Thursday, 31 December 2009


As I might've mentioned, oh, two or three hundred times by now, it's basically the end of 2009/the decade/time. To celebrate, some lists of Good Things, and, where the inspiration strikes me, a bit of explanation.

Top 5 Albums of 2009
#5 Horrors - Primary Colours
(People are talking about this as, yay, Horros reinvent themselves as good. But I actually quite like Horrors mk.1. Still haven't given this the time it deserves, but enough to recognise, if I do give it what it deserves, it will be probably one of the most long-lasting likes on here. So ludicrously tasty and thick sounding: thanks new sound system!)
#4 Karen O - Where The Wild Things Are
(Still a little unsure about the film- more on that later - and haven't listened to this since seeing it. Beautiful, but probably the most likely record to get kicked off the list, retrospectively. Realise now I never linked to my Redbrick review.)
#3 Emmy the Great - First Love
(This year's largest sufferer of 'love-the-band-but-I've-heard-the-songs-enough-by-the-time-the-album-comes-out' syndrome. Will, no doubt, rediscover at some point, like I did this year with Dan Le Sac/Scroobius Pip's Angles.)
#2 Patrick Wolf - The Bachelor
(I'm probably wrong but, my favourite Wolf. It is, as I learnt this summer, great runnning material, really determined stuff; though, thanks to my limited stamina I'm not that familiar past the first half an hour.)
#1 Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz
(I'll write something huge on this at some point, no doubt. YYYs have been by far my biggest band this year- in both gig and album, but I haven't had a proper Think about them since 2007ish.)

Top 5 Games of 2009

#5 Wii Sports Resort
(Screw you, Borderlands! A more pop choice, for the sheer family-uniting powers it has brought to bear this holiday. And I'm still interested in exploring its single player modes...)
#4 Batman: Arkham Asylum
(Was tight. Did tights right.)
#3 Time Gentlemen Please

(For making me laugh more than anything else this year. A perfect year would've provided me with Brutal Legend, to make a pure comedy Top 5; drop Batman and everything on here has provided more laughs than your average Apatow film, in one way or another. Oh well, no year is perfect, right?)
#2 Red Faction: Guerilla
(Second-biggest laughs provider. A game about revolutionary freedom-fighters/terrorists blowing up builds not funny? Wrong.)
#1 Spelunky
(This one has definitely got more coming. Not that there has been a lack of writing already. Haven't touched it much since Autumn, but it's left its mark. No doubt I'll buy the upcoming 360 version too.)

Top 5 Films of 2009

#5 Let The Right One In
(Beautiful, creepy, Swedish. Still annoyed I missed this in the cinema, but it's possibly the film that's held my mind for the longest
#4 Inglourious Basterds

(Provided I'm actually right about it. Recently found Tarantino's introductory speech for it, and am a bit concerned about my reading. Although, death of the author and all that, does it really matter?*)
#3 The Wrestler
#2 Milk

(As my girlfriend put it last night: "Why are all the films you like the ones that make me cry?")
#1 Up
(More than any other, this is the one that made me realise how are hard, and rubbish, lists are. I forgot this until a quick Google. It's the only film I've seen twice this year, and it genuinely held up. I think pretty much everything has been said by now- it's surprisingly heartbreaking at the start, loses it a bit here and there, but still has a lot of the year's best moments. Even the action-hero bit at the end doesn't feel forced, and genuinely worked. Wouldn't bother with 3D though.)

This one was, surprisingly, the hardest to cut down. So much extra stuff that I really loved this year- I guess it's easier to give yourself to something once. Pending a second viewing, Where The Wild Things Are might have a shot at knocking, I dunno, Inglourious Basterds off the list.All in all, it hasn't been a year where I've cared much for the contemporary. I do love the YYYs album, but haven't visited it as much as I would've had it come out in, say, 2006. And I have, as usual, struggled to keep up with the cinema, while discovering stuff like the Coens' back catalogue. Probably played more TF2 than any other (non-Spelunky) game this year. In the case of gaming, money's probably an issue. One free game, one that cost me £1.99, two I had on rental and a Christmas present. Hey, I started the Moneyless Gamer for a reason.

Musically, new was even harder than contemporary. My favourite albums are almost all by bands I already knew and liked before. Even though, when I've got my Music Editor hat on, we get a constant stream of new into our inbox, and people are raving about this and that, I'm falling behind. Looking at Top Album lists for inspiration, I feel passed-by. Such band names! Crystal Stilts? Neon Indian? They sound like futuristic versions of bands I like. Can these really have come out without my noticing?. And bands I remember hearing about a few years back, when I couldn't keep my nose out of the NME/blogs. Wild Beasts. Future of the Left. Bands I've tried with, and nothing's happened. Bands I like who I didn't even know had new stuff out. Sonic Youth. Gallows.

Perhaps I'm just getting old.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

FLAMING LIPS: Live & Unexpurgated

So, here's the full version of that interview I put up. As I mentioned before, Wayne Coyne says a lot of interesting stuff, so editing it was a bit of a nightmare- he's the kind of guy that comes in longform, y'know? So here's (more or less) the full (edited down to the best bits) interview.

On touring

We’ve been playing since last April. We’ve not played that many shows, but we’re always sorta doing something. So, y’know, it’s a lot. There’s a point I think where you get, like, oh we’re really good at this, and there’s a point where it’s, wow, we’re just playing all the time. But it’s been good.

People seem to really love the new stuff, and we get to do our trip. But today’s the very last day. I mean, I say last day, we’re gonna play a New Year show and then spring… We never really just tour for a year and then take 3 years off. We’re always just kinda playing and recording.

On playing live

For me, I’m not a very good musician so I always feel a bit scared getting up in front of people. ‘Cus I’m just a weirdo doing weirdo things, y’know? I don’t really know if it’s any good. I think people like that junk, and I’m glad they do. But I never feel like it’s really a skill. Anyone could get in that space bubble. And maybe that’s why people like it- anyone could do it, but I’m the one who does it.

The stage vs. the studio

When we’re doing music and stuff- I mean recording- I guess to me that just feels like you’re doing art. I’m more comfortable doing that because people aren’t paying a bunch of money. You know, all these things have to go right when you’re doing a show. There’s a lot of things that have to go right. And when you’re doing your art in your own space and time, that doesn’t all have to go right. There’s no-one paying money, there’s no-one waiting in the cold. I really care about the people that are coming to the show and I want it to be as good as it can be but there’s a lot of things about it you can’t control. So I stress out about those things. Whereas when I’m doing art it’s just me doing shit, I don’t care- it’s just me and the guys and it is what it is.

Keeping interested

When we’re in the studio: the beginning of that, to me, seems like, oh, this is exciting. But if you’re there for months it’s just uhhh. It just beats you down.

So I’m lucky, I think- I get to do a bunch of different things. I get to record. That doesn’t get too boring, or too much the same and then, y’know, touring and I don’t have to do that too much and then I make movies and videos and all kinds of art. I get to do a lot of things so none of it’s too much of a beatdown.

Audience participation

Well, I mean, if you’re a fan of the Flaming Lips, usually… At festivals, obviously, not everyone’s there to see us. But they’re there ‘cause they’re ready to rock. And they’re usually drunk or on acid or something like that. We do a lot of stuff to get them to react. We shoot confetti and we throw balloons and I’m saying ‘c’mon motherfuckers, let’s do this’. I think, if you’ve seen us do a show you kinda know a little bit of what the routine is, or the way our shows go. If you had never seen us play and you’re there with everyone else, I guess it’s kind of like going to someone else’s church or something. At first you don’t know what to do but you just join in with all the stupid shit they do.

