Sunday, March 26, 2017

Best of the Best: 2008

This picture speaks for itself.

Year: 2008
Movie: The Forbidden Kingdom
Game: Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Album: Shogun by Trivium
Song: Unforgiven III by Metallica

Now for all the talk of Hollywood declining, and it was, 2008 was basically a "last bastion" of sorts. In many ways, not merely movies. A lot of movies I liked came out, I took a bunch of Honors classes in college, and got Straight As for the first time in years in the Fall semester. The guy I voted for, for President, actually won. Several great albums came out that year, great games, etc. etc. On the movie front, many strong films came out that year. The first Kung Fu Panda was a nice and entertaining surprise (though it didn't need sequels). The first Iron Man film was likewise better than I thought it would turn out being (though it's sequels, not so much). The first Hellboy was a nice flick, and it's 2008 sequel was, to my mind, even better overall.

Pixar's WALL-E was a minor masterpiece in some ways, and while it was kind of OVERLY dark, even for Batman, The Dark Knight, at least at the time, seemed like a great film. There was even a new Indiana Jones movie after many many years, and while hardly perfect, it was a fairly fun ride to go on again at the time. And the Narnia sequel Prince Caspian came out, which was a better film than some reviews credited it for being. There was also Hancock, whose basic premise, that of a superhuman character who is, and yet isn't, a "superhero", was very solid. And it was consequently a pretty GREAT film for maybe like half the movie...and then the second half just totally shit itself badly, ruining what could have been a pretty GREAT film.

But the movie that IS my hands-down Film of 2008, as shown above, is the epic, long awaited collaboration between THE two titans of Hong Kong cinema, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Fans had been waiting for, and had been teased by the prospect of a film where these two legends would actually appear on SCREEN together, for years. And then it finally happened, and while there are always going to be critics of everything, for someone like me who had become a big fan of both guys over the years, and who loves martial arts and mysticism and mythology anyway, The Forbidden Kingdom was pretty much perfect, and everything I wanted out of such a team-up. It's basically a retelling of the classical Chinese tale of the Monkey King, and Chan and Li play characters from that mythology. What fans REALLY wanted, of course, was to see these two titans Kung Fu Fighting...EACH OTHER, and we got it. And it didn't disappoint. One of the longer, and better choreographed fight scenes I've personally ever seen, it lived up to expectations. Even the "white kid along for the ride", or better put, the "traveler from the west who stumbles into this foreign world", did a great job I thought. He is a kid obsessed with Kung Fu, and his enthusiasm mirrors that of the creators of the film, as well as the audience. The entire movie is a love-letter to classic Hong Kong Kung Fu films, and it shows.

The BEST Smash. Yes, I said it.

The phenomenon of Super Smash Bros. was created in 98/99 by Hal Laboratory (creators of Adventures of Lolo, Kirby, and Earthbound among other things), by such figures as Masahiro Sakurai (the father of Kirby), and the late Hal programmer and Nintendo President, Satoru Iwata (RIP 1959-2015). It started life as a side-project, an experiment really, messing with the concept of a 4-playerr fighting game. 4-player home multiplayer had become a standard reality (after some failed experiments with it in previous console generations) with the Nintendo 64, and it had thus far been put to great use in many genres, such as racing, sports, shooters, and even "party" games (such as Mario Party). But Sakurai and Co. wanted to find out if 4 player fighting was something they could do, and so what would become Smash Bros., began as a generic game called "Dragon King", with Power Rangers type "Dragon Fighter" characters.

His friend Iwata stepped in, and the rest was history as he decided the game could be successful if it involved well-known Nintendo franchise characters in a kind of "dream battle" scenario. They worked on the game in secret until they had a polished demo, and then presented it to Nintendo, who approved it, and Super Smash Bros. on N64 was born. That game was fun, and very novel for it's time, but also super basic, basically just having a fighting mode and not much else. It was meant almost purely to be a multiplayer battle experience, and in that it succeeded, at least enough to warrant a sequel. So then in 2001, Melee happened on the Gamecube, and it was undeniably a much better, more fleshed out game, this time featuring an "Adventure Mode" and many other little bells and whistles, along with a larger roster and refined gameplay. This game created a sizable fandom, and even birthed it's own competitive scene over time. The problem is, many fans clung to this game as the ONLY way they would accept Smash Bros. in the future, meaning to meet their approval, some fans insisted that future installments had to play exactly like Melee.

Hence, sadly, when Brawl happened in 2008, on the Nintendo Wii console, while it was (again) in many ways undeniably better than Melee, such as having a larger roster, a far more elaborate and involved Adventure mode, and one of the best soundtracks ever featured in a video game period, featuring inclusions by many game music composers from around the industry, there were still those fans who didn't accept it as the next evolution in Smash, because there were also slight gameplay tweaks they didn't approve of. And I mean......ultimately, whatever. But to me, Brawl was (and thus far remains) the best the Smash Bros. series has to offer. My friend Corey and I went to pick it up at a Midnight release, standing in line and the whole nine yards (something I rarely ever do for anything, let alone a game), and we proceeded to play it quite a bit over the course of the next day or two. Those were good times, with tons of content to unlock, and the Adventure mode (Subspace Emissary) alone feeling like it's own entire separate game. Not being SUPER into the competitive aspect of Smash Bros. (certainly not as much as others), I enjoyed Brawl the most because it had (by far) the most single player content. And while there were certainly other good games that released in 2008, such as Mario Kart Wii (although, on a side note, FUCK the inclusion of bikes in that game, just saying), and a very cool 2D Wario Land game that featured hand-drawn animated graphics, Brawl is my pick for Game of 2008, just by virtue of how much I played/enjoyed it.

