Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Do You Even Still Lift, Bro?

Posted: March 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

Heh. Yeah. Great question.

Here’s the thing. Different things become important to you as the years go by. Cavemanning. Archery. Shave stuff. You’ve seen this stuff come and go here on the blog, and you’ve seen me lose all interest in the damn thing and not write anything for long stretches.

And you’ve seen me work out in fits and starts, get hurt, take breaks, bellyache about getting old, etc.

But in the last few months, I’ve made it a priority to really, actually get in shape. Not just a trifling effort. Not just “because it’s healthy.” Actually hitting the weight room with a purpose.

What’s the secret?

It’s having actual goals. I should have written those goals here months ago, but here they are.

  1. Deadlift 500, straight bar, raw, and slowly work myself up to 600, which would be a lifetime PR.
  2. Bench Press 365 in the near term, later hitting better than 420, which would again, be a lifetime PR.
  3. Here’s the vanity part. Have big damned arms and generally be prettier than before.
  4. And here’s the caveat: I want to do all this without gaining a lot of weight.

So those are the goals. I’ve spent the last few months starting to get into good enough shape to even begin pushing toward them. With creaky knees, beat-up shoulders and elbows, and limited levels of recovery due to being far from a spring chicken, it’s been bit of a trial. But, torn up joints and all, I’m really here for the long road this time. I’m seeing gains. I’m feeling better. And that’s enough reward for now.

Advertisements

Ease of Lathering: Easy. No problems to report here.

Protection: Very good. This is a rich lathering soap. It has tallow and lanolin in the mix, but doesn’t come with the difficulties and wild thirst that this sort of formula is sometimes plagued with.

Residual Slickness: Excellent. This is a slick soap. I don’t think it’s any slicker than other top soaps, but it has nothing at all to apologize for.

Scent: I’m not specifically for or against the scent. It’s a fresh, if somewhat dark melange. I can’t say that it would be one I’d go after with any great vigor, but it isn’t a turn-off.

Production/Value: Decent. L&L is another soap on the high side of the mid-price bracket. High quality ingredients and a fine performing soap. 4 ounces for a bit under $20. Seems like a fair market price.

Notes: I wouldn’t be opposed to purchasing more L&L soap. I’d probably pick a different scent, were I to do so. Trismegistus, perhaps. If you find that tallow and lanolin are your preferred soap ingredients, L&L should certainly be on your list.

Keytronics rubber dome review:

Posted: October 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

My friend Dave is always on the lookout for an interesting old keyboard for me to try out. Recently, he found two old Keytronics models at a second hand store. I don’t have all the information on them, but they are old enough to have the DIN 5 pin connection. They do, however, have the Windows key, so my guess is that they were from the era of keyboards that came out with Windows 95.

Dave purchased two of them with the same form factor and of the same outward appearance. They are altogether bog standard keyboards, with rubber dome switches and standard plungers to actuate the rubber domes. The keys themselves are fairly nice, with a clean legend and nice, conical shape, taller and slightly narrower at the top than is the standard today. Basically the same shape as an IBM M series. The chassis and layout is much the same as the “M”, as well. Full keyset, large format with a lot of bezel around the key clusters.

The shape, however, is about as far as the similarities goes. Picking the keyboards up, they weigh less than half what a vintage IBM keyboard does, and have a good bit of chassis flex if you test them out. Being rubber domes, they have a chance to be somewhere between absolute rubbish and passable in terms of typing mechanics. While not absolute rubbish, I wouldn’t say that these old Keytronics keyboards have anything special to offer. Other than being in the vintage beige and having the old fashioned look/form factor, there’s nothing really special here.

Can you type on them? Sure.

Are they great? No.

Brass Tacks:

This era of keyboard had the “Big Ass Enter” key, and the little backspace. This is a rare design choice right now, but once held a big place in the market. Being DIN connection, you’ll need one or even two adapters to get it working on your modern PC. All in all, not really worth it. Not to me, anyway. There are better keyboards being sold for twenty bucks right now, without the need for weird adapters. Not all the old stuff is great. In this case, it was a mediocre product when it came out (most certainly build to minimize cost but appear to be the same as more expensive ‘boards.), and it has not gotten any better with age.

Cheers, and Happy Typing!

Here, we have another keyboard featuring the Outemu blue switches. This time, the maker is Eagletec. I believe that the same keyboard may also be available from a brand called Mechanical Eagle, though I could be wrong.

This is a non-backlit 104 key ‘board, with a low profile aluminum top. This is not quite as “compact” on the desktop as some of the other options, but is is not a gigantic ‘board, either. I would say that it is about normal in that regard.

The Eagletec keyboards in this model can also be had with fixed rainbow LEDs, blue LEDs, and RGB LEDs. Because I had several keyboards already that featured a backlight, I decided to safe a few dollars and go with the non-lit version this time around. The spread is less than $20 between the least and most expensive.

