Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Arch Enemy - Rise of the Tyrant

Memories of Arch Enemy’s last two albums are warped in a spiral of negativity. Adjectives fasten themselves, locking into the memory, constructing associations running the gamut of banality and lustreless soundscapes. Plodding riffs cascading into groove, frequent gyrations on the screams of recycled rhythms. Protests cite the occasional tracks of quality, prodding at one to ignore the truth: that this album duo indeed fail to continue a streak of brilliance the band was cultivating so successfully. Alas, mediocrity can’t be erased by the recollection of past triumph.

Now, what is this? A new Arch Enemy opus, Rise of the Tyrant, studio release number seven, lunging from the palms of the Swedish quintet into our welcoming aural cavities.

Gone is the preoccupation with guitar tracks that jog along, toneless, fearing melody will catch them up. Here is the veritable “return to form”, oft-pronounced in the past, chanted from belfries with no consideration for the validity of the claim – but this is the genuine article, the album to overwrite recent dips in calibre, inverting memories mired in the pungent odours of disappointment.

The dramatic surge in quality comes through hefty bolts of vitality, a newly-discovered fount of energy flooding the band. Perhaps credit should be given to Christopher Amott, guitarist and co-founding member, who exited the band a few years ago only to return earlier this year. No doubt his head became layered in vast swathes of riffery during the hiatus, all to gush intensely outwards upon his return.

Songs like ‘In This Shallow Grave’ demonstrate the grilling heaviness present on the last two albums, but this time added with the missing element of ingenuity needed to captivate the listener’s attention – that wavering, fickle cord that links musician and enthusiast. ‘Night Falls Fast’ shuttles along in a similar vein, summoning comparisons with the thrash titillations circumnavigating debut album Black Earth. Yet never does the reverberations of Rise of the Tyrant fall short of sounding absolutely contemporary.

A crucial influx of melody underscores the album, warm lapidary lines of melodic sustenance boring through each and every song. Contrasts are established through the intermixture of thrilling sonic blasts of metal and decelerating pullulations of glowing harmonies, joyous juxtapositions coursing at exactly the right pace. The height of this convergence comes with ‘The Day You Died’, its central motif a roaming, dense riff of dynamic chugging overlaid with a melancholic lead shivering in sparseness. Reminiscent of In Flames Clayman-era (before the transition to insurmountable hideousness), this song is precisely that which has been lacking of late, the smooth touch expressed to perfection on Burning Bridges and Wages of Sin.

Even the dual guitar relays get a spark of rejuvenation here. The Amott brothers evidence their axe-wielding skills with biting force, encircling passages in winding double helixes of harmonised lead guitar, propelling momentum in lightning flashes of scalar dance.

It’s a relief to see equilibrium re-established here, for wrongs to be righted, past blips elided. The confirmation that Arch Enemy are producers of sublime musical expanses is a fact left numbing the head after listening to Rise of the Tyrant.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Street Fighter

There’s a dream recurrent amongst the brethren of Jean Claude Van Damme – that subculture oft-overlooked by sociologists and census nazis, shunned off to corners untouched by light and made to endure mock rhetoric orchestrated by those too high-strung to acquire mirth from shoe-face collisions. The dream has the dreamer deliriously enchanted by a field in which runs every film ever blessed by the presence of Jean Claude Van Damme. On one bump of verdant unfolds the winding narrative of Kickboxer, another sees heroic postures interlinked with Dolph Lundgren’s vectorial oomph. A land of grace where the dreamer oscillates between orgasmic dizziness and pulsing delight, a place where inhibitions are shattered, crumbled to sand swept away in a gust of bicep.

It’s when the initial flood of joy and fear reach harmony, when guilt and insignificance are erased from the dreaming mind that corrupt forces puncture the idyll. Surging over the horizon suddenly appears the towering scowl of M. Bison, Van Damme’s opposite number in the opera that is Street Fighter.

This titan casts his glare onto each and every filmic grain scuttling its way across dense serpentine pastures of Van Awesomeness. Screens are instantly annihilated, scenes ceased incomplete, stolen from eyes and ears, replaced by blackened voids. Insensitive to the pinnings of the distressed dreamer, Bison rises from the holocaust, gleaming fragments of glowering lips cut the sky in two, and he exits into the firmament. The few seconds before the dream elapses entirely has the dreamer sight the carnage from afar, the turbid aftermath ringing out in the air, screams of deceased fisticuff denouements fading into silence.

