Review – A Head Full of Dreams

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Well, everyone, this it it. After fifteen years since ‘Yellow’ graced our presence, and gave us one of the most equally loved and hated four piece rock groups since Nickelback, Coldplay are back with what we’re to believe is their final album: A Head Full of Dreams (AHFOD), hard on the heels of last year’s melancholic Ghost Stories.

If this really is the band’s swansong, is this the return of the “old Coldplay” die-hard fans have been craving for since X&Y? Or is it their final nail in the coffin to the notion that “all their music sounds the same”?

Those questions remain to be answered as opener ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ begins. Whilst it’s not the strongest title track they’ve written, it does set a good tone for what’s to come, with positive messages like “you can see the change you want to be when you get a head full of dreams” giving the song a strong, feel-good character. Couple that with Chris Martin’s airy yet powerful vocals, supported by a boisterous sound, and you have a good indication that the band are set on making a happy record, which Martin himself has confessed they have yet to create.

The title track’s positivity could be taken as a cause for concern that this record is simply a Mylo Xyloto Mark II; however, as it continues, Coldplay quickly defy expectations.

‘Birds’ gives the band a much-needed dose of indie rock to their repertoire, with Will Champion driving the song through a steady percussion beat, and a simple but memorable riff shared between guitarist Jonny Buckland and Guy Berryman on bass. Meanwhile, ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ situates the band in an unfamiliar R&B territory with a ‘Turn Down For What’-style club song, featuring none other than Queen Bey herself. The first of many collaborations on AHFOD, it’s undeniably a conscious effort to cement Coldplay’s place on the dance floor as last year’s ‘A Sky Full of Stars’ attempted to. Beyoncé and Martin form a fitting duo, with their “drink for me, drink for me”s standing their own against a bellowing chorus of trumpets. This sound doesn’t come as a surprise, considering the album’s production team Stargate are behind the likes of Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’ and other R&B hits. And then there’s AHFOD’s lead single, ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’ – undoubtedly one of the catchiest songs on the album, with its pop-like structure and rip-roaring electric guitar reminiscent of the strong cultural influence on the album.

What you have in these tracks is an attempt by Coldplay to ‘push the boundaries’ musically, arguably what they were known for in the Viva era, making some memorable pieces in the process, and possibly the “happy” songs Martin was looking for. However, as is the band’s standard, they’ve also acted as fitting disguises for a number of love stories. At other times in the album, Coldplay tears down this veil and exposes them in plain sight.

Everglow, written by none other than Martin’s ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow, and the cited inspiration behind last year’s Ghost Stories, is a tale of a once-was relationship that’s left its mark in the form of a soaring ballad. Whilst the concept of an ‘everglow’ is difficult to grasp at first, stripping the song down musically allows it to become on of the more lyrically poignant songs on the album. The same can be said for Amazing Day, with its simple and dreamlike melody giving way for the story of two lovers sat on a roof, naming the stars and confessing their love for one another. Whilst it may be a bit of a standard love scenario, it doesn’t feel contrived, and is a good display of a band striving to be cool and different in some places, and not being afraid of who they are at their core in others.

Although that’s a blessing to listeners, it can also come across as a bit of a struggle in songs where they’re trying to expand themselves both musically and lyrically. Hidden track X Marks the Spot, whilst striving to be a contender to Daft Punk’s recent Random Access Memories, falls a bit flat with its sluggish beat, and attempts to divert from the usual lyrics of heartbeats and miracles with equally commonplace lines like “I just put my hands up to the sky, feeling like I’ve got a rocketship that I want to ride”. The album works when Coldplay make efforts to go beyond the musical style they’re used to, but not when they channel their efforts into doing this lyrically too.

That, ultimately, is what cripples the album in the end. Final track Up and Up, whilst it creates a good contender to Oasis’ Champagne Supernova, thanks in part to Noel Gallagher himself creating an appropriately grand guitar riff, the lyrics don’t do the large chorus sound and inspirational “we’re going to get it, get it together” message of the song justice. Coldplay have never been the strongest lyrical bands around, but that’s allowed for more attention to be focused on the good sound they create. Silly lyrics like “trying to empty out the ocean with a spoon” don’t, undermining the song in this case.
Overall, A Head Full of Dreams is littered with gems that demonstrate Coldplay’s willingness to experiment musically, and their ability to create simple but emotive pieces when they remain true to who they are lyrically, even if that isn’t the strongest. However, in places where they attempt to diverge from this, it weakens what they try to achieve musically, as was the case with Mylo Xyloto. If this is to be the band’s last album, it certainly isn’t their strongest, but it’s a fine example of how Coldplay perform best, and the fruitful results that can happen when they do.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Film Review

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When I first saw The Amazing Spider-Man, as both a cinemagoer and an avid Marvel fanboy, I had but one question on my mind: ‘Didn’t I see this movie ten years ago?’. Poor Webb. When Sony approaches you to reboot Marvel’s greatest superhero that already had a perfectly suitable origin story, a memorable cast and a charismatic Asian lady playing his theme tune, it was inevitable that some toes were going to be trodden on.

