Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dearly Missed Partycrasher

Partycrasher should be called Dearly Missed Houseguest. I understand why Partycrasher isn't titled that way, but at least in my home it is welcome like a friend I haven't seen in six years. Some perspective is useful: Their previous full length Career Suicide had an anti-Romney song ("Pardon Me, Thanks A Lot") whilst he was still best known as a Massachusetts politician. That's how long it's been.

Any outlet worth their salt is going to talk about how Partycrasher is two things: It is fast and it is
technical, and given how thoroughly saturated Career Suicide was with those two things, Partycrasher is worth marveling over. Those outlets are right.  What they're unlikely to mention, however, is melody. Syrupy melody, everywhere. At some points, Partycrasher feels like a DESCENDENTS record played by IRON MAIDEN. "I'll wait till the end of the world / to get the last laugh on you," Nuno sings and his voice almost makes me desire the apocalypse.

It's also a stunning record, quietly.  "Iceman Left A Trail" has some pitch-perfect BAD RELIGION oozing ahhhhhs beneath and behind the fretboard wizardry at the front and the back of the song. If you've seen A WILHELM SCREAM, you don't have to work hard to imagine this song being performed with Trevor Reilly and Mike Supina grinning at each other like madmen, trading off the racing, intricate guitar leads. "Devil Don't Know" drops an acapella chorus that I swear is stolen out of Motown.

This is A WILHELM SCREAM's first not-Blasting Room recorded full length, though it's Blasting Room mixed, and if the band didn't make a point to mention it, I doubt the listener would notice. Errr, well, Nick Angelini's drums are less prominent in the mix. Blasting Room does drums in a specific way.

As of this writing, there's six absolute stunners and five other songs that don't click yet. I'm not worried. I felt that way about Career Suicide when I first heard it, too.

Reilly once said something like the band wouldn't release another record if it wasn't better than what came before it. And if you've spent any time alive at all, that sounds like complete horseshit. Bands release records all the time that pale in comparison to their prior material for any number of reasons (no inspiration, no time, new members, lazy writing, lazy living, contractual obligation, listener expectations, listener error) and lie because, well, they've got another record to sell.

Trouble is, each successive A WILHELM SCREAM record actually is better than the last.

Mute Print sounds positively amateur now, Ruiner followed it up with a pitiless focus, while ratcheting up the degree of difficulty, a year to breathe and then Career Suicide appeared, doing everything better, in less time, with two very epic songs (five odd minutes) to wreck the curve. The stopgap self-titled EP in 2009 showed even more dexterous solos than Career Suicide, where bassist Brian Robinson had the standout solo on the record.

Partycrasher has more technically challenging parts better integrated with the songs they're a part of. There's nothing over four minutes, but the songs lose none of their wow factor. There is joyful virtuosity in these songs, evident in the couple seconds of teasing on "Boat Builders," "Devil Don't Know" and "Born A Wise Man."

Speaking of closer "Born A Wise Man," it is everything I could want from an A WILHELM SCREAM song. It is fast, it is precise and it it speaks about what I assume is the band's origin. It treads similar themes to Career Suicide's closer "We Built This City! (On Debts And Booze)"

1)A WILHELM SCREAM isn't in this for the money, because there isn't any.
2) There's a lot of hard work involved that will go on for a very long time.
3) In a touring circuit of liars, frauds and disingenuous "heroes" out for a buck, A WILHLEM SCREAM is sincere. We know this because they tell us.

It's y'know, boilerplate, but the specifics shine.

I've only listened to Partycrasher straight for six days. My gut is I'll be less enthusiastic in a couple months. But then again, I'm so enthusiastic now I felt compelled to write. I know I'll be listening to Partycrasher for years to come, if that softens the blow.

I feel strange recommending a record that half of which is either there or hasn't clicked for me yet. I doubt I could do this with other bands, but I'm talking about A WILHELM SCREAM. They're good for it.

I paid No Idea $7 for a download on Halloween. If I had known the download didn't come with lyrics, I would have hesitated, but hopefully No Idea will rectify that.

In short: Partycrasher is faster and more squiggly and more catchy than you'd expect, from a band known for all of these things. It's a marvel, but it's A WILHELM SCREAM. They've made marvels their job.

Ladies, gentlemen, "Born A Wise Man." The whole song is great, but that thrashy outro is a challenge to us all. "The bar is now here," it says. "Who's up?"

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Parts Of Summer, Waiting For Winter

It's great being wrong.

I remember being worried in my review of Castor, the Twin that Dessa's aim was to align herself with a field where she wasn't so interesting or striking, and by and large with Parts of Speech, she has done that. Sure, there's more straight-forward rap bangers like "Fighting Fish" or "Warsaw", but Parts of Speech is defined by Dessa actually full on singing.

And so, I expected the approach largely to fail to my ears. The trouble for me is, Dessa succeeds and at some points, gloriously.

Where I must eat a full plate of crow and maybe two or three is "It's Only Me." It's precisely the song I was afraid of. It's 3:48, with one verse, two choruses and a hyper-long bridge. Most of the song is soft cooing and light instrumentation, courtesy of Dessa's backing band. It's the thing I was most scared of and after living with the disc for three odd weeks, it's my favorite song on Parts Of Speech.

(Don't tell anyone. I have a reputation to maintain. If they ask, it's "Warsaw." Blade Runner club jam, bro. But you and me? "It's Only Me.")

It could not exist without Dessa's backing band, the same jazz guys on Castor, The Twin, who deliver on "It's Only Me" a restrained and soft background over which Dessa sings.

"I've been having that dream / it seems I always will / I don't know what the thing means / except it sends me to the telephone."

Parts of Speech is well-realized melancholy, the first record of new material written with and for a group of jazz guys to perform behind her. That should be clear on its face, but this writer has a keen grasp of the obvious. I was cautious during Castor, I think, because the record was written around Doomtree's compositions. Speaking of which, Paper Tiger does a great job on the one-two punch of singles "Call Of Your Ghost" and "Warsaw." Parts Of Speech does not suffer anything in interpretation.

As for the rest of Parts Of Speech, it's a regrets record. I listened to it in a darkened Las Vegas hotel room, complete with a two foot long stain in the carpet and my cell phone off. I drank a lot of tequila for a week and lied about why I was in town. Parts Of Speech suited that mood like a pair of opera gloves.

It's not all sad slow jams, but those stick out to me. "Skeleton Key" is upbeat and good in the sense of the song is solidly constructed, but I doubt it will be anyone's favorite. By the time you get past "Skeleton Key," you understand what you're in for. "Dear Marie" follows that one and it's a letter to a Marie, with the subtext I'm guessing, of Dessa kissing Marie's boyfriend. It is followed by a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm Going Down."

You did read that correctly. It is effective. The song feels morose and aches.

There's less powerful tracks, of course. "Annabelle" or "The Lamb" come to mind. I skip them. They're important stories, but unsuccessful songs, to my ears. "The Lamb" lyrically bears a very strong resemblance to the story of "The Chaccone."

The Chaconne:
"first a darling
then a marvel
when we met
I was still a young girl"

The Lamb:
"If they ask me, I'll deny it
But I remember what you did
While it's true you were a young man, then
I was just a kid"

"Call Off Your Ghost" is probably about the same person as" Go Home." "Icing Burns," a non-album track included with my bandcamp download, I'd bet money is about the same person as "Alibi."

Parts Of Speech got released in the spring/summer of 2013. It doesn't at all feel like a summer record. It feels appropriate for frigid weather. It feels like it ought to be there in your ears with winter's chill around your neck. Maybe I'm feeling too much of the Minneapolis in the record. Parts of Speech feels cold and distant, like a faraway wave goodbye.