I actually purchased two of these ‘boards. One in black and one in silver. They are otherwise identical. My plan was this: I would install a set of “typewriter” key caps on one of them, then use some of the existing, alternate color keys to fill in the other. That’s what I’ve done, with the silver one enjoying the variety of some of the black keys I pulled. The black ‘board has received the typewriter-style, round keys in white and chrome. I’ll cover my impression of the typewriter keys in another review. Suffice it to say that they work and are not as difficult to adapt to as you might imagine.

Unboxing:

These keyboards are altogether standard in their packaging. Nothing comes with the ‘boards, and no extra money has been spent to make the box “glitzy”. They don’t even open in the standard, clam’s shell fashion, but simply ask you to pull the ‘board out the side.

Nothing good or bad so far.

The black ‘board is finished without flaw, though the logo plate caem askew on the silver one. I attempted to peel the logo plaque off, but it proved to be impossibe, without damaging it. Hmm. Oh, well. I’ve been quite lucky with these cheap keyboard thus far. Something has to give, and I imagine that quality assurance has to be one of them.

The Eagletec is a reasonably sturdy board in terms of structural rigidity. It’s light, but the curves in the aluminum top plate allow a fairly thin material to act stiffer than it otherwise would. When looking at the underside, the cost-cutting measures do show out. Primarily, this is in the elevator feet at the back. These are the most vestigial sort of feet. They don’t provide much lift, and they are the type you often find on the lowest common denominator keyboards. That said, they’re probably sufficient to the purpose. Just keep in mind that they are not nearly as robust as on some other designs.

The USB cable is not detactchable, though I believe that this isn’t much of a concern in a full sized keyboard. The cord is also not braided. It does feature a hook and latch tab to allow you to manage extra cable length, if needed.

I find that the overall design is good looking. The floating key design makes no bones about what it is. Especially with the tall typewriter keys on, this is a very “guts on the outside” keyboard.

Everything worked just fine, and other than the misaligned logo, everything looked as it should have. This is the sub $40 range of keyboards, so that meets, if not exceeds, expectations.

In Use:

With the Outemu blue switch, this keyboard is a typing tool. A loud machine that has somewhat above average key resistance, good tactility, and plenty of the crunchy goodness most people are after when they get a mechanical. Bad for noise-averse work spots, good for maximum feedback when you’re clacking along.

Key caps are reasonably sturdy ABS with business-like logos on them (for the non-backlit version). I believe that the backlit versions come with double-shot key caps, but these are not thusly manufactured. i believe that they are pad printed, but it is possible that they are laser-ablated. My bet would be on pad printing. The key feel is just fine out of the box. About what you would expect from ABS keys. The key shape is what I’d call the average conical, square shape you’ll find on most mechanicals. it’s a good, easy-to-use shape, and should not provide any mechanical impediments to typing. Legibility is a little better than the average see-through doubleshot, and there is not “gamer style” applied to this keyboard.

Typing experience is what you’d expect. That is, quick and responsive to touch, plenty of feel. Like all the other Outemu blue keyboards I’ve tried. It should be said that it’s more and more common to find the 87 key layout at these low prices. Not so much with the full size ‘boards. Thus, if you’ve got to have that number pad, this is going to be a nice option for you.

Usage Case:

If you just need a full size, no frills typing keyboard, this might be one of the best deals out there. Getting into that for less than $40 is pretty awesome. The clean looks of the ‘board make it a good candidate for hot rodding, as well. Any kind of technicolor rainbow would look fine on either the silver or the black. My slight issue with the silver version does give me some pause, as do the cheesy elevator feet.

Overall, I think that this keyboard can give you anything a more expensive ‘board, like the Azio, can give, in terms of the pure typing experience and visual interest.

Final Thoughts:

For someone just breaking into mechanicals, or who just doesn’t have a lot of cash to throw at the problem, this is a pretty sweet deal. How likely are you to get a lemon? I don’t know. I also don’t know if the durability of these inexpensive keyboards is going to be as high as something two or three times the price. If it’s not? Shrug. Get another one or upgrade when the time comes.

For the seasoned mechanical keyboardist, this might be great fun as a tinkering platform, or as a loaner you can hand a friend who is interested in checking a mechanical out.

All in all, most of these inexpensive keyboards have more similarities than differences. Your best choice simply depends upon what form factor works for you, and what your visual aesthetics demand. Thus far, I’ve never had one fail to work, and all of them have provided me with a quality typing experience. If the quality and price of mechanicals have ever allowed a broad cross-section of the populace to try them out, it’s today. Good times.

Cheers, and happy typing.

I’d like to correct and clarify a few things about the review I recently wrote about Wintersun’s “The Forest Seasons.” At the time of the review, I didn’t know some crucial details. I’ll share these with you now:

This was not, as such, a Wintersun band project. Essentially everything you hear on the record, short of the chorus and backing vocals, were written and performed by Jari. This includes the drums.

Yes, that’s right. It’s all Jari, musically. He plays all the guitars, all the bass, and created all the orchestration.

This was not a fact that was well establish during the marketing of the album. We knew, Jari being Jari, that he did a lot of the stuff on his own, but I was under the impression that the other members came in and laid down their tracks in some form or fashion.

