14) Attention Attention, Shinedown
Shinedown are one of those bands that I have heard and enjoyed on the radio, but have never really looked into. However, when I heard that there was a new Shinedown album out and that it was supposed to be pretty good, I decided to give it a look. I had always dug tracks like “Devour”, “Sound of Madness” and “Cut the Cord”, they had an undeniable, hard-hitting energy to them which always made Shinedown stick out amongst the hard rock crowd, so I was excited to see how Attention Attention would harness that. Unfortunately, this expectation might have blunted my enthusiasm for the album, because Attention Attention is very unlike Shinedown’s heyday. There are some fairly heavy songs, such as “Devil”, “Black Soul”, “Evolve” and “The Human Radio”, which are where the album shines brightest. However, Shinedown have apparently taken a turn into pop rock on Attention Attention, because the album as a whole is much lighter and poppier than their previous work. Like, throughout this album Shinedown sounds like a heavier version of Imagine Dragons (most evidently on “Darkside”). Attention Attention isn’t exactly bad, it’s just not my thing at all and is just even more disappointing considering that it’s not the sort of product that I look to Shinedown to create. Maybe you’ll dig it, but I definitely did not.

13) Outsider, Three Days Grace
Other than what I hear on the radio, I’m not particularly familiar with Three Days Grace’s catalogue, other than the fact that founding singer Adam Gontier (the most notable aspect of Three Days Grace’s sound) left the band a few years ago. I figured that would be the end of the band, but here were are with the second post-Gontier Three Days Grace album and they seem to be going about as strong as ever. In fact, there are some songs here on Outsider, such as “The Mountain” and “Infra-Red”, which are about as great as any of the other major hits of the band’s earlier years. That said, the album is very much typical Three Days Grace, for better or worse. If you already have feelings about Three Days Grace’s brand of angsty, radio-friendly rock, then they are unlikely to change any. For my own part, I feel like Outsider has a few strong songs, but most of the album is fairly forgettable and is unlikely to leave a major impact.

12) Erase Me, Underøath
As someone growing up with Christian metal, I’ve always been aware of Underøath, but I’ve never really listened to them. This puts me into a weird place with Erase Me, as I have no real measuring stick for this album’s place in their career. What made me check this album out was the story of the band’s lead vocalist and last-remaining founding member, Aaron Gillespie. To put it simply, Aaron had a major falling out with evangelicalism and came back to Underøath on this album with a new direction for the band. Rather than continuing to just crank out music for the Christian music scene, Underøath are just playing what they want, including such “controversial” things as swearing in their music (as the reaction to P.O.D.’s Murdered Love shows, this is a MAJOR no-no in the evangelical scene). Honestly though, the controversy is pretty silly to me because thematically this is still very much a Christian album, featuring songs about hope, sacrifice and struggles which somehow get completely invalidated by the fact that Aaron punctuates them with a very real and raw “fuck” on occasion. Interestingly, these struggles with faith might have actually led to some legitimate angst which those who have had a falling-out with religion can relate to. Songs such as “ihateit” are infectious and enjoyably angsty and there’s a strong metalcore vibe to most of the album.

That said, the music itself is going to be hit-or-miss for some people. On the one hand, their evangelical fanbase has been turned off out of the gate. Furthermore, metalcore fans might be turned off by the electronic elements of the album, such as “No Frame” which almost sounds like a weird pop song. Even general audiences could be turned off by the fact that Erase Me ultimately just sounds like well-made but fairly generic metalcore. I’d say that Underøath are clearly talented and make some pretty good music, but it suffers a bit for being a tad generic. It’s kind of unfortunate, I was so primed for this album and the mindset behind it, it’s just so much more compelling than the actual music is.

11) Ember, Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin are a band I’ve passed over for most of my life, but I’ve finally started getting into them late into this year. I like the band’s heavy, dour and angsty sound and thought that I would check out their newest album, Ember. A couple tracks in and I was having a pretty great time – “Feed the Wolf” and “Red Cold River” were very enjoyable, if a bit samey and very much in the mold of Breaking Benjamin’s usual fare (if a tad heavier that previously). However, as the album progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that “that usual fare” is all that Breaking Benjamin is interested in producing, because all of the songs on Ember sound very similar. Some songs are a little better than others, but they basically all have the same sort of sound, the same tone and same angsty themes that Breaking Benjamin have been mining for their entire career. The only songs which change things up at all are “The Dark of You”, which is quietly moody, and “Close Your Eyes”, which is basically the same as the rest of the album aside from the fact that it’s the only song with any sort of hopeful tone to it. Other than that, Ember is only really going to appeal to you if you already are really into Breaking Benjamin’s sound. When the tracks are all so samey, only the strongest ones actually stand out, making half of the album pretty much throwaway. Ember certainly isn’t a bad album – in fact, I quite like it. However, the lack of ambition and willingness to try something different makes it considerably less than it could have been.

