Sunday, April 16, 2017

Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci
Rating: PG
Genre: Family, Musical, Fantasy
Runtime: 2 hr. 9 min.

Let me start off this review by stating the obvious. The original Beauty and the Beast is an animated classic. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards. It also stood a chance of winning that coveted title had Silence of the Lambs not released that year. The animation is revolutionary, and still looks magnificent in the remastered blu-ray versions. The ballroom sequence is one of those moments in filmmaking that's breathtaking and forces even the most critical of filmgoers to simply sit quietly in awe. In short, this newly released live-action adaptation has a lot to live up to.

Beauty and the Beast starts things off on a familiar note with the narrated tale of a priviliged Prince (Dan Stevens) whom denies shelter to an elderly hag. Of course, this individual is a beautiful enchantress in disguise who then curses the Prince and the other pampered attendants of his party. Turned into a Beast, the Prince must now hope to find true love before his 21st birthday or the castle will crumble under the spell and his attendants forever turned into household items. In the new film this moment is played out in a more extravagant series of events -rather than the simpler stained-glass motif- and showcases the film's first major departure from the original feature.

The film sticks to a predictable path as we meet Belle (Emma Watson), Gaston (Luke Evans), LeFou (Josh Gad), and Belle's father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). A tremendous ensemble (made moreso by the addition of the castle inhabitants, more on that below) the cast in filled with star-studded and commendable actors. Watson's vocals, however, do not quite lift beyond the music during this opening composition, and while she is definitely trying her best, it is a minor disappointment in what is otherwise one of the better choreographed and shot sequences in the film.

The rest of the cast is mostly able to hit their high notes, though Luke Evans also struggles at times to hit the deeper notes required. Evans also lacks the traditional build of Gaston, so it's a bit offputting when you see him lift not only a fair maiden, but the substantial LeFou as well. Still, it doesn't get in the way of the film's themes so those who have been complaining about that aspect of the casting should sit easy. Josh Gad, while admittedly overwrought as an actor, is the most practiced singer of the whole bunch and even though his pipes don't recieve the workout they deserve, he more than stands as a musical highlight.

Belle's father leaves on a trip to the market (wherever that is) and ends up seeking out the castle for shelter from weather. Belle herself eventually makes her way to the castle to find her father imprisoned by the Beast. She takes her father's place in the prison cell, and the film continues as expected minus a few additional songs and plot elements, which don't do much beyond pad runtime.

The familiar elements are mostly performed with aplomb, since the castle cast is also filled with droppable names like Ewan McGregor as Lumière the Candle, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth the Clock, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts the Teapot. McGregor is particularly notable as his commanding croon envelopes the viewer during the spectacular "Be Our Guest" number. The whole affair is gorgeously animated with tongue and cheek references to the original -serously, why can't Belle actually get something to eat?- and might even top it in spectacle.

The realistic representation used for the household characters is brilliantly executed, but the realism is hindered when we come upon the Beast himself. The Beast is largely animated, which includes facial features. The result is not only unpleasant but distracts from the emotional connection we are to feel between Belle and the Beast as Watson struggles to interact with him. A minor use of prosthetics on the Beast, such as his mane or horns, would have gone a long way to making him feel more life-like. As it stands, the choice affects the most important seen in the whole film: the ballroom dance.

The eponymous song starts, but instead of the events on screen matching the song -as they do in the original- the music seems superfluous and exists only as something "emotional" to play over the event. The ballroom is drab with only a few flourishes instead of the gorgeous golden hall. The dancing sequence is messy as cuts are used in order to get the right shots between Belle and the Beast. The whole moment feels like an ordeal rather than cinematic and emotional. It's easily the biggest disappointment of the whole film.

Despite this, Dan Stevens does a fantastic job providing voicework to the Beast. His interpretation is spot-on, and the new solo song the Beast sings is definitely another highlight of the film. If only he wasn't impeded by the hollow use of animation.

The latter half of the film plays it safe, and the final battle in particular brings nothing new to the table. As I noted earlier, there are some additional scenes involving the enchantress, the fate of Belle's mother, and some new songs but none of them add up to anything worthwhile beyond stretching a brisk 90 minute tale to over two hours.

