Belle: Modern Fairytale Tropes Meet Internet Allegories

How long has it been since I saw an anime movie in theaters?! Oh right, 2021… Completely forgot about Earwig and the Witch (for good reason). More importantly, however, how long has it been since I saw a Mamoru Hosoda movie?! I actually own Summer Wars, his only movie I ever saw, and that was years ago. I didn’t exactly love it, mainly because I’m an autistic person who doesn’t understand neurotypical family relationships (i.e. half the movie), but his artstyle is pretty novel and I always wanted to give his other films a chance. The problem was that he apparently hates streaming? Call me a Zoomer, but streaming is a crucial money-saver in this century (and it helps Earth because it saves on the resources used to make a physical copy). Fortunately, Hosoda’s newest film, Belle, premiered in theaters just recently. I was skeptical due to it being a romance, but if I didn’t see it now, I wouldn’t be able to see it ever! Was the risk still worth taking, though?

In Belle, a social media network known as U is spreading like wildfire, dethroning Zuckerberg and becoming the most popular platform of its kind. It’s a virtual network that connects directly to your body and creates an avatar called an AS based off of your innermost self. It’s the perfect hobby for motherless, socially depressed Suzu, who ends up becoming Belle, the world-famous virtual singing sensation. However, things get dicey when she has a run-in with the Dragon, a naughty-boy avatar with a lot of cryptocurrency (and probably NFTs) on his head. 

Holy crap… Where do I begin with this movie? While straightforward, it ended up being way more involved than I had ever expected, especially compared to Summer Wars. Let’s start with the first thing you notice: how it looks. It’s called Belle (the French word for beauty) for a reason, and I’m not talking about the main character’s name. The movie looks absolutely spectacular. Hosoda’s style involves trading texture for consistent fluidity; basically, imagine a TV anime’s artstyle but with actual animation. The CG in Belle is some of the best I have ever seen in an anime, massive in scope yet able to incorporate the most minute little mannerisms. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since it’s been over a decade since Summer Wars. I’m immensely glad I saw it in theaters.

I should also talk about the soundtrack. A lot of it is made up of original musical numbers, which are very orchestral and surprisingly powerful (for not being metal). One of these songs is called ‘U’ (like the setting), and it’s composed by King Gnu vocalist Daiki Tsuneta’s side band, millennium parade. They’re a band I tried when they were first starting out, but ended drifting away from when I converted to metal. I had no idea which song happened to be ‘U’, but since the whole soundtrack was solid, I feel like it was one of their better songs. However, you’ll just have to wait for my review of their debut album from last year before you know if I meant that as a compliment. Yay, marketing!

So, when it comes to Belle, it boils down to two major components: one, it’s inspired by Beauty and the Beast. No shit, Sherlock. The other aspect is that it’s an allegory to the beautiful digital prisons of our creation. It’s not new nor cerebral, but Hosoda conveys the general feel really well. Textboxes tend to clutter the screen as people mutter their crap. People make up stuff about themselves as well as stuff about others, such as the Dragon. Rumors form, cancel culture takes hold. The main villain, named Justin, is an SJW running a squad of Ultra-Mans who can literally reveal someone’s personal information to the world. As a blogger with a pen name, I could feel that anxiety of letting your other self be traced back to you. 

Of course, what it boils down to is some good ol’ fashioned waifu power. Suzu has to find the Dragon (or Beast, in case the symbolism wasn’t obvious enough), and make him less emo because… love? I dunno, she just gets enamored by his naughty-boy-ness when he first shows up. The plot is very straightforward for the most part. Despite it being Allegories ‘R Us, there’s nothing really left up to interpretation. Despite that, I still found myself surprisingly engaged throughout the whole film.

This is especially surprising because the cast was… something. Suzu is extremely relatable; in fact, Hosoda didn’t need to pull the “kill the mom” trope at all to make a character that people will resonate with, especially in this day and age. She has the classic Internet celeb character arc of having to find her true self between her physical and virtual bodies. Most of the others are just plot devices. Her nerd friend Hiro does all the techy stuff when she has to, these old ladies at this choir club Suzu attends offer support when they need to, etc. There’s some cringe-inducing, very teenagery romance, including a subplot involving some saxophone-playing girl and these two studs from school, and it means absolutely nothing. Also, why does Suzu’s father exist? He is the most passive fictional parent ever, practically letting her do whatever she wants. 

Also, the Dragon doesn’t get much elaboration either. It’s sufficient if you understand visual storytelling, and narrative tropes in general, but a lot of his arc also feels very plot device-y. Minor spoilers, he ends up not being among the characters we discussed, making his big reveal anticlimactic. On the flipside, it is realistic with how kids these days lose their minds over people whose physical forms they’ve never seen in any capacity (plus, Dragon’s situation is pretty darn urgent). Of course, being a romance, the ends justify the means this time around. 

Justin, the aforementioned villain, doesn’t get much development either. There’s no big fight against him or anything; he just ceases to exist after some point. Maybe that’s an allegory to beating back cancel culture people: ignoring them. In addition, don’t expect anything regarding the reason why U exists at all. They simply say it was created by “The Voices,” but we never get any more than that. The main focus of the movie is the romance, and the lack of any explanation of U is something that needs to be shrugged off.

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

I dunno why, but I really loved Belle. I was prepared to call its social commentary pretentious and its romance manufactured, which it arguably is, but I wasn’t mad for some reason. Hosoda has the same Disney-like vision that Miyazaki has, but he adds a lot more of that quintessentially anime nonsense that makes Japanese culture so exotic to Westerners. Most importantly, he’s a SIGNIFICANTLY better director than Makoto Shinkai! I’d recommend Belle, but by the time you’re reading this, you’d probably have to rent it off of Amazon Prime video. Hosoda movies on streaming services pleeeeeeeeease!