10) White Nationalism is for Basement Dwelling Losers, Neckbeard Deathcamp + United Antifascist Evil, Neckbeard Deathcamp/Gaylord
I’m putting these two entries together since they basically sound the same. Neckbeard Deathcamp is a pretty good black metal act that shot into prominence early this year with the amazingly anti-alt-right White Nationalism is for Basement Dwelling Losers, which was quickly followed-up with a split EP with Gaylord, United Antifascist Evil. Neckbeard Deathcamp are satirical geniuses, everything from the album covers, to the song titles, to the lyrics (“Chrischan Conservatism”, “Incel Warfare” and “Please Respond (I Showed You My Penis)” are probably my favourite songs of theirs) and even the band’s pseudonyms are absolutely amazing. Neckbeard Deathcamp absolutely hate the resurgence of the extreme right and have provided us with an appropriate soundtrack for the times that we’re living in. The only reason I don’t put them higher on the list is because of the low production quality and that the awesome lyrics are wasted on growled vocals (I know that that’s the scene they’re in, but it’s still unfortunate that you can’t hear any of it). Still, the releases are only a couple of dollars each and the music is still pretty solid black metal regardless, so if you’re interested then they’re definitely worth checking out.

9) Space Nazis Must Die, Countless Thousands
Space Nazis Must Die is a charming little bit-sized EP from Countless Thousands. The titular song plays very much like a track from their debut album called “The Devil & Davey Munch”, a delightful narrative-song which is a very obvious “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” homage (for my money, the resulting song is infinitely better than simply covering the Charlie Daniels Band, which most bands would have just gone and done). While “The Devil & Davey Munch” serenaded the band’s bassist (the titular “Davey”), “Space Nazis Must Die” pays tribute to drummer Jon David, who gets to dropkick AstroHitler to death with the power of rock before blasting “The Star Spangled Banner” as a victory celebration and telling all the nazis to “get off my moon”. It’s as epic as it sounds.

Lyrically it’s not as savage or biting as Neckbeard Deathcamp, coming across like more of an anti-fascist power fantasy, but God what a sweet fantasy that is in this modern political climate. And here I was last year saying that I had hoped Humanz would be the soundtrack to the Trump years – nope, it’s anti-fascist anthems like Neckbeard Deathcamp and “Space Nazis Must Die” which are really capturing the modern zeitgeist. Big bands such as Disturbed and Five Finger Death Punch don’t want to get into politics because it affects their bottom-line (hence the toothless nature of Evolution), but indie bands can actually capture the feelings of our times in a manner such as this.

I give Space Nazis Must Die the edge over Neckbeard Deathcamp’s output since you can at least understand the lyrics and it’s just straight-up delightful to listen to. I do wish that it was a bit more substantial (the entire package is about 8 minutes long), but at only $3 it’s hard to consider this an unfair trade-off by any means.

8) Black Reign, Avenged Sevenfold
I have been off of the Call of Duty train for about 7 or 8 years now and never really got into the Black Ops games, so finding out that Avenged Sevenfold have contributed music to all of Treyarch’s entries in those games came as something of a surprise. I mean, a Call of Duty EP from a major metal act? Perhaps even more surprising, there are some really killer tracks on this EP. “Carry On” really shows off the stellar guitar work of Synyster Gates, but “Not Ready to Die” is the real highlight of the album. Oddly enough, the one track written specifically for the EP and for Black Ops 4, “Jade Helm”, is by far the weakest of the bunch, often cutting to silence for seconds at a time as if it’s meant to be used in trailer snippets rather than actually listened to. Still, Black Reign is way better than a Call of Duty EP has any right to be, demonstrating Avenged Sevenfold’s talents in the process.

7) You’re Not Alone, Andrew W.K.
I really love Andrew W.K.’s ambitious, hard-rocking sophomore album, The Wolf, even more than his more popular debut, I Get Wet. However, nothing that he has put out since then has gotten my attention. You’re Not Alone is a decent course correction, feeling very much like a long-awaited follow-up to his first two albums. Everyone knows that Andrew W.K. loves to party, but on You’re Not Alone he combines that with the self-help philosophy that he has been developing over the last several years, to the point where this album almost feels like it’s forming the basis of a cult of partying (such as the highlight “Music Is Worth Living For”). The music itself is a classic Andrew W.K. overwhelming wall of sound, complemented by his awesome harsh vocals (which had been missing from some of his more disappointing releases). I do feel like the album itself, along with some of the songs on the latter half, are a bit too long though and the overall package could have done with some fat trimming. Still, You’re Not Alone is a pretty decent Andrew W.K. release, it’s just still nowhere near the same level as his first two albums and none of the songs stick with you quite as along either.