Because of the history of the band, it being essentially a one-man operation initially, we know that he’s capable. Traditionally, though, musical projects of this sort find themselves in need of, at the least, a drummer (provided that the major musical force doesn’t play the drums).

Apparently, due to the lack of time and space in a studio, Jari elected to skip this step, and use synthetic drums.

Yes, that’s right. Kai didn’t play on the album, and the drums are programmed. Mind=blown. I was totally fooled. The drums sound great. The programming and fidelity Jari managed kind of knocks me for a loop. That being said, from hearing a live version of the first track with Timo Hakkinen playing the drums, these tunes will rock a little harder in the live setting.

Does this revelation take away from my enjoyment of the album? No. I’m sad that the rest of the guys aren’t heard on the album, but it is what it is. My level of respect for Jari’s production chops has moved up a notch. One can detract, saying that programmed drums are not in the spirit metal, of course. Remember, though, that Jari had to write all of the drum parts, and contrive to create them. He did a good enough job to fool me, even after a lot of listens. There are some very intricate drum parts on The Forest Seasons. The drums DO NOT let the record down, in my mind.

In any case, as a correction, I have to let you know that the bass, the guitars, everything is Jari here.

 

(It isn’t my intention to make music reviews a feature on this site, but this is way, way too long to stick into a review at a retail page, and so here it lands, in among the soup of shaving and archery and the occasional hoisting of heavy objects.)

Edit: There are some factual inaccuracies in this review. I stand by the spirit of them, but please also read This Correction to get the full story.

When approaching the prospect of creating a piece of art, there are many different ways to go about it. For art, music in specific, that attempts to cater to a “popular” aesthetic, one of the primary target points has always been to be instantly relatable.

There is a magic to a piece of music that, upon first hearing it, almost feels like you’ve always known it. Rather than discovering the piece, it’s almost as if you’re simply being reminded of it. After listening once or twice, most people can hum along to the melody and probably sing along to the chorus. Simplicity and graceful economy are their watch-words. Rock and Roll and other popular musical forms try for this. Short songs, good beats, sensible chord changes, and not too many of those. Nothing that requires a recalibration of your sensor array.

Wintersun…doesn’t write music that way. At all.

They are, if anything, all about extreme, almost absurd detail. Sometimes, you can have been listening to their albums for years, and still be hearing little details you hadn’t noticed. They are obviously influenced by classical music, and want to imbue their music with the complexity, grandeur, and reward for the careful listener.

In light of this, rushing to judgement with a new Wintersun record is, in the end, a tactical blunder. I had some preliminary thoughts after the first few listens. A good half of those thoughts have proven to be ill-considered already. I’ve listened to The Forest Seasons a good fifteen times or so times now, and I’m still getting to grips with it, still learning a lot of things. I’m not changing my mind about it, but I’m beginning to ask better questions, and come to more refined answers.

1) Expectations, Controversy, and Crowdfunding:
A great deal of time has gone by since Wintersun first came along. Their first and eponymous album was and still remains one of the most staggering works of guitar savagery and epic metal to be committed to a recording medium. Don’t agree? Fight me. Seriously. Like with fists. As with other artists who hit a grand slam home run on their first at-bat, this created a problem. A big one. If the album had been good, interesting, and largely ignored, Jari probably would have gone back with Ensiferum and recorded with them, doing the awesome work he put in on their first two records. With Wintersun the album being what it was, though…how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after that?

So, the daunting and terrifying task of trying to improve upon a record that may have gone as far in that direction as Jari could go. What could he do? Sure, he could have put together another clinic on sweep picking and shredded our faces off. Many bands live by doing the same thing, catching the same lightning in the same bottle again and again. It’s not a bad way to go. Fans will shout, “Gimme more ‘o that!” all day.

Jari…wasn’t going to do that. He wanted MORE. Because how could anything but more do? Thus, it took him very close to forever to put out Time I. I won’t lie. I was a little disappointed at first. Not bummed, but Time I was a whole different kettle of fish. The density of the mix was such that much of the guitar and drum wizardry was very hard to pick out. Much of the complexity rejected a good understanding of the full picture. You had to TRY. Not just once. For a while. Like many of my favorite things, it rewarded effort and dedication. I have but few complaints, after these years have gone by. The primary one? It’s just too damned short. If you strip out some of the orchestral intros and outros, you’re looking at only about 30 minutes of actual metal. Oh, what epic metal it is, but having waited 8 years for it…dang.

Here we are, 5 years removed from Time I, and the promised second half of that album is still only a rumor and a legend. Money issues. Studio fights. Writer’s block. Insufficient recording space, gear, time, and so forth. Acrimonious words and bellyaching. Some fans gave up on Jari and his perfectionist ways.

Enter the interim goal. The do-able album. The crow bar that might get Wintersun somewhat back into the good graces of both its studio and its fans. A thing called “The Forest Seasons”. As has become somewhat common in today’s world, it came to us via a crowdfunding effort, which would correspond with the studio selling physical media. It would allow both parties to make money, and to cater to different “levels” of fans.