Psychologists have yet to arrive at a conclusive theory as to the cause or meaning of this nocturnal disturbance. Freud was baffled at the illusion of grace offered by the pastoral canvas; Jung failed to traverse the spectral appearance of Dolph Lundgren; Lacan wafted to preoccupations concerning the dreamer and the dreamer’s dreamed self; Laing spent twenty-minutes dividing a promotional photo of Bison, then left the room.

The dream erupts at the core of the sleeping Van Fan in patterns yet undiscovered. Its variations remain nil, uniformity upheld in buzzing consistency. Some rumours point to the viewing of Street Fighter as an instigating element, a film widely known for its cresting of affect. Chances for the criss-crossing bodies and cross-cutting narrative of said motion movie to wedge themselves in the subconscious are abundant – that this is the case exists as a strong probability.

Let’s accept the hypothesis that enwrapping the pupil blacks in the aura of Street Fighter for ninety minutes induces the vivid dream aforementioned. Now, what are the precise cues embedded within its compass.

Van Damme is Guile, military commander of the Good Guys in a war-torn South-East Asian country. To his side is Kylie Minogue – after her tenure in Neighbours was crushed by the flaming fists of Harold Bishop, but before she had the good fortune to contract lethal strains of Pauly Shore. Flanking the duo of dynamism is another duo, starlets of the game from which the film is derived, the ever-present Ken and Ryu. And completing the altruistic wave is Doctor Chung Li and her henchmen.

Facing the legions of morality across a gulf of illegal kickboxing and speed boat games is the horde of evil, the nasty antagonists, whores to the rhythm of craven wishes. Propelling this jutting malignancy is M. Bison, herald of the mighty diabolical plan and arch-patriarch of the family Adams. Slotted below him are charismatic persons such as Sagat, Vega and Zangief.

In attempting to fulfil desires of world domination, Bison takes a group of innocents hostage, requesting some twenty-billion dollars to buy their safe release. Van Damme’s having none of this ransom lark and mounts his own assault on Bison’s temple headquarters, rented from the same people who supplied Pol Pot with quality interiors for years. Van Guile garners the assistance of his fellow Good Guys in the offence, and open threads of character development and conflict slowly converge on a grand finale full of cranial punches and thudding blows to the groin.

Disregarding the disappointing lack of stretchy limbs sported by Dhalsim and Blanka’s terminal secondary-character-syndrome, it’s hard not to shake with glee at the thought of Street Fighter. The zany audacity with which it places into the hands of ruthless villain Bison a copy of the arcade machine control panel as his master console is but one signifier of a film revelling in its absurdity. Characters clutching their one dimensions, cartoon scraps, the subtle allusions to hours wasted pummelling Sagat to see if his eye-patch falls off – and, of course, the Van Liner.

Even with stiff competition from Bison, Van Damme is able to steal the show: his delivery of the wry remark is simply unbeatable and the film is populated by their wise syllables. Words flow from his tongue like poetry, just admire the following: “It’s the collection agency, Bison. Your ass is six months overdue, and it’s mine.”

See what he did there, likening himself to a collection agency and Bison’s ass to the items to be collected. Genius! Almost as svelte as the kicks ushered from out of Van Damme’s pelvic juggernaut.

Crisp combos held by Van Damme help efface the dodgy sub-Michael Biehn antics that follow Ken, of Ken and Ryu-fame. His face may channel Kyle Reese’s most superb gestures to the well of cinema but he clearly lacks all the beatific substance that lines the organs of he who we must accompany if we want to live. Ample Van Dammage enables us to ignore such minor besmirchments.

Stephen E. de Souza, director, should at this very moment – if I’ve prepared things correctly – feel an appreciative tickle in bodily areas vigorously clothed. As if scripting Hudson Hawk were not testament enough, Street Fighter cements a reputation awash with brilliance.

Alas, in the end, only the Van Aphorism can possibly solve the mystery as to why this film prompts one to conjure such eccentric dalliances in the subconscious. It can’t be a repressed fear that M. Bison didn’t actually die, that he survived Van Damme’s final kick into the sheet of widescreens, his electromagnetic powers being slashed at the source. Or could it be that Bison somehow transcended the world of fictional action schlock, taking a place at the very heart of our nightmares, a wraith-like presence haunting with persistence an otherwise unblemished dreamscape?

It is a scary thought.