Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#5)

Let's talk about T-Bone Walker.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to discuss for today's blues post, I had a few different ideas. I could talk about the interplay and eventual fusion of different rural blues scenes, especially between the storied Delta blues and its venerable acoustic neighbor, the early Texas blues. Or, I thought, I could talk about the Chicago scene and how electric blues took over from the more primitive sound of the genre's origins. Next I started thinking about how blues and jazz are so closely related but have formed very distinct identities and fan-bases, kind of like hardcore punk and metal, which seems like fertile ground for discussion. Then it hit me: pretty much all of those ideas can be touched on in a single post about a single man.

Aaron Thibeaux (T-Bone) Walker is an interesting figure partly because he has his foot in so many different doors and partly because he's the one who made some of those doors in the first place. Taught to play guitar by Texas blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone began his recording career way back in 1929 at just 19 years old. Then he disappeared from recording for over a decade. A couple scratchy acoustic songs from the late '20s and nothing else would have left him with the type of resume some blues legends are made of, but that wasn't the end for him. Instead he had moved away from Texas and begun developing his chops by playing live. He was preparing, consciously or not, to break back onto the scene in a way that would change everything.

In the early '40s, T-Bone Walker became the first electric blues man. His style, originally rooted in the rural folk blues of his Texas home, had matured into a mellower sound that sat right on the middle of the fence between blues and jazz. Throughout the 1940s he would release a series of successful albums for California-based labels, establishing the precedent for blues players to go electric and leave the south to find success in the big city. Granted, Walker's destination was Los Angeles rather than Chicago, but that's largely because he made his move before Chess Records was founded in 1950. He helped form the environment that made Chess Records seem like a good idea in the first place, but at the time Chicago had not yet become the key destination that it would eventually be for the blues musicians who followed Walker out of the south.

Due to the smooth, light, jazzy flavor of his music, T-Bone Walker has often found himself on the fringes of many blues fans' palettes, myself included. It was a natural development, occurring well outside the heartland of jazz or blues, as he spent much of his time in the '30s playing alongside jazz musicians in Los Angeles dance clubs. This pattern, the big city becoming a melting pot that created an electric fusion of more localized music styles from different parts of the south, would also emerge later on in Chicago, where all the different breeds of roots blues would fuse together into one monolithic electrified entity. Basically, most of the innovation Muddy Waters gets credit for from the 1950s was sort of him playing catch-up with what T-Bone Walker had already done a decade earlier. Waters was a great musician in his own right, but this post isn't about him so I won't go into that.

The '50s were an odd decade for Walker, though, because while blues were more popular than ever, and he was still playing and recording, he found himself on the wrong side of several dividing lines. He'd lead while others followed, but now those followers had diverted to a new destination to make camp and he'd turned around to see that there was nobody behind him anymore. Chicago was the new center of the blues universe, and California was out on the fringes. Similarly, a large-scale electrified fusion of blues from Texas and Mississippi was the new core sound, and Walker's jazzy tendencies also placed him out on the fringes stylistically. His career from that point on would be a slow, gradual slide until his death in 1975.

T-Bone Walker was a pioneer, possibly the greatest in 20th century music history. He is not totally forgotten or anything, but in many ways he's like the Leif Eriksson of the electric blues to Muddy Waters' Christopher Columbus. I don't know about you, but personally I think it's high time we gave the Leif Erikssons of the world their due credit. So join me on this Tuesday Blues Day, as we celebrate the first white man to discover America and the first black man to discover electric blues guitar.

Bet you didn't see that conclusion coming.

Black Metal Buffet

This is going to be a sampler-plate of quick reactions to a pile of new black metal from countries scattered across the globe. I would like to stress that I only played scattered bits of these albums. I did not listen to all or even most of the music off of any of them, so if you're looking for fully-formed, comprehensive reviews then I'd advise you to look elsewhere. Basically I just sat down, picked through a buffet table of new black metal releases, and now I'm telling you how the macaroni tasted.


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Sviatibor - La Foi Des Ancêtres

This French one-man pagan black metal band only formed last year, yet it has already released three albums and a smattering of other content. I've talked before about how overly-prolific projects often feel like they cut corners just to get material out the door, and this definitely gives that impression. It's a tad depressing, really, because the guy clearly has talent. If he spent longer fully developing his ideas instead of settling for pretty good before moving on, I have the impression that he could produce some really compelling material. As it is, this is a solid but unremarkable release that I'd only recommend as something new and interesting if you've somehow managed to avoid developing any familiarity at all with even a single one of the numerous pagan metal genre cliches.