You may have some vauge idea of which level I’m at. Yeah. That one. The one that sees me write an absurdly long review, when I don’t make it a habit to review music, movies, or books. The one who named his parakeet Jari. So, there’s that. Bias, let me tip my hat to you now.

Much has been said about all the hullabaloo outlined above. I’m not going to add to it here. I backed the crowdfunding effort. It was an easy decision, because I had the money to spare. I was willing to wager about $52 on the promise that I’d get a new Wintersun album. I was not alone. The campaign raised about $500K, and smashed the funding goal multiple times over. Evidently, there were enough fans who still really wanted what Wintersun was selling. And what were they selling?

2) The Album in Concept:
The idea behind The Forest Seasons was that it was an album that Jari could accomplish with the tools, money, and time available to him, an album that, while painstakingly produced, was recorded in whatever way he could find, even in bedroom closets and at odd hours when his neighbors wouldn’t complain. It wasn’t Mr. Right (Time II), but it was Mr. Right Now.

In addition to being what he COULD do (in his vision), it was also a concept album of sorts. I say “of sorts” because I find it to be a bit more of an overarching theme than an actual concept. Essentially, Jari’s idea was that he could do a metal album that covered the same thematic ground as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Great, crazy, wonderful idea. The sort of madness we expect from Jari. Is it in any way a cover of that piece? No. No actual notes in common. Just the idea of a four-season epic metal symphony.

There are four parts. They’re each about the size of a movement in a symphony (although that’s not what The Four Seasons is…but let’s not go there.) In lyric content, I would have to say that, true to the name of the band, the idea of cold and dark and winter dominates here. Even in Spring and Summer, it’s mostly about the classic Wintersun themes. Musically, you can squint to see the seasonal elements, but only if you really want to do it.

All that said, the album hangs together thematically to me. I just feel like the seasonal element feels a little like a theme stuck onto the songs at the end, not really cooked deeply into them. Which is fine. It’s something I can let go of. Each song is its own thing. I don’t necessarily expect Wintersun to give me a bouncy jig. Jari carried some folk metal elements with him from Ensiferum, but not that many.

3) The Music:
There is more Black Metal influence here than any other Wintersun release. There is still the epic and grandiose element here, the dramatic swells and the hundred layer-deep complexity, but there is greater menace, darkness, and stretches of disquieting atmosphere.

It is clear that, with this record, it was not about the guitar wizardry. Precious little remained to prove after Wintersun’s debut in this regard, as that album is altogether loaded with terrifying solos and riffs that hit like steam hammers.

At the same time, it isn’t quite at the other end of the spectrum, like Time I, where it flirted with Power Metal at points. (Not that there is anything wrong with Power Metal, for me.)

The first track, “Awaken from the Dark Slumber” or “Spring”, begins with a segment that has a disinctly Dimmu Borgir vibe. With the haunting strings beneath a driving mid-tempo beat, some odd chord progressions that work to flirt with the edges of dissonance, and all harsh vocals, this very Symphonic Black Metal phase goes on until about 5:40 of the first song.

From there, a hint of an epic theme is initially stated, then is washed away a bit in a quiet transition phase of symphonic instrumental. From there, we go into the classic double-kick gallop and epic harmonies you would likely expect from Wintersun, building into the extended refrain, first stated with Jari’s high shriek and an underpinning of Jukka’s low death growls.

Much of the musical interest during this part is going to be created by the synth orchestra, with the guitars primarily sticking to rhythm and a few riffs. The solos, such as they are, don’t really amount to anything noteworthy, considering the technical facility of the guitarists in question. There’s certainly space, had Jari wished to implement them, for titanic solos. Perhaps, in the live versions, they might take advantage of these openings.

In the latter part of the song, a male chorus appears, and this may be the part of the record that most recalls Time I. It also recalls moments here and there of early Ensiferum.

As with earlier Wintersun, the individual notes of the bass guitar are low in the mix, and difficult to discern. Bass will often get buried in a crowded mix. The recording doesn’t feel thin, and visuals of Jukka playing make it clear that he’s throwing stuff down there, but you’d have to strip all the backing tracks away to really hear what is going on (more on this later).

Kai’s drumming is flawless, but you get the sense that on this track, he’s certainly within himself, not having to sweat or strain. Unlike the bass, he is front-and-center. Don’t get me wrong. Kai, even when he’s not going full tilt, still brings it. His fills and changes are all perfectly accurate, and the song only falls into that “double-kick lull” for a short period of time. What I mean by that is the steady, mid-tempo double beat that carries on without any variation. You’ll see this for long stretches in some bands.

