Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (2015 vinyl reissue)

Tonight, we try something a little different on the LBC -- a vinyl review!

So for Christmas last year, my wife bought me a small hi-fi system that has a turntable attached. I last had one back in about 2007 (or more accurately, was borrowing one from a friend) when I was in my sharehouse days, and I accrued a little collection of records. Not a lot by collector standards; maybe 20? I didn’t have an mp3 player back then, so CDs were the more convenient format. But I liked the experience – ritual, even – of sitting down and having to listen to the album from start to finish. Particularly if was accompanied by a glass or two of Jack Daniels and cola, though back then I was not as well-financed and often had to settle for Woodstock and cola premixes. I wasn't as classy back then...to this day the sight of a Woodstock longneck makes me feel ill.  

All of those records have gone now, mostly donated to fellow metal fans who had turntables of their own. But I decided I wanted to get back into it after years away; music is one of the great pleasures of my life, and good music is worth investing in. Naturally it followed that then my first album purchase should be one that I’d always wanted on vinyl, but never owned. And so we come to the subject of today’s review, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality.   

Originally released in 1971, Master of Reality was Black Sabbath’s third album, coming hot on the heels of Paranoid, which had seen them crossover into more mainstream success. Things like that happened back then, I guess; I wasn’t there for it, but it seems like people didn’t burst into tears and complain if you liked the Monkees AND Deep Purple. Nowadays the boundaries have become a lot stricter; it’s hard to imagine someone enjoying Cannibal Corpse AND Justin Bieber, though I’m sure there’s at least one such person out there.  

(On another note, 3 albums within the space of two years seems outrageously speedy by today’s standards. But people churned out albums like nobody’s business in the 1970s; it wasn’t unusual for Elton John to pump out two a year for a while there, though it must have been incredibly difficult to maintain that pace in tandem with touring.)

This reissue is kind of bare bones – no bonus tracks or gatefold presentation, just the disc in the sleeve. But conveniently, it does come with a copy of the album on CD too, so you can have it handy for ripping it to your mp3 player or for car trips.

And you probably will be listening to it quite a bit. Black Sabbath and Paranoid were unquestionably heavy and great, but for me this is when they really got into their groove. Tony Iommi had started detuning his guitar for a variety of reasons, including aiming for a heavier register and making his guitar easier to play. Not because he was lazy – but because he was missing parts of his fingers on his fretting hand due to an industrial accident. Detuning is virtually de rigeur these days, but in 1971 it was virtually unheard of.

His riffing and soloing are both in fine form here. Though he’s still not as polished as he would be on Vol. 4 and onwards, there is a raw power that permeates the album. On bass and drums, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward frequently sounds like they're playing a different song to everyone else – this would be a criticism elsewhere, but it actually works in quite a complementary fashion, particularly on “Lord of this World”. And Ozzy’s voice was arguably at its finest. He was never really a good singer in the traditional sense of the word, but his frantic yowls have rendered him distinct – and rarely bettered – in the world of rock vocalists.

Lyrically, the album moves into explicitly Christian territory, particularly on “After Forever” and “Lord of this World”. It’s a rebuttal of sorts to the accusations of Satanism that were thrown at them after their first two albums,* and one that’s mostly handled with a gravitas appropriate to the heavy tone of the album. In spite of this, they never quite managed to have the influence on the Christian music scene that they deserve (or that I’d like), with many churchgoers of the era apparently preferring the more gentle strains of Harry Secombe or Keith Green.

Less - or perhaps more - heady topics are covered too. Or more specifically marijuana -- on the opening track “Sweet Leaf”. Plenty of doom bands that have followed in Black Sabbath’s wake seem to have built their entire careers off the back of this particular song, if album artwork and song titles I see on Encylcopedia Metallum are anything to go by. And though it’s a good song, I think they actually did themselves one better on Vol 4, with the cocaine-inspired “Snowblind”. And of course, a few years later we’d hear the flipside, with Ozzy singing about the dangers of hard drinking on “Suicide Solution” on his first solo album.    

“Children of the Grave” is probably the real standout track. It is punishingly heavy, even 45 years after release, yet stands as a contrast to the nihilism that has permeated plenty of metal, including Black Sabbath’s own work. Grim in tone, it serves as a warning – a vanitas, if we want to borrow an painting term – but still holds the promise of hope, and a brighter future if people are willing to commit to it.

Master of Reality and Vol. 4 stand as my favourite of Black Sabbath’s albums. While all of their first 6 albums are great – seminal, even – these are the two that have resonated with me most over the years. Its influence can most be heard in doom metal, but has permeated virtually the entire spectrum of hard rock. Essential listening for novice Sabbath fans and long-term metal fans alike.     

