Got a hitman lined up eh?
Wow, gorgeous looking Paradox DF. Congrats (I know you waited a long time for 'em).
Talking to some friends who've seen the Alpha Dogs up close in person, the finish on the 3D printed cups and paint job is apparently... not so good. At least at this point. I'm sure they'll be refined before full scale launch tho.
8 / 20 / 13
The Grandeur of Hair is their overblown magnum opus. It's more intense, more direct, and more sludge-filled. The grime and the muck get brought to the forefront in thick swarths of distortion and skronk, everything so far into the red it becomes a garbled nigh unintelligible mess. It's almost like Dead Raven Choir decided to form a garage pop-rock band. Occasionally the clouds break however, and the full moon illuminates the mausoleums, gnarled trees, and crack houses that dot the album's witchy landscape below. There's a gloomy interiority to the album lurking beneath the gauzy surface guitars and feedback. It's not really conducive to headphone listening however; in fact I'd strongly recommend against listening to most of The Goslings' output via headphones. Crank it up on some old crappy speakers instead. That way you get a wall of sound more readily without damaging your hearing.
The tracks "Death's Door" and "Over and Over Again" are straight-up doom rockers with a jaunty swagger and squealing guitars freaking out all over their tail end. "I'm Here To Kill You" meanwhile dials up the 60s garage psych factor with its propulsive drumming and hi-hat riding that serves as a backdrop for a total shredding guitar meltdown. In typical fashion the vocals basically get out of way and let the other instruments do their thing, come what may. On "13 Candles" the band opts for a bluesier sound, especially during the last two minutes or so of the song which happens to be one of my favorite moments on the album. The guitar work here just sounds so plaintiff and soulful.
My favorite tracks overall though are probably "Curse In The Trees" and "Ritual Knife," both of which feature the best vocal work on the album in my humble opinion. "Curse In The Trees" is an especially creepy ditty with its a woozy and very sinister Sabbath-y opening. Uncle Acid's croon is drawn out over some classic---hell, archetypal---doom before the track is left hanging on a lingering, buzzing note. It picks up from there and starts rocking 'n' rolling with arpeggiated guitar and distorted tremolo twang. "Ritual Knife" in turn is more pounding, more driving. The percussion is almost tribal. There are some really pretty, poppy hooks mixed in throughout this song, and the vocal work is fairly multifaceted. The start-stop moments toward the end are a nice touch as well. On the album's last track "Withered Hand of Evil," I particularly love the gnarly texture of the guitars. At various points it segues into this warped, warbling organ sample that really captures that low-budget horror atmosphere. I can just see some cult going about their unwholesome rituals in a burned out temple as the sun sets. Definitely worth mentioning is a bonus track on some editions entitled "Down To the Fire," a rather mystical sounding acoustic ballad that is rather out of place amidst the rest of the fuzzed out haunted house honeymoon soundtrack. Somehow it fits all the same. Uncle Acid's distinctive emissions almost take on the characteristic of a guru's mantric recitation, and really it drives home the point that he's singing with sensibilities predating a lot of the more metallic tendencies similar bands adopt these days.
I suppose if an overarching theme had to be assigned to this diary entry, it would be metal that thwarts its own metal cred in a contemporary sense. Like Boris or Jesu at their shoegazey best, there's a certain underlying beauty to The Deadbeats. Yet I'd argue this is distinctly metal, at least insofar as history is concerned, since it really evolved out of the psychedelic exploration of the 60s that influenced a lot of hard rock in the 70s. When you go from stuff like T2 and Fraction to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath to Pagan Alter to Manilla Road, the lines of demarcation start to get blurry. Bands like Uncle Acid's don't even want to be called metal really, preferring instead to adopt the designation of 'hard rock.' I guess a more appropriate theme for this collection of impressions then would be the smudged boundaries between different brands of rock and metal, whether it's a band like Boris that eclectically dabbles in everything or one like Pentagram that obsessively embraces a time when hard rock and proto-metal were still connected during their 70s mitosis. This is as good a place as any I suppose to mention Uncle Acid's new album, Mind Control, which was released this year. It's definitely made my list of 2013 favorites so far. Compared to its predecessor, Mind Control seems to play on the notion of contrasts even more strongly; it's at once darker and more sinister but also even more melodic and prettier at times. The band flies their doom barbarian flag most proudly on tracks like "Mind Crawler" (especially toward the end), "Desert Ceremony," and the truly epic "Valley of the Dolls" which also happens to have a really ballin' film reference for a name. Then there's "Devil's Work" which is one of the most stripped down, beastly sounding chug-chug-chug-chugs they've put on so far. On the other hand "Death Valley Blues" and "Follow the Leader" are the grooviest and most pastoral the band has ever sounded, with the former especially getting under my skin to where it's now one of my favorite Uncle Acid joints yet. It's one of the few occasions---along with the last album's bonus track---where they've sounded overtly pretty. "Follow the Leader" meanwhile drones on like some kind of doom raga, its folksy noodling set to huge swarths of buzzing guitar riffage as if a troop of classically trained Indian musicians and Appalachian mountain men were covering Sunn O))).
