2012 – The Year in Albums

With the year in gigs covered, it’s time to turn to the album releases of 2012. Note that these are just the albums I got – there are countless others, obviously! Albums listed are in no particular order.

All That Remains – A War You Cannot Win

Keeping their trademark dual vocal sound and with the usual variety of material, A War You Cannot Win keeps All That Remains up there in the “bands you should check out” list. Heavy, melodic vocals mixed with more deathy stuff, good riffage and some genuinely catchy moments. Top Track for me is probably “Sing For Liberty”.

Shinedown – Amaryllis

Bloody hell, what an album. Not a bad song on it. Pumping rock songs, lilting ballads, great lyrics, catchy tunes – this album has it all. Great vocals, guitars, bass and drums; well produced; superb live act to back it up. This definitely falls into any “album of the year” category I might have. Top Track? I couldn’t pick just one. I just couldn’t.

Die Toten Hosen – Ballast der Republik

A first studio album in four years for the long-standing German punk band, and as bouncy as ever. This offering is all in German so I can’t comment on the lyrical content (they have done some English tracks in the past), but the music’s great. If you’re not nodding your head along to the beat by the time you’re half-way through you’re either dead or stuck in some kind of neck brace. There’s a surprising number of acoustic, or predominantly acoustic, numbers on here as well. Top Track would probably be the title offering, although there are a few that chase it mainly due to the variety of material on offer (“Das ist der Moment” probably closest).

Sabaton – Carolus Rex

Not their strongest release, but perfectly fitting with their existing catalogue. The main theme for this is the life and times of King Charles XII of Sweden, the songs detailing various battles, aftermaths and the downfall of the Swedish empire. I’ve got the English version, but the album is also available in Swedish which I think is a great idea given that it tells their history. Indeed, they played “The Carolean’s Prayer” in Swedish when I saw them in Glasgow earlier this year. Top Track is definitely “1648” although their cover of Status Quo‘s “In The Army Now” is pretty good also.

Testament – Dark Roots of Earth

Another quality release from a long-standing band, this is – in my opinion – their strongest album since Souls of Black. A precision blend of classic thrash with heavier vocals, some great lyrical themes and a crushing live performance to support it. Opener “Rise Up” is my Top Track, and also the perfect (if predictable) gig-opener. “True American Hate” is a close runner-up, and their cover of Maiden’s “Powerslave” rounds things off well.

Dethklok – Dethalbum III

A real album from a “virtual” band featured on the cartoon show Metalocalypse. Their third, in fact, and it’s par for the course with the other two. Genuinely good songs, though obviously tongue-in-cheek to those in the know or who have watched the program. This third outing is more like a “real” album with far fewer 1-2 minute tracks. My main complaint, and this has dogged the series as well as the earlier albums, is that the vocals are far too low in the mix. Top Track is “Impeach God”, though there’s not much in the way of stand-out material.

Heart of a Coward – Hope And Hindrance

After seeing them with Heights and Devil Sold His Soul on the Metal Hammer Razor Tour, and being suitably impressed, I grabbed a copy of the hardcore industrialists’ album and gave it a try at slightly lower volume than the Cathouse provided. It’s good. Not brilliant, but good. Angry, a little arhythmic in places, but crushing and unrelenting. Definitely a promising first album and, believe me, they come across well live. Top Track would go to “We Stand As One”.

The Darkness – Hot Cakes

Another swift change in musical direction and on to the third album from that band that never quite made it as big as their record company thought they would. They’ve maintained their sound throughout their time together and it’s good to have them around, though there’s nothing fresh on Hot Cakes. However, if it gets them out on the road touring again then it’s worth picking it up to encourage them. Top Track, for it’s pace, is “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us”. Great for driving to if you’re not worried about losing your license.

Stone Sour – House of Gold & Bones Part 1

A band who peaked early with the superb Come What(ever) May? Or one who can maintain that quality? Well HoG&Bpt1 indicates that they’re definitely not resting on their laurels. Probably heavier overall than previous records, but Corey does still get to stretch his vocal cords into various shapes covering more balladic sounds however briefly. “Taciturn” is the only really soft track on the album, and it’s no “Through Glass” – maybe it needs to grow on me. Top Track for me is “Absolute Zero”.