Heavy and Colorful: A Look at Diversity in Metal

Metal has come a long way from leather-clad men with crazy hair. It’s a living entity that’s constantly growing, and has even come to welcome those in marginalized cultures. With all this color mixed in, the genre has exploded into a rainbow of infinite creativity. Let’s go over a small trickle of these diverse bands.


Wagakki Band

As a weeb, I have to start by discussing a Japanese band. Early on, all my music posts were exclusively about Japanese bands. And if I had to pick one for this post, it would be Wagakki Band.

Since the early 2010s, this group has combined the gentle beauty of traditional Japanese folk music with that of Western rock and metal. Despite the duality, this combo works really well. They’ve gotten enough acknowledgement to be allowed a collab with Amy Lee from Evanescence in 2020 (even though I think Wagakki Band is better than Evanescence and the honor should be Lee’s). 

The problem is that they’re a bit inconsistent with their style. Even during the course of the same album, their musical style has ranged from folk metal to folk pop, the latter of which completely abandons Western instrumentation and has simplistic, easy melodies. Their newest work, 2021’s Starlight EP, is the lightest thing they have ever released. As they become more popular internationally, I worry that they will be forced to sell out and not be metal in the future. But I guess we’ll never know until their next full-length album comes out!


Living Colour

I was reluctant to listen to this band, considering the searing nature of their lyrics; however, I gave them a try. Living Colour, known for their first hit single ‘Cult of Personality’, is an iconic example of a band consisting entirely of Black men, which was very rare at the time, since a lot of metal bands only had White guys. Beyond that song is a discography spanning six full-length albums in an ongoing career of over three decades, and they’re working on new music right now. 

The band combines funky fresh beats with hot n’ heavy metal. Naturally, a lot of the lyrics are sociopolitical commentaries on America, and—of course—racism is involved. The lyrics are brutally honest and, well, brutal. Living Colour is the only band to have me break out into uncontrollable sobbing. The song in question is ‘Flying’, their tribute to the 9/11 attacks. Of course, the rest of their stuff doesn’t slouch. Their newest album, Shade, is my favorite work from them thus far. Given the past couple years, expect their next outing to be brutal.


The Hu

Due to my anxieties discussed in the New Year’s update, I might have BS’d myself into loving this band. In fact, you probably heard of them, since they are hugely popular worldwide (based on what I read about them). Regardless of if I should like this band, I’d rather listen to The Hu than any popstar.

The Hu are from Mongolia, and incorporate the corresponding folk traditions into their music. However, the fusion between Eastern and Western is very loose; there really aren’t any electric guitars at all. Despite that, the musical style—using the Mongolian instruments—is undeniably that of Western rock. Although considered metal, The Hu really aren’t “heavy.” The songs are very catchy, and definitely feel a lot more like Mongolian rock n’ roll than folk metal.

But for whatever reason, I find myself captivated by the band, even though, as a pure metalhead, I shouldn’t be. The singing techniques sound really cool, and the instruments are neat to boot. Maybe they’ll get heavier when they follow-up their debut album, The Gereg, but we’ll never know until that next album comes out! 


Myrath

I had zero African bands on my docket for the longest time. The only African band I had heard of was South Africa’s Vulvodynia, a super duper violent death metal outfit; no thanks! I wanted African folk metal, but there were slim pickings. Of those pickings was Tunisia’s Myrath, and while not exactly what I was looking for, I ended up developing an interest in them all the same.

Incorporating Middle Eastern instruments, Myrath is a brilliant progressive folk metal band, although they lean toward the Western end of the fusion. Their style gradually shifts toward power metal (as shown in the embedded MV) which might be off-putting for some, but the songs are still fire, so it really just shows the band’s versatility. 


Alien Weaponry

Alien Weaponry is one of the more recent examples of metal being used as an instrument to fight for civil rights, and quite a successful one at that. This New Zealand outfit is descended from said nation’s native people, the Maori. Sadly, New Zealand’s British-run government has been systematically stamping out what little of the Maori remain (read this article for more details). With metal, Alien Weaponry seeks to represent their heritage and raise awareness of racism.

Unfortunately, I found them to be my second least favorite band on this post. The songs in which they incorporate their Maori language are great; they have a tribal and barbaric sound (which is exemplified by the fact that they perform with no shirts on). However, that’s only half the battle. A lot of their music is sung entirely in English, and when they do this, Alien Weaponry seems like a completely different beast. While the lyrical theme of racial injustice is still part of it (albeit in a different language), the all-English songs feel very contemporary and garden-variety by comparison. I usually do a three album rule if I can at least see potential for the band to grow (a rule that may or may not have been inspired by the notorious three episode rule for anime), so I’ll keep my eye on them for now. As it stands, Alien Weaponry is a pretty typical Western-style outfit with a Polynesian paint job.


Voice of Baceprot

This young Indonesian outfit seems to be the most popular band out of everyone on this post. Of course, they happen to be my least favorite as well. However, that’s not a particularly fair assessment since they have only two singles and several covers of early 2000s metal songs that I don’t like. 

What makes them attractive is that they are seriously young; I think they’re still teens. They’re also all girls who practice Islam, which apparently forbids music (at least where they’re from). VOB has become insanely successful, not only gaining a large swathe of metal fans, but the favor of political figures as well. Their critics, on the other hand, are so passionate as to threaten the girls’ lives. I don’t mean they are Internet trolls; these people have made actual, cruel attempts to murder the members of VOB.