6) The Sin and Doom, Vol. II, Impending Doom
Impending Doom are, in my opinion, low-key one of the best Christian artists out there. There are few bands in the Christian music scene which could legitimately hold up against other bands within their genre, but Impending Doom put out some brutally heavy deathcore that can be appreciated whether you agree with their faith or not. Funnily enough for a deathcore band, their songwriting is a key component of this – most of their songs tend to have moments which you just want to scream along to. The Sin and Doom, Vol. II doesn’t stray too far from this formula, although it does take a little while to really hit its stride. The first few tracks are decent but don’t particularly stand out from the rest of Impending Doom’s output. However, by the time “The Serpent’s Tongue” comes up, the album really kicks into overdrive. The song itself is somewhat silly, disparaging Satanism in the black metal scene, but you kind of have to appreciate Impending Doom for having the balls to take a stand for what they believe in in this case (it doesn’t hurt that this track has one of those awesome “scream along moments” when lead singer Brooke Reeves shouts “Satan hates you because you’re made in the image of God’s only son!”; a classic Impending Doom moment if there ever was one). If there was any doubt about Impending Doom’s place in this scene after “The Serpent’s Tongue”, that’s totally washed away by the awesome “Unbroken” and “Devil’s Den” (which, again, will leave you screaming “Slaughter the demons that are crawling on my brother’s back!”). It takes a while to really get going, but once it does, The Sin and Doom, Vol. II makes for some really killer death metal. It certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s high quality and really gets your blood pumping and your fist bumping.

5) Circles, P.O.D.
I’m always a bit nervous whenever a new P.O.D. album comes out. They’ve been one of my favourite bands for almost 16 years and were what got me into heavy music in the first place. That said, they always try something different with every new release and I’m never really sure if it’s something that I’ll enjoy, that perhaps their new music will somehow hurt their legacy for me. For their last couple albums, P.O.D. have also been starting to feel like “the old guys in the room”, complaining about the current music scene and hearkening back to a time when music was better (their last album, The Awakening, was made as a concept album for this very reason). Thankfully, Circles doesn’t lean too hard into this negativity and reminded me just why I still love P.O.D. after so many years.

P.O.D. never really stick with one uniform sound from album-to-album. Circles sounds somewhere in the neighbourhood of Murdered Love and Satellite, with tons of different influences dotted throughout the album – lots of heavy hard rock, rap, reggae, funk, punk and even a gospel-flavoured tune. It’s also quite interesting that lead singer Sonny Sandoval raps the lyrics to nearly song on this album, something which P.O.D. hasn’t really done since their earliest albums. I know some people just can’t stand rap-rock, but I think it works and makes for an interesting mixture when you consider all the myriad of influences and styles P.O.D. works in throughout the album.

There are some real standout tracks here: the title track is really good and “Listening for the Silence” is fantastic, with a powerful chorus that you’re going to struggle to get out of your head long afterwards. These are definitely two of my favourite songs of the year, hands down. There are some other big standouts as well: “Rockin’ with the Best” is enjoyably heavy and I can see it being amazing live, “Fly Away” (the aforementioned gospel-inspired track) is really unique and “Soundboy Killa” is a really cool rap-rock fusion which would probably be even more of a standout if the band hadn’t released it as a single more than a year ago (having seen the song live though, it definitely is a killer track to witness). There aren’t really any stinkers on the album, although I’m not sure yet whether I like the really strained screaming on “Panic Attack”, and some of the songs have excessively repetitive and simple choruses. The album could also do with being a little longer (it’s less than 40 minutes in total), but the band really does make the most of each song and I really have to commend them on how they’re still trying to find unique avenues for their sound after 25 years (cough Breaking Benjamin cough). Circles is a very solid effort by P.O.D. and while not every track is top notch, even the weaker tracks are unique enough to be interesting and worth checking out.

4) When Legends Rise, Godsmack
Godsmack can usually be relied on to put out decent music, but they never have hit that “next level” and I’d struggle to say that they have ever put out a truly good album. They’re usually like Breaking Benjamin – releasing music which is largely the same as what they’ve done before. As a result, the fact that Godsmack named their newest album “When Legends Rise” made for a pretty big statement from them. While the album doesn’t really meet the lofty standard of “legendary”, it is definitely the band’s strongest release ever and puts Godsmack on a much more interesting course going forward. When Legends Rise sheds most of the aggression, angst and casual misogyny that defined their earlier, drearier releases, in favour of a more hopeful hard rock sound. It’s still familiar but refreshingly updated and (dare I say it) matured. “Bulletproof” is a particular highlight, sounding very different than anything else Godsmack has ever done and is possibly my favourite song of the year. That said, the album is definitely frontloaded – after the slowed-down “Under Your Scars”, the second half of the album is noticeably weaker than the first, feeling a little more like their usual output. Still, When Legends Rise was a pleasant surprise for me. I wasn’t expecting much, but Godsmack have put themselves onto an interesting track here and I’m very excited to see where they go in the future.

