Review: Man Made Object by GoGo Penguin

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Using a limited instrumental palette, GoGo Penguin achieves a both rich and relatable experience in their album Man Made Object. While it is clear that each musician in the group is a jazz virtuoso, they never engage in self-indulgence – a very fresh take on the genre. The music is largely manically energetic, but greatly and deftly varied using light polyrhythms and syncopation, as well as reversion to intentionally simplistic and other times intentionally simple segments. All of this is united by a constant anthemic attitude and live feel, which leads to a very enjoyable listener experience.

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Review: No Man’s Sky

Today’s video game industry has learned to stimulate addictive responses in players through the employment of cheap gathering mechanics and reinforcing “achievement” of things that really aren’t difficult: this is escapism for millions of people who lack agency and power in their real lives. Of course a game like No Man’s Sky – which at its core is about “letting go” – would be hated by those masses who don’t expect video games, but expect “holding on” simulators.

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The gods of consumerism would have all humans believe: “I am not fun. My toys are fun.” No Man’s Sky reverses this in both theming and gameplay, and creates a beautiful and unique experience of wandering. People have complained: “Why can’t we build? There’s no point to go back,” but are deaf to hundreds of in game interactions and text logs that explain an alternate view of reality.maxresdefault-1.jpg

How has the industry bent over for the masses who decry a creative indie game for failing to deliver “What they expect from a game.” Perhaps a strike is in order.

Review: Basses Loaded by (the) Melvins

a2965628692_10.jpgMany reviews are painting this album as unfocused and lacking energy, and are painting the Melvins as drained of art. On the contrary, there is an important distinction between eliciting feelings of foggy weariness and being foggy and weary.

Singing the song of the exhausted skeleton on the cover, the album opens with the lost and alarmed track Decay of Lying, and proceeds to take the listener on a varied journey through downtrodden, curious, bitter, ridiculous, and ecstatic emotions. Lots of this feels like Neurosis’ Times of Grace, but comes from a more punk background.

Even the most stylistic and uncreative tracks have brilliant and thought-provoking moments – like the fade out and fade in at the end of I Want to Tell You that blends into the heavy groove at the beginning of Captain Come Down; this implies a lot of self-awareness and critical thought about the work.

One question I’m struggling with while writing this is: What the hell is with Shaving Cream?

The songs definitely aren’t as integral as other Melvins albums like A Senile Animal, and this is a common line of criticism for Basses Loaded. Critics tend to view artists as convenient objects under a microscope. Once artists create something good, they are decried as failures when they deviate from the course of their past selves; where do you go from the top of a mountain? They have the dangerous choice of risking imperfect change or risking stagnation. In Basses Loaded, they took both risks, and came out with something as fun, ridiculous, and gritty as ever.

Review: Dark Souls 3

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Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are beautiful, deep, and fascinating games. Dark Souls III is a great looking and great feeling game with similar themes and atmosphere to the best in the series, but it is entertainment rather than art.

The world is emotionally compelling and utilizes powerful visual poetry – exemplified by the pilgrim-strewn broken bridge to the high castle, the infinite slaughter of the Undead Legion, the mystery of Archdragon Peak in the distance, and the tormented city of criminals and evangelists – but all of this is somewhat wasted due to linearity in world-scale connectivity; players really feel immersion and understand the scale of a world when they are the ones traversing it, rather than being allowed to warp from bonfire to bonfire. For example, while a player may consciously understand that venturing down from the castle, through the swamp, and into the Cathedral of the Deep is a large decent, the descent will never feel as deep as the crushing weight of the Depths and Blighttown through which players themselves felt the stress of traversing; the warping cheapens the world. While players may still have the option to walk everywhere and never warp, the world in Dark Souls III is not designed for this, so it would feel tedious rather than dreadful, as it did in Dark Souls.

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Gameplay feels tight, satisfying and material. The marketing and design of Dark Souls III heavily rely on multiplayer – the last boss is even a reference to multiplayer culture; however, rather than the awesome roleplaying experience portrayed by the franchise, players are much more likely to face meta-built players wielding dark swords or uchigatanas who play only to win (with or without skill) rather than to experience gameplay. While building characters is part of the game, the re-stat ability cheapens this ability, and allows the highly connected community to find exploitive ways to abuse unavoidable flaws in game design balance. While winning is obviously the objective of any game, it seems unfortunate that a majority of Dark Souls III players fail to answer the questions: is the “game of meta” a game that is worth winning? Why does one choose to play the games they do? Are people really satisfied by winning appearances of games rather than winning games?

Answer these questions yourself! Play some Souls.

 

Review: The Colour in Anything by James Blake

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James Blake presents a very genuine and abstract musical composition in The Colour in Anything – always full of character but never chained by style. The album is best heard listened through as a whole; falsetto vocals, dark watercolor-like pad textures, and massive synths groove together through both polyrhythmic and highly melodic segments that form a very aurally interesting album.

