Monday, December 29, 2014

Purity doesn't absolve you. (cleaned up and crossposted)

"They were not working to save our country," writes David Simon. I disagree. What makes Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and that gang frightening is that they were trying to save our country. The law doesn't require that group of people to come to torture as their instinct, the law only requires that they came to it at all. I believe Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld led a group of cowboys and zealots towards a war, and committed war crimes because they believed it was necessary for the survival of the United States.

The sincere belief that it was necessary for the country's survival doesn't absolve them of what they did. The frightening thing is that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are still human beings. They hug their kids sincerely. They're grandparents that want to make sure their families have good lives. In other words: They're normal people (a given value of normal, I'll grant you) and the trick is normal people can commit atrocities.

I don’t care if Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld is a torturer in their hearts. I do care that they ordered and authorized torture. That’s the only way this matters. I believe they’ll go in front of God or St. Peter or whomever and say “we did unto those sons of bitches before they could do unto us” and face judgment with a shit grin. You won’t get Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld that way.

Here’s how you get them: They hid it. They knew it was wrong and that’s why they went to such lengths to justify it and then hide it. Treat them like Snidely Whiplash and you get nowhere. Treat them like men who got seduced by confirmation bias and then said “take the gloves off” when they could have said “feeding a prisoner through their asshole,” and you get ‘em dead to rights.

They should be prosecuted.

There are other versions of this on the internet, but I'm calling this one definitive until I add or subtract something again in a couple days. This seems like a good place for the epic closer I, Stateside by Crime In Stereo. Play loud, get sad.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Rebecca got livid.

Hearing that Jack Conte, one half of Pomplamoose (the other half is Nataly Dawn), is a co-founder of Patreon and arguably used his "I have no idea how to budget a tour" blog to subtly promote his other, presumably real, job, she was displeased. "Completely disgusting and dishonest" was how she put it.

I…am less angry. It's dishonest, sure, but I can't summon disgust.

Indie isn't what it used to be. There's judgment in there, for sure, but that's mostly a statement of fact. When indie was a thing that people cared about, the world was different. CDs were $18 a pop, unless you were Dischord. College radio stations mattered, because access was a thing that major labels had absolute control over. What you would listen to was whatever the conglomerate had decided would be on air in your market, or whatever you were willing to take a $18 gamble on. Indie meant you were willing to take that gamble.

It's a different world now, and the main point is one of engagement, not access. So when Conte declares that he's a part of the creative class, and like all indie bands, he's willing to lose five figures on a tour, I shrug.

(I shrug after yelling with Rebecca on Twitter about Conte's budgeting for an hour, to be fair. It is not impossible for indie bands of a different stripe to go five figures in debt, but they certainly don't do it for a month long US tour booked like a family vacation.)

Indie, now, only means not currently signed directly to a major label. And Pomplamoose fits that. My question is "why does this guy want to buy in?" Pomplamoose are already tremendously successful through actively avoiding the traditional indie path of tour, record, US tour, EU tour, US tour, repeat.

Because if he thinks indie has cachet, the joke's on him. Cachet is an infinitely decomposing currency, easily lost. Indie bands struggle to keep their heads above water. Pomplamoose, through their hustle, has an inflatable raft.

Pomplamoose gets $6,395 per music video on Patreon, last I checked. Conte and Dawn crank out two a month. Most indie bands have to work two jobs when they're not on tour. Pomplamoose earns enough to give each member a $30,000 yearly salary. I don't know what Conte draws from Patreon.

They've arrived.

The rest feels like errata: Before this, Dawn had her major label debut on Nonesuch, (a Warner subsidiary) underwritten by Kickstarter money. She also appeared on a Barry Manilow record. Of course there's a major label connection somewhere, but at this point, it hardly matters.

The numbers Conte throws around show he's not from around here, and learning that he's also sitting on Patreon money takes the sting out of his "indie band guy/creative making it work" posturing.

To presume to speak to him directly: Mr. Conte. Bro. You don't want to be here. Here isn't anywhere, really. You've got the career you dreamed of, right now, and all you have to do to keep it going is pruning. If your bandmate booked the tour, why are you paying a booking agent? If you know you're going to lose $50,000 on hired guns, workshop a live set that is just as compelling as "big rock show." It'll be a new challenge. Given how intense your band's churn is at normal output, it shouldn't be too hard.

There's a dirty secret, one we're especially ashamed to tell: In all but this respect, we should be taking advice from you. $30,000 a year, on no touring? Sleeping in your own bed every night? Only recording and making videos? Bands dream about that.

You guys don't do tours anyway. You have a loud, intensely engaged fanbase that's willing to support you. You already do the hard work. The rest is just being willing to absorb discomfort.

Which, incidentally, might be the most indie thing you can do.

I thought about embedding a Pomplamoose song, but then realized I have no desire to listen to that band. You'll make do with "We Built This City! (On Debts And Booze)," won't you?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Ring Of The Incredible First Impression

The Ring Of The Nibelung by P. Craig Russell is so pretty it hurts. $30 for a ~450 page hardcover, which you can almost certainly find for cheaper on the internet, but it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that penciller P. Craig Russell's lines are delicate and exquisite. It doesn't matter how many years in the making the project took. It doesn't matter that Lovern Kindzierski's colors make P. Craig Russell look like Moebius. It doesn't matter that it's a 400 odd page distillation of a four night long opera (Wagner's 15 hour Ring Cycle) and is therefore not merely an act of tremendous investment but also judicious editing, before anyone titled an editor ever sees it.

I'm passing over all of these things.

I'm only going to talk about the first story page. Because this first story page below is genius.

1) The creation of life compressed into a single page.
2) Wordlessly.
3) The very first thing you see, before panel borders, is a hand, breaking through panels. Panels are how you indicate time, the first thing you see is God's hand, beyond time.
4) Life gives color to the world. In this case, literally, God's hand, and time before life is in blue pencil. Blue pencils are usually used as the rough guides for a penciller, with final inks done in black, with color added after inks. So: Before life, there was no color. Life springs up? Color, brilliant color, greens, yellows and celebratory golds. Actually, if you look closely at panel five, you see the greens and golds in the seedling that springs up from where the water is dropped. Life introduces color into the comic!
5) And you understand it all, instantly.

It's not merely a neat trick, it's a neat trick that tells the story, introduces characters, scale, and setting on the very first page. This will be an epic, in a literal and figurative sense of the word. The next major question,  how the comic compares to the music it is based on, I have no idea. I am only listening to the first track now. Of course, I really ought to be watching a performance but alas, technology can only take us so far.

The trouble with good first impressions is that they make expectations for the rest of what comes very high. The trouble with P. Craig Russell is that he has the talent and vision to live up to the bar he sets.

The Ring Of The Nibelung by P. Craig Russell is $30 and can be bought from Dark Horse's sister retail operation Things From Another Planet and other booksellers. I got mine for $12, at In Stock Trades.

