Inu-Oh: A Japanese History Musical

Man, I really hate seeing adaptations of stuff before reading the source material. The phrase “the book is better than the film” cannot be truer in the anime world, a medium notorious for cutting corners and taking creative liberties that ruin the heart of the thing. However, I had no choice with Inu-Oh, based on one of the stories in a book called Tales of the Heike; a book not licensed for legal Western use to my knowledge. Thing is, though, that it’s by Science Saru, and they have a vision for it that’s only possible in the Twenty-First Century. 

In Inu-Oh, a blind biwa player named Tomona meets the titular Inu-Oh, a person who was disfigured because of a curse. It turns out that the latter’s curse can be lifted if he performs the stories of the fallen Heike soldiers from important battles throughout Japanese history (or, in the context of the movie, relatively recent news). Nothing left to do but to form a traveling theater troupe and become famous!

Science Saru really is an excellent animation studio. This is the third movie of theirs I have seen, and all three of them are drastically different visually. Ride Your Wave looked aggressively generic, while The Night is Short, Walk on Girl looked all weird and liquidy. Inu-Oh is like Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya on steroids. It combines traditional ink-brush-y art styles with modern anime visuals to make a stunning visual experience. The mouths of characters might look off-putting to some, but that’s just manga legend Taiyo Matsumoto for you. Yes, the creator of Tekkonkinkreet did the character designs.

Speaking of characters, they are no doubt the weakest parts of the movie. The only real characters are the two protagonists, and they’re pretty simple for the most part. Honestly, there really isn’t much to say about them. However, that’s okay this time around, since the whole point of the movie is the music. 

By the way, Inu-Oh is a rock opera. It doesn’t take long for Tomona—hence known as Tomoari—to don garish makeup and glamorous clothes like someone who didn’t know whether or not they wanted to cosplay as Gene Simmons or a Buddhist priest. Inu-Oh’s dancing rivals that of Michael Jackson, while the troupe somehow manages to create show-stopping stage effects that match that of this century despite it being a thousand years before. Although there are only three musical numbers, they are long, intricate, and utterly moving. 

However, all of that is shallow compared to Inu-Oh’s voice actor… at least his Japanese voice actor. Inu-Oh is voiced by none other than Avu-chan, vocalist of Japan’s famous glam rock band, Queen Bee. I have spoken of them once or twice, and sadly, I ended up falling out of their music despite how much I wanted to enjoy it. Despite how little I care for Queen Bee to this day, I’ve dearly missed Avu-chan’s utterly amazing vocalwork. It was bittersweet and nostalgic to hear them again for the first time in years, and boy, they REAAAAALLY go ham in this movie. Inu-Oh is one of the reasons to never watch dubs. There is no way in hell anyone can replace Avu-chan in their role, and I feel sorry for whoever did in the dub.

If there is any real flaw with the movie, it’s that there isn’t much closure. To be as vague as possible, the main protagonists do find closure in a way, but for the most part, that’s it. I really can’t elaborate further than this. It has a bittersweet and anti-climactic end, but it’s thankfully not on the level of abrupt nonsense of Ghibli movies. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.75/10

Inu-Oh is a truly spectacular movie. It is an example of the creativity of animation and why animation is better than anything in Hollywood. It also shows the power and passion of a nation that actually cares about animation in the first place. I could pretty much recommend it to anyone… except for those who are triggered by gore. There are only a couple of scenes, but they’re still there.

STILL Heavy and Colorful: More Diversity in Metal

I know that the National Day of Racial Healing was four days ago, but… well, I have no excuse. That’s just what happens when you only do one post a week, and that day of the week isn’t on the holiday. In any case, this may or may not be the last time I do something for the National Day of Racial Healing, since a lot of bands like this are—sadly—still quite under the radar. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, though!


Bloodywood

A literal month after I published the post from last year, something truly miraculous happened. A 100% independent band from New Delhi, India, unleashed its first album—Rakshak—and actually took the world by storm! For once, I’m not alone in loving a weird niche band from East Jabip (even though most people still liked Lamb of God, Slipknot, Lorna Shore, etc.’s albums a lot more by comparison).

What makes Bloodywood special? Well, kind of everything about them. As a folk metal band, they incorporate heavy modern instruments alongside traditional Indian ones. The music is exceptionally well-composed; and they’re not afraid to throw in some electronic sounds to spice things up. The lyrics are also exceptional, going into themes like personal struggles and politics. In fact, I think Bloodywood is perhaps the only band able to discuss the latter without trying to divide the community like an overtly Left or Rightist band would. These lyrics are conveyed—you guessed it—exceptionally well by Jayant Bhadula, who growls in Hindi, alongside Raoul Kerr’s rapping prowess.


Cemican

The only Mexican musicians I listen to other than Mariachi Cobre in EPCOT’s Mexico pavilion, Cemican is a unique folk metal band that uses Mesoamerican instruments in their heavy sound. They have elaborate costumes that represent their native roots, and look fun to see in concert, based on the clips they’ve shared on Facebook. They really get the ball rolling on their third album: In Ohtli Teoyohtica In Miquiztli. They haven’t released anything new since COVID, but have been pretty busy with gigs, so they seem to be doing alright for such a niche band. Hopefully, you’ll be a fan of theirs as well.


Blackbraid

Of course, Mexico isn’t the only country with marginalized Indigenous people (well, technically, EVERY nation has some but I’m just trying to make a segue here). Sgah’gahsowáh, the sole band member of Blackbraid, is another excellent example of native people going heavy. Hailing from the Adirondacks, this man delivers top-dollar black metal (with the occasional woodwind accompaniment) and has left a lot of people wanting more. Fortunately, as someone who sold VERY well on Bandcamp, we’re pretty likely to get more in the future. Time to be good noodles and wait!


Bloody Tyrant

Taiwan has had a passionate metal scene since its important pioneer band, Cthonic. However, the country in general is still pretty slept on, even in the metal community. Sounds like a perfect place for underground enthusiasts to search, with Bloody Tyrant being one potential result of said search.

It took a while for them to get the ball rolling though. Their first album, while still enjoyable, is pretty garden variety black metal, but over time, they started to incorporate the Eastern folk instrumentation that makes them stand out. Each album has gotten better, with their most recent record from 2020 being a legitimate knockout. I can’t wait to hear what’s next!


hanabie.

LEWD WARNING for this this one!

Of course, I HAVE to gush over at least one Japanese band; at least this isn’t one I’ve discussed before, like with last year’s entry. As much as I hate the excessive amount of metal genres, I feel like hanabie. (yes, the period is part of their name) should be referred to as “otakucore”. They attack with aggressive metalcore energy, dual vocalists, and an uncharacteristically silly vibe. A lot of their song titles have to do with being nerds and hikikomori (and presumably the lyrics as well?)—hence the “otaku” descriptor from before—with the occasional cultural commentary. They’re pretty new to the scene, but they’re off to a strong start, and the prestigious Dutch metal festival they’ve been booked for later this year will probably earn them international attention.


Te Ruki

Thank goodness for Black Metal Promotion; they know how to help the little guys.

Despite the wild success of Disney’s Moana, Polynesian culture is still dying in this world. A new hope emerged in 2018 when the wildly successful New Zealand Maori metal band, Alien Weaponry, began their career in reclaiming their people’s culture. While that band is all well and good, it turns out that “Polynesian” is an umbrella term for numerous Pacific islanders. The people of French Polynesia are in even BIGGER danger; according to Te Ruki’s page on Encyclopaedia Metallum, only a few thousand people can speak their unique Tumutoan language. As far as I know, they are this ethnicity’s only voice in pop culture whatsoever.

Fortunately, it’s a damn powerful voice. In fact, they are everything I’ve wanted out of Alien Weaponry and more. However, unlike their Maori cousins, they employ primal-sounding black metal. Performed with tribal rhythms and singing in their native language, Te Ruki’s rituals knock it out of the park. The cherry on top is the use of TWO sets of percussion instruments: the usual drum kit, along with a set of traditional Polynesian drums.


Heilung?

Does this neofolk group even count? Sure, they represent pre-Christian Europe, which is kinda-sorta a marginalized culture, but… they’re still European. Well, for three White people, their popular music is almost scientifically proven to break barriers. I mean, just look at their policy: “Remember, we are all brothers. All people, beasts, tree and stone and wind, we all descend from the one great being that was always there, before people lived and named it, before the first seed sprouted.” I HAD to include them here, despite them technically not being a metal band (although they are still popular among metalheads, and are signed to a metal-devoted label).

In any case, Heilung is an uncharacteristically bizarre band, considering their immense fame. With pretty much no rules to their music, they can have an epic, melodic masterpiece like the embedded video… or six-plus minutes of Nordic ASMR. They mold the ancient instruments of the past into something new and otherworldly; something beyond comprehension that we can all be baffled by together, regardless of our color and creed. Heilung is one of those groups who can’t NOT be described without hyperbole, because they are just that kind of experience. 