Beauty and the Beast builds upon the original Disney animated tale, but falls short of finding it's own foothold and becoming a truly relevant release. It's a beautiful film, but a fairly flat one, and the original remains my personal preferred version should I revisit this tale as old as time. 3/5

- The Catalyst

Monday, April 10, 2017

Top Albums of 2016

Here it finally is! I apologize for the super long wait. It's been a busy few months. 2016 -despite all the not-so-good- brought us some excellent musical candy. Let's kick things off with the top EPs/Splits!


While EPs and splits make up a comparatively smaller margin of what I listen to, I found myself consistently coming back to a few throughout the year.

Runner-Up: "Resonance: Crimson Void" - Mare Cognitum / Aureole

Genre: Atmospheric Black Metal
Release Date: August 10th

"The Rigel Axiom" - Dynatron

Genre: Darksynth/Retrowave
Release Date: November 4th

Honorable Mentions

2016 had so many incredible releases it's hard to give each it's due. As it stands I have dwindled the list of honorable mentions down to just 25 (yes 25!) albums that barely fell out of the top 10. In alphabetical order by artist:

Title Artist Genre Link
"Kodama" Alcest Blackgaze/Shoegaze/Black Metal
"Command Your Weather" Big Business Progressive Sludge/Stoner Rock
"Welcome to the Graveyard" Castle Heavy Metal/Doom Metal
"Honest Life" Courtney Marie Andrews Country
"Arctic Thunder" Darkthrone Black Metal
"Landless" Eight Bells Doom Metal/Black Metal
"Old Terrors" Esben and the Witch Post-Rock/Gothic Rock
"Non Paradisi" GosT Darksynth/Synthwave
"Dead Revolution" Hammers of Misfortune Progressive Metal
"Motivator" High Spirits Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
"衷赤​/​Oath of Allegiance" Holyarrow Epic Black Metal
"Seraphical Euphony" Hyperion Melodic Black Metal
"Bloodshed Across The Empyrean Altar Beyond The Celestial Zenith" Inquisition Black Metal
"Paradise Gallows" Inter Arma Post/Sludge/Black/Death Metal
"Luminiferous Aether" Mare Cognitum Atmospheric Black Metal
"Epsilon Aurigae (2015) / Zeta Reticuli (2016)" MONOLITHE Doom Metal
"Mother Feather" Mother Feather Pop/C*ck-Rock
"Tired of Tomorrow" Nothing Shoegaze/Post-punk
"The Uncanny Valley" Perturbator Darksynth/Synthwave
"Ezekiel's Hags" Seven Sisters of Sleep Sludge Metal
"A Piece for Mind and Mirror" Skuggsjá Neofolk/Progressive Black Metal Influence
"Chained in Oblivion" Spirit Adrift Doom Metal
"Meta" Thy Catafalque Avant-Garde
"Terminal Redux" Vektor Progressive Thrash Metal
"Mystical Future" Wildernessking Atmospheric Black Metal/Blackgaze

The Countdown

10. "Dauðra Dura" - Forndom

Genre: Scandanavian Folk
Release Date: January 29th

Forndom is a solo project focused on recreating traditional Scandanavian folk music with few embellishments. "Dauðra Dura" (and debut EP "Flykt") both accomplish this task with simple, yet provocative, tracks which focus the listener in a time long passed. Simple drums, choral elements, and traditional instrumentation including strings and horns guide the listener through the wilderness. It's an undemanding listen, but the emotions brought up through the pure arrangement of these instruments are powerful and undeniable. A necessary listen for fans of the genre, or those looking to plant themselves in another world for a while.

