masterplan-novum-initium-cdI am heavily OD’d on this album, but my impression is of an album that is good bordering on excellent. It’s not THE power metal album, but it’s a good release worthy of bearing the Masterplan name.

The Masterplan name, by the way, was suggested by a Brazilian fan in 2002 who was delighted that so many master musicians were planning together. They were a nearly a definitive heavy metal supergroup, made up of cast-offs from Helloween, Iron Savior, and Ark. Roland Grapow’s modern and progressive riffing style plus Uli Kusch’s dizzying technical drumbeats plus Jorn Lande’s continent-filling vocals equaled very, very good music.

Unfortunately, problems started setting in after their second album: slackening record sales, a feud between Uli and Roland, and worst of all, a singer who just didn’t care that much. Since then the band has been like a drowning man being pulled downstream and clutching at eddying pieces of driftwood. New singers, new drummers, new styles. After the dry, Scorpions-inspired Time to Be King, Novum Initium finds the band playing power metal, this time with Rick Altzi on vocals and an incredibly powerful new drummer called Martin Skaroupka. If Kusch was Les Binks then Skaroupka is Scott Travis – relentless double-bass flurries and lightning fast snare fills, amplified by a production job so dense and heavy that Novum Initium borders on sounding ridiculous.

There’s still a bit more midtempo material than is really needed, but Novum Initium regains the ground lost by Time to be King, and introduces some interest progressive elements.

“The Game” is ferociously fast, with many different sections. “Black Night of Magic” is a bit like “Kind Hearted Light” on the debut, except with the riffs stealing market share from the keyboards instead of the other way around. “Pray on My Soul” is an adequate midtempo unit-shifter. The ballad “Through Your Eyes” is musically well done, although the production is too heavy and compressed to work for this sort of song. It’s like the band is performing open heart surgery with a sledgehammer.

“Betrayal” features prominent sitar sections and an agitated chorus, but the best song is “Return to Avalon”, a simple tribute to Helloween that does not do a single thing wrong. It’s catchy enough to be memorised after your first listen, but it has enough contrapuntal intrigue and complexity for that not to be your last listen. The chord changes backing the final repetition of the chorus are brilliant.

The final song is the 10:17 title track. I had high expectations, and they were kind of met. It’s an impressive musical achievement, with Roland bashing out lots of low-end riffs and keyboardist Axel Mackenrott laying down atmosphere like a bastard. But it lacks the flying speed and majesty of “Black in the Burn” and feels like too little bread spread over too much butter (or whatever hobbits say). Still, that final chorus is a thing of beauty. I think it would have been better if they’d shaved two or three minutes off – I’m not picky where.

Masterplan is not down and they’re not out. They don’t match their first three albums, and they probably never will, again, but they’re still a massive threat. If nothing else, it beats the latest Helloween album, and that’s kind of the whole reason this band exists.

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bbaSomething pro-choice people talk about is that pro-life billboards often don’t show the mother’s face, which apparently makes her into an object, or some sort of baby factory. That might be true, but the baby’s face is even less visible. In fact, you can’t see the baby at all. It’s hidden.

Once, art was like that. You only got to see the end result – the laborious and painful creation process was hidden from public view. A project was announced, and then you’d have no idea of how it was going. Maybe the creator was having the time of his life, or was reaching for the shotgun, or was farming the project off on to an unpaid and uncredited assistant. You didn’t know.

The internet in general and the webcomic in particular changed that. People would upload comics sequentially, page by page. If a update was late, you might get an apology and an explanation why. A bit destructive to the artist’s mystique, but it was interesting. Like if pregnant women had transparent stomachs and you could see the fetus twist and writhe and struggle.

The Blackblood Alliance was a webcomic I liked when my age was less than it is now (tautology). It was a story about talking wolves, with lots of action, and art heavily inspired by The Lion King and Balto. It was familiar and safe, but good for what it was. The creator, Kay Fedewa, would upload pages and talk about them and redraw them as her skills became better.

Unfortunately, not all pregnancies result in a birth. This one ended in a miscarriage. The first issue was completed, and then updates became less frequent, and then stopped altogether. From time to time Kay would announce on DeviantArt that she had turned a corner, was resuming work on the comic, was more inspired than ever, etc. Nothing happened. I heard rumors of personal trouble: the death of a mother. Either way, it was clear that Kay was no longer capable of finishing The Blackblood Alliance.