In the Phonogram parlance, "It's Only Me" is a curse song. Listen to staring at a text message or a picture and it'll work its melancholic charms.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Humans! Make! Games!

Two quick disclaimers.
One: When I say assholes, I do not mean racist/sexist/otherwise dead-end beliefs and the people that espouse them. I mean people with opinions that deviate from the "Bacon is a vegetable" folks of nerdom.
Two: The article I'm responding to here is a couple months old now.

My favorite games aren't my games. "My games" are the products of the vision of a specific studio. I play Blizzard games. I play Supergiant games. I play Runic games and so on ad infinitum. But I can't claim them as mine, except in the sense that I own a license.

Ben Kuchera's article, over at the Penny-Arcade Report (these days invaluable) largely avoids this point, when talking about assholes making your games, using Fish and Teasdale as examples. Fish, for saying hyperbolically what serious games commentators have being saying for years (Japan's games for this console cycle by and large have been disappointing or worse) and Teasdale for the mortal sin of being sick of space marines and off-brand Tolkien as settings for videogames.

The article uses a weak defense of personhood to throw a veil over Phil Fish or Mr. Teasdale. "Hey, guys, Phil Fish might piss you off on Twitter, but, hey, isn't Fez great" is the takeaway. That's weak and Kuchera ought to know better. A more vigorous defense might be: This person has an opinion contrary to your own. He is entitled to it. And, given that he's a game developer and a gamer himself, perhaps their criticisms are warranted.

And even that's weaker than the point that reminds us these people are individuals: They're allowed to be wrong and speak before his thoughts are fully formed.

Teasdale is an asshole for speaking his mind about sci-fi/fantasy games, apparently. He's probably just letting off steam. But more than that? He's right. Sci-fi and fantasy are well-trod settings for videogames, some incredible, most passable.

It's not a debatable premise that a setting involving American men with assault weapons in shiny space armor is tired. That's a fact of life in 2013. Same for the post-apocalyptic genre or off-brand Tolkein. Teasdale saying that he's not interested in those settings or trappings personally shows that he's a creative, discriminating human who has made those games for 15 years of his life already. And Kuchera ought to know better than to call that unreasonable.

For an example outside gaming: Go to any big comic convention and count how many male "zombification" artists or scantily clad women in zombie makeup you can see before you start taking sanity damage or lose interest in zombies as a storytelling device.

And yes, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal" is a thing Picasso said, but in the canon of videogames there's terribly few artists, or, I suppose, studios with a chosen aesthetic and the a) vision and b) talent to properly exploit it.

But beyond these comments speak to something else in life: Many people who consume art/entertainment/whatever are dismayed to learn that discrete persons with opinions create "their" media. Take any well-known creative on Twitter and they will tell you they get people telling them "why do you keep posting politics on my twitter or I unfollowed you because you had an opinion I dislike."

(We pass over the cardinal sin on Twitter, being a woman with an opinion. Whatever you do, don't do that.)

Saying: "Well, you followed me and if you don't like what I say or think the unfollow button is right there" gets you branded as an asshole. Put a different way: Asserting your right to discrete personhood in the space which you designate as yours for mental overflow is being an asshole.

You can see how that's worrisome.

And so the problem isn't with "asshole" devs, or people with opinions, but gamers ourselves. Though, I could also substitute people.

Gamers are by and large, scared of people's different, opposing opinions. I suspect it's a matter of how young the market for console shooters skews is, but it feeds into a larger human feeling that we don't know we want something new until an artist has already put in the time to envision, create and distribute it, we'd largely prefer a more precise, better variation on an idea that's come before.

Case in point: Grand Theft Auto 3.

To sum up: I hope we get more assholes making games, the same way I hope gamers can feel less defensive about a person trying to manifest their creative vision. We've got a long way to go.

It's a blog about ideas, so have a song called I've Got An Idea... by End Of A Year/Self Defense Family. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Punk Rock For Young Avengers Fandom

Hello, Young Avengers fandom.

Perhaps you are interested in punk rock. Maybe you read that excellent Freaky Trigger piece about punk rock and Young Avengers and thought, "huh." Maybe you've heard a little before but Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are getting you more interested. In that case, let me introduce you.


I'll dispense with the backstory: Nubile white men with guitars a good half century ago figured out you didn't need talent to play music, you just needed anger and momentum.

Punk rock's major contribution to music's history (aside from a reminder to get out before you start to suck) is the idea that an aspiring artist does not require someone else's imprimatur to make music. If someone isn't making the music you want to hear, you are now deputized to make it yourself.

Seriously. If you've got a song in your heart: Write it. Now. This very minute. Stop reading. Go. Do it. Now. Do it.

There's connective tissue between punk rock and comics, if you know where to look. Most obviously, Patrick Kindlon and Matthew Rosenberg, to name two, have released some of my favorite music ever. Mike Cavallaro, known to the Eastern Seaboard as Johnny X from Sticks And Stones, Becky Cloonan, Rick Remender, Jen Van Meter and ad infinitum. Gillen and McKelvie's history with music and a member of punk's extended family, Britpop, is suggested by the above image. It's called Phonogram, there's two volumes and Volume Two, The Singles Club, forced me to confront my fear of dancing. It presented better arguments for dancing than my reasons not to dance.

This is not a history, but a survey. Five songs, cast widely to get a taste in your mouth. If you like it, come back next week. If not, you're only out the time you took to listen to five songs. These aren't my five favorite punk rock songs in the world, but these are five songs which all suggest many of the cardinal directions punk rock moves in. You may hopefully find something you like.

The songs hopefully suggest the focus, the lens, the catalyst and the fuel. There's a Romanticism to punk that I find still useful as I age. There's other parts to punk, the branded nihilism, the clear-eyed hopelessness, but those are doors to go through later on. I still need to get you through this one first.

Like all surveys, it's necessarily incomplete. Emo is a longer story than I have time for and oh God I'm rambling. Five songs. Play loud.

Until I figure out how to embed playlists into Blogger, just go here.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Metacritic: A Thing I Feel No Guilt About

In a conclusion to a well-sourced feature on the pernicious uses of Metacritic, Jason Schreier wrote something that as a longtime critic, I cannot countenance. He wrote that "[Metacritic is] harmful to critics, who have to deal with PR pressure and the guilt of taking money out of people's pockets."
That's wrong and I'll explain why.

 First, last and always: You're a journalist or critic. There's always going to be PR people looking to influence your opinions. It was around before Metacritic, it'll be around after Metacritic. That's the price of the job.
Second and more worrisome, it moves the guilt for lost wages or compensation from the people who signed a contract in good faith to the critic who isn't a party to that agreement. Critics are not responsible for a) the contracts that publishers and developers sign b) for a third party's secret interpretation and secret mechanism as to how they collate and weigh an unknown number of reviews, the end result of which they call critical opinion c) the quality of a videogame they didn't make.
Guilt is for when I actually did something wrong. Guilt is not for when people who aren't me secretly interpret my thoughts, then though a secret mechanism weigh it alongside 30 other reviews and spit out a number which two parties agree to use for the exchange of money. If developers and publishers want to use that for the distribution of money, the only place I have in that conversation is to remind them reviews are subjective, I am biased and the mechanism they're using changes my language and skews my intent.
The critic's job is to have an opinion, write it as clearly as they are able and defend it. The critic's job is to express their synthesized thoughts on an experience, whatever they may be. Good and bad in the same review. Certainty and confusion. Ignorance and knowledge. Transparency and more transparency.
This is not to say I am perfect. I have been influenced by PR people. I have failed in articulating my thoughts and I have failed in which ones I chose to publish. That said, critics shouldn't feel guilty for other people's use of Metacritic and anyone who makes them feel they should is not their friend.
To presume to speak to Mr. Schreier directly,  the next time someone blames you for not making an incentive because of a delicate score, you tell them you've got some sympathy for them, but that's as far as it goes. And you say it just like that, too, because the contracts signed by developers and publishers are things that are their responsibility, and any guilt they want you to feel is something that gives them cover. Now, if you made a factual error in your review, that's different and that's legit and you fix that. You make damn sure that fix is reflected in the conclusion or score.
But your score doesn't take money out of the hands of developers. Deals that make the money developers receive from a publisher dependent on Metacritic (an entity that openly admits to skewing a critic's words) do.