On to the second track, “The Forest that Weeps”, or “Summer”. Beginning with an acoustic guitar and almost Japanese synth instrumentation, it kicks into a head-nodding riff and a sparse drumline that, to some extent, lets the guitars drive the song for a few minutes. We get some harsh vocals from Jari, but he soon dusts off his clean vocals and shouting vocals to give the song some variety. Shades of Time I here, again, but with a harsher, more forthright tack. The lead rhythm riff here really carries it. In between the almost rock-like basic drums that live in the early parts of the song, Kai gives us some eccentric, asymmetrical playing behind the refrain. The big chorus shows up for a second, but tails into an instrumental bridge.

That bridge is a folk/Japanese tinged variation of the theme the guitars stated earlier in the song. A snare-drum brings us into the twin-guitar part of the show. Interestingly, it isn’t really a wailing solo, but a rather measured theme and variation segment above a nice rhythm. Maybe a little disappointing, if I’m honest. This part kind of beggs for some sweep-picking wizardry. It’s good and rhythmic, but feels a little bit like wasted time.

Orchestral bombast follows, with massed choruses and the whole ten yards. You want epic? Yeah. Here it is. In the latter part of the song, Kai does some deviously complex stuff with splitting up the beat and super-controlled double kick work. He plays both the easiest and most difficult of his material in this song, and has moments where he probably has to almost try hard. Almost.

The song fades away into the sound of the sea, and we’ve found ourselves at the half-way point in the record. Nominally, spring and summer are still pretty chilly. Because the band is named Wintersun. These dudes are from Finland. What do they know about warm weather?

Track three is entitled “Eternal Darkness” or “Autumn”. It’s the darkest and most evil song Wintersun have ever put out. I hear a good measure of Emperor in the early parts of this track. A super-distorted guitar and all kinds of evil, atmospheric stuff is going on here. They let Kai actually blastbeat on the drums for a solid stretch, and Jari’s voice is at its most aggressive.

Little by little, more typical Wintersun elements creep in atop the blastbeat, but dilute the menace of the track only just a tidbit. The blast turns to a more complex and gallop-influenced beat, with the orchestral backing tracks swirling behind it all and adding all manner of weird flourishes.

Giving us a bit of a break, an instrumental segment with a bunch of pretty sweet fills by Kai and a neat melody on the guitar ensues. Jari does an almost Shagrath-like vocal inflection here and there, giving an interesting wrinkle between his higher shrieks. More drum badassery by Kai, and some really solid guitar interplay. As this segment develops, it gives us our only real, wide-open guitar solo. It gets over too fast, but it’s something.

Another bridge, this time accomplished with the acoustic guitar and its evil arpeggio, quickly building into symphonic bombast. More Dimmu Borgir sounding stuff goes on, but is drawn inexorably back to the epic nature of the band Wintersun, with the very end of the song almost giving you that perfect fusion of what record one and two were. The whole thing ends abruptly, as if the transmission were cut, and it leaves you with a moment of highly dramtic null.

The final track, “Lonliness” or “Winter”, begins slowly and with a quiet, almost harp-like intro. You’re almost brought to mind the first orchestral theme in the Harry Potter movies. Metal happens, though. Slow and stately in pace, there’s a doom metal feel to the song. Fellow Finns, the band Swallow the Sun, would probably nod at this one and say, “Yeah, that’s cool.”

The music dies back down to what, in comparison, is fairly unadorned. Jari’s clean intro vocals are some of his most heart-felt. This clean vocal is interspersed with his harsh delivery, as the song’s metal elements surge back up behind him. This song is certainly the ballad of the group. For a wonder, Jukka’s bass is actually audible in this one, and carries a bit more of the musical load, as the drums and tempo here are such that Kai is effectively taking a breather.

The final track is certainly mostly about the vocal performance. Some tasty guitar work shows up at around minute eight, and I will say that the riff they pull out catches in my head and rattles around for days. The many-layered vocals as the song gets into its final minutes are really beautifully applied, and and the soaring clean singing Jari pulls out equals anything he has shown us on earlier recordings. This is the other version of epic that Wintersun can do, where it’s not about the speed or the riff, but about the evocative and emotional element of the song.

We float away from the last song on fading chimes of music and the sound of wind before all falls quiet.

4) Lyrics and Vocal Delivery:
I’m going to go against a lot of listeners here and say that there is more variation in lyrical content here than on Time I. I think that, in the main, Jari’s written some good songs here. They may be a bit chorus heavy for some people, but there is a lot of stuff going on with the different lyrics, the different dramatic places where Jari is taking us with this one.

Jari has been working on his singing. I feel certain of this. He has a larger repertoire of tonality here than on his earlier stuff, where it was just the high shriek, the clean, and the slight break-up shout. He has found a some true deathy sounds, as well as the Shagrath-style groaning vocal, for lack of a better description. I think that he pushes his standard harsh vocal to levels of menace he hadn’t done in the past, and he’s also pulled off some really heart-wrenching cleans, too.

Having Jukka (and Teemu, to a lesser extent) lend their deep bass growls to the proceedings also introduced some cool tonalities to the mix. Overall, I have no issues with the vocal performances here.