*The members themselves have wavered back on forth on these topics over the years (a few of the lyrics on Vol. 4 in particular deviate quite a bit from the sentiments expressed here), with the most recent information I could find indicating that they were primarily identifying as agnostic, with the possible exception of Geezer – which would make sense, given his status back then as the group’s resident Catholic.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

POP! Heroes – Aquaman (Batman vs Superman)

Batman vs Superman is just under two months away, and anticipation is high. Not necessarily for the right reasons, either – plenty of people are expecting (and even hoping) that this will crash and burn at the box office, or at least with the critics.

I’m on the fence, personally. Ben Affleck really rubs people the wrong way for some reason; I suspect it may have to do with the “Bennifer” years back at the turn of the millennium, but I tend to think it’s best to forgive and move on, rather than continually burst into anger about the sins of the past. He’s made plenty of good movies since then, and haven’t all of us done silly things in the name of love at one point or another? We were just lucky enough to not have it broadcast to the world.  
But whether or not the film is good as a cohesive whole, I think there will be some fun moments. Batman’s armour looks great, it will be great to see Wonder Woman finally hit the big screen and Jason Momoa is likely to turn in a good performance as the subject of today’s review – Aquaman!
Though Aquaman can actually be pretty awesome, recent years have seen him become a bit of a meme serving as shorthand for all the worst things about comics – he’s the guy whose powers include “the ability to talk to fish”. This could (and frequently is, in the comics) quite handy, but it doesn’t sound as impressive as being able to shoot lasers from your eyes.

The movie is obviously aiming to break down a few preconceptions about the character, given the heavy deviation from his traditional costume. This is bound to upset some purists, but I think Aquaman is niche enough that they’ll be able to get away with it. Ant-Man took a few liberties with its titular character, and although it was far from perfect, it was much improved as a result of this tweaking.

This version takes some of its cues from the character’s 90s look, back when being EDGY was the only real requirement to sell a comic. But though its inspiration may be obvious, it’s still distinct enough to have its own look. The pants still have scales and the “A” belt, but there’s no hook hand, and his torso is covered in tribal-inspired tattoos, which is new. More pointedly, Aquaman has always been kind of an Anglo-looking guy. Being of Hawaiian background, Jason Momoa brings a much more Polynesian look to the character, which is a good thing. Being an Atlantean – which is let’s not forget, a fictitious race – there’s no real reason for him to look like he walked of a Nazi recruitment poster.       

I primarily bought this POP as I never got a regular or New 52 Aquaman back when he was more readily available. The character has never been a strong favourite of mine, but the Justice League just feels incomplete without him (though we are still waiting on The Atom, Zatanna and a comics-based version of Cyborg, just to name a few). So whether or not the movie is any good, the team is pretty much complete on my shelf – this is a good thing. Though of course I wouldn’t be surprised if the original now gets a re-release, as some of the rarer Star Wars POPs did a few months ago.
Paint. Well, as always, paint is a mixed bag. The broad strokes are well-conceived but the execution is lacking. There’s fuzzy lines, sloppy application around fine lines and the colours look just a little too muted for my liking (though this is probably reasonably screen accurate, based on the promo pics). Most curious is his beard and hair. I assume that the paint spots are meant to be variations in hair colour, but they also have the effect of kind of looking like he has seaweed stuck all through it.  
The tampoed areas, like the tattoos and eyebrows, are pretty fine. But both arms are missing a bunch of the tattoos that Jason Momoa has in promo pics. This may be a DC style guide thing, rather than Funko’s idea – we’ll have to wait and see what some of the other merchandise looks like.  

That sounds fairly negative, but really it’s kind of business as usual for POPs, as anyone who’s bought more than a few will know. The more concerning problem is his trident – my one seemed to be fine, but plenty of them are quite warped in the box.  

Aquaman has a variant, too – there’s an all-blue “underwater” variant of him. This seems to be distributed in roughly equal quantities to his standard version in Australia, though in America it’s a Hot Topic exclusive. If it glowed in the dark I would have already bought it, but it doesn’t. In fact, one of the main reasons I didn’t was because the one I came across at first had a very warped trident. It’s a pretty cool twist on the figure though.  

I suspect that Aquaman will be the breakout character in the BvS merchandise, though I’m often wrong about these things. But my anecdotal experience suggests that he’s selling through more quickly than his case companions. By contrast, both versions of Batman and the Superman Soldier look like peg warmers already (though it could just be the case quantities), even though they have cool designs. Superman is a flying pose, so plenty of people who don’t care about the movie but like the character will pick him up. Wonder Woman will likely sell by virtue of being Wonder Woman. So if you’re a fan of the character or Jason Momoa, I’d say grab him while you can. Groot was an absolute pain in the bum to get hold of for months after Guardians of the Galaxy was released back in 2014, and I could see similar things happening with Aquaman. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

Lego Minifigures Series 15 review (Part 1 of 4)

Wow! Well, it has been a frustrating, laptopless few weeks. But now I've got a new computer sorted and things should be back to their semi-regular programming. So although we have a belated start to 2016 here, it's a good one -- Minifigures Series 15 is here!