You can guess what this is going to be, I think.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ignore The Jetsons, Dream Impossible Things

Let's get this out of the way: I doubt anyone reading this at the moment of writing will live to see jetpacks, the way our parents' imagination designed them. Aside from the whole jetpacks shoot flame that will char and destroy your legs bit, the vision of the future is largely understood to be the Jetsons. It doesn't matter that the Jetsons was always highly improbable, it imprinted on the (white) cultural imagination. I must pass over afrofuturism for this whole thing to work.

You have seen this on Facebook. "MAN WHERE'S MY FLYING CAR" and so on into infinity.

But as of October 28, 2014, it doesn't really feel like the future. Unless things get worse, my generation's Selma happened this year, Ebola is back, Russia is posturing on the world stage again and Christ only knows what else will come down the pike with the year 2014 appended to it.

Except, of course, for all the things that watch us from the sky, from the cell phones recording our major moves in our pockets and our social networks recording our minor foibles presumably to be hurled at us when we are cornered or weak. Women get bomb threats for having opinions about videogames.

The future, of course, is always gunning for us. It feels that way in my head.

Except for the margins.

I write this on a laptop computer with 500 gigs of memory, not all of it filled by pornography. I write this listening to a mashup of Aphex Twin and Taylor Swift. It's the mashup that feels like the future. Not in either of the parts, but what that last sentence means.

That last sentence is actually crazy, if given time to unpack it.

1) One no longer needs the imprimatur and recording budget of a big label to make music.
2) Recording technology (and what we define as possibilities for music) has advanced to the point where physical instruments are not always required.
3) The availability of music has gone from requiring a physical copy of the release to a free for all, with almost anything instantly available the day of release, if not before.
4) The ability to manipulate audio that already exists is so unremarkable that it comes standard on a Mac, and similar technology can be found for a steal or a lark on the internet.
5) The ability to record music is so pervasive that it comes standard on a Mac and free versions that do mostly the same thing can be found for a steal or a lark on the internet.
6) The ability to isolate and acquire vocals from a particular recording is available to us.
7) One can distribute what they create for a nominal fee or free, via the internet.
8) The end result is inside a genre that already exists and has a name that fits in our cultural imaginary.

Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to hear music from anywhere else, you had to import a copy of a physical release, which assumes, of course, anywhere else could afford to press it and promote it Today? Troll Soundcloud or Bandcamp for twenty minutes. No promises it'll be any good, but you can hear it.

It may be a shitty punk band you'll be listening to (and I say shitty punk band with solidarity and a smile here) but the option is now available. Something incredible will come. The universe will provide it. Which really means some person will have an obsession and get excited and the technology to create it will exist within their grasp, and the ability to distribute it easily will also exist within their grasp.

As for the content of the music, it's whatever. I never listened to Aphex Twin before, but I thought it was supposed to be weirder and more abrasive than what backs Ms. Swift here. Admittedly, I'm charmed by Ms. Swift's lyrics, even if I hurriedly maintain a jaundiced distance.

It doesn't matter what this mashup is comprised of, what matters is that it can be created, distributed and absorbed.

The takeaway: Music in my lifetime has gone from a thing that I must hunt to find and then purchase to a thing that I can find in a minute and a half if it's particularly obscure and be listening to in 45 seconds after that. Understand that and then multiply it for every other physical medium that yet exists on the planet.

Ten years ago, text messages were becoming interesting. Today? Your phone can record video. Ferguson is Selma, on some levels, but we're different people and we do not require a television channel to broadcast what we see. Now you, dear reader, can find a live feed that's more useful and accurate than CNN. How will that change the way we absorb and weigh information in the future?

Shit, Eleven Names founder Zach plays D&D over the internet with porn actresses. Regularly!

For imperial statements about the future, look to New Scientist or the New England Journal Of Medicine or any military weapons publication. Continuing down this path is a terrible idea, and I did that for an hour until I wisely deleted it.

(The thrust of it: I only have maybe twice my years left again if I'm lucky and the rate of technology currently means that what will be available to consumers the year I die will have existed in a nascent form used by military or random science place for 10 years. Or, put dramatically, the future will end for me in my 60s and it'll take until my 70s for it to reach me.)

And, at least outside of HEY WE CAN CURE [DISEASE HERE] NOW it's hardly ever the technology that is the future, it's what we do with it. The future means women can document the men that harass them using technology available in their pockets. The future means I will still die in fifty years, but I can know and process much more information in those fifty years than my parents and their grandparents were able to.

The future means science fiction is being made obsolete faster than it can be written. The future means everything gets more crowded. Everything gets messier, or we're now aware of how messy everything always was. We are granted more options (if from a fire hose) and more ways of seeing the world. Our ability to make a living on weird or non-traditional jobs has increased exponentially, even if the value of "make a living" is still fairly small. You can express yourself in wild, savage colors.

That last sentence feels too easy. Let me rough that up a little. The future means trans persons may be publicly recognized by my country's administrators while I am alive. When I was a teenager, that wasn't even on my radar, and if it was, I don't think I could imagine their suffrage moving forward at this rate now. Moving beyond the provincialism of my own lifespan, I think we'll be in a better place in terms of recognizing other people in a hundred or so years, even if I only get to contribute to and see the first fifty years of that. I can live with that.

Beyond the old Warren Ellis chestnut "the world's a strange place, let's keep it that way," I imagine, or believe exists a larger sprawl of possibilities at the margins. Look at Homestuck. That's a million dollar property, made entirely by a person from a generation that was native to the internet. Tell someone twenty years ago, you'll see a guy writing a dating sim based on his work on a webcomic, and he'll ask you "what's a dating sim, what's a webcomic and more importantly, no fucking way." We didn't get the future that was in our parents imagination, but what we have currently is something pretty exciting.

We won't get to the Jetsons within my lifetime, I think. But I don't really want the Jetsons now. Do you? How small of a future the Jetsons would be now! How limiting! If all we did was go to the same jobs, but the buildings were taller and the cars smaller!

As I was finishing the major strokes of this at 3 am, I typed in the tags Taylor Swift and it already exists here. I hope and imagine it was Emily or Katrina, from 2010-2011 or a lifetime ago, before the massive needle drop of Phonogram into my life. I don't listen to Taylor Swift or Aphex Twin, but this mashup makes me want to start.
This feels a little too hopeful for me, or I imagine a rebuttal of the terrible things I listed at the top of the article are all still true. It is hard to put a cost on inspiration. It can be done, I am sure, but not by me and not now. I'll say two things. ONE: Access was a major factor in what kept the powerful comfortable and that no longer is true. TWO: Empathy changes lives. What grants more empathy is many different firsthand experiences and failing that, art. I'm a better person for having read Phonogram, but I had to pick my jaw up off the floor after I completed a reading of the Nikopol Trilogy. Borges made me kinder. And if we are not the generation to grapple successfully with the military industry complex, then that makes us like every other generation. But we might gain an inch on it, if we push.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Joe Casey And Nathan Fox And Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers And So Much More

"Nathan Fox's art on a Joe Casey story is like getting a million dollars and then finding out you won't have to pay taxes on it." -Bleeding Cool forum user alekesam.

