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With the likes of Ice Age, Lady Beast and Savage Master there’s no shortage of quality traditional metal. St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada heavy/power metal revivalists Category VI already left a favourable impression in 2013 with their charming and unassuming little debut “Fireborn”. Since the last record the band has acquired the services of a new drummer and inked a recording contract with German imprint Killer Metal Records. In other words, Category VI is ready to bring its music to a wider public. “War Is Hell” is very much cut of the same cloth as “Fireborn” but is more muscular, rugged and possesses a greater focus and combativeness. Ideal for a record dealing with the horrors of war.

The primary appeal of Category VI lies in its blue-collar charm and down-to-earth approach to their craft. They live and breathe the music they produce. On “War Is Hell” the Category VI core remains unchanged with Geoff Waye’s burly riffs and fiery soloing, Keith Jackman’s lively bass guitar licks, and Amanda Marie Gosse’s soaring vocals. Evinced by her choice of melodies Gosse is an ardent disciple of the late Dio. Befitting of the war thematic “War Is Hell” is still traditionally inclined, but far more muscular and combative all around compared to the more conservative “Fireborn”. The midpace is occassionally broken for a mildly faster section, but unlike Lady Beast “War Is Hell” is more about atmosphere and feeling than it is about speed. Not that Category VI would describe itself as a speed metal band in the first place. Would it benefit Category VI to let loose and put the pedal to the metal? Probably, but they are obviously comfortable in their midpace. Some changes in pace would lend it a considerably greater sense of dynamics and scope.

‘Strike Of the Axe’ opens the gates after a bit of guitar psychedelia and it’s rather evident that guitar solos have been given a more prominent place. Moreso than on “Fireborn” at any rate. The riffs are more muscular without becoming thrashy and drummer John Angelopoulos is given more to do than simply keeping time. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ has a pumping groove and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ is one of the band’s fiercest tracks to date, even with all the psychedelic guitar noodling that it engages in. Interestingly, 'The Traveller / The Dark Warrior' and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ are two songs from "Dark Warrior", the 2002 independently released and distributed demo from Waye's erstwhile band Oberon, here given a due re-recording. ‘Arise’ isn’t a Sepultura cover instead its a pulsating cut reminiscent of something off Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast”. With Waye’s guitar pyrotechnics and Jackman’s clanging bass just waiting to break out it’s puzzling that Category VI insists on a midpace as often as it does. These three men obviously have the chops to write and play something more demanding and adventurous. Evidently it isn’t frontwoman Amanda Marie Gosse that is holding them back from doing just that. What an amazing set of pipes this redheaded lady has. Not only is she powerful, expressive and commanding, her falsetto and higher register is equally full of emotion and girth. Category VI has obviously experienced a considerable growth spurt since its debut. Are they living up to the potential that “Fireborn” hinted at? Well, not entirely. The band has yet to pen its own ‘Rime Of the Ancient Mariner’ and they still tend to second-guess themselves every step of the way. Up the Irons already, guys!

Category VI is all about efficiency. At 47 minutes “War Is Hell” is about 5 minutes shorter than the debut. Their unpretentiousness is translated in the matter-of-fact production work and accompanying visuals. It’s functional, it’s earnest and oozes with the kind of heft and body that a lot of today’s overly sterilized productions lack. Amanda Marie and her men obviously have their heart in the right place and the disarming honesty of their music is ultimately works in their advantage. In a world where everybody’s a crook, and in an increasingly disingenuous scene, they are a welcome breath of fresh air. Arguably the metal scene needs more people just like them, but in all likelihood they will probably remain criminally overlooked just because they do things on their own terms. Admittedly the visual aspect remains on the amateurish side for a band now on a professional label. Imagine what Category VI conjure forth with a canvas from Jan Meininghaus, Péter Sallai, Samwise Didier, Thomas Ewerhard, or Jan Yrlund? In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor qualm considering how well-developed Category VI’s music is for a band of their age.

“War Is Hell” has Category VI on the verge of greater things; of finally unlocking their innate potential as a band, of Gosse elevating herself from a mere frontwoman to an underground icon, and their blooming songwriting finally matching their ambitions. “War Is Hell” is that kind of record. One where a band's entire future hinges upon. The Great White North has given the underground its fair share of now-classic bands in a variety of metal genres. Whether or not Category VI becomes the next institution depends on how they handle this record. There are plenty of bands with not half their promise that remain inexplicably popular with the masses. It’s high time for Category VI to claim their rightful place in the Canadian – as well as the international scene. If “War Is Hell” is any indication they are on the threshold. Together with Pennsylvania stalwarts Lady Beast (fronted by the indomitable Debbie Levine), Category VI is the best traditional metal is likely to get.

