My Top 5 Albums of 2012

January 1, 2013

I have to admit, I love year-end lists, so here’s the first one I’ll be posting here: my picks for the top 5 albums released in 2012. If you haven’t heard these yet, go check them out! (And yes, these are in order!)

1. Kamelot – Silverthorn
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You need look no further than my glowing review of this album a few weeks ago. Silverthorn sits solidly at the top of my favorite albums of all time list; I listen to it almost every day and have yet to get tired of it. New frontman Tommy Karevik ushers in a new era for the band, with a sound that hearkens back to their The Black Halo days while at the same time blazing new trails entirely. The band was a world tour planned for 2013, though the dates have yet to be released, and I’m planning to go see them if they’re anywhere within a 100 mile radius!
Highlights: “Falling Like the Fahrenheit”, “Veritas”, “My Confession”

2. Nightwish – Imaginaerum
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This is a tricky one to include in a 2012 album list, since technically it was originally released in Europe in late 2011, but we didn’t get it Stateside until early January 2012, so I figure it makes the cut. One of Nightwish’s best albums to date, the massive concept album Imaginaerum (which has an accompanying movie) finds the band getting back on the feet after 2007’s Dark Passion Play. While DPP featured the brilliant composing to which we’ve become accustomed (really, has Tuomas written anything as mind-blowing as “The Poet and the Pendulum”?) the fact that the songs were all written before the new vocalist and successor to Tarja Turunen was selected found eventual replacement Anette Olzon stretching her voice in ways it was not meant to be stretched. With Imaginaerum, however, Tuomas knew the voice he was writing for, and as a result we get a lovely performance from Anette, perhaps most notably on the where-did-that-some-from jazz song “Slow, Love, Slow”. Of course, now that Anette, too, has left the band, the band appears to be back to square one in the vocal department once again – unless, of course touring vocalist and metal veteran Floor Jansen chooses to stick around (fingers crossed!)
Highlights: “Ghost River”, “Slow, Love, Slow”, “The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove”

3. Delain – We Are the Others
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Another album I’ve reviewed previously, this third album from Dutch rockers Delain features a number of catchy tunes as well as the passion and emotion we’ve come to associate with them. This album found them experimenting with a slightly poppier sound at times, but overall the album didn’t suffer for it in the least.
Highlights: “Mother Machine”, “Electricity”, “Babylon”

4. Halestorm – The Strange Case Of…
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After their somewhat lackluster (to me, anyway) self-titled debut album, Halestorm knocks it out of the park with The Strange Case Of…. Heavier than Flyleaf and rougher around the edges than Evanescence, this is great, head-banging rock music, perfect to blast in your car as you’re heading off for a night out. Frontwoman Lzzy Hale isn’t afraid to sing (and how, growl, and scream) about sex, one-night stands, but also about getting over the fear of really loving someone.
Highlights: “Rock Show”, “Beautiful With You”, “You Call Me a Bitch Like It’s a Bad Thing”

5. Flyleaf – New Horizons
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The third studio album from Texas rockers Flyleaf marks a new horizon, indeed – it is the last to feature the band’s charismatic lead singer, Lacey Sturm. She departs the band, leaving them with Kristen May (Vedera) as a replacement. This album finds the band retaining their signature sound, positive, uplifting lyrics, and raw emotions, combining it all with hard rocking guitars and drums and Lacey’s impassioned vocals. It is as solid as any of their previous albums; indeed, Flyleaf is one of the few bands that puts out albums that are at least as good as the last one. We’ll see how (and if) that changes with their vocalist.
Highlights: “Fire Fire”, “Bury Your Heart”, “Stand”

Honorable mentions:
Xandria – Neverworld’s End
Epica – Requiem for the Indifferent
Lacuna Coil – Dark Adrenaline
The Murder of My Sweet – Bye Bye Lullaby

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Christmas is almost here, and I hope everyone is having a great holiday season spending time with family and friends. For me (and I’m sure for a lot of others as well) that means, in part, watching all the tried and true Christmas movie classics with my family. I’ve done my best to rank my top ten favorites (it was tough!) and to try to explain why it is that I love them so much.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life
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I think I can safely say that this is my favorite Christmas movie ever. When I was a kid I couldn’t stand it, because I thought it was long and boring (and also in black and white). However, as I got to be a teenager I started loving it more and more every year. Each year when I watch it, it means something slightly different to me. The question of what it is to live a meaningful life is one we all struggle with, and no movie I’ve ever seen discusses that questions as well as this one does.

2. A Christmas Story
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This is another iconic classic, and really, what’s not to love? It’s hilarious while at the same time capturing exactly what it’s like to be a kid at Christmas, and hoping that that one gift that you want more than anything will be under the tree. It runs for 24 hours on TBS every year from 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve to 8 p.m. Christmas night, and this has given rise to quite the tradition in my family. Each year on Christmas day at my grandma’s house, we’ll all guess, at certain points throughout the day, what part of the movie is on at that moment. Whoever is right (or closest) gets a point, and the person with the most points at the end of the night gets the “major award” (a Christmas ornament in the shape of the famous leg lamp) and bragging rights for the whole year. Competition is always fierce, and I’m sure this year will be no different.

3. A Muppets’ Christmas Carol
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This is one of those movies, for me, that you see as a child and which becomes an instant classic for you. The Muppets’ version of Charles Dickens’ famous novel is the only one I’ll watch (I have seen other versions over the years, and quite frankly none of them is even close) and watch it I do, multiple times every year. The music is great, and not to be overlooked is Michael Caine’s pitch-perfect turn as Scrooge. He interacts with the Muppets just as if they were real, human actors, and the movie is all the better for it.

4. The Santa Clause
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I saw this movie in the theater when it originally came out, and I’ve watched it every year since. It remains funny and relevant no matter how old you get: the importance of family, the ability of children to believe in the seemingly impossible, and the desire of even adults to still believe in magic.

5. A Charlie Brown Christmas
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It just wouldn’t be Christmas without watching this at least once. Now decades old, Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas amid a seemingly endless flood of commercialism is more relevant now than ever. And who can resist that cute little Christmas tree?