I haven't gushed about Joe Casey or Nathan Fox on this website, and the Captain Victory relaunch is the excuse I'm going to use to do so.

The first order of business is that the colorist on the Captain Victory relaunch, Brad Simpson, is inevitably going to get a short shrift, so that's why he's getting mentioned first. For the Nathan Fox pages, everything looks bright and trippy and wonderful. For the flashbacks done by other artists, or for Off Brand MODOK the colors get muted like they're supposed to. During the main storyline, Simpson's color work is heightens the tension and keeps the mood dialed up at 11, if not 12. Look at the whites and blues in the first panel below.

Casey's a comics writer who'se bibliography and volume means he comes up with something great fairly reliably. Trouble is, he might have to get through two or three bad ideas first. Before Captain Victory, his most recent work I liked, Butcher Baker The Righteous Maker seemed to be Joe Casey saying "fuck it, I'm gonna die on this weirdo comics hill, but just after I plant my flag, let me take potshots at Mike Huddleston, who draws this thing." His next two comics, Sex and The Bounce, (Batman after he gives up the cowl and Spider-Man as a person in 2013, respectively) were unremarkable or straight up bad.

That said, he's been in comics long before that, so he was the other X-Men writer while Morrison was on New X-Men, he did the glorious pacifist Superman arc in Action Comics and also was joined by Ashley Wood on Automatic Kafka. For things Kieron Gillen fans care about, he did Vengeance, which introduced America Chavez as Ms. America and The Ultimate Nullifier, both of whom would go on to be in Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson/Norton's Young Avengers.

He's a lifer and a genuine weirdo in an industry where weirdoes with opinions run the joint. He goes for a kind of vulgar existensialism (see Vengeance or Butcher Baker), and his subversive take on superheroes is, when it's good, a couple degrees to the left of what I expect. I repeat: Pacifist Superman. His dialogue, though, in an attempt to be cool, can be painfully corny in hindsight.

I've never thought about a Joe Casey event comic because what I read of his work tends to have the scale one finds in those things anyway.

But when I like Joe Casey most often is when he's playing off in a corner somewhere and gets to make something weird, and that leads me to Dark Reign: Zodiac, which in turn, leads me to Dark Reign: Zodiac's penciller, Nathan Fox. Nathan Fox's style I'd describe as obviously influenced by Paul Pope, but with a delirious messiness to it that obscures or takes credit over an insane amount of detail. It reads quickly, but if you slow down, you see the hundreds of tiny flourishes.

DR: Zodiac was a blink and you miss it 3 issue mini during the Dark Reign era where Norman Osborn was in charge of just about everything, and the heroes went underground. Osborn's big moment was saying to the other major villains on his level "just don't kill puppies on television and you can do whatever you want."

Joe Casey apparently looked at that and said, "well, not every villain is magically going to be Neutral Evil, so can I get three issues to write Chaotic Evil dudes committed to mayhem?"

And Marvel said yes.

Penciled by Nathan Fox, the series was unabashedly mean-spirited. It included a hospital bombing, the savage beating of Johnny Storm and the on panel dumping of skulls out of a burlap sack (below). The opening scene is the investigation of the severed torsos of 100 H.A.M.M.E.R. agents in a warehouse. Nathan Fox's pencils made the experience messy, ugly and stunning. Yes, the heroes, when they weren't beaten to a pulp looked unblemished, but everyone else looked lived in.

Maybe the best moment was a faked Galactus attack.

The Casey/Fox team would reunite on Haunt for about 10 issues, or as long as it took Todd McFarlane to step away from it and then step back to it, to kill the momentum the new team built up. Before Casey/Fox, it was an Image project involving a future fascistic religion, a priest with the ghost of his brother who was a SWAT team member that had an off-brand Venom symbiote attached to him. Dreamed up by Mr. McFarlane, Robert Kirkman and Greg Capullo, the series was a laborious mess.

Casey/Fox looked at that and said "what if we lean more heavily into the b-movie aspect of the whole thing," and made it Awesome. It got wilder, under the Casey/Fox pencils, and apparently, further away from the vision that Todd McFarlane had for the character. McFarlane would take his toys back later, but those 10 issues were gleeful genre work. To go back to my point about Mr. Fox's delirious messiness and detail, just look at the electronics falling out of the helmets in the third panel.

But that was a long couple years ago and now Casey and Fox are reunited to work on a Jack Kirby revival for Dynamite, Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers.

It's great. Kirby's influence in superhero comics is massive, where any single issue he wrote or drew could have 10 ideas. This being comics, only three of them were worth following up on. Kirby's writing style was bombastic, and while there were tiny details (the man is called The King by the industry today) there were few tiny statements. Kirby's work that reflected Kirby was grand and sweeping.

And here's the thing: Joe Casey knows bombast. Joe Casey knows glorious comics idea that works on the page, but not out loud. It's a fine line between monkey punches robot and Nextwave punches Fin Fang Foom, but Joe Casey has been on the right side of that before, and with Nathan Fox, he's on the right side of it now.

(I pause here to mention Joe Casey's other Kirby comic, Godland, ended last year. Godland's penciller, Thomas Scioli is a dead ringer for Kirby. Godland is the first 100+ issues of the Fantastic Four with the serial numbers filed off, updated for this century, gone wild.)

Assisting Nathan Fox is a murderer's row of alt comix talent, the first issue includes Jim Rugg and Ulises Farinas, the second involves Michel Fiffe and the promotional material says Benjamin Marra, Jim Mahfood and Farel Dalrymple are forthcoming. Nathan Fox draws most of the pages in each issue, while the guests contribute whatever flashback sequences or a scene to add up to a total of 22 pages a month. I think that's what makes Captain Victory so exciting to me personally, is that the pencillers are working outside of their wheelhouse. Yes, they have done superhero jobs before, but their work generally is usually much smaller in scale.

Those pencillers are all talented enough that when they get out of their comfort zones, their work will still be good, and it's in service of a series who's ethos is bombast and crazy ideas, so it'll congeal. It feels new not because it is, but because it's unexpected coming from the people making it.

I did not expect a Jim Rugg Kirby crackle, but those crackles looked real hype when he did draw them. I know Michel Fiffe does COPRA, but that doesn't prepare me for him doing crazy sci-fi.

Captain Victory is the stage and direction I didn't know I wanted to see Casey and Fox tackle. It's hard to imagine a higher compliment.

All images are pencilled by Nathan Fox. Colors: Jose Villarubia (Zodiac), Brad Simpson (Captain Victory) and Ivan Plascencia (Haunt).

Joe Casey might like this one. These Mad Dogs Of Glory by Modern Life Is War. Title says it all, don't you think?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Harassment and Hashtags

I'm not sure what's repeating myself, what's transcendently obvious and what's bandwagon jumping on something that every point I could make has been written about better by people directly affected and deeper in the community than I am. The first 17 minutes of this podcast are instructive.