 "The Bride" by Crime In Stereo. I listened to this all of my junior and senior years of college, and not merely for the phrase "your bachelor's won't earn half the debt that you've incurred." It remains poignant today. As an aside, I had to write this blog four times before I got it to where it is now. This one is the shortest, best and most defensible, I think.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lazarus, Finally.

On my way back from jury duty, I bought comics. I bought the new issues of Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman, Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye and Kieron Gillen's and Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers.

These are all critically acclaimed comics, though Hawkeye more than the others, but I also bought one more: Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's Lazarus.

My friends on Twitter who also like comics are new to comics and are committed to Hawkeye and Young Avengers in a way that gives me hope. Both series are anchored by creative teams that are absolutely essential to the premise. Without Matt Fraction writing or David Aja drawing most of Hawkeye, I'd be out. Not interested. Ditto for Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie on Young Avengers. When they leave, I'm out the door too.

Gillen's hinted that his end is in sight, and Aja's talking on Twitter about how he'd like to do something creator owned with Matt Fraction after Hawkeye wraps up.

Though, if Aja leaves and Fraction stays on then I can be persuaded to stick around, if Steven Wacker can keep finding new, excellent talent to pencil the comic. Mr. Wacker being an editor that keeps emotive and imaginative pencillers up his sleeve, that's a meaningful consideration. Hawkeye and Young Avengers are proudly superhero comics and that's what powers them. There's conflict and loss and fear without the appalling "grittiness" that invades a post-Brian Azzarello comics industry.

And that's not me taking a swipe at Azzarello. His Wonder Woman is a great comic. It's strange, and a friend of mine argues it has terribly little to do with Wonder Woman and I still am not on board with the Amazons being praying mantis style murderers, but it's Wonder Woman being written by an A-list writer that isn't being pushed into crossover hell. I'll take it.

That this is the best of all possible worlds in DC brings me to Lazarus.

The first image of Lazarus is a pistol being discharged and the second image is the bullet impacting a woman. The first double page spread is of said woman lying on the ground, bleeding out at least two quarts of blood.

Lazarus is not all-ages.

I talked to a different, dear friend, who I have to plead with to get him to read Global Frequency, I told him that Lazarus (or at least its first issue) was about family and money and power. And I was right, but I wasn't being terribly precise. Sure, it's about family, money and power, but it's mostly about manipulation, control and violence.

Two people get shot in the head in Lazarus and I suspect a lot more will further down the road. Words are thrown around, but the people who live their true value tend to die real quick.

I tried to read other comics after i finished Lazarus. I could only stomach Young Avengers because of the baleful twist at the end, with entire swaths of Hawkeye's dog issue being lost on me. Hawkeye #11 is a masterpiece of virtuosity from Fraction and Aja. It didn't entirely land with me. I respect the hell out of it, since I can see the work that went into it, but that's as far as it goes. As for what happened in Wonder Woman, I straight up cannot remember. Lazarus leaves me with a chill beneath my skin, sinking into my bones.

I do not believe the Twitter crew would be so excited for Lazarus as they are for Hawkeye or Young Avengers. Lazarus is Greg Rucka writing for penciller Michael Lark with a point and letting his anger power his storytelling. Lark, the co-creator is methodical, precise and not flashy. What they concoct is vile and perhaps even corrosive. Put another way, I don't think Tumblr's feels are ready.

Lazarus is 100 Bullets one hundred years in the future. It's a hard sci-fi comic about a handful of families that control the world's wealth and spend most of the their time scheming over how to take other people's money while jealously guarding their own. This gives Lark a chance to pencil what he's known for: conflicted people with handguns and also lets him do design and world-build. What I see looks plausible, sadly, and even accurate.

In 2011, I read Rucka's novel Walking Dead as I rode along the Amalfi Coast. Whatever joy I was supposed to take from the gorgeous scenery was obliterated by Rucka's exacting, unswerving vision of the global web of sex slavery. I didn't enjoy the book, it wasn't meant to be enjoyed, per se, but it was pernicious and it was precise. Between now and then, Rucka published another novel called Alpha and was given an offer he couldn't refuse by Steven Wacker to write the Punisher, but neither of those works, despite also featuring men with guns, had the same kind of tone. (We pass over Stumptown, since there's too much humor.)

It is now 2013, and Lazarus exists. It feels like it should have come sooner, but it's still timely. Alpha was about geo-politics and terrorism scares. The Punisher was about a man keeping his word, however baleful that word may be. But Lazarus is about right the fuck now and what's coming for us down the pike.

Welcome back, Mr. Rucka. We missed you.

I said elsewhere that I wanted to write something that feels like how I feel when I listen to Cursed. I think Lazarus has a very, very good shot of being that piece of media. Below, find  one of my favorite tracks, called Magic Fingers. "When they say amen/they mean I hope you live forever/hand to mouth."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Make Do And Flatline

Rise Records curates an excellent four song split here.

You get two very distinct tastes, the first being Make Do And Mend's carefully collected emotion (think American Football and Hot Water Music) and The Flatliners close out the split wild, raucous and intrepid as punk ought to be. It's two songs by both bands, so this ought to last you a week. It'll be a great week, though.

"Don't" is another Make Do And Mend song. It's aggressive. It exists. But "Tell Me" is the scene stealer. "Tell Me" trembles. "Tell Me" has an ache like a tidal pull. It's one of my favorite songs of 2013 the instant I heard it. Think "Desert Lily," mixed with a smidge of "Coats," their song on Run For Cover's Mixed Signals compilation.

"Tell Me" centers around the chorus of "show me something life won't break / tell me something time can't take away." Yeah, it's dramatic, but like Make Do And Mend's best songs, it's earned with the lyrics "the end will draw you in, just like a moth against the wick" or "a hundred calling bells." "Tell Me" is earnest without being saccharine or using too much of cliche.
 The two Flatliners songs, by comparison are dexterous, fast and seem giddy on the possibility of what the band can do. There's a ridiculous (and ridiculously cool) guitar solo in "Caultron Girls" for the entire second minute of the song that sounds super Wilhelm Scream-y. Which is great. I love Wilhelm Scream. Said solo is one part fitting with the song, another part display of virtuosity, as if daring their friends to one up them.

The song appears to be about the young women who worked on the Manhattan Project without being told what they were working on, and if they spoke about what they did, rumor had it, they were killed. According to one participant, they watched numbers and moved dials, but weren't told why. This (and a cursory Google search) explains lyrics like "your life's a head game / when your job description is naivety."

"Daggers" first vocal is an almost doo-wop "ooooooooh." It's midtempo. Or, as close to mid-tempo as The Flats get. As mid-tempo as "This Respirator," I suppose. Hyperactive. Manic might be a better descriptor. Wait! It sounds like one of the good songs off of Dead To Me's African Elephants. Like someone fed The Flatliners horse tranquilizers and it didn't take.

As a fan of both bands, this represents some of their finest material to date and has me eagerly anticipating fuller portions, but hell, I'm an unwashed music nerd because these tiny portions sometimes contain incredible rewards. I hope they don't get reprinted in a year, by virtue of making the download or vinyl less valuable, but also, these songs being so good I view as the reward for paying attention.