The rock concert as artform

We played some stadium shows with Coldplay at the end of the summer. And 80,000 people in this giant stadium- and I think U2 does this as well- but Chris Martin had everybody get out their cellphones and they would do the wave up and down the lengths of the stadium, and they turn off all the lights so all you can see is 80,000 cellphones… And that’s not music and I don’t know if that’s art but it’s some kind of extraordinary experience that you can’t get unless you have 80,000 people there all willing to participate.

The rock concert as mystical force

There’s a lot of groups will simply- y’know they come on stage, they play their music, you listen, that’s the way it goes. But a lot of groups will get the audience involved so the thing just becomes a bigger collaboration of the two energies or whatever. And I think there are probably some groups that don’t feed off of that energy but I know we do. I mean, when the audience gives you that love and enthusiasm it just makes us play better. It has more meaning to it.

The rock concert and the ego

Even though, less than 24 hours ago we played a show where all that happened, when that happens tonight it’ll be fucking amazing again. I never feel really like, ah, fuck this. It’s not a thing that you would get jaded to- ‘cause it really is authentic. To me- I know it’s a dumb analogy- but it would kinda be like having sex. You could have sex last night, have it again tonight, it’d be pretty good. Maybe even better. These things, they rejuvenate themselves and we like it and we want it. I think the audience wants it. We all leave the house ‘cause we want some intense experience that you cant’ just get from being on the internet or watching TV. Being with a bunch of people who all want the same thing to happen at the same time.

Music is magic

Music is some sort of mysterious emotional thing. I’m not a scientist but I know that your experiences enter into your mind or your consciousness through your eyes and your ears and your senses or whatever. And there’s a moment there where you do really get to say, ooh that’s cool I like it and I’m tasting it and I’m feeling it. But then it goes further into your mind and it becomes part of your experiences and mixes with everything else. Y’know, you sing songs and even though the song is the same song, it means different things to everybody in the audience and they bring that with them. They bring their own reason why they love this moment. So, yeah, it’s cool.

What keeps you going?

I sometimes wonder about that– it’s like, do people ever get to a point where they’re just not interested any more? But I don’t think I would be, or I would be, unless I lose my mind or something. I mean, the more I find out about the ways you can make music and the ways you can make art and the people around me helping me do it- I think it just opens up more possibilities of what I can do. And to not be so, I don’t know, self aware- everybody struggles with that, but I think I’m lucky that sometimes I get so obsessed with something, I don’t really care, I just fuckin’ do it and then before I wake up and worry too much it’s already done.

Christmas on Mars

I made this movie Christmas on Mars simply because I was around a bunch of people that were making movies and I started to see- oh, well, I see how you could do this. And it gives you ideas and it inspires you and it makes you think of new possibilities.

And so, y’know, I say things like, anything is possible! Which is kind of a silly idea. But in art, it really is true.

All artforms as one

To me art is… it’s really all the same. I don’t look at music, or painting, or movies… to me it’s all the same trip. I just look at it as, it’s all just dumb art. If you’re an architect or if you’re a fashion designer or if you’re a tattooist, y’know, there’s elements of all that being exactly the same thing. I’m not gonna drop names, but Damien Hirst came to our show the other night. And when I meet people, whether they’re musicians or painters or whatever, everybody’s relating to the same thing. You get some fuckin’ idea in your mind or some idea gets a hold of you and … you just feel like you have to do it. The torture of doing it- which is a lot of torture- is not as bad as the torture of not doing it. So you do it.

Why is art important?

It’s the desire to kind of see the world your way- hear the world your way, to design the world the way you wish it was. It really is a powerful thing to see people not worry about being embarrassed or not worrying about failing. Everybody struggles with that- everything in your life is a struggle, even if you’re not doing art. But when you see artists who just boldly say, fuck it, I’m gonna do this thing, it lets us all think, this thing I wanna be or do with my life, maybe I should just do it. And so there is definitely some value to it. But I know a lot of it is just like masturbation, you’re just doing it cus you like it. Fuck it, I like it. What can you say?

The conception of Embryonic

I guess it’s really all connected- we’d be working on Christmas, these big dense arrangements, we’d spend a lot of time working on them, and at the very end of that, something would trigger something and we’d just throw away all that shit we’d worked on for a year and go with this other thing. And I think that’s really what we’ve learned as we go- that you don’t really know why you like something or how you’re gonna like something. You just know when you do.

The growth of Embryonic

We’d be doing these jams where I’d be paying bass and Kliph [Scurlock] and Steven [Drozd] would be playing drums and we wouldn’t really know what we’re doing.

We would have no preconception of exactly what kind of music we were going to make; we’d jam for ten minutes and collectively think, eh, that kinda ran its course. But, we’d go in the next day, without a lot of awareness of what we’d done and then listen to it. And we’d hear maybe a couple of minutes where we thought, ooh, that’s a cool groove. And none of us would really remember what we intended. We weren’t making music from some other sphere of music in our minds. A lot of times you make music and you’re kinda subconsciously playing music that you’ve already played or that you’ve heard. And we’d hear these things and think, oh that’s cool, and we couldn’t really identify it as being us or somebody else. And that would be enough of a spark.

Working with David Fridmann

He’s intense and he pushes you to do more stuff and he has a lot of ideas and he’s the sonic master in a whole other way. We thought, well, if we like this stuff, we take it up there and he likes it as well, we’ll see if we can really make it something and believe in it. And the best of the stuff that we took up there, he did like it, and he didn’t know what to think of it and he knew it was sloppy and he knew some of it was out of tune. But those are all elements that he likes in music. He knows a lot of musicians will play in time and in tune and there’s times when he doesn’t feel like it matters, he’s just like you should be expressive. So when we took this stuff up there and he thought it’s not played very well but it’s very expressive. And there were things he thought he could do to make it feel more intentional or just more like this is a piece of music rather than this is just a jam And he was right- he made us turn them into songs. So there was just a lot of unknown, I don’t think we had an idea what we were gonna do and as each little piece turned out good we thought fuck it, let’s just do that.

The birth of Embryonic

We write songs all the time cus we think we’re stupid songwriters, you know, but the songs don’t always turn into anything. We had one song we tried to do 5 different times and it always turned into another song- which is great! You have to have confidence that what you’re doing is gonna work and you have to have some fucking reason to do it and a lot of times with us we think we have a great song let’s go and record it.

Even though we don’t really end up with that song it gets us in there and we start doing things. It’s not what you think that happens, it’s what you do that matters. And a lot of times people think it’s just the opposite

Y’know, they’ll say I had this great idea. Too bad it turned out like shit. As if ideas are hard- I mean, ideas are easy. I’m sure everybody has fuckin’ great ideas of how to do things all the time. But doing it is really all that matters.

We don’t like that but it’s the truth. Sometimes you think you’ve got the greatest song ever and you go in to record it and, it’s not very good. But you don’t know that until you get in there, but it turns into something else and using your eyes and your ears and your senses you can do that thing and I think that’s all we are trying to do.

Also, turns out the Lips cover album of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon has been released on iTunes (along with also-interviewed Stardeath & White Dwarfs, as well as mHenry Rollins and Peaches.) My timing almost looks intentional, doesn't it?

Let's call it a celebration of that! I'm actually quite excited to hear the album, strikes me as a typically Flaming-Lips kind of idea; i.e. the kind of stuff they excel at. Unfortunately, it appears to be iTunes only, which I don't (and refuse to) use. So we'll see...

