29 December 2005

Got Seinfeld For Christmas!

Yes indeed, folks. First new post in over a month, and it's a stupid chatty 'dear diary' kind of missive to self, which is likely indication of an inevitable slide into the (low) quality zone of all other Blogoleums.

Sorry, but you knew it was going to happen sometime.

So yeah, I got Seinfeld, seasons 5 and 6, on DVD. Seinfeld is my favourite - and the greatest ever - programme, certainly in my lifetime. Basic thing about it is that it's a sort of vehicle, sort of ensemble situation comedy show. Thing is, the comedian for whom the show was named is the worst actor on it, and the situation, famously, is that it is 'about nothing'.

Originally, it was devised as 'two comedians go through everyday life, and then comment on it in an episode-ending stand-up segment'. And at first it was. Then the stand-up was used as a sort-of-related bookending device. I think by season 7 they had abolished it entirely, instead focusing on the actual events. Ended up quite minimalist, actually. The intro sequence was just a Seinfeld musical jingle that lasted all of five seconds, and the 'Seinfeld' logo in the corner of the screen. Nice one.

Anyway, I'm not going to go in depth, for much the same reason I choose not to review Through Silver In Blood - I'd go on forever. And I'm long-winded enough as it is.

I'll just say that I'm really happy with this set, as these seasons are possibly the apex of the show (though it was greatness from - arguably - season four til it finished) in terms of quality. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are really great writers/producers, and it seems everyone on their team was ridiculously skilled. I was half-expecting the programme to have dropped a bit in my perception with the passage of time, but if anything my time working in telly has led me to appreciate it even more than I did. The writing is just so goddamn tight and brilliant.

In fact, this is essentially the programme that made me think, about a decade ago, that this was what I want to do with my life; hopefully I will. I'll keep writing and see what happens, anyway.

So, the point of this post? No idea. Just that I got 46 episodes of Seinfeld on DVD and they are pretty much all excelllent. Not that I've watched them all since Christmas, mind. Maybe I'll write one or two in-depth looks at episodes at some point.

Like I don't have enough half-finished blog missions as it is...

25 November 2005

Film Review: Phantoms (1998)

Saw this last night on the television, and was very pleasantly surprised. I was flicking through the channels and I saw Rose McGowan get out of a car and figured I could watch for a few minutes.

The film was just starting, and I noticed Dean Koontz wrote it, so I decided to stay with it to see what kind of a screenplay he would put together, if nothing else. Turns out this was really a rather good film, certainly for one I don’t recall being released.

The film itself was nothing we haven’t seen before for a ‘scary film’; lone party of young, attractive people against some unnameable, unseen, malevolent force. Members of the party get picked off, and eventually there’s a point when they figure out their would-be nemesis and vanquish it. Along the way, we have deserted places, hallucinations and quiet to LOUD surprises, which are signposted by carefully-moving characters and swells in the soundtrack.

However, this was carried out with aplomb for the most part. The characters were, by and large, sympathetic (even that played by Ben Affleck, which caught me by surprise), and the one who really wasn’t sympathetic was both not long for this world, and became an avatar of the malevolence.

This latter character, Deputy Stuart Wargle, was slightly odd in his seeming sexual preference for… everything. The women he was supposed to be protecting, corpses – this and his odd way of talking were never really explained. Then he got eaten by a giant moth.

Besides that, the basic premise was that this malevolent entity, or ‘Ancient Evil’ (which for the purposes of conciseness I shall call ‘Nigel’) killed off a town-full of people. It turns out that Nigel was responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs, as well as ancient Mayans, and it was about to kill the human race.

Nigel does this by absorbing and assimilating living things. So when it has absorbed a person, Nigel takes on all their knowledge and memory – even dreams. The more Nigel absorbs, the more it learns, and gets more powerful. Like a really big tapeworm, according to Dr. Timothy Flyte, played by Peter O'Toole.

There seem to be one or two issues arising from this. Early on, for example, Affleck’s character sees the phantom of a boy in a wardrobe, holding a gun. It transpires that his big secret is that he killed a young boy who he thought was holding a gun, but it turned out to be a toy.

This is all well and good as a reason for being demoted from the FBI to a small town called Snowfield. However, Nigel never absorbed our man Affleck, so how would it know this? It doesn’t seem to make sense in the internal logic of the film.

Another issue is the special effects of the film. When Nigel finally made himself visible for the final showdown, it is very obviously computer-generated, which hurts my suspension of disbelief. The ending is also rather the anti-climax.

It’s very nice that Affleck can confront his demons and move on, but the fact that it seemingly took so little to kill Nigel after all their earlier attempts is questionable. Koontz takes the easy way out by reintroducing Wargle (now an avatar for Nigel) in a new town, suggesting that Nigel never dies. This is a bit of a cop-out if you ask me.

Still, what is there works. The suspense is built well, with some delayed pay-off forcing the viewer out of complacency. The cheap shocks are as well-worked as one would expect from someone as experienced in the arts as Koontz.

Apart from the above issues, the film works, in terms of the setting and the sense that our protagonists are, for the most part, powerless against Nigel. Until they start making plans for him, at any rate…

This is recommended to fans of the horror genre, as it plays well on a lot of fears, such as the unknown, abandonment and, err, decapitation. The scares are varied from slow-build to noisy, frenzied attacks and at no point does it drag. Probably not one to watch more than once though.