I wanna support them, but what they have put out so far doesn’t impress me. Voice of Baceprot sounds like a very basic hard rock band. Their lyrics are definitely heavy, but the music just doesn’t accommodate. Regardless of what I think, people love them, and I’m willing to bet that a potential full-length debut album will be the most anticipated metal debut of the decade; likely the one thing that can dethrone Spiritbox. You can give them a try I guess. If you watched the embedded music video, you’ll have already heard 50% of their discography anyway.


Whispered

Okay, so this is the most unorthodox band I have on here. I have included Whispered only  because I want to bring up the concept of “cultural appropriation”. Like Wagakki Band, Whispered incorporates Japanese folk into heavy metal. Unlike Wagakki Band, Whispered are from Finland. 

I read up on cultural appropriation, and I’m afraid that Whispered might fall under it, and their very underground status is probably what’s kept them from any upheaval. The music is really good, basically a more extreme version of Wagakki Band, with that over-the-topness of European metal. It’s actually a really, really good band. I’d almost say they’re better than Wagakki Band. They incorporate the rare fusion of melodic death with power metal, and have taught me that Wizardthrone was not at all the first band to do it (in fact, Whispered would make a perfect replacement for them if they were to disband).

Whispered is taking its sweet time, with only three albums out in the course of a decade, and no set date for the fourth album has been confirmed. The lyrical themes are mostly bushido stuff, and sometimes cover Japanese mythology, but both check out based on my own knowledge of the culture. 

I don’t really know the nuances of cultural appropriation. The first and foremost thing is that it’s supposed to be offensive, but how do you know for sure? When I read up on it, I saw one example of Justin Bieber being accused just for wearing dreadlocks. Maybe he was wearing it “wrong(?)”, but I don’t know how you can be racist by wearing a cool hairstyle. Whatever the case may be, I’m concerned that the current mindset on racism will make it so that only people of a given ethnicity can be inspired by the corresponding culture. That sounds like the opposite of what needs to be done to me.


Arka’n Asrafokor

Despite the massive burst of inclusive media, there’s still a long way to go. As I mentioned before, I wanted African folk metal, specifically that of West Africa; the kind that’s represented at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Animal Kingdom Lodge. Togo’s Arka’n Asrafokor is the first band that came up when I searched, and according to what I’ve read, they’re the only metal band from Togo to begin with.

Like many underground units, they need time. Since its formation in 2009, the band has only released one album—2019’s Zã Keli—under its old name, ARKA’N. The album isn’t just novel; it slaps. As it says on the tin, it is a fusion of metal, and those old-timey African vibes. Using English, French, and their native Ewe, there are a lot of different vocal performances you’ll hear. I particularly love when they harmonize in the latter. 

According to my research, Zã Keli was very well-received when it came out, and most people who’ve listened to the band are already devoted fans. However, the fact still remained that I needed to Google Search this specific type of music for me to find them by happenstance. From what I read about them, the process of finding the necessary equipment was exceptionally difficult where they’re from, and that would probably explain why the album took so long to make. I hope that the stars will align with them in the future, because this is a band I want to see become more mainstream. While a lot of the diverse stuff in the mainstream emphasizes how great each culture is, they don’t really showcase either of those cultures “together”, if you catch my drift.

Unfortunately, it really seems that Arka’n Asrafokor is one of a kind, not just in Togo, but the world. Like I said, this is the only result I got for “African folk metal”, and that makes me feel sad. I wish this band takes over the world going into the 2020s. PLEASE.


Conclusion

We have a long road to travel to reach racial tolerance. In the meantime, these bands—and many more—are here to stay and won’t take no for an answer. Maybe someday, metal will remind us that we’re all human beings. If not, then pop will probably take that mantle instead. Hopefully, you’ll have been encouraged to broaden your horizon of music!

Second Album Already?!: Ad Infinitum — Chapter II: Legacy Album Review

Since I only ever discussed Ad Infinitum in my Top Five Song Covers post, I’ll reiterate how much I love them: A LOT. In fact, they’re one of my favorite new bands of the current decade. Their debut, Chapter I: Monarchy, was a pleasant surprise in that [insert hyperbolic negative adjective here] of a year. And barely a year after that, they’ve put out their next album with Chapter II: Legacy

Ad Infinitum formed in 2018 with former Rage of Light vocalist Melissa Bonny at the helm. She was still in Rage of Light while working with them, but ended up leaving them to focus solely on Ad Infinitum. Good call, girl (sorry, Rage of Light fans). 

So far, Ad Infinitum has a pattern of crazy, Hollywood-movie-poster-esque album cover art going for them. They are always well-dressed, and the band members’ all-too-apropos plague masks help the group stand out (although, this time, their masks aren’t covering the parts that make you sick). The sepia-like yellow and ebony color palette is also consistent with their previous outing.

In terms of style, Ad Infinitum is an old-fashioned, no-gimmick symphonic metal band. They have an epic, orchestral feel similar to Epica, albeit without a choir. However, the melodies have a more Disney-ish-feel, like with ILLUMISHADE, who debuted in the same year (what a coincidence, since they just had a gig together). As an Epica and ILLUMISHADE fan, my love for Ad Infinitum makes a lot of sense. 