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Always Listen To The Man Riding The Gorilla

"When we’re doing music and stuff, I mean recording, that just feels like you’re doing art. I’m more comfortable doing that. You know, when you’re doing a show, there’s a lot of things that have to go right. And when you’re doing your art in your own space and time, that doesn’t all have to go right. There’s no-one paying money, there’s no-one waiting in the cold. I really care about the people that are coming to the show and I want it to be as good as it can be but there’s a lot of things about it you can’t control. So I stress out about those things. Whereas when I’m doing art, it’s just me doing shit, I don’t care. It’s just me and the guys and it is what it is."
-Wayne Coyne

I really can't believe it took me this long to put this up on here. Probably my top Look-Daddy-I'm-A-Real-Journalist! moment of this year was successfully negotiating an interview with the Flaming Lips. Me and the ever-lovely Erica A Vernon shootin' the breeze with Wayne Coyne about art, live performance vs recordings and their new album, Embryonic produced, unsurprisingly, one of the best interviews I've done. Turns out that Mr Coyne's a very talkative, polite and wise gentleman (though, it must be said, with quite a mouth on him. My gran had a copy of Redbrick the other day and I could see her being pointed in the direction of my article. A lot of F-bombs in this one. Those rockstars, eh?)

"We feel like we’re a separate band. We know why we’re associated. But we don’t mind, it doesn’t really bother us. We’re doing exactly what we wanna do, making the kind of music and doing the kind of shows we wanna do. As long as we’re doing that, it doesn’t matter to us who we get associated with.And we love the Flaming Lips, we don’t mind people comparing us to them. It’s cool."
-Dennis Coyne

I also met and interviewed the Lips' support band, Stardeath & White Dwarfs. Again, Dennis Coyne (Wayne's nephew) was a lovely bloke. It was something of a case of seeing how far I could push a journalistic angle- in this case, being in the Lips' shadow- without infuriating the interviewee. Decide yourself whether I succeeded.

Oh, and bringing together a fair few threads in one neat I-didn't-write-it package, here's an interesting Dave Eggers rant on 'selling out', taken from some quite scary-sounding interview, and framed largely around the Flaming Lips' recent appearance on 90210. He's an eloquent man, is that Dave.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Team Thought-ress

And so it is that another free weekend of Team Fortress 2 comes to an end. I haven't spent as long as I might have wanted, due to the aforementioned birthday celebrations. My logical brain tells me this is probably a good thing.

Meanwhile, my lower functions scream at the accursed social life.

I'm hooked. I'm hooked bad, in a way I haven't been since my first experience with TF2 two Christmasses ago.* Is it the sweet, satisfyingly lumpy sensation of every successful kill? Well, yes. The giggle-inducing, pun-loving presentation? Definitely. The beautiful Pixar-cartoon design? Even though my non-gaming-friendly laptop appears to have knifed up the graphics in a back-alley, yes.
It's very much all of that. But why now?
It's the fault of... and, okay, appreciate this is a multiplayer deathmatch game about two teams called BLU and RED, killing each other, respawning, killing each other, with a cast of characters entirely made up of red/blue versions of various unbending stereotypes - German mad-scientist doctors, Australian huntsmen snipers, French gentlemen spies... it was the fault of Narrative.

It all began with a mystifying comic put up online at the TF blog, which peeled back the curtain of the game, to show the (fictional) workings under each fight. TF2 has always done mini-narratives well: the basic premise puts your own small story (clocking up kills) in front of a backdrop of a larger story (capturing the control point). Simple but effective- the basis of most multiplayer shooters.

More unique stuff like the game's Domination feature- announcing a character who has killed you multiple times as your rival - and the natural class rivalries/symbioses that develop (the love between a hit-point-endowed Heavy and his Medic) build on that effectively, allowing you to sketch your own story on top of everything happening (and exploding) around you.I reckon, perhaps controversially,** that Achievements, flawed and artificial though they are, extend that. Team Fortress is probably as close to playing an MMO I'm ever going to come. It means a certain level of grinding for the newer, exciting-er weapons but, allowing you to put progress bars and reminders for achievements on the screen, there's a constant sense of varied aims and slow improvement. In traditional narrative terms, character development.

But this week was the first time it's ever imposed such a big meta-narrative over the gameplay. First, making the narrative explicit with (admittedly nonsensical) backstory for the fight, and then setting up a direct war- between the rocket-jumping Soldier and explosive-wielding Scottish cyclops Demoman, all done in traditionally well-written, genuinely funny style over the Team Fortress blog. The winner would receive a special unlockable weapon.And that was it. I had to represent for my chosen side (the Soldiers, obv) so I re-installed TF2, fired up a game and jumped straight into the Soldier's boots, where I loyally stayed for the duration. The thing being, while I probably would have started playing TF2 again this Christmas, nothing else would have got me this instantly attached.

Watching my 'War Contribution' kill-counter slowly tick up, immediately booing at any Demomen I saw, furrowing my brow and making a mental note to throw as many rockets their way as possible (those damned Scots!) and striving to get better at that, TF2 temporarily took over my brain. I was logging on every chance I got, checking the War results like a football fan.
There are some stats floating around on the internet somewhere*** tht show the spike TF2 sales take after each update, and it's well deserved. There was a large internet backlash when Valve announced a Left4Dead2, rather than merely updating the first game for free, and TF2 is the reason. But I can't see L4D updates pushing up the number of interested gamers the way these do- a lot of that is probably due to the more finite nature of level add-ons in an essentially linear game, and a lot to do with the clever way TF2 is marketed- take the Meet The... videos, individual works of genius.

With every update, the attention to detail and sheer amount of jokes (under which a mythos is starting to quietly creep in) are astounding. The value-for-money feeling is as much reading the fake newspapers and comics and watching the videos, as it is the addition of weapons and maps. And it's testament to Valve's investment in new ways of storytelling. This is a game which doesn't feature a single cutscene, but which has managed to build an atmosphere, if not a particularly necessary fiction.
For all people talked about L4D telling a story in a new way with its graffiti and posters (and it did that reasonably well, but in a too-limited way), this is the ultimate showing-off of Valve's confidence. Because they're ace, and they understand gamers of all types- the whole spectrum of nerd- and they make computer games I buy 2 or 3 times.

If you're reading this and it's still Sunday, then the game is still free and you can get it from Steam here. I leave you with the latest promo video, Meet The Spy.

*In many ways, TF2 is as much a Christmas tradition as over-eating and kids' films for me. First got the 360 Orange Box in the boxing-day sales and lost the rest of my Christmas holidays to it. I bought it again for some mystifying reason on PC, where it entirely failed to run until I received a new laptop last Christmas, and kissed farewell to any chances of leaving the house till New Year. And... well, here we are again. A lot of free time, a lot more work to do, and the temptation. Oh, the temptation.

**Controversially because I know a lot of people- PC people especially, and me includedly- look down a bit on achievements as a cheap play-me-look-play-me grinding mechanic. Which they can certainly be, and I'm in no way endorsing the fact that sale page up there including "326 Steam Achievements!" amongst the game's features.

***Just not within reach of my Google-stick.

It's been a long time, shouldn'ta left you...

Without some dope words to step to.*

It's been my birthday- a week-and-a-bit long extravaganza of partying, consumption of food and alcohol, and occasional self-harm. Which means I'm 21- taking stock of my life time, I suppose. But more importantly, each day flowing into the next and threading an endless canvas of hangover, I haven't been able to update here. And I've got some really stuff kicking around on the internet, and specifically at my beloved Redbrick.
First up is (co-produced with beautiful co-ed Erica A Vernon), my 60-minute round-up of 2009's singles. Generally speaking, the best, but sometimes just the most important-seeming. I say a lot of vaguely controversial things like
Yeah, it's not Bonkers (overplayed) or Holiday (failed single pushed until people believed they must like it). There's a little something more to Dirtee Cash; the playful Rascal of old striking out at the world at a speed that mean you don't notice. And that title can be only be a dig at the haters."
Though our photo-collage doesn't seem to have been put up online, trust me when I say it was beautiful. Read the lot here.
(And in the interests of multi-media content, a complete Spotify playlist.)