Here goes: #Gamergate started off as a new edition of an old saw (games journalism is too dependent on personal friendships, inside sources, "exclusives," etc etc), if in fact, it was ever anything more than a way for Zoe Quinn's vindictive ex to get back at her. If I was a teenager now, maybe, if my life zigged and not zagged, I could see getting up in arms about "integrity" but as it stands, I'm not a teenager, so I don't have a lot of patience for the people that keep the hashtag going despite the persons from 4chan and random people interested in mayhem joining the hashtag.

As I did journalism in high school, I'm aware of the limitations of an enthusiast press, especially in a time when people don't want to pay for actual journalism by professionals.

I'm at a loss as to what to say about the persons who terrorize Ms. Quinn. They are the true and willful authors of her degradation, they are doing a thing they likely believe to be directly harmful to a human being. In this respect, they're bad people. I cannot see myself or any of my friends, no matter how warped by circumstance, terrorizing her.

The worst part is of course, the harassment and threats that Ms. Quinn faces hourly, if not minute to minute. The saddest part is that the people who terrorize her, if given distance and I imagine, a couple years to grow up, might be fans of her work. They're terrorizing a game developer, chosen because she's a woman with an opinion they don't like and can be brought via slander into the conversation.

Pause. The second saddest part is that the people who terrorize Ms. Quinn value the mealy and unappetizing present over the possibilities of the future.

Pause again. Were the world two degrees to the left, they're terrorizing a person who might have been their friend.

(Reminder: Terrorizing people is bad. You shouldn't terrorize anybody.)

Harassment of women with opinions will continue to be more visible on the internet, which allows us to recognize it publicly as abhorrent. Before this, the harassment of female developers wasn't so obvious. Given a timeline beyond my lifespan, the sexism will be corrected, slowly. While we live, we push the stone as far along as we can.

The rest is washing up: Ms. Quinn will live with this the rest of her life, regardless of whether she remains in the games industry. Her terrorizers will forget all about this next year. We hope that Ms. Quinn will continue to make games, we understand if she doesn't.

I suspect I'll write this next year and the year after that. I believe the year that I won't be compelled to write this is coming. I do not believe I will live to see it.

"Get the fuck out/here there's no interest in what you're about.../we're here together/we're here to stay" Three's A Party. Kid Dynamite. Short. Fast Loud. Hit play already. This post was edited at 7:30ish pm the same day it was published. It was edited again a couple hours later.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Shadowrun And The Glory

Shadowrun Returns is an cRPG videogame based on the tabletop gaming system of the same name. Shadowrun: Dragonfall is that videogame's expansion. Like most videogames, Dragonfall is the better game, since much of the trouble in making the first game is making sure that the gears and wheels under the hood work, but also, discovering what that game is. But there's one mission of Returns that is more memorable, for the right reasons, than everything from the expansion.

The Shadowrun setting is basically Red Harvest or $106,000 Blood Money dramatized by Lord Of The Rings characters. Death is cheap, people willing to do bad things abound, people willing to do good things usually aren't. Corporations run the world, and everyone employs mercenaries (Shadowrunners) for missions, which usually involve repossessing a rival corp's technology or board member. Often killing and hacking (called decking) are involved.
(A long aside on names. Shadowrun Returns is the base game, but Shadowrun: Dragonfall is the expansion. There's no semicolon in Shadowrun Returns. Ugh. Therefore, I'm referring to the base game as Returns and the expansion as Dragonfall because it makes my life and your reading experience easier.)

I'm going to be spoiling the coolest part of the Returns game, so if you actually intend to play it, turn back now.



It's one of my favorite moments.

I am currently right at the last mission in Dragonfall, so while I have not beat it yet, I feel comfortable talking about Dragonfall as a full experience. Perhaps the story will implode just before the finish line, but so far, the story is a defter thing than its predecessor. There are actual headscratchers in terms of "okay, what am I contracted to do versus what can I do versus what is the right thing to do versus what is the decision the genre demands?" and three or four of those headscratchers in Dragonfall.

But. There's a sequence in Returns that is better than anything in Dragonfall thus far and one that I have never seen on a game table or in a videogame.

The setup is this: You're on a run (what the missions are called) and the run is grab some things from a corp's office, fight through a big headquarters tower to get there. (It's a dungeon, inverted.)

Traditionally, in Shadowrun, these things end in only a couple ways: The party escapes or the party dies. You have variations on the theme (they barely escape with their lives, they escape, but one of them's a traitor, they leave a lot of dead, but a couple get out, they get out with not quite the information they were paid to get, it was a trap) but that's how those things tend to roll.

You die or you leave.

On this run, the group doesn't quite get what they need. That won't help out the customer, but they're so close and they can't wait till the next evening. So what do they do? They have the main character stay in the tower to complete the mission when everyone else shows up tomorrow morning for work.

What you do not do in videogames or Shadowrun, or at least the ones where you're an adventuring group, is stick around. (Unless you're Viscera Cleanup Detail, which, is a game precisely about what you suspect it is but cannot bring yourself to believe, a videogame about cleaning up the corpses left behind by the successful execution of a FPS level.)

The game is get in however you have to, get out however you have to. Returns compels you to stay.

Maybe I'm hyping this up a bit much. There's a save point, so it's technically a success state of one part of the mission and moving on to the next one, but I've never heard of a run continuing into the morning. Ever. 10:30 am in the Shadowrun universe might as well be genuinely unknown territory. Every run happens at night, at least all the ones I'm aware of. You're dead or you leave. You're alive and you're still there is new territory.

Remaining there into the morning completely changes how I feel about the space. That's new! As for the contents of the mission, I won't spoil that, except that it's good genre fun and you get to see the results of your work.

Taken as a whole, Dragonfall is surer. Dragonfall is more dexterous. Dragonfall is better in genre. Dragonfall's challenges are harder and its combat arenas better designed. Dragonfall's NPCs are more textured and one of those NPCs has a genuinely surprising backstory that actually lives up to the talking around it in the first two thirds of the game.

But Dragonfall, at least just before the final boss mission (or what appears to be the final mission) had nothing so daring as a corp building at 10:30 am. Dragonfall is a better videogame. Despite that, in five years, I suspect that I will sooner remember that moment from Returns than I will anything from Dragonfall.

A stand alone directors cut edition of Dragonfall is released September 18 for $15. I think and hope you'll like it.

This song is called Hunting For Witches and it is by Bloc Party. Go.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stray Bullets: All My Friends Were Right

I bought Stray Bullets: The Uber Alles Edition (a one time only $60 collection of the first 41 issues) because three different people told me to do it, each of them coming from a different part of my life.

I'm about 16 issues through and I can say that this is one of the most powerful things I've read in the last five years. Elmore Leonard gives me a vocabulary to speak about these things, but I intuit a very powerful sentimentality in the early portions of the Lapham crime series.

The characters, alone! I'll spoil one story. Amy Racecar is a femme fatale in blue jeans, or a "bad girl" except reading her doesn't make me roll my eyes. She loves a man and does not trust him. The rest is inevitable and impossible to guard against. Of course it ends the way it does. I imagine a further influence of Westlake's (nee Stark) Slayground, though it could just be that the shootout happens in an amusement park.

Virginia Applejack won't take anyone's shit and learns quickly what that means. There are innocent boys given bad educations. There are bad men, in the grand sense, and in the sense of women speaking over drinks.