If that doesn't put Mind Control in one of this year's top slots, I don't know what would.
Black Sabbath's 13.
To be honest, I've been pretty ambivalent toward this thing. Not that I necessarily expected it to suck outright---though that was always a very real possibility---but rather I just couldn't work up any excitement over Ozzy's returning to the lead vocal spotlight. Maybe it would have been different had Ozzy just stopped altogether, but despite his very public recreational vehicle accident and psychotropic-fueled downward spiral into being an old senile fart, he hasn't really ever stepped out of the spotlight. He's been performing ever since more or less. So yeah, I felt I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Ozzy 'making a comeback' here. Maybe eight years ago when I was super into the Sabbs I would have been more anxious to see a return to form of sorts, but over time I've just come to accept that magic of the early Ozzy years has long since dried up despite the band's continuing to make some pretty good records with Dio and even Tony Martin. I mean were people really expecting anything close to a new Paranoid or Master of Reality? Or even one fourth of that? I imagine most people had middling expectations: so long as Ozzy doesn't, y'know, have a stroke while performing then chalk it up to a success. And frankly that's pretty sad. There isn't even that rubbernecker's morbid curiosity that comes with watching a train wreck. As I said, Ozzy's solo projects already reveal the punchline.
Now that I'm actually listening to the album however, I have to admit it's not bad. First and foremost: Ozzy's vocal work is more than serviceable. In fact he even manages to capture some of those sinister vibes from earlier in his career. He does sound a bit diminished at times, maybe a little two-dimensional, but I get the sense that he's really putting a lot into his performance and genuinely feeling it. Iommi's guitar work is pretty impassioned as well, and some of these riffs are really quite heavy, turning back the clock to earlier days of the band which is bound to satisfy longtime fans. There's definitely an air of familiarity here with much of Ozzy-era character is intact. The only parts of the lineup not preserved from that time are the drums which come courtesy of Brad Wilk who played in Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave; they get the job done, though the production makes them sound a little hollow and thin at times. The biggest issue for me though is the songwriting which unfortunates comes off as a bit bland more times than not. Really, much of the album fails to stand out as particularly memorable if I'm being brutally honest. The single on this thing---"God Is Dead?"---is particularly disposable. Toward the second half of the initial tracklist however "Age of Reason," "Damaged Soul," and "Dear Father" start to turn things around. The bluesy feel of "Damaged Soul" in particular just hits a sweet spot, and the band sounds more 'authentic' than they have in ages. Mission accomplished I guess? "Dear Father" is probably my favorite though personally. The band sounds genuinely badass. I suspect it's because I'm hearing a lot of familiarity in the riffs. If anything, this is early Sabbath by the numbers. Nothing wrong with that though. I don't think anyone was expecting a ground breaking reinvention.
Yeah, I've been mentioning expectations a lot here. It's kind of unavoidable when it comes to an album like this. Music doesn't exist in a vacuum, and considering the massive amount of influence Sabbath has wielded---inventing entire genres---one is faced with the reality that there's just so much of this type of music floating around out there as it is. The question then is whether the masters are doing anything more effecting than the legion of students following in their wake, and I have to say, If we try to divorce ourselves from it and just let the music stand on its own, we're left with an album that is neither here nor there for the most part. It's worth noting the various editions of the album which are available; the deluxe version has a second CD with three extra tracks, and if you procure it from Best Buy specifically you get a fourth track. I'd say it's worth having these extra tracks. "Peace of Mind" and "Pariah" are actually some of the more memorable cuts for me with a vibe that feels genuine and well articulated.