Even more excitingly, our Top 40 Albums of the Decade comes to a close.
It kicked off back in October, all the way back here.
But if you're just looking for a quick fix, and find out who was #1, check here.

I'm really proud of this list; it had a few WTF moments, I suspect, while the top end of the list was probably a bit generic (which is not to say wrong), but there are some really good you-should-listen-to-this-becauses on there. And you should listen to most of them.

*A quick Google to double-check the lyrics (before bending them) proves that this is pretty much the go-to heading for 'haven't posted in a while' blogs. I am no beautiful, unique snowflake.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

A Week of Obsessions

My use of magical music infinito-software Spotify has started to change (evolve? devolve? I'm unsure) recently. I remember my confusion, upon initially downloading Spotify, at the sheer wall of music that lay before me, bigger and growing faster than it would ever be possible to listen to. A joyful confusion, to be sure, but nihilistic in its revelation of my ultimate insignifance.

So I used it as a Kate Bush listening-machine.

After a while, I discovered playlists. I could allow other people to whittle down this impossible amount of music. With this confidence, I discovered Spotify as a request-granting immediate-gratification social DJing tool.ut, finally, its true purpose has been revealed: Spotify is the replacement for the role the NME; MTV2; MySpace and various blogs have served throughout my life. The discovery feed. Without much commitment, I can hear pretty much anything- all I need to know is the name. (Which remains, of course, the big difficulty in discovering music.)

There's a much longer post in me on the nature of discovering music, and the drive behind that so, with no further ado, I recommend the accompanying playlist to Pitchfork's Top 500 songs of the 21st Century list. And three songs, two that I've listened to on repeat and one that inspired me enough to write this post.

El-P - Stepfather Factory
I am constantly torn by my love of hip-hop. It's very limited, to certain acts and specific song and then, I know it all feeds one emotion- this male, chest-beating aggression thing. I know it can be a pretty harmful genre, socially. It's irresponsible.
Then I hear this and it's genuinely terrifying in the way some of OK Computer was when I first heard it. The nearest comparison I can draw, soundwise, is I Can Ride A Bike With No Handlebars, if you remember that. The ultimate disenfranchised attack on American values, corporations, the family unit... It'd be mockably, teenage-ly, broad if not for its genius idea- the titular Stepfather Factory. And then it bends some of the sounds just right and it's threatening and depressing and a call to arms.

The Honeydrips - (Lack of) Love Will Tear Us Apart

I haven't actually listened to this much yet, but I can spot an obsession when it's coming. Distant, airy female vocals, clever-clever title, and a beat that sounds like a stretched-out combination of '90s dance and Christmas jingles. It's a bit of a pity there has to be a male (pseudo-rapping) voice on the track at all, but it only lasts about 10 seconds.

Antony & The Johnsons - Hope There's Someone

This is the big one, the most obsessed I've been with a song in months, possibly longer. When he won the Mercury prize from pretty much nowhere in 2005? and got hit by the NME hype-train, I made the mistake of scoffing. I was young and didn't know better. A musing on loneliness? Sexuality? Death? All of the above? It really doesn't matter- the strange wavering voice is genuinely touching and actually oddly catchy... I'm trying hard not to fall into my normal journalistic mode of description here. Suffice to say, if you like any kind of emotion in your music, you owe it to yourself to listen to this song. Three listens should give it the time to embed itself in your soul.

Sometimes, it's enough to just be the guy that tells people about nice songs.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

"How I'd Love To Feel A Girl Your Age..."

I can't believe I've never written about Phonogram before.* In short, a comic about how music is magic, with a playlist of Kenickie, The Smiths and, relevantly, the Long Blondes. You can perhaps see why I like it. The latest issue, Lust Etc, finally inspired me to put finger to keyboard and produce this, a review.
"It’s hardly a criticism to say a comic left you wanting more, but given that Phonogram mk2 was always going to be my favourite/most important comic of ‘09, there’s something almost infuriating about the tiny 16 page stories told in the pages of The Singles Club. Almost. Each vignette falls very comfortably into the realms of small-but-perfectly-formed, and every time my (musical) worldview is subtly changed, and every time I find myself thinking ‘I wish I’d thought of that’. But there’s just not enough time to invest myself in these characters."
To watch me stumble through pain and praise, in both plain and purple prose, check the review out here. As usual, I can't resist taking the less obvious path, and wander into wider commentary and theory on music, comics and my huge man-crush on Kieron Gillen.

*Journalistically, anyway. Some corner of my dissertation will be forever Phonogram's.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Like an evil twin...

Welcome to the bi-weekly comeback.

I'm posting this from my once-broken laptop. Damn it's good to have my baby back. As usual, been busy editing the hell out of Britain's best-looking student paper Redbrick. Still, I've had time to write up a fair few things, and now the time has link to them!First up, my visit to Eurogamer Expo '09 bears further fruit. I equally gush and rant about my look at forthcoming 360 sneaky-shooty-game Splinter Cell Conviction. I'm getting the hang of this preview business...
"After a very smooth opening cutscene, showing Sam Fisher interrogating some generic evil-doer by smashing his face into urinals as information gained was projected on the wallls, Fisher runs out into a civilian-packed street. Pulling his gun out causes a panic, people running away and shouting, allowing Fisher in a very Assassin’s Creed-esque moment to slip amongst them unnoticed by guards. The game might have gone “back to the drawing board” a year or so ago, but its certainly kept the initial mission statement, a game about hiding in plain sight."
Spot the internal battle raging, to stop me just constantly repeating the word 'smooth' throughout. Read the rest here.

Second, a (late, as usual) return to the Moneyless Gamer feature for With slightly less immediate enthusiasm than my usual posts, I basically link to experimental weird-out game . The post is probably the most normal thing I've ever written, but I'm trying a bit of an experiment (to match the game). Hint: There's more to come...
"Less a game than a mass experiment, Dungeon is nevertheless worth playing. I'm a bit afraid I don't have the necessary reach here to get discussion rolling the way the game really needs, but there's no way I can't talk about it. Created by Swedish one-man prolific indie-game machine Jonathan Söderström (aka Cactus)."
If you play it (and I heartily endorse giving it a go), please, post on the article and tell me what you thought of it. Here.
Meanwhile, in my other life: The Redbrick Top 40 best albums of the 21st Century (that's right, the whole damn' millenium.) It's starting to get really interesting, as all the classic choices pop up. I've even written a few entries for it. Start here, and you should be able to click through to where we are now (#'s 20-16 should be going up in the next day or so).
Alternatively, you can pick your starting point by going here.

I've also argued out the Hot(ish) Topic of band reunions with my co-ed Erica Anne Vernon. She likes 'em, I think they're a force for evil. FIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!

This post carved out of the very flesh of its brother.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What I Did With My Weekend...

I've been away awhile but I'm b-b-BACK. Don't call it a comeback.

In that time, I've battled a broken laptop, edited the hell out of a few issues of Britain's hottest* student paper Redbrick, and attended a games-expo. It's been a pretty fun time. Somehow, during all that, I found the time to write up a coupla articles for y'all.First up, it's a (late) return to the Moneyless Gamer feature for the lovely yet-MMO-keen people at I talk about joyous crayoned-in speed-platformer, Runman, and just why YOU should play it. Because it's the best, that's why.
"Level names like ‘The Awesome Zone’ reveal exactly what the game is about (apart from having a genuinely funny and warm personality): making you feel damn awesome. The very best sugar-rush speed moments match that of the Burnout games, and as your little yellow mascot cheers encouragement (WOO! OH SNAP!), you’re going to have to smile along with him."
Click here and you can be awesome too.