Notably, Blake traces his polyrhythmic and synthetic influence back to the much less chill genre of old Drum & Bass – he samples Acen’s Trip II the Moon in his track Choose Me. This interesting reinterpretation of good music into a new style is a mark of good abstract thinking and creative musicianship. In this way, Blake blends naturalism and heavy synthesis in a way better than any preceding record.

 

Review: We Like it Here by Snarky Puppy

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Although the modern world has a constant s0und track, music has lost much of its depth and feel. However, We Like It Here by Snarky puppy is a refreshing journey into real music and great musicianship. Although the compositions reflect jazz classics and the music of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, it never sacrifices music to style, and maintains an overflowing energy throughout. This is a great album of music for musicians.

Analysis: Modern Jesus by Portugal. the Man

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Portugal. The Man, the rock band from Wasilla, Alaska, known for albums like The Satanic Satanist and Evil Friends, released the music video Modern Jesus on 7 August 2013. Complex and provocative in its tone, the film is assembled from seemingly mismatched candid footage from both cell phones and high definition cameras, capturing an American landscape in a manner that recalls Cormac McCarthy’s aesthetic: “We are come to a world within the world. In these interstitial wastes that the righteous see from car another life dreams.” Modern Jesus represents a commingling of Protestant culture with a particularly American flavor of antireligious egoism.

The music video opens with a graying man walking to in a rust belt city on a cloudy day while a younger man enters a church to sit contemplatively. An energetic synth riff and intricately arpeggiated acoustic guitar accompany the vocal welcome: “Come on in, Take a seat next to me, You know we got, We got what you need” (Rojas). The song swells with triumphant mellotron accompaniment to the hook: “Don’t pray for us, We don’t need no modern Jesus, To roll with us, The only rule we need is never, Giving up, The only faith we have is faith in us” (Rojas). The musical character recalls early prog rock or baroque rock like the Beatles’ White Album but incorporates rhythm and blues instrument timbres and percussion from groups like the Wu Tang Clan; this creates an notably transracial tone that is reflected in the video.

The initial contemplative scene in the church is interrupted by a twerk dance, known as carnality and irreverence, and the film proceeds to feature a candid cast of a wide variety of extremely memorable individuals – teenage punks, biplane pilots, a parade of Indian cowboys, rural southerners, a Wyoming cowboy, a Black crew, bayou dwellers, and a corpse-painted fight club – all engaged in equally memorable activities – training boxing, playing with and shooting assault weapons, performing ATV stunts, dancing to banjo, tending cattle during a blizzard, boating among cyprus, starting fires, and fighting.

Although the film may seem like a random assembly of footage, it was constructed with specific design intentions. The clips were filmed on a roadtrip by the director of everyday people who agreed with the song – that they don’t need a savior such as Jesus. An interview with the band reveals that the song is “a reminder real life is often more interesting than fiction — and that embarking on a creative journey without a plan can often lead to brilliantly unraveling realities” (Hua 1) The video’s composition itself speaks the themes presented in the lyrics.

The song addresses agency with the attitude of American egoism. The song ironically reminds us: “We know that we’re helpless, At least we always assume” but invokes imagery of autonomy and human empowerment – such as passersby saving people in crashed vehicles in a blizzard on I-80 – while lyrically rejecting Jesus, a symbol of savior, and thereby rejecting humanity’s need for salvation in general (Rojas). This theme is especially visible in the last lines of the chorus “The only faith we need is faith in us” (Rojas). While egoism has taken many forms in history, it has found a home with American Protestants, interpreting their Christianity through a bricolage lens of work-ethic mythology, American independance narratives, and hyper-rational philosophies like those of Ayn Rand. Any assertion of independence and self-empowerment in the American context will inevitably relate with this powerful Protestant cultural force.

Contrarily, the song presents objections to consumerism, modern medicine, and oil – in some ways cornerstones of 21st century America. “You don’t need sympathy, They got a pill for everything,” They sing in the a rainy and distressed urban landscape (Rojas).  While climbing on oil rigs and filming the fires that burn atop refineries, they reassure the disenfranchised dwellers of the rust-belt ruins: “You don’t need to feel blue, Cause we won’t sell you nothing, You can’t use” (Rojas). However, upon the word “use” the fight club begins smashing construction materials on and with each-other’s bodies. Dissatisfaction with consumerism and oil-economy is something of a group trait for young American atheists – smashing the modern products of this industry is a fitting activity in broader the trend.