6. Scrooged
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A hilarious Christmas movie for adults, Scrooged is a modern retelling of A Christmas Carol. Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a heartless TV executive in 1980s New York City who–you guessed it–gets visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve, the same day his studio is broadcasting a live version of A Christmas Carol entitled Scrooge. This is perhaps the most quoted movie in my family’s list of family cult classics, so it’s hard for us to resist reciting it as we watch.

7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
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I know there are a lot of purists out there who maintain that the original cartoon version is the best, but I have to say I prefer the live-action version. Jim Carrey is perfectly quirky, weird, and funny as Dr. Seuss’s famous Christmas thief, and I don’t think anyone can deny that the costumes, makeup, and sets are all stunning. I also liked the expansion of the original story we get in the movie version, so that we understand why, exactly, the Grinch hates Christmas and the Whos so much, and why he chooses to steal THIS Christmas, after years of simply enduring the boisterous festivities from atop Mount Crumpet. A very funny movie overall, it has more than its share of great one liners: “Dinner with me – I can’t cancel that again!”

8. The Honeymooners: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”
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As someone who was raised on the old TV classics, like I love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, and, of course, The Honeymooners, I couldn’t leave this Christmas episode off of my list. My family watches it every year, and somehow the antics of Ralph Kramden, Ed Norton, and the long-suffering Alice never get any less funny.

9. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
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Another childhood favorite (even if King Moonraiser always scared the bejeezus out of me and, if I’m honest, still does a little bit), you can’t NOT sympathize with Rudolph, especially when we’re never told why having a red nose is such a bad thing in the first place (I always thought it was way cooler than having a nose that didn’t light up!) It’s never easy being different, but it’s worth it in the end!

10. The Garfield Christmas Special
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Another sentimental favorite, my brother and I used to rewatch and rewind over and over again as kids, cracking up at all the same parts. Our version of it had been taped onto a cassette off of the TV, so once VCRs went out of use this was a “lost” favorite for some time. A couple years ago, however, my mom and I found a Garfield DVD with this episode on it, much to my excitement, so it’s now back in the Christmas rotation!

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Kamelot released their most recent studio album, entitled Silverthorn, just over a month ago, on October 30th. This was a big release for the band, as it was their first since the departure of former lead singer, Roy Khan, and thus introduced their new front man, Tommy Karevik, of Swedish progressive metal band Seventh Wonder.

Kamelot has always been one of my two very favorite bands (Evanescence being the other), and I was a huge fan of Roy Khan and especially of his voice. Therefore I was devastated to learn that he had left the band (I actually wore black that day in mourning). I knew Thomas Youngblood and Co. would find a solid singer to replace him, but I didn’t for a second harbor the notion that they would find someone better than Khan.

My ecstasy at discovering that I was wrong began with my very first listen to Silverthorn and continues to this day. Not only is Karevik–the extremely handsome Karevik, I might add–as good a vocalist as Khan, he is better. There are certain similarities in the voices of the two men,  namely in terms of color; but overall Karevik’s range is bigger, his technique is better, and his voice is just a better instrument. Period. Not to mention (and I apologize in advance for this unabashed fangirl moment) it is very, very sexy.

Add Karevik’s voice to the always epic, beautiful, and expertly composed music of lead guitarist Youngblood and keyboardist and metal maestro Oliver Palotai–as well as stunning, poetic, and passionate lyrics, which Karevik also had a hand in–and you have a glorious masterpiece of an album, the best, in my opinion, that Kamelot has ever produced. Not only that, but Silverthorn is one of the best metal albums you will ever hear, period.

In keeping with Kamelot tradition, the gentlemen are joined by a number of guest musicians: Amaranthe vocalist Elize Ryd, The Agonist vocalist Alissa Gluz-White, and string quartet Eklipse, among others. The album is a concept one, telling the story of two twin brothers who cause the accidental death of their younger sister as children. What follows are their struggles with guilt, madness, forgiveness, tragedy, and the search for redemption. The special edition version of the album contains a storybook with the complete story, penned by frequent Kamelot collaborator and Silverthorn choir member Amanda Somerville. Like all the best concept albums, however, you don’t need to know the story to appreciate the music.

Silverthorn opens with the 2:11 intro “Manus Dei” (Latin for “hand of God”). Palotai’s prodigious piano skills are on display, and he is joined by a choir singing in Latin. It ends with some spoken words by Karevik (lyrics that later appear in “My Confession”) underneath which can be heard the album’s eerie leitmotif, which will appear in several songs, such as “Falling Like the Fahrenheit” and most prominently in “Prodigal Son”.

“Manus Dei” bleeds seamlessly into the album’s first single, “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife).” Karevik demonstrates much of his impressive range over classic, pounding prog-metal guitars. He is joined on this song by fellow Swede Elize Ryd, who sings the part of the Angel of Afterlife, and by the eerie, tortured screaming of Alissa Gluz-White. While Ryd’s voice is certainly pretty, it does not, to me, seem to have the power behind it that an Angel of Afterlife’s voice might be reasonably expected to have.

The climax of the song comes when, after Gluz-White’s performance, Karevik sings, almost pleadingly, “It all becomes clear/but no one would hear/my testimony”, wherein Ryd comes in with her big moment, the words of the chorus slightly modified to fit her character: “I am your angel of afterlife, calming you down/silence inside your nebula/and when the wrong turns to right/in a celestial light/I’ll be your testimony”.

The next two songs, “Ashes to Ashes” and “Torn”, hearken back to the solidly prog-metal feel of one of Kamelot’s older albums, The Black Halo. Both are incredibly solid songs and a lot of fun to listen to (the lyrics, especially in “Ashes to Ashes”, are wonderful) but these two pale just slightly in comparison to the rest of the album, which sees the band really breaking into new territory.

Following “Torn” is the gorgeous and heart-wrenching ballad “Song for Jolee”. The song plays almost like a duet between Karevik and Palotai’s piano, as the two trade melodies throughout the song. Karevik’s voice lends itself to the piano and string laced ballad just as well as it does to the heavy, churning guitars that dominate the rest of the album.