The characters are children pretending to be adults and adults misbehaving. They are eroded by liquor or sex or cocaine. Handguns make appearances, like movie stars on television. The violence feels real. By which I mean, the violence is never pretty. It is messy, wet and it changes the survivors. There is blood, but it isn't bloody. It is graphic, but not like a Geoff Johns splash page.

Stray Bullets makes me want to re-read Scalped, to see what influence must be there.

There is one major drawback. The binding on my copy of the Uber Alles Edition is abysmal. I described it to one of my friends as being done by an Image Comics intern with a glue gun. I'm aware the price was deliberately kept low, but the pages came unglued within the first thirty minutes of me opening the volume. I wouldn't buy the Uber Alles Edition if I were you, but if you see Stray Bullets on a comixology sale, then blow your money. All of it.

It was Adam writing about Stray Bullets that convinced me to buy the series, at bottom, and if you want convincing, then clicking this link may convince you.

You can read the first four issues for free here.

Patrick Kindlon was one of those three people that recommended I buy Stray Bullets, so a Self Defense Family song about the cops knocking Patrick's house down seems appropriate. "I choked out one word, and that word was 'bastards.'"

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Be Objective

Rebecca and I got together to talk about Ferguson on Sunday afternoon. It felt like things were getting less rugged out there and we had a full week's worth of news to digest. She said that she didn't know how to talk about it, and I suggested a timeline. Suggested is light. I said timeline and then went and yelled about what happened at what particular times for six minutes uninterrupted.

And that's good training from journalism and philosophy. (Yelling at a coffee bar notwithstanding...) Check your work, take individual pieces one at a time and not in big gulps, make connections from one piece to another, always. Back up what you say with facts. All well and good. Little pieces give you a thing to start on and build from. You build long enough like that and you'll have something that'll hold.

It sounded good and felt good on Sunday afternoon. Then, of course came Sunday evening, and it whatever good feeling I had from the conversation disintegrated. A hate group with a long history of murder that I won't link to announced they're going to show up to protect white businesses, whomever the police are this time around (normal St. Louis police? Ferguson police? Those MO state police that actually talked with people?) brought back their military weaponry and the same grisly play happened again.

As I write this, more anarchist collectives from out of town are coming in looking for a fight, against the wishes of the Ferguson community and just no. Please. no. Allegedly, Anonymous said they had something that would "blow up" Ferguson and I can't handle how terrible that statement is. Things down there are pretty blown up enough already. I don't think Ferguson, or the story of the murder of Mike Brown needs more blowing up. It's at that point that "something that'll hold" doesn't feel like enough.

How fucking objective do I need to be when I know that police are pointing guns at innocent people because they can't or won't do the work to walk into the crowd without pointing a gun or brandishing a weapon and distinguish peaceful protesters from looters and opportunists?

Some Luther Arkwright panels say it better than I can.

We've been objective. We know what this is. This is a convergence of:
1) a community knowing that X number of dollars worth of cigars is worth more than a black man's life (paraphrased from something El-P retweeted, IIRC)
2) that same community asking, peacefully, for a meager measure of justice and getting none (paraphrased from something Greg Rucka retweeted, IIRC)
3) the police escalating at almost every single opportunity
4) the police using that escalation as an excuse to crack down with their shiny new anti-terrorism toys
5) the mayor and the governor giving public statements that were either not enough or downright insulting
6) the police choosing to employ anonymity in an attempt to insulate themselves from accountability

Be objective feels like a sick, cruel joke at the expense of the person it is directed at. I don't know who said it was okay, but I just want it to stop, and be objective, it seems, does not get it to stop.

And I know that the careful collection of facts and their dissemination is what gets the bastards. Whomever they are. I want the people who said it was okay for the police to deploy with tear gas and rubber bullets to face a real inquiry. I want the people who gave the order to use those things to face a real inquiry. I want the officers who didn't interview any witnesses to face a real inquiry. I want the officers that used LRADs on those protestors to face a real inquiry. I want the people who decided for these police actions, the officers would go out without their badges or numbers on to face a real inquiry. (And so many more...)

And be objective will help get us there, but right now, God help me, it doesn't feel like enough.

"it's not too late! our kingdom is the earth and sky!" We make the road by walking. Aluminum Union by Strike Anywhere.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Wicked & The Divine, Alone

I think I'm scared to admit I have reservations about The Wicked & The Divine.

It's superficially about gods, but it's really about myth and the stories we tell ourselves to feel more confident.

To dispense with the obvious, the Phonogram team kills it. Everyone's on point, The Wicked & The Divine is a logical extension of the Sandman meets Plan B magazine aesthetic that the team's been aiming at since Siege: Loki. If there is a knock on this comic in my mind, it is not in the panel to panel storytelling.

Gillen/McKelvie-isms are there in abundance.

Head tilted away from a wine glass and a coy comment? Check.
Pop music? Check.
Divinity? Check.

There's a couple things I don't cotton to in issue number one, the first being the reaching out by the pop star and bestowing divinity ("she's really looking at me" v. "these are three chords, now form a band") , the second being Luci.

Luci is the most excellent Gillen/McKelvie-ism so far. Short for Lucifer, she slinks around the first issue, getting /almost/ all of the good lines. In that respect, I imagine her as the team's Spider Jerusalem. Luci is attacked by Christian terrorists and repels them. That said, I am not sure what I would do if the true and willful author of our ultimate degradation (I have finished A Theory Of Justice, yes...) made their appearance known in this world that I live in.

Luci, of course, is also Eleanor Rigby.

Issue two carries with it its own troubles. Lucifer is in prison. Her fingers are bound. Now, we pause. Gods can kill people with snaps of their fingers but apparently fingercuffs are enough to keep them in check? This seems telling. Again, maybe they're setting something up here, but it doesn't follow for me. Maybe I'm supposed to say "There's something off."

And we also find out that before Luci was let us say, anointed, she was a latchkey kid and it makes it harder to dislike this person. Especially when she does not appear to be  Shoot.

Luci isn't my real gripe, though, and what follows is:

The Wicked & The Divine, thus far, recycles something from Gillen and McKelvie's Young Avengers run in each issue. The first time, Luci stood in for Marvel Boy, turning her head back from a blasted open window to deliver a quip.

The second time, Luci straight up uses a Hawkeye line from the very first double page spread of Young Avengers issue one.

Which, okay. Artistic choice. But Christ. The Wicked & The Divine team is good enough that they don't have to do this. Am I missing something?

It feels lazy. It gives off (to me) the vibe of the early Image material. The history of that company which fans politely ignore whenever Image is brought up these days. The beginning, where reskins of better liked superheroes was literally the company line. Using the Young Avengers tricks again reminds me of that shortcut.

Maybe The Wicked & The Divine team is going somewhere with it. I don't know where, but again, I ought to keep that open as a possibility. Maybe it's no more than stealing shots, saying "I could do this better" or a rapper going over whatever the big beat of the month is with their own hot sixteen.

