• Chaos Magic - Furyborn (2019)

    Many things have changed and yet many things haven't changed at all for Chaos Magic. Four years ago, the band started as a collaboration between Finnish guitarist, producer and songwriter Timo Tolkki who had met Caterina Nix years earlier. Now, Chaos Magic is a band consisting of four Chilean musicians along side the female singer. The album also features several guest vocalists with Evergrey's Tom Englund, Rainbow's Ronald Romero and former Sirenia vocalist Ailyn. Despite these important changes, Furyborn is similar in style to predecessor Chaos Magic.

    The quintet offers contemporary symphonic power metal with a few electronic music touches. The songs vary from powerful rock tracks like ''You Will Breathe Again'' to airy ballads like ''Beware of Silent Waters'' with its enchanting acoustic guitars. The band still recalls numerous female fronted commercially successful symphonic rock and metal bands one and a half decades ago like L'Âme Immortelle, Evanescence and Within Temptation. Furyborn would have been all the rage fifteen years ago but isn't too impressive these days. The album is enjoyable to listen to thanks to the skillful melodic lead vocals, the numerous guest vocalists and the diversified song writing but the record fails to leave a deeper impression due to a lack of creative ideas, crunchy production and energetic instrumental performances.

    In the end, Furyborn is only a slight improvement over the average predecessor and should only be interesting for fans of melodic symphonic metal fans. This album could also be a good record for younger audiences to discover metal music like L'Âme Immortelle, Evanescence and Within Temptation fifteen years earlier. This record is good for what it is but ultimately rather forgettable.

    Final rating: 65%

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  • Ansi-seong / The Great Battle (2018)

    The Great Battle, originally titled Ansi Fortress, is a South Korean historical war epic about the Siege of Ansi in the seventh century as Chinese Emperor Taizong attacked the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. Despite embellishing a few historical details such as the eye injury to Emperor Taizong, the most important aspects of the film are historically accurate. The numerous Chinese viewers who rated this movie down due to misplaced patriotic pride should be ignored.

    The movie convinces on numerous levels. The four prolonged battle scenes are creative, dynamic and intense. In between these battles, the viewers are introduced to numerous interesting characters such as powerful military dictator Yeon Gaesomun, dissident commander Yang Manchun and young soldier Sa-mul who was asked by Yeon Gaesomun to assassinate traitor Yang Manchun. The movie also deals with emotional topics such as friendship, love and loyalty which adds more depth to the characters without distracting from the dramatic military circumstances. This dynamic mixture makes the film easy to digest despite its long running time. The special effects are fluidly employed and make the film quite dynamic. The camera work is mostly calm if compared to numerous contemporary military films with shaky camera passages.

    The Great Battle is entertaining from start to finish and convinces with four intense battles and numerous intriguing characters. The only things that could be improved are the facts that the character portraits could be even more detailed and that the characters shouldn't look as sharp and beautiful as they do while living in a rural community under siege for three months. In the end, anyone who likes historical war epics should give this movie a try as it's one of the best of its kind in recent memory.

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  • Ba wang bie ji / Farewell My Concubine (1993)

    It's quite funny who I discovered Farewell My Concubine. I was looking for some records in a second-hand shop in Montreal when I saw a gorgeous Korean boxed set including a DVD of this film as well as its soundtrack. Since this Korean version of an old Chinese film was quite obscure, the package only cost three dollars. I assumed I couldn't do anything wrong purchasing this film and I was indeed not disappointed at all when I finally watched the award-winning classic. The airy soundtrack is also quite unique.

    Farewell My Concubine is based upon a novel of the same name and depicts a surprisingly honest picture of Chinese history throughout the twentieth century. The movie follows a young boy named Douzi whose prostitute mother tries to get rid of him by any means necessary. She cuts his supernumerary finger with a cleaver and then sends her son to a group of young boys who are trained to perform Peking opera. Douzi is bullied by the other kids because of his origins and regularly beaten and intimidated by adults. He is further humiliated by being forced to act female roles but manages to perform brilliantly with his best friend Shitou. He even endures sexual abuse by an eunuch to hold on to his dream to become a star and have a better life. But even when he becomes a renowned star, Douzi's life seems to be cursed. His best friend slowly drifts away from him when he marries a selfish prostitute. His patron tries to seduce and abuse him. Political forces accuse him for having been forced to dance for Japanese generals. Despite all the hardship, Douzi doesn't stop believing in a better future.

    Despite a few lengths over a running time of nearly three hours, the movie has numerous strengths. The film is a critical portrait of Chinese history from the mid-twenties to the mid-seventies and shows how societal and political forces of different origins abuse, menace and persecute the protagonist alike. The costumes, settings and soundtrack are detailed, emotive and inspiring. The acting performances are intense and especially lead actor Leslie Cheung fully convinces as homosexual actor, dancer and singer who is never fully accepted by society. The film has a gripping melancholic atmosphere and there only very few inspiring hopeful moments as opposed to numerous grim setbacks. This intellectual movie certainly isn't easy to digest but offers incredibly rewarding food for thought.

    One thing that needs to be pointed out is that famous actor Leslie Cheung plays the greatest role of his life in this ambitious epic drama. The parallels between his character Douzi and the actual actor Leslie Cheung are almost creepy regarding his stardom, sexuality and fate. That makes the movie even more thought-provoking in hindsight and shows that the film has aged quite well.