3) The Sacrament of Sin, Powerwolf

Powerwolf feel like the band that was made for me – a musical fusion of metal, werewolves and religious fanaticism. Sign me the hell up! They can usually be relied on to put out great albums, even if their sound and style has been set in stone for over a decade now. Enter The Sacrament of Sin, which goes to show that if you’re not going to reinvent the wheel, then make sure that that wheel is rock solid. Thankfully, even if it’s largely more of the same, Powerwolf have crafted some really high-quality tracks which show off their “metal mass” style (power metal with traditional Catholic mass songwriting and organs). “Demons Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a particular highlight, as is the powerful “Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone”, which really shows of Attila Dorn’s operatic vocals.

The deluxe editions of The Sacrament of Sin also come with a bonus disc called Cummunio Lupatum, featuring other artists covering Powerwolf tracks in their own style. I was super excited for this because Powerwolf’s last album had a similar bonus disc where they covered some of their favourite music, resulting in some absolutely killer tracks. Unfortunately, Cummunio Lupatum lands with a damp squib because most of the covers are either mediocre or straight-up bad. The only track which is any good is Kissin’ Dynamite’s cover of “Let There Be Night”, which sounds absolutely amazing. If the rest of the covers had been anywhere near as good then the deluxe edition would be a must-buy, but thankfully this doesn’t take away from the more consistent quality of The Sacrament of Sin.

2) Disobey, Bad Wolves
Disobey is the case-in-point on why Five Finger Death Punch’s abysmal songwriting is so crippling. Bad Wolves’ sound is very similar to Five Finger Death Punch’s – their style of metal is similarly heavy, aggressive and, hell, the biggest single off this album is even a cover. The key difference though is that Bad Wolves can write a damn song and don’t make themselves come across as assholes in the process. Disobey has a number of different lyrical topics, although it largely revolves around themes of protesting overbearing authorities. Tracks such as the killer opener “Officer Down” at least flirt with political topics, in this case police violence, which is more than you can say about many of the other toothless “protest” albums on the lower-half of this list. There’s also plenty of musical variety from song-to-song which always keeps things interesting. Disobey largely succeeds due to the fact that it’s a constantly inventive, polished and very high-quality release which isn’t afraid to say something. I can only hope that Bad Wolves can top it going forward.

1) Eat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle
I’ve been into Tool for quite a long time now, but I never really made the jump to James Maynard Keenan’s other band, A Perfect Circle. However, I was looking for new music for this list and remembered that A Perfect Circle had put out their first new album in almost 15 years. On a whim, I decided to check it out and… well, let’s just say that I thought that Disobey was going to be my album of the year until I was about 3 or 4 tracks into Eat the Elephant.

First off, if you’re expecting something like Tool, you’re not going to find it here. It’s quite hard for me to really categorize this album’s genre, because it’s so unique, although I might have settled on it being alternative rock or hard rock. Eat the Elephant really shows off James Maynard Keenan’s singing, which is immediately evident on the sombre but hopeful title track

One of the more refreshing aspects of Eat the Elephant is that the songs actually feel like they have something to say. From tracks calling to overcome the obstacles we face (or build) in our lives (“Eat the Elephant”, “Disillusioned”) to pointed political statements (“The Contrarian” for corrupt politicians, “The Doomed” and “TalkTalk” for the evils in evangelicalism), Eat the Elephant usually has something interesting to say. The album also has my hands-down favourite song of the year, “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish”, which immediately gets points for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference. It’s a really cool song, alluding to the dolphins in Hitchhiker’s Guide to honour the deaths of celebrities in 2017, as if they’re escaping Earth before our nuclear annihilation. It’s a fantastic song, simply put. Most of Eat the Elephant is just well-crafted music, far more ambitious than basically any other album I’ve heard this year. Unfortunately, the latter quarter of the album isn’t quite as triumphant as the rest – tracks like “DLB” and “Feathers” certainly aren’t bad, but they don’t hit anywhere near as hard as earlier tracks. Worst of all though, the album ends on a really poor note with the overly-long “Get the Lead Out”, by far my least-favourite track and a very dull closer. It’s too bad that it closes the album out on a bit of a sour note.

I went into Eat the Elephant totally blind, not sure if I was actually going to like it. The resulting album really impressed me though and I’m certain that I’ve still got plenty more layers to uncover in further listen-throughs. I feel like I’m going to come back to some of the other, lower-ranked albums more often, but it’s hard to deny that Eat the Elephant is the best, most well-crafted album I’ve heard all year.