17 November 2005

Rest in Peace, Eddy Guerrero

So, Eddy’s dead. Being a wrestling fan for years, I had grown not really ‘used’, but slightly desensitised to the passing on of professional wrestlers. With few exceptions, though, it had been either really old stars or the worryingly increasing trend of wrestlers I watched as a kid about fifteen years ago.

They would be people like ‘Mr. Perfect’ Curt Hennig, the ‘British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith, Michael Hegstrand (Hawk from Legion of Doom), or the Big Boss Man, Ray Traylor. These were all people I grew up with, people I was watching when I was ten years old. When they died, I was very saddened, as it’s like a part of your childhood is scarred.

This was different.

Eddy was (and the past tense still seems weird) a current star. He was WWE champion last year, and has consistently been the best performer in the company for the past few years. Mention had been made in the past twelve months of his need to get time off, as his body and mind were under strain to the extent that he was ailing. So he was pulled from the main event scene, but continued to perform.

Truth be told, I haven’t been watching the wrestling this year. A combination of poor writing and generally mediocre performers had turned me off, but I always paid attention to what Eddy was doing. He could be relied upon to bring the goods.

With experience in many different styles of pro-wrestling, from the Mexican Lucha heritage of his youth, through the realistic Japanese style to the more exaggerated, storytelling American method. By the end of his career, he was at a stage where he could incorporate all manner of influences into his performance. Not only did he excel in the ring, but the portrayal of his character outside the ring was also brilliant. He had a way of drawing audiences into his character with his mic. Work, and his interviews and promos were always either as entertaining or affecting as he intended.

Whether it was the 2002 ‘heel’ Eddy recounting how he regained his once lost ‘Latino-ism’, blasting The Rock in an incredibly venomous encounter, or his sympathetic ‘baby-face’ work (which encompassed anything from comedy work with his nephew Chavo to emotive monologues about overcoming the demons of drugs), Eddy was invariably the highlight of any given show.

It was these ‘demons’ which haunted Eddy throughout his life. As with most professional wrestlers, life on the road was hard for Eddy and he sought solace in drink and various other substances. His addictive personality meant these substances became more than merely recreational. His issues were so severe that he was released from his contract with the then World Wrestling Federation.

Over time, he managed to deal with these issues, became a religious man and, now clean, was allowed back into the WWF fold. I only started really appreciating him when he returned to the company in 2002. I remember he entered the arena during a Rob Van Dam match and I instinctively cheered for him. My friend who was new to wrestling and had only seen Eddy’s storylines with the infamous Chyna wondered what the fuss was about, and then following their ensuing matches he knew precisely why I popped. Eddy was just bloody brilliant.

I loved that heel Eddy of spring-summer 2002. He was so cold-blooded and entertaining. I especially loved when he teamed up with long-time friend Chris Benoit, who was returning from a neck injury.

Once they united I knew I was in for a treat on my TV that year. That, to me, was what wrestling was all about. They did numbers on people on Raw (like the 45-second match with Bubba in July), and the peak of that ‘evil’ persona was a challenge of then-WWE Undisputed Champion, The Rock.

Rock was doing one of his usual promos, and Eddy interrupted him. It was this interruption that showed me Eddy was now a force on the mic., and the ensuing promo was even immortalised in a SmackDown game. Eddy described how he was tucking his kids into bed, and noticed that along with a picture of their hero (Eddy Guerrero) was a 'poster! Of the Rock!'. So, with increasing anger and insanity, Eddy recounted how he took that poster down, ripped it up, 'AND I BURNED IT~!'.

Rock took umbrage to that, and they had a non-title match, which ruled about as much as a 10-minuter can. The stipulation was that if Eddy won, he would get a title shot. As Eddy lost, I was disappointed I wouldn't get a 20-minute main event match. That disappointment wasn't to last long, as Eddy was destined for even better things. I went crazy when he and Benoit turned up on SmackDown the next week. As that was the same time as Lesnar and Rey debuting on the show, I was stoked.

The angle they had at that time, running interference for Steph was gold. I shall never forget the show when they kept battering people randomly. I think Lesnar called out Rock, and they attacked him on the aisle. Another time that show, the cameras cut to the traditional 'superstar enters the building', and it was Edge. Fair enough, I thought, but then Eddy and Benoit blitzed him. That, of course, set up the brilliant tag match, and Eddy would later carry Edge to the best matches of his career.

Following these matches, Eddy started teaming with his nephew, Chavo Guerrero Jr. as a team they were great, as they were not only extremely proficient wrestlers, but their characters complemented each other perfectly, and they had an engaging ‘Lie, cheat and steal’ gimmick. While they were ostensibly bad guys, or ‘heels’, they were starting to garner audience support, and this trend was due to continue for the rest of his life.

When the team was curtailed due to an injury to Chavo, Eddy teamed with Tajiri, another excellent wrestler. At one point, Eddy turned on Tajiri, ‘injuring’ him on the low rider car they drove to the ring. However, rather than boo, the people cheered.

Eddy gave a sarcastic apology for his actions the following week, and the audience lapped it up – finally the masses were realising what the ‘hardcore’ fans had known for years. Eddy could do no wrong.

Even when feuding with hot young stars such as John Cena, Eddy was always the fan favourite. And it was in this context that he was also having great matches - with everyone. He was having classics with wrestlers who were good anyway, like Rey Misterio. In fact, they had a very emotional feud for months.

Another big feud was his 2004 programme with John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield. Layfield was a wrestler who had never main evented before, and few saw that potential in him. But it was Eddy who suggested John be given a shot, and so they worked with each other for months. The feud resulted in some of the greatest matches in company history (specifically a bloodbath at May’s Judgement Day), but also showed the fans that Layfield was a main event-calibre performer. And it took Eddy for all of that to happen.

