Friday, 27 March 2015

NIGHTWISH - 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful'

My relationship with Nightwish is not the most fanboyish, as I never thought much of them when they had operatic diva Tarja on vocals. I actually found the wailing version of ‘Over the Hills & Far Away’ quite hilarious, and although I appreciated that the music was clever and passionate I just couldn’t get over the vocal style. When they ditched the diva and got in Anette Olzon I was intrigued at first, then overjoyed with the superb ‘Dark Passion Play’. Like many I didn’t go mental over ‘Imaginarium’, but still enjoyed it for what it was. 

With Olzon gone, it was a relief that Nightwish picked up the amazing Floor Jansen, a woman certainly capable of delivering all the power and passion required to tackle old and new tunes. Having proved herself live, few could doubt she would hold her own on the new album, and she certainly has. Opening track ‘Shudder Before The Beautiful’ blasts out of the speakers with speed and gusto, a song that sounds as Nightwish as it possibly could. Floor sounds excellent, although very slightly low in the mix for my taste, and the track barrels along with aggression and melody – should be a great live opener. The track is obviously designed to convey the message that Nightwish are back, and it does so most effectively.

‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’ is a masterful work, based around the concept of evolution. It features several spoken word pieces by Richard Dawkins, and hopefully will annoy creationists everywhere. The song mix is typical of Nightwish, with fast tracks balanced by slow, haunting melodies. Standout tracks for me are the faster pieces like ‘Weak Fantasy’, ‘Yours is An Empty Hope’ the opening track and the title track, as well as the lead single ‘Elan’, which really grew on me the more I listened to it (and the louder I turned it up). ‘our Decades In the Sun’ is a beautiful power ballad, ‘My Walden’ has an uplifting, mid paced Celtic lift to it, whilst ‘Edema Ruh’ and ‘Alpenglow’ round off the bulk of the album in marvellous melodic style. 

So that’s about 47 minutes, enough for any album, really, but Nightwish aren’t your usual band. The last half an hour of the album consists of just two tracks, the rather dull ‘The Eyes Of Sharbat Gula’ and the 24 minute epic closer ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’. The former is 6 minutes of the dullest background music I’ve ever heard, is responsible for the docked half mark, and will definitely be deleted from my iPod. The latter is, well, rather epic. The running time is roughly split in half between the lengthy, and atmospheric, opening and closing pieces, which sandwich a monster of a mid section that will delight fans of the ‘Dark Passion Play’ title track. It’s not perfect, as the outro is far too long, really, but taken as a whole it’s a great piece of music. 

Anyone who had doubts after ‘Imaginarium’ and the departure of Olzon can rest easy with ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’. It’s a wonderful example of what orchestral power metal can do when it’s in the hands of the right people. Full of life and some very catchy music, it should put Nightwish back at the top where they belong. 

Sunday, 15 March 2015


I am old of those odd people who has been playing video games since way back when Space Invaders first crunched it’s way into the arcades. Before that, I played the old Binatone home console, the one that theoretically had ten games but in reality was loaded with several slight variants on Pong. It didn’t matter, because when that’s all that you’ve got, all that you’ve known, it’s nine kinds of awesome. Give a kid a Binatone machine today and he’ll think you’re mental, and anyway he wouldn’t be able to find the aerial socket to plug it into.

Fast forward forty years or so, and video games have changed. Fork over your fifty quid and you’ll most likely be taken on a graphical adventure where the aim of the game is to get from the beginning of the story to the end, hopefully having some fun on the way. I’ve enjoyed playing these massive masterpieces as much as anybody, but deep down I will always fondly remember the days of limited lives and high scores, when a handful of 10p pieces would guarantee a fun hour or two whilst mum sat down for a cup of tea and a fag. 

I tell you all this because you might get a sense of how excited I was to find out that there was a retro arcade a short train ride from where I live. The Timewarp Arcade is situated in Bridgwater, a small West Country town that also boasts a disproportionate number of retro game and collectables shops on the high street. Whilst this may suggest it’s a bit of a town that time forgot, it suited my purposes to a T.

The Timewarp Arcade is only open in the evenings and weekend, but their entry policy couldn’t be more perfect. Pay a fiver (six at weekends) and once you’re in everything is on free play. If you want to spend a few hours honing your skills on Space Invaders you can do so, or you can flit like a bat from machine to machine, sampling all and mastering none. In total, there’s about 50 retro arcade machines (some on multi cabinets), plus two pool tables, and air hockey table, table football (it’s a table-y sort of place) and a solitary pinball machine (the tricky ‘Lethal Weapon 3’). 

