The Secret of Kells: Yes, I’ve Finally Watched it for the First Time

I’ve wanted to watch Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore movies for a good while, even more so after getting into European folk metal. COVID is the reason why I took this long to get around to it! In case you didn’t know, the studio’s third movie never premiered in theaters. And so, GKids, for some ungodly reason, exclusively streamed it on Apple TV+, which—to be fair—I could’ve got a free trial and canceled it after watching the film. However, my consciousness didn’t want to. It also wouldn’t solve the fact that the other two movies aren’t up for streaming anywhere. So, I recently stumbled upon the environmentally friendly Blu-ray box set containing all three movies, and decided to get that through Amazon. Sure, Cartoon Saloon still wouldn’t get a cent of commission off of it, but I at least trust Amazon, for they seem to be the only ones capable of shipping anything in this day and age. Anyway, without further rambling, let’s review the studio’s first movie: The Secret of Kells!

In The Secret of Kells, a boy named Brendan lives in the titular town of Kells, run by his anal Uncle… uh… Abbot? Crap, I already forgot his name. Anyway, said uncle wants to build a wall that could trump Trump in order to protect them from Vikings. However, things get interesting when an old geezer named Aiden (and his cat) moves into town, with a magic book that is just one page short of completion. Aiden is too old to finish it. Guess who gets hoisted with the big responsibility.

Whenever I’ve reviewed Disney movies, I never know what to say about the visuals. As aesthetically striking as they are, I admit that the films are quite samey. The Princess and the Frog is probably better looking than most of the company’s films, and that’s because of something that a lot of millennials and boomers can agree on: hand-drawn animation. While it can look crappy and cheap (i.e. TV anime), Cartoon Saloon shows just what the art form is capable of. 

There’s so much to say about it, I can dedicate a real paragraph to talk about it! While it’s not as anatomically correct as even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Secret of Kells has its own sense of beauty. Characters are made of basic shapes, which allows them to get really creative with the designs. The way people look lends to their personalities; Brendan is small and cute, while you already know his uncle is a big fat meanie from his height and stiffness. Beyond the cast, the movie does some wild things with the backgrounds; stuff I don’t want to spoil for your sake. It’s colorful, whimsical, and in 2022, still looks timeless. The Celtic world of Ireland really shows through in the natural splendor of the forest outside of Kells. If only Disney kept at the hand-drawn biz; who knows how their newer movies would have looked then!

As my first ever film outside of a natively English-speaking nation other than Japan, I was curious about if there was a sub or dub, like with anime. The answer is that there’s no such thing; it’s English through-and-through, but thankfully, it’s authentically European. Over there, other countries are like states to them, and it’s easy to be exposed to a myriad of tongues. In essence, this means that they can speak English but still have the beautiful accents of their respective regions. It really helps make the movie awesome, although that could just be the pagan weeb in me talking.

Anyway, despite the movie being artsier than Disney, it’s got about as straightforward of a plot. It boils down to Aiden and Brendan working together, under Uncle’s nose, to finish the miraculous last page of the book, and with an inevitable Viking assault capable of occuring at any moment. That’s more-or-less it; Brendan is pretty much just Aiden’s errand boy. Someone probably has a deep analysis of how the movie is an allegory to chauvinist postmodernism (whatever that is), but I definitely didn’t notice it if it was there.

The hardest part of a feature film is writing characters that you’ll grow attached to in that short time, but thankfully, The Secret of Kells does a good enough job with that. Brendan has that childlike wonder, and also becomes like Crockett Johnson’s Harold at one point. He meets Best Girl Ashley, a strange child who lives in the forest and is quite the tomboy. Aiden is a fun and eccentric old man, and conversely, Uncle is—well—we’ve established him. Thankfully, Uncle isn’t exactly a bad Disney parent; in 2009, Cartoon Saloon subverted a trope that it took Disney until—what—Encanto to subvert themselves? Wow, way to sound pretentious. Look, I love Disney, but being the embodiment of the mainstream can bite them in the rumpus room sometimes.

Kind-of-spoiler here, but I’m at least glad that The Secret of Kells doesn’t take the obvious route of making humans evil. Sure, there’s Vikings, who are all polygonal,  black, and have red fire, but they are clearly established as their own entity that don’t represent humankind as a whole. Also, this legendary monster that is supposed to be suffering and malice incarnate… most people would just make it a 40-something-year-old man. However, it’s actually just a monster… for once. I hope I’m not wrong about that, or else I’ll look stupid!

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Surprise, surprise—The Secret of Kells is a really good movie, and I’m stoked to watch the other two. If I wasn’t already sold on Europe via its metal scene, then this might’ve been what did it instead. I recommend it to anyone who misses hand-drawn animated movies.

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.

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.

