Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sometimes Wednesday is Blues Day

Today is the anniversary of Stevie Ray Vaughan's death. Normally when I talk about the blues, I like to discuss individuals from early in blues history. This time, I'm covering somebody much better known to the general public. Since I was busy working on a project yesterday I didn't do my blues post, so today I'm going to take this opportunity to talk just a little bit about SRV.

To a generation of young fans, Stevie Ray Vaughan is the face and voice of the blues. His swagger, his style, his energy, his sizzling Texas twang . . . Vaughan was an original who built on a brilliant foundation of Texas blues to leave a mark on the music world that has thrived well past the end of his tragically short life. All one needs to do to see the size of his impact on modern blues players is go to any blues guitar competition. Do that, and you'll see at least a dozen guys wearing black, broad-brimmed hats and playing battered sunburst Stratocasters.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was my personal guitar hero when I was younger. The first album I ever bought myself was a cassette of his debut Texas Flood. His exciting, energetic, southwest-flavored take on classic blues sparked my own interest in learning the instrument. Knowing that he had spent 10 hours a day practicing as a teenager inspired legions of other people to pursue music with that same kind of fervent intensity. Stories pervade of him playing until the callouses tore off his fingertips only to have him super-glue them back on and keep playing. His zeal was such that nobody even seems to question the accuracy of those tales. Most members of the current generation of blues musicians like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Johnny Lang idolized him because of that passion.

His music speaks for itself, though, so I'm going to let it do that now.

Nunslaughter - Angelic Dread

Titans of the death metal underground, Nunslaughter have been churning out primitive, ugly death metal since the late '80s. In June, the band released their newest full-length Angelic Dread.

Nunslaughter have followed kind of a weird release pattern throughout their career. When you hear that a death metal band formed in 1987 but only has four full-length albums at present, the first impulse is to assume they broke up or went on hiatus for years. Nunslaughter have been around the whole time, though. It's just that, instead of releasing regular albums, the band has spewed forth a deluge of demos, splits, EPs, and live recordings for decades. By the time they released their first full album in 2000 they had already produced several albums worth of material. Since then, they've actually stepped up their rate of production significantly. In 2014 alone they have already released three splits, three live albums, and three EPs in addition to this full studio album.

Their music all tends to fall into the same niche, and this is no exception. Nunslaughter play fast, aggressive, primitive, hateful death metal that's as fixated on anti-Christianity as a band could get. As usual, this is dark and mean and intense. Relatively simple riffs are flailed out so maniacally that it seems they couldn't get any more complex without causing the guitarist to collapse. The drums bash away, adding to the din without ever getting very complex or sophisticated either. There are tempo changes, and at times the music settles into more of a slow, rolling Incantation-esque gait, but that never lasts for very long. It's a double album, with a total of thirty-one songs. In all that material, only two tracks clock in at more than three minutes long, and both of them are well under four minutes. So unlike me, Nunslaughter get straight to the point.

Finally, the real energy behind the band is the rabid vocal work of sole-constant-member Donald "Don of the Dead" Crotsley. His manic delivery and palpable hated of seemingly everything (but religion in particular) are the driving force that elevates Nunslaughter above the faceless ranks of other underground old-school death metal bands.

Given their one-track approach, Nunslaughter are unlikely to ever evolve or explore new territory, so acquiring new fans isn't even a consideration. This also means that there is limited value in listening to new material from them if you already have an earlier album or two, since there's nothing really different to hear. If the band were worse at what they do, it would be easy to say that they're stuck in a rut. Instead, I think it would be more fair to say that they are purists. There's no muss, no fuss, no experimentation or complexity: just straight forward, up-the-gut, pure as the depths of hell death metal in all its gruesome, vicious glory. Since this is almost like buying two albums at once, if you're not familiar with the band and you want a big chunk of material, this is as good a place as any to start.

Grade: A-

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stworz - Cóż po żyznych ziemiach​.​.​.

Stworz are a pagan metal band from Poland. This summer the band released their third full-length effort, Cóż po żyznych ziemiach​.​.​., through the excellent black/pagan label Werewolf Promotion.

Much of the Polish metal scene lives in the colossal twin shadows of Vader and Behemoth. Death metal especially is so heavily colored by these bands that it's actually surprising to hear a Polish death metal band that doesn't sound like a clone of one or the other. Typically, though, pagan metal moves in a somewhat different sphere and conforms to a different set of standards. It's interesting, then, to hear an example of these worlds colliding.

Stworz, in simplest terms, sound like Vader playing pagan metal. It's pretty fucking awesome.

The songs generally move at a fairly relaxed pace, as is typical for pagan metal. Most tracks settle in at a comfortable 6 minutes or so, giving enough time for atmosphere to develop without dragging on and losing focus. There's a slightly folky flavor, but standard metal instrumentation is dominant throughout the music with only the barest touches added to augment the sound. For the most part, this is pagan metal that's on the more directly metal end of the spectrum. There are quiet moments and goofy, playful passages, but most of what you'll hear is less melodramatic and more straight-forward than is typical for the sub-genre. The drumming in particular propels the music in a surprisingly direct way. The guitar tone and occasional presence of actual bass have more in common with death metal than black metal, marking Stworz as part on an increasingly large movement within the folk and pagan metal world that features melodic death metal as the core of their sound.