9. "Northen" - SIG:AR:TYR

Genre: Folk/Pagan Black Metal
Release Date: April 15th

A solo project of Daemonskald up until 2012, SIG:AR:TYR, is now a full fledged studio band. With the added manpower, the group takes the more extreme styles adopted in "Godsaga", and push them to the apex. There is a definitive improvement not only in production, but in musicianship as solos rise above murky, trembling riffs. The acoustic intro to "Skraeling" slowly gives way to pounding riffs, and finally evolves into one of the most addicting riffs I've heard in a while from the genre outside of Inquisition's Dagon. Daemonskald's raspy vocals complete the onslaught. Following this adventure, "Krossanes" kicks things off with a windswept riff that moves along like a viking horde prepped for battle sailing across the sea toward the unknown. The album perfectly exemplifies a nordic journey; one that's not easy to return from without eventually venturing out once again.

8. "Pillars of Ash" - Black Tusk

Genre: Sludge Metal
Release Date: January 29th

Black Tusk hail from the Savannah, Georgia region which spawned household names like Kylesa, Baroness, and the all-mighty Mastodon. Each of these bands started sludgier, and slowly moved towards other genres, with Black Tusk infusing their sludgy, swamp metal with punk. "Pillars of Ash" is the band's best outing to date with incredible variations in riffs, and a step-up in the vocals department by the whole band. The album sears with intensity, and the song structure varies wherein repeat listens are welcomed if not encouraged; this has been an issue I found with their previous releases. "Pillars" is also a product of love as the group put the album together in the wake of bassist Jonathan Athon's passing in 2014. The anger and frustration is felt throughout the album, and everyone feels at top form trying to do right by Athon. The future of the band is still a bit of a wildcard, but "Pillars" definitely leaves the group open to continue to expand their horizons.

7. "The Fall of Hearts" - Katatonia

Genre: Depressive Metal
Release Date: May 20th

Katatonia have had a fair breadth of styles in their time as a band moving between black and death metal genres, and most recently with "Dead End Kings" the band has adopted a more depressive style. Not to say the music isn't filled with majestic choruses and musicianship. "The Fall of Hearts" builds on the style implementing more stylistic solos and acoustic accompaniments (more than likely influenced by the acoustic recomposing of "Dead End Kings" called "Dethroned and Uncrowned" which the band worked on between the two albums). Many may vie for a more extreme Katatonia, but the group has proven themselves with their new direction, and currently wear the crown.

6. "Winter's Gate" - Insomnium

Genre: Melodic Death Metal
Release Date: September 23rd

Insomnium are the epitome of melodic death metal. Ferocious with a keen sense of scope the group continues to improve. "Winter's Gate" is a 40 minute sprawling epic, which showcases the band at their very best. Utilizing spoken storytelling and grandiose symphonics alongside crunchy riffs and savage solos the group can't be touched when it comes to spectacle. Niilo Sevänen's rough bellow mixes with Ville Friman's clean howl to ignite a spark. The music is beautifully composed, and it's an album that's impossible to turn off once it starts; the listener like a child eagerly awaiting the tale to be told again and again.

5. "Värähtelijä" - Oranssi Pazuzu

Genre: Heavy Metal/Doom Metal
Release Date: February 26th

Oranssi Pazuzu have always been a bit of an off-kilter group with their original blend of extreme metal and space-rock psychedelia. Enter "Värähtelijä". A dark canvas. Pure blackened diabolical chaos. A light flickers. Fall into the shadow. Witness the luscious, thick, fuzzy space beyond the realm of space and time. Follow the whispers. They are waiting.

4. "The Death of All Things" - Beastwars

Genre: Sludge/Stoner Metal
Release Date: April 4th

In 2011, Beastwars released their eponymous debut to widespread acclaim for interweaving traditional sludge and stoner elements with primal drum beats and singer Matt Hyde's now signature howl to induce a sense of apocalyptic dread. The band's follow-up, "Blood Becomes Fire" solidified the band as a force in not only their native New Zealand, but internationally as well. Set to break free from the underground shackles with their third LP, the aptly titled "The Death of All Things", the band announced that one of the founding members, drummer Nathan Hickey, would be moving away and leaving the group. As a silver-lining, despite being the group's final album -at least for now- "The Death of All Things" finds them in top notch form. Opener "Call to the Mountain" sets the stage with hypnotic riffage interlaced with Hyde's howl. Hickey's simple drum intro into "Witches" pulls the listener in as hazy riffs slowly rise building to one of the band's finest denouements. "Black Days" picks things back up with a pummeling riff, and out of character for the band, "The Devil Took Her" offers an acoustic outing. Finally, "The Death of All Things" wraps up the album with melancholic fury. The album might be their last, but Beastwars put in their all.