Maybe she aimed too high. She had big plans for the Blackblood Alliance, such as an MMORPG and a cartoon series. Maybe when those things failed, they took the comic down with them. I don’t know. I got to see part of the comic’s creation, but the really crucial parts remained close to me. Eventually she admitted defeat and handed the comic over to partner Erin Siegel, who has done a whole lot of nothing with it. I wonder if both Kay and Erin regard The Blackblood Alliance as something they did when they were kids – what excites you now won’t excite you forever. Mario Puzo actually wanted to write another book instead of the Godfather. When questioned about it years later, he said “subject matter rots like everything else.”

The fragmentary first issue of The Blackblood Alliance still exists online. Has the rest of it rotted in Kay’s head? Maybe. But that to me makes it really special – probably more special than if the comic had been completed. It’s forever a question mark, forever a mystery. The story is stuck in limbo: it hasn’t ended, and it never will. The internet was the way Kay chose to distribute the comic, but ultimately all it did was show readers exactly how a comic can wither and die on the vine.

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The_Girl_with_the_Dragon_Tattoo_(Film_Tie-In_Edition)__97111_zoomMcCartney wrote to Lennon “You took your lucky break and broke it in two”. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes its lucky break and breaks it into at least three or four. It starts out as an exciting story about journalism, white-collar crime, and ethics, and ends up trying to be American Psycho. The sleazy human interest elements ruin the story, which was a shame, because the story was great. Never have I seen a book so in flight from its strengths.

The story is about journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who has just lost a libel suit against a crooked industrialist. With his professional reputation in tatters, and a prison stint looming, he accepts a strange proposal. Forty years ago, the daughter of a legendary Swedish businessman went missing, and a member of the family might be guilty of her murder. Blomkvist must investigate the massive Vanger clan, and try to warm up a case so cold that it’s covered in permafrost.

“Businessman” is one of fiction’s ubiquitous code words. In a porno, it means you don’t satisfy your wife. In a family film, it means you’re a type-A workaholic who forgets his son’s birthday. In a Michael Moore film, it means you’re an amoral monster who probably belongs in a room with padded walls. Stieg Larsson takes no half measures, and provides us with a few businessmen of each description. Some of the Vanger family are nasty, which is troubling. Some of them seem nice – which is even more troubling, because they wouldn’t be in a book like this if they were nice.

The Girl in the title is Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker. She’s an interesting and marketable character, but the book gives her little to do. She commits a few computer crimes and gets even with a rapist. This is mostly Blomkvist’s show, as the strange story of the Vanger clan uncoils like a snake in the grass. Each discovery raises new questions, and new dangers – some people aren’t happy to have a disgraced journalist rattling the local skeletons.

The book was fine up until this point, and then all manner of fecal products started hitting all manner of spinning blades. There’s a sudden and implausible serial killer plotline, and a Saw-esque torture dungeon…all I could think of was “what?” I don’t have an issue with anything in the book for it is, but they make no sense with what went before. Part of what I liked about Dragon Tattoo was its grounding in reality, and suddenly all of that was yanked away. The sudden twists and turns into B-movie gore porn only succeeded in giving me whiplash.

American Psycho worked at a certain level, but that was because you make concessions to it (it’s a heavily stylised book, it’s metaphorical, it’s told by an unreliable narrator.) Put elements of its plot in a John Grisham book and they’d just seem unbelievable and ridiculous. A book has to have a certain internal logic, an unspoken agreement of what can happen and what can’t. All Dragon Tattoo does is succeed in being a malformed literary chimaera.

The final pages just screw things up even more, with characters taking visits to Australia (??), while the reader gets bodyslammed with plot twist after implausible plot twist. The result is a huge, overstuffed, unconvincing mess: too many reveals, too many changes of motivation, too many themes, too many characters, and not enough sanity. Reading Dragon Tattoo is like going for a car ride and finding that your destination is a beach, an amusement park, and a zoo all rolled into one – with the rollercoaster awash in seawater and tigers climbing the Ferris Wheel.

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