This time around, Chapter II is a bit heavier. Don’t worry; the songs are still catchy in that European metal fashion. And, well, what else can I say? This album is really good. One of the best aspects is the song ‘Afterlife’, with guest vocalist Nils Molin. Most of you probably never heard of him, but if you’ve been following me, you know that I’m obsessed with Amaranthe. Molin is one of their vocalists, so hearing his sexy voice in an Ad Infinitum song makes me happy.

Bonny is also a very solid vocalist. It took me until I listened to this record to recognize that the occasional death growls incorporated into the band’s style were from Bonny and not another one of the members (I’m not trying to imply that women can’t growl, but the difference between clean and unclean vocals from the same person is like apples and oranges). Unsurprisingly, Bonny’s growls are as savage as her clean singing is beautiful.

The big thing I don’t get about Chapter II, and Ad Infinitum in general, is why I love it so much. As with Catalyst Crime, there really isn’t much that differs stylistically from normal symphonic metal. Yet, this album is my second favorite of 2021, only behind Epica’s Omega. Ad Infinitum is particularly similar to Beyond the Black, yet I found that band to be very unremarkable by comparison. Of all subjective tastes, music is probably the one that is the least explainable in human language. In case you couldn’t tell, I struggled with my music reviews because of this.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Although I can’t put my finger on a reason, Ad Infinitum is seriously worth their weight in gold. Chapter II is a fantastic record from start to finish, although that’s just my subjective experience talking. If you like the embedded music video, then you should have no problem with the rest of the band’s music.

Starting off the New Year with a Mental Health Update!

Happy 2022, guys! Year three of COVID—let’s goooooooo! Anyway, today’s topic of discussion involves my obsession over the past two years: COVID-19. It has changed a lot—scratch that—it changed human society from the ground up. It changed how we see each other, how we communicate, and exposed all of the inequalities that have existed since the very beginning. As a fellow human, it has also changed me. It has rewritten my genetic code and my own memories. 

In case you couldn’t tell, my posts have been getting a bit messed up. If you read my cynicism post, you’ll have seen my obsession with not just COVID, but racism and climate change as well. It’s worse than that. I have had several drafts of different rants written in advance; none of them have been published, and for good reason. I had a post about the pointlessness of social commentaries; however, the latter half was full of what could be considered extremist propaganda. 

One of my problems since COVID is that I’ve been falling into extremes. Keep in mind, I hate politics and would never involve myself with either side in a billion years; yet these past two years, I’ve been tormented by extreme thinking.  

The bulk of my issues can be boiled down to activists, and the media. While I support the causes of civil rights, LGBTQIA+ advocacy, and a better climate future, extremists who might’ve been shrugged off as P.C. as little as five years ago have more recently gained a stranglehold on mainstream culture that’s starting to affect me; it’s even being taught to vulnerable kids in schools, with picture books to boot (at least in my state). They basically just “decide” for everyone what they have to do, without exception, to be a good person. As a person with autism, who takes things literally and has a hard time understanding the gray areas in life, this has caused me to fall apart at the seams.

In other news, I have—for the first time in my life—voluntarily put on the news. The idea that it really is constant, unrelenting misery is completely true. Five minutes, and I guarantee you’ll lose all hope in mankind. I’ve been so shaped by these past two years during this STILL ONGOING pandemic that I’ve been making irrational choices. I’ve even had brief episodes of unhealthy altruistic delusions, where I was more-than-willing to donate irresponsibly to charities and run myself into bankruptcy (and that’s in addition to regular delusions in the form of uncontrollable sobbing). My loving mother is the only reason why I’m still here.

Similar to how COVID has opened us like a book, it made me face something that I had been doing my whole life: running from my American heritage. My strange disdain towards most things American is because of this. It’s why I rarely watch movies, don’t like death or nu metal (both of which originated in America), prefer to watch anime subbed, and don’t own an Xbox (the one American console I know of). It’s time I stopped running. Starting today, I will be beginning a New Years’ resolution to help people in any way I can for the rest of my life (for the sake of anonymity, I will not blog about any specific deeds (that also helps me build an unsung hero image)).

There’s also changes coming to the blog… well, one change. If you’ve read my latest Weeb Reads Monthly post, and light novel posts in general, you’d know how emotionally draining they’ve become. In case you haven’t noticed, there hasn’t been a Weeb Reads Monthly for December. And there won’t be one this month, or ever. Light novels—the initial reason why I started this blog—will never be covered again, effective immediately. The posts were just not good enough; I have no idea how Justus R. Stone’s group can write massive dissertations about a single volume. In any case, I will be able to enjoy light novels at my leisure again. You just won’t know what I think about them.

Let’s look at some more positives. Some kick-ass-looking metal bands are gonna debut this year, plus we get some hype videogames. That definitely offsets all the horrible things happening, right? I dunno. Maybe not. I’m still going insane. How have these past years treated you, and how do you plan to survive the third year of COVID?

Weathering With You: 2019’s Best Collection of Desktop Wallpapers

Anime movies are pretty hard to watch sometimes. While HBO Max has everything by Ghibli, they don’t have much of anything else. Streaming services are all missing a lot of movies by various people, especially Mamoru Hosoda. The Fathom Events screenings courtesy of GKids is the only option I have to see a movie when it’s new. Or… I could watch Weathering With You on HBO Max. Its famous creator, Makoto Shinkai, directed 2016’s Your Name, Japan’s highest grossing animated feature ever (unless the Kimetsu no Yaiba train movie beat it). I’m also pretty sure he’s the only anime movie director besides Miyazaki to get nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Animated Feature (even if, like Miyazaki, he’ll never win because the Academy is the Academy). While not as popular as Your Name, Weathering With You was still immensely successful, both commercially and critically. With a new Shinkai movie in the works, I might as well watch one of his movies now to see what the hubbub’s all about.