A Brand-New Metal Musical: Avaland — Theater of Sorcery Album Review

I’m deep enough in the metal rabbit hole to follow new bands as they come. Of course, since metal marketing is very difficult in the U.S., my ability to find these depends entirely on the “Coming Soon” tab in Apple Music’s metal page (unless they’re signed under Napalm or Nuclear Blast Records, which are pretty damn good at promoting). One such band is a new French symphonic metal band, Avaland. They claim to be a “metal opera”, which sounds an awful lot like Dark Sarah and Gloryhammer (two of my favorite bands of all time). Since I love those bands, I had to try Avanland’s debut album, Theater of Sorcery, ASAP. 

Like with many concept albums, I only have a vague idea of what’s going on. Avaland is named after the story’s fictitious setting. The young wizard, Adam Wilstrom, is the one who has to save it from some sort of curse. In any case, despite this being a band, in the sense that it has more than one member, it seems that founder Adrien G. Gzagg is the band. He didn’t just write all the lyrics; according to their Facebook bio, he also composed the music all by himself.

Of course, I gotta go over the album cover art first. To sum it up, Theater of Sorcery looks amazing. It’s all mysterious and strange, with great composition and an appealing combination of purple, blue, and yellow-orange. I really want to know what the dude in there is up to, dammit! And the only way to find out is to listen to the record.

Since metal has to be infinitely complex… ugh. Avaland really isn’t that symphonic at all, to be perfectly honest. Symphonic elements show up just often enough to remind you that they exist. Fortunately, they don’t really need that fluff. In fact, Avaland weirdly reminds me of old-timey musicals, specifically from the 1970s. In particular, ‘Let the Wind Blow’ (which I can assume is one of the hits of the record) sounds like it would be in a disco movie. Heck, one of the guest singers sounds  like the backup vocals on Phil Collins’ ‘Easy Lover’. 

Hey, now that I brought up the guests, let’s discuss them. In essence… They’re good, but I don’t know who the f*** any of them are. The reason is that the streaming service I use doesn’t have the track listing specify who’s actually singing. Gzagg himself could be one of the vocalists, and I would be none the wiser. In any case, my favorite vocalist ended up being the deep, shouty guy; whoever says the lines “Here you come into the fabulous place of Avaland” / “Just take your seat and watch the actors play.” He’s good, man.

The one issue I had is the way the lyrics were written. I get that English is insanely hard to learn, but the bad grammar is kind of laughable. I get that grammar sometimes needs to go out the window for the sake of better flow, but I have a feeling that lines like “A hurricane was just about to ruin down on my life” were not intentional. But for all I know, the singers’ accents might be so thick that the lyrics generator mistook what they said. On the flipside, the less-than-fancy vocabulary makes these songs easy to remember and sing along to.

In terms of atmosphere, Theater of Sorcery has a wide range of moods. There are epic tracks like the titular opening song, prog-metal-like tracks such as ‘Gypsum Flower’, as well as the distinctively disco-esque tracks such as ‘Deja Vu’ and the aforementioned ‘Let the Wind Blow.’ But no matter what this album sounds like, it really reminds me specifically of the 1970s. Even the vocalists have that tinny, sound that I feel like a lot of 1970s rock singers had. In all seriousness, I apologize if I’m completely off the mark about all these ’70s comparisons, which l likely am.

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Final Verdict: 9.15/10

It goes without saying that there’s no way in hell I was going to enjoy this album as much as anything from Dark Sarah nor Gloryhammer, especially the former. Nonetheless, Theater of Sorcery absolutely rocked. Apparently, Gzagg is just in diapers when it comes to music experience, but it definitely doesn’t sound like it. There are veterans that I think he’s already outclassed with Avaland. Unfortunately, they will likely be at a disadvantage without bigger names performing the songs. But you know what, you gotta start somewhere! I will definitely be supporting Avaland, and if you like metal-infused musicals, then I recommend you support them as well!

Am I Late for This Hype Train? (Yes): ILLUMISHADE — ECLYPTIC: Wake of Shadows Album Review

I discovered ILLUMISHADE well after their debut album, ECLYPTIC: Wake of Shadows, dropped last year (hence why this post is so dang late). All the other music reviewers I’ve seen either get advance copies, or binge through their topics on repeat within the week they come out in order to get a professional review out A.S.A.P. I felt like that if I didn’t meet that window, I couldn’t help the band get noticed at all. To be honest, I’m not the kind of blogger who would help get a band noticed. But since most good metal bloggers seem to exclusively cover death and black metal, there’s a chance that ILLUMISHADE was overlooked. Fortunately, since I’m late for this, I’ve had time to listen to the album multiple times. And since then, I’ve actually grown to like ILLUMISHADE a lot more than my initial listen-through. There’s benefits to being a year late for this kind of thing!