And yes, they ought to be collected in an inevitable b-sides collection. Just in the future, okay? Not right now. Because right now, it's summer 2013 and while I don't have the coolest music or the most new music or the most groundbreaking music, it's new music from two very different bands who have hit their stride, but not yet their peak.

Alas, none of the full songs are on YouTube quite yet, but you can get a taste of the split below, which includes, luckily enough, 45 seconds of "Tell Me" and 45 seconds of "Caultron Girls."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Empty Three 2013

What the phrase "hardcore gamer" means to me, the morning of E3.

Starting today, most of the major players in making expensive, traditional videogame experiences will be speaking about their newest product. (Spoiler alert: Those newest products will likely be pretty fucking awesome.) That said, most of the developers I'm interested in are either so idiosyncratic or so large that they can either have their own conventions, or will announce things on their own time for their own reasons, that E3 seems like a colorful parade every year of which I have no very strong interest in anything being shown. I think "oh, that looks cool," for  three days straight. There are worse things.

If I'm honest, half the reason I'm here is to see Giant Bomb or Revision 3 talk about games. Those folks know what they're talking about and they seem pretty charming as they do it.

And that's probably a good thing, me passing out of the target demographic for "hardcore gamers." Depending on your definition, of course. I play Diablo 3 with my friends roughly every week and I've got the Humble Bundle open on a tab in Firefox as I write this, so I'm probably still a hardcore gamer, in the sense of James plays videogames and not just the ones that everyone else does, too. But my most recent console is a PS2 and it's staggeringly unlikely now that I'll get a new one for a couple years, ports being fairly easy to do and Steam and Humble Bundles being a fairly reliable line for excellent authored experiences. E3 isn't for me. It's for "hardcore gamers."

Here's the thing: I'm not sure I know any of those "hardcore gamers." I know persons who have been playing videogames since around the time they've been in lower school, but I don't know any "hardcore gamers."

Every so often, you'd hear about "the hardcore," and usually with that phrase precisely, talking about how they were underserved by their console or publisher of choice. I remember it coming out of the Xbox 360 guys most heavily, though that could be my approaching senility. Mostly, it was around the time of the Kinect or Netflix or any of the announcements that Microsoft was making that they might just maybe want their console to do other things in addition to the videogames it already played.

"Is Microsoft paying enough attention to the hardcore" and etc etc. One must understand, this is in a console cycle in which those gamers were delivered the Mass Effect trilogy, the Gears of War trilogy, tree Street Fighters, the Orange Box, six or maybe seven Call of Dutys, Dishonored, two Borderlands, two Batman games, Grand Theft Auto 4, Portal 2, Red Dead Redemption, Spec Ops: The Line, four Halo titles, a couple Rock Bands, two Forzas, two very different Far Crys, a three BioShocks, two Fallouts, Skyrim, two Saints' Rows, a new Deus Fucking Ex, ninety Assassin's Creed titles, L.A. Noire, and oh by the way, this was the first console cycle when DLC was integrated into the experience and you had a direct line into indie games like Braid, Bastion, Limbo, Plants Vs. Zombies, the Penny-Arcade stuff, Shadow Complex, Castle Crashers and anything else you can care to name.

Given all this, they felt underserved.

Politely, I want to ask Geoff Keighley or Adam Sessler, who are nobody's fools except of course their wives', who are these "hardcore gamers?" Because I look at that murderer's row of content and the only word I have is sufficit. It is enough! Does the hardcore have nothing else to do? Do they have literally no other interests in this life that they can pursue?

Do they not read? Are they uninterested in music or television? Is the only thing they do for leisure videogames and are they completely incapable of playing a game again?

E3 is for them and all of the businesses in their orbit. And the excitement, at least on Twitter, is palpable, (An aside: Watching Twitter during the conference feels like I'm waiting for the news to come in from the wire) but it's hard for me to get excited about a bunch of cutscences with carefully scripted gameplay sequences that'll end up on YouTube in a matter of hours. I shouldn't front, though: Those cutscenes and scripted gameplay sequences look fucking cool. The trouble of course, is that it always looks fucking cool. And that's no longer enough.

I think hardcore gamer means that I can wait to be all excited and bothered under the collar about videogames after I get back from work tonight. I think hardcore gamer means if you need me, I'll be playing Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2 with my friends and their fiancees. I think hardcore gamer means despite "hardcore gamers," I still love videogames.

It is enough.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

In The Aeroplane, Hold.

Michael Bay directing Christie Front Drive.

That's not, technically speaking, true, but the sentence is pithy enough for retweets, so it stays in. It's a little bit true, though. Or maybe it's just that Eric Richter is singing. Hold has a very wide scope. Post-rock is the obvious genre tag.

My first listen to Hold was strange. I was on a plane to Peru and got two hours sleep the night before. So, I drifted in and out of light sleep while Hold played. The effect was disorienting and felt like the experience was swathed in a dreamlike haze. I'd wake up in one song, fall asleep and arise in another. I couldn't (or chose not to) grasp anything of tracklisting or detail. I could only glimpse at the music, through the shroud of fatigue and chance. Authorial intent? I'd been in transit a solid 14 hours.

When I touched down in Lima, I knew I wanted to hear Hold again.
There's an element of colossal, ethereal melody to the endeavor. It's not just the three guitars, though that helps. My knowledge of shoegaze is limited, so I'm not sure what the right language is for massive moments. I believe Highness' members all understand soft/loud dynamics and Richter's voice has a range of melody that they can dig into. Try The Out_Circuit as a comparison. Both go heavy into the soft/loud dynamics but use both fairly naturally, due to the composers previous bands.

Hold is 2 a.m. music, I believe. My touchstone for that is Deafheaven or Envy, but likely yours are better than mine. Explosions In The Sky? Maybe? I believe the softer songs work better than the heavier ones. And heaviness is relative, here. It's not Hope Conspiracy, but Highness can get aggressive. (See "Stitched Together.") "Forking Roads," which immediately follows "Stitched Together" is a wonderful instrumental, one of my favorites since the first two and a half minutes of "A Bridge Too Far."

Holds runs for about 37 minutes over nine tracks. Of the nine, one's an 1:38 interlude and the final track is a :38 outro, with all but one of the songs being longer than a rough 4:30. I suspect that my first listen insulated me somewhat from the minor, but noticeable meandering in the compositions.

Listening to Hold like a sane human being would, front to back, without repeating tracks or sleep deprivation, gives a fairly clear "objective" assessment. It's an excellent  post-rock record, sewn together with Richter's voice, which sounds well suited for the task. His bandmates know how to hold down the rock end of things, and what you get is oriented in that direction, with Richter giving the players an excuse to try those melodies they've heard so much about in their previous bands but never quite got around to.

I don't know if you'll want to listen to Hold drifting in and out of sleep, but the experience was one that turned the familiar act of listening to a bunch of .mp3 files called a record into something exciting and unexpected. Whatever I heard, I heard and whatever I got out of it was my thoughts, without my thirty million filters collectively called the synthesis of my opinion.

In summation: I listened to Hold a couple different ways and I liked it both times. I suspect I'll still like it at the end of this year and perhaps the next. You can buy it here.

This is no longer representative of Highness, but the video I was going to use can't be found using Blogger, so, instead, here's something not quite as good, but still Highness' music.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sacrosanct Space

I haven't played Sim City. I haven't played Dead Space 3. I haven't played Aliens: Colonial Marines. I haven't played any videogames except Penny-Arcade's On The Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, Torchlight 2 and Bejeweled 3 in about a year. Wait. Maybe I've played Jamestown. I've played Diablo 3.

(Pretend I didn't list Jamestown. Shhhhhhhh.)

But I've seen a lot of people talk about DLC or "always-on" experiences and what comes to mind as a player is the idea that my experience of playing a videogame is being interrupted. In the case of always on, it means that I am at the whim of of a developer to make sure their own infrastructure is sound enough to play the experience I have already paid money for.