In Weathering With You, a boy named Hodaka runs away to Tokyo. He lands a job with a single dad named Suga, who is sent to investigate an urban legend regarding the recent emergence of strange weather patterns. The source ends up being a McDonald’s employee named Hina, who has the power to make it sunny whenever she wants.

I already knew that Shinkai’s movies had impressive visuals, but seeing is believing. Weathering With You is gorgeous, sporting impressive feats such as individually animated raindrops. Even in crappy weather, Tokyo looks like an exotic paradise. No wonder why this man’s been nominated for the Academy Award.

The plot is a lot simpler than the actual animation work, though. When people start catching wind (or rather, catching sun) of Hina’s power, they pay her fat stacks to make it sunny all the time. In case it wasn’t obvious enough, her power will cost Hina her life. Oh, and the police get involved because Hodaka just so happened to have stumbled upon a loaded handgun.

The main philosophy of Weathering With You (besides “love trumps all”) is that the weather creates a placebo effect in humans’ moods. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, but I found that belief to be a bit on the “dead wrong” side. There really is nothing else to the lore of the movie, except the apparent fact that cumulonimbus clouds all have golf courses atop the big flat bits that are home to magic water-fish.

Look, in case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t exactly enjoy the movie. That is also evident in the fact that I didn’t remember anyone’s surnames (their first names took everything I had). Naturally, I didn’t like a single person. Weathering With You has every appealing trope, presented in super-stock-looking characters. While Shinkai movies know how to have splendid backgrounds, these characters have the least style out of any anime movie I have ever seen. Sure, Ghibli and Hosoda’s tend to have same-face syndrome, but there’s at least a style. There is nothing in the cast that can even mildly perturb anyone.

That basically leads into my core gripe with the movie. I expected something that was at least so laughably bad, and manufactured, that I would enjoy roasting it. However, Weathering With You isn’t even that. Like Ride Your Wave, it is completely and utterly devoid of risk. Everything about the movie is precisely and perfectly set up. The commissioned musical numbers are also timed perfectly based on the mood to provide maximum emotion. Add the visuals to all this, and I completely understand how Shinkai works his magic. However, Weathering With You was still not an awful movie. I liked it more than Ride Your Wave and SIGNIFICANTLY more than Patema Inverted. The compliments end there, though. 

Be forewarned of the typical logistics issues that exist by nature in movies like this. I didn’t find them funny because… I guess I just expected them to exist, and they exist with no flare whatsoever. In essence, it’s a lot of the whole “kids constantly one-up the police” a la E.T. What makes this particularly stupid is that Japan has an uncompromisingly powerful police force when they’re actually needed, and it shouldn’t have been possible for anyone to oppose them. Also, at some point, Hodaka gets like a billion yen as “severance” pay. Yeah, sure, okay. Whatever, Shinkai.

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Final Verdict: 7/10

Weathering With You is very manufactured and accessible, and like many mainstream things, I do not understand why people think Shinkai is a genius. Yes, he knows how to pluck at your heartstrings, but I don’t consider that a compliment. This was extremely middle-of-the-road, and I can only be glad that I saw it included with a streaming subscription.

With that being said, I will probably pay to see his upcoming movie, Suzume’s Locking Up, in theaters when it comes around. I’m at least putting faith in Shinkai that his formula has some amount of variation. If not, then I disrespect him on an artistic and professional level. You, on the other hand, may enjoy Weathering With You to an extent, because it was tailor-made that way, but if you want a better anime feature with similar philosophies and actual balls, then watch the tragically underrated Children of the Sea instead.

It’s a CRIME That They Aren’t More Popular: Catalyst Crime — Self-Titled Album Review

Well, it’s the end of the year, and it’s pretty much decided that Spiritbox is not only the new band of the year, but the decade (okay maybe that last bit is overselling them but still). However, that didn’t stop new bands from coming out after-the-fact. One example is a group that debuted during my most recent Disney trip: Catalyst Crime. Time for me to give them some limelight!

Catalyst Crime is made up of people from the States and Europe. According to Encyclopaedia Metallum, they consist of drummer Gerrit Lamm, bassist Matt Federoff, his daughter vocalist Zoe Marie Federoff, keyboardist Jonah Weingarten, and guitarists Kaelan Sarakinis and Chëna Roxx. Aaaaand that’s literally all I know about them.

The cover art is pretty eye-catching, featuring a model, wearing exotic-looking clothes, and clutching a human heart. And for the record, the model isn’t Zoe Federoff herself; that’s something I can see potentially confusing people.

Catalyst Crime’s style, at least for this debut, is pretty garden variety symphonic metal. It has a quiet, yet aggressive sound that reminds me of Angel Nation, an underrated band whose third album I plan to cover whenever it’s released. But as someone who admits to reading battle shounen manga over and over again, I don’t necessarily think Catalyst Crime being garden variety is bad; there’s just only so many ways to describe a band that doesn’t brand itself as having twenty subgenres.

Unlike Icon of Sin, however, I already saw potential for Catalyst Crime to grow. As expected, the songs have that catchiness which makes me fall for European metal hook, line, and sinker. And speaking of falling for things, the reason why I even got into this band was because of the track ‘Cognitive Dissonance.’ That song features Jake E, one of the former vocalists of Amaranthe, which happens to be one of my favorite bands of all time.