ILLUMISHADE does not have a Wikipedia page, so… er… yeah, I know next to crap about them. All I know is that they’re a relatively new metal band from Switzerland. Similar to Gloryhammer and Dark Sarah, they create a fictional universe and lore that serve as the basis for their lyrical themes. Despite being so new to the scene, their marketing is already much more ambitious than the aforementioned bands. They have Tribe Tuesdays and, like, you can join a Tribe and it’s… a lot, especially for this early in their career. At the very least, similar to Gloryhammer specifically, each and every member has a stage name to make it easier to identify them, which mitigates the issue of the vocalist taking the face of the band. Most notably, their Guardian is Fabienne Erni from the death-folk-metal band Eluveitie.

I usually don’t like photos of the artist as the album cover art, but at least ILLUMISHADE goes for some style points. They look cool standing together like a group, and the sky background is kinda pretty. It’s way better than pop artists who just have a normal photo of their face as the cover. 

ILLUMISHADE is about as opposite of Eluveitie as it gets. Well, not that I’ve listened to them, since it’s death metal. But considering that ILLUMISHADE has a very poppy, clean, synth-heavy musical style, I’m going to make a ballpark guess that it’s at least a little bit different from Eluveitie. The only growls appear in the form of a guest vocalist on the third track, ‘Tales of Time’. If you’re an Eluveitie fan, then ILLUMISHADE could very well disappoint. 

If you don’t like death metal, or are eclectic enough to like more than just death metal, let’s continue on with the review. 

ILLUMISHADE’s ambitions show not only on their Facebook, but also in the album itself. This. Thing. Is. Ballsy. Half of the thing is instrumentals, and every song is wildly different in tone. The aforementioned ‘Tales of Time’ is super happy, but that’s pretty much the only happy song on here. Ballads like ‘What Have I Become’ are more existential, and ‘Muse of Unknown Forces’ sounds like a Disney villain song. All of these are handled excellently by Erni’s Fabienne-lous (bad pun) singing voice. Like I said in my Top Five Song Covers, she’s about as good as Idina Menzel.

As great as the album is, it’s not perfect. In fact, I feel like it’s too ambitious. First off, none of the instrumentals felt relevant to the story. I use the word “felt” because, to be honest, I have no idea what the story even was. This was my biggest problem with ECLYPTIC. Lemme start a new paragraph to elaborate.

Take this criticism with a grain of salt, for I am BAD with concept albums of any kind. Operation: Mindcrime by Queensrÿche is one of my favorite concept albums of all time, yet years after listening to its tracks over and over again, I STILL don’t know what happened. But compared to other concept albums, ECLYPTIC feels like the worst offender with story cohesion. I usually have a vague idea of what a concept album is about, but I got nothing here. Do I have to participate in their Facebook doo-hickeys to get more of the story? That’s kind of an iffy gimmick, since anyone late to the party (like myself) would not have any idea what to do. 

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

ILLUMISHADE has potential to be a really, really good band. But for now, they only have this album, a cover of ‘Into the Unknown’ from Frozen 2, and a 2021 single titled ‘The Endless Vow’. If you wanna invest in something early, then this band’s a good choice.

Nicola Travelling Around the Demons’ World First Impressions (Volumes 1-2)

So, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I wanted to make a post that would fit the theme. Seven Seas says that this manga, called Nicola Traveling Around the Demons’ World, felt like a European children’s picture book. European folklore > Irish folklore > St. Patrick’s Day… that’s close enough, right?

In this manga, the titular Nicola is found in the middle of the Demon World by some dude named Simon. They then decide to travel together. 

That’s it. That’s the whole premise.

Nicola is basically Yotsuba&! meets Somali and the Forest Guardian. It’s more like the latter, what with humans being discriminated from literally everything else in the world, but it has the much lighter tone of the former. 

Each chapter is a short story, which usually involves antics between Nicola and Simon, and Nicola doing good deeds without even trying. It’s a very sweet and heartwarming manga, in a way that’s not as superficial as If It’s for my Daughter, I’d even Defeat a Demon Lord.

Since Nicola and Simon never stay in one place for too long, they end up being the only characters that show up consistently. Nicola isn’t anywhere near as much of a liability as Somali, plus she has the spunk of Yotsuba. Most notably, she can use magic, which is rare, but can only produce flowers. 

If Nicola is Stan Laurel, then Simon is Oliver Hardy. He spends most of his time making sure she doesn’t do anything stupid, and that’s about it. He is a merchant of some kind, but his heart isn’t quite a golden idol, given the fact that he’s babysitting a kid with no pay.

The art is what makes Nicola very appealing. There’s hatching everywhere, and the characters are all very cartoony and expressive. It’s basically The Girl from the Other Side‘s general idea for a style, but used in a way that’s not as unsettling.

Current Verdict: 8/10

Nicola is no Yotsuba&!, but it’s definitely a good, cute read. It doesn’t have any fanservice, so even little kids can enjoy it. If you want a jolly fantasy romp, then join Nicola on her travels through the Demons’ World.