    If you like ambitious and epic dramas and are interested in Chinese culture, history and society, you should watch Farewell My Concubine. The movie is emotionally gripping, historically accurate and intellectually challenging. It has aged quite well and shows an extraordinary lead actors who fully identifies with his role.

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  • Jûsan-nin no shikaku / 13 Assassins (1963)

    13 Assassins is a Japanese jidaigeki or period drama as well as chanbara or sword fighting action film. Despite a solid reputation in its home country, the film was critically overlooked by international cinephiles and only came back into the spotlight following the critically acclaimed remake of the same name by veteran director Miike Takashi that is surprisingly close to the original film.

    The story revolves around ruthless Lord Matsudaira who rapes a young woman who works in an inn and then proceeds to kill her lover. Appalled by his actions, a high-ranking official commits seppuku. Due to his connections to the shogun, Lord Matsudaira is also about to be elected into a Council of Elders which would make him even more influential. Another high-ranking official named Sir Doi understands that such a raise to power by such a ruthless person could lead to revolts and ultimately a civil war. In order to prevent such a worst case scenario, Sir Doi starts to organize a conspiracy and proceeds to hire twelve samurai who are asked to ambush as assassinate Lord Matsudaira during one of his travels. With the help of the inn owner who seeks revenge and blocks the usual route of Lord Matsudaira, the ruthless man and his companions are forced to take a different route and go through a remote village. It's at this precise place that the twelve assassins, now supported by a local swordsman who joins them, set up numerous traps to complete their bloody mission.

    This movie convinces on numerous levels. The cinematography is gorgeous with calm camera work, beautiful traditional costumes and stunning landscapes. The movie has a constant gloomy undertone and is quite explicit for its time when showing the lord's brutal actions. Thanks to precise acting performances, the audience empathizes with courageous Sir Doi and feels strongly against selfish Lord Matsudaira. The first half of the movie takes its time to introduce the audience to the different characters, settings and historic circumstances. The second half is quite fast-paced and focuses on intense fights and clever traps during the ambush. The fight choreographies are skillful, intense and entertaining to watch.

    The movie has aged rather well. The only differences between this film and the remake are that the remake shows much more blood and is obviously not shot in black and white. If you like atmospheric sword fighting action films, you will certainly like both the original version and the remake. It's great that this critically overlooked old gem finally gets the attention it truly deserves.

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  • Timo Tolkki's Avalon - Return to Eden (2019)

    Before legendary Finnish guitarist Timo Tolkki started his Avalon project, he was in the process of recording an ambitious solo album but he must have seen Frontiers Records' offer to release a metal opera consisting of three albums as the better financial option. Despite jumping on the bandwagon, the first album The Land of New Hope could convince thanks to great guest singers like Helloween's Michael Kiske, Sonata Arctica's Tony Kakko and Symphony X's Russell Allen. The second output Angels of the Apocalypse was a disaster with less renowned guest vocalists, terrible sound effects and the worst production I have ever heard in my life. Timo Tolkki went through numerous personal issues as well and had pretty much vanished from the metal scene for three years. A little bit more than five years after the last output, the trilogy finally comes to its conclusion but it's obvious that it has only happened because both sides had a contract to respect. The label hired Italian session musicians, contacted a few less renowned guest vocalists and the Italian guitarist made sure to take care of the production himself to not let Timo Tolkki mess things up this time around. The Finnish guitarist was simply asked to write some generic power metal song structures by the numbers. 

    The final result sounds as exchangeable as it gets. The guest vocalists fail to leave a deeper impression since they lack the charisma and talent of those involved in the first record. The session musicians do a solid routine job but it's obvious why they aren't involved in any bigger bands because they are lacking creativity, identity and ultimately talent. They also have no chemistry with Timo Tolkki since his signature guitar solos simply sound phoned in. The melodic mid-paced songs all revolve around the five-minute mark and mostly follow the conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. No single track manages to surprise, innovate or energize.

    There are few positive things to mention. The varied vocal performance in ''Promises'' is decent and the label made a mildly intriguing music video for the song. However, the second music video ''Godsend'' was already disappointing in that regard since it rehashed ideas from the first clip and presented a less skilled vocalist. ''Give Me Hope'' offers optimistic power metal tropes that would have been all the rage twenty years ago and is at least technically compelling which makes this average tune the highlight of the album. 

    Still, it's obvious that the heart simply isn't there. And even though the previous release was a disaster objectively speaking, it was at least Timo Tolkki's brain child, made critics and fans react controversially and had an unconventional style. Return to Eden is boring, faceless and forgettable and won't inspire any discussions, questions or reactions. That's why I consider this record the nadir of Timo Tolkki's career even though he is only partially to blame as he rather seems to be the pawn in the record company's game.

    Return to Eden offers bland melodic power metal by the numbers and doesn't deserve any attention. If you really like melodic power metal, revisit Timo Tolkki's career highlights from the late nineties or support a young, hungry and creative band or project like Orion's Reign, Light & Shade or Guardians of Time. I wish Timo Tolkki all the best for yet another comeback and would suggest him to lower expectations and take his time to finally bring his solo album to life.

    Final rating: 25%

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