The best part of Catalyst Crime thus far is Zoe Federoff’s performance. She is no doubt the most soprano voice I have ever heard in metal. Of course, that’s not a bad thing (especially since Simone Simons and Megan Targett are sopranos, and I love their singing). Her growls are equally high in pitch, and don’t fall short of expectations.

If there is any problem I have with Catalyst Crime, it’s that I did feel a bit ripped off. They claimed to be “cinematic” metal, putting them in the ballpark of Dark Sarah, another one of my favorite bands of all time, which incorporates theatrical elements into their metal style. I didn’t really feel that with Catalyst Crime. But as someone who doesn’t know anything about musical theater, it could just be that they were influenced by a different composer than Dark Sarah was.

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

They’re no Epica, but Catalyst Crime is off to a great start. And sadly… I did rate it slightly lower than I did Spiritbox’s debut. Eternal Blue has much more going for it at this stage, while Catalyst Crime is very straightforward. Regardless, this is a promising new face in metal, and it goes without saying that I would recommend it to symphonic power metal fans.

Cynicism in Entertainment: When is it Too Much? Can There be Too Much?

This is probably something you can type into Google and find a scholarly Harvard thesis on. But since this topic has been bugging me for quite some time, I thought I could put in my two cents. I feel like the amount of cynicism in entertainment, or lack thereof, has been largely under debate since forever. And it’s something that’s come to a head for me on a personal level since the start of the pandemic, and as of finishing Volume 8 of RWBY. For this post, I’ll try to lay down both sides of the coin in a civil manner. There will be spoilers for RWBY and Re:ZERO among others throughout this discussion.

The first thing to bring up is the fact that darker times are hard to face in real life. And for some people, the SOLE counter to that is in Escapist fantasies such as those put out by Disney. That company has continued to inspire hope for generations, and is almost at the one-century mark of its running. On the flipside, Disney doesn’t make the bad things go away in real life. You will not only be faced with personal issues, but societal ones as well (more on the latter later). Even if you watch something like Soul for example, which has the lesson of living life to the fullest, you’ll still have to toil at school or a job even if you take that lesson to heart. 

But let’s flip it back again, and discuss the question I asked at the beginning: When is cynicism too much? At the point I’m at in Re:ZERO and RWBY, there have been so many deaths that it has completely desensitized me. The fourth (or is it fifth?) arc of Re:ZERO starts with a child being thrown from the top of a building, after which an entire crowd of people explode into blood and guts. This happens after the main character has died and respawned after at least a dozen gruesome deaths, including being eaten alive by hundreds of demon rabbits. And RWBY? There’s death everywhere! RWBY is particularly controversial because it started off as a very silly battle shounen, then took an incredibly dark direction following the passing of its creator. And for the record, it has legitimately made me depressed. While I have no doubt that any American drama is still darker, RWBY is the most cynical work of fiction I have ever consumed. It has literally made me think to myself: “Life was not God’s gift to us; it was a punishment.”

To define how cynical a narrative work is, you should first find a definitive answer to how dark real life is. The problem is that everyone suffers in different ways and amounts. Re:ZERO seems exaggerated, since I definitely haven’t lived a life where I watch a close friend die right before my eyes every single day. But what about someone living in the Middle East? There are refugees for a reason, you know.

But here’s the kicker. While I have written off stuff as “torture porn”, and accused people of reading too much into social media, I must admit that I’ve become like that as well. The pandemic has affected the lives of pretty much every human, yet instead of bringing people together, it bolstered existing issues and—in essence—ruined everything. It doesn’t take long to find news about fully vaccinated people dying of COVID, countries re-entering lockdown (heck, the bands I follow are still having gigs cancelled left and right), governments stripping unvaccinated people of human rights, California slowly burning to the ground, the slaughterhouse that was Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert, and other human failures. You don’t even need these past couple of years to see how miserable life has always been. America has violated its own Constitution, and created racist and misogynist propaganda since its birth. How can I write off series as torture porn, when they seem perfectly apropos to actual life?

The argument I see the most in favor of cynicism is that it makes the story more mature and intellectual. But sometimes I feel like it’s actually more childish than even Disney. One example that comes to mind is Dungeon Busters, which is an urban fantasy that shows the political ramifications of RPG tropes existing in the real world. I want to say it’s a really thoughtful series, but I’m not sure I can. Trump is portrayed in it as a whiny brat who wants to nuke everything. I don’t know if that portrayal is actually mature, and since we’ll probably never know what Trump was truly like during his term, I can’t say that Dungeon Busters’ Trump is effective. Also, there’s a scene where a supporting protagonist shows a deep prejudice towards Americans entirely because of America’s past crimes against Japan, such as the atomic bombings at the end of WWII, decades before her birth. You’re meant to sympathize with her. However, in real life, Japan allows and welcomes American tourists with open arms (at least before COVID). I can’t judge if such deep-seeded grudges are actually mature or not. I just can’t.

Another example I can place is the famous videogame, A Way Out. I’ve seen three playthroughs of it on YouTube, and that final plot twist will always be infamous. You know, the one where Vincent was actually a police officer trying to nail Leo, and Harvey—the game’s villain—at the same time? It’s SUPER cynical, because it basically implies that your closest friend will stab you in the back someday, that no one can mutually agree on anything, and that there’s no point in ever trying to be nice to anyone. They completely throw away logic (such as parts where Vincent commits other crimes while undercover and endangers civilian lives) in order to make a purely cynical gaming experience, and cause mental whiplash for the people playing by turning the game from co-op to PvP right at the end, with a different—equally sad—ending based on who lives. Does that really make it better, though?