Animals in Bands

I was listening to a podcast the other day and someone mentioned off-hand that there was a metal band fronted by dogs. Naturally, this revelation caused me to instantly shoot up in my seat and try to find this band, because it sounded so intriguing. It turns out that there are actually a few bands fronted by animals and the results are certainly… interesting.

Honourable Mention: No Grave But the Sea For Dogs, Alestorm
This one definitely doesn’t count, but it was my original touch-point for animal-fronted music. Basically, it’s Alestorm’s No Grave But the Sea, but with all the vocals replaced by a barking dog sound effect. It’s pretty funny if you’re familiar with the songs and the dog barking is done in the same rhythm as the actual vocal tracks, but it’s not like they had a dog in the studio just barking constantly over each track. Check out the track “Alestorm” here.

Caninus

Kicking this list off with the band which inspired it, we have Caninus, a deathgrind band headed by two pit bulls, Basil and Budgie. The band was the side project of Most Precious Blood guitarist Justin Brannan, which lent the group some musical chops to go along with the vocal gimmick. The band was actually signed to a record label, War Torn records, and had three releases – two split EPs and a full album with the absolutely amazing title of Now the Animals Have Voices. Sadly, the band is now defunct, as Basil had a brain tumour and was euthanized in 2011 and Budgie died in 2016.

As for the music itself, I’m very mixed on it. Like I said, the sound and production are quite polished and coherent than some of the other bands on this list. However, I’m not a fan of the music itself – the songs range from 30 seconds to maybe 3 minutes at most, meaning that Now the Animals Have Voices is over very quickly. I know that this is the whole point, but the music is literally just lots of snarling, growling and some barking set to music. The vocals are appropriate for the heaviness of the music, but it doesn’t amount to something that I’d actually want to listen to. They’re on Spotify though, so feel free to give them a listen for yourself.

Highlights: “Fear of Dog (Religious Myths)”, “New Yorkie Crew (Loyal Like A Stone)”

Hatebeak

After Caninus, Hatebeak is probably the second biggest animal-fronted band out there, based on the research I found for this post. Hatebeak are a death/grindcore metal band fronted by a grey parrot named Waldo. The band is signed to Reptilian Records and is still active today, having released three split EPs (including one with Caninus) and a full-length album in 2015 called The Number of the Beak. Hatebeak really pride themselves on their bird-pun titles, which are equal parts cringe and chuckle-worthy. If nothing else, I’d recommend you at least check out the titles of their songs. I mean, just look at the album art for The Number of the Beak. Hatebeak takes itself much less seriously than Caninus, really leaning into the whole joke of its premise.

Musically, Hatebeak are a mixed bag. The production on The Number of the Beak is very bad, almost demo-quality. For some of their songs, I’d say it would be appropriate to label Hatebeak “noise”, as their music is largely just distorted guitars with some squacks overlaid on it. On such tracks, the parrot vocalist feels like a gimmick. However, there are some tracks where Waldo’s vocals actually resemble grindcore “bree-brees”, such as “Beak of Putrefaction”, “God of Empty Nest” and “Seeds of Destruction”, which isn’t a musical style I’m into, but it’s familiar enough to bring a smile to my face and I can definitely see how someone could be into these tracks. “Roost in Peace” is also a pretty solid death metal track. All-in-all, I actually enjoyed bits of Hatebeak more than Caninus, even if the production is total ass and the first half of the album makes the parrot vocals feel like a gimmick. However, when Hatebeak works, it works pretty well, although it’s pretty clear that the band put more effort into their song titles than they did in the music itself. The Number of the Beak is on Spotify, I’d recommend that you give it a listen.

Highlights: “Roost in Peace”, “Seven Perches”

The Thai Elephant Orchestra

The previous two entries were bands fronted by animals, whereas The Thai Elephant Orchestra are a band made up of animals, performing their own music. The elephants are actually signed to Mulatta Records, which prides itself as “purveyors of the unique and bizarre”, where they have released 4 albums: a self-titled album, Elephonic Rhapsodies, Water Music and Smash Hits. The band’s page on Mulatta Records proudly states that the band is comprised of “Elephants in the Thai jungle playing specially designed musical instruments. The elephants improvise the music themselves. The Thai Elephant Orchestra was co-founded by Richard Lair of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang and performer/composer Dave Soldier”.

As you would probably expect from music improvised and performed entirely by animals, The Thai Elephant Orchestra’s music is mostly just noise. There isn’t really much artistry or cohesion to it, although in this case the gimmick of having music created by animals doesn’t diminish the product itself. Elephonic Rhapsodies is on Spotify, so if you’re interested then you might want to check it out.

