Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Album Review: A$AP Rocky-At.Long.Last.A$AP

The life of A$AP Rocky has changed pretty dramatically since the release of his major-label debut Long.Live.A$AP in January 2013. In that just over two-year period, Rocky watched his popularity blow up to the point where he was able to land a spot opening for Rihanna and co-headlining an amphitheater tour with Wiz Khalifa, got involved in an 18-month relationship with Victoria's Secret model Chanel Iman and had to endure the pain of losing his longtime best friend and business partner Steven "A$AP Yams" Rodriguez to a drug overdose at the age of 26. The impact all of these events had on Rocky are apparent when listening to his second LP, At. Long.Last.A$AP, which is easily the darkest and most hallucinatory record he's ever released.

Since day one, A$AP Rocky has dropped countless songs about drugs, sex and fashion over largely psychedelic (and pretty consistently excellent) beats, and that formula still runs the show here. There are a few songs that go against the grain such as the album's opening 1-2 punch of "Holy Ghost" and "Canal St.", which serve as surprisingly deep reflections on the perils of fame and losing focus on your core values and where you came from once you get consumed with the jet-setting celebrity lifestyle, but these are nothing but brief albeit welcome detours on Rocky's debauchery-filled journey.

Rocky may still be rapping about the same subjects, but the mood is much more melancholy than anything he's done in the past. Rocky is clearly reeling from Yams' death and the sadness he's feeling is stamped all over the production choices on this album. The production-which was handled by more than a dozen of the genre's heavy hitters including Mark Ronson, Kanye West and Danger Mouse-makes heavy use of eerie samples and lo-fi keys to establish a bleak yet trippy atmosphere that practically never lets up. Even the more upbeat songs like "Electric Body" and "Wavybone" have bursts of haunting psychedelia weaved into their otherwise sunny sound. The gloomy aura of At.Long.Last.A$AP adds a refreshing and welcome blast of darkness into Rocky's well-established sound.

The distinctly somber mood established with the production is nicely offset by the high-energy verses Rocky drops on a vast majority of the record. Whenever Rocky takes the mic, he's a ridiculously charismatic live wire, and that incendiary presence prevents this album from being a depressing listen. The swagger and simply incredible flow Rocky displays when he raps has been long been one of the strongest selling points of his music and on this record, those qualities have never shined brighter. The verses he drops on "Jukebox Joints", "Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2", "Better Things" and the aforementioned "Holy Ghost" are without question amongst, if not the most attention-grabbing and all-around impressive verses he's ever dropped. At. Long. Last. A$AP largely plays with Rocky's internal battle between light and darkness and the stark contrast between his rapping and the production perfectly exemplifies that.

At. Long. Last. A$AP succeeds on a number of different levels: It's a poignant tribute to the late A$AP Yams, it makes (mostly) great use of its abundance of guest artists and I'd imagine it's a great record for psychedelic drug enthusiasts to put on and vibe out to. But above all, it's a reflection of Rocky's growth as an artist. Rocky's lyrics are still pretty hollow on the whole and there are a fair number of tracks that fail miserably ("Pharsyde", "West Side Highway" and above all, "Fine Whine"-which relies way too heavily on Rocky's signature chopped-and-and screwed vocal effect and features a pair of embarrassing guest spots from Future and M.I.A.), but the production and rapping that have defined his musical identity continue to become more polished as time goes on, and that's more than enough to forgive his shortcomings in other areas. Rocky is getting closer and closer to perfecting his niche on each album he puts out and when the day arrives where he gets everything right, the world is going to be in for a serious treat.

3.5/5 Stars
Standout Tracks
1.Holy Ghost
2.Electric Body
3.Better Things     

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Best and Worst of Dwayne Johnson

Editor's Note: Starting this week, I'm going to profile the best and worst pieces of work of an actor starring in one of the week's new releases, starting with San Andreas star Dwayne Johnson. This series will run every week for the rest of the summer movie season and could be become a permanent weekly series if the reception is strong enough. Hope you all enjoy. 