While the video contains rebellious elements, its existence is influenced by the Protestant worldview that shapes much of American culture; it still talks in terms of prayer, heaven, and hell, as well as addressing existential concerns that may be seen as deriving from the Protestant worldview, and addresses concerns from these influences in a similar framework to atheist philosophers like Nietzsche and Camus. Well-stated in the anti-Western perspective of Vine Deloria, “Nietzsche foresaw that a tragic breakdown in both vision and values was occurring in the psyche of [Christians]. [He] attempted to solve the problem of decay inherent with the passage of time within the Western vision of the world.” In spite of Modern Jesus’ purported anti-religion, it exhibits these concerns about temporality that may emerge from Christian worldview: “We’re the ones who start little fires, Yet they burn out, But when they’re on the rise, They can’t help but shine” (Rojas).  Similarly, Modern Jesus approaches death anxiety by invoking imagery of oblivion rather than afterlife: “Just take that dark cloud, Ring it out to wash it down, And when the wave approaches, Take our ashes to the ocean” (Rojas). The song’s reference to having drinks at Heaven’s Gate, emphasizing religion as a suicide vehicle, is not unlike Camus’ understanding of religion as intellectual suicide to escape the fundamental challenges of existence.

Even when individuals do not ascribe to the mainstream cultural and religious framework of their time and place, they will often approach the concerns and questions of that framework in some way rather than reject the questions of the framework altogether. In this way, a song rejecting Jesus may be seen as maintaining a distinctly Protestant American perspective.

 

 

Citation:

McCarthy, C. (1979). Suttree. Random House.

Deloria, V. (1973). God is red. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Hua, V. (2013, August 14). Portugal. The Man – Modern Jesus Music Video (MV of the Week Interview w/ Zach Carothers). Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://www.redefinemag.com/2013/portugal-the-man-modern-jesus-music-video-zach-carothers-band-interview/

Rojas, A. (2013, August 07). Portugal.The Man – Modern Jesus [Official Music Video]. from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8e1sSNsf44

Review: Salt and Sanctuary

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“This is not dark salt,” claimed a player message at the beachhead of Salt and Sanctuary. Well, I beg to differ. Salt and Sanctuary is the most obvious and shameless Souls clone yet. But hey, it’s pretty fun. Nonetheless, let’s dig in to some criticism (from the perspective that the game is a Souls clone rather and a thing-unto-itself)

Graphics

How is a player supposed to take an anime-haired fish seriously as a protagonist in a dark and supposedly scary world? The jerky, puppet like animation (probably from Spriter) ruined any sense of connection I had to my character – I felt like I might as well go play with paper dolls. A key part of any Souls game is pride in character development and fashion.

The painted graphics looked pretty cool, but with all the bloom, transparencies, and shadow effects, the result became pretty unreadable at times. Often the torch didn’t help this problem, indicating it wasn’t an intentional game mechanic.

Writing

The text is idiomatic and pretty shallow.  This makes me wonder if the writer’s ever really done anything – let alone done anything depicted in the game. The tragedy of a good Souls NPCs is derived from the player becoming attached to them; the characters in Salt and Sanctuary are idiots and pricks – no one would care if they died. I tried to kill them, but nope – the game wouldn’t allow it. The game keeps them alive as if to parade some token imagery of tragedy in front of the player.

Another important strength of the Souls games was their self-determination. Salt and Sanctuary’s opening injunction: “I must save the princess” was paper thin – what if my character didn’t care to save the princess? Why give us so many roleplaying options in the form of homelands and covenants if the game will put words into the player’s mouth less than a minute later?

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Combat

The combat hardly gets past hack-and-slash. It’s fun, but feels a bit immaterial unless you’re wielding an much-too-large sword. This may be due to a stamina mechanic, that rather than gradually recharge, stamina waits a moment after a combo to recharge completely. This leads to more hack-and-slash, combo/stunlock approach to fighting, rather than calculation.

World

The Sanctuaries and their covenant-specific decoration are amazingly effective.

The exploration is engaging – found myself curious to find what’s next, but this all fell apart with fast traveling. The travel mechanic kept players from getting intimate with the level topology, and thereby keeps them from “living in” the world completely.

Nonetheless, Salt and Sanctuary is a fun addition to any Souls collection.

 

Review: Gore by Deftones

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Gore is disappointing a lot of Deftones fans. “This isn’t Deftones man,” they say. Devoid of hooks, the album is also failing to penetrate into mainstream music. In spite of this reception, this album balances on a knife’s edge in style, and has very pleasing composition.

In a time when metal is stale, stylized and overproduced, this album maintains a genuine feel and candid musicality. The tone is nicely rough, almost like it’s from the 90s, but it never acts like it’s from the 90s; it sounds like a universal, timeless Deftones – they’re just downtuned and making music.

The album is composed to be listened through in one sitting; it moves from palm-muted grooves to formless choruses to contemplative clean riffs to heroic battle-charges. The composition is united by rhythmic themes of dotted notes (threes) and non-dotted notes (twos) in polyrhythms, 5/4 times, and two-against-three contrasting rhythms to achieve natural and pleasant grooves. It does so without the wanky attitude that killed djent.

I’ve never been a proper Deftones fan; maybe that’s why I’m open to their experimentation within their musical career. Careful fans: if you view your idols as statues, they will become the stale trivialities you rebelled against in your younger years.

Thanks Deftones.