The retro crowning glory for me was twofold. First, I saw an old ‘Star Wars’ sit in game, perhaps the game that most made me go ‘wow’ as a kid, with it’s stunningly realised wire frame graphics, film soundtrack samples and fast, difficult gameplay. It took me back to when I first saw (and heard) it in a Weston-super-Mare arcade, begging my mum for the 50p (which was steep) needed to play it. It was awesome then, and it still is. Mind you, I’m still not very good at it, but that’s not important when you’re having fun. The other machine I was overjoyed to see is Lunar Rescue, a sort of Space Invaders inspired game from 1979 (only a year after Space Invaders itself). I used to play this in the Youth Wing at school, over thirty years ago now, and was keen to see if I still had what it takes, as I was always the high score holder back then. It is one of two table top games in the arcade, where you sit down to play (and spread your legs because there’s no sodding room underneath), but as that’s how I played it way back when it seemed natural to do it again. I have to say that it’s still a brilliant game, a creative take on the Invaders genre, and I also have to say that I got the frigging high score, as I did on Galaxians, another old favourite of mine.

I can honestly say that this was one of the most fun afternoons I’ve had for a long while. I straddled the Manx TT Superbike, swore at Lethal Weapon 3 pinball, stuffed a local at table football and Air Hockey, played Space Invaders for the first time in yonks, realized that the OutRun sequel Outrunners is utter shite, laughed at fat men in their forties playing on a dance machine (I didn’t have the nerve to do it myself) and generally wished I didn’t have to work later on so I could stay til they closed. The biggest surprise was that it wasn’t busy, just a handful of people coming in and out on a Saturday afternoon. 

If you are anywhere near Bridgwater, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Timewarp arcade, as it’s a haven for old machines (plus a few consoles set up for more modern multiplayer fun). I will certainly be returning, maybe to be brave and join the other fat men in their forties on the dance machine, or maybe to get better at Star Wars. Then again, I might just play as many games as possible and suck at them all, although there’s always the hope of getting to put your initials on that high score table… 

The Timewarp Arcade is at Watson's Lane, Bridgwater, TA6 5BE

Friday, 6 March 2015

FM - HEROES & VILLAINS Album review

Perhaps the best example of a musical phoenix rising from the ashes, FM have gone from strength to strength since their reformation, constantly delivering great music, not only on albums but also on EPs that are longer than most people’s albums. You want value for money, then be an FM fan. As anyone who has studied the Kama Sutra knows, though, it’s not the length that counts, it’s what you do with it, and FM wield their weapon like a samurai.

‘Heroes & Villains’ has a lot to live up to, following as it does the impressive double act of ‘Rockville’ parts one and two. A move to melodic rock’s uber label, Frontiers, doesn’t seem to have changed anything except probably distribution and promotion, and what we have here is another album that’s FM to the core. Those waiting for a proper sequel to the debut ‘Indiscreet’ won’t be happy, but that’s never gonna happen. What we have here is what could be the best thing the band have done full stop.

It’s an album of a few parts, so let’s start with the upbeat melodic rock tracks. These are the tracks that are smooth as silk, radio friendly AOR anthems, much like ‘Bad Luck’ of old, or ‘Crave’ from ‘Rockville’. There’s four tracks that fit into this mould, and all are superb, including what, for me, is the best track on the album ‘Shape I’m In’. This is one of those tracks you can play over and over again, with the added bonus of a healthy dose of ‘Woah! Yeah!’ to punch the air to. ‘Best Thing’ and ‘Call On Me’ follow the same template and are full to bursting with melody, whilst ‘Life Is A Highway’ is a quintessential open top car on a California road track.

Next, we have the bluesy hard rock tracks, where the guitars get a little crunchier and the melody is a bit more ‘chuggy’, as in ‘Burning My Heart Down’ or ‘Tough Love’. Lead single and opening track ‘Digging Up The Dirt’ is a prime example, a real gut punch of a track with an infectious hook and a solid beat. We’ve also got ‘Big Brother’, a track coming out as quite a few people’s favourite, ‘Fire & Rain’, ‘Cold Hearted’ and ‘I Want You’. Mix them up with the upbeat tracks and you get a real good picture of what FM are like these days.

Finally, there’s the ballads, something FM have always been pretty good at. There’s two here, and in all honesty they’re two of the best the band have done. ‘Incredible’ splits the album in half and is an unashamed ‘I love you’ slush fest, whilst ‘Walking With Angels’ similarly closes the album. Whilst both are excellent, the sheer passion that comes across in the latter has made it perhaps my favourite ballad the band have ever done, so suck on that ‘Frozen Tart’.

In the middle of everything else is the track ‘Somedays I Only Wanna Rock & Roll’, which is exactly what it sounds like. This is a brilliant, upbeat melodic track with blues overtones that straddles the two main categories. This, people, is the track that should finally nudge ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ from the live set. 

So yeah, I like this. Steve Overland sounds fantastic throughout, but that’s to be expected, as is the competence of the rest of the band. The production is spot on, the songs virtually faultless and even if the cover looks like one The Almighty rejected in the 90s it’ll do. ‘Heroes & Villains’ stand as one of the best, if not the best, FM albums and is sure to delight existing fans as well as win a few new ones. Bring on the tour.

'Digging Up The Dirt'