So, to think that Eddy has been cut down at his very prime is the heartbreaker. He had turned his life around for his wife and children. He had kicked the substance abuse to the kerb, and reached the pinnacle of his powers. He was touching people the world over, from his family to his legions of fans, and even changed the lives of those wrestlers around him.

While it is often the case for people to wax nostalgic about a fallen peer, and to wear those rose-tinted spectacles, it was literally the case that everyone liked Eddy. And the fact that he was found lifeless in his hotel room, just when it seemed life was on course for him, is utterly tragic.

However, while the physical Eduardo Guerrero is at an end, his soul and memory will live on for generations. Those who knew him, and those who were just fans will look back on Eddy with love, for he was one of the very best performers of his time.

21 September 2005

Pixies Gig Thoughts

from http://www.tearusapart.com/soundtracking_/

The last gig I went to was on the first of this month, and in the capital of this country. It concerned a former 'alternative' band (and once-former band) going by the name of The Pixies.

It was very good. They played a surprising amount of Trompe le Monde, which is an album I enjoy when I hear it, but am not that familiar with. Funny; I started out right in the front. Right in the frenzy of all the Pixie lovers (I like them, but they are far from my favourite band), and it was great. except everyone was enjoying it more than I was. And because I wasn't all that familiar with the songs playing at that point, I decided to take a breather. Get a glass of water or something, and then I could rejoin the huddled masses when songs more beknownst to me would be ringing out above our heads.

It was after about two literal minutes of walking - nay, struggling - through the crowd that I realised I had no money on me, and water was at least a twospot. 'Fair enough', I done thunk, 'I shall sup from the taps in the bathroom'. So I was forcing myself against the tide of humanity, and my trailing leg was getting really tired - as was I from the constant desire to be polite and not just barge past people.

As I figured there was no way I was going to actually escape this crowd til the end of the set, and I had traversed too far to actually backtrack to my friends and the action, and they started playing 'In Heaven' (aka 'the woman in the radiator song'), I dejectedly stopped where I was and attempted to make the best of a bad situation. I was, after all, seeing the legendary Pixies!

By this point they were playing all the songs a non-obsessed heathen such as I would consider favourites. Velouria, Monkey Gone to Heaven, Debaser (odd, because I hated that song at the time of release) and the other obvious choices, but I was feeling isolated. Isolated from those with whom I had travelled, or was staying with. From the glorious pit and those skinny, flailing indie limbs. From being able to see the beads or torrents of sweat emanating from the generous dimensions of Frank Black.

Ah well, you live and learn. And they didn't play my favourite Pixies song of them all...

18 September 2005

Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994)

Hailed usually as the band's magnum opus (this, or their 1991 album Badmotorfinger), Superunknown is indeed a great album. In my opinion not quite their best, but it nevertheless remains a classic rock album of the last twenty years, with a number of widely-recognised songs and riffs.

Presumably semi-famous for the fact that it received five stars out of five in British mainstream music magazine ‘Q’ (back when albums hardly ever received such a rating therein, and was therefore seen as a major surprise. Also before the rating was bestowed onto such diabolical pieces of tat as Oasis’ Be Here Now and Fat of the Land, by the Prodigy), the album was indeed lauded by most, if not all, rock circles. Noted rock journalist Nick Terry once wrote that this was one of their ‘bombastic and shit’ albums, but such a point was lacking in anything to back it up.

Ostensibly one of the pivotal albums of the Grunge generation, it is very arguable as to whether it even qualifies as a Grunge album. Granted, Soundgarden (along with the likes of Melvins and Green River) represent the most famous of the original Grunge bands, exemplified by their presence on the famous Deep Six compilation of the mid-nineteen-eighties. They were also the first of the bands in the scene to make it big and sign to a major (A&M).

However, times change, and the Soundgarden of a decade later is a different beast indeed. Classic Rock in the greatest sense (they were often given the moniker ‘the Led Zeppelin of the nineties’), they had transcended the trappings of the scene, and had become a varied, dynamic band of great imagination. The trend (as it was by that stage) was also becoming dry anyway, and scene icon Kurt Cobain was about a month away from ending it in the most tragic of ways.

As the band was no doubt aware of the stagnation of the trend, they delivered an album that was – and is – an epic journey through different strains of rock, which was polished enough to sound really good, with excellent vocals and musicianship, but not so much that it sounded clinical or over-processed.

Opener ‘Let Me Drown’ sets out their stall as well as can be imagined. Not a note is wasted as they kick off with a killer and catchy riff. The lyrics are enigmatic enough to play Rorschach, while also being cool enough to sing along with. The chorus is soaring and aggressive – if Led Zep it be, it has been bolstered by gym time. Even transient elements of the song (such as the ‘Yeeeah!’ uttered in the midst of the chorus) are spot-on.

One thing Cornell has had an innate knack for, even as late as his Audioslave days – is that ability to draw the listener into his vocal in a visceral way. He usually achieves this by changing key. He blasts out a higher key in such a way that he pulls the listener through the ceiling with him – not just in terms of notes, but in feeling and energy. ‘So heal my wound without a trace… AND SEAL MY TOMB WITHOUT MY FACE!’ from the opener is a fine example of this.