I like The Wicked & The Divine, though. Now that I don't know where the comic is going, I enjoy it.  But I focus on the grains of sand in the lotion because I feel I owe it to myself and my audience (pause for laughter) to acknowledge the things publicly that I talk about with Adam Witt, but also because I hold the Phonogram crew to a high standard. When I talk with Adam, I talk about all the things in Wic/Div that don't work for me. When I talk on the internet, I talk about all the things that do.

At bottom, I want the next thing from Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson. When The Wicked & The Divine clicks, it feels like the next thing. It feels exciting and the comic of this moment of 2014. But when it doesn't? I look for Miss America to punch a guy.

 A little Cursive. "Play it off as stigmata for crossover fans/Some red-handed slight of hand..." That sounds harsher than I intend it to. The song slays, though.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Money. The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

Longtime games writer Simon Parkin has a solution, but first he must convince us there is a problem.

His point in a piece for the New Statesman appears to be "we need to talk about creative successes as much as we talk about financial successes so indie* devs will feel comfortable pushing the boundaries of art."

(Summary is barbarism. I know, I know.)

In context, it's just as presumptuous. The artistic temperament is a thing that will create independent of critical pats on the head. If the further argument is potential devs will get blinded by the tall stacks of indie games dollars, I'm skeptical. If the argument after that one is the devs looking for truly insane amounts of cash or a seven figure PayPal account leave after their first attempt doesn't set them up for life, I'm not sorry to lose their creative energies. If the next argument is "but devs/artists won't create without being told their work is rainbows and unicorn giggles," (and I believe it is) Parkin's got a real low opinion of devs/artists.

Mr. Parkin is wrong four times over:
1) The critical discussion already exists on social media and outlets he no longer writes for.
2) Option paralysis is real and constraints often help jog creativity. (Doom 3's flashlight.)
3) Hearing developers talk about making their business sustainable at a conference for developers is a legitimate topic of inquiry and doesn't preclude serious discussion of craft.
4) "People come into an industry desirous of easy success" isn't a sign of the end times so much as a fact of of life in any human endeavor from art to sewage treatment.

In a comment, Parkin continues, his feature isn't about insulting indie devs, but instead around "the dominant stories around games creation."  Whether that's true or not, it contains the moralizing nugget that artists shouldn't be concerned about earthly lucre, they should instead concern themselves only with the thing that will enrich our lives.

This is precisely the opposite of what we should (I used the word should. I ought to tread lightly.) be telling artists. We should be telling artists, focus on money, not exclusively, but know what you want to say and know what vehicle is most effective in allowing you to subsidize your ability to express yourself. I trust that if you're an indie dev making a game, you're making something you want to make, putting out art into the world that you believe ought to exist in it. Parkin, apparently, does not.

What can you create that you can finish, polish and still have money left over to produce enough copies to sell? Remember: Art is a misnomer. Art is a mantle put on your work by another person. Phillip K. Dick only enjoyed mainstream accolades after his death. The Renaissance masters had patrons. Greek storytellers told stories for food, shelter and coin of the realm. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Yes, make it because it means something to you (I assume "you're" doing that already,) but don't get drawn into an art before commerce discussion.

Worrying only about art doesn't free you up to create, you'd be creating anyway. Perhaps your dreams might appear in higher resolution, but what matters is that those dreams get out at all.

Be cordially mercenary, because Art is fickle, critics even more so and the way you get to keep saying what you want to say is by releasing things. And "focusing on art" does not help with releasing games. And each thing you release, incidentally, is art. Maybe not incredible art. Perhaps not boundary pushing. But small releases grow your confidence so when you do feel your oats, you have the dexterity and experience to push your vision. But first you must get to the point where you have dexterity and experience and that requires money and stability.

To get crass: An unlimited budget without constraints gave us Duke Nukem Forever. A budget of roughly $1.2-1.5 million gave us Shadowrun Returns. It's clear which one is the artistic success, but let's not forget that it's also the financial success, too. Why? Shadowrun has less to recoup and hard knowledge about what they could make given a discrete budget. Harebrained Schemes gets to make another game. 3D Realms doesn't.

Focus on the best work possible within the deadline. Art (or a particularly elegant manifestation of your creative vision) will come as a consequence.
 *indie of course being a marketing term and a funding mechanism.

The title of this piece is a graphic novella by the illustrious Eddie Campbell. You know what this song's gonna be. Art Is Hard, by Cursive.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blissfucker, Alone

Don't let that moron from The Needle Drop fool you: Blissfucker is great.

Darker Handcraft was a record I liked because it wanted you dead and wanted to get to killing you immediately. Since people in genre can recognize Left Hand Path but not Suicide Invoice, Darker Handcraft is a record that got defined with the idea of crust, those three grind-ish songs everyone praises but no one listens to, Evictionaries, and The Facts.

Blissfucker is more sludge. Now, sludge isn't new to Trap Them. Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds is the most obvious one to me, but Drag The Wounds Eternal and Scars Align are also precursors. Maybe Gutterbomb Heaven On The Grid also? What matters is that Trap Them is de-emphasizing grind on their most recent record. And it's hardly that, they're just writing longer, fuller songs!

Yes, there isn't the pulverizing four minute triptych at the end of Blissfucker. There's just that two odd minute blast beat frenzy as the second fucking track. And also the opening to Lungrunners? (And the first two thirds of Former Lining Wide The Walls!) If you want it, Blissfucker's still got you, but it's also doing different things. Ryan McKenney's broken glass yawp is still an assault on the listener's ears, but against the longer, more traditional metal of Blissfucker, his yawp changes the proceedings from ominous to actual danger.

Put differently, his vocals maintain a high threat profile. You can hear producer/engineer Kurt Ballou get more adept at recording by virtue of how clear Mr. McKenney's vocals come through. Mr. McKenney now fully sounds like the night terrors of whatever New Hampshire town he was born in. Mr. Ballou uses the old metal trick of burying the vocals in the mix, giving the listener the impression that they're struggling to get through.

My bandcamp download did not come with a .pdf of the art (and even if it did, band hasn't been putting lyrics in those things since Seizures…), but I'll throw a ten spot on the guess Mr. McKenney is yelling about the empty formalities of family/community ties, the horrors of violence and the broken humans left in the blast radius of war. Maybe zombies? That part I'm less sure of.

What I am sure of, and couldn't tell you why, is that Blissfucker feels like guitarist Brian Izzi's opus. Maybe it's the length. Maybe it's the fact that there's moments of solos, or something like them. Blissfucker feels new, even if I can point to places in earlier records that suggest this shift. Shift is the right word, but I ought to be careful on the emphasis. Trap Them remains a Swedish-style thrash band, anchored by a hardcore punk vocalist.

Blissfucker, as a whole, feels, strange to say, imperial. There's a grandness and scope to Blissfucker which previously was only an ambition in the band's discography. And if metal/hardcore/punk fans hate anything, it's ambition. The storyline of "grind/d-beat band makes another fast, obliterating full length" is easy. From Seizures... into ...Handcraft into Blissfucker, the songs have been getting longer, while maintaining that energy. Seriously. I listened to Seizures... for context. Blissfucker's got it.