Plot: adolescent misfit plays interactive videogame

It is well established that the 90s were a particularly dark decade for the horror genre. Horror descended into nothing but overly comedic, self-aware, and pretentious genre deconstructions that abided by the same conventions they were supposedly mocking. In other words, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) happened. Two years before, however, there was a Canadian production that commented in a similar condescending, moralizing, holier-than-thou tone on the vices and youth counterculture of the day: heavy rock music, horror cinema and/or violent video games. Brainscan, for all its 90s cultural sensibilities that ultimately end up defanging it, is actually a surprisingly effective little genre effort is one is willing to meet it halfway. It never quite pushes the envelope the way you would want it to, but it tries. It is far more intellectually honest than Craven too.

Michael Bower (Edward Furlong) is a typical 90s social pariah, a product of childhood trauma and parental abandonment. Bower lost his mother in a roadside collision that left him with a nasty scar and a limp as reminder, and an absentee businessman father. Having never properly dealt with the loss of his mother and spoilt rotten by his overcompensating absentee father Michael is a socially handicapped doofus that immerses himself in ungodly amounts of heavy metal, horror, and video games as a cry for someone, anyone, to love him. If only that someone would be Kimberly Keller (Amy Hargreaves), who he surreptitiously spies on in ways that the Twilight novel (2005) and its subsequent screen adaptation (2008) would enshrine as the apex of romance. When his only friend Kylie (Jamie Marsh) reads him an ad in Fangoria about Brainscan, a literal murder simulator, Michael’s interest in piqued. As a seasoned veteran of all things weird, one that has “seen it all, played them allBrainscan offers an experience like no other. When a murder committed in the game occurs in the real world, Michael’s life starts to unravel, and before long he fears of losing possession of the one thing he still has control over, himself. All the while detective Hayden (Frank Langella) is investigating the murder case. The more Brower plays Brainscan the more the gameworld and his own bleed together. With only the macabre and devious Trickster (T. Ryder Smith) as his guide only one question remains: what is real, and what is not?

Brainscan very much wants to be a horror movie for people who don’t like horror movies. Figures of authority, specifically principal Fromberg (David Hemblen), at one point or another, voice their disapproval of Bower’s extracurricular interests. Likewise does Walker’s script demonize Michael for engaging in videogames and horror by making him a social outcast and forcing him into murdering his friends as punishment. Since Brainscan is a thriller masquerading as a horror-movie-with-a-message Michael needs to have the prequisite love interest which is where the underutilized Amy Hargreaves comes in. Hargreaves, who was in her mid-twenties, has a few scenes of implied nudity – but since this was released in 1994 and more of a thriller that will be the extent of what is deemed permissable. Once Brainscan is done moralizing it rewards Michael with a fresh view on on life, the possibility of Kimberly as a girlfriend (she shows reserved interest, and never outright declines his advances) while pushing the Trickster to the back as a mere video game host. It even gives complete cipher Kyle a girlfriend in Stacie (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier). The rank hypocrisy of Brainscan’s screenplay knows no bounds.

For all the things it does right Brainscan shortchanges itself by abiding to the sanitization the horror genre was subject to in the 90s. There are but two slayings that occur over the course of the movie, one of which happens offscreen. After the wild 1970s and the excesses of the eighties, the 90s pushed horror into the self-reflective, self-referential, and the comedic. As horror became shunned and considered a non-legitimate genre, many movies referred to themselves as thrillers instead to avoid the stigma. Brainscan both wants to be a horror movie all while disassociating itself from the genre at every turn. The ambiguity of Brainscan, and the ambivalence of its screenplay, ultimately work against it. There’s nary a drop of blood anywhere in Brainscan, and it is completely bereft of nudity, the very things that horror was decried for in the decades prior. It will have its protagonist showing León Klimovsky’s gothic horror potboiler The Dracula Saga (1973) to the Horror Club attendees, but then will have Michael sarcastically refer to it as Death, Death, Death, Part II just to spite the principal. To its credit at least the makers of Brainscan knew their Mediterranean Eurocult classics, Spanish or otherwise.