Closing Thoughts

People complain about there being a lack (still) of diversity in popular culture these days, music included. Yet, as you can see from this post and its prequel from last year, that lack isn’t exactly—you know—real. Not to sound rude, but it’s honestly people’s fault for listening to the same small group of household names over and over again and never going out to discover anything new. That’s just how the mainstream works, I guess. This might be the last time I can do a post like this, but if I can find MORE good groups, then we’ll meet each other again next year.

My Final, Definite Top Ten Favorite Japanese Music Artists List

I’ve done at least eighty iterations of this post, because I keep finding new artists and my tastes keep getting more insane. Back in the day, I only liked music from Japan, but that’s changed… somewhat. Now it’s 20% Japan, 75% Europe, and 5% other, but that’s besides the point. Anyway, my older lists were outdated. Just for closure, here’s my real list. NOTE: Contains artists I have talked about before.


10) MYTH & ROID

My first ever exposure to modern music. If it wasn’t for this band, I would still be a classic rock boy. This progressive hard rock duo is everything you could ask for: heavy beats, heavy synth, and emotive female vocal work (with the latter courtesy of the talented Kihow). They’ve been pretty quiet though, with only sparse releases of singles and EPs. I don’t listen to them too often anymore, but I definitely keep my eyes trained on them.


9) nano

My other first exposure to modern music. nano is an anything-goes bilingual hard rock soloist who has pumped bangers for over a decade. I remember when they hardly showed their face, and now… we just know what they look like. What a trooper. Anyway, nano’s music is simple with relatable lyrics, but it’s great stuff. Their talents have been wasted on openings for anime that the community never seems to care about, but whatcha gonna do. The fans still love nano nonetheless.


8) RAISE A SUILEN

I haven’t talked about this band in years, and that’s because I hadn’t listened to them in years! Of all the Bang Dream! outfits, they were the one I was obsessed with. However, I eventually fell out of love with them, mainly because right after their debut came out I had discovered Amaranthe, a band that’s been doing the same type of music for longer and better. However, as superior as a lot of bands are to RAS, it turns out I still love RAS all the same.

RAISE A SUILEN is Bang Dream!‘s heaviest band, standing right on the line that separates rock from metal. Just like Amaranthe and many others, they frequently use electronic elements to give their music extra zing. I honestly don’t know what my beef with them was… and honestly, I’ll cringe at myself if I go back to the old review of their full-length and find out. Feel free to bash my past self if you so choose!


7) Mili

I don’t talk about this experimental J-pop group too often, considering how much I love them; always have. This trio knows how to make any idea into a good one (even a cursed song like ‘Ocean Bby’). With moving piano playing accompanied by all forms of symphonic and electronic effects, and lyrical themes ranging from food to existential horror, Mili almost always delivers. They are a group that feels metal in terms of creativity, despite not sounding metal whatsoever. Of course, vocalist Cassie Wei brings the band’s weird lyrics to life; easily one of J-pop’s best and most underrated voices.


6) BAND-MAID

I’ve gushed about them many times and I’ll do it again, except with even more fervor than ever because they’ve gotten REALLY GOOD lately. BAND-MAID is considered hard rock, but they have a heaviness and aggression that sounds more like metal. They hit hard with an old-school feel, and it hurts so good. Also, vocalist Saiki Kasumi has an amazing singing voice.


5) Lovebites

Being a Lovebites fan was hard once upon a time, but fear not: they have a new bassist. Since their inception, Lovebites has put forth some amazing classic-style metal and power metal. Vocalist Asami has a powerful voice, but her English isn’t the best. Hopefully she’ll improve with time. Anyway, expect me to fan-gush over their first album with the current line-up when it drops later this year.


4) Crossfaith

Apparently, this was my second ever metalcore band. While I felt like they had a rough start (although I might think differently now if I go back to the older stuff), they’ve gotten to the point where they hit hard with metal and meaty synthesizers to create futuristic heaviness. Vocalist Kenta Koie takes some getting used to, especially in the older stuff when his English wasn’t as good, but he definitely shows his capabilities soon enough. In case you’re still intimidated by those extreme vocals, Crossfaith does tend to incorporate more melodic stuff, giving them even more tools to work with. Unfortunately, they’ve seem to be on hiatus, question mark? They generally put out at least SOMETHING every year, even if it’s just a single, but they’ve been quiet lately.

Naturally, with Crossfaith being my second metalcore band, you might surmise that my FIRST metalcore band would ALSO be Japanese. That assumption is resoundingly correct! Only a certain popular Japanese metalcore band would give me my first exposure to extreme music…


3) Crystal Lake

Psyche!


3) PassCode

You really thought I would actually like a POPULAR band? Well, believe it or not, I had a phase where I didn’t like PassCode at all (and now they’re THIS HIGH on the list). The irony is that—of all things—this niche alt-idol outfit truly is my first ever experience with metalcore! Additionally, the first unclean vocals I ever heard came from them. This band is basically why I had a history of underwhelm-ment with BABYMETAL; I found PassCode first. 

My reason for not liking them was because their songs were so intricate at the time I first listened to them. Metal-virgin-me had figured that I didn’t like a song if I couldn’t commit it to memory in the first several listens. Now that I know that’s not the case, I eventually missed and returned to PassCode, more in love with them than ever. I wish I had never left, because the band has only grown, especially after 2020’s Strive (holy crap). Imagine Perfume but with metalcore (or you could just watch the video so you don’t have to imagine it at all).


2) Utsu-P

Utsu-P is special for multiple reasons. One is that he churns out music like a factory, juggling his own solo career with a band AND producing for an idol group. Another reason he is special is because he’s hired an unusual assortment of vocalists… or should I say, Vocaloids. Oh, and did I mention that his music is heavy and chaotic djent metal?! That’s right, Hatsune Miku and her friends sing and even perform death growls in Utsu-P’s staggeringly large catalog of insanity. Right, and the final reason why Utsu-P is special is because his music is simply some of the best that Japan has got. He’d be in the number one spot, if it weren’t for…


1) Broken by the Scream

I’m sure you know of BABYMETAL: one of the—like—three globally, truly mainstream Japanese music artists, earning collabs with death metal icons like Alissa White-Gluz (actually she might be the only death metal icon to collab with them… for now), and having endorsements from veterans like Rob Zombie and the Metal God himself. If you know me, then you know that I find them to be… okay. Broken by the Scream is the same idea—Japanese idol pop with metal—but on steroids. BBTS takes it a step further, focusing exclusively on extreme metal elements. Connoisseurs of the current extreme music scene can easily recognize death metal, metalcore, and even deathcore in BBTS’ practically perfect cacophony of J-pop. It is the kind of chaos like when you boot up Katamari Damacy for the first time… every time I put them on, I am always boggled with how they managed to pull it off.


Conclusion

This went from having Dempagumi.inc and MYTH & ROID having top spots to only the latter being on the list at all. Hooray for metal. Anyway, Japan has amazing music; I don’t know why South Korea gets all the love now. In any case, this is the FINAL LIST. I will not update it even if I actually end up believing the positions need to change (which you won’t know regardless). If you like the embedded MVs—which I actually put in this post unlike the other lists—then check out the artists yourself!

Pompo the Cinephile: A 2D Movie About a 3D Movie

I always have to specify when I’m reviewing an adaptation of something without consulting the source material… mainly so I don’t look like some normie who just watches movies without knowing where they come from. According to MyAnimeList, Pompo the Cinephile is an adaptation of a two-volume webmanga from several years ago. It sure-as-hell doesn’t seem available over in the West, and honestly, something that short could probably be adapted with most of its soul intact. Hopefully. 

In Pompo the Cinephile, movie magic is made in Nyallywood. A classic underdog named Gene Fini works with the titular loli producer herself, Pompo, who specializes in skimpy B-movies. She’s young, but really talented, being the granddaughter of one of the most famous producers in the world. Anyway, despite the movie being named after her, it’s really about Gene’s spiritual journey through the world of film when given the opportunity to shoot a contemporary drama as its director.

Like in actual filmmaking, there’s a LOT to go over, i.e. the actual process of making a film. However…

We can’t talk about that yet! This is an ANIME feature film, so we need to discuss the visuals. As expected with the better budget and less time to fill, Pompo the Cinephile is gorgeous. The movie does all kinds of clever edits that fit with the filmmaking motif it conveys. Every minute of it is full of life and color. 

Anyway, as I said before I was so rudely interrupted by myself, this movie REALLY shows how hard it is to make a movie. You have to book all kinds of things, arrange for flights to the filming location, make sets (or use CG if you’re Hollywood), get sponsors to fund the movie, and… a LOT of editing. Gene’s movie, Meister, ends up clocking in at ninety minutes, but there was SEVENTY-TWO HOURS of raw footage to go through! Is that… realistic?! For the sake of whatever Earth’s resources are used in filming, I hope that’s a gross exaggeration.

With Pompo the Cinephile itself also being ninety minutes, you can expect the story to be simple, approachable, and concise; none of that mundane stuff that boomers get dopamine over. It goes through the whole Murphy’s Law laundry list of hiccups, and they really end up getting down to the wire with this one. Furthermore, it has layers in that Meister has parallels to Gene’s life.