The dynamic swings on this album are another attribute justifying its mantle of ‘classic’. Next song ‘My Wave’ maintains the hard-rocking aesthetic, with the bass-y, catchy riffing remaining, but accompanied by a far poppier overall feel. The snarling testosterone is largely replaced by a layered pop melody, which is augmented by higher guitar melodies and more prominent basslines.

Neither of these can prepare the listener for the sheer melancholy of ‘Fell on Black Days’. Riding a riff which repeats its way into your very psyche, the lyrics tenderly describe a feeling of, not so much self loathing per se, as utter disappointment at the narrator’s life. All he has sought to achieve has not only failed to come to fruition, but the opposite has been the case. There is such resigned quietness to the vocal in the verse that the listener truly believes such lines as:

Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now,
And whomsoever I’ve cradled, I’ve put you down.
I’m a searchlight soul they say, but I can’t see it in the night,
I’m only faking when I get it right.

This brand of melancholy is revisited twice later in the album by ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ and ‘Like Suicide’, which are not as exquisite, but are still excellent songs in their own right.

The former song continues what is something of a recurring theme on the album – that of failure. In this song, an otherwise jaunty melody is belied by the fact that Cornell ‘woke the same as any other day’, but ‘should have stayed in bed’. That ability to being the listener with him is very effective in the last time he sings about how he ‘wallowed in the blood and mud with all the other pigs, and I knew that I was a liar’.

Not all is musically perfect here, though. The primary matter for criticism of this album would be, as with its follow-up (Down on the Upside, 1996), the sheer size of it. The general quality of song is of such a high standard that the amount of content is welcome, but the quality of the piece as an album suffers somewhat.

While mid-album, mid-paced, songs such as ‘Head Down’ and the title track are very good, they do result in the album dragging a tad – especially sandwiched betwixt the stunning opening salvo and the singles that follow. Similarly, some songs like the neither here nor there ‘Half’ sound like they’d be more comfortable as a b-side.

The aforementioned singles would be the famous ‘Black Hole Sun’, and the closest to Sabbath tribute, ‘Spoonman’, with its excellent, hammering, riff. ‘Black Hole Sun’ is the hook-filled pop song of the album, with accompanying iconic video, and is a very effective centrepiece which signals quite how much they had grown in their first decade.

The songs get very interesting near the end of the album. ‘Limo Wreck’ is a dark, detached piece, very exacting in its guitar melody and cold in execution. The opening riff is all moody suggestion and harmonics that rise, as if to escape the claustrophobia of the song. The song lurches down its track, guitars scrape and grind, as Cornell threatens that ‘I'm the wreck of you / I'm the death of you all’.

‘Kickstand’ offers short, punky, relief, as it motors on of its own volition, but it leads the listener into the mire that is ‘4th of July’. Apparently inspired by witnessing the fireworks while tripping on LSD, this is the closest the band comes to revisiting their Grunge roots. The riff is slow, sludgy and menacing, the vocals resigned and sober. The imagery is spectacular, as it describes the ultimate in anti-celebration:

And I heard it in the wind,
And I saw it in the sky.
And I thought it was the end,
And I thought it was the 4th of July.

Cornell sings about how ‘the fire is spreading’, as ‘Jesus tries to crack a smile beneath another shovel-load’. This psychedelic imagery of fear and apocalypse works really well over the sociopathic backing, and culminates in the order to ‘Light a Roman candle / And hold it in your hand’, as Cornell is ‘in the fall-out’.

‘Like Suicide’, as its title implies, is more elegiac in nature. Slowly unfolding and developing over its seven minutes, it concerns what one might conclude is lost love. ‘She lived like a murder / But she died / Just like suicide’, he sings, as he makes the musical journey from sombre examination to utterly emotive howls of anguish. It’s a fitting and effective album closer.

This is an undoubtedly great album. As stated, the prime flaw is the bands desire to be as all encompassing as possible, which does hurt the flow of the album. One or two songs don’t need to be there, but as a whole, this is an album hard to argue with. It goes without saying that this is a necessity for any fan of modern rock, and a strong candidate for best album of 1994.

20 August 2005

Tool vs. Tool: An Introduction

Since mid-may 2001, the debate has raged on: which album by rock band Tool is best – 1996’s Ænima, or the band’s last album, Lateralus, from 2001. If you ask me, they’re both classic albums from the best major label band of the past decade or so, and that’s fine with me. Interrogate me, and I will admit a preference for Ænima. But why is that, and what is there to recommend these two albums anyway? Among the blather in this set of posts, I’ll be taking a look at each album, what makes them work, and comparing them directly.

I suppose I should do this chronologically, and get with the Ænima action. But before I do, a bit of history...

The band formed pretty much at the start of the 1990’s, in Los Angeles. They released an E.P., Opiate, in 1992, which was definitely a good start. However, it gave little indication of how good the band would become, and rock peers such as Kyuss, Faith No More and Soundgarden pretty definitively outshined it. Still, it was good stuff, and more than merely a curio.

The following year, their debut full-length emerged, named Undertow – it was a positive evolutionary step in pretty much every way. The guitar sound replaced the clean, clinical aesthetic with a slightly sludgier one, albeit still of that very thin, early-90s timbre. Interestingly, they would develop that ostensible shortcoming to their advantage on later albums. The songs themselves stretched out to around six or seven minutes apiece, from which they really benefited.

The ideas were able to breathe more easily within less strict structures, leading to songs like the Melvins-inspired ‘Flood’, which was sludge build for most of its duration. ‘Disgustipation’ was stranger still, as vocalist Maynard James Keenan took on the role of surrealist preacher, and also felt the need to proclaim that ‘this… is… necessary’.