Overall? It certainly has its moments, but in the end 13 just feels a bit boring to me. As a cultural artifact it carries a certain significance, but as a musical endeavor there's nothing that really captivates me and makes me want to return to it. If you treat it like a Sabbath album, it just feels sterile in comparison to the earlier stuff. If you don't treat it like a Sabbath album, it disappears into the morass of post-Sabbath influenced doom metal that floods the scene these days.
Moving along, I've been meaning to talk about this for a while now, but The Last of Us is one of the most significant games I've played in a long, long time. I've fallen madly in love with this world Naughty Dog has crafted, and like so many cordyceps it's gotten into my head and taken root.
I suppose I should preface this by saying I've always been something of a Naughty Dog fan. They have a knack for game feel, the way things play out in motion and the kinetic satisfaction of advancement, whether it's moving your character from point A to B or the overall flow and pacing of the story. At their best they capture the joy of exploration and discovery while maintaining an almost hypnotic gameplay rhythm and forward momentum. Unfortunately this typically goes hand-in-hand with unwavering linearity, and Naughty Dog's games tend to take on a thrill ride quality that seldom wavers from the tracks on a macro level despite occasional detours and more strategically demanding combat arenas. Still, in leu of being able to develop characters based on in-game decisions, Naughty Dog typically presents stellar scripting and well thought out, genuinely likable characters to coincide with their cinematic staging. Less widely recognized I think---at least, prior to The Last of Us---is their ability to birth the compelling worlds in which these events transpire and these characters with their various entanglements reside. These worlds harbor their own weird videogame logic like electrical boxes that are never more than 10 feet away from the alarm they supply or a curious abundance of ancient artifacts littering rooftops around the world, but it's a self-consistent logic. These worlds make sense once you accept their terms, and despite their being rather bleak dog-eat-dog microcosms of con artists and thugs, they're not without their own sense of beauty and wonder. There's a sense that something more lies just beyond the level's boundaries, that the world is larger than what is currently being presented both in terms of space and time, that you're merely one small facet of it and that there's a genuine history that precedes you. Another developer particularly adept at conjuring this sensation is BioWare, and some of the most profound moments for me in the last generation of gaming involved looking out at the expanse of stars in Mass Effect or hearing about the intricate politics at work within the mage towers of Dragon Age and feeling minuscule in comparison to everything around me. Another obvious reference point is Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series. In the case of Naughty Dog however, I feel they're one of the few developers making straight up action adventure games these days who can tap into these same sentiments so readily.
The Last of Us (from here on out 'TLoU') has all of its developers' usual hallmarks. In terms of straight-up gameplay however, the experience for me was on another level entirely compared to the Uncharted series. The environments seem larger and more open ended, more conducive to approaching enemies in a wider variety of ways. Naughty Dog has delivered some impressively intricate level designs in the past, but in those instances they seemed geared more toward a certain novelty factor, more toward showing off. Here they encourage strategy. Granted it's not Deux Ex level open endedness by any means, but I actually feel it's just the right amount for what TLoU is going for, and that's forcing the player to weigh and consider approaches while maintaining its masterful pacing and ever present sense of danger. One can choose to avoid enemies or try to get the drop on them, but planning ahead never becomes too much of a distraction in its own right, and there's a sense of intuitiveness when approaching different situations. I feel the game is especially satisfying when things don't go according to plan, requiring you to improvise on the spot in a struggle for survival. Those moments when Joel blocks a melee weapon with one of his own like in a sword fight, when he grabs a guard by the head and smashes his face against a desk, or when Ellie cusses out a hunter and throws a bottle at him allowing you to rush in to finish him off... these scripted events can often feel unscripted, and that's when the gameplay shines the most.