It is a shame, of course, that drummer Chris Maggio is no longer with Trap Them. Whether it is my imagination or something approaching truth, his drum work on Darker Handcraft seemed to be hyperactive and kept the Trap Them machine moving at an exhilarating speed. Brad Fickeisen, the new guy, is no slouch himself (is that the second ex-The Red Chord member Trap Them's rotated in?) His steady work in my imagination makes it easier for Mr. Izzi to write his epic, but Mr. Maggio unleashed Trap Them in a way that leaves an impression. At the live show, of course, he fed off of and into Mr. McKenney's boundless, evil energy.

tl;dr Mr. Maggio is missed. Mr. Fickeisen is capable.

Former Lining Wide The Walls hides a melody in the final 40 seconds of the song that is worth the price of admission, upstaged by Mr. Fickeisen's delirious drum fills. The first two+ minutes is a thing I'd like to hear played at half time just to figure out how the hell they do it so precisely.

Seeing Blissfucker as a statement is seductive. Mr. McKenney abandons the "Day [NUMBER]:" portion of song titles, it's been three years since the last one, It's one and one half as long (roughly) as the previous record, there's maybe solos, and there's verbiage in the press release to support the theory. I'll agree, to a point. Less a statement than a reminder?

I know two things: I know Blissfucker isn't what I expected and I know I like it. Blissfucker is the full metal record that they've been threatening to write since The Iconflict. Blissfucker is what we believed and hoped they had in them.

Former Lining Wide The Walls, this time around. I've described it before, but just wait for that glorious, glorious swing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Wicked & The Blissfucker

The time period is late 2010-mid 2011. I am running around Europe, but not nearly enough.

I have two things in my head, Phonogram and Trap Them. I am lost and confused and more or less alone. I go out to Thought Bubble in November 2010 to see the Phonogram team, and some Borges style magic happens. I return to England in April or May 2011,  to see them again at a London comic book convention called Kapow, but to do so, I must miss Trap Them when they come through Rome.

While in London, I have the new Trap Them record Darker Handcraft, and it keeps me settled and together while I navigate the hamster habitat of the Tube. My review of Darker Handcraft ends up being one of the reviews I'm proudest of ever. I got a gift of 10 pounds from Kieron Gillen in November, and felt obligated to pay him back, which was largely the reason I attended Kapow. When I wasn't with friends in London, I had Darker Handcraft and not much else. I found bookstores and waited.

I have to talk about both Blissfucker and The Wicked & The Divine at the same time before I will ever figure out what I think of either of them individually.

The time period is now mid-2014. I live in the United States, but not nearly enough.

I believed Blissfucker and The Wicked & The Divine came out the same week and wrote this hurriedly. A quick Google search tells me Blissfucker came out the week before, meaning I held off on Trap Them for Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie again. Blissfucker is more sludgy than Darker Handcraft, but turbocharged by Ryan McKenney's crusty/d-beat yawp. You will not mistake any part of Blissfucker for drone. The Wicked & The Divine is a more refined (and vulgar) version of that team's recent works.*

In The Wicked & The Divine, heads explode in a pop art fashion, in what I believe highlights the intrusion of visible, but not fully graspable magic into the story's real world. Producer Kurt Ballou understands Blissfucker is a guitar record and lavishes attention on Brian Izzi's instrument. Matthew Wilson's colors on The Wicked & The Divine are flawless. When called upon, they're not merely bright but vivid. I find The Wicked & The Divine's first issue cliffhanger to be underwhelming. A judge (less a character than a object against which Lucifer [nee Luci] can monologue) dies and it appears Lucifer did it. Lucifer claims innocence.
Blissfucker slows down and it works. Darker Handcraft was a record that went for the open, unguarded throat in the first quarter second of the first song. That sets a precedent that Blissfucker does not maintain. The first track, Salted Crypts, introduces itself with a dirge that is all menace. The Wicked & The Divine opens with a full page splash of a hand on a skull. The comic manages to go through a couple different fonts, each feeling correct and precisely placed, so I'm assuming that means letterer Clayton Cowles did his job well.

I didn't know what I was expecting with The Wicked & The Divine, but I ordered it sight unseen. Since then, I read too many interviews so I knew what was coming and that lessened the blow. By comparison, I'd heard three, maybe four songs from Blissfucker and I love it, especially the sludgy parts that aren't what the public thinks of when they think about Trap Them. Trap Them's discography is broader than most people realize (Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds prefigures the 7+ minute Savage Climbers, Bad Nones could be described as a palate cleanser made a full song, see Sordid Earnings) so Blissfucker doesn't entirely wreck the line of best fit. In short, they're still a Swedish thrash band before they are anything else.

But Blissfucker is new and it isn't what a lot of critics were expecting. A crusty/d-beat thrash metal band is not unknown to our ears and is easy to put in a neat little box. (The box is marked "fast drums, no solos, do not color outside the lines.") The Wicked & The Divine is new and it is, with scientific accuracy, what a lot of critics were expecting.

Mouthy dandies with superpowers? Check.
Who happen to be gods? Check.
Meta-commentary on creators and fans? Check.
It's probably about myth**, the importance of producing the largest volume of /your/ work before you die and a few really good costumes? Check, check and check.

Blissfucker is a new taste or at least a different taste from a group known for something else. The Wicked & The Divine is a superior edition of a taste I was expecting. A different review would say that it synthesizes the lessons from Kieron Gillen's more hype Marvel bibliography. But what I really mean is it's an easy jump from Young Avengers into The Wicked & The Divine.

A major piece of the first issue doesn't connect with me for ideological reasons. ("She's looking right at me! I swear, she's looking right at me!" v. "These are three chords, now form a band"***) It connected with a lot of other people, though. And those people love it. It hits their notes and not mine. I suspect that I'll like the comic when it gets more wicked and less divine.

At bottom: I didn't know what to expect with Blissfucker and I liked it. I knew what to expect from The Wicked & The Divine and I criticized it. They're both constructed meticulously. I'd recommend either to casual (and hardcore) fans of the metal genre or the medium of comics. For my part? I'll need to stop reading so many interviews.

One of the conceits of The Wicked & The Divine is that it is about gods that live for two years and then die, to be reincarnated every ninety or so. I'm of the opinion a character called Lucifer has a nefarious plan, so, I'm waiting for that other shoe to drop. While not on Blissfucker, Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds has a line that while it doesn't fit perfectly, fits just nicely enough: "We are the old graves, digging the new." For those people who actually want to listen to Savage Climbers (find it above) and then Dead Fathers... (find it below,) enjoy.

*And yes, I know the next problem is that Blissfucker arrives as a complete package whereas The Wicked & The Divine is one issue of something much, much larger. I'm aware.

**There is a thing here that I am asked to keep quiet about, but I think a friend of mine has the team figured out on a major thing in the comic. I'll copy paste it in when this friend gives the all clear.