Second, the fruits of my visit to Eurogamer Expo '09 begin to flower. I write about the PS3's next-big-thing, point&click thriller Heavy Rain.
"The comparison to film is important- Heavy Rain is gaming's equivalent to the thriller. Obviously so; it wears the trappings of a Se7en or Usual Suspects, but more importantly it captures the central feel of them- the thrill. Until now, games have looked like a thriller- see Condemned for a game example- but they've never played like a thriller- Condemned had dark moody atmosphere and the occasional jump, but it was more akin to a survival horror than a true thriller."
Yup, it's one a' them there revolutionary games**. Do I crown it gaming's Citizen Kane, or noble failed experiment? There's only one way to find out.

Finally, I haven't technically written anything for it yet (I'm the curator), but we've got a Redbrick countdown going on, of the 40 best albums of this whole millenium. Where the hell is your favourite? Good question: check it out/complain here.

*By hottest I mean most-attractivest. Obv.

**There's a beautiful video of what the game is capable of (or more excitingly, was capable of in 2006) here.

Monday, 5 October 2009

I'm So Proud of It, I Put (the back of) My Face On It!

A new thing for our good friends Gamersyndrome: this time the start of (what I hope will be) a beautiful new feature: THE MONEYLESS GAMER. Basically, I have taken the realisation that I'm someone with very little money to buy games and spun this into (what I hope will be) a good thing. Flash games, demos, deals, everything. All in one handy corner, with lengthy discourse attached.

For #001 I do Time Fcuk. Example quote:
"It takes the head-against-wall element of trying to grasp at the logic of a puzzle game and makes its key motif. Where Braid used this brain-crunching confusion to hint at a higher meaning, here it is transformed into a masochistic and – not unlike, say, the game version of certain Nine Inch Nails songs."
It's... well, it's better if you play it, really. That Edmund McMillen knows how to mess with people.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Like a final, fatal LiveJournal entry...

I am sitting in a room, different to the one you are sitting in. I am watching a television: on mine, Peter Andre is talking about Eminem. Perhaps he is on yours too. Now Edith Bowman is begging us to vote, please give us your money and keep watching, just don't stop watching.

And, hopefully, one part of this scenario will have jumped out and, frankly, slapped you in the face. In Edith's words "Superfan Peter Andre is telling us why Eminem deserves the title of the World's Greatest Pop Artist of all time." Peter Andre. Superfan Peter Andre.He just told us that since Eminem's comeback, "nothing matters" (including explicitly in that the death of his friend Bizarre). It meant nothing. Not now Eminem's Relapsed. I've discussed my feelings on the comeback before. But I do love Eminem.

However, Peter's (obviously fully informed) speech tells us that he was the first person to inject any kind of edginess or controversy or, it is implied, politics into hip-hop. He was the first important white person in rap. Please, be quiet, Chuck D, Erik B, Beasties, and allow your erasing from pop history.

This overstating of Eminem's importance is starting to get at me now. I can understand the discussion of Eminem's lyrics by an English Professor, and to be honest he's the most relevant figure in a series of talking heads featuring James Morrison, Lemar, and some actors. But the claim of Eminem as a modern Shakespeare isn't just hyperbolic- it's fairly obviously not even accurate.

Oh wait, have to stop writing. Up Next... Eminem The New Elvis.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


Today is a very Alex Spencer-heavy day on the internet. Rejoice!

Part I.
In which I write a (not to give too much away, but completely loving) review of PC pointy-clicky game Time Gentlemen Please for good ol' Gamersyndrome. In it, I say witty things like:
"Time Gentlemen, Please is a point-and-click adventure game where your inventory will simultaneously feature a skeleton arm dipped in Hitler’s bloody fetal matter, glasses stolen from a Neanderthal geek, and some condoms. It follows (very closely) in the grand tradition of the classic Lucasarts adventure games now seeing a resurgence."
Read the rest here to see how much of the game I resist giving away. If you're looking for a walkthrough (avast, intrepid Googler), this review features some very, very soft hints.

Part II.
I which I write a (similarly loving) review of the forthcoming Image graphic novel Beast for sexy, sexy Comicsnexus.
"At its heart, Beast is both indie-as-can-be slice of life and classic genre story. The two meet and touch, but its not a mash-up in the way, say, Jamie McKelvie’s urban fairytale Suburban Glamour is.The story moves along leisurely, letting the actions of Colette, our protagonist, set the pace."
And read the rest here, to find out whether I can resist stealing this joke from Penny Arcade.

For those of you counting at home, the scores are probably 8, and 9. Which way round? YOU DECIDE!

Monday, 31 August 2009

Dun-duh-duh, dun-dun-dun-duh, dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun-duh-duh

I find a new platform* for my yapping over at the lovely, and begin by looking at upcoming jumpy-game New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
"Nintendo have recently come out and admitted that, perhaps, their E3 showing was a bit weak. Certainly alongside Microsoft’s big Milo/Natal double-team, it wasn’t much. But, for a company so often accused these days of neglecting their “hardcore” audience- that’d be us guys- the headlines seemed to spell out ‘Nintendo Go Back To The Franchises’: two Mario games, a new Metroid and hints about a forthcoming Zelda."
BUT THERE'S A TWIST! Read the rest here.
*Yup, this was certainly a pun.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

(In?)Glourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's developed a different reputation, it seems, in the wake of Kill Bill and Grindhouse. He's started to become entangled with the traits he played with there: breaking-the-rules, ironic ridiculousness, over-the-top-till-its-funny violence and homage to so-bad-they're-good b-movies. And so when he does something in Inglourious Basterds, I almost feel a traitor for thinking about it seriously.

Which leads me straight into the film's biggest problem: Michael Myers. Funny when spotted in the credits, his Austin-Powers performance is so out-of-sync with the rest of the film it's...well, it's not funny. But because of the type of filmmaker QT's become, raising these concerns with my friends was invalidated- just another joke. And it is a funny film, but at its best you're laughing with (or, perhaps, at) the characters, not at the film.

It feels like Tarantino's trying to make a point in Inglourious, in a way I haven't seen since that original statement: film characters have mundane lives too, y'know. And this is where I think Inglourious' negative reception comes from- that infamous one-star Guardian review, for example.

Its hard not to give too much away, and I applaud the advertising campaign which has completely misserved the tone of the film (it comes off as a Brad Pitt action romp, which it really isn't.) But if you're going to see, I wouldn't read on (I mean, I'd bookmark it and come back after and shower me with praise for my insight whilst linking all my friends, but that's just me. Just a suggestion.)

I think Inglourious is an attempt at taking apart the last films Tarantino's made- Kill Bill and Death Proof. It precisely isn't those films- there's probably less action in this one than Reservoir Dogs- though it takes something from them. That last moment in Kill Bill Vol. 2, where Bea's both crying and laughing and its the only time in the entire film anyone seems to make to anything to think, is all this revenge actually a good idea?

The film is clearly pointed- the first two scenes serve as a perfect mirror- just as Col. Landa (wonderfully played, in the one thing everyone seems to agree on, by Christoph Waltz) hunts the Jews, and makes an extended, charismatic but horrifying argument for it, Lt Raine (Brad Pitt, I'm not sure if he's another pure exertion of Pitt's charisma or a one-dimensional cut-out) hunts the Nazis. But Raine doesn't really seem to have a reason- because the genre demands it! Because they're Nazis and they're bad!