The 'survival horror' tag gets bandied about a lot when it comes to games with zombies in them, but TLoU really does feel as though it emphasizes survival, especially on the higher difficulty settings. Shooting at things indiscriminately will get you killed. Tougher enemies wont go down so easily, and even relatively weak enemies can overwhelm you if you're not careful. Supplies can get scarce, and most of the time you're forced to rely on the crafting system to make use of raw materials you scrounge up: sharp objects, bandages, alcohol, etc. There's a duality to most of these objects, which adds another level of complexity into the equation. Do you use your newly crafted shiv to open a jammed door, or do you conserve it to attack an enemy from behind or even attach it to the end of a baseball bat to make a more effective super-bat in case you get surrounded? Should you use that alcohol as first aid, or maybe make a molotov cocktail that will surely draw attention of every other enemy in the vicinity if you resort to using it? The game also dishes out 'EXP' in the form of vitamins you scavenge. Yes, it's that whacky videogame logic again, but when you have enough vitamins you can 'upgrade' certain skills like how fast you're able to craft items or how much damage you can take. My main complaint when it comes to facing the game's numerous challenges to survival however is the predictability of its overarching pattern; eventually you discern that survivor-type enemies (guards, hunters, etc.) are just about always followed by the infected and visa versa. Even still, the diverse array of things trying to kill you demands adaptability and the development of a repertoire of tactics, and while one strategy may work for one type of enemy, it may have the exact opposite effect on another. Take the Clickers that rely on echo location to track you for instance. You want to be as quiet as possible around them, but you needn't worry about their visually spotting you. The game likes to pair these guys (and gals) with Runners however, and they in turn can see you. If you're busy worrying about the much more powerful Clickers, you might overlook the single relatively insignificant Runner over in the corner feasting on some freshly downed corpse. As soon as the Runner spots you though, it shrieks and suddenly all the Clickers are alerted to your presence. On the other hand taking out the Runner might alert the Clickers anyway if you're too noisy. Overall the game makes great use of different bodily senses, both as attributes of different enemies and as tools for the player. Often times you'll hear enemies long before you visually confirm them.
Speaking of auditory cues, the soundtrack to TLoU is truly exceptional. I'd go so far as to say it's one of the best game soundtracks of this generation. Gustavo Santaolalla worked closely with Naughty Dog throughout the development process, and both his compositions and the game world mirror one another perfectly, actively shaping what each was to become in a concurrent process of creative evolution. His score is often one of understatement, of hushed passages and quiet desperation, of dark interior movements. It utilizes elements of folk, country, drone, ambience. Like spores drifting through the air, the notes of a lonesome guitar set to delicate and haunting drones are both unsettling and soothing in equal measure, a duality of horror and beauty at the very core of TLoU's artistic expression. There are also moments of triumph, small victories that nevertheless quicken the heart (the car starting scene for instance), moments brilliantly expressed in a way that never feels overbearing. Other times a folksy ballad clamors into the foreground, the accompaniment to worn travelers trying to get on in the harsh landscape around them, carrying the weight of it all as they push onward one foot in front of another. The sounds of a world gone mad: the mating calls of animals in hollowed-out buildings, the blood curdling shrieks of the infected as they wander in circles waiting to die, the weary and weatherbeaten intonations of Joel as he tells Ellie to drop certain painful subjects.
The world Naughty Dog have created here is nothing short of breathtaking in its attention to detail and its overall scope. Entering into a house or apartment for instance, you see a multitude of lives interrupted in the personal belongings left behind, fragments of stories reflected in boxes of cereal and posters of boy bands, in nightstands with picture frames and crudely scrawled messages on walls instructing loved ones where to go. You come across journal entries leading up to evacuation day and notes that were never delivered. "What do you think happened to them?" Ellie asks. In another scene she comments on how sad it is that all the records festooned on the walls and scattered throughout an abandoned music store will go unheard. At various points throughout your journey you happen upon others who are trying to hold out for as long as they can. Sometimes you meet them face-to-face, while other times you find their breeched strongholds, now tombs, and you learn of their fates through letters, piecing their stories together bit by bit. It's that feeling that so much more has and is going on, the feeling of being just a small part of a much bigger multitude. When playing through Boston I'm compelled to pause and take in the expansive cityscapes around me, to study the crooked skyscrapers that go on for floor after floor. I wonder what's on floor 24 specifically, or how many Clickers are aimlessly traversing the entire building from top to bottom. This is a world with so much potential, one that begs to be explored. The Cordyceps Brain Infection is a truly horrific concept, and it too becomes a multifaceted affair with fungal growths sprouting from peoples' heads in intricate patterns, flora and fauna becoming one as victims are literally grafted to the surrounding environment, deadly forests sprouting up in cramped dark places. I feel like this is one of the most inventive and conceptually elegant takes on the 'zombie outbreak' notion ever devised, really. It presents a logical gestational cycle that in turns allows the afflicted to evolve into deadlier more hideous forms. Hideous, yet not without a certain artistic appeal. When you look at concept art for those infected with CBI, there's a perverse beauty to the 'flowering' display that erupts from their bodies.