This is not to say the album was devoid of ‘normal’ songs. ‘Prison Sex’ was a key development in the sound of Tool. Some very unsettling lyrics (‘I have found some kind of temporary sanity in this shit, blood and cum on my hands’) reside over a surprisingly jaunty rhythm. Much like Faith No More were successfully doing, this seems to be an attempt to bring the subversive into mainstream rock. Artistically, it was a resounding success, if not so much on a commercial level.

‘Sober’ was another strikingly affective song, and very stark in its instrumentation. It was a bleak account of low self-esteem/depression, and while this sort of thing can often sound formulaic and contrived, ‘Sober’ avoids this through utter honesty of emotion. It’s a seeming sonic precursor to Soundgarden’s classic ‘Fell On Black Days’, from the following year, in terms of lyrical themes and the nagging, insistent riff. It differs in the fact that, while their Seattle peers imbued their song with warmth of production, ‘Sober’ was utterly desolate. Instead of Cornell’s bittersweet ‘I’m only faking when I get it right’, Keenan had offered ‘I am just a worthless liar / I am just an imbecile. There was seemingly no payoff in the song, and pretty much in the entire album.

However, it seemed to work. Here was a band which, avoiding the journalistic pitfalls that befell Seattle bands, and with a more overtly intellectual (for better or worse) angle than the likes of Porno For Pyros or Rage Against The Machine, found a niche of its own. It was a niche they would be free to develop over the coming years, through peer acceptance (Henry Rollins was an ally, appearing on their song ‘Bottom’, as well as taking them on tour), and the greater world opening its eyes to them. Profile was low, but all was soon to change.

And change it did, in 1996, upon the release of Ænima. In the next post, I shall be looking at the first of the brace of albums that will go head-to-head.

Cave In

So, have they split up or not?

Their website makes mention of a new album, but it's composed of the songs that have been doing the rounds in demo form for the last few months, and were originally recorded ages ago. Are they done? As time goes on, I find myself appreciating their last album, Antenna, more and more. Is this because the disappointment at nothing being able to follow Jupiter quality-wise has subsided, or because I fear they are done and I should make the most of what I have?

Who knows, but I'm digging their stuff - from 'Crossbearer' to 'Prognosis'.

03 July 2005

Kyuss - Blues For The Red Sun (1992)

So this'll be my album of 1992.

Relistened to it the other day, and it's fucking marvellous. I recall Morat at the time saying how Soundgarden should be running scared, and with good reason. This was everything they were at the time, just a lot more of it.

It's about as cool as music gets for me. Production good enough to hear all the instruments, but bad enough to maintain that 'don't give a fuck' edge. Guitars that boom and shred at the same time. Sabbathy and punky, and - most of all - Hommey. Vocals that snarl and scream, but all the while utterly melodic. John Garcia is the best rock vocalist at that point in time. And the bass - that massive, enveloping bass. That's what truly set this band apart from their relatively tinny peers. Mudhoney through to Earth, via dub. Heck yeah.
The songs rule it. Utter rock excellence, played in a really punky way. Each one different enough from the last. Perfect balance between direct musical message and trippiness.

'Thumb' is an ideal opener, crashing as it does into your consciousness. Riffs, hooks and menace. 'Freedom Run' freaks out the unwary psychoactive traveller with loops, echoes and eventually a rock song breaking through the hidden messages. My favourite, though, is '50 Million Year Trip (Downside Up)'.

It starts off quite normally, and the listener rocks out. However, something happens which I cannot quite explain. It mellows out, certainly. Homme strikes up a gorgeous melody, while all else slows and the bass rhythm becomes a focal point. The guitars are all shimmery, the vocals all echoey, and it feels so right.

Slow soloing ensues, while the bassline lollops along and the singing drops away. More shimmery guitars join the cocktail. Then it all drops off, save for a lone guitar thread, as if playing on a distant hilltop. Slowly, it all fades back, giving such a euphoric rush that it just has to be experienced. On headphones.

The album is notable also for pretty much the first QOTSA and Mondo Generator songs, as Josh and Nick take the vocals respectively. The former is a melodic tune, with harmonised chorus and shy singing. The latter is a noise-drenched rockout with no discernable direction.

Not much has changed there, then...

02 July 2005

My Top 10 Video Games...

Yeah, someone asked me what my favourite video games ever were. So here's the list I came up with:

10. Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time (Ubisoft, PlayStation2, 2003)

This was such an eye-opener back when it came out, and its beauty shines undiminished today. What this game offered me was a sense of freedom, freedom to do whatever I want. I’ll never forget the first time I ran along the wall, or somersaulted over an assailants head, only to
smash him.

With such impeccable game mechanics, the time feature is the icing on the cake. Much like its peer, Viewtiful Joe, the player can slow time as he sees fit, lending the game not just a different feel to others, but another aesthetic entirely.

Speaking of aesthetic, this game offers perceptual satisfaction in spades. The environment is at once familiar and exotic; beautiful, shimmering, and most importantly creates a believable gameworld. A gameworld unhampered by the usual cliché of the genre. There is a deft touch of personality sadly lacking from the sequel.

This is a game about ambition and freedom. It is also a work of art.

09. Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time (Nintendo, Nintendo 64, 1998)

A bit lower than it might have been, due to the fact that I never finished it. Nevertheless, this is another game of exquisite beauty, undimmed by the passage of time and new generation of technology. Why? Because, as with all truly great games, this is one which masters its host system without being a slave to it.

