Friday, February 28, 2014

Top 10 Indie Games of 2013

As some of you know, I've become increasingly interested in indie video games over the past few years. I played a pretty decent selection of new games that came out last year, so while it's not a be-all end-all, this list comes from an at least semi-informed perspective.

Is this late? Yes. Is it way late? Yes. Is it so late that nobody will be able to buy these games anymore because I waited too long? No, which is why it's still cool to make this. Plus, of course, it's my blog and I like lists so I'm going to list whatever I want.

Those of you who have read the list I posted back in August of my favorite indie games will see a few repeats here. You'll also see a few games that I would add to that list if I were writing it today, and you'll see a few games that have risen or fallen in my estimation since that time.

Those of you who have not read that post will not notice those things, unless you elect now to go look for it and read it just so you can come back here and then recognize the things I just mentioned. I'm not sure if that's a worthwhile use of your time, but I'm certainly not going to tell people to avoid reading things I've written in my blog.

Also, before you read on, you should know that while Rogue Legacy, Gone Home, and Kentucky Route Zero  do not appear on my list, they are by nearly universal critical consensus some of the year's very best releases.

Anyway, here is my belated list of the top 10 indie games released in 2013:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Organ Trail OST

I know I've mentioned before that I'm a fan of indie games, and that I really enjoy a lot of the retro 8-bit and 16-bit games that have begun to emerge in recent years. I'm also pretty sure that I've mentioned Organ Trail (the zombie apocalypse take on the old Oregon Trail game) and how much I enjoyed it.

What I'm not so sure I've mentioned is that I really love a lot of the chip music that accompanies those games. Organ Trail in particular had truly compelling music that set the mood for the game perfectly. It's a fusion of the old 80s' video game style chip music with little splashes of more standard instrumentation, and it is somehow equal parts darkly brooding and infectiously catchy. Ben Crossbones really put together something special in my opinion, as it is largely his music that elevates the entire affair from merely an amusing gimmick to the level of being a truly worthy game in its own right.

Well, I didn't realize this when I bought the game, but there's actually an independently available full official soundtrack. I know this isn't exactly in the style that I usually discuss on this blog, but if you have any interest in hearing some excellent, gloomy, compelling chip music then take a few minutes to give this a listen.

You can find the full album on Ben Crossbones' Bandcamp here.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Metal Show Bucket List

As the years have passed and I've seen more and more shows, I've developed something of a bucket list of metal bands to see live. In particular, five bands found their way to the top after I'd scratched off some names early on in my show-going life. In the past six months I'd seen Black Sabbath and Slayer from that list, and last night I checked off a third.

I thought I was going to miss the show due to work, and I did in fact miss four of the five bands playing, but I arrived at the venue just in time for Dark Tranquillity. I've been aching to watch them live for years, and I was not disappointed. They put on an excellent show in a very small venue (even with my late arrival I was only about 20 feet from the stage) and afterward Mikael came down to hang out and talk to people. He really was the highlight of seeing them; whenever a frontman can perform with energy and enthusiasm it always heightens the show, and he really seemed like he was having a good time on stage.They performed without bass (on albums their bass is played by one of their guitarists) but given how low the bass typically is in metal anyway its absence was barely noticeable.

With this show under my belt, the two bands left at the top of my bucket list are Metallica and Iron Maiden. Hopefully by the end of the year I'll be in need of a new group of bands to see.

p.s. I stole this photo from a friend who was also in attendance.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Happy Birthday Quorthon 1966-2004

I don't usually post things related to the birthdays of metal figures, but as it happens, I've been thinking a lot about the late great Thomas "Quorthon" Forsberg recently. Today, as chance would have it, is his birthday. Consequently, I've decided to go ahead and talk about him for a minute.

When I was in college, I took a class on the history of rock. I pretty much cruised through it, since I love digging into music and I grew up on blues and oldies. It was kind of like a Mexican taking Spanish 101, but I found the professor entertaining and it was a good excuse to listen to music and call it "doing homework". One of our few major assignments in the class was to write a paper detailing who we would want to be (and why) if we could have been any one person from the history of rock music or one of its branches. It sounds like a 2nd grade assignment, and truth be told it kind of was, but I nonetheless took the question very seriously. My answer was Quorthon. I've made no secret that his group, Bathory, is one of my favorite metal bands. I wish I had a copy of that actual paper available to post or link here, because I gave an earnest and thoughtful explanation of how deeply this man's music has touched me and how connected I feel to him when I hear it. No other figure in the metal world has ever bared his soul so clearly to my ears, which makes listening to Bathory a profoundly emotional experience for me. I realize that may sound a little hokey, but it's how I feel.