Nowhere does the album get heavier and darker than in the deliciously sinister “Veritas”. Karevik takes a somewhat disjointed melody and smooths it out in the verses to the accompaniment of a rhythmic guitar part. Then the chorus hits you like a ton of bricks, opened by the choir singing, Epica-style, “In morte ultima veritas” (In death is the final truth)”, followed by Karevik singing “You will kneel before me/and you will confess that I am God”. Well, okay, Tommy, if you say so 🙂

Ryd makes another guest appearance on this song, playing the part of the brothers’ deceased sister, Jolee, begging them to forgive themselves: “Please, please let it die/Oh brother, this is my last goodbye/I’m begging you”.

The next song, “My Confession”, opens with as badass and sexy a metal riff as you’re likely to hear, even. A violin tolls urgently, interspersed with some distorted, staticy guitar, before the guitar takes over the riff and the full band comes in in a few measures that will fans headbanging at the show like there’s no tomorrow.

“My Confession” is another example of the excellent lyric work on Silverthorn, such as in the pre chorus, when Karevik repeats the words spoken during “Manus Dei”: “Send me a sign/heal this broken melody/cause each night/I die in hell”. The song culminates in a bridge where Karevik’s soaring vocals are distorted over yet another headbanging-worthy metal riff “Somebody hides inside my mind/We’re bound together/but this is my confession/soul mate or enemy/a thorn in my religion”.

Following “My Confession” is the album’s title track, “Silverthorn”. This song also has a sound/feel that hearkens back to some of Kamelot’s earlier albums, such as Karma and The Black Halo. Strings, piano, guitars, and drums all converge to create one of the album’s tenser and more urgent moments. A children’s choir on the bridge adds to the eerie and mysterious feel of the song.

After “Silverthorn” comes the song that is probably my favorite in what is really an album of favorite songs, so that’s certainly saying something. “Falling Like the Fahrenheit” is a gorgeous mid-tempo masterpiece, with lyrics to give you chills and a melody that some of the great opera composers of days past would probably wish they had written. “Falling like the fahrenheit/someone will always lose,” Karevik sings on the chorus, “you will never see another sunrise/my cyanide in paradise/that someone’s always you/I will never see another sundown in your eyes.” Ryd again makes a brief appearance on this song, singing a line in the pre-chorus. I can’t possibly describe the overall awesomeness of this song, so you’ll just have to listen to it.

“Fahrenheit” is a tough act to follow, but follow it the band does, this time with the rocking “Solitaire”, which opens with a slick guitar riff from Youngblood. This song contains yet another in the long list of the album’s vocal and lyrical high points, in the bridge where Karevik moves swiftly and seamlessly from one end of his range to the other: “I won’t sustain another day/my love, my darkness/daylight reflects my starving soul/and open wounds for everyone to see”.

After “Solitaire” we get the album’s epic, 8+ minute long opus, one of which appears on almost every Kamelot album. Though it was always going to be hard to top the epic and darkly theatrical brilliance of Poetry for the Poisoned’s brilliant title track, the band created a completely worthy competitor with “Prodigal Son”, which is divided into three movements: “Funerale,” “Burden of Shame”, and “The Journey”. The track opens with tolling cathedral bells, and the sound of muffled voices in a church. An organ sounds through the gloom, playing the album’s leitmotif, presumably as the churchgoers take their seats. Karevik then comes in singing the melody in his falsetto, the lyrics a clear eulogy for the twins’ deceased sister: “Essence of beauty/taken too soon/princess of hope/deep in our hearts you live on”. The refrain is then taken up by a two-part men’s choir, before it is returned again to Karevik, who sings it once more accompanied simply by an acoustic guitar. Is there anything this man CAN’T sing?

The full band kicks in as part one ends and part two begins, where the tempo picks up and the music turns darker and more frenzied, almost as if everyone is about to lose control. The band then pulls back to let Karevik’s voice take center stage once again. Youngblood then takes over, with the guitar playing the album’s theme. The story of the twins’ secret and their vow to protect it, no matter what, comes full circle. The song’s third section ends on a rocking metal note of thrashing guitars in the power metal style to which Kamelot fans have become so accustomed.

The album’s final track, “Continuum”, has the feel of movie credits being played. A solo vocalist sings a wordless melody over a choir, and then there is a minute or so of silence. Then a lone cello comes in, playing the album’s leitmotif one more time before fading into silence.

It goes without saying that this is Kamelot’s finest album to date. The addition of Karevik has let the band expand their sound into previously unexplored territories, and successfully. Any music lover–whether you’re a metal fan or not–should listen to this album at least once. For myself, I can safely say that this is my favorite album of all time. The band has set the bar awfully high for themselves for their next release, but if there’s one thing they’ve proven over the years it’s that they are well up to the challenge.

One of the most successful comedy sitcoms of the last few years is CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. The oddball comedy started small but slowly gained traction with its original storyline and talented cast of actors: Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, and Kunal Nayyar all play a group of brilliant yet socially challenged scientists at pretigious CalTech. Kaley Cuoco plays their neighbor, Penny, an aspiring actress short on science smarts but long on good looks. The dynamic between the guys and Penny sets the basis for the show, and has led to some interesting evolution over the show’s five seasons, with the sixth set to begin on September 27.

The first two seasons focus mostly on the four geeks and their girl trouble, at the center of which is Leonard’s (Galecki) pining for the gorgeous and unattainable Penny. Parsons’ portrayal of the brilliant yet completely socially dysfunctional Dr. Sheldon Cooper (a performance for which he has garnered numerous awards and nominations) slowly began to steal the spotlight from the Halo-crossed lovers, until Penny and Sheldon’s hilarious interactions began to take center stage. However, when the beginning of season three saw Leonard and Penny finally become an item, you could almost see the show’s writers casting about for another plot aspect to introduce.

The answer that they found not only sparked renewed interest in the show, but also successfully filled one of its major gaps. Up until this point, the show’s main characters existed at opposite ends of a spectrum: on one end, Penny, the beautiful blonde with the perfect body and better than average social skills but not much in the way of book smarts. At the other end, the four geniuses (or, as Sheldon tactlessly phrased it in one episode, “three geniuses and their friend Howard”) who are not particularly tough, athletic, sexy, or cool. While the talent of the actors gave the characters a great deal of depth, it was clear that there was no middle ground.

Enter the show’s two best additions to date: Bernadette Rostenkowski (played by Melissa Rauch, who managed to spin a one-episode guest spot into a permanent role on the show) and neurobiologist Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (played by former Blossom star Mayim Bialik, who in fact has a PhD in neuroscience).