This album wound up being so good, in spite of itself.

I've mentioned before, that I am not the biggest fan of "screamy" vocals in heavy metal music. I can tolerate it, or even dig it a little, in certain styles, and certain doses. Sufficed to say, I am not much of a fan at all of the style of screamy-ness that the band Trivium utilizes, and so I was very much a fan of the fact that I got into them with the album "The Crusade", where they had made a very public point of stating that they were dropping the screamy-ness for the most part. But then 2008 happened, and yet another situation involving what you could call a vocal contingent of a fan base, had apparently complained about the lack of screamy-ness on "Crusade", enough that the band itself apparently felt compelled to go back on their own statements, and thus their follow-up album, titled "Shogun", featured a full-bore return to their previous scream/sing/growl mixture. The point of pointing that out, of course, is because that was already a recipe for me not liking the new album that much. However, as it turned out, the song-writing on "Shogun" was particularly strong, even moreso than "Crusade". So strong, in fact, that in SPITE of the screamy-ness, I eventually wound up liking every song on the record, something I could not say for "Crusade".

Now strong song-writing alone might not, however, have won this record Album of 2008 for me, BUT, it also had going for it the fact that a majority of the songs on the album, were heavily based on various kinds of mythology, mostly Japanese and Greek. And since I have always been very much into mythology, folklore and monsters, that of course is going to hold major appeal to me. Which it did. There are songs on the album about Prometheus the Titan, Homer's Odyssey, and the myth of the Greek monsters Scylla and Charybdis (the origination of the metaphor "being stuck between a rock and a hard place"), among other things. In all, it's a very strong album, and while I far preferred the vocal style of "Crusade", "Shogun" does in general happen to be a stronger album. The one caveat in that, I would say, is that there are two particular songs, one from each album, that honestly feel out of place, thematically, and like they should have been switched. The song "Down From the Sky" on "Shogun", while a good song, is pretty much the only song on the entire album that is basically modern (talking about tyranny and the threat of nuclear war, etc.), with no basis in mythology at all, which would have fit "Crusade" far better. And conversely, the previously mentioned song "Becoming the Dragon" on "Crusade", which is directly adapted from Asian myth, absolutely belongs on "Shogun".

Metallica's "Return to Form".

I would be remiss, as a self-avowed massive Metallica fan, to not at least mention their own new album that released in 2008. And in all fairness, it was the other top candidate for Album of 2008. There were other strong albums in 2008, including Sevendust's "Hope & Sorrow", Death Angel's "Killing Season", and Opeth's "Watershed", which itself had some truly beautiful music and continued a trend and evolving sound of the band, further into a progressive rock mold, drifting further away from their "Swedish Death Metal" roots. But beyond being my favorite band of all time anyway, Metallica's "Death Magnetic", itself is a very strong album and had a very strong case for being album of the year for me. I suppose the two main reasons that it's not, are firstly that the myth-based songs of "Shogun REALLY won me over, and I listened to the shit out of that album. But also, it needs to be said that the final mix/production on DM, sadly, suffers from a stupid phenomenon of the mid-2000s onward in the mainstream music business, called "The Loudness War", in which big record companies seem to honestly think that turning EVERYTHING up loud on the final mix, making for a "wall of noise" type approach for the mix, regardless of how it actually affects the quality of the music being presented.

Now I was lucky enough to "find" a copy of "Death Magnetic" (in addition to the LOUD retail version I bought), that was ripped from the game Guitar Hero III, as the full album was released as downloadable songs for that game. And while I have no great love for those rhythm/music games (whose star thankfully seems to have mostly come and gone), I am thankful that the album was released for that game, BECAUSE of the fact that it features the pre-final mix recording of the music. IE the way the album should have sounded, very clean, no "wall of noise". Metal nerds can complain about Bob Ross all they wish, but the fact is, outside of "St. Anger", the dude had fantastic production values on his albums, and "Death Magnetic" would have sounded light year better with him producing it, than it did with Rick Rubin and Co. doing the job.

Having SAID all that, though, my Song of 2008 does come from DM, the song "Unforgiven III". I have mentioned before how the original "Unforgiven" song is one of my all-time favorites by any band, because it is so well written, so damn catchy, and I can unfortunately relate to it so damn well. And while "Re-Load" featured a semi-sequel of sorts, thematically at least, in "Unforgiven II", which is a decent song, more of a love song really, "Unforgiven III" on this new record really goes back to the feel of the first song. Lyrically it speaks of a man lost in his own head, "adrift on the sea of life, lost in a fog", and it just has not only a great theme and sound, but some very good word-smithery by Mr. James Hetfield, something he's not particularly a stranger to, when he really tries. Especially lines like "Set sail to sea, but pulled off course by the light of golden treasure. How could he know this new dawn's light, would change his life forever?", really highlight some of Hetfield's strongest writing. Sadly, while I really wished it would receive one, as the first two songs did, "Unforgiven III" did not get a music video, nor was it released in the US as a single, even though I would argue it's the strongest song on the entire album.

No comments:

Post a Comment