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The Happiness Cage - Lurking Beyond Consciousness

Stupid name and oddly-shaped album cover aside, this Russian one-man outfit actually sounds pretty good. This is a slightly odd duck, as many Russian things are wont to be when compared with their other European counterparts. It's a kind of doomy, melodic black metal with some groove to it and a touch of jangling post-metal tone, so it's a good example of thinking outside the box a little without wandering into too crazy of territory. Mixing black and doom metal together is pretty much bound to produce some repetitive riffing, and it certainly does here, but it's not really annoying or distracting so I'm not too worried about it. From what I heard of it, this seems to be an interesting enough release to warrant further investigation.



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Vargafrost - Warriors of the Dawn

These New Zealanders fall victim to that oh-so-common failing of bands from areas outside the metal mainstream, i.e. they try really hard to emulate the "correct" way of playing a specific style and end up creating a paint-by-numbers affair. There are atmospheric intros that give way to full-on black metal, the transitions coming about as smoothly as a cheese grater covered with sandpaper-wielding hedgehogs. The hazy low-fi production smacks of "we did it because that's what Darkthrone did," and the riffs are all about as "yup, that's a black metal riff alright" as they could be. I really wish bands like these would try to find their own voices instead of just copying Norwegian bands without any of the proper background or context. Sadly, that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon. At least the cover art is cool.

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Vanhelga - Längtan

I'm only bringing up these Swedes because their album art attracted my attention during the same scattered listening session that included these other bands. Unless I just want to vent or there's a specific point to be made, I usually don't like to rag too heavily on unknown bands if I have nothing positive or constructive to say. After all, a band nobody has heard of doesn't need me ineffectually warding away their non-existent customers. In that spirit, all I'll say is this: I have nothing positive or constructive to say about what little I could make out in this murky mess.


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 Fallen Voices - Fallen Voices

Back to France, for a debut album. This self-titled chunk of atmospheric black metal is one of the items on this list that has me thinking of going back for seconds. It's got some interesting tonal shifts that seems to come from out of nowhere, and I'm not sure if I like that or not but at the very least it has me intrigued. There's a definite feeling of quality here, in contrast to some of the more slapped-together material one often encounters in the black metal underground. There may be a full review of this release coming in the future, but I make no promises.


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Wildernessking - The Devil Within

This South African demo wins the prize for least creative title in the history of ever. That said, the music itself is highly competent if somewhat straightforward. For those who just like solid, no-frills underground black metal, this will make for an enjoyable listen. There are only three tracks, so there's not much to it, but it's good. I wish I had more to say about it, but I really don't since again, it's pretty straight-forward and it's very short.





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Sakrality - Imajinasi Hitam

Here's an Indonesian group who win a diversity bonus for having two female members. That's the end of the good part, though. You know how when you talk about black metal on the "epic" end of the scale, the ultimate compliment is "it's not cheesy"? When you say that, you've usually got an idea in mind of what such a band should not do, right? Well this is that band you were thinking of: the one doing all the cheesy, melodramatic, keyboard-drenched things black metal bands shouldn't do. These guys and gals have actually been around for a few years, and if a brief survey of their cover art is any indication (which it surprisingly often is) then this may be a somewhat new direction for them. If it's true, that's too bad. If it's not true, then that just means their other albums probably aren't very good either.

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Gulag - Black Flag

One of two new Brazilian bands by the same name, this Gulag has the distinction of choosing one of the strangest-fitting titles I have ever heard for an avant-garde black metal album. It really creates a clash of mental images, but I'll move past that. Musically, this is appears to be the best record of the lot. There is some use of clean vocals that fall into that Root category of fitting shockingly well into the black metal sound, there seems to be a good mixture of ideas, the riffs got my attention, the production hits a sweet spot in terms of clarity with teeth, the use of guitar effects add a lot of character to the music, and the soft/hard dynamic is employed effectively. I'm almost certainly going to check out the rest of this album at some point in the near future.