Before the entre of Bernadette and Amy, genius on the show had been predominantly the realm of the male characters. Leslie Winkle (played by Sara Gilbert), a fellow physicist in Leonard’s lab, had appeared in several episodes in the earlier season, but the focus on her character’s promiscuity somewhat undercut her role as a female scientist. Another prior example of a female genius was Leonard’s mother, Dr. Beverly Hofstadter (Christie Brinkley) who, in her undeniably hilarious guest appearance, seemed almost to hearken back to the notion of hundreds of years ago that a woman can’t be both feminine and gifted in the sciences.

At first, Amy Farrah Fowler seems to fit into this cliched paradigm as well: in her early episodes, she is basically a female Sheldon, astoundingly intelligent, yet with socially tone-deaf quirks that mark her as “weird” and “nerdy”. In these early appearances, her sole function seems to be as a foil to Sheldon, which was not something the show previously had. She is the only one (apart from Leonard’s mother) whom he will acknowledge as an intellectual equal (though he does take every opportunity to assert the superiority of theoretical physics of neurobiology). An interesting shift occurs, however, when Amy is introduced to Penny and Bernadette, Howard’s girlfriend. She starts hanging out with the girls, going out to dinner, shopping, drinking, and clubbing with them. Having never been one of the “in” girls–and indeed never having had any real friends–Amy begins to break out of her somewhat restricted and almost cliched mold as a character. She still isn’t as socially savvy as Penny or Bernadette, but she tries, and she loves it. She even begins to long for more in her relationship with Sheldon, which began as “girl/friend and boy/friend status” and shifted into an official “girlfriend/boyfriend” relationship (but only after Amy went on a few dates with Stuart from the comic book store, making Sheldon jealous). Sheldon, however, retains his strict embargo against any form of affectionate and potentially unsanitary physical contact. He doesn’t understand the shift in Amy’s character that leads to her drinking and attempts to seduce him, yet his respect for her intellect remains completely unchanged.

Perhaps the perfect character in bridging the two sides of the spectrum, though, is Bernadette. She is introduced to the show when Penny sets her up with the eternally horny and desperate Howard. Bernadette, who works with Penny at the Cheesecake Factory, is working her way through graduate school in microbiology. She is petite, pretty, feminine, and yet possessed of a fearsome intellect herself. Her character combines the best of both worlds, so to speak: she is able to work successfully as a scientist and at the same time move comfortably in the world of bars, shopping malls, and pop culture, a feat that no other character on the show–male or female–is able to accomplish. The dynamic of her relationship with Howard is interesting as well, for Howard–long maligned by his fellow scientists for his lack of a PhD, despite having received his master’s in engineering from MIT–is once again the low man on the todem pole when Bernadette also receives her PhD, and lands a huge money-making job with a big pharmaceutical company. When Penny crosses paths with Zak, an ex who she’d dumped because he was insufferably stupid, while out with the girls, Bernadette asks, “Can’t you just fool around with him and then listen to NPR?” She adds, “That’s what I do with Howard. I’m much smarter than him, but it’s important to protect his manhood.”

On that note, I’d like to thank Amy Farrah Fowler and Bernadette Rostenkowski for successfully bringing the female genius to The Big Bang Theory, and for making it a much better and well-rounded show as a result. We can only hope that future episodes will continue to defy cliches and challenge stereotypes.

The third album from Dutch rockers Delain hit Stateside back on July 3rd. While I was a huge fan of their last album, the masterful April Rain, I have to say that We Are the Others is at least equally as good, retaining enough of the band’s signature sound to please their fans while also expanding into fresh and new territory.

The leadoff track of We Are the Others, the rocking “Mother Machine”, opens with creepy, industrial sound effects that seem to be coming from a tech-savvy mad scientist’s lab. Lead guitarist Timo Somers lays down a soaring, slick guitar riff in between pure headbanging chords. The song’s lyrics speak of a dystopian future where everything is mechanical or machine made: “I’ll fold you paper flowers, little girl,” lead singer Charlotte Wessels wails during the bridge, “for you’ll never see a real one.”

The second track, “Electricity,” is by far my favorite on the album. The lyrics seem to liken an obsessive love to a sickness; during the breathtaking, passionate chorus, Wessels’ powerful voice soars over a solid guitar and keyboard arrangement: “Day by day/I walk the distance alone/walk the distance alone/day by day/I fight the fever alone/fight the fever alone.”

The third and title track, “We Are the Others”, is an anthem for all those who just don’t quite fit in. The song was inspired by the tragic death of British teen Sophie Lancaster, who along with her boyfriend was viciously beaten to death for dressing “goth”. “I’m walking with Sophie tonight/she lives in the air that I breathe/I can’t get it out of my mind/how you were left to bleed,” Wessels sings in the first verse, before launching into the catchy and uplifting chorus: “We are the others/we are the cast outs/we’re the outsiders/but you can’t hide us”. A children’s chorus during the song’s bridge caps off the song’s message of inclusiveness nicely.

The fourth song, “Milk and Honey,” has a “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” feel to it. The song starts off slowly, telling the story of a seemingly idyllic relationship, then kicking in with the heavy guitars and distorted vocals as betrayal and heartbreak cause everything to fall apart. “As long as you’re forgetting all the wrong/please look over your shoulder twice,” Wessels sings on the chorus in semi-stalkerish fashion.

Track five, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” is one of the album’s poppier moments. It’s redeemed slightly by some pounding power chords on the verses, and it’s catchy enough to get stuck in your head, but it’s surrounded by so much powerful material that it’s easy to sort of forget about it.

If you thought “Milk and Honey” was a little creepy, then just wait for “I Want You.” It doesn’t really sound like any other Delain song; indeed, as a friend of mine pointed out, it sounds more like something The Birthday Massacre would come up with. It opens with just Wessels and the piano, and at first you might be misled into thinking that it’s just another love song. The lyrics tell a story, though, and the basic idea is that the speaker is so obsessed with the object of her affections that she runs him over with her car so that no one else can have him. But, don’t worry, according to one interview with Wessels, the lyrics are in no way autobiographical. The music, rife with synths and slow chugging guitars matches the atmosphere of the song perfectly. Some of keyboardist and Delan founder Martijn Westerholt’s fanciest piano work comes in this song, as well.