The Rock Cats

Aaaand here’s where we get more into the gimmicky stuff, if you can believe that after Caninus and Hatebeak. The Rock Cats are an off-shoot of The Acro-Cats, which is essentially a cat circus. Each show ends with a performance by The Rock Cats, which is dubbed “the only cat band in existence”. The sarcastic reviews on the band’s Wikipedia page are incredible:

-“An unpredictable assortment of instrument clanging, and rarely does it sound like the cats are playing the same song, let alone an actual, fully realized piece of music.”
-“Really, really fun way to spend an afternoon”
-A reviewer of a 2013 show in New Orleans was critical of the band’s musicality, and complained that the advertised “seasonal carol selections such as ‘A Cat in a Manger’ and ‘Catnip Roasting on an Open Fire'” never materialized.”
-“What they lacked in technical skill, they certainly made up for in rock ‘n’ roll catitude”.

The band also has a website which is pure 90s Geocities cheese and which apparently isn’t updated with any regularity because it has a listing of the band members, but the front-cat, Tuna, has been dead for a year now (and this despite having a listing for a show that happened a couple days ago as of this writing). The site also has a music video of the cats (and a rooster, and a gopher) playing music which seems to be 100% legit, although edited heavily to make it listenable if the band’s reviews are anything to go by. Unlike the other entries on this list, they do not have any music up on Spotify.

The Jingle Cats

…and of course there’s an entire Christmas-themed band of cats out there. Unlike The Rock Cats, The Jingle Cats merely meow over humans playing Christmas carols in a similar manner to No Grave But the Sea for Dogs. They released three albums, Meowy Christmas, Here Comes Santa Claws and a non-Christmas album, Rhythm and Mews, all three of which are available on Spotify. They also have a website which is somehow even worse than The Rock Cats’ was.

Christmas albums tend to be gimmicky enough as it is, but having cats as the vocalists just adds a whole new dimension of gimmickry to the proceedings. The music itself is very generic holiday fare, almost like something from a karaoke version of the songs, and the cat vocals grow tiresome very quickly, especially when they are arranged in a very high pitch. Also, for some reason, there’s a dog on lots of these songs as well, despite this being a supposedly cat-based band. As painful as the Christmas albums are, Rhythm and Mews is a special kind of insane, featuring cat-based covers of “Secret Agent Man“, “Home on the Range” and the freaking “The Star Spangled Banner“.

I… I’m not sure what else to say beyond that. Maybe we should just stop with these animal bands, or at least the cat-based ones, okay?

Best Reese’s Products

If you know me personally, then there are two facts about me that are no secret. The first is that I’m a big fan of the Unpopular Opinion podcast network. The second is that a love Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (to the level where my lovely girlfriend spoiled me with a basket full of Reese products for Valentine’s day). These two loves happened to cross-over around Halloween when an episode of Unpop’s List! Cast! program went up polling on the worst Halloween treats of all time. Obviously Reese’s were not on that list, but the hosts did posit their favourite Halloween treats as an aside and it was basically unanimously agreed that Reese’s would take the crown if they put it to a vote. This, of course, got me thinking about just which Reese’s product is the best of the best and I quickly realized that I could make a Top 10 just off the top of my head if I wanted to. But why stop there? Why not just list every Reese product I’ve tried in order from best to worst?

For this list, I’m going through the list of Reese’s products on Wikipedia and including a couple other products which aren’t on the list. Obviously I haven’t been keeping a list of all the stuff I’ve tried through my life so I might have forgotten products if they’re not on that list, but this will help jog the memory. I mean, hell, just slap a Reese’s logo on your product and you’ve already piqued my interest, so I’ve got a ton of material to draw from.

Also, I’m going to exclude the original Peanut Butter Cups from this list. They’re just classic, and more than stand on their own.

(Dis-)Honourable Mentions

Reese Mix – These things are a bloody insult, simply from an economic perspective. I’ll try many Reese’s products, but these are the only one that has tempted me multiple times, but I just can’t get over how much they try to charge you for a small package of Minis, Pieces, peanuts and pretzel bites. The worst part is that for $20 you could buy up all the ingredients separately and make your own Mix cheaper than it would cost for an equivalent “official” packaging. Most Reese’s products can justify themselves because you’re never going to be able to replicate that perfect taste yourself, but Reese Mix is so unnecessary by junk food standards that I can’t even bring myself to pay for one.

World’s Largest & Half-Pound Cup – These two products are just gimmicks. I mean, I’m already demonstrating how much I love Reese’s products, but c’mon, that’s too much chocolate. No one actually eats these things… right? I mean, not by themselves? These are meant for sharing? Like, maybe once on a dare, but never as a regular purchase…? I’m going to just leave it at that before I have an existential crisis.