Films Starring Dwayne Johnson I've Seen:
The Scorpion King
The Rundown
Walking Tall
Be Cool
Southland Tales
Gridiron Gang
Get Smart
The Other Guys
Fast Five
G.I. Joe: Retaliation 
Pain & Gain
Fast and Furious 6 
Furious 7

Best Performance: Pain & Gain (2013)
Michael Bay's pitch black comedy Pain & Gain featured a gifted cast including Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie and Ed Harris that were all on the top of their game. But it was Johnson's scene-stealing and consistently hilarious turn as Jesus-worshiping cokehead Paul Doyle that served as the crown jewel in a sea of standout performances.  

Worst Performance: The Scorpion King (2002)
The Scorpion King was Johnson's first starring role in Hollywood and it showed. He hadn't yet figured out how to channel the off-the-charts likability and charisma that made him one of the most popular superstars in the history of WWE onto the big screen and it makes his awkward performance here hard to watch. It also doesn't help that the movie itself is way too serious for its own good and doesn't makes use of the comedic chops that got Johnson noticed by Hollywood in the first place.  

Best Film He's Starred In: The Rundown (2003)
It didn't take Johnson long to recover after the underwhelming Scorpion King. Johnson's second starring role in Peter Berg's The Rundown not only showed that Johnson could be taken seriously as an actor, but that he had the potential to be Hollywood's next all-time great action star. Johnson and Seann William Scott make for a great Odd Couple-esque pairing, Christopher Walken is tremendous as the villain and the film is equally good at generating laughs and staging exhilarating action sequences. The Rundown is an enormously fun ride that played a huge role in helping Johnson become the superstar that he is today.  

Worst Film He's Starred In: Be Cool (2005)
The failure of Be Cool has nothing to do with Johnson, who was the sole highlight of the movie as a flamboyantly gay bodyguard to Vince Vaughn and Harvey Kietel's characters who aspires to be an actor (the scene where he does a monologue from Bring It On is brilliant.) Outside of Johnson's spirited work, Be Cool is a nothing short of a disaster. The characters are obnoxious, the writing is lazy and above all, it's painfully unfunny. Be Cool is one of the worst movies I've ever seen and is by far the largest blemish on Johnson's resume to-date.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

2015 NFL Position Rankings: Top 30 Guards

30.Oday Aboushi (Jets)
29.Trai Turner (Panthers)
28.Andrew Norwell (Panthers)
27.Logan Mankins (Buccaneers)
26.Todd Herremans (Colts)
25.Geoff Schwartz (Giants)
24.Andy Levitre (Titans)
23.Ben Grubbs (Chiefs)
22.Ronald Leary (Cowboys)
21.Ramon Foster (Steelers)
20.Alex Boone (49ers)
19.Jahri Evans (Saints)
18.David DeCastro (Steelers)
17.Brandon Linder (Jaguars)
16.Joel Bitonio (Browns)
15.Clint Boling (Bengals)
14.Orlando Franklin (Chargers)
13.Matt Slauson (Bears)
12.Larry Warford (Lions)
11.T.J. Lang (Packers)
10.Louis Vazquez (Broncos)
9.Mike Iupati (Cardinals)
8.Brandon Brooks (Texans)
7.Kevin Zeitler (Bengals)
6.Zach Martin (Cowboys)
5.Kyle Long (Bears)
4.Kelechi Osemele (Ravens)
3.Josh Sitton (Packers)
2.Evan Mathis (Eagles)
1.Marshal Yanda (Ravens)

Friday, May 22, 2015

2015 NFL Position Rankings: Top 30 Tackles

30.Phil Loadholt (Vikings)
29.Anthony Davis (49ers)
28.Cordy Glenn (Bills)
27.Derek Newton (Texans)
26.Marcus Gilbert (Steelers)
25.Donald Penn (Raiders)
24.Russell Okung (Seahawks)
23.Nate Solder (Patriots)
22.Zach Strief (Saints)
21.Riley Rieff (Lions)
20.Lane Johnson (Eagles)
19.Doug Free (Cowboys)
18.Ricky Wagner (Ravens)
17.Demar Dotson (Buccaneers)
16.King Dunlap (Chargers)
15.Kelvin Beachum (Steelers)
14.Anthony Castonzo (Colts)
13.Eugene Monroe (Ravens)
12.Bryan Bulaga (Packers)
11.Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots)
10.Branden Albert (Dolphins)
9.Jared Veldheer (Cardinals)
8.Ryan Clady (Broncos)
7.Duane Brown (Texans)
6.Trent Williams (Redskins)
5.Joe Staley (49ers)
4.Tyron Smith (Cowboys)
3.Jason Peters (Eagles)
2.Andrew Whitworth (Bengals)
1.Joe Thomas (Browns)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Album Review: Veil of Maya-Matriarch