There is no end to different examples of arguments over whether or not cynicism is too much. But regardless, I’m starting to think that there can never be too much of it. Thanks to what COVID has done to me, in conjunction with social media being itself, I have lost all hope. How much cynicism can you handle? Let me know in the comments!

This Town Ain’t METAL Enough for the Two of Us: Untamed Land — Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms Album Review

These days, it’s easy to assume that America’s culture consists mainly of racism, memes, and failed promises. However, this nation—as much of a zoomer as it is—has about two centuries of history, and thus, about two centuries’ worth of culture. And one extreme metal outfit known as Untamed Land has set up a roaring campfire in the wild west, ripe for some Americana storytelling. 

Untamed Land hasn’t been around for too long. The band was founded in Ohio by Patrick Kern, and—like Mammoth WVH—he’s the only member. Today’s album review is of its second record, Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms. I already listened to its debut, 2018’s Between the Winds, and I was sold pretty darn quickly. Let’s see if the follow-up, well, follows up.

Most atmospheric bands I’ve seen have very hand-painted-looking, beautiful cover art of landscapes that don’t at all look like it would belong to an extreme metal band. That is also the case with Untamed Land’s previous album art. Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms, however, is a lot different from that. It’s darker, with a sketchy, cross-hatching-covered aesthetic. The Neanderthal-looking dude in the center is kind of creepy, but the background art has a weird, abstract beauty. Something about the red sun on the right, contrasting the weird castle-looking structure on the left… I don’t know. I just love how it looks.

In terms of the basic style, Untamed Land has what you expect: a lot of riffs, the “duduholaduhdoladuhdola” guitar thing, and some “AAAAAAAH!” screechy vocals (those are professional Layman’s terms, btw). And to be honest, THIS is the band I should’ve compared to Sojourner, instead of Stormruler. Like Sojourner, Untamed Land is slower and more ambient.

But what’s different from Sojourner is, of course, the actual theme. In addition to the essential metal components, Untamed Land uses… er… crap, I have no idea what the instruments I’m about to describe are called, so I’ll use my professional Layman’s terms again! If you’re familiar with Clint Eastwood and High Noon, you’ll recognize the very U.S.-Western-style saloon piano, cowboy trumpet, and twangy string instrument (see? Professional!). But as novel as these additional instruments make the band sound, it feels like they come from a synthesizer. I’m not so hard on that, since the intent gets through well enough.

Like Creatures isn’t just the same thing over again; in fact, as with the cover art, it’s much darker than its predecessor. While the previous album feels like a cowboy shoot ’em up starring Clint Eastwood and Daniel Boone, this album—by comparison—feels like telling ghost stories by the campfire. However, the more somber theme doesn’t make it less epic; expect the same extreme riffs, rumbling drums, and very un-cowboy-ish growling.

If there is any tangible flaw with this album, it’s the record’s short-lived-ness. Despite it being considered full-length, it’s really an EP; there are only seven tracks, two of which are shortened versions of existing tracks. I don’t want to sound like that guy who’s all “NEXT ALBUM WHEN”, but the fact remains that this was a three-year wait following Between the Winds; I can only assume it’ll be a similar case in years to come. With less than twenty tracks total in its discography, coupled with the band’s novelty, expect new music withdrawal to hit fast.

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Final Verdict: 8.8/10

Yeeeeeeeeee-haaaaaw! Untamed Land has proven itself to be one of the most novel and underrated metal projects in recent years. And not only that, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit about the nation I was born and raised in. Recommending it now is a hard sell right now because there isn’t much, but what is there is worth its weight in California gold. I reckon you’ll like it if you give it a chance!

Where Has This Band been All My Life?!: IOTUNN — Access All Worlds Album Review

One thing I’ve learned about extreme metal is that it’s become about as varied a subgenre of metal as non-extreme metal (the problem is that they tend to be overshadowed by classic death metal bands, who happen to have X-rated imagery and lyrics, but that’s a topic for another day). IOTUNN is one such extreme metal band that has a bit more novelty than, say, Cannibal Corpse. There are two reasons why I was drawn to their full-length debut, and the first is its cosmically awesome name: Access All Worlds.

The second reason is the album’s incredible artwork. I never thought I’d want to stare at a giant man bathing in a planet for so many minutes, and to be honest, I could stare at it all day. The artstyle itself is very appealing as well, since it reminds me of old-school science fiction book covers.

I’ve literally had to keep the band’s Facebook page open as I typed this paragraph in which I introduce the band members. That’s because they’re from Denmark, and have names where I need to insert a lot of special characters in order to spell them out properly. Rambling aside, IOTUNN consists of vocalist Jón Aldará, guitarists Jesper Gräs and Jens Nicolai Gräs, drummer Bjørn Wind Andersen, and bassist Eskil Rask.

Access All Worlds incorporates familiar elements of prog and extreme metal. Most of the tracks are incredibly long, as you can expect from the former. This might just be because the band is new, but I don’t find that to be a problem this time. When it comes to IOTUNN, it feels like they know how to intersperse singing and different instrumental sections in the right way to keep you on your toes (unlike some of the newer Iron Maiden tracks). The riffs are also very atmospheric, similar to bands like Sojourner, which makes the longer songs engaging in that same manner.

But despite me describing the music as “atmospheric”, IOTUNN is actually VERY loud. The guitars have a commanding presence, with crunchy roars that feel as heavy as vanilla death metal bands like Behemoth. The fact that such forceful music can also be described as atmospheric—scratch that, I’d call it spiritual—is really impressive, and show’s extreme music’s versatility. Of course, there’s no shortage of songs that go all-in, such as ‘Laihem’s Golden Pits.’