Linkin Park – Living Things

A return to their earlier sound – though nowhere near as good - Living Things continues to show that Linkin Park are running out of ideas. Despite having a couple of the strongest albums of the time back in the day, I just don’t seem to have enjoyed anything since Minutes To Midnight eventually grew on me. A Thousand Suns was just dreadful, and although Living Things is better, it’s just not managed to grab me like Hybrid Theory. Top Track is, just, “In My Remains” as it reminds me of the older stuff.

3 Inches of Blood – Long Live Heavy Metal

Let’s be fair, with a title like that you know what to expect. After first seeing them in a dinky venue in Leeds (Cockpit?) with Trivium, I’ve kept an eye on this band and pretty much enjoyed what they’ve churned out. Basically, if you like Warhammer and classic metal, you’ll enjoy them. Long Live Heavy Metal isn’t a huge departure, but it’s good. Opener “Metal Woman”, for instance, sounds like classic Judas Priest which can’t be a bad thing. Another Top Track selected purely for its pace, this time “My Sword Will Not Sleep”.

Machine Head – Machine Fucking Head Live

Their second live album, this one encompassing three more albums since Hellalive some years ago. Great production, great selection of songs. If you saw them touring recently, this is pretty much the set I remember and it’s cracking. It’s maybe not right to pick a Top Track from what’s effectively a greatest hits album but I’ll plump for “Ten Ton Hammer” simply because I love it.

Hayseed Dixie – Nicotine and Alcohol

Swift change of musical direction and some redneck-geared banjo-twirling yee-haw-ing in this release from a band who became famous for their bluegrass covers of metal bands (and for letting me stand on stage at the Glasgow ABC to propose to my then-girlfriend/now-wife). As with most of their releases these days, it’s predominantly original material (plus an excellent cover of Die Toten Hosen’s “Hier Kommt Alex“), and to add a twist a few of the songs are in German. It is slightly less accessible than their covers material, but that doesn’t detract from how enjoyable it is once you give it a couple of listens. The band have a great sense of humour and this seems to be conveyed by the music as well as the lyrical content. Top Track for me is “A Jug of Whiskey (The Drunken Sailor Revisited)” mainly as I can picture this going down a storm live.

Dying Fetus – Reign Supreme

As the band were touring earlier this year and the tickets were cheap, I thought I better check them out. This is the current release and it’s a very accessible piece of death metal. Their older stuff – and they go back quite a few years – is a lot heavier, simpler and gorier. Reign Supreme is a more mature effort with excellent production. Top Track: “Second Skin”

Lamb of God – Resolution

A pretty tumultuous year for Lamb of God with the farcical arrest and detainment of front man Randy Blythe in the Czech Republic. This is the album they were/are touring on at the time and it’s pretty representative of their music. Lamb of God aren’t a band I listen to much, but they’re brilliant live so it’s good to know the songs. I’d not say that Resolution stands out as a brilliant album in its own right, but it’s certainly not bad. Going through it for this blog posts, I am actually finding myself enjoying it so I think it may be getting some more listens over the next few weeks! Top Track would be the sixth on the album: “The Number Six”.

Seed of Sadness – Seed of Sadness EP

OK, not a commercial release but the band went to the trouble of asking me to review it which I did. It’s a free download (via this link), it’s a damn good listen if you like your female fronted melodic metal and I wish them all the best! Top Track of the five is the opener, “Remnant of a Dying Smile”.

Turbonegro – Sexual Harassment

Another album supported with a brilliant live performance from the bunch of nutters responsible for writing it. Don’t expect good taste, and you won’t be disappointed. Expect simple, short, pop/punk numbers and you’ll get what you want. There are so many good tracks for pick from, but to pluck one semi-randomly from the best of the bunch I’ll award Top Track to “Shake Your Shit Machine”.