5) Production:
Many complain that the guitars are too low in the mix on this record, and that the drums and vocals are too loud. While I think that the studio mix of Time I certainly suffered from having the guitars buried too deep in the mix, I’m not sure that I totally agree with the criticism here. I think that the drums and vocals are where they need to be. The thing that is making the guitars indistinct is the presence of such large amount of synth backing tracks.

Then again, more than a few of the synths are pretty wonderful, so you have to decide what you’re looking for. If Jari wants to bury the guitar and use it as something more instinctually felt than heard, should we gainsay that choice? We certainly can, if we so choose, but again, there’s more going on here than we’ll easily be able to appreciate upon first listen. We’ll have to chase it.

I don’t think I fully appreciated the music until I listened to the instrumental version of the album, which are included with the Forest Package (the crowdfunding package).

Also, it should be said that, unlike some disks, the better your stereo is, the better this one will sound. If you’re lucky enough to have a pair of really great headphones or a pair of high resolution speakers, you’ll be able to appreciate a lot of elements of this album that would otherwise smear together like chalkmarks on a rain-soaked driveway.

Finally, if putting one of the best drummers on the planet front-and-center in the mix is a sin, I will go on record as saying that I fully endorse sin.

6) Value (CD version vs. The Forest Package)
If you chose to back the crowdfunding effort, you received what the band termed “The Forest Package.” This is an all-electronic package with no physical media, available for download at the moment of the album’s release. To my knowledge, there is no effort to replicate the package now that the crowdfunding is over. It’s possible that some or all of it will eventually find its way into some deluxe version of the album, but I don’t have any news about that. For now, you either bought in or you missed out.

Included with the package were the following perks:

1) The album itself, both in full-resolution .wav format and high quality mp3.
2) An acoustic version of “Loneliness”, the fourth track.
3) The full Forest Seasons album as an instrumental (no vocal track).
4) Isolated tracks of each of the Forest Seasons songs (two guitar tracks, bass, drums, vocal, and orchestration).
5) Re-mixes of both the first two albums.
6) The “Live at Tuska” concert from 2013.
7) A photo album and some 4K backgrounds

Provided that you have the capability to burn a disk to audio format, you can use the full .wav format to get a bit-perfect copy for playing on your audio equipment. I don’t see the lack of a material copy as a big deal, especially because it seems like it would have been unfair to Nuclear Blast to totally ace them out of the whole gamut of sales options.

The acoustic version is interesting, but I view it as more of an afterthought, really. It doesn’t add a lot of value, in my book, but is well executed, as far as it goes. I don’t envision myself listening to it that much.

Now, the instrumental version of the album…that’s a whole different story. I imagined that it might be something I’d listen to, maybe once, but I think, in this case, it’s actually a really great tool to help understand some of the musical elements. With the vocals taken off the top of the mix, a lot of the denser elements of the orchestration and the musicianship become clearer. Some of the stuff Kai is doing, particularly, becomes pretty jaw-dropping when you can hear the extent of it. Also, a lot of complexity in the synth-orchestra tracks snaps into focus. One thing you leave with is the understanding that Jari puts a lot of effort into stuff you’ll never really be able to hear. This is a feature of significant value.

The isolated tracks probably delve into nerding out a bit more than I have yet done, but they give you the chance, should you wish, to hear what Jukka’s doing on the bass, back there behind the wall of sound. If you’re trying to learn how to play the songs, I can see this as a big benefit. That, or you can re-mix the album in any way you see fit by throwing all the tracks into an audio mixing engine and balancing them as you prefer. Drums too loud? Too quiet? Jari has made most of your arguments irrelevant. If you want a lot more grit, a lot more “metal”, you can turn the guitars up and turn rest down a little. If you listen to the rhythm guitars in exclusion, the sound is a lot more like an old Dismember track than you might think. Wintersun, below all the intricate frosting, still has some metal going on. If you’re of the opinion that you want more of that, you can make it happen. It’s just a matter of knocking a few decibels off of the rest of the mix and punching up the guitars. Or, you can just shrug and never listen to any of it.

The remixes of the first two albums are punchy and sound good. I think that they help Time I feel a little bit less muddy at points, but I never had a problem with the first album. It was 10/10 already in my book. Adding the intro beforehand makes it a bit more cohesive with the later albums, but I don’t know if I’m a fan of it really. Almost feels like the weird additions and subtractions they do to the Star Wars movies. Just leave it alone. All in all, though, it gives you full .wav and high quality mp3 versions of both albums, so even without big differences in sound quality, it’s a perk.

Having a live version of a lot of the songs is cool. Because of the relative dearth of material, there’s not a lot of songs missing from this live set. In my listen, I don’t see major revelations about the band, but it’s good stuff. They pull it off live. I’d almost love to see them strip the songs back, using no backing tracks, but just having a keyboard player covering that ground when they play live. I think re-arranging the songs so that it’s all happening, all fluid and able to respond to the chemistry of the night, would be wicked. Whenever extensive backing tracks are at play, I feel like the band is a little hamstrung by that. They are on rails. The songs have to kind of go exactly as they did in the studio. Shrug. Maybe that’s just me. Still, a neat perk, and one that might have sold for full album price on its own.