Meanwhile, they offer the same choice to their captive audience- a French farm-owner and a Nazi sergeant- sell out your friends to your own benefit (i.e., survival) or don't, and die. The Frenchman accepts, while the Nazi- boo! hiss!- stays loyal. And is very much killed. Woo! Yay!

It seems like, by presenting us with cinema's (and history's) easiest baddie (excluding, of course, the loathsome CommieNazi), Tarantino is actually looking at how easily violence came in Kill Bill's three-figure death count and how good he is at it- the stand-out scene in Death Proof is the wonderously misogyno-death scene of its (up till then) four main characters, played out in repeating, protracted pornographic slow-mo.

The deaths here are inglorious- there's no murder porn* as good as the Stuck in the Middle ear-subtraction, and the good guys come off as zealots. Even the Bea-2.0 character of Shoshanna, with a violently played out cause for revenge, is more terrorist than freedom fighter.

Okay, in the words of John Lydon, I could be wrong, I could be right: perhaps Tarantino really is just making impulse decisions 'cause they're kewl. And, if I am right*, its hardly the newest idea to say, yeah, but the German soldiers weren't all Nazis or, maybe film violence is bad. Like all these things, though, its about context. The mainstream arena these ideas are being presented in, the subtle way** you can read the film either way, and the way it works against Tarantino's reputation, make it interesting in a way chin-stroking Oscar-baiters or blatantly dogmatic addresses at the audience just never are for me.

But, undeniably, Inglourious Basterds shifts the Tarantino brand- it strips away (probably not intentionally) the uber-cool soundtrack and the perfect remember-them casting, the pop-culture references and the worst excesses of ultra-violence. I think the reason I like this film so damn much is that I've finally realised what the Tarantino Thing is: the long, play-like scenes, the way he uses dialogue as a weapon to build tension and finally, messily, release. The entire film is a simple build-and-release tension-builder, and when we finally reach the violent loosing of that tension, nothing is ever really achieved***.

But that's Tarantino for ya.*And, okay, the film features Eli Roth, King Of Torture Porn, in an absolutely appalling turn as the promisingly built-up 'Bear Jew', so obviously we're not entirely shaking off the shackles of violence oppression here.
**Some would say "the proves-you-wrong way".

***There's an obvious way of arguing against this. Bring it. Come on. I dares ya.

(Confession: I realise that the
"Say auf Widersehen to your Nazi balls!" moment, at which I laughed at louder than the entire cinema like the absolutely abhorrent human being I am, somewhat undermines this argument. Its possibly the most ridiculous moment in any Tarantino film. I never said it was perfect- either my argument or the film. I just think we have to register some change.)

Saturday, 8 August 2009

I'm The Fastest Man Alive: In Praise of Flow-Gaming

As my life takes on the traditional summer-holiday form of long days of gaming with little other nutrition, so do my for-the-blog scribblings become a games-only paradise*. But none of them still quite scratch the lingering itch that only Spelunky can satisfy. That is, something elegant yet mindless to do with my fingers while I chat/watch TV/listen to music.

It's why my girlfriend plays Tetris and Spider Solitaire while she catches up on Smallville**, why my flatmates play endless hours of Football Manager; it's the unique debt we owe to laptops. 5 of us in a room, following (currently) the many running-people on TV and listening to the Ramones and discussing the "is she a man" controversy and never breaking the illusion of social contact.Admittedly a lot of NG's flow involves people's limbs messily falling off.There's a sense of pure uncomplicated flow to all these games that just fills a need. And even in console games- which tend to be a just-for-me, more serious time-consuming activity, I've found myself craving that flow. I think this is exacerbated by the death of my 360 and, in lieu of shooty games, seeking that other love of mine, the jumpy game.

And it's something I've just failed to find in the amusing, interesting mechanics of Super Paper Mario, or the pretty cartoon landscapes and addictive challenges of Wario Land: Shake It. They're just not bouncy enough, frankly. It's the same reason I love the Ninja Gaiden games, infuriatingly difficult though they might be at times, over more artistically interesting (and equally infuriating) games like, say, No More Heroes***.

Now, having not touched Ninja Gaiden for maybe 6 months, if I close my eyes, I can imagine the exact moves. My fingers twitch automatically, dancing for where the buttons should be- a quick bounce of that guy's head (R + A) to flip back off wall (A), then shoot myself (Y) back at him, get in a quick couple of slices (XX) before finishing with a uppercut stab (Y).

There's a sense of these games as an extension of your body, and the repetitive motion is their draw. It's not a longing to do a particular level or move in Ninja Gaiden that causes me to inevitably crack open the case every six months- it's a desire for its familiar mechanics. It's soothing and at the same time I feel powerful.

Which might seem a bit of a paradox in a game so infamously difficult, and with Spelunky being almost as hard. Sometimes the actual flow of movement on screen gets interrupted, often by death, but as I learn, I internalise the game's mechanics. In Spelunky (and when I watch my girlfriend play Spider Solitaire I can see it happening in her head), I can look at a situation and, if I take my time, imagine the many- but finite- possible outcomes. The arc this thrown rock will take, how and when that spider will fall- into an arrow trap, which might wake the skeleton-is it an undead
or just a throwable skull?- a simple bomb
should solve it and let me safely
down to the next--

I'm sorry, I need to go and play Spelunky. I've spent too long quietly typing this and not paying attention to the running-types on TV.

*And, I realise, quite rarely committed to the blog itself. Internet's been in a mess, etc. Comment if you've really missed me enough that you feel left down.

**This isn't an activity I encourage, but am consistently morbidly curious about it.
***You can't even jump in NMH. This is a travesty.

(Confession: I'm aware this is about the most autobiography-heavy post I've ever done, for which I apologise. Handsome or no, I'm certainly less interesting than ninjas, tomb-raiders and Britney Spears.
Confession II: I'm also aware the point of this post meandered more than a little. Apologies to the many teachers and markers who I am sure will recognise this quirk from every essay I've ever written.)

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Halo 2; Take 2. A Tribute to Rocket Guy.

The warthog rolls. Rolls. Say a quick prayer… Rolls! Yes! I’m back on my wheels, crew fully intact. I thank the UNSC for the divine gift of roll-cages. Oo-rah!
Yes, it's unmistakably Halo. I think the game gets a bad rep: that it attracts an audience of what might be (unkindly, but not uncommonly) termed idiots. This is the meta-story of Halo: the game for jocks. Also, the game that saved a system (Microsoft's first Xbox). Sometimes people talk about the infamous 30-seconds-of-great-gameplay idea.

But most of the time: it's the shooting game for jocks. And, admittedly, it's never going to be a classic example of Games-as-Art. Even a rabid fan like me (if I was doing an RPS-style Gaming Made Me- and I might yet- the first Halo would have to be on there.)

I think that the reason for this status it that Halo, in multiplayer at least, is as close an example to sport as exists in gaming. A pure set of rules, occasionally tweaked, presented clearly; an environment for competition to flourish in.But there's more to it than that. In its best incarnations (not Halo 3- a finely tuned sport for sure, but lacking a truly satisfying campaign), the singleplayer is a triumph. And here's why that bit works, for me: it lets you role-play.

I think it might just me be but... my fellow marines. In another favourite, Bioshock, the bittersweet triumph of felling a noble Big Daddy hurt. In Halo, losing the ally riding shotgun in my Warthog (the imaginatively named Rocket Guy) in a volley of purple laser causes me to emit a Vader-like “NOOO!” in mourning.