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 Nikrotek -Malleus Malificarum

To close out, let's give Indonesia another go, shall we? This vaguely-industrial black metal project is another one-man band. Sole member Bobby Deathstars doesn't seem to know if he wants to be Abbath or Darth Vader, and the result is a schizophrenic mastermind who may be either a misguided fanboy or an evil genius. I'm still holding out judgement until I hear the rest of this and have time to stew on it for a while. The electronic-beats trade off with more standard drumming, animal sound samples are everywhere, and the "was that a synthesized trumpet solo I just heard?" atmospheric weirdness is the type of captivating that has me thinking "this probably shouldn't exist, but I'm too fascinated to argue against it." Incidentally, this is the project's third release this year, proving that every rule (like my one about bands slapping music together too fast to be creative with it) has its exceptions.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden

Some of you may recall that in 2012, Pallbearer's debut album was heralded by many as the best doom record of the year. It didn't quite earn that distinction in my mind, losing out to the likes of Evoken and Ahab, but it still made my year-end top 10 list. Well now in a year that has not seen so many powerhouse doom releases, Pallbearer have given us their second full-length effort, Foundations of Burden.

The same general realm of slow, heavy, stoner-tinged doom is still the base of operations in this record, but the overall feel seems to have shifted somewhat. This time around, the band has cast back even more to the traditional doom core mechanic of Black Sabbath worship, for one thing. This is most notable in the vocals, which are really aiming for early Ozzy territory. The plentiful psychedelic guitar solos are also dripping in '70s fuzz, further adding to the retro feel of the release.

Simultaneously, Pallbearer have made a move into more grand, atmospheric compositions on this record than anything they had on their relatively straight-forward debut. Piano passages, courtesy of bassist Joseph Rowland, are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this new dimension in their material. There are also more sparse, atmospheric passages in general, creating a perfect organic balance between the slow crushing heaviness and quiet, somber moments.

Overall, while I associated their last record more with Electric Wizard than anything else, this album reminded me more of Saint Vitus cross-bred with Solitude Aeturnus. It's got the distinctly traditional roots and vocal style of the former, but the prettier passages, drifting atmosphere, and generally more epic feel of the latter.

With this release, Pallbearer have taken a terrific debut release and used it as a stepping stone to even greater heights. The band could have easily just continued on their course and carved out a comfortable place for themselves as a strong doom outift. Instead, they've created what is so far the best doom album I've heard all year and cemented their place beside Evoken as the most compelling current doom band in the world.

Grade: A


The Banner Saga

I've spent 11 hours over the past day playing through The Banner Saga: an indie title available on Steam that was funded through Kickstarter and which I'd been eying since its January release. I loved it, but I'm still feeling a bit conflicted. I think I managed to avoid spoilers, so prospective players should feel fine reading ahead. If you want to play it safe, though, I'll tell you the single most important thing you should know before buying the game right now: it's not a complete, self-contained release. I'll get to that in more detail under its own heading further down, if you want to know what the deal with that is.

First, let's talk about the game itself. Here are some reasons why it's awesome.

THE GAME

This is one of the most visually compelling games I've ever played. Beautifully illustrated and packed full of character, the game just looks fantastic. This visual style was one of the two main things that attracted me to the game, and it certainly held up its end in the art direction department. On a related note, the music was pitch-perfect too.

It is probably the most authentic feeling Viking game ever released. That, in case it wasn't obvious, was the other big selling point for me. Vikings, despite their undeniable awesomeness, tend to be merely bit players within the gaming world. When we do see them, it's almost always in a watered-down, cartoonish capacity where they're just caricatures representing drinking and violence. Here, however, we have a game set in a fictional but well-developed Viking world where we actually see and feel the lore and art and history and culture and environment in a far more earnest, complex way than ancient Scandinavian culture ever gets in gaming. Yes, there's the cheesy image concession of having a race of giants with horns that look like the ones falsely attributed to Viking helmets. But these "varl" are such good translations of the types of characters found in the Icelandic sagas that it's hard to begrudge them the horns. Oh, and the fact that the names Egil and Snorri found their way into the game made me smile.

The story is engaging because it tells a personal tale in a larger setting. There's apocalypse in the air, and you're not the chosen one: you're just trying to survive and help your friends and family survive too. It gives the whole experience a desperate, tragic, fittingly Norse feeling that really draws you in. Additionally, it strikes the critical balance between directed and flexible. Most RPGs (and games in general) these days follow one of two paths: either they give you a wide open world with virtually no direction, or they put you on rails and force you to follow a strictly-formulated plot. The Banner Saga instead provides a very clear and unavoidable story framework with a set destination, but it presents you with a lot of choices that will change the journey. This makes it feel like you have agency and significance within the world while still giving you a story to follow.