Now, two years later, our toes are somewhat healed and ready for Andrew Garfield’s second entry as our friendly neighbourhood hero. Does his charisma hold together this web of ideas? Or does director Mark Webb swing in too many directions? Can I possibly make any more spider puns?

The sequel opens up in a rather dramatic fashion. A continuation of the flashbacks in the first film sees Peter Parker’s parents, Richard (Campbell Scot) and Mary (Embeth Davidtz), leaving the child with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). The nature of Richard’s work with Oscorp puts him in danger, leading to the couple’s inevitable death and the laying of the shady corporation’s foundations into place.

Years on, the incident, the death of Gwen’s father and the continuing responsibilities of Spider-Man put Peter, and those he loves, at risk. Can the superstar of New York possibly keep up the pace with love interest Gwen (Emma Stone), the return of old friend Harry (Dane DeHaan) and the rise of misunderstood villain, Electro (Jamie Foxx)?

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Old Friends, New Challenges

As you can see from my somewhat long-winded description, there is a lot going on here. Mark Webb, this time around, is a bit of a visionary. With plans to extend Spidey’s universe into two more films, as well as two spinoff films, The Amazing Spider Man 2 oozes continuity rumours, sub plots and the ticking of the right Spider-Man boxes.

Whilst it may feel over-stuffed with ideas, the film does right to relate it all (albeit, with some tedious links) to the film’s plot. It’s admirable, considering the franchise doesn’t have any other Marvel films to bounce off of like the rest of its cinematic universe. Taking the film in its own right, as a sequel to the first film and a middle-finger to the Sam Raimi films of old, it’s a successor in almost every single way.

Garfield is swarve, cocky and adorably awkward as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Whether it’s the choreographed web-swings, the humiliation of Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) or his head-over-heels moments with Gwen, the man helms this entire universe, bringing a spark of life out of its characters. As great as Tobey Maguire was, Garfield (again) just leaves him out to dry as the Spider-Man of old. And yes, for those concerned, he is just as ripped.

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Your Friendly Neighbourhood Hero

In terms of the action, comedy and romance, Webb has turned the dial up to 11 on every aspect, making them complement one another perfectly. At times, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, with CGI boss-fights and wise-cracks galore to please the simpleton in all of us. Then, it wants to wrench your heart out in Garfield’s scenes with co-star Stone, as you remember that this superhero is just a teenager like many of us, with promises to keep and a life to lead. Particularly with Gwen’s valedictorian speech, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Of course, a round of applause must go to Foxx and DeHaan for their strong depictions of some of the web-head’s greatest villains and the universe’s most intriguing characters. One can hope that they return in The Sinister Six movie, but they will not be missed as much as a character who meets their end in the film. Nudge nudge!

Overall, The Amazing Spider Man 2 acts as a successor movie to its prequel, as well as a building foundation to its further movies, which creates some building tensions within the movie. Still, you can’t ignore the film’s evident charm and mass-appeal to the cinemagoer and Marvel fanboy in all of us. You may leave slightly disappointed, but you’ll be guaranteed to be quoting it and practising your wise-cracks on the way home – or is that just me?

That’s No Moon, That’s a Book Review!

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Not too long ago, in this very galaxy, Verily, A New Hope brought two pieces of treasured history, Shakespeare and Star Wars, together. That literary geek’s dream now has a sequel: The Empire Striketh Back. If you need an excuse to brush up on your love for Shakespeare, your Star Wars fanatics or that ghastly impression of Yoda, Ian Doescher may have just found it.

From the moment you grasp the book, it hits you that you’re holding something brilliant. A centralised Yoda coated in Shakespearean quilt dominates the cover, surrounded by an exquisite scenery and classic Star Wars characters and vehicles. Together, they mock and complement one another in perfect harmony, with these illustrations continuing throughout the book.

