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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

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Better Living Through Video Games

It’s been a long couple of months. Bad weather, bad news, grim mood, no enthusiasm for much of anything.

So, I’ve been playing a lot of games lately. Here’s what’s keeping me occupied:

Stardew Valley – I never played Harvest Moon or its ilk but for some reason I decided to jump on the hype train when this came out, and I have not been disappointed. You play as a farmer, struggling to get your inherited run-down farm up and running. You plant crops, you raise animals, you sell the vegetables and eggs and milk and crafted products for money, you collect things to restore the dilapidated town center, you delve into the mines (too deeply, perhaps) for more raw materials and artifacts, you earn friendship with your new neighbors (and perhaps marry one of them)… there’s a lot going on, is what I’m saying. It’s a very casual game in most ways but you have to pay attention to really prosper.

Guild Wars 2 – It’s an MMO. It’s published by the bastards who shut down City of Heroes, so yes, I have moral qualms about giving them my money. But it’s as good of an MMO as I can find at the moment. I’m not really into it as much anymore but it scratches that particular itch.

Diablo III – Until they release a proper HD patch for Diablo II, this is where I’m getting my isometric-perspective monster-smashing fix. It’s repetitive, sure, but sometimes it’s not about the novelty or the challenge, it’s just about making horrific demonspawn go “sputch” in satisfying ways.

Catan Universe – This is the second computerized rendition of the Settlers of Catan board game that I’ve tried. The first one is… buggy, to put it mildly. This one is very German and very very pre-release quality, but hey, you can play with/against friends and/or against the AI, and it’s a solidly playable experience. If you can’t get friends to your house to play around a table, it’s the next best thing.

Overwatch – I haven’t really played many “shooters” this past few years. Sometimes I’ll sign into one of the first two Borderlands games for a bit but I think I’m just out of touch with that playstyle. I know I started out playing Doom & Doom 2 quite well but it’s a whole different world now. And while Overwatch tries to match people up “by skill level,” I’m almost always the least-skilled person in any given match. I don’t regret the purchase but I’m not compelled to play, either. I probably need to find a group to play with; that was always most of the fun in the old Doom/Quake/UnrealTournament days, after all. Hmm.

…yeah, that’s pretty much what I’ve been playing the last few months.

Something Resembling Halloween Content

I’ve had this idea knocking around in my mind for a couple months, and today I found myself with the means, motive, and opportunity. Without further ado, I present a partial reading of that grim classic of poetry, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

(Look, I could only keep at it for so long. You should be grateful I stopped where I did. Probably.)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I should preface my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with a few facts so you can decide whether you want to try taking this review at all seriously:

  1. I hated “Man of Steel.” I feel like the only things that movie got really right were Henry Cavill and Amy Adams, whose Clark and Lois respectively were remarkably solid.
  2. I only rented this movie because I’m cautiously optimistic about the upcoming Wonder Woman solo film and wanted to see Gal Gadot’s part in this film first.
  3. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the three-hour “full” cut of this movie. Devoting two-and-a-half-hours-plus was already a big commitment considering how badly I didn’t like the movie that came before this movie.

If the above facts render my upcoming thoughts invalid to you, you’re welcome to stop reading. There’s a whole rest of the Internet for you to explore. Thanks for dropping by, have a lovely day!

Oh, and below you’ll find spoilers. Big unsubtle spoilers, even. Be ye fairly warned, mateys. This review is long, sprawling, and badly in need of an editor. Like the movie. Ba-dum-PISH!

Continue reading

Capsule Review Roundup

We’ll round out this summer run of music (and related products) reviews with a handful of most-recent-album selections which I just couldn’t work up enough enthusiasm for to devote a full entry’s worth of time & effort…

  • Apocalyptica, Shadowmaker – So they’ve got a dedicated singer now. “Cold Blood” is good, the rest of the record left me… cold. Pass.
  • Giorgio Moroder, Déjà Vu – Two of the three instrumentals (“74 is the New 24” and “4 U with Love”) are pretty good, but what’s really weird about this record is that my favorite song is sung by someone I’ve never really enjoyed before (Britney Spears) and is a cover of a song I utterly loathed in its most famous incarnation (“Tom’s Diner”). Yeah, I dunno either. Overall, a so-so record.
  • Muse, Drones – I’m not a mega-fan of Muse. I tend to really enjoy three or four songs per album and can leave the rest. (Except in the case of the previous album, The 2nd Law, which I mostly hated.) This one is… okay. It’s a concept album, which probably doesn’t help.
  • Queensrÿche, Condition Hüman – QR has a new singer as of the album previous to this one. He sounds… ridiculously like the previous singer. I mean it’s really uncanny. So the good news is, if you like QR, you’ll probably have no trouble enjoying this album. I’m… not a huge QR fan. (That would be the other member of my household, hence why this is in my library to begin with.) A few songs work for me, the rest leave me underwhelmed.
  • Seabound, Speak In Storms – VNV Nation and mind.in.a.box led me to this band via vague musical association. If you like either of those other two acts you probably already know about Seabound. If not, well: it’s dark, dance-y European electronica. I generally like this album. The lyric content seems a bit grim, and sometimes the music goes along with that and sometimes it’s distinctly contrasted, upbeat. If you’re curious, I recommend hunting down the tracks “For Another Day,” “Everything,” and “When She’s Hungry.”

That’ll do for now. What do you think I should try next…?

ABC – The Lexicon of Love II

You’d think with my musical identity being formed in the mid-1980s and with ABC being a popular UK-based band (and boy howdy was I into that sort of thing back then) that I wouldn’t have missed out on most of their discography. And yet, I only listened to one of their albums a few times (at a friend’s house) back in the day and never went looking deeper in the decades since.