Papa Roach – The Connection

A band which continually gets put down for being “emo” or whatever, I’ve liked them since the beginning. Good material, decent lyrics, always something easy to sing along to on each album and a solid live show each and every time I’ve seen them. Their new release isn’t a highlight in the way that works such as Lovehatetragedy and Getting Away With Murder were, but it’s not bloody bad. “Still Swingin'” is indicative of the sound of the album with a fair bit of keyboards and a nice, shouty chorus (reminiscent of “Kick in the Teeth” from the previous album). A couple of the tracks, mainly the lighter ones, are far more influenced by those keyboards to the point where the introductions start to sound a little bit too much like Linkin Park. However, once they kick in, the slight change in sound is less noticeable and you get songs like my Top Track “Breathe You In”.

Fear Factory – The Industrialist

Yet another release from the premier industrial metal band. While Burton’s vocals certainly aren’t as good live as they once were, he’s managing fine in the recording studio and The Industrialist is one of the better recent Fear Factory releases. From the atmospheric opening of the title track to the spooky overtones of “Human Augmentation” you have an album that sounds like it was recorded in the factory that makes the T-1000. I don’t think FF have ever released a better produced album, even if the songs aren’t quite as good as some earlier (classic) material. Top Track: “Recharger”.

DragonForce – The Power Within

This one took a while to grow on me purely as I found the new vocalist’s voice too different from Theart’s. As time went on, and after a quality performance at the ABC, the material did grow on me, and it’s now  a regular player in the car. After finally realising that it’s not a Slayer cover, Top Track goes to “Die by the Sword”.

Halestorm – The Strange Case Of…

As with their first album, this one was purchased as a gig and signed by the band. Frankly, I don’t think Halestorm can do any wrong at the moment (apart from Lzzy Hale not being prepared to acknowledge my fanboy existence though I think the wife would have issues). With show-stealing support slots and a sell-out headlining show which had to be upgraded to accommodate ticket sales, they’re definitely a band on the up. Given the strength of their material as well as their live show, it’s not surprising and The Strange Case Of… is a great collection of rock songs. Great sound quality, though my other half reckons the slight hoarseness of Lzzy’s vocals comes across better live than on recording which is too “clean”. I think she has a point. Like Shinedown’s Amaryllis which I covered earlier, it’s very difficult to pick out a Top Track from this collection. Bend my arm behind my back and I guess I’d go for “Here’s To Us”, partly as we used it for the music at our wedding when we were signing the register 🙂

Cannibal Corpse – Torture

Possibly the longest-surviving of the gore metal bands and almost certainly the best known, Cannibal Corpse kept on trucking (over splintered bones and squashed internal organs) with Torture. Maintaining the good production values of recent years and the usual horror film lyrical content, this follow-up to 2009’s Evisceration Plague is decent enough but not quite as good as the simply-named Kill from 2006. Still, decent stuff and if CC are your bag of swollen, fetid guts then it’s likely something you’ll enjoy. Top Track: “Followed Home Then Killed”.

Paradise Lost – Tragic Idol

It’s great to see the lads from Halifax (the real one, not the Canadian knock-off) still plying their gothic metal wares after so long, and their current release shows how they’ve managed to survive. Changing their sound a little with each other album, they’ve stayed faithful to their roots without becoming boring. Tragic Idol is more of the same without simply being more of the same. As good an introduction to their music as it is a continuation for those who’ve been following them all these years. Top Track: “To The Darkness”.

Six Feet Under – Undead

In my opinion as good a band as Cannibal Corpse, but with very much their own sound, Six Feet Under continue to go from strength to strength with each release although I do have a soft spot for their covers albums. Undead is, like their older material, slightly more accessible to the non-fan than most of Corpse’s material. I guess it’s all a matter of taste. Still, I liked it and I do keep my eyes out in case they tour sometime! Top Track: “18 Days”.

Rare Breed – Welcome The Strange

Yeah, you’ve probably not heard of this lot. It’s a bunch of lads from Glasgow who I first saw opening for Tigertailz in 2011. It’s always good to see fresh talent coming through and they impressed at that gig. This EP is downloadable for free (via SoundCloud) and well worth a listen. They’ve obviously taken a lot of time and effort over it, and I know they’re still looking for places to play live. Top Track: “The Haunting”.

And that’s yer lot. I know there were probably more releases and I’m aware of some I missed (like Bowling For Soup’s wonderful idea of releasing an album along with the bands they were touring with in October, or Biohazard’s first album in seven years). However, I am only one person with so much time and so many finances!