3. "Hunter" - Khemmis

Genre: Doom Metal
Release Date: October 21st

Khemmis are one of the torchbearers of the current doom renaissance after releasing their debut album, 2015's "Absolution". Now, only a little over a year later, they have unleashed "Hunted". The album is soaked in riffage, indelible vocals, and hauntingly beatiful lyricism. "Candelight" opens with a pounding riff, but it's when Phil's vocals enter that the true magic happens. The chorus is incredibly catchy for a doom track, and the listener can't help but chant along. Soon, however, the darkness rises, and Ben's growl seeps in during a nearly two minute breakdown, which easily induces shivers. When the light finally resurfaces we are met with a slow rise towards Phil's chant over a fiery solo. Eventually we get back to that pounding riff, which slowly outros the song. Hit repeat. Hit repeat. Hit repeat. The following track, "Three Gates", picks up the pieces and blows out the door with a punk-infused galloping riff. The album finale, "Hunted", is nearly 15 minutes of perfection, which sets us up for an epic reveal. Some doom enthusiasts may look at "Hunted" and find that it plays it too 'safe' with the composition, but the album is so perfect in its execution on all levels that it shows that progressive music can come from perfecting that which already exists. And Khemmis, well, they're pretty damn perfect.

2. "Metachtonia" - Thrawsunblat

Genre: Folk Black Metal
Release Date: June 17th

Thrawsunblat was founded by Joel Violette and deceased Woods of Ypres singer David Gold. A few years after Gold's departure, Ray Amitay (Immortal Bird, Eight Bells) took his place on drums, and bassist Brendan Hayter (Blood of the Gods, Obsidian Tongue) joined the group for 2013's "Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings". Following a few EPs later, the band released their second full-lenght entitled, "Metachthonia", which takes a look at the "electric age" of man and his dream to move beyond the world he inhabits. Imbued with thematic folk musical elements exhibiting man's connection with nature, the group also heavily utilizes the extreme elements of black metal to display man's internal and external struggles with moving into a technological age. Each song is broken into three distinct parts wherein the lyrics tell the story with little use of a repeating chorus; instead using song structure to fit elements together. "She Who Names the Stars" stands as a triumph of song making. Opening as a hopeful outing with clean singing by Joel, it slowly evolves into an impasssioned internal struggle with a finale worth witnessing. "Metachthonia" is an incredible accomplishment, which moves beyond simple descriptions. The musicianship is exceptional, the composition impeccable, and the lyrics are emotional and perceptive. It's a journey I find myself repeating time and again.

1. "Hour of the Nightingale" - Trees of Eternity

Genre: Atmospheric Doom Metal
Release Date: November 11th

Trees of Eternity released their debut and final album this year entitled, "Hour of the Nightingale". Sadly, singer and songwriter Aleah Stanbridge (Swallow the Sun) passed away due to cancer during recording, but the group decided to release the album in her honor. A project between Standbridge and her partner Juha Raivio (Swallow the Sun) the album is an incredibly emotional record made even more so under the circumstances. Kai Hahto's (Wintersun) drumming is spot on, and brothers Fredrik and Mattias Norrman (October Tide) add plenty of dimensions to the music. It's Standbridge's vocals, however, that make this melancholic adventure so heartwrenchingly beautiful. She is sorrowful, mournful, but most importantly hopeful. It might be hard to judge an album based on the events that surround it, but when something as impassioned as this album is released and we get a look into the soul of such a phenomenal singer in her last moments, it's hard not to feel verklempt and want to wallow in her sonic embrace.

So there we have it. My Top Albums of 2016. What was your favorite last year? Comment below! Look forward to more reviews coming soon!

- The Catalyst