Finally, the photos and computer backgrounds. These are neat, but they are the kind of things you would likely be able to download from a band’s website or from the record label. They are, at most, a small perk.

So…was the package worth it? To me, yes. For one, it was a vote that said that I still cared and was willing to venture some cash against the fact that Wintersun would remain solvent. I’m not saying that I haven’t gotten angry and impatient with the slowness and the excuses put forward for said lack of progress. Like most “big fans”, I wanted more, faster. That said, if you’re more of a casual fan, or not inclined to nerd out about a Wintersun record, the CD or mp3 download is probably sufficient, and a lot more economically sensible. Unless you didn’t own the first two records. That seems like a weird and hard to fathom place to be, but it’s possible that a few people who found the band recently or who recently became financially secure might have been there.

I’m sure that there was a percentage of people who were disappointed in what they got with the package, but everything was outlined, there were no mysteries other than if you’d be fully satisfied with the album itself. My feeling is that you’d have been disappointed with either method of purchase, if the album didn’t do it for you. It’s kind of a yes or no proposition. I’m not in the business of telling people what to think. I can only share my experiences with the album. No buyer’s remorse. I may well get the physical CD, just because I can, and it won’t make the difference between making the rent or not.

7) Final Thoughts:

Where does The Forest Seasons stand in the pantheon of Wintersun albums? Well, it’s a little difficult to compare any of them to any others. Each one has it’s particular thing that it shoots for.

For me, the first album is and will always be dead, solid, perfect. In extreme metal, there are a few records that just do everything right. Ask a hundred metalheads, and they’ll name a lot of names in this regard. There will be acrimonious disputes, name-calling, and possibly a fist fight. Anyone, though, who even has a dog in the fight when it comes to talking about Wintersun, will nod and say, “Yeah, that first album fricken’ ruled.” Because it did. If you’ve played a guitar, and you want to humbled, go ahead. Listen and lament. Behold the solos and tremble. More than that, they integrate perfectly into the songs, never seeming tacked-on or at odds with the musical vision. Sometimes, guys run off and basically make a perfect record by doing almost everything. Kind of like what Old Man’s Child did with “Ill-Natured Spritual Invasion.” (Which I also recommend.)

Time I sacrificed the purity of purpose of the first record for an overarching dream of being as epic as humanly possible with the instruments involved. It mostly succeeds. The material that is included is, after one takes the time to decode it and let it really begin to make sense, pretty damn amazing. To my way of thinking, the Sonic Pump studio-live version of the whole album is better than the released album in every useful measure, and really shows a bit more of what Jari was hoping to do. Watch that whole “concert”, and you are almost shocked into silence. It helps you understand a lot about the music that wasn’t clear upon just listening. Jari shot for the stars and almost did all he hoped for (my thinking). The downside?

Time I is just too damn short. Also, I feel like, lyrically, the album is a little short on ideas and themes. The stuff that is there is glorius, but it feels like there is some connective tissue missing, as if it is the beginning of a tale we have not yet heard all the way through. Because, let’s face it, that’s what it is. Time II was supposed to be out in 2013. Maybe that’s not Time I’s fault, but that’s how it is. The density of the mix, too, leaves a lot of the “real” instrumentation so buried that it’s hard to tell what’s going on (something that has also become an issue with Forest Seasons). It takes a lot of listens and a really revealing stereo to get down beneath the surface and understand the bones and gristle of this disk. These concerns leave it as a 9/10. Still amazing, but not perfect.

That brings us, at last, to The Forest Seasons. I won’t kid you. It’s not a perfect album, either. It has a lot going for it, but it has some strikes against it, too. One of the primary strikes against is that…well, it’s a Wintersun album, and the bar is set very high. We know what is possible. We want to have our faces melted and our hearts frozen, then set on fire, then flown into the gray, frigid sky in the talons of an eagle. On every track. It’s a tall order. Mere joy is not enough. We demand euphoria.

The Good:

1) It’s Wintersun. It does a lot of the Wintersun things. There are glorious choruses, beautiful themes, superb musicianship, etc.
2) There is more outright darkness, more menace, than on anything they’ve released yet. There are a few parts of this record that are, for all intents and purposes, Symphonic Black Metal. This could also be a bad, if you’re reaching from Folk/Power Metal, and previous Wintersun was about as harsh as you were ready for.
3) This disk is of a reasonable running time, and feels fairly complete in itself. Some have said the songs feel over-inflated, but brevity is not necessarily what you listen to Wintersun for. No one would ever accuse them of playing Grindcore.