Also, is Aldará the one and only vocalist? Because it feels like there’s three different ones on this record. Throughout Access All Worlds, you’ll hear raw, throaty growls, gravelly shouts, and very operatic clean singing. With an echo effect to make them sound more cosmic, I was enthralled by all three of these performances. If it really is all one person, then I’ll be triply-impressed.

And of course, prog isn’t worth salt without strange and interesting lyrics, and IOTUNN delivers. If you watched the embedded MV, you’ll see that the theme of this album is sci-fi, but describing it as just that would be a disservice. They each tell a story, most of which involve space travellers or some such finding a strange planet and being like “WTH is this, bro?” And according to their bio on Metal Blade Records’ website, it’s up to you to interpret the chronological order of the tracks, as well as what they’re about in the first place. 

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

I would give Access All Worlds a perfect ten, but I didn’t want to set up an impossible standard for the band to follow-up with (also, I’d prefer to give their next album a higher rating than this one just for my own sake). While it’s not Wizardthrone’s nonsensical space opera death metal, IOTUNN has made something very special in its own right (and probably something I’ll grow to like more than Wizardthrone) that I feel deserves to be heralded as the best metal debut of the year. Anyway, I recommend Access All Worlds if you really wished there was a more extreme version of old-school prog bands like Yes.

PS: I’m going to Disney AGAIN! Will be back in early November!

There’s Too Much: A Rant

Okay, well, this post is probably something you can all relate to, and probably something someone has said in much more scholarly capacity. But similar to a certain minor disease that’s been circling around for a while, people must keep complaining about it over and over again as if that would make it go away even though it doesn’t! And today’s topic is something that can only get worse down the road: there’s too much stuff. 

It’s a classic first-world problem; the compulsion to consume media to the point where your actual life becomes forfeit. The first and easiest solution is to stop. However, what else would I do? Should I just toil at my job for forty hours a week, go to bed, and rinse-and-repeat until I die? Since I am an autistic man who has not attempted to make friends, fictitious worlds are all I got.

This issue is additionally difficult by nature of the mediums I enjoy. The Japanese literature industry is the one area I know of that does not have enough subscription services. Viz is a lifesaver, but it only applies to specific titles. Everything else I gotta pay a fat, flat rate on. It’s tough, to be honest. Maybe, in the far future, BookWalker will offer a full-on subscription service? Yes, I know they have a subscribe-to-series for Kodansha titles but that’s not the same thing. Basically, if I reviewed anime, I could get more content for much less than what I’m paying now.

Fortunately, I have managed to lessen the burden. I now have just enough time for YouTube, reading, music, and videogames. Unfortunately, I have to veto a lot of stuff that I like. There are some things that I want to finish, such as World Trigger or Jujutsu Kaisen, but they’re very long and I just don’t know if they’re completely worth it. I’ve already gotten to the point where I ignore 90% of all upcoming light novels that come out on BookWalker. For music, I also have to accept that I cannot learn any band’s discography in its entirety, and most fans probably haven’t either. My new mantra has been “There’s other fish in the sea.”

The issue is, of course, trying to figure out what basket you want to put your precious eggs in. I have low self-esteem, so I always find myself thinking my opinions are wrong whenever I read a review that doesn’t agree with my stance. And there’s always the possibility that I just “didn’t get to the point where it gets really, REALLY good”, even though something like 170-odd chapters of Black Clover should be more than enough of an impression. On the flipside, Mashle is a better-paced, funnier, and more engaging version of Black Clover. The same goes with Undead Unluck over Jujutsu Kaisen. Both manga are about magic kids who fight demons that embody human wrongdoing, yet Undead Unluck is way more creative, has better characters, and SIGNIFICANTLY better pacing. And yet, if I look hard enough, I’ll find a glowing review of Jujutsu Kaisen and I’ll feel bad for not hard-committing to it instead. I’ll need to make myself as confident IRL as I sound on my blog reviews.

As much as I rag on anime, I can thank the community for teaching me to let go. Each season, people get so passionate about anime as they air, just to forget about it. They have these massive emotional reactions, from hating a show so much it offends them as human beings, to loving a waifu enough to troll on her behalf. All of this just to seemingly forget the show happened once the next batch of hype drops.

As someone who takes words literally, I’ve begun to learn that there is no entertainment medium that is better than the other. There are so many all-encompassing reviews and blurbs about how “this particular thing will change your life and make you an altogether better human being”, but that’s objectively wrong. You can like something however much you want, but stuff is stuff. It’s just entertainment, and it’s up to each individual to decide which stuff is their stuff.

With all this said and done, I want to allude to a warning of potential long-term changes to the blog. I’ve been reevaluating my priorities for the sake of my mental and financial health. This comes with the likely possibility that I will abandon the bulk of the manga and light novel medium, which was why I originally started the blog. As someone who’s experienced a lot of stuff from different mediums, I’ve realized they each have their pros and cons, but no one is more “special” than the others. There will always be “worthwhile” things to indulge in with each. Basically, what I’m saying, is if I have to make this primarily a gaming and music review blog—the two mediums I had initially covered the least of—just so I can have more than zero dollars in my bank account, then so be it. I have no idea where this blog is going, so I ask you to be patient as I try to figure that out.

In conclusion, this has been a weird mess of a post. Sometimes, you gotta vent your emotional insecurities. If you want to leave a comment on how you feel in this stimulus-savvy world, then by all means. You can also tell me I’m crazy if you want.