No denying, though, that it was a hell of a year for bands big and small. Anyone who says rock’n’roll is dead should consider themselves well and truly corrected!

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Year in Review – Gigs (and which were the best?)

Well, December is almost over and it’s time to dig through the reviews and see what I reckoned was the live musical high-point of the year. And it’s bloody hard, believe me. If you just want to skip down to the bit where I try to make my mind up, scroll down until you see the headline. Otherwise, let me take you on a quick run-down…

First gig was Reel Big Fish at the Garage (and they’re touring again in early 2013). Having never seen them before, I was very pleasantly surprised with an excellent atmosphere and a ton of fun!

Biohazard made a welcome return in February, playing a crushing set at King Tut’s, but the highlight of their gig was touring support Heights. Definitely ones to watch out for.

Alestorm drowned the Garage in rum a week later and also supported Dragonforce in September (for those who got to the ABC in time to see their ridiculously early slot).

Less than a week after that and a tremendous two-header hit the Academy with soon-to-be-fecking-huge Halestorm opening for the brilliant Shinedown. Both bands reappeared later in the year, with Shinedown headlining the HMV Picturehouse on Hallowe’en and Halestorm upgrading from the Cathouse to the Garage (which then sold out) due to phenomenal demand.

The first let-down of the year was Theory of a Deadman. Not the band themselves, but the truly awful sound at the Queen Margaret Union building. One I’ll be avoiding in future, though I’ll certainly give the Canadian rockers another chance if they play elsewhere in future.

February drew to a leap-year close with Rammstein at the Newcastle Arena. Not so much a gig as a spectacle, and something that any band would be hard-pushed to beat. They’re headlining Download this year and if you’ve not seen them then they’re worth the ticket price alone.

Another ridiculous (and unannounced) change to the door times meant that I missed the two openers for Cannibal Corpse at the ABC, but did get to see most of Triptycon’s set. Corpse, however, played a drastically shortened set in part due to now knowing they had to be off-stage at 10pm for the student night to take place.

March ended at a blistering pace with three cracking gigs in the space of a week. Black Stone Cherry rocked the Academy, Bowling For Soup (and People on Vacation) had us entertained and laughing along at the Oran Mor with their acoustic tour and Steel Panther taught us all The Shocker at the Academy (a few months after stealing the show from Def Leppard and Motley Crue at the SECC). Hard-working as they are, they were back in Scotland soon after with a show in Edinburgh.

Into April and two very contrasting styles of music in a fairly fallow month for me. First up, an unadulterated party atmosphere lifted the Garage when Andrew W.K. came the play. Barely a week later and Paradise Lost angled more for the doom end of the scale in a wonderfully downbeat performance at King Tut’s.

My only gig in May was to see the delightfully ridiculous Tragedy with their tie-dyed, glitter-encrusted Bee Gees cover extravaganza at the ABC2. Only a few days after the sad passing of Robin Gibb, I doubt he could have been more proud of the send-off this group of fans gave him.

Halfway into the year as June finished and two gigs that month. Sacred Reich with their first Scottish date in eighteen years as they tore up the Wah Wah Hut; and a slight departure for me as I sampled Combichrist at The Arches with their dance-infused metal.

And then… a breather. July and August passed gig-free despite us staying in the country. Virtually every major band was heading to play the festivals which we couldn’t attend due to work and family commitments. On the other hand, we saved some cash.

We made up for it in September with no fewer than five concerts. The Darkness were touring the UK with Lady Gaga (I know, WTF?) but as the tour wasn’t hitting Scotland they opted to play a one-off headlining show with long-standing local favourites Gun at the ABC.

Three gigs in three nights saw me at the Cathouse (Dying Fetus, Job For A Cowboy, Revocation and Cerebral Bore), Edinburgh PlayHouse (W.A.S.P.’s 30th anniversary tour) and the Garage for the aforementioned sell-out Halestorm show.

Another previously mentioned gig ended the month as Dragonforce and Alestorm formed a perfect partnership at the ABC.

October could have been the busiest month of the year gig-wise. We still did very well, but missed no fewer than five gigs. The first one we had to skip was Soulfly as it clashed with Nickelback at the Newcastle Arena and we got tickets to see Chad and co. before those for Max’s project were announced. The Canadian guys were good – very good – but Soulfly would have been much cheaper and closer to home!