Track seven, “Where is the Blood,” is the only song on the album to feature a guest vocalist, in this case Burton C. Bell of Fear Factory fame. This is  Dutch hard rock at its finest, with crunchy guitars, lovely melodic lines, beautiful female vocals, and powerful male vocals. The lyrics, delivered in a back-and-forth conversation form, speak of a failed relationship and who is to blame: “If I hurt you so much/then where’s the blood, where’s the blood.” The song builds to the pitch perfect bridge, with both Wessels and Bell contributing vocals: “Can you believe/I still think of you/can you believe/I still dream that we could turn around, but I/forgave, forgot too many times.”

The eighth track, “Generation Me,” is one of those awesome social commentary songs that, in my opinion, no one can do quite like the Dutch (other examples being Epica and Within Temptation). The relentless guitar work provides the perfect support for Wessels, doing some of her most solid vocal work on the album. The lyrics speak of the phenomenon of social media, and how it has arguably produced a generation of increasingly selfish and self-involved people, who live more in the virtual world than in the real world: “On and off/I spend my time in vain/in getting everyone to know my name/all I know is my face looks fucking right/from this certain angle, certain light,” Wessels sings in the second verse.

The ninth song, “Babylon,” is yet another highlight. The guitars and piano trade off to create a solid, headbanging rock song complete with a catchy chorus.

“Are You Done With Me,” the tenth song, drifts once again into pop territory, but this time it completely works. It’s actually somewhat reminiscent of something from the eighties, (a common thread on this album, believe it or not – “Milk and Honey” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” being two other examples) with lots of synths and an oddly jazzy drum part. This is another melody that will definitely get stuck in your head. The chorus finds Wessels drifting into her higher range, and the result is lovely.

Track eleven, “Get the Devil Out of Me,” sadly isn’t as amazing as the title suggests it might be. Indeed, it and the final track, “Not Enough,” are two of the album’s more forgettable moments. After such a completely solid album all the way through, it throws the listener somewhat off balance to have it end on such a faltering note.

Overall, though, Delain has outdone themselves with We Are the Others. Delain is a band that’s solidly on my list of top ten favorites, therefore I had high expectations for this album. Whenever that happens I’m always semi expecting to be disappointed, but not the case here: this album is even better that I had imagined.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor is by far the most original book I’ve read in a long time. In a time when the young adult literature market is overrun with vampires, werewolves, angels (fallen or otherwise) and dystopian adventure stories, Daughter of Smoke and Bone rises above the rest as something completely different, a breathtaking fantasy novel of the highest order, and one of the more well-written YA offerings you’re likely to come across.

I don’t want to say much about the plot of the novel, as one of its strong points is how Taylor masterfully unfolds it, so that we’re able to take everything in–even the things that we don’t understand right away–as part of a natural flow, without the need for any long passages of explanation. Our heroine is Karou, a sapphire-haired art student in Prague, whose origins even she is unaware of at the start of the story. Karou’s very human world–of school, friends, art projects, and teenage heartbreak–overlaps almost seamlessly with one of wild and imaginative fantasy. As a character, Karou is truly original, with a dry sense of humor, an unshakeable toughness and courage, and the ability to take both halves of her world–the normal and the fantastic–completely in stride. The novel’s dialogue–especially between Karou and her best friend, Zuzana, who is another gem of a character–is just one of the novel’s many strengths.

Throughout the novel, we are given various pieces of information that don’t make a lot of sense at the time; however, as we travel through the novel’s second half along with Karou and learn the truth of her past, each little piece falls into place with one of those awesome little lightbulb moments that makes you say “Ohhh.”

You might see this book shelved in the “paranormal romance” section, but this is to do the novel a disservice. While there is a sort of mysterious romance in the book’s plot, the love story itself isn’t the focus, but rather is in the service of a much larger whole.

The novel ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, though not so much so that you’re dissatisfied with the ending, for all those little pieces of the plot definitely add up by the end. With a sequel, entitled Days of Blood and Starlight due out in November, we know that Karou’s story is far from over amd can only count the days until the next installment hits the shelves. Personally, I could not recommend this book more highly!

Don’t worry, there’s no spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it yet!

I went to see the third and final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on Saturday night. Like the rest of the world, I had high expectations after the sheer genius of the trilogy’s previous film, The Dark Knight. We all knew the The Dark Knight would be harder to top than any other movie in any other series in recent memory due to the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker, and The Dark Knight Rises does in fact fail to top its predecessor. Perhaps it isn’t fair to judge a movie by comparing it to others as opposed to evaluating it as a work in its own right, but when you have movies in a series such as this, it’s hard not to.

In keeping with the modern, gritty feel of Nolan’s trilogy thus far, the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, the muscle-bound and sinister Bane, is terrifying in a way that the garish, cartoonish villains of the 90s Batman movies never could be. Bane (portrayed by Tom Hardy) heads a terrorist cell that wreaks havoc throughout Gotham and is bent on the city’s ultimate destruction for some reason; I was never really able to get a handle on Bane’s raison d’etre. But unlike Ledger’s maniacal Joker, Bane is scary without being particularly compelling. Again, Ledger’s performance set the bar impossibly high; and if Hardy’s  Bane had not been preceded by such a brilliant and outstanding performance, he might be similarly lauded.

For me, the highlight of the The Dark Knight Rises was Anne Hathaway’s turn as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman. In the original Batman comics and cartoons, Catwoman was decidedly a villain; however, Hathaway’s Catwoman is a great deal more interesting in that, until the end of the movie, she is not really a hero but not really a villain, either. Rather, she’s something of a wild card in the struggle between Batman and Bane. She also has some really awesome fights scenes, as well as supplying the best one liners in the movie (for example, when a baddie has a gun to her head, he asks of her very Catwoman-esque spike heels, “Do those shoes make it hard to walk?” She responds by kicking him in the balls and asking, “I don’t know, do they?”)