Illinois-based deathcore act Veil of Maya had its first member change in nearly four years when vocalist Brandon Butler-who had been with the band since the release of their 2008 breakout album The Common Man's Collapse- left the band in the fall of 2014 due to creative and personal differences. The creative differences that forced Butler out of the band are apparent when listening to the band's new LP, Matriarch, which for better or worse, sees Veil of Maya putting a more accessible, melodic twist on their established sound.

To its credit, Matriarch starts off on a pretty strong note. It definitely deviates from the progressive deathcore style they're known for while also still utilizing a lot of the strengths that have defined their music since day one. "Leeloo" is driven by one of guitarist Marc Okubo's trademark distorted, skip-heavy groove riffs and features some pretty excellent high screams from new vocalist Lukas Magyar while "Lucy" is a blisteringly technical track with bursts of well-constructed melody that wouldn't sound out of place on Eclipse or (id). Even though the band is trying to establish a new voice on Matriarch, it's nice to see that they haven't completely abandoned their roots. While "Leeloo" and "Lucy" beckon back to the Veil of Maya of old, "Ellie" and "Mikasa" serve as a representation of what the newest incarnation sounds like. These tracks are sure to catch longtime listeners of the band off-guard with their inclusion of clean vocals and super melodic guitars, but if you can get over the shock of hearing singing and non-distorted guitars in a Veil of Maya song, they are pretty effective tracks. Magyar makes his presence felt on these tracks by displaying his knack for writing memorable vocals melodies (the hook on "Mikasa" hasn't left my head since I listened to this album) and a pretty impressive voice that is reminiscent of Periphery frontman Spencer Sotelo. Clean vocals proved to be a pretty solid addition to their musical cannon and Magyar's solid performance in the early portion of the record disproves the myth that clean vocals had no place in Veil of Maya's music.

After the first half of Matriarch any fears about Veil of Maya losing their edge with their new vocalist appeared to be put the rest. The second half drastically changes that. Aside from the heavy-as-all-hell "Phoenix", the second half of Matriarch consists of nothing but middling filler tracks. The successful balance of their newfound melody with vintage grooves suddenly vanishes and is replaced by a series of songs loaded with limp djent riffs and practically no vocal variation.

The failure of the second half album can be equally attributed to Okubo's flat songwriting and Magyar's vocal deficiencies. Okubo's attempts to make the band more accessible has taken away from a lot of the magic from their music. Okubo has made a name for himself over the years by using a playing style that made heavy use of effects pedals, odd-meter melodies and grooves that were equal parts Meshuggah-worship and traditional death metal. In other words, you knew who was playing it the minute you heard it. On Matriarch, that style is put to the side in favor of a barrage of second-tier djent riffs and repetitive clean melodies that are used by dozens of bands in the scene. Okubo is still a very gifted guitar player who lays down his fair share of quality riffage on this record, he's just no where near as exciting to listen to when he abandons his singular identity.

As for Magyar, the further the album goes along, the more clear it becomes that the band is not tailored to his strengths as a vocalist. The mid-range scream he resorts to a majority of the time is average at best and becomes extremely monotonous when he rarely deviates it from on tracks like "Danerys", "Lisbeth" and "Three-Fifty". Even the clean vocals that worked so well earlier in the album start to become uninspired in the latter stages of the record due to sheer repetition and awkward placement within songs. If Magyar had simply thrown in some of the great high screams or catchy clean vocal lines he used earlier in the album, these songs would've been noticeably better. Magyar's mostly underwhelming screams are especially disappointing considering he's replacing a man in Butler who had one of the most unique and impressive range of screams. The distinct vocals of Butler paired with the relentlessly crushing and uniquely layered guitarwork from Okubo made Veil of Maya one of the premiere acts in the genre. With both of those assets now out of the picture, Veil of Maya has become just another pedestrian act in a seemingly eternal sea of -core bands.