*** Before we get to "there's more to music than things with guitars," pretend it reads "here's Fruity Loops and a YouTube tutorial, now write some songs."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Punknews 100

I wrote a couple things for the now-announced Punknews 100. It was an attempt to do a top 100 albums of the years 2000-2010, and it almost came together. This being 2014, people in my ear tell me this thing may finally see the light of day.

I'm mostly posting this to shame the Punknews hivemind to continue to collate the list, because I want to see the discussion that will come of it. If I had the opportunity to write up a list again, it would be very different, but I suspect that's the trouble with lists. There's large swaths that remain the same, but it changes and mutates (or ought to) with breadth of experience and age.

Spelling errors and other things are left intact because, well, that's how they went out.

I was initially bummed that I didn't get a couple of my all-time favorites, but found out later that Jordan got the truly important ones and I'd end up with my personal favorite, Career Suicide, a couple months down the line.

It was an honor to be thought of and included. Thank you, gents.


There's something disarming about Jeff Rosenstock's "inclusive alienation" lyrics that matches the frantically played (and excellently composed) music on Scrambles. The economy sucks, I lost my job, NYC is too expensive, my friends are all successful are turned from self-pitying wankery to a unifying celebration of the freedom and terror of 20-something modern life. The ska-punk framework makes it easy to throw in little touches that humanize the record, whether it's far too many syllables in "(Shut) Up the Punx!!!" or the ODB sample at the end of "25!"

Released for free digitally in early 2009 (and for money physically later that year on tentpole Asian Man Records), Scrambles set punkews commenters on fire not because of how it was released, but because of the content: the synthesis of unapologetic ska-punk, dead on lyrics, overwhelming heart and PBR-lubricated camaraderie. Other records on this list might be more technically proficient, more carefully recorded, more deftly worded, but you know what? Scrambles captures the essential soul and the grimy spirit of punk rock and that comes out crystal clear.

I Am the Movie

In 2003, everyone was incredibly serious. Mall screamo was small enough to drown in the bathtub, Drive-Thru Records approached the height of their ubiquity, Bad Religion was back with a bullet and finally Rise Against, Thrice and Thursday looked at major label waters after Less Than Jake gave the all clear with their most sobering record.

I Am the Movie then, blew up because of its neon colored soul. It was as sincere as anything released that year, but brighter, stranger and more intimate. "The Future Freaks Me Out Out" finally perfects the bedeviling Weezer cum Get Up Kids alchemy, complete with now-mystifying pop-culture references (Will and Grace?) . "My Favorite Accident" is as morose today as it was back then "Don't Call It a Comeback" still breaks land speed records with moog flourishes intact, while "Modern Chemistry" slyly cops to Justin Pierre's half-measures at sobriety.

In its bipolar about-faces between despondent and thrilled, Motion City Soundtrack proved that authenticity comes in more than shades of gray; it also comes in Day-Glo.

the Troubled Stateside 
The Troubled Stateside was Crime In Stereo's Long Island hardcore disc, the moment when they first began to calibrate their own filter through which to view the world.

Vocalist Kristian would stretch his range on later records, but here Crime In Stereo plays with the trappings of the LIHC genre and found there was room to grow and stretch, like the "dying in a hospital"-aesthetic of "Gravity/Grace." But the jewel in The Troubled Stateside crown is the all-encompassing final track, "I, Stateside". In five and a half minutes, the band blitzes through the themes of the last 11 songs, with the chorus, a fevered, supercharged hosanah, "God, please save these troubled states."

The Troubled Stateside is a record that is influenced by living in Bush's America, but remains important today because it could go from macro to micro and back without losing intensity or focus. It's about growing up in a country you thought you knew and not liking what you found, played with nothing held back or close to the vest.


One of Rob Dobi's bleakest design jobs, Ruiner is as straight-forward as its title and "birds attack boy" art would have you believe. Buoyed initially by the release of "Me Vs. Morrissey" on the that year's Warped Tour compilation (like He-Man going through a Chinese phone book, as one critic put it), the question at the time was, the forthcoming Ruiner couldn't be better than Mute Print, could it?

About that: Yes.

The instrumental intro to the opening track, "The King Is Dead" was just a tease: It simply got faster and maintained the intricacy, a display of virtuosity meant only to show the listener they didn't know what's coming. That song's first words are a reference to autoerotic asphyxiation, and the song itself is about committing suicide by hanging from the garage.

The rest of Ruiner was almost equally humorless, most songs memorializing a disintegrating romance with a vulgar, pitiless focus that emitted little emotional light. It's a bummer of a record that way, but the only way you can slow down enough to tell is long after Ruiner finishes and that just means you should play it again.

Career Suicide

Sincerely believed histrionics in bullet points:

-Vulgar without being trite.

-Virtuosity without ostentation.

-Weary, but not exhausted.

-To skate to and to be held by.

-Bad Religion being recorded by Kerry King.

-The final, towering shot in Nitro's brief, nearly unfuckwithable salvo of career making records.

It ain't magic, kid. It's as pedestrian as the culmination of hard work, talent, relentless touring, learning from mistakes, willingness to be in debt and leave lovers. A Wilhelm Scream aren't miracle workers.

Mundane as it is, those are the reasons Career Suicide is so good.

 (Well, that and the Blasting Room.)

 Career Suicide is more intricate because they dared to write the songs they thought would one up Ruiner. It's faster because they had the personnel to sustain it.  It’s surprising because A Wilhelm Scream broke, again, what we thought was their ceiling.

What makes Career Suicide so special is how evenly it blends speed, technical prowess and metric volumes of compressed, focused, gotta-get-it-off-my-chest emotion. The balance of those elements is flawless and the recording sprightly enough to capture it all.

Yeah. Nitro went out on a good one.

The '59 Sound

It starts with the crackle of vinyl, for fuck's sake.

It's really tempting to view The '59 Sound as reactionary, or as if it must be an opposing party to whatever surrounded it in the pop landscape. It isn't. It's a record about girls, Saturday nights, driving, Maria and records. They're dudes that like Springsteen, Miles Davis and Otis Redding more than Rancid and produced a record that reflected those influences.

It really is that simple. The ’59 Sound wormed its way into listeners’ hearts the way hardly anyone ever talks about: great songs played without shame or a knowing wink at the listener at a time when the style isn’t in favor.

There's telling details like the diner staff comping Fallon a side dish with his coffee, waiting for a woman that won't come. With a lyric like "Broken Bones Matilda left a note and a rose…" one simply understands "Film Noir" was titled not only correctly, but also as an aspiration.

Their earnestness paid out beyond their wildest dreams. Springsteen didn't just let Gaslight Anthem kiss his ring, but went one further and joined the band for the title track in Europe during 2009. There are subtler influences and it’s ultimately what makes this uncomplicated record so surprising and resonant. Anyone can get Springsteen, but the Cure on "Old White Lincoln?"

Listen again...

A fully enumerated list of which songs on these records broke my skull open and forced me to think differently about music would keep me here forever, but man, I've been partial to the cane sugar sweetness of Motion City Soundtrack for years, so have the sub two minute banger "Don't Call It A Comeback." WE DON'T LIKE ENDLESS CYCLES...

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