Another worthy addition to the cast was Joseph Gordon-Levitt (known for his roles in Inception and 50/50; however, for us children of the 90s, I think he’ll forever be known as Cameron from 10 Things I Hate About You) as Blake, a member of Gotham’s police force who susses out the threat poses by Bane before anyone else. Yet another newcomer is Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, who plays corporate do-gooder Miranda Tate and who teams up with Bruce Wayne to fight Bane.

Batman veterans Morgan Freeman (as the enterprising and brilliant Lucius Fox), Michael Caine (Alfred), and Gary Oldman (for whom I have a deep and inexplicable love and who portrays the courageous, upstanding Commissioner Gordon) all turn in the excellent performances to which we have become accustomed. Christian Bale, as the Caped Crusader himself, gives another wonderful performance, successfully evolving the character both emotionally and psychologically.

It’s worth mentioning that many of the plot points of The Dark Knight Rises hearken back to the events of the first movie in the trilogy, Batman Begins. I’ve only seen Batman Begins once and that four or five years ago, so I had forgotten much of what happened in it. It might be worth revisiting that film before going to see the newest one.

 

The Watchers is the recently releasted first novel by war journalist Jon Steele. It’s being marketed as a thriller, which I don’t usually read; however, when reading the synopsis the key words “angels” and “Book of Enoch” caught my eye. Recently I’ve been really into angel/archangel/demon/devil mythology, so I figured I would give it a try and downloaded it onto my Nook. I was expecting an entertaining summer read; however, The Watchers is much more than that. While it definitely has some aspects of the thriller genre, it is extremely well-written and surprisingly literary in many respects.

The novel is set in Lausanne, Switzerland, and alternates between the stories of the three main characters: Marc Rochat, the “watcher” of Lausanne Cathedral, who sees to the upkeep of the bells and calls the hour every night from the belltower; Katherine Taylor, a high-class hooker from America who relocated to Switzerland with her bank accounts to avoid the IRS; and Jay Harper, a Brit who wakes up in a London flat one day with no memory of his life before that moment, and who receives a call to work a security job for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne–which he takes, not knowing what else to do.

All three characters begin with separate lives, but their stories begin to converge when mysterious and gruesome murders begin to take place around Lausanne, all somehow tied to a secret hidden within Lausanne Cathedral and to the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal religious text that tells the story of the angels who fell from Heaven with Lucifer and the offspring they sired on human women, known as the Nephilim.

The plot is immensely complex; far from being another mindless and action-packed thriller, you really have to pay attention and keep track of all the meticulously placed pieces that Steele gives you in setting up his supernatural-tinged mystery. Far more impressive, however, is his characterization, especially of Marc Rochat. When we first meet Rochat, who takes his post of watcher–or le guet in French–very seriously, we assume he is just somewhat eccentric: he talks to shadows, the bells in the cathedral, and the pigeons that roost on them. However, Steele masterfully unfolds his character so that we see that he actually has a slight mental disability, reminiscent of perhaps Ausperger’s Syndrome or autism. This is revealed to us through small clues, such as Rochat’s slipping back into memory–which he refers to as “beforetimes”–without warning, or, for example, the scene where he spends a whole night writing down all the possible combinations of three numbers between 0 and 9 in order to unlock a box he found in the crypt of the cathedral. However, Rochat’s apparent impairment allows him to see things clearly in a way that the other characters, and even the reader, cannot.

The book did start out a bit slow–it took me at least 50 pages to get into it–however,  I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. Its rather slow unfolding allows Steele to firmly establish his main characters, so that by the time the crises of the plot begin to hit, we are completely familiar with them and can enjoy the ride. The dialogue is fantastic: each character has a distinct voice, from Rochat’s incredibly creative ruminations to Harper’s irritable and impatient banter to Katherine Taylor’s bitchy, sassy reparte. The ending seems to indicate that there is a sequel coming, and perhaps a series; however, it is still a satisfying novel in and of itself and wraps up any lingering questions the reader would have.

Fair warning: some of the descriptions of the murders in the novel are extremely gory and disturbing. Oddly enough, blood and guts in movies or TV shows really don’t bother me; but for whatever reason, that sort of thing in books gets to me a lot more, maybe because my mind makes pictures that are potentially worse than what it would actually look like. But that’s just me.

In conclusion, I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone looking for something a bit different. I haven’t read anything quite like this before, and it was definitely a solid reading experience.

Veronica Roth’s debut novel, “Divergent,” the first in a planned trilogy, is an extremely worthy and original addition to the ever-expanding genre of young adult dystopian literature. It has everything that fans of “The Hunger Games” are sure to love: action, friendship, romance, betrayal, survival, and a brave heroine that, far from being a Katniss Everdeen copy, stands out as a spunky, resourceful, and tough protagonist in her own right.

In Roth’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each centered around certain virtues that those factions deem the most important: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amnity (peacefulness), Erudite (intelligence), and Candor (honesty). At the age of 16, each person undergoes an aptitude test to determine for which faction they are best suited. They are then allowed to choose: stay in the faction into which they were born or transfer to a new one, if they prefer.

Our heroine, Beatrice Prior, was born into Abnegation, but chafes under the life of self-deprivation and sacrifice that defines her faction. When she takes her aptitude test, she is told that she is Divergent, meaning that she shows an aptitude for more than one faction: in her case Abnegation, Dauntless, or Erudite. She is also told by her tester–a Dauntless woman named Tori–that Divergent is a dangerous thing to be, and to not reveal that fact to anyone.

After agonizing over her choice–to follow her heart and what she feels is her true nature, or stay with her family–Beatrice leaves Abnegation and chooses Dauntless (I know, kind of a spoiler, but it happens in the first few chapters and I can’t really talk about the rest of the book without mentioning it).

She then moves into the Dauntless compound and begins training for her initiation–which not all pass–a process which involves combat training, battle strategy, and simulations designed to force the initiates to face their deepest fears. Not to mention that she engages in a number of other Dauntless antics designed to prove their bravery at all times, such as jumping on and off of moving trains, zip lining off skyscrapers, and getting lots of tattoos and piercings. Along the way, she makes friends–Christina, a transfer from Candor, and Uriah, who is Dauntless-born, among others–as well as enemies. She also develops a complex relationship with the elusive and mysterious Four, one of the teachers responsible for training the initiates.