The collectible Minifigures have really been on an upswing of late. While series 10 and 11 were a mixed (though still pretty good) bag, things have been going gangbusters since series 12 onwards. And series 15 is particularly excellent. Read on for Part 1 of 4 of my thoughts on them.


Like the Hot Dog Guy back in series 13, this guy is the real breakout success from this series. I’d assume that it’s inspired by Katy Perry’s Super Bowl 2015 performance, when the now infamous Left Shark introduced it to the world. It does actually take quite a bit of time to develop a new mould, so it’s possible the figure was already in the works prior; however, the paint apps on the face have definitely been inspired by the event. One side of the face depicts a happy and excited face, while the other side shows a face in a state of panic, complete with bead of sweat trickling down the forehead.   

Naturally, this means you should have two of them, to replicate the full Katy Perry effect. This compounds the breakout success of this figure even further…and now we have a more extreme situation than the Hot Dog Guy on our hands. I ended up just ordering my two off eBay, as I was almost certain that I wouldn’t run across any in the wild. I have run into a couple since, but if you come across them, don’t just buy all of them and scalp them for an outrageous price. That ruins it for everyone.  

By contrast, here is the leading contender for least favourite figure from Series 15. If you run across a near-empty box, at least 90% will be Janitors.

It’s a shame, really; the Janitor may not have the most glamorous job in the world of Lego, but he’s a very well-executed figure. And really, kind of essential to any well-running Lego City or modular setup. His uniform is printed with all sorts of cool little details, including a rag sticking out of his right pocket which has some suspiciously brown stains on it. Good (perhaps too good) attention to detail guys. Kids (and me) will find this hilarious. But perhaps the real genius move is making the mop head slot on the handle both ways – no matter which way he holds it, you can have it look right. No gravity- or physics-defying antics here, which means Neil DeGrasse Tyson can rest easy.


Of all the figures in Series 15, this guy is probably the best for army building. Series 12 had the Space Miners and the Battle Goddess (who make excellent Amazons to accompany Wonder Woman). Series 13 was arguably the best for army builders of any series so far, with the Galaxy Trooper, the Egyptian Warrior and the Goblin. This leaves Series 15 a little light by comparison, though there will certainly be plenty of people who invest in multiple Astronauts too. 

But for those who want to keep their Mechs as standalone characters (as I have myself), you’re not without precedent; the Mechs from Series 9 and Series 11 could easily serve either function. This guys is the most elaborate of them so far, equipped with a laser sword (which amazingly manages not to look like a total lightsaber rip-off) and transparent “energy” wings. It’s a little too busy for my personal tastes, but I do really like the Tron-inspired blue, black and silver colour scheme.   


Lego has been getting quite a few Greek mythology characters into the Minifigures theme. The Minotaur in Series 6, Medusa in Series 10 (I really must track one down), the Battle Goddess (*cough*Athena*cough*) in Series 12 and now the Faun, which is definitely not the god Pan. 

Beloved by ancient Greeks in times past and by many neo-pagans in the modern world, Pan was worshipped as a fertility deity, among other things. Given the connection our forebears saw between crop success and human sexuality, some of his traditional depictions are decidedly NSFW by modern standards; ithyphallic sculptures being some of the tamer ones.  

He’s also been tremendously influential on modern pop culture, though largely in a negative sense. You know the horned, goat-man version of the devil? Well, that didn’t come out of the Bible – a bunch of evidence suggests a lot of it stems from Pan, to cut a much longer story short. But on the more positive side, he did make an appearance in The Wind in the Willows as a good guy.   

Lego has chosen the family-friendly route for this depiction of Pan, which is not surprising. His headpiece and legs are both new pieces; I assume we’ll get some additional figures that incorporate use them in the future. Maybe we’ll finally get some Greek or Roman mythology-inspired sets? That would be pretty amazing. But in the meantime, the Faun is a fun little figure. The main problem with him is that he’s been given a flute, not a set of Pan Pipes – yep, he’s where the name came from, so this seems like a bit of an oversight. Given that Satyrs are plural (and Wikipedia tells me that Pan himself was at times too) this could conceivably be an army building figure, but I think I’ll keep him singular. If you're particularly keen, you could probably make a custom Mr Tumnus from The Chronicles of Narnia as well.    

Well, this wraps up the first part -- look for the others coming soon!