And that's not a thing that I should have to care about as a player. I've already put down my money. I've already showed, in some cases, sixty examples of good faith, plus tax. When I purchase a book, I don't have to worry about firmware updates to the paper getting between me and the experience.

One could make the same argument for videogame consoles before the current generation. I don't have to worry that my Playstation 2 will decide tomorrow that it needs to connect to the internet before I play a little Dragon Quest 8 before bed. I can play Dragon Quest 8, or maybe you'd prefer Burnout 3, or Persona 4 or whatever game I choose, because the architecture of the system is designed in a way to require the game and the tray and nothing else.

Anything always on changes that. Instead of needing two things, a player/customer now needs three. They need the disc to work. They need the system to work and they need the developers and publishers to be on the ball every day of each year going forward. That's a material change in the relationship between the buyer and the seller. I'm being asked going forward to take on faith that another party will have their ducks in a row.

That isn't a feature.
I would like whatever it is I bought to work when I have or carve out the time in my day to play it. I suspect that's why I read so many books as opposed to movies or videogames these days: I can pick up the book and it works immediately. I don't have to sit through five minutes of commercials for other products or anti-piracy warnings, I can just read the book. Books are also portable and easy to use, I say just a little bit facetiously. I can throw one in my bag and it's ready when I am.

I'm surprised I have to say this, but I'm enjoying the very retro feeling of having no popups appear on screen, whether it's an alert that a friend is playing the same game or the game announcing that "you got an achievement!"

What brings my interest in PS2 games and the aforementioned Steam games together is that at least once I'm playing, my playing experience isn't interrupted for an ad to buy more stuff. They take my time seriously.
I felt like I was in high school when I played Penny-Arcade's On The Rain-Slick Precipice Of Darkness 3. It demanded me until 3 or 4 a.m.. It accomplished this by telling me a story I wanted to know more about, by interacting with me in a way that felt familiar, but had a couple really excellent twists on the concept and least of all, not interrupting itself to sell additional content.

To a lesser extent, I had this experience with Torchlight II and Bejewled 3. These are games that respect the players. You bought the game, and now, you ought to enjoy it. I don't want to say that it's an "old-school" kind of experience, because Journey exists. But: The idea that the best ad for the next game is the one you're playing right now is a powerful one.

The cardinal sin of Dead Space 3 is not that microtransactions exist inside it, but how those are implemented into the experience of playing the game. The team has spent two odd years and thousands of hours to create an environment that scares the player and all that work is destroyed when the offer is made to you that if waiting 10 minutes to get supplies is too long, you can cut the time in half in exchange for more of your local money.

That's an offer that takes me out of the game, first. Second: Had I paid $60, I'd be furious. I just paid sixty dollars for an entertainment experience and there was something built in for the specific purpose of detracting from the meticulously crafted thing I paid sixty dollars for? Get out of town.

I don't mind DLC. Shit, I like DLC. But don't interrupt my play experience, the thing that got you in the door, to hawk me more shit. Maybe this is my recognition that I am no longer the target market for these experiences and on some level that bums me out. I don't think it is, though. I don't mind being offered DLC. But I do mind how the offer is made.

I want to support developers and publishers that view the time I spend playing their game as sacrosanct. That indicates a respect for my time and my attention, which I am happy and excited to repay with cash dollars, which I suspect is all those developers and publishers wanted in the first place.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

As Many Principal Creators As Reasons To Die Number One

I bought Twelve Reasons To Die #1 at a con. My very long two cents follow.

The Twelve Reasons To Die #1 credits page is a nightmare. Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge are credited as creators. Adrian Younge, Ce Garcia and Matthew Rosenberg are credited with the story. Finally, Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon are credited as writers.

Rosenberg is credited a third time, somehow, as the bookrunner. It's a comic book, so hearing that there's enough balls in the air that someone deserves credit for keeping them going who isn't an editor is a worrying sign.

But okay, those designations can be parsed out. The characters are Ghost's (because Mr. Killah sounds a little bit too on the nose) and Mr. Younge's. The story is a collaboration between Mr. Younge, Mr. Garcia and Mr. Rosenberg and the actual script specifics are Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Kindlon.

When you get to who's credited on the art, you may as well read tea leaves.

You have and this is no joke, two Illustrators, not one but three Guest Illustrators and this is the genius part, two Production Artists. Luckily, there's only one colorist and only one letterer, who do the herculean job of making sure there's at least some consistency between all of these pencillers. If anyone deserves a hand here, it's the colorist and letterer. Twelve Reasons To Die #1 doesn't have a chance to set a tone, because odds are good that if you flip the next page, a completely different penciller is telling the story.

(Oh, and the narration text takes an unexplained jump in size on the final page.)

Politely, it's a mess.

As a rule, the best comics tend to come from the singular vision of one person or a single writer/penciller team. By comparison, you have seven people pencilling this comic, and five people writing Twelve Reasons To Die.

The script makes me groan without pleasure.  In a scene where Ghost shows up to a club with his crew, wrecks some Italian mob goons with guns, the narration is, (from the perspective of the boss goon/strawman) and I quote: "He was something we had never seen before…we were soldiers…Anthony Starks was a fucking weapon." 

Rosenberg and Kindlon are both smart guys, so I find it very hard to believe they wrote something that stupid. Was this Ghost's people? Was this Ghost himself, making absolutely certain that he came off as badass as possible in his own vanity project? I have no idea. Given Wu-Tang's history with comics, it's hard to believe.

There's some solid panel to panel storytelling, for which Rosenberg and Kindlon and whomever pencilled it deserve credit, but there's one thing missed, which is kind of important.

Ghost dies and only one person mentions it.

Right. The conceit of comic, which, incidentally, I had to read an interview with Adrian Younge to figure out, was that Ghost was a mobster, who got killed as a certain record played, and through that, somehow, transferred his essence to 12 particular records, that when played, will kill the gangsters that killed him. I think? According to a different interview, these 12 gangsters are all heads of their own gangs. Awesome.

The problem is that Ghost dying off panel is incongruous, given the only other time he appeared, he was very much alive. The next time you see him, it's a disembodied face that comes out of a vinyl record.

Ghost makes an entrance in a club with his crew, shooting men with guns, beating them with chairs and then, taking a chair leg, slashing a dude's throat with it, then throwing that leg into the eye of a mobster and then after that, taking another chair leg and stabbing yet another mobster in the throat with the second chair leg. That's his entrance. He's got one word balloon and it sounds completely and utterly baffling with the rest of the story.

He says: "Niggaz heard y'all run the game 'round here. We got shit to talk about, ya nahmsayin."

Thus, the next time you see Ghost, with the implication he's dead, it makes no goddamn sense. The writers just set up Ghost as a walking Act of God, or if you prefer "a fucking weapon," so how in the fuck did he die? Old age? Venereal disease? High cholesterol? Because if the answer is he got killed by other gangsters, that flies in the face of how the character was portrayed the first time he showed up in the comic.

By and large, it's the parts that don't involve Ghost where the comic does well. I enjoyed the storytelling around finding these records and their effects on the gangsters they're meant for. My favorite scene, I think was the same gangster, I think, subcontracting out the finding of the pieces of vinyl to a young black man not too proud to take the job, but conflicted enough to desire respect for his work. The whisper: "We prefer the term crate-digger," is excellent.

I oscillate on how I feel about the gangsters. If there's a popular media portrayal of gangsters that the writers don't lean on, it's not for lack of trying. You've got gangster with the veneer of nobility. You've got slimy gangster. You've got "we're just businessmen and we fought the Nazis" gangster.  I'm surprised they haven't gotten to off-brand Scarface. Maybe that's the next issue.