^ The haunting main menu theme, which incidentally isn't on The Last of Us OST for some bewildering reason.
People don't even seem to know the official name of this piece. It seems like a variation (perhaps movement) of the main / self-titled suite however.
Despite the ugliness that pervades Joel and Ellie's world, there's a certain beauty that underlies much of it as well. There's a sense of serenity in the wake of civilization, and nature's reclamation of humanity's constructs is almost always visible, carrying with it all the usual poetic trappings. Some of the more profound moments in the game for me have come after particularly hectic passages, emerging from dismal surroundings into the early dawn air and looking out over the city's ruined skyline, walking along a beach, or watching animals grazing. These moments of quietude are truly breathtaking. At the heart of it all though are Joel and Ellie, and it's their interaction with one another that elevates the game to such great heights. I was hoping to avoid comparisons to that other mammoth title from earlier this year, but I'll indulge in just one: Booker and Elizabeth's relationship, while oddly similar in some respects (transporting her for a client, serving as her protector, showing her the world for the first time, putting up with her eccentricities, getting his ass saved on numerous occasions, making up for a dark past, etc.) just seems flat to me by comparison. In both cases however some of the best moments come during 'down time,' the off the cuff remarks and seemingly minor asides. All in all it's been some time since I've cared as much about a game's protagonists as with Joel and Ellie. All in all it's been some time since a game has spoken to me quite so strongly.
The Last of Us.
It's on my mind. It's on the tip of my tongue. It's under my skin.
NON-SPOILER ABOUT THE ENDING: I knew it was "wrong," but it was exactly the ending I was hoping for for a number of reasons despite myself. I think this is a testament to how powerful the game is at characterization and putting you into the roles of those characters, compelling you to feel what they feel.
A few tacked on notes about vidyagames here. DLC for TLoU has been confirmed as two multiplayer add-ons and one new chapter for the single-player campaign. When pressed for details on Reddit about what the DLC would entail, the developers said they were still trying to figure it out themselves. LOL. I love Naughty Dog. Supposedly more details will be released by the end of this August.
As for that other big game that came out this year, well, I've honestly been feeling a little hostility toward it, and I'm not entirely sure why. The more I reflect on the experience---the overall experience---of playing it, the more I feel it was a major letdown. Maybe things'll change if I go back and play through it again in a year or so, but as of this point I just feel as though it could have been a lot better. It's not even about the gameplay so much anymore. I just find the characters and story so... half-baked. I look back at elements like the Vox and the slums of Finkton, and I think "what the hell was that all about?" Things that should have felt like a suckerpunch to the gut ended up coming across like a slap to the wrist.
Take for instance the scene where Elizabeth kills the Vox leader whose name I can't even remember at the moment. Right after the Vox leader kills Fink. Hell, take the entire Vox rebellion. All of it is delivered in a way that just feels detached and half-hearted. I felt more intensity from my confrontation with Peaches the smuggler in the first BioShock, honestly. The Vox leader has no personality beyond her being angry. Fink has no personality beyond his being greedy. The scene plays out as though it were between two bare sets of ideals in a debate between two potheads.
Columbia as a concept is still incredibly cool, but looking at screenshots and thinking back to the totality of my experience, it all just kind of runs together for me now. The same quaint honky tonk aesthetic smeared across everything, blurring everything into one giant mosaic of an era. Honestly, I would have loved to explore more of those islands by riding the skylanes, but instead it all amounts to battle arenas encircled by rollercoasters basically. The first DLC, "Cash In the Clouds," is just the final nail in the coffin being carried by those raven guys. I've had my fill.
But then they go and do this...
This is the best thing they could have done at this point, at least as far as I'm concerned.
If you're going to go for a multiverse, then capitalize on it.
I've honestly had enough of hard rock and metal. Gonna put all that aside and just listen to hip hop and soul for a while. Expect the next journal entry to focus mainly on that stuff. Speaking of which, Earl's Doris drops today.