Both harsh and clean vocals appear throughout the record. The clean are typically male and female sung in harmony, and they work just fine in a Celtic kind of way that reminds me of some of the less flowery Cruachan songs. The harsh vocals are when things get really cool, though, because his death growls sound remarkably similar to Peter's from Vader. It's enjoyable to hear vocals like those in this context, and in my opinion they do a lot to elevate the overall sound, though I wish they played a bigger role.

I've spent a lot of time hunting, but until recently there hasn't been much in the Viking/folk/pagan vein that has really impressed me this year. This is a good one, though.

Grade: A-

Friday, August 22, 2014

Opeth - Pale Communion

In a few days, Opeth will release their 11th full-length studio album Pale Communion. Prior to release, the album was made available as a live stream, and given that Opeth are one of my absolute favorite bands I was quick to run over and listen for myself.

My opinion, if I'm honest, is a little more mixed than I'd like it to be. On the one hand, they still sound like Opeth. Nobody who knows the band is going to hear this and think "What!? THAT'S Opeth!?!" Additionally, since their last album Heritage  was purely built on the softer side of the band's sound and Mikael Åkerfeldt has been very upfront about moving away from harsh vocals, it's not like this was some horrible surprise that the band suddenly sprung on us. It's just the second album in Opeth's transition from a progressive metal band to a progressive rock band, and that is not in and of itself an entirely bad thing. After all, any group that has been touted for its creativity and vision for a couple decades is quite justifiably bound to change things up at some point and try a new direction. And they've made that shift without losing their integrity, maintaining the dark feeling and core musical identity that they've built over the years, though some critics may disagree with me on that.

. . . but . . .

The simple truth, as far as I'm concerned, is that Opeth's dynamic range has always been one of their greatest weapons. Many bands sound great doing heavy death metal stuff. Likewise, many bands sound great doing prog rock. Some bands have mastered the soft/hard dynamic, fusing the best of both worlds into something greater than the sum of its parts. Opeth were not just one of those masters, though, they were the king. There have been many martial arts film stars, but there's only one Bruce Lee. There have been many soft/hard metal bands, but there's only one Opeth. The level of excellence they attained extends beyond just one niche of metal, too. I think there's a legitimate argument to be made that from roughly 1998 to 2008, Opeth were the single best metal band in the world.

Now that time is gone. The band are a collection of prodigiously talented musicians who have crafted a strong piece of dark, jazz-inflected progressive rock. The album is definitely good. But Opeth are no longer the king of the mountain. They have removed their crown and set forth on a spiritual pilgrimage into the desert. Opeth are still a great band and I wish them well on their travels, but I long for the day when they return to retake their rightful place on the throne.

Grade: B+

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Eluveitie - Origins

This month saw the newest release from folk-metal big shots Eluveitie. This is their sixth full-length record, entitled Origins.

Eluveitie are one of the most frustrating bands in metal, if you ask me. No, scratch that. They're one of the most frustrating bands in metal if you ask a lot of people. Back in 2008, just as folk metal was reaching its tipping point, Eluveitie hit the world's ear-holes with their sophomore effort Slania, a record that instantly established them as one of the most exciting bands in the explosively growing sub-genre. Since then Eluveitie, Finntroll, and Korpiklaani have probably (though it can be hard to tell for sure) been the three most popular folk metal bands in the world.

Yet not one of the band's subsequent releases has lived up to that high standard. As one record after another came along, it became clear that their attempts at recapturing that moment had taken the band from redundant to outright stagnant. For years they've enjoyed all the popularity a folk metal band could ever hope for without progressing in any meaningful way, transforming in the process from folk metal legends in the making to merely a decent band with one great album. The worst part, though, is that they seem to have all the talent they could possibly need, but they just don't do anything with it.

So, two full paragraphs after the intro, we finally get to the actual album in question. By now, you may think you have a general idea where this is going, but you're wrong. Unfortunately, you're not wrong in a good way. For all their passionless, unambitious redundancy, the last few Eluveitie albums have all been basically okay. Sure, they're all just "Slania  but worse," but they've all been listenable collections of average material. Even 2012's utterly pointless Helvetios  could still claim to at least be inoffensively mediocre. Origins, on the other hand, is the band's first record that I would personally call actively bad.

The melodeath streak they've always had has widened, littering the music with every bad quality associated with that sub-genre while skirting the good like an albino dodging sunlight. The clean female vocals have taken on an expanded role, delivered in a fashion that makes me wonder if Flyleaf is still popular enough to be worth imitating at this point. Any folk elements exist entirely as window dressing at this juncture: there because the band requires their aesthetics, but no longer rooted in the music in any deep or meaningful way. Basically, it sounds like a shitty alt-rock band's bus crashed into the world's least genuine Eluveitie cover act, and all the broken pieces fused together into an amorphous blob of violins and mascara that belched out an album.