The atmosphere of this game is almost unbearably beautiful, creating as it does a climate within the world that is a pleasure to exist in, no matter how vicariously. Almost every environ (certain stomachs notwithstanding) is gorgeous, sumptuous – not only a great sandbox in which to flex ones gaming muscles, but to do anything.
And, like the above game, there is the underlying theme of chronology. I cry at not having explored this fully – I will do, though. However, it’s a smart and well-executed device from what I have seen, and serves the Zelda formula well. Combat was perfected in this incarnation of the game. Z-trigger was used expertly to aid uncluttered 3D battle, and works almost instinctively.

Although I have been guilty of finding the Zelda series a tad formulaic in gameplay, this version offsets that by virtue of sheer beauty.

08. Final Fantasy VII (Square, PlayStation, 1997)

I feel guilty placing this game so high, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because it didn’t do all that much to advance the series, other than the obvious graphic overhaul.

I don’t care though. It’s great; opulent NextGen grandeur at its very best. While it lacks the depth of characterisation that marked out its directly previous iteration, it has a narrative depth to compensate. Or should that be ‘narrative size’?

When thinking of what to write about this game, I wonder where to start. I remember the end of the initial adventure within the city walls. As the tower collapses, it feels like the end of the game. Then the city gates open and I realise it’s just the beginning.

One key moment which springs to mind is the death of Aerith. That one incredible, ghastly moment when time stands still, as I reel – shocked that such a pivotal character can be killed off, and so suddenly, brutally.
I hated Sephiroth, more than I liked Cloud, and it was that hate which propelled me through the world. The world of chocobo breeding, dating, wargaming, cross-dressing and Resident Eviling. And then I realise:
I love this game so much, not for some beautiful artistic statement, but for its maximalism. For when it’s executed as well as this, more is most certainly more.

07. Mario Kart Advance (Intelligent Systems, Gameboy Advance, 2001)

True, this is not the game I spent years with, heaving the game around my group of friends, as we all chose a character to stay with for the sake of knowing who had the best times.

However, it is a game which is a definite improvement over what is otherwise the best version of the game, and that in itself is a remarkable feat. This was the game which had me skipping lectures, hunched over that wide screen, angling desperately for the best light. Thumbs were keenly hovering over the shoulder buttons that were so expertly utilised as hoppers.

Must trim those split seconds. Must get the fastest time on Ghost House 3. Shit. Screw the haters who would deride it for not being ‘a proper racing game’. It is. The tracks are ingenious (and the new certainly complement the old), and the racers are – as ever – perfectly balanced.

It’s just such a good game to play, and one of the best with which to gloat over your defeated 'friends'.

06. Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov/Bulletproof, Gameboy, 1989)

A simple game, but one which is realised perfectly, Tetris is one game that can truly claim to be pure gameplay. The size of the ‘pot’ is perfect, as are the shapes and difficulty curve. What more can I say?

05. Super Mario World (Nintendo, SNES, 1991)

The greatest 2D platform game, bar none. The classic Mario controls were perfected in this game. Everything, from his acceleration, to jumping, and use of his special powers just felt so right. This is 2D gameplay distilled into a 4-megabit cartridge, and there’s not an ounce of fat on these bones.

Underrated, though, is the aesthetic. The graphics are very stark and modest, but they are perfect for the game. The character design is spot on, as are the colour schemes. Something which took years to really sink in for me is the quality of the music. Along with the likes of ‘Good Vibrations’, tunes from this game just randomly pop into my head – years after last playing it.

But playing it is all. The challenges and variety are stunning in their range and execution. The reams of secret areas and bonus stages render this more of an exploration game than kin to the likes of Sonic. It’s a fucking legend of a game, and with all of Miyamoto’s best work, balances satisfaction and frustration on a knife-edge.

04. Streetfighter II: Turbo (Capcom, Coin-op/SNES, 1993)

For me, this is the pinnacle of fighting in video game form. Soul Calibur nearly made top 10 (and Tekken 3 is pretty certainly top 20), but this is a dead cert.

Capcom took the massive improvement that was Streetfighter II, and amped it up. Improved the graphics, balanced the moves and characters, and let you play as the bosses – an underwhelming experience, admittedly.

Most importantly, the game was faster. SF2: Turbo is the fighting gamer’s fighting game. At once accessible and immeasurably deep, this franchise created the combo – and unlike the memory tests that were Tekken and Killer Instinct, the gameplay was so intuitive.

It made so much sense to jump in deep with an attack, and follow up with a one-two – a normal move cancelled or hidden with the controls of your combo-finishing special move. And the attacks were so satisfying – the crunch as you laid in a roundhouse, the little blood-puke a heavy punch occasionally elicited. It was so natural, and so addictive.

Later iterations would ramp up the complexity on a superficial level, and franchises such as King Of Fighters and Virtua Fighter would claim to be the choice of the hardcore. Maybe they were, but this was the perfect balance of simplicity and depth, with no extraneous characters (a great player could beat others with anyone from Ken to Dhalsim), no goofy super-combos or bells and whistles.

This was videogame hand-to-hand combat at its peak, and I don’t think it has ever been bettered – especially not with two players.

03. Secret Of Mana (Squaresoft, SNES, 1993)

To be quite honest, any of the top three could have occupied any of these positions. However, I deem SoM, as much as I love it, to be third favourite ever.