At this point, ABC is a band the same way recent incarnations of Jethro Tull is a band. In this case it’s Martin Fry instead of Ian Anderson who’s surrounded by whichever players meet his needs for the project.

It wasn’t until friend Wonderduck nudged me in the direction of their second album, Beauty Stab (reviewed previously), that I started paying much attention at all. When the latest record was announced, a “sequel” to their debut at that, I found myself intrigued.

So, can I review The Lexicon of Love II without actually being particularly familiar with its breakthrough predecessor? Sure I can. The sequel conceit can be taken or left as the listener chooses, as far as I’m concerned. My concern is whether this music stands on its own.

Generally speaking it does. Most of the album hits the “good but not great” mark, to my particular tastes. The lead single was “Viva Love,” which is plenty solid enough (and is on my portable playlist, months after release, so make of that what you will). Many of the other tracks like “The Flames of Desire,” “Confessions of a Fool,” “The Ship of the Seasick Sailor,” and “I Believe In Love” are fine. They’re plenty listenable. “The Love Inside The Love” should be used as an insert song in a high-quality James-Bond-like movie. Only one song (“Ten Below Zero”) is what I’d consider a loss. You can put this record on and bask in three quarter of an hour’s worth of well-produced and clever pop songcraft. There’s kind of a lounge-act quality to the synths-and-strings-and-crooning results, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just not for me, mostly.

There’s one truly standout song here, though. One four-minute-or-so piece where everything Fry’s bringing to the effort just gels. That is “Singer Not The Song,” and if you pick up only one track from TLoL2, make it this one. It’s not markedly different in style or tone, mind you. Somehow, though, it’s the place on this album where Fry and his collaborators make a song work perfectly. Maybe it’s that it’s the least (blatantly) about-love piece in the track list? Maybe it’s that here’s where Fry sounds like he’s really putting a lot more of himself into the words and performance? But as the song itself declares, he’s the singer, not the song. One seems discouraged from speculating. Whatever, it just works.

Should you buy this album? Generally, I recommend it. My quibbles with the album are entirely to do with what I get out of music personally. It’s smart, it sounds good, it’s enjoyable and lush and energetic. Unless you’re averse to upbeat pop music in kind of an 80s-throwback vein, you will probably find plenty to enjoy here.

S. Alexander Reed – Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music

There’s an old line that goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (The origin of the phrase is, apparently, a subject of considerable debate.) We’re going to take a brief break from writing about music, this week, and instead write about writing about music.

Okay, I’m done with that riff now.

Growing up, I was pretty much a child of the pop music scene, with a bit of dinosaur rock in my upbringing. i knew of bands like Skinny Puppy and Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 but they weren’t part of my musical awareness other than “bands whose names appear on binder covers and studded leather jackets around school,” really. Later on, Nine Inch Nails hit and I heard somewhere that they were “Industrial,” whatever that was. I heard Depeche Mode tagged as such a few times as well.

Cut to a few years ago. A couple of folks I met on Twitter pointed me toward bands like VNV Nation and Apoptygma Berzerk, and I bounced off of terms like “EBM” and heard that “Industrial” tag again. I never had, at any point, much of a sense of what Industrial was supposed to be.

Mind you, with all the people who have claimed not to be involved with Industrial who have been “tarred” with that brush, getting a clear picture of what (if anything) the genre really encompasses can be quite a challenge.

Tying this all together, now, is a book by S. Alexander Reed wherein the philosophies, personalities, styles, stories, and contradictions wrapped up in the term “Industrial music” are collated, analyzed, compared, and rationalized. Assimilate is a dense, challenging, scholarly read chock-full of annotations, citations, and footnotes. That’s not to say it’s entirely dry stuff. Humor abounds, and the anecdotes and quotations make for compelling and interesting reading. The meat of the thing, however, is the thorough background and analysis of the environments, philosophies, and other underpinnings of what became the first wave of Industrial acts followed by the permutations and revisions that came later.

Before even detailing the origins of the first acknowledged Industrial acts, Reed gives us a primer on things like Futurism, revolutionary politics, William S Burroughs, and “cut-up” culture. Later chapters alternate between history and sociology, detailing what happened and following with what those happenings meant to the scene. No kid gloves here, as the triumphs are shown alongside the glaring missteps. (If you dress up in fascist garb to make a point, but the scene kids miss the message while glomming onto the presentation, how badly did you miscalculate?) And as technology marches on, production methods change, and the nigh-inevitable urge by some to mix message with profit means that folks are accused of “selling out” at many stages along the journey.

Assimilate stays on task throughout the book, questioning and analyzing the inspirations, results, and effects of each new warp and ripple added to the oddly-shaped body of music over the years. Key individuals are highlighted, and generally treated with a very even hand. One might have expected Trent Reznor to take a lot more flak, for instance, than he does in this work. The book isn’t concerned with demonizing or lionizing. The point is always, always to talk about causes and effects above all else. Nine Inch Nails had an effect. Skinny Puppy had an effect. The rise and fall of WaxTrax! Records had all kinds of effects. And so on.

What’s astonishing is that, at the end of it all, Reed ties the current state of things right back to one of the key concepts at the beginning, offering a way forward for a movement that may seem to have monetized and synthesized itself entirely out of relevance. And he does so by choosing neither the “noise for noise’s sake” or the “noise for music’s sake” path but a third blended option entirely.

Not sure what I mean? Well, if you’re at all intrigued, I recommend picking up a copy of Assimilate to find out. It fascinated me, and it added a slew of new artists to my list of music-to-look-into. (Mind you, I’m also now more aware of bands I won’t want to check out, but that has value as well.)

It’s the sort of carefully detailed dance about architecture I never imagined could exist.

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