Nickelback became the last gig I went to with my fiancée as we skipped Bowling For Soup, Trivium, Muse and Terrorvision to jet off to Jamaica with the family and get married! I did try tweeting most of the bands, but they didn’t reply as to the possibility of shifting their gig dates. Pah.

Our first gig as a married couple was a second performance this year by Shinedown in Edinburgh (mentioned back at the top). A big crowd despite playing on the same night and less than 2 minutes walk away from Alice Cooper’s seemingly annual Scottish show.

The second-last month of the year equalled the second as November joined February in hosting six gigs. Sabaton / Eluvetie at the Garage opened the month for me with an interesting combination and more people on one small stage than I’ve seen since Lawnmower Deth allowed stage-diving at the Newcastle Riverside. We then had the choice between Motorhead’s annual gig at the Academy or going to see Steel Panther again, this time in Edinburgh. There was no decision to be made as soon as we saw Lemmy’s support band – the mighty Anthrax. Glasgow it was.

Two nights later I headed to the Cathouse for the Metal Hammer Razor Tour II  featuring Steak Number 8 (missed them, sorry), Heart of a Coward, Heights (again) and Devil Sold His Soul. I love cheap gigs like this featuring relative unknowns and this was a prime example. All of the bands on here should do well though, again, Heights stole the show for me like they did in February opening for Biohazard.

Turbonegro brought their brand of death-core-punk to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut towards the end of the month and impressed, while legendary Thrash-meisters Testament made a triumphant return to these shores after far too long. They destroyed the Garage with a mixture of old material and stuff from their superb latest album. Barely pausing to draw breath, I was at the SECC the following night to see the Twins of Evil tour. Marilyn Manson put on a decent enough theatrical performance while Rob Zombie deservedly played the “headlining” position of this equal-footed billing.

The year drew to a close with a hugely anticipated comeback tour from the Little Angels who rocked the ABC as if they’d never been away these last twenty years. Just under a week later and Fear Factory gave me a birthday present consisting of an hour-long set at the same venue in support to the Devin Townsend Project.

SO – GIG OF THE YEAR?

Bloody hell. That’s a tough question. At a rough count, there are 39 bands in contention (including some of the support acts) for the top performance. Hell, there are some I’ve not even mentioned such as Deathstars who opened for Rammstein. Not in contention, but deserving of a mention. As are Lionheart (Biohazard), The Treatment (Steel Panther), Insomnium (Paradise Lost), Skin (Little Angels)…

So let’s just hand out some awards based on certain performances. That’s fair. After all, what small band – no matter how talented – could expect to play a 200-capacity venue and compete with the:

Most Spectacular Gig

Easy winner – Rammstein at the Newcastle Arena. At £50 plus fees plus travel expenses, not a cheap ticket but worth every penny as you could see where your cash was going. Superb songs wrapped in probably the best showmanship in metal these days (Iron Maiden at a festival are about the only band that come close) and I doubt a single person that night left the venue feeling ripped off. My only disappointment is that it’s still the only gig I’ve ever been to that I don’t have my ticket as a souvenir. Stupid floor policy of taking your ticket off you!

Best Atmosphere At A Gig

Quite a tricky one as there are different atmospheres. The expectation at the Testament gig after their long absence. Similar with the Little Angels. Reel Big Fish, of course. The boos rained upon Turbonegro as they chose to play an England football song before they came on stage in Glasgow. Tragedy, who could have been playing to thousands, not just the couple of dozen who showed up (shame one you – see them next time). But, no. As with Rammstein above, there’s only one streets-ahead winner of this award: Andrew W.K. at the Glasgow Garage, who put on as big a party as he promises in his Twitter feed day after day – using nothing but the power of short, silly, punchy rock anthems. A man who can talk the talk, walk the walk and rock the rock.