MegaLoad Bars – These aren’t technically Reese’s products, but I feel like they’re a curiosity that should be mentioned. I’ve encountered these things in a couple gas stations up here in Canada and while they look amazing, they’ve never been nearly as good as they look. They’re decent and worth the occasional purchase as a curiosity, but could certainly be improved if they actually were using Reese’s products instead of generic knock-offs.

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s get into the countdown…

18) Puffs – Breakfast cereals are already towing a fine line to justify themselves as something other than sugary junk food, but Puffs just shit all over that line and head into something that’s just disgusting. I mean, the tag line when I was a kid was that they’re “Reese, for breakfast!” Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms at least pretended like they weren’t sugar in a bowl, but Reese Puffs don’t even put up a pretense about what this product is. I had these maybe once as a kid, and even then I was not taken in. Of all the things on this list, if I had to sacrifice one Reese product for the good of humanity, this is the one I’d cast into the fire.

17) Whipps – I swear that I tried one of these things when I was a kid, but I can’t remember it at all, it didn’t leave any sort of impression on me. I don’t recall it being bad, but there’s basically nothing else on this list that I wouldn’t rather have instead (y’know, aside from Reese Puffs).


16) Reese Bar – I’ve had these things a few times, but I’ve never been particularly impressed. Maybe it’s just me, but these things are just too big and push over the limit where you’re getting “too much” sweetness. Plus they don’t hold together very well, I always find that if you try to break pieces off of the bar it caves in on itself. They’re certainly edible, but I never buy them as anything more than a curiosity.

15) Blizzard – So I actually tend to order a Reese’s Blizzard when I go to Diary Queen, but I definitely have my issues with them. For one thing, Dairy Queen Blizzards are just stupidly expensive in general, and just keep getting worse year after year. Furthermore, if I order anything more than a medium, I just feel gross afterwards. I mean, you’re basically eating 3 or more packs of Peanut Butter cups, in addition to the ice cream itself. I have literally gotten sick from all the sweetness afterwards… not that that stops me from ordering them again, but the fact that these things literally can make me feel sick makes them harder to recommend.

14) Minis – They aren’t quite as satisfying as a full-sized Peanut Butter Cup, or once which has been wrapped for that matter, but Reese Minis are a nice little treat. Plus the fact that they come in resealable bags is great, helps to make them last and not over-indulge in them. There are 2 varieties of Minis available too, regular and white chocolate. The variety is nice, but I tend to lean towards the white chocolate – for one thing, I think that they taste better, and Hershey’s rarely sells white chocolate Reese products north of the border so I’ll take whatever avenue I can get for that fix.

13) Pieces – These things are iconic, probably the second most popular candy Reese products after the original peanut butter cups, in part thanks to the textbook usage of product placement in E.T. While I enjoy Reese’s Pieces, I have tended to find that they’re inconsistent. Sometimes I’ll buy a box and they just don’t taste all that great. I’m not sure if it’s inconsistent recipes or what, but when I was in high school I’d have this happen on a few different occasions, so it was like a flip of the coin on whether I was actually going to enjoy my box of Pieces or not and it soured me on them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still have Pieces on occasion, but I don’t care for them nearly as much as some other people might.

12) Eggs, Hearts & Christmas Bells – I’m going to use this entry to cover a couple seasonal variants which don’t really deserve to have their own separate entries, since they’re basically just the same product in different packaging each time. The Christmas Bells, Valentines Hearts and Easter Eggs are essentially seasonal versions of Reese’s Miniatures – small, individually wrapped peanut butter cups with a shape based on the season they’re made for. They’re great, and if you find some of these in your stocking or for your Easter egg hunt, you know that whoever bought the chocolates was slaying it this year. Always a welcome gift, although the one thing keeping them a bit lower is that, as seasonal releases, they price gouge you for them.

11) Peanut Butter Cups with Crunchy Peanut Butter – I’m not sure if I’m just not remembering these things very well, but the big “crunchy peanut butter” gimmick of this product never actually stood out to me – they basically just tasted like a normal Peanut Butter Cup to me, just maybe a bit less smooth. It’s a small difference I guess, but not much to justify having a whole other variation on the market. I think Reese agreed because I haven’t seen one of these things in years and imagine they were probably discontinued. It’s too bad though, just remembering that these exist makes me hungry for one…

10) Miniatures – On first glance, these might just seem to be the same thing as the aforementioned Minis, but there are a couple notable differences which make them stand out. Miniatures are all individually wrapped and maybe about twice the size of an individual Mini, which might not seem like a huge difference, but for whatever reason, Miniatures just taste better to me. Plus, they come in regular and white chocolate versions, which just helps to vault them over the seasonal chocolates in my opinion.