I think it's the same gangster, actually. With the shifting pencillers in the first half of the comic, I'm not sure what's flashback and what's present day and who is who.

Maybe I'm too harsh. This is a vanity project comic about gangsters. Perhaps off-brand Scarface is part and parcel of obeying and enjoying the genre. I'm not sure. This is pretty obviously a review I'm writing to organize my thoughts. I wrote this originally because I was disappointed in the issue. The original conclusion was:

I paid $4 for this comic, mostly because I wanted to support Pat Kindlon and figured it was worth a roll of the dice to see if he and Ghost worked well together. I now know. I would not do it again.

Considering the comic again, there's enough other things in the comic that hit well, that I second guess the statement. It should go without saying, though, if you're a fan of any of the writers' musical endeavors, get those instead. $4 an issue is asking a bit much for a story I'm hot and cold on, but if you're a fan of Ghost's stories or Wu-Tang acolyte, I think you'll enjoy it.

I suppose I ought to use something from the album from which this comics comes, but instead, here, have Ghostface Killah as the champ. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Chris Wollard And The Solo Thieves

"Obey and enjoy the genre." Michael Moorcock.

"They said guitar solos aren't punk rock, well, fuck you!" Chris Wollard.

I'm gonna talk about Canyons, the newish record by Chris Wollard And The Ship Thieves now.

It sounds like Chris Wollard having fuckin' fun. Hot Water Music (from which the songwriter and performer cannot possibly be divorced from now) is, well, emotive and anthemic. I wrote about "Seein' Diamonds." I could also write about "Paper Thin" or "The End." Best I don't.

Canyons? Unlike that. Joyous, packed full of guitar solos. I don't even like guitar solos, but I succumb to this disc. Do you need me to tell you what "Poison Friends" is about? I don't think so. "Sick, Sick Love?" Nah. You want anthems? Get outta town. I suspect Hot Water Music songs are a document of his life, but Ship Thieves doesn't have to be. Ship Thieves is "oh man, this is awwwwwwwwwesome."

I think Canyons is Chris Wollard's id.

What I'm trying to say is that it's a long jump from Ship Thieves to Hot Water Music.

(There will be no swimming jokes. Canyons' cover has a bird in flight on it and I am committed to theme.)

None of these songs would be amiss coming through a speaker at a hardware store. Well, they might sound a lot more polished, more soundly constructed, a lot fucking better, but they'd still fit right in. Well, okay. "Dream In My Head" is a little short for 93X the Rock crowd ("Working for the weekendtm", with a forty five minute commercial free block coming up in three and a half hours) or whomever, but it's short enough for the Hot Water followers to get a grasp of what comes next.

The trick Chris Wollard and the Ship Thieves pull here is that they make it look casual. Tossed off. Of course it isn't. Of course it takes work. Of course these songs took days to put together, but the germs of them came naturally, I'm sure.

Ever hear a friend of yours talk about something they love and you get lost and enraptured in their enthusiasm for it and skill at it? That's what Canyons is. It is a vector for Chris Wollard's considerable enthusiasm for guitar rock. There's a ZZ Top shaped hole in my guitar music listening, so I have to be careful about how I talk about Canyons, because there's genre staples I know only from parody. Pretending to type with authority here sounds problematic.

In a sentence: I am prejudiced against guitar solos and I cannot help but enjoy Canyons.

Sadly, this song is not "Dream In My Head." It is called "Poison Friends." But! For "Poison Friends" not being "Dream In My Head," it's pretty good. Play guitar solos! Drink beer! Et al!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

It's Dessa In The Morning, But It's Good For Morale.

Talking about Dessa's music is an act that stretches my comfortable vocabulary. Maybe it's the M.A. Phil. after her name. Maybe it's the lyrics nerd in me. She's one of the artists that makes my obsessive attention to what's said worth it, I think. She...well...when the songs are played right, it feels like I'm reclaiming my vulnerability, to abuse a Thomas Barnett line.

One of my favorite moments from a Dessa song was a re-worked Frida Khalo line. She's an rapper who writes rhymes where Bertrand Russell gets as many big-ups as whiskey. Of course her new song, "Warsaw" sounds like a lead pipe covered in grime, left out in the pouring rain. You're supposed to dance to it. If The Knife menaced people with knives? Yes, it sounds like that.

This was an interview for in advance of Castor, The Twin and then Jason Tate ignored it, so here you go. First interview of the new cycle. Suuuuuuure. Read on.

What have you been reading recently? What books (if any) do you bring on tour? After tours, who has stuck around? What's surprised you positively about coming back to the bed, the books and the rotary phone after the U.S. tour?
I buy books constantly on tour. I usually go for dense, academic material: science or philosophy I'd always meant to explore, but never got around to--exactly the opposite of what's appropriate for a person living in a noisy, moving van. Most of these books end up on my coffee table. I resist shelving them to sustain the delusion that I will be reading them very soon. At the moment, however, I am 50 pages into The Tin Drum and 75 pages into Sting's autobiography, Broken Music (gift from Dad). 

"Dots and Dashes," that opening "vision quest at the Best Western, the best dressed wreck at the hotel lounge, I found out the message in the bottle is the booze" is pretty wicked. There's gotta be a story behind it, right? Do tell.
Um...not really. As a touring rapper, I guess I just spend a lot of time in economy hotels. Sooner or later, life seeps into the imagination and is re-expressed in a lyric. 

If Poe in the glovebox, Plath on the dash is true, how do you get up in the morning?
Most mornings I get up with some reluctance, hitting my stride right before bed. I suppose I've always tended toward the melancholic, and have always been attracted to dark narratives. To romanticize sadness is a teenage impulse, but to acknowledge it--rather than looking for a ray of cheeriness to blot it out--seems like the clear-eyed way to live. 

Let's say a venue wants to treat you right and leaves you some whiskey backstage. What do they buy? Or if that's too casual with the alcoholism, are you worried about the whiskey catching up to you or has it already?
I drink Godfathers: one part whiskey, one part amaretto, on ice. I'm more mindful of my drinking than I used to be, in part because the hangovers are more vengeful than they used to be.  

Will there be a Mineshaft III on the next one?
I think the Mineshaft narrative ends with the second installment, the prequel. Time to explore some new themes. 

There's a line in "Low Light, Low Life", where you say Bertrand Russell was right, but it's irrelevant. As an M.A., you know better than most, Russell wrote a lot. What else was he right about? Also: Does philosophy help with being in hip-hop? Does it complicate matters in a way that's useful?
Bertrand Russell wrote a book called Why I Am Not a Christian. I'm an atheist, and although I certainly don't spend a lot of time trying to talk people out of their faith, that book was a beautifully written, intelligent expression of some very elegant arguments. For me, the study of philosophy was game-changing, it informed my understanding of sex, conflict, faith, human rights, money, ethics, and art. Philosophy has affected everything I do, rap included. 

Your bartender (from before you were old enough to drink?) does backups, that woman from "Alibi" I assume is a friend and "Dixon's Girl" sounds like a character from a Chandler novel. How do you meet these people?
I'm taking this question as a compliment. I think we've all probably got some pretty compelling stories. There's a trick though in telling them well. 

Is there anything like "Dutch" or "Scuffle" on No Kings or your 2012 record? (I'm partial to the abrasive/rapping songs, but listening to "Palace" and those Minneapolis Public Radio sessions on YouTube has me convinced this whole singing on tracks has worked out pretty well for you.)
There are plenty of aggressive tracks on No Kings and on my new disc. Castor, the Twin is mostly wings; the next one's definitely got some teeth too. 

Judging by "The Man I Knew," it sounds like one of your friends has discovered cocaine. Is that gonna be awkward when this dude hears the song? Does he know about it?
I called him, and he said it was cool. Still not totally sure he's listened to it the whole way through. He's an awesome dude though, we'll make it just fine. 