As Beatrice–having renamed herself as Tris–undergoes training, the Erudite are causing waves throughout society by publishing reports attacking Abnegation–the leaders of the government, as they are allegedly selfless. Tris is outraged by these unfounded attacks on her father–an Abnegation leader–among others, but the book’s shocking climax takes the conflict between the factions to a deadly and unexpected level.

Tris’s shift from Abnegation to Dauntless is, on the emotional and mental level, wonderfully rendered. Her personality is well established enough from the very beginning that we can see how well suited she is for her new faction, yet she still goes through the predictable pangs of culture shock throughout her training and her interactions with the other initiates, many of whom are also originally from other factions. Her sharp and witty dialogue make her a clever and interesting character to read as well.

Roth’s dystopian world is flawlessly imagined, well thought out, and executed impeccably. My only criticism would be that the big, action-packed climax of the novel is a bit abrupt and unexpected; some reasons for what happens and when are revealed later (and in the second book, Insurgent), but it feels as though it could have been set up better, as our main character and narrator is in the dark, and therefore so are we.

I highly recommend both Divergent and its sequel. I read each of them in a day; one reviewer’s comment on the book’s dust jacket says that she “couldn’t turn the pages fast enough,” and that describes it perfectly. Be warned, though: the endings of both books are cliffhangers, and with Insurgent just having been released within the last couple months, sadly, we have a way to go until book three.

My favorite TV show is The CW’s Supernatural, about two brothers–Sam and Dean Winchester–who cross the country hunting down all manner of Supernatural beings that harm humans, from your standard ghosts, demons, and werewolves to members of the pantheon of urban legends (like Bloody Mary and the Hook Man) to pagan gods to more obscure denizens of folklore (such as wendigos, shtrigas, tricksters, rougarous…the list goes on) and even Lucifer himself. But beyond the horror, science fiction, and even comedy aspects of the show are themes that make it even more compelling: family, friendship, duty, sacrifice, and betrayal. Indeed, it is the close bond between the brothers and those closest to them–including their father, John Winchester; friend, fellow hunter, and father figure Bobby Singer; and the angel Castiel–that make sacrifice and betrayal two inevitable elements in their journey.

One can argue that the first sacrifice made by any character in the series is when John Winchester gives up his life, job, and home to take his sons across the country, hunting the supernatual evil that mysteriously killed his wife, Mary. He not only irrevocably changes his life, but that of his sons as well. They grow up knowing the truth about what goes bump in the night, and no matter how much they may want to, they can’t undo that knowledge or what it’s done to them, making a normal life with a wife, kids, and a 9 to 5 virtually impossible. Sam, the rebel of the family, tries to do just that when he leaves his father and brother to attend college at Stanford; however, his brother’s plea for help when their father goes missing, as well as the death of his girlfriend, Jessica, in the same manner in which their mother died, prompts him to get back into what Dean calls “the family business.”

As the brothers go from town to town and case to case in their 1967 Chevy Impala (arguably the 3rd Winchester brother) their devotion to each other and willingness to do anything for each other is obvious. Over the show’s seven seasons (the eighth season begins this September) their enemies are more than willing to exploit this devotion, knowing that Dean will do anything to save Sam, and vice versa. The same is true of their father, John, with whom they are reunited at the end of season one, after a demon named Meg attempts to use the brothers to draw their father, by then a legendary hunter, out of hiding. When a confrontation with Azazel, the yellow-eyed demon who killed their mother, leaves Dean in a coma, Azazel uses John’s devotion to his sons to his advantage. He agrees to save Dean in exchange for a steep price: the Colt (a gun made by Samuel Colt with specially made bullets that can kill ANY supernatural being with just one shot) and John’s soul. John doesn’t hesitate to take the deal.

The brothers are devastated by their father’s death, even more so when a case leads them to a Crossroads Demon and an understanding of what, exactly, their father did. It is John’s sacrifice that foreshadows the one Dean makes at the end of season two and sets up everything–and I mean everything–that follows in the rest of the show (up to this point, at least.)

In the second to last episode of season two, “All Hell Breaks Loose Part 1,” Sam is spirited away to a remote ghost town with other “special children,” all of whom have supernatural powers (Sam has visions of the future) and who have been hand picked by Azazel to be soldiers in the coming war between demons and humanity. The catch: he only needs one of the children to lead his army. Therefore, they must kill each other off, Hunger Games-style, until only one winner is left. Sam, as usual the voice of reason, pleads with his fellow abductees not to do anything rash, but they don’t listen. Meanwhile, Dean and Bobby are desperately combing the country to find Sam, having no idea of where he’s been taken or why. At the end of the episode, Sam is killed by Jake, a man with superhuman strength, and Dean arrives just in time to watch his brother die.

In the season two finale, “All Hell Breaks Loose Part 2,” Dean is driven by grief to do the same thing his father did. He summons a Crossroads Demon and makes a deal: his soul for Sam’s life. The demon agrees, Sam wakes up, and Dean has one year to live before going to hell.

Bobby is understandly shaken when Dean and a living, breathing Sam show up on his doorstep, ready for the final confrontation with Azazel. Bobby is quick to figure out what Dean has done. “Why are you Winchesters so eager to throw yourselves in the pit?” he asks angrily. Dean begs him not to tell Sam what he’s done, and he reluctantly agrees, although Sam’s ignorance doesn’t last the episode.

Season three is very interesting; with Azazel gone (killed by Dean in “All Hell Breaks Loose Part 2”) the larger storyline is focused on Dean’s deal and Sam’s attempt to find some way to undo it. We also watch Sam try and fail to come to terms with the sacrifice his brother made–and still has to make–for him. “What you did was selfish,” Sam finally says to his brother in one episode, to which Dean responds, “You’re right. It was.” This exchange puts an interesting spin on sacrifice as a selfish act: Dean sold his soul because he was unable to live without his brother, yet he now expects Sam to do just that.

The brothers are unable to get Dean out of his deal: a demon named Lillith holds the contract, and she wants nothing more than to get Dean in hell, for reasons that are revealed in a rather shocking turn of events in season four. The final episode of season three, “No Rest for the Wicked,” sees the Winchesters confront Lillith, but to no effect: Dean still goes to hell anyway. It’s somewhat refreshing to see writers of a show not let their heroes weasel out of an impossible situation; instead they carried it out right to the bloody end.