From the moment I first saw it in a magazine in summer 1993, I knew I had to have it. It looked so lush, so beautiful and so alien. I had never played a Japanese-style RPG before. By December, I had a review of it in my hands, from my favourite magazine, Super Play.

I remember, even now, the feelings I had upon seeing this review. The reviewer loved it, and I had a feeling I would as well. Looking at the home village environment filled me with a sense of wonder and awe. Such a perfectly constructed place, with simple – yet exquisitely rendered – graphics. I needed it, and had no idea quite how it would play.

Roll on Xmas day 1993. The dumbfounding intro sequence segued so well into the game, I had no idea gameplay had started. Yet once I picked up the pad, I entered into an experience that would delight me for years to come.

Driven by storyline, I was hooked for the duration. The travails of out three main characters were heightened by the alien and ever-beautiful landscapes in which they occurred. The ideas boggled my mind, as all of the characters and scenarios were brilliant. Neko the cat always managed to be where I was, and first.

Thanatos was a hell of a bastard, well beyond the later Sephiroth. And there were the sub-villains, of varying menace and competence. The puzzles were basic, but took a backseat to the narrative. The battles were extremely well balanced, and the action format lent combat an exhilarating feel.

The way physical attacks and magic intertwined so well (especially, and poignantly at the final battle), and the use of the ‘ring’ menu system worked as both an excellent intro to RPGs, but also had a depth belied by its ease of use.

The game was heart breaking, humorous and incredibly catalysing, and I have no problem calling it a joint favourite game ever. And those gamelan-soundtracked zombie sections were really scary...

02. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, Nintendo 64, 1996)

In 1996, Miyamoto reinvented the wheel.

This game was such a spectacular creative and artistic success that it hindered its host system. It took years for another game to compete with it in the quality stakes (I would venture there was none), and that hindered the system.

Context aside, this is a masterpiece. Everything about it is perfect. Nintendo created a truly 3D, truly believable world, where anything was possible. If you saw a tree in a distance, you could climb it. If you saw a koopa troopa trundling along, you could bounce him out of his shell and surf along the level with it.

We take things like this for granted nowadays, but it was an absolute revolution at the time. And its quality is undiminished today. As with SMW, it makes good use of the technology, never straining with graphical trends that may date it as time goes on. It is simplistic, but gorgeous. And it is varied.

The idea that there can be many objectives within one level was brilliant – it makes the most of whichever environment you were in – and they all had personalities of their own. Each level was almost like a game in itself, with different rules, different toys and mechanics.

There was the simplistic brilliance of the initial level – such a perfect way to acclimatise to the third dimension. The literal different levels of Wet-Dry World. The constant peril of Lethal Lava Land… I could have spent an age just taking in the atmosphere of Cool, Cool Mountain or Tall Tall Mountain.

Would you have to explore the dank caverns, or swim inside a sunken ship? Alter the very size of a level, or dangerously climb a gigantic clock? Or there could be a race down a snowy slope or time trial within a small castle room; get yer hat stolen or simply fly around a level.

Flying is one of the very few issues I have with this game. The controls weren’t very intuitive, and made some tasks more difficult than they otherwise would have been. And – as aforementioned – Miyamoto games can be frustratingly difficult anyway. However, that’s part of the challenge, and the difficulty curve is great.
It’s a game limited only by your ability.

01. Final Fantasy III (Squaresoft, SNES, 1994)

My pick for greatest game ever.

After SoM got me hooked, FFIII was handily at the importers’ by the following Christmas. After initial confusion at the turn-based formula, I was soon swept once again into another world of Squaresoft’s creation.
This was a darker world than the previous year, though. An edgy world, where magic was seen as a threat in the eyes of ongoing technological advances. This game seemed a lot more grown up than what I had been used to.

The story was more complex than that of SoM, as well, with a far larger cast of playable ad non-playable characters. The world was larger, and – due to Armageddon occurring halfway through – larger again. This was serious business, with a serious game to back it up.

Incredibly deep, all of the main characters had history, had stories to tell – usually sad ones, or at the very least, battles against adversity. The battles had such tactical scope in terms of esper use, spells, attacks and characters’ special attacks. Similarly, there were tons of armour, weapons and ‘relics’ to equip, with so many variables of effect, both individually and in combination with others.

The breadth of what the player had ton do was almost overwhelming. Anything, from disguise and subterfuge (well before MGS), to piloting mecha; from witnessing women get beaten, to towns get poisoned; trying to save the world, many times over, seeing characters properly ‘die’, and – umm – painting. And paintings coming to life and attacking.

That’s without even mentioning the auction scenes or the utterly spectacular opera scene, which to this day is flabbergasting in its execution and drama. Speaking of execution, this was a well-crafted game. The graphics were of a standard never seen on the SNES (or, as far as I’m concerned, never bettered).

The use of sprites over hand-painted backgrounds, digitised into the game was both innovative and very artistically successful. The character design, by Yoshitaka Amano, was similarly delicate and flawless. Perhaps the biggest success, though, was the soundtrack. I still find it hard to believe that a Super Nintendo cart could hold that many tunes. Whatever the situation in that 60+ hours of initial gameplay, there was music to suit it in fine fashion. All the emotions, from fear, to sorrow, to humour, and more were all well catered for.

And as the game progressed, it only got more impressive – until the final battle. Not until I visited the galleries and museums of Florence did I spy such grand classical design. The bosses were of a quality to be never forgotten, with suitably epic, Handel-esque synth-organ work. The player had the firm feeling that they had ‘arrived’.