As for the inside, a traditional Shakespeare story awaits you, only this time set in space. Once you begin to read the prologue, you see what Doescher is trying to do – translate The Empire Strikes Back’s dialogue into Shakespearean. Take Han Solo’s “Punch it!” line and you get “Anon, Chewbacca, lead us to our fate!”. The effect is simultaneously humorous and impressive in that it feels authentic for Star Wars and Shakespeare fans alike.

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Like so!

This isn’t just in Doescher’s dialogue, but in his presentation of each and every page. The book is divided into five Acts, each divided into Scenes, each Scene presented in the form of a traditional Shakespeare play. You have your characters and stage directions, the use of iambic pentameter and prose, and just about every Shakespearean device you could name. From reading the Afterword, you can tell that the man knows his stuff.

Don’t assume that he is simply a scribe – he has his own, literary imagination to toy with. Through his use of monologues, you gain an extended insight into the characters and themes of The Empire Strikes Back. Some of them are suitably hilarious (every now and again, Chewbacca and R2-D2 get their own, dramatic speeches), but the majority heighten the film to another level of ass-kicking sophistication.

A minor criticism is that, just like with the first two Harry Potter films, if you’ve experienced it before, you’ll get a strange sense of déjà vu. The plot almost entirely follows that of the film (save swapping a few scenes around), which becomes more obvious when you follow the book alongside the film like a script. That’s to be expected, as the surprises and changes are intended for the dialogue.

And so, once I finished this heroic tale and chuckled at its closing sonnet, all I could do was await The Jedi Doth Return. Shakespeare and Star Wars fans, with criticisms considered: this is the spoof you were looking for.

 

Band of Skulls – ‘Himalayan’ Review

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Original article on York Vision

With Leeds and Reading, two studio albums and more commercial appearances than Kevin Bacon (‘Need for Speed’, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Guitar Hero’, to name a few), the three-piece alternative rock band are starting to extend their reach that bit further than Southampton. Now, having teased via Facebook and streamed through NME, Band of Skulls’ third studio album, ‘Himalayan’, has finally arrived – does it bode well for their rock ‘n’ roll image?

The album doesn’t ease you in – the immediately aggressive guitar and drum beat of “Asleep at the Wheel” bellow to the fact that you, listener, have entered the world of rock of roll. It feels familiar to some of their previous sounds, very The Black Keys and, as some fans are describing it, ‘fucking dirty’.

That feel begins to settle in for the next few tracks. You’ll begin to feel your feet stomping and your head banging as “Hoochie Coochie”, what with its tight, dance floor grip. From there, lead singers Emma Richardson and Russell Marsden know that they’ve got you and ask you to sit back, relax and take a classic Band of Skull’s road trip.

Together, they co-operate to deliver to their fans, to rocking newbies and just about everyone. You’ve got the love ballad of “You Are All That I Am Not”, the psychedelic feel of “Cold Sweat” and that exploding sound of about every song. By the end of “Get Yourself Together”, you feel satisfied that the band have tried to stimulate you in almost every way they can.

Admittedly, I was sat there making some comparisons to the likes of Foo Fighters and Jimi Hendrix throughout my listen. With that familiar, kick-ass rock sound underlying its modest 12-track listing, you can’t help but draw a few here and there. Still, it doesn’t completely take you away from the fact that Band of Skulls has given you a pretty good journey for the past hour.

Whilst it may not deliver something completely new to its genre, ‘Himalayan’ does provide for a great time to both fans of its genre and for its loyal fan base. With their upcoming European tour, expect to hear their name just a little bit more, folks.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Special Edition – Review

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Original article at York Vision

Composer for the scores of timeless classics such as Mrs Doubtfire and The Silence of the Lambs, Howard Shore is writing in the league of musical genius. Sadly, as admirable as his efforts were, they were overshadowed by the likes of Robin Williams burning his bosoms over a kitchen stove. That certainly wasn’t the case with his soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings, giving him renowned success and nasty hobbitses everywhere music for Middle Earth. If following that up with a score for An Unexpected Journey was a brave return for Shore, continuing with The Desolation of Smaug was an even braver one.

Opening with The Quest for Erebor, I was half expecting the popular Misty Mountains Cold theme to intertwine itself with the film’s score as was previously done. However, it instead has that orchestral empowerment we were introduced to ten years ago. From the first few tracks, it begins to feel darker and gloomier than An Unexpected Journey, a fitting move by Shore as Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy begins to change its tone. Flies and Spiders hits this perfectly, with its sharp chords and mighty crescendos, giving it that feel reminiscent of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings score.