Oops, I talked about Gene’s character arc, which means it’s time to discuss the cast! Pompo is great, in case it wasn’t obvious enough. She’s short, spunky, and eccentric, and is basically the Roy Disney to Gene’s Walt… or something (you know what I mean). We’ve already talked about Gene, but there are more characters than just him and Pompo Natalie is a young girl who seems wholly inadequate to act, yet her existence inspires Pompo to write the screenplay for Meister. She learns the ups and downs of acting, and gets a little spiritual journey of her own. We also have a sad banker named Alan, who ends up compelled to invest in Meister, and learn what it means to run a bank. Wait… then wouldn’t that make HIM the Roy Disney to Gene’s Walt? Crap… my analogies suck.

There are plenty of supporting characters with a lot of charm, like the sleazy other director who works in the B-movies. We also have the famous actors, Mystia and Martin Braddock, the latter of which is the lead role in Meister. The cherry on top with all these characters is that there is NO ROMANCE on set whatsoever. That’s my kind of movie.

We all know how hard it is to make a film, but Pompo the Cinephile never fails to be light-hearted at its core. There’s plenty of good humor while still hitting us in the feels. It also gets pretty psychological and philosophical when the characters dissect what a “movie” really is. I, of course, humbly disagree—at least where live action is concerned—but they do a good job with the dialogue when viewed in a vacuum. What’s important is that it gives a shout-out to introverts by claiming that they are inherently more creative than people who fit in.

Speaking of humbly disagreeing, I feel like the movie would start some interesting debates. Walking out of it, I interpreted that—due to the nature of some later scenes—it was trying to endorse that notion that there is no cost too great for living your dreams. Not even cutting away all of your loved ones, and having disregard for your own life. It’s ironic coming from a place like Japan, where that self-sacrificial lifestyle is leading it to its demise. Maybe there was something I didn’t get; I’m not exactly good at this subtext thing.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Pompo the Cinephile was an excellent movie, even if it didn’t make me appreciate live action cinema any better than I already do (or lack thereof). It does just about everything right, and I’d daresay it was one of the best anime of 2021 (which sure holds water considering how little anime I watch anymore). Do you like anime? Do you like movies? Do you like anime movies? If yes, then watch this one.

Mack’s Music Highlights: Second Half of 2022

This was supposed to be a good year. I was planning to start this paragraph where I say 2022 was turning out to be one of the best years for metal, and that we were FINALLY free of COVID. However, that didn’t happen (thanks, Putin!). Well, at least music is still great. Seriously, though, music REALLY went off the rails this year (and I didn’t even review the popular records that people actually care about!). Get your popcorn; we’re gonna be here a while.


Alestorm: Seventh Rum of a Seventh Rum

The animation has no right to be this good.

Going into this record is really… weird, to say the least. For some reason, last year’s controversy regarding Christopher Bowes and his other band, Gloryhammer, seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. That particular controversy is also a heaping huge contradiction to my belief in metal’s capability to fight racism. At the very least, I have been able to enjoy their music since, if only because pirates are—historically—pretty immoral dudes. Let’s see what Alestorm’s latest full-length work has in store.

As much as I hate to say it, this is perhaps their best record yet, and one of the best of the year. They fire on all cylinders, and make sure the album is well-rounded with everything that makes the band great. This includes catchy power-folk metal and silly memes. The album also has their lewdest song since ‘F***ed with an Anchor’, a less meme-y, more power metal-focused remix of ‘Tortuga’, and… a THIRD installment of ‘Wooden Leg’?!

Final Verdict: 9.75/10


Oceans of Slumber: Starlight and Ash

Oceans of Slumber have been building up this newest album of theirs to be a huge departure from their usual stuff. To be honest, it’s not. Well… it sort of is, but isn’t at the same time. 

There are some noticeable changes if you’re familiar with their other stuff. Right off the bat, the songs are WAY shorter. Secondly, there is some added focus to the twangy acoustic guitars of the American south over your usual electric guitars. I suppose comparisons would immediately be made to Behemoth vocalist Nergal’s dark country band, Me and that Man, but I wouldn’t know… since I’m an uncultured swine who never listened to it. Oofies.

Another thing that’s the same is how dreary the songs are. As expected, each track is slow, with a melancholic atmosphere that’s both haunting and beautiful in that Oceans of Slumber way. What brings it all together is the outstanding vocal work of Cammie Beverly. As always, she’s on another level .

One last thing I want to say about the record is that it’s a kick in the pants the fandom needs. Every review, even positive ones, say that this album isn’t metal. Even the band says it isn’t metal. However… I don’t agree. Even if it’s against the band’s wishes, I still want to consider Starlight and Ash to be a metal album. In the short time I’ve listened to metal music as a whole, I’ve had a gut feeling that there is more to metal than the specific type of sound that’s understood as “metal.” It’s something that can’t quite be described in words, and Oceans of Slumber gets that. TL;DR, subgenres suck ass. We are blessed that this band has unleashed something utterly uncategorizable onto the world.

Verdict: 10/10


Dreadnought: The Endless

I literally found out about this band the day the album was announced. Thank goodness they have so few tracks per album, or I wouldn’t have caught up to this one in time!

Anyway, Dreadnought employs a combination of—no, scratch that. I am not doing them a disservice by using subgrenes to describe their unique style. However, to get you interested in them, I will say that they incorporate folk instrumentation and smooth jazz into the mix.

Well, I say that, but The Endless pretty much abandons all that. What’s left is still some of the weirdest metal in the market. In fact, I’ve listened to this and their four other studio albums, and I still don’t know what to make of the band. When I’m listening to them at the moment, I think it’s amazing, but looking back, I wonder what I even listened to in the first place. Well, whatever it is they do, they keep getting better at it! 

Verdict: 9.45/10


Kardashev: Liminal Rite

In the world where everything gets categorized, you’d think we’d be out of new subgenres. However, Kardashev shows that there’s still room for more! They have pioneered a combination of post-metal, shoegaze, and deathcore(?!) that they dub “deathgaze”. With this unusual union, Kardashev manages to be both dreamy and visceral, and by some miracle, it works really well.

Boy, this band’s growth has been insane. If you start from the beginning, you’ll hear the evolution in the band’s sound. Heck, the older stuff is still really good. In any case, Liminal Rite comes out swinging, with more intricate, heavier tracks that still have that signature Kardashev feel. Being a concept album about an old man suffering from dementia, this is also the band’s most emotional record to date. 

What ties it all together is vocalist Mark Garrett. I generally find the deathcore style to sound try-hard and stupid, but the right person can turn it into an art, and Garrett does it. His growls, screams, and crooning all bring out the emotions of the album in a truly stunning and surprising way. Overall, Kardashev is on its way to stardom… or at least a very passionate cult following. I’d say it’s another contender for album of the year (which I doubt is on anyone else’s list because only popular bands are allowed to be on those).

Verdict: 10/10


Heilung: Drif

As much as I love folk metal, sometimes it’s good to have just the “folk” and not the metal, especially with a group as unusual as Heilung. They’ve become one of today’s most popular folk groups. It was inevitable that I would want to give them a try, considering their name is German for “healing”; something we ALL could use.

However, they took getting used to, and not because they aren’t metal. Their sound design and production are absolutely top-notch at immersing you in whatever atmosphere they try to convey. The problem is I wouldn’t call a lot of their songs “heilung” in the literal sense of the word; a lot of them can be described as “terrifying” or even “ASMR” (literally half of their first album were songs of just a guy talking). Sophomore album Futha is a LOT better, though, and single-handedly got me hooked on the band.

Anyway, we’re supposed to be talking about Drif, not Futha! In any case, Drif continues Helilung’s tradition of top-dollar and otherworldly folk. Heilung continues to do whatever it wants, taking inspiration from all parts of Europe’s history. From whimsical melodies, to atmospheric soundscapes, every song on the album is quite DRIF-erent from one another (I should let myself out, shouldn’t I?). While mileage may vary because of the wild nature of the band, it doesn’t really matter how much I like an individual track; regardless, Heilung always has me wanting more. This is one of those rare times when an experimental band becomes mainstream, and they deserve it.

Verdict: 9.25/10


Spiritbox: Rotoscope (EP)

The statistically most popular metal band of the decade that will inevitably define said decade (whether you like them or not) somehow broke into the mainstream with last year’s full-length debut, Eternal Blue. While we ponder where they could possibly go from there, they have given us three new songs to lose our minds over. With this release, Spiritbox proves that Eternal Blue wasn’t a fluke. Rotoscope maintains the band’s combination of deceptively accessible melodies with djent-progressive-metalcore. I think it might be heavier than Eternal Blue was. As much as I hate being mainstream, I can’t deny that Spiritbox has at least earned some of the accolades they’ve been getting (even if I still don’t agree with everyone’s claims that Courtney LaPlante is the most powerful woman in metal right now). To be honest, Spiritbox is probably my third favorite debut from 2021 now. 

Verdict: 9/10


Queensrÿche: Digital Noise Alliance

After three years of posting old band photos on their Facebook page, prog-metal veterans Queensrÿche return with their fourth album featuring the current lineup: Digital Noise Alliance. Their previous outings did an admirable job at maintaining the band’s legacy, however, it’s hard to top the Geoff Tate classics. Will this be the one to do it?