Of course, Dean doesn’t stay in hell long–but, as we find out, long enough. He wakes up in a coffin in the season primere of season four (entitled “Lazarus Rising” and probably my all time favorite episode) with no idea how he got there. We learn at the end of the episode that an angel named Castiel pulled him out of hell “because God commanded it.” Castiel tells Dean, “we have work for you to do.” That work, it turns out, is to stop the Apocalypse. No big deal.

Sam, we find out, tried to get his brother out of hell, but to no avail. “And round and round the Winchesters go,” a Crossroads Demon says when Sam tries to switch places with Dean (in the episode “I Know What You Did Last Summer”, where we learn what Sam was up to in the four months Dean spent in the pit). But Lillith has Dean right where she wants him, and therefore no demon will deal.

Before Dean went to hell, his last wish was that Sam not use his supernatural powers, which remained even after Azazel–who gave them to Sam–was dead. A demon named Ruby, who claimed to want to help the Winchesters, told Sam his powers could be used to save Dean, but Dean refused to let his brother try. We learn, however, that Sam spent those four months going against his brother’s wishes, at Ruby’s encouragement, and honing his powers in order to get revenge on Lillith. This urgency increases when Castiel reveals that Lillith has begun to break the 66 seals (“I’m guessing that’s not a show at Sea World”, Dean cracks) necessary to free Lucifer from hell and thereby start the apocalypse. Sam’s powers have evolved far beyond visions of the future; he can now exorcise demons with his mind (a process which usually involves capturing the demon in a Devil’s Trap and reading a lot of Latin) and Ruby insists that, with enough practice, he can even destory Lillith.

This, then, is Sam’s great betrayal of his brother, the brother who went to hell for him: he continues to use his supernatural powers, even when it was Dean’s dying wish that he not. When Dean returns from hell and discovers what Sam is up to, he is understandably furious. He’s not the only one: in “In the Beginning,” Castiel warns Dean, “Stop your brother, or we will.” Throughout season four, Sam flirts with the idea of giving up his powers, but is unable to do so due to his conviction that this is the best–and perhaps only–way to stop Lillith, an opinion that Ruby encourages. As season four draws to a close, the brothers’ relationship is strained to the breaking point by Sam’s refusal to give up his powers and Dean’s inability to accept it. Matters come to a head when Dean learns that Sam has been drinking demon blood in order to become strong enough to take out Lillith. “If I didn’t know you,” he tells his brother at one point, “I would want to hunt you.”

The season four finale reveals that Dean was, in fact, right all along: Sam is able to kill Lillith, but at a terrible cost: Lillith’s death was the final seal that needed to be broken in order to raise Lucifer from hell. The brothers are reunited, but Dean’s trust in Sam is, understandably, shaken.

The finale of season four, “Lucifer Rising,” provides another example of a sacrifice and a betrayal. Castiel, who has been an ally to the Winchesters and Bobby as they attempt to stop Lillith–sometimes going against his orders from heaven to do so–learns that heaven has not truly wanted to stop the apocalypse at all, but rather, let it happen and let Lucifer and the Archangel Michael battle it out, as has been preordained. When this is revealed, Castiel is as horrified as Dean to consider the casualties and loss of human life that will occur if Lucifer is freed and does in fact meet Michael in battle. Castiel then makes the decision to rebel against heaven–just as Lucifer himself once did–in order to ally himself with the Winchesters.

This is the biggest sacrifice that Castiel makes for the Winchesters, in addition to many smaller ones: he comes to their aid whenever they call and helps in whatever way he can. Therefore it is perhaps his betrayal that is the most shocking of all.

In season six, Castiel is embroiled in a civil war in heaven. The conclusion of the apocalypse finds Lucifer and Michael both locked in hell (long story, but a good story) and with the archangels Gabriel and Uriel both dead (Gabriel was killed by Lucifer in season five and Uriel was killed by Castiel in season four) that leaves only one archangel, Raphael, who feels that he should be in control of heaven. His plan involves freeing Michael and Lucifer from the pit  to let armageddon take its course, something which Castiel is prepared to stop at any cost. Heaven is then divided into two armies: Raphael’s and Castiel’s. We learn, towards the end of season six that, in order to be able to defeat Raphael, Castiel has made an arrangement with the demon Crowley to open purgatory and split all of the souls in it.

A couple of side notes are necessary here. First, Crowley. Pre-apocalypse, Crowley was the King of the Crossroads. He joined forces with the Winchesters, Bobby, and Cas to stop Lucifer, his attitude being that if Lucifer hated humans so much (the Biblical reason for his fall) what must he think of demons? With Lucifer back in the cage, Crowley took over management of hell and promptly became the Winchesters’ enemy.

Second, souls. Human souls, as we first hear from the decadent playboy angel Balthazar, are the only currency that never loses its value. On a more practical level, human souls can be used to superchange an angel or a demon because of how powerful they are. It is for this reason that both Crowley and Cas want access to the souls in purgatory: Cas so he can use that power to defeat Raphael, and Crowley, well, just because he likes power.

The Winchesters are horrified to learn that Cas intends to open up purgatory; they think it’s too much power for him, let alone Crowley; not to mention that there’s no way of knowing what monsters will come out of purgatory once it’s open (they’ve had experience, previously in season six, with some monsters from that particular Dantean location). Castiel refuses to listen to reason, insisting that he’s doing this to help them (in one particularly well done episode, “The Man Who Would Be King,” which is told from Cas’s point of view, we learn and can sympathize with why Cas made the choices he did; however, one can’t help but agree with Sam and Dean that it all seems a bit questionable to say the least). Cas carries on with his plan to open purgatory, while the Winchesters and Bobby try to do whatever they can to stop him, which as it turns out isn’t much. Cas succeeds in absorbing all the souls in purgatory and destroys Raphael with a snap of his fingers. He the declares to a horrified Sam, Dean, and Bobby, “I’m your new God.” This then leads us to some interesting religious points that I’ll save for a future blog post.

It can be argued that one person’s sacrifice is another’s betrayal, and that one seems to lead to the other. It certainly seems to be that way for the Winchesters, and we’ll have to wait until September to see how this pattern continues in season eight.