Maybe their last couple of releases really have been this bad too and I just didn't see it because I was blindly holding out hope, but I can tell you for sure I have no interest in going back and checking. There's naught down that road but tears. For years, I've waited for Eluveitie to show that they were just in the midst of a really long dry spell. I'd hoped they would re-emerge into greatness, like the Ben Affleck of folk metal. But now they have truly taken the plunge off the deep end and proven themselves to be, as Full Metal Attorney called them way back in March of 2012, the M. Night Shyamalan of folk metal instead.

Grade: D

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


 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 seem 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.


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.


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.


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.


 Nicrotek -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.


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.


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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#4)

Sick today, but I wanted to leave you with this, wherein Freddie does more in the first 10 seconds than many guitarists do with their entire careers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guinness: Can vs Bottle

About a week ago, I kind of screwed myself. I sat down to write a post about the relatively simple topic you see before you. It seemed a little too short for a full post, so I decided to flesh it out with some background details to add context. That background accidentally became larger than the title topic, and I eventually had to concede that it worked better as its own post. Great. Now I'm left with the emaciated remains of my original topic, though, without any of that lovely fleshy support. Okay, I'll stop talking about flesh now.

Anyway, let's set the stage (based on a true story).

You're sitting with a friend in the comfort of your own home, which is great, but that means you can't have Guinness from the tap. You open your fridge to grab refreshment for your guest and yourself, and there before you sits a bottle of the dark, delicious nectar. Beside it, you spot a can. Being a good host, you ask them which they prefer. They say either is fine, take your pick. Now it's up to what you'd rather drink. Which do you choose?

I know my answer, but it's no fun if I just come out and say it from the start. Instead, let's look at the key differences between the two. First off, it's worth pointing out that conventionally the bottle is the "right" choice with most beers. The glass makes for a nice, neutral storage material that doesn't notably color the flavor of the beverage inside. Cans, on the other hand, can add a bit of a metallic taste to beer, especially if the cans have been sitting for a while. Aluminum, while a useful substance, is not noted for its flavor, so this tendency can be a bit of a problem. Admittedly the flavor profile of a dark beer like Guinness does a better job of hiding this slight tainting than, say, a lager does. Nonetheless, it's still there and it's still detectable.

The can has its perks, though. First off, it's bigger (14.9 fl oz to 11.2 fl oz) and more beer is better. This is only true on a one-to-one basis, of course, since bottles come in six-packs while cans only come in four-packs, so overall that's not a deciding factor. Neither is the fact that cans don't require a bottle opener, since I'll assume that most of us have bottle openers in our homes. So neither of these apparent advantages really counts for much of anything.

That means bottles are better, right?

Wrong! (Of course it's wrong. That's how that setup always goes.)

The really pivotal difference between the two is the method of carbonation. It has a significant impact on the overall flavor. Bottles come pre-carbonated, which is sort of okay, but even when you first open a bottle it never has that full, rich, chocolatey flavor that only a proper level of fizz can bring out in the drink. And when you leave an opened bottle sitting for any period of time, it starts going flat, so you need to drink it quick or it starts to taste worse. On the other hand, there is a little widget that rattles around amusingly in the bottom of the cans. Their use of this widget kicks up the levels of creaminess (I know David Mitchell hates that word to describe beer, but I don't care) so that the first sip is vastly more complete than anything you'll taste from the bottle. Further, that funny little ball keeps working its bubbly magic all the way to the bottom, even if you leave the can sitting for a little while, so there's no real danger of your drink getting less pleasant towards the end.

Final conclusion: quite unlike most beers, Guinness is better from the can than from the bottle. The widget, as opposed to normal carbonation, enhances the flavor in a way which far outweighs the hint of aluminum tang from the can.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#3)

Last Tuesday I didn't have time to write a blog post, and like an idiot I had nothing prepared. I don't want to make a habit of that, though, so let's get this train back on the tracks.

Many blues standards have a pattern of recurring in numerous cover versions, to the point where the song itself is known far better than any particular version. It's a situation in the vein of traditional European folk songs, which is rather fitting since the blues are essentially the traditional folk music of our own nation.

Significantly, these blues songs have often found their way into the rock world, providing one of the clearest examples of how much rock'n'roll owes to the blues. To illustrate this, I've decided to post several versions of the blues classic "Big Boss Man" by Luther Dixon and Al Smith, including the Koko Taylor version, which is my personal favorite. The rapid proliferation of this particular song is unusual for a blues song, in that it was not recorded until 1960, while most blues standards that follow this pattern first appeared decades before this one.

Incidentally, I know I said I would cover the Guinness can vs bottle issue. I'll get to that next, I promise.

The 1960 original, recorded by Jimmy Reed:

Koko Taylor's rendition:


Elvis took a crack at it too:

As did the Grateful Dead:

Then in the '80s, BB King himself covered the tune, in a weirdly Michael Jackson-esque way:

This is but a single, relatively minor and relatively recent example of the trend. There are better examples, which I'll probably get to if I ever do a full post on Robert Johnson, but for now I hope this provides some enjoyable n interesting little musical tour with some enjoyable listening.