Well, to be honest, I’m not really qualified to say. My tastes in metal have changed a LOT since I started getting into more current stuff, and… er… I don’t know if I’m a big Queensrÿche fanboy anymore, versus when I was a teen. Sure, it still holds up, but on the witness stand, I would rank a lot of bands above even the Tate era. 

Regardless, Digital Noise Alliance is this lineup’s most well-rounded effort yet, reflecting every face of Queensrÿche over the years. It’s by far the best album they’ve put out in a while, but like I said, it’s greatly outclassed.

Verdict: 8.85/10


Mori Calliope: UnAlive & Shinigami Note

Hang on… did I just include a famous V-tuber on the list?! Well, funny story: I still have yet to watch a V-tuber’s videos (you actually thought I’d swim with the mainstream?). I kind of just stumbled upon Calliope, saw that her name was Latin, and an interest in her music career grew from there. Yes, I was expecting something like Powerolf from her, as low as those odds were. Also, I REALLY want to like the up and coming idol group, SG5, and I need to train myself up with more mainstream J-pop to prepare.

While her music isn’t European gothic in any way despite her design, Calliope has pretty good stuff. There’s surprising variety for a mainstream artist, and the songs themselves have the youthful, chaotic energy I expect from J-pop. She also has a great singing voice, although I don’t know if it’s autotuned or not. I’m also not sure how much creative control she has over song compositions. Her lyrics seem to revolve around her built-in lore as the Grim Reaper’s apprentice, which is nice and nonsensical as opposed to the nihilist crap that seems mainstream these days.

Verdict (UnAlive): 8.75/10

Verdict (Shinigami Note): 8.9/10


Blackbraid: Blackbraid I

Well… this is awkward. I can’t possibly discuss this artist without outing myself as a user of Bandcamp. I got an account to support my favorite bands, and I didn’t want it to be something linked to my identity here on WordPress. The cat would’ve come out of the bag eventually, probably—like now, since it’s pretty much impossible to know about Blackbraid without being a Bandcamp user; the guy’s a Bandcamp celebrity right now, with his debut—Blackbraid I—being one of the highest-selling metal records on the platform.

What stands out at a glance is that Blackbraid—a.k.a. Sgah’gahsowáh—is a Native American from the Adirondacks. Although he’s not the first Indigenous metaller, he’s perhaps one of the best. His music isn’t exactly unique, but it’s still really good. There is a great balance of epic and atmospheric black metal here, and two instrumental pieces to boot.

Verdict: 9.45/10


The Hu: Rumble of Thunder

HOW MANY MORE BIG BANDS ARE RELEASING ALBUMS THIS YEAR? Heck, this list only scratches the surface of that laundry list. Anyway, The Hu has managed to become borderline mainstream with their blend of classic metal and hard rock with traditional Mongolian folk music. I wasn’t 100% sold on their debut album, The Gereg, although it was a solid and novel record nonetheless.

With Rumble of Thunder, I’m sold now. It feels like they’ve managed to strike a more proper balance with Eastern and Western instruments, while having catchier, heavier songs to boot. This record’s a certified banger (well… not really since Metal Hammer decides that, but you know what I mean).

Verdict: 9.5/10


Ozzy Osbourne: Patient Number 9

I think most of us thought 2020’s Ordinary Man would be the final Ozzy album. Well, as if 2022 wasn’t more clogged with new releases by big artists, here he is with Patient Number 9! This is probably the last one for real, right?

I’m generally not a fan of vanilla metal anymore, nor do I listen to the classics too often, yet—possibly because of nostalgia—I still come back to Ozzy. Despite how new and novel a lot of modern artists are, there’s still something to take away from the simple yet feel-like-I’m-locked-in-an-asylum groove of classic Ozzy metal.

I really enjoyed this one a lot. I don’t know if it’s because of the guest musicians—ranging from Zakk Wylde, to Toni Iommi and Eric Clapton—but this is probably the best Ozzy album since No More Tears. It’s not really too different from his previous stuff; it’s just really high quality. The guests do bring their own personas to the table, at least from what I could tell; the song with Clapton could easily be confused with Cream. However, like I said with Queensrÿche, I do think the veterans have been long since outclassed. On the flipside, not many metalheads can brag about being in the business for fifty-four years.

Verdict: 9.25/10


BAND-MAID: Unleash (EP)

Well, it’s BAND-MAID, so you know what I’m going to say. To those who don’t, here’s a TL;DR: these girls know how to jam better than most men, and their music has only gotten heavier. Also, the MV for the title track is anime. That alone makes this a great release.

Verdict: 9.5/10


Zmey Gorynich: Izhitsa

It’s a Christmas miracle that this unique and hilarious folk-deathcore band gets to release its third album. Why is it a Christmas miracle? They’re Russian. I got into this band and fell in love with them a literal month before Putin’s attack on Ukraine. I haven’t followed Russia’s metal scene since—not because of any racist thoughts on account of Putin—but because, due to the brutal sanctions from NATO, I figured that the market would be ground into dust. However, it seems that the sanctions didn’t amount to much (big surprise), because it seems many-a Russian metal band have survived, Zmey Gorynich included. So, here we are with Izhitsa

Well, somehow, they did it, and despite the circumstances, the band is stronger than ever! As expected, the songs are unapologetically heavy and unapologetically polka. Russian meme-y-ness assaults your eardrums, and makes you feel like you’re drowning in kvas. Pretentious hyperbole aside, this is another banger. Is it too much to hope they’ll be making more?

Verdict: 9.75/10


Defacing God: The Resurrection of Lilith

Of course, the 2022 debut I waited the longest for took this long to drop… Well, the wait was worth it, for reasons I will discuss. Defacing God’s name sounds super blasphemous, but that’s just because they’re themed around witchcraft and Feminism; two things that do NOT mesh with Christianity. 

As a symphonic melodic death metal band, you can expect it to be both aggressive and catchy, with plenty of that old-time European mood sprinkled throughout. It’s over-the-top and feels very theatrical, which is exactly how I like it. Oh right… and their vocalist is a witch. The band is fronted by the titular Lilith herself, and boy, she proves the idea that metal is just the modern evolution of witchcraft. She feels right at home in the band, with high-pitched growls that fit their imagery quite well; definitely do not expect a cup of tea, a cookie, and yoo-hoo from her. 

Verdict: 9.85/10


Remina: Strata

ANOTHER debut I’ve been looking forward to all year?! Well, fortunately, I at least knew what to expect, since Remina—consisting of Sojourner’s Mike Lamb and former Draconian vocalist Heike Langhans—had already released 4/7ths of Strata‘s tracks prior to release. So yeah, at least I was a fan before it was cool. 

Lamb is clearly a master of atmospheric music, whether it be atmospheric black metal back in Sojourner, or—as Remina calls itself—cosmic doom metal. In essence, the band consists of big riffs accompanied by space-y synth. Langhans’ performance throughout the album is also phenomenal; what a beautiful voice. The cherry on top is the epic seven-minute track embedded above you. Any BLAME! fans reading this post? Well, watch the video, and you’ll see their tribute to Tsutomu Nihei. 

Verdict: 9.75/10


Brand of Sacrifice: Exodus (Single)

I literally said I don’t talk about singles, yet I’ve done that with Gloryhammer in the other post, and I’m doing it again here! This is also my first time on the blog fan-gushing over Brand of Sacrifice. I’ve been following them for a few months now. For those who don’t know what makes this brutal deathcore group special, here’s three words: Kentaro Miura’s Berserk. Yes, that’s their lyrical theme.

In any case, this latest song of theirs is a lot. Their music has always been a lot, but this is A LOT a lot. As usual, you have ludicrously heavy instrumentation, and various synth effects to give them a Hiroyuki Sawano-like epic quality to them. What’s different is their vocalist, Kyle Anderson the Demon King. Clean vocals appear for the first time (I’m still not convinced that it’s him singing those), but his growls continue to be guttural and plentiful. The song’s bridge is the most intense arrangement they have ever created thus far… it’s just wow. The press seems to have decreed this the heaviest song in all of 2022, yet there are still bands I’m more afraid of than this. 

Moving on… I’m a bit concerned that they’re going to pull a Shadow of Intent and abandon the beloved nerd I.P. in favor of the usual misanthropy. Anderson’s blurb about the song doesn’t say it’s a reference to Berserk, nor does he say they’re dropping the—no pun intended—brand. Oh well, we’re just gonna have to wait to find out!

Verdict: 10/10


Broken by the Scream: RISE into CHAOS

I’ve known about this band for years, yet I never got around to them because their sophomore album wasn’t available at the time, and by the time it got added, I forgot about the band. It’s a shame, because Broken by the Scream would have otherwise been my first extreme metal band ever, and it would’ve blown my mind. Oh, and here’s the real kicker: they are like BABYMETAL, but better. BBTS has everything that I felt was lacking in BABYMETAL: chaos, raw energy, and death growls. 