  The Elves save not only Bilbo and company from some horrific spiders, but the soundtrack from becoming two hours of doom and gloom. Rivendell, also from the original trilogy, has always been a personal favourite piece of mine, as beautiful to me as a pint is to Pippin. Feast of Starlight provides that same gloomy but mystical coating, before the soundtrack goes on its travels down The Forest River, as fast paced as the scene in the movie itself.

From here, Shore takes inspiration from his previous Middle Earth composition. Sadly, it isn’t a cameo of The Green Dragon Song like they did with Frodo last year, but instead giving a certain ambiance to his music in order to portray different themes and concepts conveyed in the film.

For example, we have the bold and brass nature of the Dwarves, conveyed by instruments of a similar description in Girion, Lord of Dale; summing up the very personality of a city with grandiose melodies, as is done for Lake-town in Thrice Welcome; and letting you know when Hobbits are getting some worthy screen time with the famous Shire clarinet in The Courage of Hobbits. It all feels familiar, which is a wonderful thing – this is the Middle Earth you left ten years ago, which sounds as authentic as you remember.

The composer isn’t afraid to tread new ground, however. Shore uses a descending arpeggiated melody in pieces such Bard, a Man of Lake-town and Protector of the Common Folk which give the score some cohesion, whilst pushing the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to its limits in creating an altogether sinister conclusion of tracks to scale up Smaug’s fiery (sorry) reputation, as is brilliantly presented in My Armour is Iron, with its rhythmic strings and blaring brass, building him up in a Sauron kind of way.

What’s more, Shore has created something truly beautiful in his tracks Kingsfoil and Beyond the Forest. They’re almost narcotic when they introduce a basic, elven melody that breaks away from the overall threatening tone of the film; although, they are true to this concept, and can be just as epic in their own rights as the songs progress.

Let me discuss the elephant in this soundtrack, Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire. Where does a chart-topping, acoustic-loving 22 year old have his place in a Middle Earth soundtrack? You either loathe it, for said reason, or you love it for the reason that I do. Of course he’s not singing in Elven, but that doesn’t take away from the authentic feel that he grants to The Desolation of Smaug.

The song bleeds with Thorin’s anguish for Smaug destroying his people, calling to his dwarven brothers to stand against him. ‘And if we should die tonight, then we should all die together…. watch the flames burn auburn on the mountain side. Desolation comes upon the sky.’ Ed Sheeran channels this in his tender vocals, strumming a simple rhythm on his guitar, accompanied by nothing more than a drum and cello. Its simplicity mirrors the fact that Thorin and his people have nothing. Also, he gets a folklike violin solo – any Hobbit’s dream!

To conclude, Shore does a magnificent job in capturing the essence of The Desolation of Smaug in his soundtrack. He stays comfortable in some parts, using old tricks in a new setting; in others, he experiments with what he has learnt across his time as a composer, daring to be different in some aspects, paying off entirely. Whilst it won’t go down in motion picture history as The Lord of the Rings soundtrack did, it will certainly go down in mine and any budding Tolkien fan’s history.

The Day of the Doctor(s) Review

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(Original article at ‘York Vision’)

7.50pm, the 23rd of November. A date and time circled, starred, and circled again by Whovians across the globe. With ‘The Night of the Doctor’ (and an incredibly fun yet complex Google “Whoodle” to match) helping to over-hype our Doctor Who senses, we were finally mentally and physically prepared for this 50th celebration episode, whether that be in selected 3D cinemas, or even in front of the TV., like Doctor Who tradition demands us to.

However or wherever (can I be hopeful that other planets watch it too?) you watched it, it’s certain to say that we were all watching the same wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey magic that we’ve been dreaming of for weeks on end.

Quicker than you can shout ‘GERONIMO’, the Doctor Who formula of late went into full swing. Clara goes running for the Doctor, charming greetings are had, only to be spoilt by time-space mishaps in need of his investigation. U.N.I.T. has called upon the Doctor’s aid due to a disturbance in a set of “T.A.R.D.I.S. art”, which is discovered to be a plot of the retro race, the Zygons.

I was worried the episode would fall into ‘hero fights villain’ category. Yet, it became something much more than that. It was The Doctor’s day.
Thanks to the help of a time-rift (and, of course, a fez) we find David Tennant, Matt Smith and John Hurts’ Doctors joined together to ultimately decide the fate of Gallifrey. Whilst they do have aid from a colourful host of characters (Bad Wolf and Tom Baker’s scarf, that’s all I can say), they have to discover this concept of what it means to be a Doctor. The Warrior, the Hero, a Doctor. Fans have never seen so much morality being disputed across what is, essentially, one person (same casing, different software). It was heart-wrenching, yet rewarding, thanks to it kicking off a potential search for Gallifrey, either at Christmas or when we see Peter Capaldi (again, SPOILER) as the Doctor.