Brainscan is also custodian to one of the greatest 90s horror villains, the enigmatic Trickster. In the gameworld the Trickster acts as a master of ceremonies, and with his red mohawk skullet the long-nailed, sharply dressed apparition comes off as a combination of a pre-Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992) Pinhead, a heavy metal frontman, and a 1970s gothic horror villain complete with the snark of earliest Freddie Krueger. In short, the Trickster is the embodiment of the darkness of whoever plays the game. The screenplay never reveals exactly what the Trickster is; whether he is a spectral manifestation of the player’s vices, or the physical incarnation of a sentient program. T. Ryder Smith revels in playing up the red mohawked fiend’s ambiguous loyalties. The Trickster is for the nineties what Freddie Krueger was for the eighties. In a delicious slice of life imitating art T. Ryder Smith ended up lending his voice talents to video games Manhunt 2 (2007), BioShock (2007), BioShock Infinite (2013) and its DLC expansion pack Burial At Sea (2014). The Trickster has done well for himself.

The screenplay was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, later of Se7en (1995) and 8MM (1999) fame and a script doctor on The Game (1997), Stir Of Echoes (1999) and Fight Club (1999). Walker’s screenplay tries very hard to pass Brainscan off as an adolescent version of The Lawnmower Man (1992), or similarly themed David Cronenberg movies as Videodrome (1983) or ExistenZ (1999) without any of the body horror or pathos. The script’s cardinal sin is that it is never follows up on what it promises. It puts its protagonist in a literal murder simulator (exactly what certain detractors called videogames at the time) and exacts swift punishment by having him murder his best friend and love interest. The role of Trickster starts out as a guide for Michael in the gaming world only to turn him in a Freddie Krueger styled antagonist since the script lacks a real opponent to square him off against. Michael defeats Trickster in the gameworld, but the sequence is rendered moot as Trickster materializes in the corporeal realm where Michael can see him in the event of Brainscan becoming profitable enough to warrant a follow-up. Thankfully, the essence of Brainscan remains untarnished by unnecessary sequels.

Frank Langella and Amy Hargreaves do their best with the little they are given to do. Langella is the closest thing to an antagonist during the first half whereas Trickster becomes the antagonist during the second half. Hargreaves is given little else to do besides looking misty-eyed, pouting, or strutting around in lingerie. For reasons that will remain largely unexplained, Kimberly shows reserved interest in Michael at the end. Hargreaves has the prettiest smile but there isn’t an inkling of chemistry between her and Furlong, who by this point had perfected his troubled youth shtick. Hargreaves’ character is of no significance, and much of the running time Kimberly is a complete nonentity until Furlong’s character arc requires a Hollywood-mandated love interest. Langella and Hargreaves maintained a steady career in television and movies while Furlong fell into obscurity due to his puzzling professional choices and a private life that matched Lindsay Lohan’s in sheer dysfunctionality and drug abuse. All the promise that Furlong showed early on in the Aerosmith music video ‘Livin’ On the Edge’ and James Cameron’s blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) was squandered all too quickly. The career revival that American History X (1998) and the Metallica music video ‘The Unnamed Feeling’ lend Furlong failed to cement his potential as an actor.

As a product of its time Brainscan is both frustratingly middle of the road and agonizingly afraid of its own implications. Lacking in both scares and grue it’s exactly the sort of thing Hollywood would try to pass off as genuine horror. Obviously it’s anything but. As a thriller Brainscan never puts its protagonist in deep enough trouble to warrant the classification. Even as evidence and corpses mount there always seems to be an exit waiting for Michael. As a proxy-horror exercise it fails not only because it lacks the scares and grue, but because it never truly ventures into the territory. To the untrained eye Brainscan indeed looks as a fairly typical horror movie of the day, but beyond the superficial ties with the genre are practically non-existent. Brainscan was a timecapsule of 90s counterculture. Michael’s room is adorned with posters from Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, Metallica, and Fangoria. The soundtrack features, among others, OLD, White Zombie, Primus, Pitchshifter, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, and Wade. It’s strange that Furlong chose this Canadian co-production after the high-profile Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) from James Cameron. Brainscan is woefully banal and if it wasn’t for Furlong it would have fallen into much-deserved obscurity ages ago.