Best Comeback Gig

A surprising number of entrants this year (and many more who I didn’t go to see, sadly). Some just haven’t toured the UK, some have actually been split up for years and reformed recently. In the running, we have:

  • Biohazard
  • Little Angels
  • Testament
  • Sacred Reich

Bloody hard to decide with this one. Really hard. My heart says Little Angels because of the fact I saw their last ever gig before they split. My heavier side (and the bruises) say Testament. My “support the underdog” mentality says Sacred Reich. My surprise at having a guitarist standing my shoulder during the first song says Biohazard.

The heart wins. Little Angels at the ABC take the prize, partly as I’ve seen Testament and Sacred Reich at Graspop in more recent years.

Best Support Act

Let’s not forget those poor sods who often get ignored (or worse) trying to warm you up for the headliners. This year, there were some great bands – many of them listed at the top of this section. The winner will come as no surprise, but special mentions to Halestorm – headliners in their own right, frankly, but still touring as a support band in 2013 – and Anthrax, who for some reason haven’t done a UK headlining tour in far too long.

Heights for two gigs – Biohazard and the Metal Hammer Razor Tour II. They’re back in Glasgow again in February, if I recall correctly. And main support again. Keep up the hard word guys, and here’s hoping we get ninety minutes from you in the years to come.

Best Sound At  A Gig

Now this one is a toughie. Some of the venues can be hit and miss with sound (ABC), some are usually crap but somehow pull a blinder once in a while (Academy), some are just awful (Queen Margaret Union, Cathouse) and some have the advantage of being huge (SECC). Winner this year? Bowling For Soup (Acoustic) at the Oran Mor for being just right. Maybe it’s easier as the volume doesn’t need to be cranked, but we could hear every note being strummed.

I’ll leave the awards there for this year. Next year will be a little quieter gig-wise  as I’m changing to a part time job with the equivalent drop in pay. Unless someone wants to sponsor me buy buying tickets or guest-listing me…?

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Happy Humbug Day

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Happy First Xmas

And once again it’s that time of year where everyone spends a ton of cash sending bits of paper through the mail to people they haven’t seen since that holiday in Torremolinos in 1997; stress themselves silly trying to get the last remaining [insert current trendy toy here] for the kids for them to cling to for a week before binning it for the next piece of cheap mass-produced, but well-marketed crap; assault their digestive systems with far too much… well, everything – especially sprouts.

Yet for some reason, people call it a celebration.

Humbug.

OK, let me be specific. Humbug to all the stuff in the first paragraph. It’s fluff. It’s unnecessary. It’s nice, I suppose, but in the end it succeeds only in making the retailers happy.

What makes most of us happy at this time of year? Spending time with the family. And I include myself in this – despite recalling many, many holiday seasons in the past which I enjoyed hugely simply because I was on my own.

The Americans have one thing right. Which is pretty poor, given the size of the country, but hey. One thing’s better than nothing. They have the Thanksgiving holiday. A holiday the sole purpose of which (OK, sole other than to make Hallmark even richer) is to bring families together and make them recognise that they all have something to say “thank you” for. It’s non-denominational. It doesn’t exclude anyone based on race, colour, creed, height, or even if they’re ginger. Hell, they even invite non-Americans if they’re kicking about in the country on their own.

It is more important for Americans to be with their family for this one annual meal than it is at any other time of the year.

Here in the UK, we don’t have Thanksgiving. The closest we have is Xmas/Christmas/the December holiday. Family is what it’s all about. Kids opening those crappy presents they’ll have broken before the batteries (which you forgot to buy, you fool) run out. Grandad pretending to be Santa, handing stuff out. Thirty+ people crammed into a house designed to hold half a dozen if they think elbow room is a luxury.

And the one or two members of the family celebrating it with a little one who’s going through it all for the first time.

That’s me, that is.

Humbug to everything else. The best Christmas present I ever received arrived 5 months to the day earlier. She wasn’t delivered by a fat bloke in an ill-fitting suit. She was delivered by my beautiful wife, Gillian. She needed wrapping when we got her. She’s self-powered – we just add milk and sloppy stuff from tubs. We’ve also managed not to break her (although at times it feels like she’s breaking us).

She’s beautiful. Perfect.

This is her first Christmas – and I couldn’t be any more thankful.

So, to all friends and family – have a brilliant day, but specifically:

Gillian – thank you. For being my wife and the mother of all three of our children. I can never repay what you’ve given me. But I’ll do my best.