Anyway, this album—as usual with BBTS—is ridiculous. Unclean vocalists Io and Kagura continue to be some of the best I’ve ever heard (and they’re young women to boot), while Tsubaki and Ayame’s clean vocals continue to contrast. The music, as usual, is something akin to blackened melodic thrash/death metal with elements of electronic, power metal, and the occasional deathcore breakdown. Heck, I don’t even know if all that nonsense I just said is accurate. All I do know is that BBTS has put out another masterpiece.

Verdict: 10/10


Electric Callboy: TEKKNO

This might just be the greatest music video ever made.

As an Amaranthe fan, it’s no surprise that I also fell in love with Electric Callboy’s fusion of metalcore and EDM. It’s taken FOREVER for me to catch up, and I barely managed to finish their newest album, TEKKNO, in time for the post. Anyway, the band is catchy, memey, and lewd.

The band has also really grown. They had already hit it out of the park with their debut album in 2012, but TEKKNO is a magnum opus. Heavier and meme-ier than ever, this album does everything right. Their popular song ‘We Got the Moves’ is by far my favorite Electric Callboy song of all time. However, the entire album is a masterpiece beyond my highest expectations. It seems like the new vocalist, Nico Sallach, who joined when they did the MMXX EP, has helped breathe new life into an already excellent band. Seriously, this album is so perfect. I had considered Amaranthe my favorite metal band with pop elements, but TEKKNO is easily better than anything that band has ever put out (still love them though). It’s obvious that I have it as another contender for album of the year, regardless of if Metal Hammer agrees.

Before giving the album its score, I must also give a shout-out to the band’s amazing music videos, such as the masterpiece embedded above. They must be really popular in Germany in particular (that’s where they’re from btw), because their videos have really high production values, with elaborate sets and lots of extras. I usually call music videos dumb and corny, but Electric Callboy injects a sense of humor and absurdity into them that only adds to their songs. How have these guys not been nominated by the Grammys nor MTV yet?

Verdict: 10/10


Disturbed: Divisive

Gotta end this post with the only early 2000s nu-metal pioneer that I actually love: Disturbed! Even though ‘Down With the Sickness’ continues to overshadow their twenty-year career, Disturbed has always been delivering heavy bangers that deal with personal struggles and societal issues. Hopefully the title of this album won’t reflect its reception…

Well surprise, surprise, it doesn’t (at least not for me). What stands out with Divisive is that it—once again—shows that Disturbed are one of the few current bands who actually became adults over the years. Social commentary has become a staple of the band’s career, and this time, they go into the heart of the matter: the current endorsement of outrage in today’s mainstream. While most bands these days are part of the problem, and willingly fan the flames, Disturbed goes out of character and speaks out against it. That’s the entire theme of Divisive, and it’s a wake-up call we need more than ever.

Not to sound like a hot take guy (again), but I kind of feel like ‘Don’t Tell Me’ was a letdown. What stands out is that it’s a collab with none other than the original queen of heavy music, Ann Wilson of Heart. The issue is that you only get to hear her during her solo verse, and she is drowned out when harmonizing with Draiman. Also, I feel like it’s a cover of some cheesy Barbara Streisand song (or something) because the song has the weakest, most generic lyrics on the album, and has nothing to do with its themes (my salt could just be because I was physically ill when I put it on for the first time). Otherwise, Divisive is easily Disturbed’s best album since Immortalized.

Verdict: 9.75/10


Conclusion

Well, we survived 2022. Putin’s still wrecking Ukraine, and nature just will not let up with COVID. At the very least, the human race is going to go out with a bang! Anyway… there’s still music I have yet to talk about from this year, some of which I have yet to finish. I guess I’ll be making an un-classy follow-up to this post in 2023!

Pokémon Scarlet & Violet: Is The Series Great Again?

The Pokémon series has suffered ever since its transition to the 3DS. With the exception of some spinoffs, opinions have gotten more and more divisive. It wasn’t until January 2022 when the series was saved by Pokémon Legends: Arceus. It changed a lot of mechanics while maintaining the franchise’s core philosophy: gotta catch ‘em all! It also has a decently seamless open-world design, and rudimentary JRPG mechanics that lay the groundwork for greatness. In that same year, GameFreak—in that classic Japanese overworkiness—had already released a new generation: Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. This is an important installment for the series, for it will ultimately cement whether or not Pokémon as a whole is great again, or if Arceus was a fluke. I decided to play Pokémon Scarlet, since I realized I’ve played the latter installments of dual Pokémon games way too often.

In Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, you sign up for the prestigious Naranja Academy. Time to catch Pokémon and make some friends, such as a mysterious red/purple dinosaur that possesses superhuman strength. Oh, and go to school.

I don’t mean to go critical right off the bat, but… I really don’t like the school theme in these games. While it’s neat that the Pokémon school has a real purpose for once, it’s the exact antithesis of what you’d want in an open world game, which emphasizes freedom. For a Persona-like Pokémon spin-off, school would work, but not here. In fact, the school seems like an afterthought, since as soon as you get there, they skip months of in-game time just so their workaround for the school setting in the open world game kicks in: the Treasure Hunt. This is an independent study where all students leave school and do literally whatever they want, as long as it leads to them finding their true calling. It’s a cool idea, but it would’ve been just as good of an idea to have your character think there must be more to this provincial life, and heads out into the great wide somewhere. Unfortunately, in order to be able to keep playing after you beat it, your character never finds their “treasure”, meaning that you’re to be left an empty shell after all that transpires.

Fortunately, if there’s a good side of the story, it’s that of the antagonists in Team Star. Instead of a criminal organization, you have a group of students who were just misunderstood. They are perhaps the most relatable Team in the entire Pokémon series. The other thing that stands out is having the box-art Legendary—Koraidon/[Insert Boxart Legendary from Violet Here]—as a permanent traveling companion. This sandwich-guzzling fiend is just cool, whatever it is. Although there aren’t many scenes where you interact with it, this is still perhaps the most intimate relationship that the player can ever forge with a Pokémon.

The characters in Pokémon have been getting better… right? Well, it’s kind of hit-or-miss this time. The teachers at the school are pretty great, although a lot of your interactions with them are entirely optional. Your rival, Nemona, is… alright. They definitely gave up on making your rivals jerks, but this time, her quirk is an obsession with battling. There is a whole backstory with her (that you don’t get until after beating the game), but I don’t believe it justifies her addiction with beating people up. This dude named Arven is pretty cool; he has a heartwarming story where he wants to find legendary herbs to cure his dog. The headmaster of Naranja, Clavell… I mean, he’s okay, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Clive, who aids you in your battles with Team Star. Clive is just the coolest, and I’m not at all doing a bit to pretend that I don’t know that he’s obviously Clavell in disguise, because he’s not. He’s Clive. 

Unfortunately, that’s about it for positives. Everyone else has been more dumbed down than ever, which stinks because their character designs are up to snuff as usual. The Professor, Sada, is just someone who phones in on you every so often regarding one of the major questlines, and that’s about it for a while. The Gym Leaders, due to structuring mechanics, have been downgraded once more. You don’t even see them outside the Gym, not once, which sucks because a lot of them are actually really good going off of what little you see of them. I mean—come on—one of them might as well be the famous V-tuber Gawr Gura!

Before we get to gameplay, I must address the one thing that GameFreak will clearly never learn: graphics. Man… they cannot make good environments! There’s numerous bad textures, lag, pop-ins, and whatnot. What’s worse is that character animations have taken a step back as well; almost to PS1-era jank. Movements are stiff and awkward, plus the textures are even inconsistent. While important characters look fine enough, a lot of NPCs have bad textures and pudgy fingers that look like they’re from two console generations ago. GameFreak needs to learn from Nintendo and Platinum Games, who have made beautiful games using the Switch’s inferior hardware. At least the Pokémon themselves still look good. Heck, the crystal texture from the Terastallize ability is straight-up gorgeous. If they can make something like that, then why can’t they follow through with everything else?

Fortunately, Scarlet and Violet are so damn amazing and addictive that you probably won’t notice the bad graphics for too long. Right off the bat, there are more quality-of-life improvements than ever. The U.I. is easy, the map has SO many details, nicknames can be changed at any time from the Pokémon menu, moves can be freely relearned from that same menu, and battles are even faster than ever. Pokémon Centers are just kiosks now, meaning no more loading zones just to heal or shop. However, the biggest, most important improvement of all is… THAT THEY FINALLY GOT RID OF THE TEN MINUTE POKÉBALL TUTORIAL! NOW IT’S JUST TWO TEXT BOXES THAT TAKE THIRTY SECONDS TO READ!

Of course, the elephant in the room with Scarlet & Violet is its full open-world map. While I bet there’ll be a lot of memes along the lines of “Is this Pokélder Scrolls?”, the region of Paldea doesn’t quite hold a candle to its open world contemporaries, especially Breath of the Wild. However, Paldea is easily the best region that the Pokémon series has ever had in and of itself. There’s tons of slopes, ledges, bodies of water… it only took three years for GameFreak to finally do it right! It’s a truly beautiful world… well, it would be if they understood the hardware, but you know what I mean.

There is a LOT to do in Paldea. For starters, there’s Pokémon, Trainers, and loot pretty much everywhere. There are also hidden Gimmighouls who give you their coins (that are really important for a specific purpose). Most importantly, however, are the three major quest lines. You not only have the classic Gym challenge, but you also have the five Titan Pokémon and the five admins of Team Star. It’s a lot, but for the first time, they can be tackled in any order.