The episode wasn’t all drama and fezzes, thankfully. I don’t think I’ve giggled like a weirdo so much in one episode! Everything about the Doctors that has been previously poked at is poked at again, right in the sore spot. The Sonic Screwdriver not being a water pistol, the Doctor’s ever changing fashion sense, the way he fails to grow up even. It helps to spark a wonderful chemistry between this Power of Three. Opening an unlocked door was a personal highlight of this in action.

Nostalgia is rife in this special too. Not just helping to bridge the gap in Doctor Who lore with the Time War feud, but having more nods to fans than a nodding Churchill dog, in a car, over a pothole. Watching the original ‘wormhole sequence’, seeing all 13 T.A.R.D.I.S. models at once, hearing the good-old cringe-worthy catchphrases. What’s more, the final sequence needs the aid of all Doctors through time and space, ending with them stood in a line with their smouldering faces – perfection.

With drama, humour and a lot of nostalgia, Doctor Who’s 50 years go out with a snap, a crackle and a pop – proof that you can end articles with ‘Rice Krispie’ characters.

Booty Calls! Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

(Original article at ‘York Vision’)

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Warning. Review written by penniless first year who hasn’t bought the game. I’ve conducted my research and know this series very well, so keep yer epithets to yerself, yer port swillin’, sneaky gaggin’ reptile!

With a moderate opening title in the series, Assassin’s Creed has gone on to become Ubisoft’s biggest success story (that’s right, even bigger than that old Rayman game you played the hell out of). Gamers can immerse themselves into a world filled with a rich narrative, beautiful scenery to jump around in and killing. Lots of killing. Yet, with the recent announcement to make the series an annual release, as well as a certain degree of backlash to A.C. III compared with previous titles, is there a worry that fans may drop ship? Not at all – in fact, stay on that ship and shoot the hell out of some other ones.

This time around, players take control of cocky protagonist Edward Kenway, grandfather to that of Connor Kenyway, the previous lead role. The two of them live completely different lives. Whilst Connor spent his time getting high on herbal tea and stabbing redcoats in the name of Washington, Edward spends his raiding enemy ships for loot and sleeping with many a Caribbean courtesan (he’s unemployed, give the guy a break, eh?). He’s refreshing in his approach, feeling like a pick ‘n’ mix of previous lead assassins. A good man at heart, but completely reckless, players see how his character begins to grow as his epic adventures intertwine with the life of the Creed.

His playpen ain’t so shabby either. Set in the Caribbean, 1715, Edward encapsulates himself in the Golden Age of Piracy, a violent yet exciting time in world history. From Renaissance Italy to Damascus, players have taken part in an epic adventure of ‘Around the World in 80+ Hours Gameplay’ since the year 2007. Ubisoft have been known for visiting locales to create the best representation possible – that’s completely evident here. The vast oceans, the dense jungles, the metropolitan cities. I’m in my own pixelated world here, but it couldn’t feel more realised, even topping A.C. III’s impressive feats.

Now, I have to pick bits with this, as I feel the story may be the weakest part of the game. Sure, those concerned with the history and characters of this time period will be pleased. However, you don’t find yourself particularly interested in the main game, proving to be more of an effort in completing these missions as opposed to side quests. However, the ‘present day’ events concerned with Desmond  take a great turn, focusing more on Abstergo’s side of events. Their office has a Microsoft feel about it… interpret how you will.

All I could think of when I watched Jack Sparrow clashing swords on screen was ‘Why does Johnny Depp get all the fun?’ Now, you finally get a piece of the action. With a mix of land and sea exploration and combat, gameplay doesn’t go stale. From running across rooftops and the merciless fighting we remember, to striding across the oceans in the Jackdaw, diving into undiscovered caverns for treasure and wrestling the bajeezus out of sharks. Your crew even sings sea shanties for an authentic feel… sadly not the ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ theme tune.

Pirates, in one way or another, have steadily become a popular part of mainstream culture. Except video games. Everywhere except video games. Well, me mateys, I’m going to put a cannonball in that statement right now. This latest addition to ‘Assassin’s Creed’ doesn’t just revitalise this bloated series – it reconceptualises the pirate in gaming. So, is it a pirate’s life for you?