There's tons more questions, but let's end it with the really important one: Now that Astro lives in Minneapolis, when are you and he going to sit down and do a song together about whiskey and rapping?
Very proud to say that I booked Astonautalis' housewarming show: just a few days after he moved to Minneapolis, I had him on stage at the Guthrie Theater. He's one of the smartest lyricists out there, glad to have him on the hometown team.

"Warsaw" sounds like a club jam from Blade Runner. I don't think I can say it sounds pretty, bleepity and distant all at the same time better than that.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Touch Keyboards Become The Teeth

     I think it was Jimmy Eat World who said that no one makes money on a split 7-inch, which is a shame. This one, featuring Pianos Become The Teeth and Touché Amoré deserves it. On this two song split, each band contributes an excellent song, with striking art direction from Touché Amoré guitarist Nick Steinhardt. The main colors are a deep blue and tan, both of which recur, in a small way, in the art for the other band. He finds urban decay photos interesting. The genre does nothing for me, so I pass over that.

     Looking over the .pdf of the layout, I think that's the birds from the "Gravity, Metaphorically" music video in the album art. Yes. Energy and thought were put into the package.

     It will not surprise you, I am sure, to hear both songs are about failing relationships. Touche's was one that was built with an expiration date in mind, apparently. "Gravity," of course, is used as a shorthand for knowing the thing you knew was coming came. "Hiding," starts out as one and then veers into avoiding people generally. The black text on tan backgrounds makes the "Hiding" lyrics hard to read without squinting.

     At four minutes, "Gravity" may as well be a double feature for Touché Amoré. I'd argue it is, actually. The first half sounds like Touché and the second half sounds like Envy. Perhaps that's a little pithy. I'm an absolute goon for Envy, and so are the Touché boys, so that's a net positive in my book.

     "Hiding," by Pianos Become The Teeth is real midtempo. It's one of the best sad bastard songs I've heard in the last couple years. I lived in Western Pennsylvania for four years. I know something about sad bastard songs. I'm struck by the lyric makes you almost miss the smell of smoke in your clothes. Like you knew the memories were bad, but you think fondly of them regardless.

     I bought the digital download for $1.50 from Deathwish, which comes with the full album art in the package. I think it's worth your time and a little bit of your money.

     A friend of mine said I should give that Pianos song a couple listens to let it click, because when it clicks, it's fantastic. He's right. "Hiding," by Pianos Become The Teeth. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Feelin' Diamonds

     "Seein' Diamonds" by Hot Water Music was one of my curse songs.

     I remember early morning / In the car on the side of the road / You said you had something to say / I crawled out with my head spinning / I covered my ears too late

     Get me talking about them long enough and I will speak about "Seein' Diamonds." I think it's my favorite song of theirs.

     I discovered it on Punk-O-Rama 9, which also featured a Motion City Soundtrack b-side called Throw Down. I think I bought it for that b-side and "Seein' Diamonds." It's worth noting, I was even more of a casual fan of Hot Water Music then, so I'm not sure I remember my reasoning. Point is: I bought it in 2004 and found it more resonant than anything else on the compilation.

     "Seein' Diamonds" is about that shock of finding out that the person you love, enough to see yourself marrying them, tells you they don't love you. The blast from the loss leaves a crater.

     The lyrics ultimately boil down to the same feeling of loss and rejection. The partner? The scene of the crash? Metaphorically? Literally? Doesn't matter. What matters is that there is something in that lover or moment that draws the singer back. I listened to it a lot in college, to the point where I described it as like heroin, which is wildly hyperbolic and likely wrong, as I've never tried heroin. The idea I was reaching for was that there's a pleasure and an amelioration by something that ultimately does terrible things to my head. "Seein' Diamonds" does that. It is what that song was made to do.

     Just returning / Felt like murder / But I couldn't stay away

     So I saw Hot Water Music on their tour with La Dispute and the Menzingers. Hot Water Music was good. They've been playing together for 20 years this year. No surprise there. It was at the bar, though, that I talked for a couple minutes with the writer of "Seein' Diamonds" (Chris Wollard) about well, "Seein' Diamonds" and his second solo record, Canyons.

     (I enjoyed Canyons because listening to it I could immediately tell what the record was about. The record is about guitar solos. There's songs and lyrics in there, but it's not about those things, those things are a vehicle for the guitar solos. And those guitar solos? Bitchin'.)

     But the conversation we had about "Seein' Diamonds" was something that now overrides or at least colors my listening to the song now. I used to listen to "Seein' Diamonds" when I was in a bad place.  But now? I listen to it thinking of the Rays cap and the massive bear hugs and the "thank you for paying attention and thank you for caring." And that makes me smile.

     It was a hard song to write, he said.

    I'm glad he wrote it. I'm glad I heard it. His pain, and how he expressed it, resonated with me. That's what music is supposed to do.

     "Seein' Diamonds" doesn't hurt the same, now. I smile too much when I put it on. It doesn't hurt so much. It's a song designed to express pain. I'm at a loss, then, when the song stops being so painful. I'm too close to the event to express coherent thoughts about that. Pat from Self Defense Family will talk about how art should express something in a way that shows the individual and now I understand what he means. I think now, of the man who, if given an opportunity will nerd the fuck out about guitars and his obvious, guileless joy at being in a band with one of the people he looked up to before he formed Hot Water Music.

     I can put a face and a set of behaviors and a personality to the song now. No. I can do more than that. I can put a person to the song now. I didn't think the song came from somewhere anonymous before, but that I knew of Chris Wollard. I knew that is was his voice on it, so I assumed he wrote it. And meeting him colors my experience of listening to the song. When that happens normally, I'm used to it, because most of the songs aren't about loss and knowing that you shouldn't go back but do. The closest I've got is Dessa's "Matches To Paper Dolls" or "Go Home," but those aren't the songs I ask her about.

     I've met Crime In Stereo, but that doesn't color "...But You Are Vast" in the same way. The connection has an incredible value. "Seein' Diamonds" is about loss, but it's hard to feel real bad when you hear it recalling that time it's author hugged you for understanding and taking it to heart. Thank you, Mr. Wollard.


     I think you can intuit which song this is. I don't believe it's gonna surprise you.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Decomposition: 4:30 a.m.

Volume One, huh? They've never lacked ambition.

Decompositions: Volume Number One is Circle Takes The Square's first full length in, oh Christ, nine years. It really has been that long. The sun has set on screamo and since risen again in that time since As The Roots Undo. That's not to say Decompositions sounds dated, but that…shit, man. Things have changed.

Circle Takes The Square hasn't. If you liked As The Roots Undo, everything on Decompositions will be familiar to you. They remain a feral, sprawling screamo band and Decompositions is their most cacophonous and densest slab of the genre yet. Before I forget! You can buy Decompositions from bandcamp right now. If only Robotic Empire could have done that back in the day.

Do you like chanting? They still do that.
Do you like the abrasive, coiling, screams of the Mr. Speziale and Ms. Stubelek? They still do that. 

Do you like the whispering from Mr. Speziale and soft attempts at singing from Ms. Stubelek? They still do that.
There's now more of it. To a point, I suppose. Decompositions' first four tracks were released on their own in 2011. Decompositions clocks in at nine tracks and 55:30. As The Roots Undo was eight tracks, technically and about 44 minutes. Given that the first track is a one minute intro, it might be more truthful to say that As The Roots Undo was seven tracks in 44 minutes.
As for how Decompositions was recorded, I think the drums got a bum deal. The vocals are as clear as you'd want them to be. No one here is Pavarotti. Like As The Roots Undo, a lot of careful attention was paid to the album artwork. The pieces included with the record are detailed and usually involves spirals or gentle curves.