Even beyond the brilliant, passionate work he did himself, Quorthon's impact on my own musical world is massive. Half of the other bands I listen to and enjoy today would probably not exist without his influence. All of Norwegian black metal is, by the admission of some of its greatest purveyors, basically just a slightly-altered imitation of Bathory's classic Under the Sign of the Black Mark. Viking metal, whether you believe that it is an independent sub-genre or not, owes its existence entirely to Quorthon's work with Bathory. Few people can claim to have pioneered a new style of music, but Quorthon pioneered two.

Those of us who spend a good deal of our time and energy in the music world tend to have our own musical heroes. This is true in all genres, though it seems to me that metal fans often feel especially connected to the bands they enjoy. For some people, Rob Halford is the ultimate metal god. For others it's Dio, or Iommi, or Hanneman, or any one of the gifted musicians who have changed the face of that delightfully dark music we share and love. We all have our metal heroes, and Quorthon is mine.

Happy birthday Thomas Forsberg, and thanks for everything.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

AlNamrood - Heen Yadhar Al Ghasq

AlNamrood (or Al-Namrood, the band seems to use both interchangeably) is a Saudi blackened folk metal band with some pretty distinct local flavor to their sound. They have been busy since their inception, and last month they released their fourth full-length studio album in five years.

I am, when it comes down to it, a sucker for Middle Eastern influences in my metal. I love the style and flavor of northern Europe, but the relative scarcity of good metal from the Middle East makes such music something of a special treat. With that in mind, I really enjoyed the instrumental side of this album. Mellower passages, regional folk melodies, and regional folk instrumentation all blend in with an almost perfect balance against the harsher black metal elements. There are times when it feels like some of the performances could be a bit tighter, but by and large it all sounds very good. If I were grading this album purely on the style and quality of the instrumental performances, I'd probably give it an A- or so.

. . . but . . .

The single, overwhelming issue I have with this record is the vocals. For one thing, the actual recording quality of the vocals is often strangely out of place, as at times it feels like the band recorded finished songs in a studio and then tacked on demo vocals. It's not the poor recording quality that's the problem, it's the fact that the recording quality is inconsistent (sometimes the vocals sound fine) and largely mismatched with the rest of the music. Even beyond that issue, I think I'd have a tough time digesting the vocal performance anyway. The weird, quavering, effects-driven bellows come across as being kind of love-them-or-hate-them, and while further digesting time may change this, I'm presently in the "hate them" camp.

Some of you may really, truly love this. I'd strongly suggest you check it out for yourself and see. Personally, I really wanted to give this a higher score, but I just can't.

Grade: B-

Friday, February 14, 2014

Behemoth - The Satanist

Behemoth is back. After five years of health problems and personal issues, the band returned with their newest album earlier this month. I'll assume most readers are familiar with the Polish giants, but if not then I guess you should just know that from their black metal roots they've grown over the years into one of the most prominent death metal bands in Europe.

The Satanist  is a slab of blackened death metal that has set the metal world abuzz, with many reviewers citing it as an early contender for album of the year. It's definitely a strong record, with tight performances all around. The vocals come with plenty of intensity, every instrument does its part, and the mix sounds big and full but still leaves room for some light dashes of flavor-enhancing atmospherics without drowning anything out. This last statement is especially true of the late tracks on the album, which is fortunate because it means the band eases off the gas pedal and takes us through some curves just before the album has a chance to start sounding too repetitive. It also means that the album takes the time early on to firmly establish its identity as a straight-forward blackened death metal album before it shakes things up.

One interesting feature of the record is the inclusion of some old-fashioned hard rock guitar solos on the last few tracks. Most of the breaks from the barrage, like choral vocals and bits of gloomy keyboards, are genre standards. The splashes of guitar soloing, though, wouldn't be out of place in a a heavy metal song from 1975. It's the type of touch that helps to set the album apart from the pack.

The whole album blows by in a breezy 44 minutes, and while I enjoyed it all, the final third of its run-time was what actually convinced me that this was better than just "pretty good". I'm not convinced that it's the instant classic some reviewers have claimed it is, but I do think it's a very strong entry in the Behemoth catalog that should please fans and serve as a good introduction for anybody looking to get into the band.

Grade: A-

Friday, February 7, 2014

Whispered - Shogunate Macabre

The Finnish band Whispered released their sophomore full-length Shogunate Macabre  today. Since I enjoyed their first album back in 2010, I decided to give this a whirl.