While Matriarch isn't without its redeeming qualities, it's still far and away the weakest record in Veil of Maya's discography. I'm not at all opposed to bands changing their sound, but when a band chooses to sacrifice a lot of what made them standout to become more generic, it's really frustrating. Veil of Maya has far too strong of a track record for Matriarch to be a death sentence to their career, but they're going to need to bring the back the grit and complexity to their music if they want their next chapter as a band to be a successful one.   
3/5 Stars
Standout Tracks

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

2015 NFL Position Rankings: Top 20 Tight Ends

20.Kyle Rudolph (Vikings)
19.Owen Daniels (Broncos)
18.Jordan Reed (Redskins)
17.Larry Donnell (Giants)
16.Zach Ertz (Eagles)
15.Heath Miller (Steelers)
14.Coby Fleener (Colts)
13.Charles Clay (Bills)
12.Jordan Cameron (Dolphins)
11.Dwayne Allen (Colts)
10.Travis Kelce (Chiefs)
9.Delanie Walker (Titans)
8.Vernon Davis (49ers)
7.Jason Witten (Cowboys)
6.Martellus Bennett (Bears)
5.Julius Thomas (Jaguars)
4.Antonio Gates (Chargers)
3.Greg Olsen (Panthers)
2.Jimmy Graham (Seahawks)
1.Rob Gronkowski (Patriots)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 2

Out of all the films that have become breakout successes in the past few years, none has followed a more unconventional path to success than musical/comedy Pitch Perfect. The film-which was released in late September 2012- was a modest success grossing $65 million during its theatrical release, but became a bonafide sensation in its post-theatrical run following the breakout success of Anna Kendrick's "Cups" from the film's soundtrack and strong word-of-mouth which led to the film grossing over $100 million in Blu-Ray and DVD sales. Naturally, Universal capitalized on that success and offically greenlit a sequel in April 2013. With a film like Pitch Perfect, the sequel could've easily been a half-assed affair that only existed for the actors and studio to cash in on the now-lucrative Pitch Perfect brand. Thankfully, Pitch Perfect 2 couldn't be further from a pointless cash grab.

Like all good sequels, Pitch Perfect 2 effortlessly overcomes the burden of heightened expectations and pleasing the film's established fanbase by making a film that is cut from the same mold as the original yet is still fresh enough to not feel like a complete retread. Returning screenwriter Kay Cannon and first-time director Elizabeth Banks-who also produced and co-stars in the film- take the first film's mix of a capella singing and rapid-fire absurdist humor, and raises it to the next level. A majority of Pitch Perfect's audience have gravitated towards this series strictly because of the music and the sequel does not fail to deliver with its plethora of musical sequences. The musical numbers are on a much grander scale this time around and enhanced sense of spectacle makes the musical portions of the film much more striking. Personally, I felt the musical numbers (save for the rousing finale) in the first installment fell pretty flat. The over-the-top arrangements and choreography as well as much better song choices make the a capella sequences this time around a whole hell of a lot better than they were in the first film. 

However, like the original, Pitch Perfect 2 is driven by its comedic elements. Because of Pitch Perfect's musical backbone, the film's highly effective oddball humor is largely glossed over by fans and critics alike. T Just like the musical elements, the comedy here is also a major improvement from the first. The film's primary cast (a.k.a the actressess that make up the Barden Bellas a capella group) anchored by Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson,  Ester Dean and Hana Mae Lee once again turn in rock-solid and wonderfully hilarious performances. There's a seriously great comedic chemistry between the entire Barden Bella ensemble and their rapport has only grown stronger in their second film working together. While the main cast delivers once again, the much-improved supporting cast really pushes the film over the edge. Series newcomers Keegan Michael-Key, Chrissie Fit, Flula Borg, Brigitte Hjort Sorensen and a handful of brilliantly-implored cameos that I won't divulge all make significant contributions to aiding the film's non-stop parade of laughs. With the sheer number of s throughout and depth of comedic talent in the cast, I really hope the comedy value of Pitch Perfect 2 won't be completely overlooked this time around. Pitch Perfect 2 was a beyond pleasant surprise and I fully expect it to be one of the best comedies of the summer, if not the entire year.

4/5 Stars