With completion came not just a sense of great satisfaction, but a feeling of loss at the game being over. Everything, from exploring the Veldt, to trying to keep Cid alive, to the alternate existence of Tina as an Esper in another dimension, was but a memory.
Sure, I could – and did – dig it out again for another spin, but alas the game can only happen to you once in a lifetime. And I shall never forget it.

01 March 2005

Frances The Mute~!

Hey, so it's been a while since that last post. And I never even got it finished. Ah well...

To add to what little content is here, I shall post some musings I penned upon hearing the latest Mars Volta album for the first time. It was last Tuesday, and it goes... a little something... like this:

"Okay, so the new album by The Mars Volta arrived today. I had time to listen to it once, and was impressed. Anyway, this is what I thought...

Initially, I was taken aback by the fact it seemed to be SuperTMV; their usual stuff, but ramped up to the next level. Conversely, it seemed also to be something of a self-parody. On the plus side, it seemed like a gauntlet had well and truly been thrown down to Tool, in terms of uber-complex proggyness.

The strange thing is, it was all very complex and exciting, but I seemed to zone out a tad. This certainly was not helped by the random noisage that populated their debut being stretched out to fill minutes and minutes.

But I liked it, and had the feeling that this was certainly an album that would grow on me.

Second song came and went. Good though this album is, it didn't really stick in my mind; but I'll elaborate on that later in this post. I remember the third song being good. Finally brought the uber-emotional enthusiasm I was hankering for, and that I loved so much about Deloused In The Comatorium. Well, that's when the song finally kicked in after 5 minutes or so...

I also liked the fourth song. Nice, latin, feel to it. At points it sounded like a very good version of that bloody Santana song with Matchbox20 fool singing it. But en Espanol, and a lot more convoluted. Reminded me - as the debut did - of Shakira, too. I love the singing on these albums. But while it was technically all well and good, it lacked the overemoting that I demand from my very favourite music.

Really liked the fifth song (sorry, but I wouldn't know where to start naming these bastard songs. It's all too confusing for me. I know, I should probably hit up a website and find out. I will later). I can't remember why, but I liked it.

At this juncture, I should probably explain my instinctual interpretations of music heard for the first time (and ergo this post). I remember very little the first time around. Or, for that matter, the second or the third. I remember facts, just not actual details, if you catch my drift. It's like when I see a really good band. I'll go all out in enjoying them, I'll remember who played, some of the songs and the date etc, but not what the songs sounded like. Or any real visual cues, either.

The instinctual is all. What I felt and thought on an occasion, even though the topic of what I was thinking and feeling has been all but forgotten.

Anyway. I really dug this. The singing was quality. And, as I closed my eyes for a better listening experience, I was taken back to 2000. It was a fine year, especially the summer. But I was taken back, and my feelings were a mix of the usual hurting pangs that accompany nostalgia, and also a warm glow that this not only reminded me of good times, but also that it did provide a good feeling within me.

I think I was really in the digging zone by this point. I have a feeling this album was designed for psychedelics, and as a holiday is coming up, I may partake in the legal purchase thereof. Especially as mid-March is really nice anyway.

It was by this point that any real awareness of track number fell by the wayside. It is one of the symptoms of my condition to feel a need to know which song I am listening to. When it ends. How long it was. How it segues. However, when I opened my eyes, it was track 6. Then 7. And on.

And I liked it. It certainly explained how the opening songs could have been an average of 12 minutes apiece (the mode, not the mean - I think track 2 was about 5 mins). I knew, as it was 12 tracks and 76 mins, that they couldn't keep this up. I recall thinking the album had been on a long time, and I looked at the CD player. It was track 3. I remember thinking it had been on a long time again, and it was track 4. I was puzzled.

It seems as though the tracks 6-11 were all one massive conclusion for track 5. Or maybe I slipped into slumber and missed something. But it seemed like it was all one big song. And as this was all one big voyage of discovery (I didn't even check out 'time remaining' on either track or album), where feeling was paramount, it was good.

Not sure how well this will pan out now I know the format. I should like it, though. I had that same feeling of being impressed, yet thinking there was something missing, that I do with a lot of the albums that end up being my favourites. The Lift To Experience album, for example.

I bought the latter album knowing one song. I listened to it and appreciated it, but there seemed not to be anything to grab onto. Not that there were no hooks, but that it was an intangible sounding album. I look back now, and fail to understand that perspective, but that's what I like about first listens.

And though I can listen to any album for the first time once, you rarely get that special, lustful-yet-confused feeling. It's the feeling I got when I first heard Aenima. I knew I liked it, on a psychological level, but I just didn't actually like it yet.

So it was with this. I don't know what I really think re: the brevity of the final two tracks. nice culmination, especially when viewed in the context of the grand narrative. Viewed in isolation (and sans the relief that the end of the album brought, as I was wondering when it would actually finish), I may be disappointed. They were seemingly cut short; nipped at a bud which could have flowered beautifully.

But I remembered the last Ghost album, and how that had a similarly brief conclusion to a multi-song suite. Unaware whether this was tribute, kindred spirit or mere coincidence, it reassured me nonetheless.And I was impressed by their musical manliness. How does one follow up a few 12-minute songs? Why, with one that essentially lasts 45, of course!

So this was my first experience of listening to something I think I will grow to love. And though it was a strange ride of excitement and boredom, elation and disappointment, and although I have a feeling I will like this album more in the future than I do now, this was special.

You only get one first listen.

And I hope to update my Frances The Mute experience as my knowledge and feelings about it evolve over time.
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