Whispered are one of those groups, like Children of Bodom, Kalmah, and Wintersun who seem to walk the line between melodic death metal and hyper-aggressive power metal. The big twist with Whispered is their Japanese theme. They take this beyond just cover art and lyrical content, as their songs include a fair sized splash of traditional Japanese folk instruments and melodies. Basically, imagine if Children of Bodom treated ancient Japan the way Nile treats ancient Egypt. That's Whispered in a nutshell.

As with any band that comes with a gimmick, there's a certain point at which the novelty wears off and the music needs to be able to stand on its own merits. On that count, I'd say Whispered mostly succeed. Their musical ability is unquestionable, as every member delivers. The vocals come in a mid-range snarl that suits the music very well, the guitars are sharp and technical without losing all their aggressive edge in the process, the drumming is spot-on, and even the bass has a few moments where it gets to shine through. All this is interlaced with the aforementioned Japanese instrumentation in a way that makes many of the songs surprisingly pretty, but which still lets the metal side of the operation take the reins. They also toss some occasional surprise factors into the mix, most notably an unexpectedly effective saxophone section. In terms of production, the sparkling clarity isn't exactly evil sounding, but in this type of composition I think it's a necessity.

One minor note I'd like to make is that this band has now released two solid records that are each elevated by a long (10-15 minutes) but exceptionally strong closing track. I'm not sure why exactly, but they've done it on both albums.

Now as many of you can probably guess from my description, Whispered are not an especially gritty-sounding band, so this isn't the type of album that is likely to appeal to purists who want their metal ugly and mean above all else. Instead, I'd say it's an enjoyable treat for fans of those groups I mentioned earlier, since it delivers their basic style with a relatively unique spin.

So is this an earth-shatteringly awesome record that everybody needs to run out and buy? No. But it's a very good album that I thoroughly enjoyed, and as long as they are able to maintain their current balance between style and substance, Whispered will continue to have a comfortable seat at the metal table.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sunn O))) & Ulver - Terrestrials

Today saw the release of the full-length collaboration between Norway's eternally experimental former black metallers Ulver, and the hooded American-turned-French drone kings Sunn O))). At first glance this seemed like a weird decision to me, but once I really thought about it, it kind of makes perfect sense. Neither band is notable for the normalcy of their output, and there seemed a definite path this collaboration could follow. It would be slow and probably a bit kooky, and since I'm not a big fan of either band I probably wouldn't like it that well, but it could basically work just fine.

The result surprised me.

This is almost not a metal album at all. Instead, I'd be inclined to call it the world's most evil jazz record. Terse strings seethe through the hazy blackness, holding the listener on edge. Then out of the dark, a little sparkle emerges. It's Miles Davis, playing his most delicate and tortured trumpet, calling out before the swirling ambient mists swallow him back into the vast abyss. He lingers in the memory, though, the shimmering horn letting out faint calls in the night. Time passes, and you tensely listen on, wondering if he will return, when out of the dark lumbers a grotesque, indecipherable mass. A swollen atrocity of Lovecraftian proportions which looms out of the blackness, then disappears leaving you with the horrible realization that you are not alone and not safe out in this bleak soundscape.

And that's just the first of three tracks.

Now I realize how grossly melodramatic that description was, but I wrote it as I played through that song because it captured the feelings and imagery I experienced as I listened. This is very much one of those albums you experience and feel as much as you hear. The tension, the glimmers of beauty, and the revelations of horrible, leering darkness are all an integral part of what this album does.

It's primarily ambient in nature, so there isn't much to talk about by way of song structure. The production is fine in the "I didn't really notice it one way or the other" kind of way. The instrumental performances, insofar as they're just about creating atmosphere rather than playing fully-formed songs, are perfect. It's an exceptionally well-executed effort that will just not appeal to many listeners due to its nature.

In terms of the other tracks on the album, the second follows a less dramatic path, but it quietly and effectively passes the time before the third and longest entry introduces a beautiful and curiously Asian element to the strings as well as the album's only vocal work. The three songs are successfully built to work wonderfully in unison, so the album is best played straight through in full.

If and when you do listen to this album, only do it when you have nothing pressing on your mind, and only do it in a dark, quiet place that is free from distractions. This isn't Slayer. You can't just blast it over top of bustling activity and noise. The effect depends on the listening environment (and your mental state) so don't waste it on such situations. It's too good to skim past and miss like that.

I didn't expect too much. I was wrong. While this is only just on the fringes of being metal, it is absolutely fantastic.

Grade: A

Full Album on Bandcamp