In a related vein, there are actual consequences. Bad decisions and failure in combat can create real problems and make the road ahead harder. This makes it feel like your input actually matters in the game world.

The characters and social conflicts that arise are interesting and believable. It would be easy for a game like this to totally ignore some of the issues that crop up around, say, women in power in a medieval society. Or it could paint the incredibly lazy (but sadly common) black-and-white picture we get when applying contemporary ethics to historical cultures. Instead, it handles those matters honestly without skewing into either oblivious or preachy territory.

It had an interesting mixture of gameplay. Conversations and encounters with NPCs felt like a point-and-click adventure game, the combat was built around turn-based positional strategy with modest leveling aspects, and the traveling sections were basically a really fancy version of Oregon Trail where managing time and resources is the key to success. Lots of games reside in one comfort zone, growing stale very quickly. Other games try to blend different genres but hack them up so much that nothing fits together or works properly. Here, the game designers did a great job of blending together these different styles into a unified system that felt consistent and natural. The result is a game that gives you variety while maintaining coherence.

Alright, that about covers what I can tell you without getting lore-heavy or spoilerific. So far this probably sounds like a flat-out great game that everybody should go buy, right? Well it is great, but here's more detail on that "buyer beware" notice I gave earlier.

THE PROBLEM

This entire game is not an entire game at all. The game just . . . ends. I mean, there's a final boss fight (which is a little gimmicky and annoying, but it's not too bad) and an appropriately melancholic final scene, but all this feels like a pivotal act-closing moment that should lead us into the next stage of the game. Instead, that's it. Now, I've seen some debate around this topic, with the developers stating that this is just the opening installment of a trilogy. If that's true, it's a good thing, because the story is totally unresolved. This isn't part of a trilogy in the typical gaming way, though, because it does not stand on its own as a complete product. It is functionally just the first part of a single, much larger game.

The problem, really, is that there wasn't a clear indication to post-Kickstarter buyers that this would not be self-contained. If a developer wants to release an epic Viking game trilogy, I'm all for it. Hell, I'm glad to hear more of this is coming. It's somewhat distressing, though, to suddenly have the news sprung on you at the end of the first installment. One reason, obviously, is that now I'm invested in this world and these characters and I don't want to have to wait around for years to see how their story ends. Another reason is that since this move pissed a lot of people off, there's a chance that the ensuing backlash could cause the developers to step away from the entire project, leaving us with the gaming equivalent of blue balls. I don't think that will happen, but you never know. Finally, it's upsetting because it just feels . . . not "dishonest" per se, but it is a little misleading. If this were a $5 privately-funded indie project, I'd understand and accept the situation. Tight funding, low price of admission, you get what you pay for, yada yada yada. But this was a $20 game, and that's pretty pricey for an indie title. Further, it was a game that was entirely paid for by crowd-sourced funding, which wildly exceeded their goal (they wanted $100,000 and they got over $700,000), so budgetary constraints shouldn't be an issue. Basically, it seems like buyers should have gotten a full game instead of the first third of a game.

Now don't get me wrong, it was a great third of a game. I fully intend to buy the other two-thirds when they come out, but I'm still annoyed that I spent significantly more than I normally would for an indie release without getting the whole game. I'm not telling you to avoid buying this, I'm just letting you know what you're getting into if you do purchase it.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bongripper - Miserable

Bongripper are a Chicago-based doom band who began their career with a highly productive string in the mid-2000s before slowing down over the past few years. They released their 7th full-length studio album earlier this year.

Bongripper are a slightly odd band to talk about. For one thing, "doom" is a pretty inadequate label to frame their sound. If I were the type to adopt absurdly specific sub-genre labels, I'd call them instrumental funeral stoner sludge. As that label indicates, they don't actually have any vocals or lyrics, though their music is still conceptually centered on weed. Their material tends toward the extremely slow, heavy, and hostile.

This album has only three tracks, yet it clocks in at over an hour. With that ultra-slow pace and the lack of vocals, it may seem like the music would be a little directionless. I won't deny that I think the band would benefit from a more focused approach, but in general the glacial muck makes up for its lack of direction with an overabundance of aggression and atmosphere. This is genuinely hateful sounding stuff, so if you're in a dark mood and you're looking for a backing soundtrack to that, it's perfect.

Ultimately, this won't appeal to everybody. I personally like it really well, but I still think I need to be in a very specific headspace to fully appreciate it.

Grade: B