Ellissa – we don’t always get on, but you’re the best annoyingly pre-teenage daughter a man could ever wish for.

Austin – I defy anyone to claim they have a better son than I have in you.

Ann – if it weren’t for you, I’d not have Gillian. Mothers-in-law like you are the reason Bernard Manning ran out of steam all those years ago, and I can never thank you enough for letting me marry your daughter.

Mum & Dad – I know you were generous to a fault all these years, and I had some cracking presents. But I’m sure you’ll agree that none of them can match what I have to be happy about today.

And in case you forgot who it was writing all this: HUMBUG.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The entire world will have seen this one by now, so I’ll probably keep the review quite brief. Following on from the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson returns with the “prequel”.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: the beginnings of the LotR story, with lashings of dwarf-related humour

See it if you like: deep, expansive, spectacular fantasy

I read The Hobbit when I was about 11 years old, so don’t expect any comparisons to the original text. For the record, I’m now 39 (my birthday was the UK release date for the film!) and my memory rarely stretches past last week, let alone nearly three decades. Reading up on the trivia via IMDB, it’s clear that Jackons has been slightly free with the adaptation as he was with the first trilogy. Some characters are in the film that weren’t in the book, some don’t appear, some bits are jiggled around slightly… In fairness, he did a good job before and the changes – which may have upset purists – helped the story spread more evenly across the films.

Indeed, one of the first tweaks appears at the very beginning where Frodo is seen pestering his uncle Bilbo. Frodo isn’t in The Hobbit at all, but this scene is purely to link the previous trilogy with this precursor.

But what of the rest of the film?

Well, my overall opinion was that it was like a kiddie-friendly version of its big brother. Which, in fairness, is how the books work out. The violence is far less bloody, the plot a little simpler and – dare I risk the wrath? – the effects not as good as the LotR trilogy.

Yes, there are scary monsters and there are a few be-headings here and there… but there’s little (if any) blood. Swords slash and stab, yet come out clean every time. Things move forward more quickly from action scene to action scene with less (though some) time spent in serious conversation. In fairness, the actual start of the film is slow.

As for those effects… well, maybe it’s just the scale of them but they look that bit more cartoony than what we’re used to. They’re still damn impressive, but the slapstick humour dial has been turned up a notch as well making it all a little more child-friendly.

The acting is superb, right across the board. Martin Freeman is a great younger Bilbo, but as ever it’s the older actors who steal every scene they’re in. Christopher Lee (yes, I know, Saruman wasn’t in the book but he’s in the film briefly) and Ian McKellen as Gandalf are both utterly superb. Andy Serkis returns for Gollum‘s “first” appearance (and then went on to become second unit director for the rest of the filming), and in this instance I would say that the effects have been pushed to their absolute limits. Gollum’s facial expressions are mesmerising.

The dwarves are a hearty bunch with a wide array of acting talent thrown about to make up the motley crew, though in honesty when looking down the cast the only name I recognise immediately is James Nesbitt. Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett complete the links to the “big brother” trilogy with their appearances as Elrond and Galadriel – neither of whom, again, are in the book.

Sylvester McCoy, however, turns the tables by playing Radagast the Brown. This time a character who appeared in the LotR books, but didn’t make it into the films. He’s been transplanted to play a part in this one instead, as a slightly bonkers hermit.

All are great performances, including those who – like Serkis – are portrayed almost completely as CGI characters. It may amuse some to realise that one of the the Goblin King’s alter-egos is a flamboyant cross-dresser who calls her fans “possums”…

In short (ha! short! *ahem*), is it as good or as impressive as, say, The Fellowship of the Ring? No.

Is it worth seeing? Yes.

The simple fact is that Jackson’s LotR films will stand pretty much untouched in their stature for many, many years to come. They were something incredible, something impressive. Something people thought was impossible. The technology used for the effects floored you. But in the years that have come since, such digital trickery has become commonplace and – sadly – that takes a shine off The Hobbit. Good though it is – and it’s bloody good – it’s just not as jaw-dropping or impressive.

Oh, and I saw the film in regular 2D. No eye-aching, headache-inducing 3D. No migraine-causing 48fps. Just proper, 24fps flat images. And it was fine.

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