9) Christmas Trees & Easter Eggs – At first glance, these just appear to be low-effort, cheap holiday cash-ins (hell, that “tree” is more reminiscent of a chocolate turd). However, these things over-deliver in a big way. Plus, unlike most seasonal chocolate, they actually tend to be priced reasonably. The fact that they come in regular and white chocolate varieties is just icing on the cake, I used to buy these things around Christmastime when I was in university. I would not be surprised if I was eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Tree while writing some of the earliest posts on this blog.

8) Swoops – I can remember back when these things came out and was saddened when I heard that they were discontinued. If you never got the chance to try one, imagine a Pringle made entirely of chocolate and with that Reese’s peanut butter mixed in. Suffice to say, they were delicious and it was easy to forget just how much chocolate you were consuming as you scarfed them down.

7) Big Cups – Unlike some of the Reese’s products I mentioned earlier, while Big Cups certainly tow the fine line between decadence and overindulgence, I feel like they strike the perfect balance. I definitely feel like I’m pushing some limits with a Big Cup, but I never feel like they’re too much or like I’m going to be sick or disgusted with myself for having one.

6) Sticks – It shocks me just how good these damn things are. If you thought peanut butter and chocolate were a match made in heaven, Reese Sticks prove that 3 sticks of wafer definitely make a case for a hot threesome. Just… these things are brilliant. They sell smaller versions in the same sorts of bags as Minis too, and they are so addictive. If you’ve never tried these, then seriously, freaking do it.

5) Crunchers – These might be the most surprising entry on this list for me. I saw a package of these at a gas station and, similarly to Reese Mix, the price seemed rather steep but I figured I’d try them out. The price is definitely a bit high, but bloody hell are they worth the cost. They’re kind of like little, delicious bite-sized clusters and just writing about them is making me want to eat the package of them that I have in a bag nearby. (Post-script: Yeah, within 5 minutes I had that package opened and was scarfing them down greedily.)

4) Breyers Reese Ice Cream – Breyers’ Reese ice cream has some big legs up on the Reese Blizzard which propel it so far up the list. For one thing, a container of Breyers ice cream can be purchased for about the price of a Blizzard, particularly when they go on sale for around $4. Secondly, the ice cream is flavoured to actually complement the peanut butter cups in there, which makes it taste better than a Blizzard in general. Thirdly, you control the portioning, so you shouldn’t ever feel sick when eating this. Whenever I see this product on sale at the grocery store, I love to pick it up because I know that I’ll get to enjoying it on a hot day.

3) Pieces Eggs – It’s getting close to Easter season now, and the most exciting part of that is that the Easter chocolates are going on sale. For most people, that means Cadbury Mini Eggs, but for me that means Pieces Eggs. While Pieces themselves don’t set my world on fire, Pieces Eggs are a whole other animal. To put it simply, Pieces Eggs are quite a bit bigger than a regular Pieces, so they’re far more satisfying to me. The only real issue is that, like all Easter Egg chocolates, they charge you through the nose for them. Said said, I just paid nearly $20 for a big bag of Pieces Eggs… that pains me, but it’s (just barely) worth it and that bag will probably last me for months.

2) Big Cups with Reese’s Pieces – Who is the diabolical candy-making genius who thought up this decadent combination? This is just such a brilliant mixture that I have to applaud it, even if it might be enough to break that delicate balance that Big Cups strike and put them on the side of over-indulgence. They’re as good as they look, but I definitely feel some shame afterwards for how decadent they are. That said, if Big Cups with Reese’s Pieces are too much for you, they’re coming out with a Miniatures version very shortly, which could actually be the perfect way to consume these without feeling icky afterwards.

1) White Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups – Dear God, white chocolate Peanut Butter Cups are absolutely amazing. There’s only 2 of these in a package, compared to 3 in a regular package of Peanut Butter Cups. When I was in my early teens, they sold these in Canada, but now they’re bloody impossible to find here. Recently, at Ottawa Geek Market, there was some enterprising international candy-seller selling these things for $5 EACH, and I love these so much that I begrudgingly bought 3 of them. Hell, I’ve considered dropping $60 or more of a whole box of them on Ebay, because they are just that good. The white chocolate Minis aren’t nearly the same, and while the white chocolate Trees and Miniatures get close, they’re still hard to get ahold of and nothing quite matches just how good a white chocolate Peanut Butter Cup is. It wasn’t even a contest for me to place this entry, it was basically just a question of how I was going to fill out the remaining slots beneath this.

And there you go, my list of the best Reese’s products. I like doing irreverent lists like this on occasion just to break up the usual content on the blog. I don’t want to just pigeonhole myself into writing exclusively about pop culture or social politics, so it’s nice to get a break like this… especially at a time when my whole warning about witch hunting is starting to publicly blow up in #MeToo’s face and we might have reached the tipping point where the public truly turns on the movement. Whoops.