Towns are the best they have ever been, at least in a long time. Each has unique characteristics, and thoughtful designs that make them feel live-in-able. I was concerned with them at first, since the early ones didn’t have good shop variety outside of food (which is a whole other thing). Fortunately, the later towns start having really powerful shops; you’ll be able to buy competitive hold items and even Nature-changing Mints, which you would otherwise have to grind BP. Unfortunately, they have something I really am torn on: Gym Tests. Instead of a puzzle room with Trainers, each town with a Gym essentially has the town become the Gym. It’s a cool idea, but I feel like some of them are just padding. 

The Team Star bases kind of suck, gameplay-wise. Basically, you assemble three Pokémon with an advantage over the Type that Squad uses, then mash R. It can only be hard if you don’t have an advantage, but they give you tons of time to defeat enough enemies. I can appreciate the streamlined process, but it still feels like a waste of time when there is almost no chance of failure. The boss fights themselves are great, at least.

The Titan Pokémon are the most straightforward. You go to their location and fight them twice, that’s it. The second time is fun because Arven assists with a friend of his own. Your reward for each is a new field ability for your steed. Unfortunately, the Titans don’t show their level, meaning if you get bodied by one, there’s no way to gauge if it was your fault or if it was just too strong.

Battling Pokémon is easier than ever. In addition to touching them in the overworld, Arceus mechanics return in full force. You can hide in the grass, and throw your lead Pokémon’s Pokéball to engage in battle. Also, like in Arceus, you can strike Pokémons’ backsides to give yourself a free turn. Do you not even want to bother fighting but still want XP? Simple! Just press R to send your lead Pokémon on a murder spree, where it’ll instantly destroy any opposition in its way, provided that it has the proper advantages. 

Unfortunately, TMs have been nerfed. They’re all back to being single-use again! That means doing an entire playthrough all over again just to teach a Pokémon Earthquake—Psyche! TMs are consumables, but they are REALLY easy to come by. They are lying just about everywhere in the world, and Pokémon also drop materials with which to make more. You can track up to five TMs whose materials you need.

In battle, everything is pretty much the same. Well, except for the latest gimmick: Terastallizing. Aesthetically, I love it. Pokémon become crystal, and it looks really pretty; like they’re unleashing their inner Magical Girl. Mechanically, it might actually be my new favorite gimmick; it’s not too broken, but can turn the tide if used wisely. Basically, what it does is change the Pokémon to its Tera Type, and give a STAB bonus much bigger than regular STAB. This is a meta mechanic for numerous reasons, such as changing the Pokémon’s type to something completely different in some cases. Also, all Tera Types are pure Types, meaning that this state can potentially erase a Pokémon’s quad-weaknesses. Just have fun building a competitive team around this, because the mechanic to change a Pokémon’s Tera Type requires farming for an obnoxious amount of Tera Shards.

Tera Raid Battles are also a big improvement over the Dynamax ones. The A.I. for people who have no friends is more competent, and the fights themselves are faster. There is no limit to Pokémon that can faint, but it does run down the time limit, which is not a limit on turns taken, but a literal clock that trickles away in real time. These battles encourage fast and smart plays, and the faster pacing complements this a lot. Unfortunately, they are kind of buggy, at least solo. Stuff happens so fast that the game can’t seem to keep up with it; sometimes a fainted Pokémon will continue to act, or it will faint while it still has health left. Still works better than Skyrim, at least.

My biggest concern with the transition to open world was that Scarlet & Violet would be a repeat of Gold & Silver: abysmal level scaling to account for doing things in any order because apparently programming enemies to grow dynamically with the player is impossible (obvious sarcasm there). Does that actually happen? Well… sadly… kind of. There is a clear recommended order to do things in, and as a result, your journey will be all over the place, with difficulty being anywhere from really challenging to a mind-numbingly easy victory. Nuzlockes are a must if you want actual difficulty, maybe even hardcore nuzlockes since the games give you so many free items in the overworld—including Ethers and Elixirs! However, that would of course ruin the sense of discovery in a new generation of Pokémon. Additionally, nuzlockes can be unfair, since unwittingly running into something above your pay grade will cut your run short, and you have to start the whole game all over again. I thought that asking Nurse Joy for advice would clue you in on the intended path, but she seems to recommend random events, regardless of if you’re actually capable of taking it on or not. The descriptions of some of these objectives can give you hints on the pathing, but the key word is “some”. It doesn’t help that the actual intended path makes absolutely no sense from a game design standpoint. Boy, I’m sure doing a good job making these games look appealing, aren’t I?

Well, I might as well commit. Furthermore, the cooking mechanic is worse than ever. I feel like they become more excessive and complicated with each Generation. On the positive side, the minigame is fun. You basically have to painstakingly build a sandwich piece-by-piece with the added challenge of no drop shadow. However, the foods themselves are where it gets excessive. There are hundreds of sandwiches, among other cuisines, sold at the many, MANY eateries and food carts throughout the world. The buffs from them apply to specific Pokémon Types, making each buff situational. The real kicker is that every item has several buffs and they’re distributed across the foods like a hodge-podge with no rhyme nor reason. While you don’t need these at all unless you want to min-max, it’s still sad that cooking in Pokémon has never once felt practical for core gameplay. There is also a washing mechanic for when Pokémon get dirty. However, I had no idea about this mechanic for the vast majority of the game, and when I used it for the first time, none of my party actually looked dirty. What doesn’t help is that some Pokémon don’t even want a bath at all, and there’s no way of knowing which ones that applies to!

Also, when I said that the school felt like an afterthought, I meant it. Although, that’s definitely because I’m biased against all school-based mechanics in videogames. Unfortunately, taking every single class is actually worth it. All you have to do is answer various quiz questions, and you get rewards for passing each class’ exams. The classes actually give you good hints on game mechanics (especially if you’re not a Pokémon veteran), plus the history class actually helps with foreshadowing and worldbuilding. Speaking of building, you can also build your relationship with teachers through special events (indicated by an exclamation mark over their rooms), thus allowing you to… fuse higher-ranked Personas? Well, you do get various rewards for seeing these events through to the end, and more time with the teachers whom I praise so much is definitely a good thing.

If there’s one thing that’s both a blessing and a curse, it’s that they have a really good selection of new Pokémon. I ended up shuffling my team a lot in my playthrough—mainly because I didn’t plan on replaying either of the games in the near future if at all—but also because a lot of the Pokémon are really good. They have great designs and work well in battle. Also, one other collectible in the overworld consists of thirty-two black stakes. They come in four sets of eight, and finding all of a set awards you with a Legendary Pokémon. That’s FOUR Legendaries that you can obtain before the credits roll!

However, there is one Pokémon in my playthrough whom I ended up feeling at odds with. So, spoiler warning for a whopping one Pokémon that was probably announced or showed off in the leak: Toedscool and Toedscruel. This is a Ground-Grass regional variant of the Tentacool family. Toedscruel is really fast and boasts the same great special defense as Tentacruel. It also learns Spore. However, its ability is what makes it really awkward as a team member: Mycelium Might. This ability gives it minus priority when using status moves, but those moves ignore abilities. This sounds great, but I feel like there are almost no situations where this works out in its favor. It doesn’t ignore Safeguard nor Misty Terrain since those aren’t Abilities, and I presume it won’t work when Uproar is in effect for the same reason. I also used Spore on a Pokémon with Vital Spirit. While the move successfully puts it to sleep, I learned that Vital Spirit also checks if the Pokémon is somehow put to sleep anyway, and thus makes it wake up immediately after the turn ends. The minus priority also means that Toedscruel’s opponent can attack, and potentially one-shot it since it’s physically squishy (quad weakness to Ice doesn’t help either). As a Spore user, it’s still great for catching Legendaries, but Mycelium Might is too situational for the minus priority to feel like a good trade-off. Who knows, maybe Chuggaaconroy will prove me wrong when he plays through these games on his channel in ten years.

In any case, another plus with the newcomers is that I feel like their evolutionary conditions aren’t as BS as Galar. I remember having to look up almost all of the evolution conditions for Sword and Shield. This time, however, I only looked up a few, and those cases were actually ones where I was doing the right thing but I just didn’t do it enough times. Most of them evolve from level up, and pretty early too. Unlike the usual throwaway early game Pokémon, a lot of these very quick evolutions are really good, including the new Wooper’s evolution. The only late boomer is—as tradition—the new Pseudo-Legendary. Fortunately, it’s no Hydreigon (and I hope nothing ever will be).

I always have to discuss the post-game last, because—well—it’s the last part of the game, and the post-game content of Pokémon is always VERY important. You start by fighting every Gym again (without having to take another test, thankfully), and they’re way harder. After that, you can unlock a boss gauntlet that refreshes daily. Once this is unlocked, beating enough 5-star difficulty Tera Raid battles will unlock EXTRA difficult battles indicated by black crystals; you WILL need a team of four human, M.L.G. gamers to take these on.. You can also catch a second instance of the box-art Legendary, which mainly serves to trade to someone who owns the other game and help complete each other’s Pokedexes.