Reason? Well, because I’m obsessively compulsive about keeping them all alive, the way I used to be about having 100% health (and a round number of bullets in each gun) in GTA3, a perfect record in Splinter Cell.

But, more importantly, because in very basic ways these marines feel human. They shout like the marines from Aliens at opportune moments, and have individual accents. The much-mourned Rocket Guy, for example, was Australian, and knowing even that gives me something to grasp onto. Because, ultimately, half of the joy of gaming is role-playing.

(The other half being rules, testing yourself against them, and testing their limitations. I know a lot of people who enjoy this element of Halo, too- seeking out the highest possible point on a given map, or investigating the "grenades under a Warthog" rumour.)
Back to the point- I want to believe I am Master Chief, quietly iconic, as I crush a car under my tank tracks. The Master Chief would never leave a man behind. Even when it meant sacrificing the flow of the game a little- going back and replaying the last 10 minutes because . Testing the limits of the rules, again, but for a purpose. The replay becomes a mechanic in its own right, something that couldn't exist in any other medium.

It’s for this reason that the first level of Halo 2 is so brilliant. It knows exactly how excited you were going to be, dropping the hot-off-the-presses disc into the tree, and cribs from the Half-Life pre-game pre-amble, 10 minutes before you can even pick up a gun. But, with marines cheering me on as I stroll around a military base, I feel like a war hero. A celebrity. Later, my alien adversaries running away, screaming warnings of “The Demon”. An icon.And soon I've played too much and I have to put the Xbox away for a while. And then, the website steps in and lights up that excitable young boy in me (the one who never played D&D or any hardcore roleplaying, but looked at those fat glossy books of figures and descriptions and ...wondered). Being able to read pages from the Halo Bible describing weapons, enemies and vehicles, sounds pedestrian -every game manual, surely- but the fiction runs deep. Reading marines’ accounts and comments on each topic gives a further edge of authenticity, next time I'm fighting to keep marines alive. It's especially fascinating to see the fiction interact with the gameplay: a Ghost’s fuel tank is on its left-hand-side, so that is its weak point. It’s a world as immersive as you want to make it.
(All of which is a little jarring next to the aforementioned sport of the online experience. A world of brillo-pad-to-the-soul-American-teenager-accents and racist abuse. A brilliant game, but with an execrable community behind it. That reputation is perhaps rightly deserved, but I've had some real tense, competitive games of Halo, more than anything else I've ever played.)

So, Halo isn't a piece of art. I don't think many other people feel anything for their marines (in fact, I know people who purposely kill them, an idea which makes me wince as much as someone pulling the wings off a fly.) I know this is the last of the great Halo campaigns.

But, the truth is: crouched behind a boulder as plasma bolts chip away at it, with Cortana whispering advice into my earpiece and fingering a magnum, I feel like James Bond, so why should anything else matter?

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Captain America- (Re)born Slippy?

One of those easy I-prepared-this-earlier link posts while I do important real-life stuff like move house: me and friend-of-the-blog Tom 'Daylight' Huxley take on the first issue of Ed Brubaker's new Captain America: Reborn comic.

Follow the link for comparisons to Lost, shocking confessions, and discussion of reactions to celebrity death (which reminds me that I meant to write about the whole Michael Jackson thing, but I'm still not sure what I have to add.)
Confession: I reluctantly typed then deleted that title, but the pun is actually quite fitting. Actually, it's a little bit spoilerish. But fitting.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Monday Links

Dunno if this'll actually become an at-all-regular feature, but I've got a few recommended URLs to share, so I might as well stick 'em up.

This is a bit old now, but Kieron Gillen of my adored recently wrote a series of reviews for a WHSmiths' 7-in-1 Magnetic Family Board Game set. Both funny and, oddly, genuinely thought-provoking. But more importantly, taught me the Mr Chess joke. The Mr Chess joke now rules my life.

Not his best, but Simon 'chewing pixels' Parkin's latest gaming-themed story is up at GameSetWatch. I can't help but imagine Parkin as a little elfin boy, and he's never less than interesting- in this case, I'd imagine, even to non-gamers. Check it out.

Something I found through my tasty comics affiliates,, this is called 'Neil's A-Z of Awesomeness.' No (well, very little) reading. Awesome. 'Nuff said.

Amanda Palmer writes an open letter explaining how "an Indie musician can make $19,000 in 10 hours using twitter (yet get $0 for a big, somewhat-successful album”. I don't think this horse is flogged quite dead yet, so...the music industry seems a little broken. I got it from Warren Ellis' blog, and it's not (as far as I can see) NSFW. Which is a miracle in and of itself.

Most addictive game of the week goes to the genius concept of Broken Picture Telephone, an online combination of . As massively multiplayer a game as I've ever played, and with a lovely community. It also has a quite brilliant 'Boss Alert' mode. You will play it and it will consume you.

...Narrowly beating out the wonderful Learn To Fly, a game about penguin who just wants to fly, dammit. The caveat that came with it (via, again, chewingpixels) was 'give it till Day 7', and I advise the same.

Apple Trailer of the Week
...obviously goes to the new Studio Ghibli film, Ponyo. Not 100% sold on the concept from just this trailer, but the design on the lead character (and all his tiny mini-versions) are just beautiful.

And, finally, in the spirit of Twitter's Music Mondays, this fine song features both guest vocals from me (try and spot the sneaking Brummie invasion- it's subtle!) and the chorus "You're a bitch, you're a whore." Lovely stuff.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Redbrick Pt II (La Roux, Patrick Wolf) : Print Still Ain't Dead.

More of my dangerously intimate involvement in the end-of-year issue of Redbrick.
Reviews of Patrick Wolf and La Roux gigs. Click for the much-prettier PDF (also here for my official introduction and mourning of my predecessor, written by my fine and above-all-professional colleague Ms. Erica Vernon) or read on for blog-format, with bonus behind-the-scenes confessions. It's an androgyny special!

First up, most famous hairstyle in the Western World, surprising-chart-success, Ms Ellie Jackson and La Roux:
"Coming on to stage to alternating chants of 'La Roux, La Roux is on fire' and 'Get your bum out'; it's almost immediately a case of audience versus band.
Singer Elly Jackson, who has pretty much taken on (for tonight, at least) the mantle of La Roux herself, timidly tries to play down the attention. The tunes take a while warming up and for a while the atmosphere struggles.
But soon, with the dance-to-me lights and kickin' bass there to back her up, the crowd obey the command to get their groove on.
The gig is a showcase for unheard songs from the forthcoming album, an assurance there's some range and depth still to be seen. By the time they finally play the hit single In For The Kill, any awkwardness is gone and everyone is dancing.
Elly's even got the balls to not make it the last song. That honour goes to the new single, Bulletproof, which proves to be the song of the night, even though I'd never heard it before. It's the song everyone goes out, satisfied, into the cold night air humming."

And the picture-of-Dorian-Gray, costume-stylin' Romantic spaceboy from London himself, Mssr. Patrick Wolf!
"Live, you realise how much of an unabashed pop bitch Patrick Wolf is. Coming on hollering 'Birminghaaam' into a Britney-esque head mic, he jumps straight into the crowd, interacts, making the most of his wirelessness.
Dressed up like a manga character and backed up by an army of synths, it's clear, live, just how much Patrick Wolf is David Bowie's love child by some beautiful alien man-woman, now sent to earth to follow in his fathere's footsteps and save us all.
Patrick Wolf is obviously a fully-fledged rock star. Shouting, working the crowd, the whole band jumping up and down during Accident & Emergency.
He's a self-deprecating, confessional acoustic singer-songwriter (the least interesting personal- the most real, most human.) It's this that struggles to carry him through a couple of slower songs in an otherwise perfectly paced gig.
Somehow, live, the songs lack some of the transcedence of the records. But that's all traded in for Wolf's showmanship. That unavoidable throughline, his unmistakeable voice is hidden somewhat by the endless variety of songs, clothes, personas on show. The climax of the gig began to reconcile all these fragments, and you can see a charmingly vulnerable boy, at his happiest. Live, Patrick Wolf is everything."