I don't hear any single tracks that are easy to break off, there's no "Crowquill" to be found on Decompositions. Yes, there's a three minute song, but it doesn't play nicely with other bands. If you're gonna listen to Decompositions, you're going to hear all of it. Or, I think you should. I'm not sure how their ornate lyrical, visual and musical style will play alongside any artist less baroque. I take the time to write this precisely because Decompositions as a single entity has such a powerful pull. It's taken me twenty odd listens to find when “Singing Vengeance Into Being” becomes “Arrowhead As Epilogue.”

As for what we call this, shit, that's half the fun. Grandiose skramz? Hyper-elaborate screamo? Vulgar, untidy riff compendiums for Sea Shepard GIs?

The individual tracks are hard to pick out without extensive listens. That's not a compliment, but they'll forgive me, I'm sure. The two reviews for this I've seen, Brian's at Alt Press and someone else's from, can't quite pin down the thread that pulls the record together. That thread is a South American author called Jorge Luis Borges.

I'll explain. Borges' stories, some of them had a massive sprawl and sweep: The Library of Babel, obviously, but also The Circular Ruins*. But what was important for those two stories was a sense of breathtaking, dangerous and immeasurable (or unknowable) landscapes. Decompositions has that sense of scope. (There's even a labyrinth in the Decompositions' art, for Christ's sake! See left.) If one was ever fast enough to outrun a wolf in menacing, alien woods, Circle Takes The Square would be the band to describe that terror. A quick look at Circle's website shows they use a Borges quote as an epigraph to "Way Of Ever-Branching Paths." I have a keen grasp of the obvious.
This leads them into melodrama occasionally (see below), but we forgive them.

And the praise / it was fraudulent/ Nothing sacred in my fingerprints / Shed my skin as a parting gift/ Slash and burn / and start again/ Through the lens of predation/ Monochrome interpretations /Only fit for the color-starved /Strip-mine my flesh / I will ascend

I wonder, sometimes, if they'd write a five minute emoviolence epic about stubbing a toe.

And then there's the final track, the mostly acoustic "North Star, Inverted." It's 10:55. It might be the best song on the record. No, seriously. Stop looking at me like that. Most Circle songs are mostly thrashy screamo with moments of chanting or pretty bits, before going back into the blast beats, right?

This one is made the other way around. Once you get past the minute or so of "oh right we're a screamo band" in the first movement (I use the word loosely. Our classical musician friends would blanche, I'm sure.) it's Mr. Speziale and his acoustic guitar with light accompaniment from the rest of the band.

It would be wrong to call it a lullaby, but the lion's share of the song is gentle. It's a song about the apocalypse, but the delivery makes it sound like it's something almost casual. Like staring at the ruined city from the front of your porch with your friends, with a guitar and a bottle.

The North Star / she nods out / Doused her torch / left us forever / Without promise or penance / We're left to merge with the trench / Taught the cruelties that it takes to survive /Just accept to be free.

So: If you're looking for a single, I suppose you could pick the final song, the epic 10:55 long closer. Go for it. See where that gets you. That's how I feel about the whole record, actually. See where it takes you. Like going to Venice as a tourist, getting lost in Decompositions is the point. Enjoy the trip.

Hi. Yes. This review has been updated, slightly, at roughly 8 pm on February 8, 2013. I feel I missed some description of the actual music, and added some, swapped out an image for another one and made minor changes.
I couldn't write this and not leave you with "North Star, Inverted," right? Well, I suppose you could go look for the full-album stream on YouTube. It's not hard to find. But it's late, and frankly, these things should end on a good note.

*Many others, of course. If you haven't read Mr. Borges, his Complete Fictions will run you 20 odd bucks and will be a more worthwhile purchase than whatever piece of ephemera you've convinced yourself you need. Taken as a whole, his stories explicated an imagination that could traffic in ideas with nine figure budgets and execution dependent stories with tiny payoffs with life-defining significance. That he could go anywhere in between those two without any noticeable drop in quality is why I'm a Borges goon.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

So, You Are An Album Reviewer?

     I think Blacklisted is on a very short list of bands that matter.
     -Patrick Kindlon

     Man loves his hyperbole, but on Blacklisted, he's no bullshit. 
   In America, So, You Are A Magician? is a 3 song seven inch or digital download. In Japan, ...Magician is a 6 (or 10) song MCD. I'll talk about America first, then Japan.

     Recorded cleanly in Will Yip's Studio Four, ...Magician sounds, for want of a better descriptor, more punk than the No One Deserves To Be Here More Than Me sessions. There's less ornamentation than No One.... Every instrument sounds like it's supposed to. The drums sound crisp, the bass like it's being exhumed out of a swamp and the guitar noisy.
     Of the three new songs, "Mentalist" and "Copper Fields" are aggressive and fairly straight-forward. "Copper Fields" is also Blacklisted's best song to date. It's just as strong lyrically as "Skeletons", as catchy as "I Am Weighing Me Down" and hits Joe Strummer's sweet spot of 2:59. iTunes says I've listened to it thirty times. That number sounds low. I'm scared to see what my cell phone says about that number. It could double that one, easy. I don't think it's Blacklisted's first foray with a verse chorus verse chorus structure, but the elements that comprise it are stronger than any other song they've written to date.
     "Houdini Blues" is a song about suicide, a slow, bluesy number, via sludge. It's a little melodramatic, but hey. It's a song about suicide. The band earns it.
     I think what's strongest, or at least most interesting about ...Magician is Mr. Hirsch's use of stage magic and slight of hand as a metaphor for his disintegrating relationships. "Mentalist" is the most candid of the songs, "Copper Fields" the most dedicated to theme and "Houdini Blues" balances the two.
     The other 3 or 7 songs are two post-No One… songs, an interesting but not definitive demo of "Stations" and what I take to be the BBC session. Technically, the BBC session is the work of an error of unspecified origin, presumably not to be reprinted.
     Of the two newish tracks, "Those Shields Around You" is the standout and stands as another highlight in their discography. It catalogs Hirsch's attempts to break through the walls between him and a woman alongside his own more esoteric interests. "Do you still believe what they say about my sign? /A Virgo, modest and shy / You grow gardens and love cats / I listen to Stephin Merrit and believe in vampire bats. Little do our friends know, this is us both at our most irreconcilable."
     I'm not sure I would buy the BBC session on its own, but I crave truly complete discographies I'll never give another listen to. The band jams out a bit on "Circuit Breaker" and trims a good half minute of guitar feedback from the end of "Shields". The trimming was a wise move, I think.

     Since Peace On Earth, War On Stage, Blacklisted's a band that mutates from LP to LP (like my beloved Crime In Stereo or even Kindlon's own Self Defense Family), so it might be a whole new sounds by the time a person gets around to buying the new record, which makes breather moments like this a great time to catch up. The music's great and Hirsch's only growing stranger.
     I'm filing the CD in the b-sides collection folder of my mind, but right now, it's a valuable snapshot of yet another Blacklisted taking form. For you? Don't wait for the inevitable Deathwish collection, go grab this from Six Feet Under however they're hawking it. And since Deathwish, it appears, does SFU's digital delivery now, you'll be going to Deathwish anyway.

     If you want "Copper Fields," you can find it in the post directly before this one. It was one of my favorite songs of last year and it's still worth your time this or any subsequent year. Really, all you have to do is scroll down. Console yourself with the first track, " Mentalist."
     When Jordan and I interviewed Jake Bannon (the co-founder of Deathwish Inc.), I asked him about what band would get the label's then-unknown release number 100. His response was that "no other band deserves the release number any more in my opinion." He was referring to Blacklisted. This review, of course, is the 100th blog on here. Perhaps only Crime In Stereo deserves it more...
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