Hey, that’s a perfect time to complain about Gen 9 not being Arceus! You don’t get the other box-art Legendary, you don’t get the other two Starters, you don’t get Link Cables… Nope, you’re back to completing the Pokédex the old fashion way: by—*gasp*—socializing with people, and hoping they like Pokémon (which is really hard for adults since a lot of them are still very harsh on the series). Boy… Arceus was really great.

With that little aside out of the way, there’s a bit of a caveat at this juncture. Every single time I think I’ve done all the post-game content, there’s something I miss and never find out about. This time, I’m dead certain that there’s more than what I wrote above. Scratch that, I KNOW there is because… sadly, I was spoiled of it in the thumbnail of one of Tom Fawkes’ stream VODs (however I still would’ve had a feeling based on the Scarlet Book (or presumably Violet Book?) containing Pokémon that you don’t see in the endgame). Anyway, as of this post’s publication, I have not started this remaining post-game content. I have a feeling that it might actually be an Oracle of Ages/Seasons situation where you need to beat both to unlock whatever this content is; if I’m right, then that’s just mean. If the prerequisite really has anything to do with playing the other game as well, then that would be kind of BS, since these are probably the longest main games in the series and I doubt a lot of adults would even have the time unless they were gamers by profession. Also, the target demographic—kids—would probably not be able to convince their parents to spend over $100USD on both games. Whatever it would’ve been, however, I would not want to discuss it due to spoilers, so it won’t change the review anyway. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.35/10

Pokémon Scarlet, despite its ugliness and other issues, has perhaps been the greatest main series Pokémon experience I’ve ever had, at least since my nostalgic days of Black & White 2. It does a LOT right for the series, but sadly, I don’t think it’ll save Pokémon from its critics. People’s obsession with 8k 240fps graphics are already enough to give Gen 9 a bad reputation, but knowing the Pokémon fandom, they’ll take any flaw with these games and balloon them to make it sound like GameFreak are gaming blasphemers. In any case, I highly recommend you play at least one of these two games, provided that you are capable of enjoying Pokémon.

Shy (Volume 1): Introverts Can Be Heroes Too

Bukumi Miki’s Shy could be one of the most hyped and controversial upcoming anime, potentially warranting comparisons to My Hero Academia, and according to RiseFromAshes, people getting obsessed with whether or not girls kiss. Wow that was one sentence… Anyway, I’ve actually known about it for some time, since stumbling upon it back in my MAL days, being intrigued, and waiting for it to get licensed for Western consumption (since pirating is for bad noodles). Well, it’s finally here… goodbye, wallet. 

In Shy, the world is free of war, thanks to the appearance of superheroes. One of them is the titular Shy—a.k.a. Teru Momijiyama. In case you couldn’t tell, she’s insecure and socially awkward. However, when a strange boy starts messing with people’s hearts, she might end up being the key to saving the world from calamity.

Immediately, this manga showcases the pressure that heroes are faced with. Shy gets involved with a typical amusement park accident in the opening chapter. One person ends up injured, but that’s enough for the entire world to want to cancel her. What makes it even more awkward is that the same person—Iko Koshikawa—ends up transferring to Teru’s class on crutches. 

The main premise of the series sets itself up right off the bat. As I stated before, a very dubious boy—whom the heroes name Stigma—is able to amplify the darkness in people’s hearts and turn them into monsters. Iko is the first victim that we see in this volume. The fight is your classic “save the broken waifu” sequence.

It was then that I realized that Shy is really more like Kingdom Hearts than My Hero Academia. Instead of commentating on classism and societal pressures, Shy’s core theme seems to have to do with problems of the heart. Even planet earth has a heart… apparently?

So far, if there is any problem I have with Shy, it’s that… it’s not as creative as I thought it would be? So far, the ideas are all very simple. Each nation has one hero, and they report to a being named Unilord who lives in a space station. Stigma’s power has been seen a billion times in fiction, and—I dunno—the first encounter didn’t exactly wow me. It was good, but I guess it’s starting to get tiring to see the whole “people’s fears manifest into physical forms” trope. Aesthetically, the transformation wasn’t too interesting either. 

However, Shy does some great things right off the bat. So far, the cast of characters are very likable. Teru, as Shy, is going to have a lot of baggage moving forward. Poor thing… I can totally relate to being an introvert yet having the entire world forced onto your shoulders; I’m sure everyone can these days, with how aware we all are of discrimination and climate change. 

She’s nice and all, but I have a feeling that everyone is going to like Pepesha Andreianov, a.k.a. Spirit. She’s compassionate, perpetually drunk, and her physical qualities are above par with the base wants of the superficial man. Stardust (whose birth name I already forgot) is an eccentric rock star who has a bit of an anti-hero thing going on. Unilord is also unexpectedly quirky for what appears to be a god-like figure. Oh, and a fair warning here: so far, there has been no sexual tension among the overwhelmingly female cast.

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Current Verdict: 8/10

Shy is off to a good start, but it’s too soon to say if it’s actually really good or not (although I can presume that many people in the community will say that it’s better than My Hero Academia because no one but me likes that series anymore for some reason). It lays the groundwork for something, but there are a LOT of series where that something ends up being nothing. You might as well get on the bandwagon before it gets sardine-packed with himedanshi.

Wolfwalkers: An Example of Peak Animated Cinema

Is COVID STILL ongoing right now? Holy crap… that thing is immortal. Anyway, I’m bringing it up because today’s review is of a 2020 film: Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, the final installment of their hit Irish Folklore Trilogy. It never got to see the big screen. GKids is a great license holder, but they make… decisions… when it comes to distribution of the products (either that or the original rights holder restricts them?). Wolfwalkers was an Apple TV+ exclusive! I say “was” because the only other way to watch it is on the trilogy Blu-Ray boxset, and that’s how I watched it for the first time!

In Wolfwalkers, a British girl named Robin and her dad move to Ireland (where no one likes them) to help take out a pack of wolves living in the nearby forest. Naturally, she’s not allowed to help even though she really wants to. Also naturally, she goes into the forest anyway. Still quite naturally, she meets a titular wolfwalker named Mave, and they hit it off. VERY naturally, this won’t exactly fly with the humans back in town!

Where do I start with this movie? Well, probably how it looks, since that’s the first thing you see. Like the Cartoon Saloon movies before it, Wolfwalkers is gorgeous. Also like the Cartoon Saloon movies before it, they don’t stick with the exact same look. For this movie, they use a more pencil-sketchy look—to the point where you can actually see some of the skeleton shapes for people’s bodies—that feels very much inspired by Disney’s xerox era films. However, while those Disney movies clearly scream budget cuts, this technique somehow makes Wolfwalkers Cartoon Saloon’s most breathtaking movie. They do some seriously crazy stuff in this one, and they already pushed the envelope before. 

“But how’s the story?” you ask. Well, it’s a Cartoon Saloon movie, so it’s not exactly avant-garde. Wolkfwalkers is a pretty typical story of friendship, self-discovery, the piousness of early Christians, their inability to understand nature, and the subtle nods to how our society is now. Okay, it’s not exactly the latter, and I—once again—appreciate that from Cartoon Saloon (clearly, they ran out of gut-crushers after The Breadwinner). For a 2020 film, I was dead certain that this would be about racism, and you can argue that it is with how humans’ fear of wolves is explored. However, it really isn’t (other than literally one scene with these Irish bullies), so you can just enjoy it for the Celtic escapism that it is and stop trying to take away the childlike wonder from the few people who still cling to it (looking at you, art critics).

Speaking of childlike wonder, that—like the other two films—is just how the movie feels. While visuals can just be used as sensory-assaulting fluff for the blockbuster-savvy, Cartoon Saloon always knows how to do the most without excession. Wolfwalkers never skipped a beat, advancing at a tight pace while having time for the details that matter. Most notably, this one is not only the longest (by about ten minutes); it also has the shortest resolution, coming down to the wire about as much as any Disney movie.

Oh, and speaking of “down to the wire”, Wolfwalkers hits the hardest of the Irish Folklore Trilogy movies (obviously, The Breadwinner will break your heart and subsequently annihilate the pieces at the subatomic level, so we don’t compare it to that). With multiple layers of conflict, from Robin’s dense dad to the mean Law Protector, there’s plenty of butt-clenching to be had throughout the movie. Though it’s rated PG, you might want to be cautious if you have young’uns. 

The characters, however, are kind of the weakest link in the movie. They aren’t bad per sé, but Cartoon Saloon is already showing its own brand of tropes. Robin—like Brandon and Ben—is a troublemaker, who learns valuable lessons of friendship and acceptance when she meets the aforementioned wolfwalker. Said wolfwalker, Mave, is—like Ashley and Cirsha—the unquestionably Best Girl, full of expressiveness and snark, who you want to root for but ends up suffering the most. Robin’s father, Mr. Goodfellow—like Uncle Abbot and Ben’s dad—is insufferably dense because of past trauma related to loss, and is just trying to keep his kid alive and healthy, but needs to have the truth of the matter drilled into his thick skull. There are also the usual several unnamed NPCs who serve as occasional comic relief. The similarities end, however, with the aforementioned Law Protector. Large, angular, and a devout Christian, he’s the only true villain in the Irish Folklore Trilogy. Unlike the complex, insecure parents of the main protagonists, he is just evil.