The Bad:

1) The mix hides a lot of the good work done with rhythm guitar, which is actually doing some fairly gnarly stuff beneath there. Feels a little like a cheat, but that was the direction that the production went.
2) Simply too few solos. These are long songs, and I like all of them. That said, there are a few glaring places that just scream, “Put the big sweep-picking badassery here,” but instead leave us with an area of the songs that feels a little like we’re waiting for something to happen. I don’t know why Jari elected to play it so conservative here, but we just don’t get that frantic payoff that you might expect. I’m not talking about turning the record into a self-indulgent vehicle for guitar masturbation, but with two players who are so damn good, it feels almost counterintuitive to have much of what they’re doing hidden, and restrict the more audible material to a lot of harmony playing that either one of them could do while windsurfing. Just sayin’.
3) The concept album kinda falls flat. If they simply hadn’t said anything about it, and left us to decide what to make of the songs, I’d have been happier.

So, the verdict? I’d probably call it 8.5/10, verging on 9/10. My big hope is that they can use the momentum of this album, the money they garnered, and the ensuing concert season they’re embarking upon to get another record out in the near future. It may be far too much to ask, but the wise course for them would be to shoot for another album within 18 months, even if it’s another crowdfunded effort that ISN’T Time II (provided that the quality is good, and they can find adequate material to entice another round of such investment).

The big dream, of course, is Time II. We know they have songs. We know that the ones they’ve played live have the type of brutal shredding that we want. They just need to record those bad boys and let us have our happiness. Or grimness, or whatever.

End of the road? Still a Wintersun fan. Still one of the faithful. Still glad that there’s more to listen to. Still hungry for more.

Cheers, and happy devil-horns.

Keyboard Review: Hcman 87

Posted: May 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

hcman-87-keys-mechanical-keyboard-under-30-e1494904419595-960x494Sometimes, you just have to see how low you can go. In this case, I was looking for the least expensive true mechanical keyboard I could find. After poking around Amazon, the Hcman 87 keyboard I have here ended up being “the one”. Depending upon market factors, it may well not be the low-priced crown, or even available when you’re reading this. Nevertheless, it constituted the value winner at the inception of this test.

It is a tenkey-less design, or the 87% format, if you prefer. The device has an aluminum top plate, floating key layout, and features Outemu blue switches. These are clicky and tactile, like the Cherry switches of the same stem color. The keys are backlit. With the backlighting turned off, it looks okay. It looks really hokey with the backlights on.

The ‘board is quite light, but has good structural regidity, due to the aluminum top plate. With the LEDs lit, it has a “gamer” aesthetic, which is not my preference. That said, at this price, one takes what one can get.

The legends are clear enough with the backlighting on, but are quite difficult to read when the lights are turned off. Because of the design of this keyboard, it would be easy enough to change key caps, should you desire. That being said, there are secondary functions that would have to be remembered or noted elsewhere, should you remove the stock caps. Also, it should be mentioned that going to the expense of purchasing a new set of keycaps for a ‘board of this price point would likely be a questionable step. Many of the key cap sets you might select are more expensive than this keyboard in total.

Functional aspect:

Because of the key switches used in this ‘board, it provides a clicky and tactile typing experience. I find that the Outemu switches provide a similar feel to the more expensive Cherry switches. I have not found any cause to say negative things about them. They seem to do what they were designed to do. I don’t know if they will, in fact, have the same service life or retain their performance after long term use, but they seem to do just fine over a short course.

The layout of the Hcman is a standard ANSI design. All the keys will be in the same place you’re used to. They’ll be the same size and shape. There are no large hurdles here.

When one combines the fact that you have a true mechanical switch that acts as it should and a standard key layout, this is a solid typing platform. There are no strange sounds, squeaks, pings, or malfunctions to report. Because I was familiar with blue switches going in, there wasn’t a major learning curve. I have used it back to back with a few much more expensive keyboards, up to and including a Realforce that is the better part of ten times as expensive. It did not give me great feelings of sadness and regret while employing it.

Summation:

This is a lot of keyboard for the money. If you are willing to forgive some of its little quirks, like having dumb LED lighting that will make you look like a rube if you use it, this thing will give you typing feel equal to a much more expensive ‘board. If you find that you really, really like the Hcman, you could always throw some better caps onto it. Or, even better, some caps you’ve kept around from a previous craft project. Much better if anything you do with this ‘board be cheap or free, since the whole idea of this device is value.

Functionally, it’s a win. With the lights off, it’s okay. Lots of ‘board for the money.

Cheers, and happy typing.

Post Script:

After my initial review of this ‘board, I decided to recap it with keys I had hanging around. Now, it’s using the modifier keys from a Magicforce and the rest of the keys from my old DasKeyboard. While there are still a few slightly rough or cheap elements present, the change in the looks are huge. With the LEDs off and a good, legible set of key caps installed, it’s actually a nice looking ‘board. One interesting element I found during the switching of the key caps was that this board has a totally different type of stabilizer than anything I’ve seen. They work fine, so it’s just a data point.

I still believe that a slightly more expensive (an additional $5 to $10 will do) platform would provide you a better jumping off point for a customed-up board. I would say that the Magicforce 68 by Quisan is right up there with the best in this regard, while the Drevo Tyrfing is also impressive. For a full sized keyboard the Eagletec is also totally legit. For a cheap, dangerous duty ‘board or a loaner for friends, the HCman is pretty darned good, however.