Confession: Most of this was written whilst being bullied by the aforementioned oh-so-professional Ms Vernon. She's a tickler, that one.

Redbrick Pt I (Feat. The Chapman Family) : Print Ain't Dead

An extraordinarily busy week at Redbrick for the last issue of term led to a music section half-written by me. Here are the results, in installments. First, an interview with the surprisingly lovely unsigned-band Chapman Family.
"The Chapman Family are, in some ways, a band of contradictions: tonight, they're playing to a young, impressionable, NME-reading audience, here to see La Roux.
The Chapman Family: a self-described 'fuckin' miserable band'. Their set is a whirlwind of smashing guitars, strangulation with microphone leads and aggressively noisy music with some very naughty words in.
The Chapman Family- a band that made a girl in front of me swoon, with her hand to her forehead like a character in a Jane Austen novel. Clearly believe in the legend, the spectacle of rock & roll. But their ferocious maltreatment of the guitars is a 'treat' with a very mundane flipside:
'I need to save one; I can't just break 'em every night 'cus I haven't got enough money... When we've had two days off, I've basically fixed two or three guitars. The ones I've got now are cobbled together from bits 'n' bobs.'
The band are unsigned: 'No one else [on the tour] is unsigned… We're used to playing gigs for free. Being surrounded by crew who carry our stuff in was an absolute revelation.'
A lot of their opposing lead singer Kingsley is a down-to-earth, often self-deprecating gentleman, while bassist Pop (self-proclaimed 'half the talent in the band') is a little more aggressively opinionated.
Kingsley takes comparisons to Maximo Park and Futureheads in his stride. It's unfair and lazy, based on a shared Northern accent:
'No one goes to [wonderfully-named girl-goth band] An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump, 'you sound like The Libertines, just 'cus they're from London.'
There's a clear common ground in the distaste for bands of 'local people with fake cockney accents' and Kinglsey admits playing tribute to those bands:
'First year we played, fair enough, we probably ripped off Maximo Park and Futureheads more than anyone else.'
But the band are much dirtier, much louder, more rock & roll than that. And there is an infuriating coincidence with Maximo Park's single Kids Are Sick Again being released close to their similarly-titled Kids (Are Alright).
Meanwhile, Pop's opinion is a little more straight forward: 'They can fuck off back down the hole they came from.'
Pop Chapamn is given to the kind of hyperbolically impassioned statements that make my heart melt. He casually announces Roxy Music's Do the Strand as featuring 'the best lyric ever written by any human being'.
Pop joined the band after they'd been together for a while, bringing to the table 'a lack of musical knowledge... and a box of distortion pedals.'
The two play off each other, debating and squabbling about celebrity adoption and the best beers (the tequila-infused Desperado) as much as selling-out and The Horrors model of 20-minute sets.
It's an odd thought, but they seem a willfully small band, massively DIY. Kingsley 'used to do T-shirts that I'd paint myself. People are still fucking getting in touch with me and going, like, can you do the painted ones? 'Cus I preferred them.'
They've played gigs 'for two people.' Their solution? 'Play as hard as you fucking can... One of those people might really like it.' But now their moment might be coming, and there are already accusations of being 'sell-out bastards... Purely because we managed to get on MTV.'
The Chapman Family are a band whose, in Pop's words, inspirations include 'the size of boobies, a drink of beer'. They're a band waiting for a cult of manic devoted fans. If they get it, it's reassuring to think they probably wouldn't abuse it.
Even if they are sell-out bastards."

You can listen to the Chapman Family (and read some of the quite impassioned rants that inspired the majority of this interview) at their MySpace.

Confession: I'm a bit worried that ending didn't come off quite as ironic as possible. And, rereading, can't believe I couldn't fit the actual Roxy Music lyric in: it's "Rhododendron is a nice flower". Which very possibly actually is the best lyric ever.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Dark Young Avengers: They're Exactly What You Think!

Just a quick one. Dark Reign: Young Avengers 1 & 2, reviewed like never before. BAMF!

"A quick exercise; let’s do a rundown of the number of teams carrying the Avengers name right now: the Mighty Avengers, New Avengers, Dark Avengers, and Young Avengers (ignoring the Avengers Initiative and Ultimate Avengers).

Now Paul Cornell is throwing, technically, a team of New Dark Young Avengers into the mix. The cover to issue one proudly announces: “They’re Exactly What You Think!”"

But are they exactly what you think (whatever that might be)? Find out after the link, over at the lovely Comicsnexus.(Confession: my stupidity, as usual, has shone through. See the comments section to see how the main hook of my review doesn't actually work.)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Transformers 2 - You know, nothing actually rhymes with 'Gaming Room'

The Summer Blockbuster, it seems, lives or dies on aesthetics. There's more: tapping into those primal male reactions to violence, explosions, and the female body, but for that to work the aesthetics have to succeed.

And Transformers is a very very ugly film. Look at that subtitle: "Revenge of the Fallen". The dialogue is painful: the clever one-liners generally consist of using the cliched one-liner voice and swearing; there are trite pop culture references that are already going out of date. The film's main McGuffin is named 'The Matrix of Leadership'. At one point in the film, someone literally announces "I am crying: this sucks!"
Ugly, ugly, ugly.

We are presented, for our delectation, a shot of two dogs having sex. This is echoed later as a small robot humps Megan Fox's leg. There's a point in the film where, for no apparent reason, the camera continues to rotate around the two romantic leads. They chat, on and on, so not only does the camera reveal its presence to the audience but its genuinely, pointlessly dizzying. There's no sense of reason behind any of the decisions; aesthetic ugliness can be a brilliant (and, to use that most hackneyed of film critic phrases, 'brave') move, but here it just seems a result of the way the film was made. Ugly.

I concede that this doesn't apply to everyone, as they're the film's major unique-selling-point, but even the eye-candy robots are aesthetically unappealing and, again, in some cases, plain ugly. The two comic-relief characters in particular are designed in a way I can't believe is unintentional.

These characters are the film's worst excesses personified- they use a black hip-hop-culture stereotype that is not only ephemeral in its appeal (hilarious phrases like "oh snap") but in some cases seems sub-Walt Disney racially sensitive. Most of all, though, they're just painfully unfunny, in that unique way that comes from trying hard to force funniness on the viewer.

But I'm being unfair to the film. It escapes these trappings later into the film (particularly the awful attempts at humour) as it tries to become a more straight-laced action epic and becomes a better film for it. The ugliness of the first half an hour seeps away, and by the end there are even glimpses of lovely cinematography.

The film has many more upsides than I'm giving it credit for (the score has some wonderfully attractive moments, and I'd be hard pressed to suggest Megan Fox is anything less than aesthetically appealing; there's also what appears to be a giant Alan-Moore-bot), just as it has more problems than I've talked about (primarily, the horrible comedy/serious drama clash).

I'll say it again- Transformers II (I'm not giving that awful subtitle the attention it so obviously craves) isn't a bad film. It's just often so very very ugly.

Confession: I was really trying hard to do one a day. But my Tuesday plans went a bit awry. And technically, it's not even Wednesday any more. There will be 7 posts this week, I promise (to myself).

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.