Small aside, though. Wolfwalkers was the only movie in this trilogy where the Blu-Ray Disc experienced hiccups. Honestly… it would’ve been better to rent the first two movies and do a free trial period with Apple TV+. I really don’t like Blu-Rays, or DVDs for that matter, at all. Fortunately, I discovered that GKids seem to have some contract with Apple, for a lot of anime movies I otherwise can’t watch are available for rent without having to also subscribe to Apple TV+. So… expect some more anime movie reviews on occasion.

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

I thought Wolfwalkers would be the worst of these movies for very obvious reasons. However, it was actually the best. Thanks, COVID. I hope Cartoon Saloon makes more movies… because The Breadwinner is the only one left and I am too sensitive to watch it right now (or ever). In any case, I highly recommend this amazing company’s films to anyone. They’re that good (and better than live action).

Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen is as Macabre as it Gets (Full Series Review)

I literally said I was never covering light novels again, yet here I am talking about Keishi Ayasato’s Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen again. Because I can never be consistent, I had the thought of “Well, in the rare chance I manage to finish a light novel series, I can do a full series review of it as if it were a manga, right?” And so here we are. If this becomes a thing, it will be the only time I discuss light novels in any capacity (and if it did, it would be pretty rare because I haven’t had good experiences with most light novels, and all of them are massive money sinks). 

In Torture Princess, a young lad named Kaito Sena gets isekai’d, not through death by truck, but death by abusive relative. The world he ends up in is a hot mess to say the least. Oh, and here’s the kicker: he’s the servant of Elisabeth La Fanu, the Torture Princess who has been tasked with slaying a bunch of demons, afterwhich she is to be publicly executed. 

What immediately jumps out is how edgy Torture Princess is. No, “edgy” doesn’t even describe it. The world in this series is what H.P. Lovecraft would come up with if he was born and raised inside of a Hot Topic. It’s gothic and broken, full of innocent people being killed indiscriminately in over-the-top ways. 

Yes, “over-the-top.” That’s a term that comes up in criticisms of anything that has an excess amount of gore. Seriously, Torture Princess has gore in perhaps the most excess of anything I have ever experienced in my life (it’s at least up there with Chainsaw Man). But you know what, Ayasato commits to it. The prose is both poetic and misanthropic, and always finds creative ways to convey its despair and hatred for humanity. The ways that people are brutally destroyed are varied, creative, and wildly effed up. In fact, I might lose this blog if I listed an example.

However, the plot is perhaps Torture Princess‘s weakest aspect. It starts off straightforward enough, but in typical Japanese fantasy fashion, it goes down a road of conspiracy theories revolving around the in-universe religion that isn’t even subtle about it mirroring Western religions. You can even say that the novels have battle shounen-like escalation. To be perfectly honest, most of the story is pretty tropeish, and since I haven’t reread them since first starting the series, I can admit that I forgot most of the story itself.

However, there are still two things that make Torture Princess really good, one of which is its truly star-studded cast. Kaito is a legitimately complex isekai protagonist, full of insecurities and conflicting emotions. He’s edgy, sure, but having an abusive father who murders him is a pretty good justification this time around. When he confides in his waifus, it actually feels emotional this time, as opposed to fan-service.

Speaking of waifus, Elisabeth is a badass, who can bring on both verbal and physical assault with elegance that would make that old dude in Spy X Family kneel before her. She has tons of baggage, courtesy of society, which makes her an ideal waifu.

Of course, the best girl is the automaton, Hina. She’s perhaps the best yandere of all time, with her manufactured love for Kaito feeling more real than most actual human girls. She’s powerful and priceless in every way. Other waifus include a warrior named Izabella Vicker (whose story I won’t get into because of spoilers), and the rootin’-tootin’ Jeanne de Rais. 

From the peanut gallery is Elisabeth’s nonchalant, nihilistic father, Vlad. He is killed off early on, but his spirit sticks around for the bulk of the series. He’s an ass, but I still love him. Same goes for the demon known as the Kaiser. He just chills while watching the world burn.

The other thing that makes Torture Princess so enjoyable is that it’s actually well-written for a light novel. Like I said before, the prose is poetic. Everything is described in gruesome detail, especially the violence. There are some clever instances of redundant phrases and passages that actually help make the story have more impact. I can’t say why, though; you’ll have to experience it for yourself to see.

Of course, it’s not a review of any media franchise without saying it gets iffy toward the end! The first six volumes of Torture Princess are, for all intents and purposes, a perfect, complete story. However, the final third is a second act that is… weaker in some areas. The action and insanity are still high, but there’s a lot more dialogue, and the story isn’t that much better. I get that the second act is there as an allegory to how humans will keep wanting to destroy themselves for no reason, but it still puts a few knicks in the series’ armor.

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen is one of the best light novel series I have ever experienced. It’s a dark take on isekai tropes I feel like actually works, and it has some of the best characters in the market. It’s also cartoonishly gorey enough for me to not be able to attribute it to the real world, allowing for some semblance of escapism. I recommend it if you’re sick of those typical harems.

Strange World: Disney’s Most Family-Savvy Movie

Here we go again, time to see another Disney movie on opening day (well, I know this post isn’t coming out on opening day… but you know what I mean). I’m gonna admit that I was worried about this one. Lightyear ended up being one of my biggest disappointments with Pixar in YEARS, and while Turning Red was great, it wasn’t meant to be better than Lightyear. Strange World also has something that always, ALWAYS sets the Internet on fire, even though it’s pretty commonplace nowadays. That’s why I try to watch movies I care about on opening day… even though I would prefer them to be on Disney+ as well (at least that’s something they did right with Disenchanted).

In Strange World, the famous explorer Jaeger Clade is ready to make the discovery of a lifetime on the other side of the unconquerable mountain range that looms over his hometown of Avalonea. He drags his son Searcher (and some other people) on this journey. Searcher discovers a radioactive green corn, dubbed Pando, that has enough power to jumpstart Avalonea to a new age. Jaeger, sadly, doesn’t take kindly to this and abandons his son. Twenty-five years later, Searcher starts his own life as a farmer, but must take on the explorer mantle again when Pando mysteriously starts dying off.

So, Strange World is a lot for a Disney movie. I can almost guarantee that kids will have no idea what’s going on until they’re eighteen. On the flipside, this is perhaps the most catered to adults that a Disney animated feature has ever been. As strange as the world in Strange World is, the real strange world is the strange world of family relationships. The entire plot revolves around Searcher, his son Ethan, and Jaeger, who is of course still alive in the titular strange world beneath the mountains.

Before continuing on, I might as well fan-gush over this strange world. Who needs Avatar, which just looks exactly like Earth but plants glow sometimes, when you have the surrealistic wonders put forth by Disney visionaries? The movie explodes with beautiful colors, odd creatures, and epic landscape shots. Too bad Avatar‘s going to eat this movie nonetheless…

Anyway, complaints about Hollywood being jury-rigged against animation aside, the story of the Clades is the heart of the movie. When the three generations of Clade meet for the first time, the drama goes through the roof. Ethan thinks Jaeger is cool, Searcher doesn’t like Jaeger, Searcher doesn’t want Ethan to be like Jaeger (and holds Ethan back in the process of protecting him from his grandpa), and Ethan just wants to be… Ethan. To be blunt, if you’re a seasoned veteran of fiction, Disney movies, and life in general, then you already know all three men’s character arcs from start to finish. Fortunately, this age-old theme is still relevant, as there are certainly plenty of Dead Poet Society-esque parents out there who need a wake-up call. Also, Strange World executes on it really well, not getting too manufactured in favor of shock value while managing to hit home all the same.

Oh, right, there is still the whole dying green corn thing… Well, that debacle ends up having a legitimately clever twist. I won’t spoil what it is, but it’s definitely not human machinations this time. The idea of humans not being a vile plague is always a novelty these days.

Based on how aggressively I talked about the three Clade men up to this point, it sure sounds like they’re the only real characters. Well, they’re the most fleshed out, that’s for sure. Jaeger might be a jerk, but he has some funny moments of being a real grandpa. Searcher is a classic dad character, wanting to protect Ethan and his home. Ethan is just a cool kid caught between a rock (Searcher) and a hard place (Jaeger).

Everyone else is still quite likable, regardless of screentime. This includes that one guy with glasses whose name I don’t know at all; he’s funny. However, he’s not the comic relief supporting character; that would go to Splat, a native of the strange world. Splat is your usual mute, marketable character, who speaks in its own sign language and is very bouncy all the time. Ethan’s mom, Meridian, is perhaps the best. She can do anything and everything, all while being a mom. 

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Final Verdict: 9.25/10

Strange World has got to be one of the most intricate movies that Disney has put out (even though that’s not saying much). It deals with family… er… family… and… Actually, the entire thing is just one big commentary on families. Wow, good job contradicting yourself. Anyway, my love for it is NOT a contradiction, and I suggest you round up your father and/or son and watch this with them!